Leadership and culture

Productivity and the W.H.E.N. of work. Part 3: W is for wisdom

Published on January 22, 2022

This article series is here to help you hack productivity by optimizing the human factors that influence production and performance. The objective of this series, however, is to show that there’s no shortcut to an optimized worker. There are always systemic, cultural, and personal factors at play, influencing the quality and quantity of work accomplished. Although we don’t have a complete understanding of the conditions and constraints that influence every human’s mind, there are many lessons for leaders to integrate into their understanding of their workplace and those they lead.

In Part 1, a simplified equation was introduced to quantify work: Productivity = Output / Input, where outputs, the results of completed work, are limited by the inputs, the means of completing work. Productivity, then, is a qualitative and quantitative measure of actualized results of potential work. It is movement through space and time to arrive at a particular goal. But when it comes to the workplace, the common questions you might face as a business leader and manager are: Which goals should be pursued? What steps should be taken to reach those goals? Who should be directed to take those steps? How can asset utilization be maximized? When and why should wisdom be used in the workplace?

You and other typical business leaders likely have a general sense as to what their organization’s business model is and how that business operates to sustain that model. Small and medium-sized businesses have greater flexibility to redefine their strategic course and disrupt business models, but often lack the assets to capitalize on these opportunities. Enterprises, on the other hand, tend to take a defensive approach; keeping a keen eye on the bottom line and maintaining the security and accumulation of its assets.

Resisting the status quo

Problem: In general, humans are biased toward maintaining the status quo because our brains have a built-in tendency to conserve energy by taking computational shortcuts (also known as heuristics, which we’ll cover in Part 4 of this series).

With so many factors to consider and contend with in business, it’s all too easy to take up a defensive position in the market and uphold the use of certain strategies or technologies well past their usefulness. For example, an organization might reduce business overhead by “cutting the fat” of operational expenses when faced with a period of economic downturn. Rather than exploring new dynamics as a solution to this ongoing problem, the strategy of making cuts will eventually leave the company understaffed and under-equipped. Or maybe the flip-side, where a business’ revenue is growing healthily through a strong market position, but the senior management is slow to capitalize on this growth by not expanding its workforce or making investments in training and equipment.

Many businesses talk outwardly about change, but change is uncomfortable. It can be unsafe. There’s the fear and risk that things will go wrong if change doesn’t go as expected. The notion of “that’s how we’ve always done it” can creep into every organizational unit. Every project. Every task. Every strategy meeting.

The influential voices in your company are contributing to the fragility of your business whenever they uncritically maintain a “business-as-usual” stance or actively resist change. Looking closely at the decisions that lead to your company’s past successes will likely reveal that those decisions weren’t driven by actions that maintained the status quo. Some new technology, a shift in the market, an ambitious employee—disruptions drive success and change always finds it’s way into enterprise architecture and business models. A consideration your organization should consistently be checking is whether it has enough existential flexibility to proactively reorient to change, from the inside out.

If your organization can’t proactively adapt to change from internal forces, then it’ll still have to react to external forces. Resisting change won’t stop new technologies from developing or gaining widespread use. Believing that your customers or competitors won’t change will result in an increasingly tenuous grip on revenue. Preventing vertical and horizontal mobility in your org structure will drive your workers away.

Takeaway: Humans are inclined to uphold the status quo in many situations, so it’s up to business leaders to identify who/what is impeding the status quo from being changed in a given circumstance. Explore and deploy new strategies for business and focus on increasing revenue through intentional choices that drive innovation.

Question existing beliefs

Problem: The status quo bias is just one of many business tenets that should be examined closely. Business precepts that are considered a “given” without consistent empirical evidence are vulnerable to ethical slippage, propagandized justifications, and convenient narratives. The things you consider valid or trust to be accurate may not accurately represent reality.

Wisdom, in its various forms, is a valuable tool for making sound judgements, critically reasoning about the conditions of the world, and virtuously interfacing with reality from a values-first foundation. Getting better at questioning your beliefs does take considerable effort, but the reward for doing so is cognitive flexibility. With greater self-knowledge, your ability to question your deeply-held assumptions can point you toward the truth that’s hidden or obscured by your beliefs.

The notion of conventional wisdom needs to also be addressed. Similar to your personal beliefs, your cultivation of wisdom doesn’t need to be used to only throw away ideas and past experiences. Really, the wisdom we want to cultivate is the pursuit and proper application of truth, regardless of its conventionality or convenience. Doing so reduces vulnerability to unexpected circumstances.

One example of conventional wisdom being questioned today in the corporate world is the necessity of in-person workplaces. Full-remote and hybrid working models have demonstrated that plenty of roles and organizations can function productively while remote, and some are even able to outperform traditional office setups. However, the decision to go with one workplace strategy over another shouldn’t be made in a vacuum from stakeholder input.

Takeaway: Seek workplace wisdom by valuing and pursuing effective work strategies over the flimsy notion of “working hard”. Build wisdom by performing a root cause analysis whenever people and policies don’t seem to be performing as expected. Apply wisdom by identifying your fears and vulnerabilities, then start having uncomfortable conversations, as addressing those fears and vulnerabilities will often have profound results.

