Productivity Drag and How to Improve Performance and Profitability

Hosted by

Mervyn Dinnen

Analyst, Author, Commentator & Influencer

About this episode

HR Means Business 11: Productivity Drag and How to Improve Performance and Profitability

Host: Mervyn Dinnen

Guest: Zena Everett, Author

In this episode Mervyn talks to Zena Everett, whose book The Crazy Busy Cure was a Business Book of the Year winner for 2022, about how to combat the systemic factors that reduce productivity and profitability per head within organisations. Why is it that we hire the best talent but then waste the time and energy of our talent?

They discuss:

– What is Productivity Drag and how does it arise?

– What really gets in the way of getting our work done?

– How to identify and eliminate distractions to create space and time for thinking

– Overcoming meeting overload

– Maintaining concentration in a digital world


Learn more here

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Transcript follows:

Mervyn Dinnen 0:14
Hello and welcome to the HR Means Business podcast, which is part of the HR Happy Hour Network. I am your host, Mervyn Dinnen. And today we’re going to be talking about topics that I think are very crucial for HR people at the moment. i It’s an absolute pleasure to be able to welcome to HR Means Business, a olleague, friend, award winning author, and international speaker on leadership, productivity, efficiency and time. award winning author of the book, the crazy busy cure. Zena Everett. Hello, welcome to HR Means Business.

Zena Everett 0:50

Zena Everett 0:52
I’ve told people what you’ve done. But do you want to, I suppose explain a little bit about your background and what it is you do now?

Zena Everett 0:59
Well, as you know, Mervyn, we work together in recruitment. I left the recruitment industry because I wanted to really think about why some people are more successful than others. So I went off and did a master’s in Organizational Psychology and became a coach. And then I realized that actually doesn’t matter how great their skills were. And their goals were, if people paid attention to the wrong thing all day, they weren’t going to achieve their goals. And I became fascinated by this whole idea of crazy busyness because I would talk to people and they’d say, you know, I’d say something annoying. And coach, he like, has that laser focus going on your first 100 days plan? And they’d say, Yeah, I’m not doing any of that Zena, I’m, I’m just playing, I feel like I’m playing Whack a Mole all day, with everybody else’s urgent demands. And by about four o’clock every day, I think, right, I’ve got back to where I was eight o’clock this morning. Now let’s start working on the things that matter. And then I just got so fascinated by this. And I’m sure you have it, too. We have days where we think actually, I’ve been busy all day, and I’m exhausted. And I’m wired and tired. But what have I actually done to move the needle. And so that’s, that’s where I am. So that’s my particular area of work is helping leaders and their teams cut through the crazy busyness and work on what’s purposeful.

Zena Everett 2:28
One particular line I noticed in the book that I really like, was when you said your organization’s hire the best talent, but then waste the time and energy of their talent. And obviously, as we discuss it today, we’re going to hear more about, I suppose what the leaders do and and what the people do. But you said you currently speak to and coach a number of leaders and HR practices around productivity drag, can you explain exactly what productivity drag is and how it manifests itself?

Zena Everett 3:03
We can I do there. So if you’ve ever been in a meeting that you think I’m not quite sure why I’m in this meeting, and I’m not sure why it’s going on and on and on, you’ve been a victim of productivity drag. Similarly, if you’ve actually got your head down to try and write, and you’re getting all these ping notifications, and you’re being disrupted, if there’s not ink in the printer, if you’ve ever worked on a project with somebody, and then somebody says, Hold on, we’re doing this over here, why are you doing this project, stakeholders aren’t aligned, all those sorts of things, a productivity drag. So essentially, they’re everything that get in the way of getting our work done. And it’s caused by digitization, because it costs nothing to invite someone to a meeting. But then, of course, the opportunity costs lost in that meeting time is huge. So digitization, my system, not talking to your system, all that stuff has layer to kind of sludge, or a hard coat of extra work on top of the real work. It’s caused by excessive collaboration. So I imagine your your your listeners are bristling a bit at this. So inclusivity is a great thing. But having too many people around the table with competing agendas that aren’t aligned, is a problem. And that’s why the tech companies with a delicious irony because they create a loss of the distractions in the first place. Work in small, very agile, very aligned teams.

