Rahm Emmanuel, former mayor Chicago, once said “Never let a serious crisis go to waste… it’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before”. The Covid 19 crisis is currently providing the chance to test that hypothesis.
As businesses struggle to adjust to the new normal that is developing due to this pandemic, we are inventing lots of stuff on the fly, such as using Zoom or other technologies to communicate remotely, rethinking how a workplace will be configured to ensure social distancing, and evaluating the pluses and minuses of working from home (e.g. no commute but how can you focus with your kids there?).
These transitions are only the tip of the iceberg. Many organizations are cranking away with their clients remotely but I think there may be one question everyone is too busy to consider: Do we really need to be doing all this?
The answer to some of the paperwork or reports could probably be “No.” But we rarely take time to stop and think about that and I would argue this is an opportune time to do so.
Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials. – Lin Yutang
Companies must continue to find ways to improve their productivity and during the last several years there have been significant investments in software and systems to assist in that. But what’s missing is an ongoing reevaluation of all the work that’s being done.
A client mentioned that soon after taking over as Plant Manager, he stopped by one of his new team to ask him something. The fellow had stuff all over his desk and was really focused.
My client asked what the output of all this was for. The fellow hesitated, looked over all the materials he had spread over this office, and said, “I’m not sure anymore”.
My client told him to stop and just see what happens. Nothing did.
Who gives someone permission to stop doing something that is no longer needed? In today’s environment, it appears employees are fearful of speaking up about that. So I would encourage all leaders to find a way to stop doing at least 5% of what’s currently being done to enhance productivity.
In a 40 hour work week, that means you’ll be finding two hours per week per employee to do things that are more important, to stay more organized, or to plan and prepare for new opportunities.
It’s also a great idea to bring the team together to work on impacting the work being done as that new normal slowly appears.
Here’s a model for doing just that:
- Announce that you are asking everyone to eliminate the bottom 5% of their tasks so they can focus on more important things.
- Ask everyone to identify three tasks, reports, meetings, etc. to eliminate, put it in writing, and bring it to a meeting to discuss it with the whole team. If your team is too large, you may have to break it up into groups but it will be important that everyone hear other ideas about what can be eliminated. It may encourage different or new thinking on the part of others when they hear these ideas. That’s called “piggy-backing”.
- Have each member of the team review their list out loud. Others may ask for them to clarify the task they have identified, but they are not allowed to argue with them about whether or not it can be eliminated at this point. This is like a “lightning round” or brainstorming.
- Have each member of the team identify which of those three tasks they feel strongest about and would commit to based on the feedback or discussion. Do Not Debate – just get things on the table.
- Now have each member of the team repeat the key tasks they want to eliminate and have the group rate it as follows:
- Duh! Of course we should stop doing that.
- Probably no problem, but there may be a couple of things to check on first.
- Since concerns have been raised, let’s put that on the “to be considered list” for later.
- NO, we can’t stop that, and here’s why…
- If a team member has a suggested task rejected based upon the collective wisdom of the team, have them go to the next task on their list.
- Combine the list of the “Duhs” and “Probably no problem…” tasks and send that list to the entire team. Make a separate list of the “To be considered” tasks for later review. At this point, everyone has committed to trying to eliminate the task they have identified.
- The manager must reinforce that if anyone runs into a problem or an unintended consequence of stopping to do a certain task, they should inform the manager as soon as practical.
- Have a brief meeting at the two-week mark to report in on any things that have been learned about stopping these tasks. Talk about the time that’s been freed up and any concerns that may exist.
- At the one-month mark, review the status of each task that has been stopped and see if any adjustments may need to be made. Ask each member of the team what lessons have been learned from the exercise and record this.
Saving everybody two hours a week is a reasonable and modest effort that should free up time for more important tasks. It may also identify other process bottlenecks that exist and require further study.
This also gets people energized about their future work. Once you feel this exercise has been productive, repeat as needed, but commit to doing so at least once a year.
- Do I really need anyone’s permission to do this with my team?
- Am I willing to follow through on things once we’ve started?
- Can I get members of my team to help track progress?
I look forward to your suggestions and comments.
This is an updated version of an article I contributed to Dan McCarthy’s blog, Great Leadership. You can read the original here.