Workplace productivity with peace of mind

Problem: Without effective collaboration strategies or plans to properly utilize worker’s competencies, the company culture will be defined by metrics-minded middle-managers who are overly concerned with the appearance of work from their subordinates rather than the product of their work.

Productive work requires leaders that keep their eyes on the horizon and help steer the boat to a common destination, not a self-absorbed “team lead” who is more concerned about taking credit for tracking which individual contributors are rowing and for how long. A discerning leader probably knows that an organization cannot operate without cooperation and coordination, otherwise the efforts of each contributor might be underutilized, unsustainable, or downright unethical.

Proper coordination and planning can ensure employees are driven to perform consistent, meaningful work that drives value for an organization. How any two employees coordinate or complete knowledge-based tasks will be partly unique to them, but the same underlying process applies in most situations. That process is The Ultimate Guide to Productivity, which takes the form of the productivity equation mentioned earlier, but with well-defined, concrete associations.

As will be discussed further in Part 6 of this article series, we each start the day with a baseline amount of energy. While you go about your day, that energy will deplete slowly and steadily, but any stress, effortful thinking, or physical strain will drain energy at a considerable rate. Without focus, intentionality, or time constraints, you’ll likely find that the conversion of energy into work doesn’t feel effective.

The solution to properly allocating energy for work looks like this: Distance = Velocity * Time, or as is shown in “The Ultimate Guide to Productivity,” denoted as: d == v*T == D*L*Y*(n*t)

Here’s how the YouTube channel “Freedom in Thought” describes this process: “Productivity is movement, and one of the most effective ways to make successful movements is by performing Sprints. A Sprint is a highly-focused, intentional, engaged, and time-bounded work session that pushes you beyond your current limits. The goal of each Sprint is to travel the greatest distance towards your goal as possible.”

This process is the mental equivalent of Zone 2 training used by athletes, where intentional restraint is used to maintain the consistency in output/endurance. It’s not covering the most distance as fast as possible, it’s about reducing how much you slow down each day in pursuit of a long-term gain.

So what does that productivity equation look like in detail?

  • D = Distance, the measure of how much effective work got done.
  • There are two ways to increase distance: by increasing our velocity of work (v) or by increasing the time we work (T).
  • Total time working (T) is equivalent to (n) multiplied by (t), where (n) is the number of sprints done in a day and (t) is the length of each sprint.
  • Velocity (v) is a function of the direction you choose (D) and your stride.
  • Your direction is based on your values or goals.
  • Stride is made up of two components: your stride length (L), the distance between each step, and your rhythm (Y), the time between each step.
  • Improving (L) comes from deliberate practice, where actions taken are compared against an ideal version of that action, just beyond your current skill level.
  • Improving (Y) comes from working in ideal conditions and circumstances that allow you to enter a state of flow: the pointed, singular, unbroken application of focus on a task.

d = vT= DLYnt

The beautiful simplicity of this system is that it is useful for nearly any endeavor where improvement can lead to tangible outputs. Maximizing sustainable productivity comes from optimizing each day’s sprint; but as cautioned by the video, this increased output comes from disciplined restraint, not increasing the volume or time of work. For any organization that is concerned with the productivity of its workforce, the solution seems clear: where people invest their energy is more important than how much. Provide ample support for workers to help them establish work habits that are consistent, sustainable, and measured in an orderly way. That support should include non-negotiable time for rest, the space needed to be distanced from distractions, and an alignment between the organization’s core values and the worker’s highest value.

A leader’s goal for supporting those they lead should be to remove any obstacles that will consistently speed up or slow down their workers. Long-term deceleration leads to disengagement, while long-term acceleration leads to burnout. Peace of mind for leaders and their workers comes from making sure that productive work is being completed while ensuring that:

  • Energy levels are maintained due to natural needs being met, i.e. access to quality food, water, shelter, security, and sleep (See Part 6).
  • Subjective experience isn’t being discounted or over-valued (See Part 5).
  • The information that is used for making decisions isn’t flawed or misconstrued (See Part 4).
  • Your company’s core values don’t incline individuals to be self-serving or make ethically dubious choices.

Takeaway: From a resource management perspective, it seems like the wisest way to work is with the “The Ultimate Guide to Productivity.” Leaders can start improving today by working toward their goals or values, which, over time makes them more capable to demonstrate and enact the right course of action for others. Generating results in alignment with clear goals and values is a clear path to peace of mind.

Avoid stepping over dollars to pick up dimes

Problem: When organizations start making budget cuts, IT teams can be quickly placed on the chopping block and forced to do more with less. This is because IT departments are too often mistakenly seen as a cost-sink rather than a value-add. Undervaluing the benefits of IT is a surefire way to incur the loss of potential revenue through downed business-critical operations, or more serious issues like security threats and data breaches.