Zena Everett 4:35
So we’ve got collaboration, digitization, we’ve got just bureaucracy, where the entrepreneurial flair is lost as organizations get bigger and have extra layers of management and you again when you when you add in people in a team, but productivity and profitability per head goes down. That’s all a great symptom of organizational productivity drag. So it Excessive bureaucracy and systems. And I’m working with one company now. And they their tech business, their cloud technology business. And they said, when we used to onboard people, we used to give them two to a4 sheets to fill out. And now it’s nearly 40 pages. So our customers have to really badly wants to work with us, because they have the belly ache of doing this. And that’s what we’re talking about. So and then finally, is over servicing, which you you know, we’ve all got that those of us who work with clients, sometimes we put a lot too much effort in that window, we don’t necessarily need to do. So all of these things kind of compound to slow down the workflow. And as you know, our job is to get great motivated people into organizations and then inspire them. But what we’re doing is wasting their time with meaningless, low grade work, that feels like work. That is a waste of their time. And we’re wasting time in a way that, as you said, We’d never waste any other resource.

Zena Everett 6:05
You’ve given us some great examples there. I mean, are there any other things that get in the way? And I’m thinking, I suppose one of the things I’m thinking of is that there’s so much conversation and dialogue and narrative around remote, flexible, hybrid, asynchronous working, and how this impacts things? I mean, are you seeing that as well? Or are these just effectively organizational factors that get in the way?

Zena Everett 6:30
Well, I think that’s a big I mean, that’s, that’s a whole other kind of bear pit, isn’t it? Because increasingly, now we have to think, you know, what is the task? What’s the best place to do it? What’s the best time to do it? Wouldn’t I need all those resources, and then, you know, we must all see people coming into an organization commuting in, and then they end up doing having teams meetings, because not all their colleagues are there. So I think this is another real problem that I see my clients having to work very hard to get on top of. But you know, it all comes down to purpose. But that old fashioned purpose and mission of what what we’re actually here for, what are we here to do? And then everything else comes down from that? What’s the best time? What’s the best way to do that? And let’s eliminate all those distractions. So I find that when, when that is crystal clear in organizations, people are a lot less crazy busy, because they’ve got that question here. You know, how does doing that that help us deliver our best possible service to customers? Well, it doesn’t really, you know, it’s helpful, but it’s not the be all and end all. So, it sounds so obvious, but I think when we’re mired in content, and we’re overwhelmed, and we’re wired and tired, we lose sight of this sort of thing. So it’s much easier to prioritize when you know your priorities. And I’m sure you say this all the time. If we work around our teams and say, What’s your actual job? And why do you do it, you’ll get a myriad of different and conflicting answers, even though the leaders might be banging their heads against the wall thinking, How many times do we have to share this information? But it’s, it’s too complicated.

Zena Everett 8:20
So that’s a lot of what I do actually, is taking people back up to say, what are you here for? And let’s just park all those activities that that gets in the way of that. And if you don’t mind me saying, I think I think HR have have to rethink the desire for discretionary activities. So, so discretionary activities are often encouraged, aren’t they, as a way of looking at, you have an engaged workforce here, because they’re involved in so many of the things, but actually, as knowledge workers, when you add up, what people’s how many, how long it takes to do their core tasks? And then I do an exercise with this because that people hate if I say, right, let’s work out. You know, you’re you’re paid for 40 hours a week, you know, you work 60 Of those, how long does it take to your job? How many average curveballs do you get in a week? How much is kind of admin that somebody else or a machine should do? And then you’re adding up all this discretionary activity on top because you feel that makes you look good? You know, the numbers just don’t add up. So I think part of that is the problem that we’re rather than saying to somebody, do you know what, get your work done, do brilliant work? Do it once, do it properly, finish work at a reasonable time. Go home, spend time with your families, get some ideas, come back full of energy and creativity the next day, that’s really what we should be saying. Whereas we have this, you know, 24/7 culture that that we’re all participating in, that’s not always helpful. I can’t even remember what question you asked, but I will Just to get that off my chest.

