As January passed, many organisations were still grappling with setting goals for 2022. Well, the 10 months or less that will be left when they sign off the individual goals, objectives, OKRs, KPIs and all manner of other hope-ridden plans. And, all the time, we are being encouraged to keep “Drinking the kool-aid” and believing in a raft of current myths. Let’s name just four of the most common ones:
- Setting goals enhances performance;
- Contemporary technology has increased productivity;
- Collaboration is the key to increased productivity;
- Remote and hybrid working increases productivity.
Since the late 70’s I have had an ever-increasing passion for working with individuals, teams, organisations to unleash their potential and transform their performance. Despite, a widespread belief in the unlimited power of KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid), I have found that substantially enhancing performance and productivity simply isn’t simple!
Individuals are, by definition, unique. So, whilst making specific tasks simple and applying simple principles may generally help, one size simple solutions rarely work when attempting to increase the performance and productivity of individuals. Based on over 4 decades working in this field I view many of our current “beliefs” as myths. Let’s explore those four I named.
Setting goals enhances performance
It is evident that most top performers have clearly defined or SMART goals. But, it is not the goals that enhance their performance. The goals merely provide them with measurement criteria by which to track progress. What drives their success is that they believe in the goals, can remember what they are, can describe why they matter, know continually how well they are doing against them, and focus their activity in ways that prioritise their achievement. They set the goals themselves; they raise the bar themselves; they believe in the value of the goals … to them!
Could you honestly and without laughing look me in the eyes and tell me that each of your team has those characteristics? I very much doubt it. Most organisations’ Performance Management processes, aimed at enhancing the performance of the poor performers, produce suboptimal goals and objectives with insufficient commitment to assure genuine performance and productivity improvement.
Can that be resolved? Of course. But it requires a focus on management excellence. In our currently volatile, uncertain, complex, and highly ambiguous world, we need to cease promoting individuals into management positions because they excelled at something else. We need to enable those aspiring to management to train and develop the requisite skills before the appointment so that (a) they can make a more informed decision about whether they want the management job (my own research indicates that approximately 50% of managers don’t even like managing others), and (b) can hit the ground at least ‘with a brisk walk’ when appointed.
Contemporary technology has increased productivity
A proliferation of software vendors is selling us their wares claiming that their ERP, VR, AI, collaboration, employee monitoring, and goal management tools were designed specifically to meet the needs of forward-looking, entrepreneurial, growing organisations just like ours.
I love technology, automation, AI, … It’s what I studied. It is what got me into management development. I have been a CEO of a bespoke software house. Much of this contemporary technology has the potential to enhance performance and productivity. BUT! It is my considered opinion that much of it is seriously damaged both by creating business and distractions and reducing the amount and quality of focused work. However, financial investors and early adopters fuel the supply, fear of being left behind and addiction to the user experiences make us tolerant of appalling designs, and a general inability to measure the performance of the tools and the productivity of the users all sustain this flawed belief.
Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope. My own observations and research indicate that organisations are beginning to discover the longer-term consequences of over-dependence on untested technology. For example:
Attention levels are rapidly declining. If you are in a face-to-face group meeting it is likely that, at any point in time, only 50% of those attending will be consciously focused on what is being said. In virtual meetings with cameras, that falls to 33%. With cameras off, it falls further to around 25%. In multiple recent surveys high percentages of employees have admitted attending multiple concurrent meetings, doing other things, day-dreaming, sleeping, and even going away from their computers! Many of our tools have become drivers of distraction, not productivity.
Inefficient and ineffective meetings are going viral. Prior to the pandemic, studies indicated that over 10 million meetings per day took place in the USA alone. As of December 2022, this figure may have more than doubled, encouraged by lockdowns and enabled by more virtual platforms. The productivity problem is not so much the meetings. Rather, around 75% of them are reported to fail to meet their objectives (if they even had any)! Holding meetings has apparently become more important than what they achieve.