Another pursuit in the development of workplace wisdom is to keep in mind the idiom: “Penny wise and pound foolish.” Avoid the type of decision-making that is fixated on metrics and prioritizes short-term gains over long-term resilience.

Improving your company’s short-term finances and projected stock price by mass-firing knowledge workers is a prime example of “penny wise and pound foolish.” Do this too much and you’re bound to run into an increasingly dysfunctional IT environment, or worse, a company culture that fosters distrust, disengagement, and disloyalty.

What’s more, the cost of acquiring and training talent is likely to be roughly equivalent to the costs “saved” by cutting funding to existing teams, but brings with it hidden costs such as the loss of undocumented institutional knowledge. Now your business faces the choice of shelling out a premium for expedited contract work or rushing to hire and train employees to solve those same issues that their previously employed IT teams could have solved.

Even if the IT department maintains a respectable headcount, keeping IT teams proactive requires tools, training, and technological upkeep. Skipping out on any of these will force IT teams to be stuck in firefighting mode, reacting to issues as they pop up and always playing catch-up. The IT department, when provided with the proper resources, is a demonstrable value-add for the organization. Maintaining a healthy, proactive IT infrastructure will more often than not be an investment that pays off many times over in the long run.

Both inside and out of the IT department, one of the biggest factors to staffing a well-trained and productive workforce is offering a competitive wage. This means:

  • Providing cost-of-living adjustments each year to all employees, not just top performers.
  • Keeping wages in line with, or above, the market rate. Don’t wait until a valuable employee puts in their two-week notice to offer the pay bump you know they deserve, doing so means that you deserve to see your star performers walk out the door.
  • Preemptively raising pay for anyone who takes on a more senior role or a considerably larger workload. At a minimum, put in writing expected increases for performance in a set trial period. Stringing along a worker with the promise of raise down the line for their increased workload will likely drive them away from the organization if it doesn’t materialize as promised.
  • Offering commensurate pay for similar roles and experience. If you’re paying a premium for acquiring new talent, then you need to bump up the pay scale for existing talent.

Employees will be more willing to perform above the bare minimum requirements when they feel like they’re fairly compensated, which, beyond a comfortable wage, includes tangible benefits like plentiful paid time off. For some workplaces, you may also consider adding some low-cost perks; but be cautious:

  • Perks are not a replacement for benefits and fair compensation.
  • Remote work is quickly becoming a necessary job requirement and is not seen as a perk.
  • Employees should be asked what they’d genuinely enjoy receiving and be provided it, if able. Things like pizza parties and gift cards are an insulting substitute for a year-end bonus, especially if the organization has been reporting commendable profits.
  • Don’t let nice-to-haves become shackles for your employees. A work phone, for example, should not come with the expectation of 24/7 availability unless that mandatory availability also comes with additional compensation and clear boundaries.
  • Reneging on promised perks can also have hidden costs, beyond just loss of goodwill. Consider the scenario of trying to save some money by cutting free coffee from the office. You’ll might just find in the end it’s cheaper to keep the in-office coffee because the cost of this decision brings with it lost productivity as all your employees begin going to the local coffee shop, tripling the time they previously spent on coffee breaks.

Takeaway 1: Experiencing high employee churn or a systemic loss of productivity in your organization? Deeply consider the incentivization structures in your organization to make sure you’re not letting small-scale decisions (pennies) dictate and limit the effectiveness of your large-scale decisions (pounds).

Takeaway 2: Avoid at all costs any policy or perk that will be seen as an attempt to buy goodwill from employees—these efforts will backfire, breeding distrust and disengagement. The easiest way to legitimately earn goodwill is to offer wages that grow each year, competitively match new hire/market wages, and reward workers who improve workplace efficiency.

Takeaway 3: If employees trust that they’re being fairly compensated, they’re more likely to trust management, engage with their work on a deeper level, and make sacrifices when needed in times of crisis.

Parting wisdom for workplace productivity

Humanity’s evolutionary advantage is our ability to focus on our own conscious experience. Throughout history, our ability to compress experiential data into mental abstractions that we can encode, transfer, and compare to other abstractions has led to the creation of technologies that have gotten progressively better at compressing experiential data. Wisdom often shows itself through these compressed experiences, but only when embraced and considered, without bias.

For organizations that want to support a well-motivated workforce, cultivating and demonstrating workplace wisdom is a great asset for personal development, well-reasoned understanding, and ethical behavior.

“A smart person knows what to say. A wise person knows whether to say it.” An intelligent person will have accumulated knowledge and use it to evaluate, analyze, and solve problems. A wise person has foresight and understands where to apply knowledge for achieving long-term outcomes. While intelligence can solve many problems, wisdom points toward the problems that are worth solving.

Join us in the next entry to this series, Part 4, where we explain heuristics through an exploration of human cognition and what it takes to maintain awareness. And because heuristics are useful for knowledge work, we’ll touch upon how to promote intrinsic motivators to improve heuristic tasks.

This is Part 3 of a series. Part 1 is on personal productivity and self-improvement. Part 2 is on competency, collaboration, and culture.

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