Zena Everett 10:01
No, that’s okay. That’s okay. I’ve known Zena for many years. So that doesn’t surprise me. I mean, I suppose we were looking at, you know, it’s a particular problem for people working in HR and talent. Because it, they get, I suppose a lot of extra stuff to do. And plus people look to them to, I suppose, be not the organizational side, but I mean, to actually be the people who keep everything ticking over and running. So I mean, you’ve mentioned quite a few, I was going to ask you next about the pitfalls to avoid. And you’ve obviously mentioned quite a few, but I mean, are there any others? And rather than pitfalls, strategies for success? I mean, I know you said about going home unwinding and stuff. But I mean, what when you’re speaking to people and coaching teams and stuff, what are the kinds of strategies that they can adopt?

Zena Everett 10:55
I remember doing some work with an HR team. And although it is the same for anybody in a business partnering role, and they were just, they were, of course beyond lovely. But they were saying Zena, we’re literally on our knees, because we’re, we, we are there for people all day. And we’ve no time to do our actual work. And they really were on their knees. I mean, I’m keeping this light hearted, but these people were super stressed and just burning out. And so what we did was, we did that, you know, basic, urgent, important matrix to look at what they did all week, and who was really important. And then they said, We are there for you every day from one o’clock. So, one o’clock till 5:30, or six, or whatever it was, you come to us, you come to us come and see us or, and you know, they man this very carefully. And we’re available in line and all those kinds of things. But that so they signposted when they are available. The organization loved that because it was a great message. Yeah, look, our HR is so open, they’ve always got time, there’s always someone there to help us. Even if it was a Yeah, well, gooey holiday entitlement for you, we’ll look it up ourselves. But it meant that in the mornings, they had time to do their work. So now, obviously, you know, you have a very senior person who needs you or there’s something there’s something there’s a genuine drama. Of course, they couldn’t stick rigidly to that. But fundamentally, it meant by signposting when they were available, rather than trying to block out time to themselves doing it the other way around, they actually had time to get on their work.

Zena Everett 12:36
So I would really encourage people to think about when can we do that, you know, that kind of clinic time, because it feels bad to block out time for ourselves to do work. Ridiculously. But that’s another topic. But actually, when when you actively signpost when you are available, it does, then it’s a nice positive message in the business, but it gives you time to do real work. So I think that’s one of the that’s one of the big issues. And then you know, anything you get on productivity is all about I mean, you know, this you you write continuously is actually trying to just block out time without distraction interruption when you can do it. You know, and they talk about flowed and they optimum concentration. We used to call it just getting on with our work, didn’t we just just concentrating, but that’s, you know, when you ask people how much time they spend in flow. Well, Mervyn, how much time do you spend? Actually just uninterrupted, deep thinking, writing, planning, creating?

Mervyn Dinnen 13:41
As much as I can?

Zena Everett 13:43
And how’d you manage to do it?

Zena Everett 13:46
I shot myself away. The Yeah, it’s you do you do get constant, I suppose. irritations, constant interruptions? Is this actually listening to you speak. It’s not something I was originally going to ask. But I think I’ll ask it now. Because there’s so much discussion around the HR and talent space about AI and artificial intelligence, it’s going to take jobs away, it’s going to do this that, but from what you’re saying that artificial intelligence could be an answer to a lot of these distractions.