Should we make use of contemporary technology? Of course. But we should make quality decisions about what and how. We must consider both the short-term effects and the longer-term consequences before deploying any such tools.
Collaboration is the key to increased productivity
We have long known that employing multiple perspectives can enhance creativity and thus improve performance and productivity. But, we seem to have become addicted to it to the exclusion of other means of achieving our goals. For example:
Collaboration technology is claimed to drive innovation, speed up decision making, and increase efficiency. Seriously! I recently was given access to the internal systems of a client, to all intents and purposes becoming an employee. Within a few hours, I had hundreds of messages inviting me to join collaboration and information sharing teams and shared file folders … virtually none of which had any direct bearing on what I was there to achieve. It took ages to run through them, just in case any might have been important. And, I suspect that was true for most genuine employees. The internal objective of the tools appeared to be to drive collaboration not to drive innovation and productivity. The means were more important than the end.
My observations and research have further indicated that the worst decisions are made during the first 25% and last 25% of each meeting. Clearly, individuals are rushing, often unprepared and late into meetings. Towards the end, they are already mentally preparing to race to the next one or get back to doing what this meeting has interrupted. This raises the question, “Why are there so many meetings with so many people?” The recent focus on the inclusion of everyone has combined with an addiction to consensus decision making and reluctance to pursue individual accountability. We have lost the discipline of choosing between the various ways of making decisions, of which ‘Consensus’ is only one. ‘I’ll decide,’ ‘I’ll decide after consulting with you,’ ‘We’ll vote on options presented,’ and ‘I’ll delegate the decision making to you’ are all becoming lost arts.
Can we address this? Of course. But it will take trust and discipline - trust in individuals to do the right thing and the discipline to avoid micromanaging or slipping back into having endless ‘Update meetings.’
Remote and hybrid working increases productivity
“I am so happy not to have to commute anymore,” has to be up there with “You are on mute” as one of the most frequently uttered statements. But, is the assumption that this has translated into increased productivity valid? I am highly sceptical for the following reasons:
Many individuals have suboptimal working environments at home. They might have the PC and the WiFi but their working environment can be highly distracting and, if not ergonomically designed, even physically damaging.
Remote and hybrid working has an unfortunate side effect - the cognitive disconnect from others in the organization. Informal interactions, information flow, priority sharing, personal support, etc are all dramatically reduced. Managers in some organisations are expected to undertake talent reviews of employees they have never met face-to-face, and/or about whom they know very little in terms of how they go about their work or the potential they may have. Many are even becoming concerned about how they themselves may be perceived by other career decision-makers!
Whilst it has yet to be validly and reliably proven, anecdotal evidence is substantial that virtual communication and collaboration fails to trigger the same level of empathic responses as face-to-face interactions. Relationships are weakening and loneliness, anxiety, and depression are on the rise.
Many managers have resorted to using virtual team meetings as their primary modus operandi.
Whilst this appears to offer many benefits – efficiency of delivering messages to all, sharing of priorities, team building, etc, there are serious consequences. I mentioned the obvious earlier - we are all individuals. Whilst contemporary technology combined with a societal trend has enabled us to work virtually together, that is rarely what is happening. Instead, we are merely discussing things together on virtual platforms or through collaboration tools. But, we are working in isolation.
Can remote and hybrid work increase productivity? Yes, but achieving that is not as simple as merely giving people the tools/access to do it. If managers are to work with their teams to optimize productivity, we have to do far more than launch collaboration tools, create lots of virtual meetings, and use performance monitoring tools to record goals and track their achievements. Managers need to treat each of their team members as unique valuable assets. They need to connect far more, not less, on a one-to-one basis. They must have meaningful conversations about overall goals, priorities, and how things need to be done. They need to tap into the personal anxieties, needs, and aspirations of each team member They must proactively and continually learn the knowledge, skills they have, the behaviours they are displaying, and the outputs they are producing. Only then will they know what their productivity truly is. Only then will they be able to influence it positively. Management is still the real job, not just an add on to another.