Zena Everett 14:18
Well, look, I’m not an AI expert, but I think I am. Yes, I guess so. But, but on the other hand, if somebody isn’t an HR function, you know, well, okay, two things First of organization is a systemic issue. It’s not a personal issue. We think our productivity is our problem. And there’s an element of Yeah, look, I feel I need to please everybody you know, you can’t you need to know who your stakeholders are. You have to please, you’re never going to please everybody. So there’s an element of you know, I’m not prioritizing I’m not pleasing people. You know, I need to be liked need to be helpful all the time. I need to be available all the time. But fundamentally, productivity is this stenick one, so anything that helps that system, but I think your listeners will always be in a in an advisory capacity, who always need to be there and always need to be available. So they actually have to think, you know, how can I put some boundaries around my time. So I’ve really got time to think. And what we know is that it’s our ability to think about problems and solve them is going to be one, you know, that’s where opportunities lie. That’s how organizations are going to differentiate themselves and succeed. So even more, we need people to have some time to answer those big, big questions. You know, what do we need machines for this? How are we going, you know, all those questions that people are preoccupied all the time, and actually, so. So we need to create space and place for people to think, and get that best quality of thinking. And we know that no matter how many how our brains work, we can only concentrate on one cognitive task at once. But we are continually disrupted because, you know, dear listener, what else you doing while listening to this podcasts? You know, so how many are you trying to concentrate on something else while this is going on, we can do plus or minus five or six things, can’t we? So you might be able to do something very routine and have this on and be, I don’t know, listening to something going on in the background. But fundamentally, we can only do things at once. And we’re trying not to that all those things are the issues.

Zena Everett 16:36
So if listeners, HR professionals, talent professionals are listening to this, hopefully they are. And they say you know this, this, this is just like my organization, this is just like my team. What’s the dialogue with leaders? I mean, where does it go? Is it is it kind of physician heal thyself? Is it HRT look, it’s down to you to actually do this? Or is it kind of No, we need leadership involved? Because they’re the people who set the expectations that all this extra stuff is going to be done?

Zena Everett 17:06
Yeah. My own thoughts is that we have to manage workflow much better. So I think it comes from leadership, where we’re very, very clear on what that organization is there for, and what we stand for. So that’s the first thing, that sense of purpose. And then it’s an sorry if this is going to annoy people. But when I work with people who are crazy busy in organizations, and I asked that question about what’s your actual job, they are not clear on what their job description is it there’s no reality to quarterly rocks piracies. So I think that’s the, that’s the big thing is making sure absolutely clear, right, Mervyn, and this is what you’re going to be measured on. All these other things are lovely, but you’re a proposal, you’ve got a promotion panel coming up against your peers, and this is what we’re looking for. So that is crystal clear, crystal clear. And then it’s helping you craft your job in the way that’s most effective to getting it done. And, you know, like, you know, I’m, I’m in London, we are still really rubbish about saying, you know, what, Mervyn. You work from home for a couple of hours and do deep thinking, and then commute in at 11. And, you know, then you’ve got meetings, and we’re just not thoughtful enough about that. So I think it’s absolutely like all these things that kind of top down to help people think about their highest and best use. So they’ve got those micro choices all day thinking, right? I could do this. And I could do that. But actually, I’d have all these things I could do, you know, maybe somebody else should be doing that, because they’re on a lower pay grade, maybe a machine could be doing that. But this is where I can contribute the most. And that’s absolutely got to be encouraged. So yeah, the short answer is like all of this, it comes down to great leadership, really great leadership.

Zena Everett 19:07
Look into the future. As indeed we we try to these are, I suppose, not pressurized times, but obviously, the difficult times for our people, cost of living crisis, a lot of stress. And there’s obviously a lot of concern for working people around that. How do you see the future playing out? I mean, we’re, we’re hearing every day about you know, the future this is gonna be AI, it’s going to be, you know, five generations in the workforce. There’s all this stuff about how work may be split up with what you do and all the research you’ve done in the coaching you do. What how do you see the future and how do you see us I suppose what’s what’s the roadmap for overcoming this productivity drag this over work this, this wasting the time and energy of our people?

Zena Everett 20:00
I was having just this conversation yesterday with a client of mine who I’m coaching, he’s a general counsel on a business. And he was saying, you know, probably all our contracts will be written by written by AI. But I still need fine brains to check it and put that information in, right? For me, at the risk of repeating myself, it’s being clear on, you know, I go through those kinds of checks when I work with organizations, is everybody being clear on? What’s this organization about? Where does our future growth opportunities lie? Because if we don’t grow, we’re going to go backwards and stagnate. So therefore, how do I get my people to be thinking to be innovating to be coming up with ideas? How do we push down the responsibility for that it can’t sit on the leadership team. It’s so the leadership team have to be taught to coach so to ask questions, you know, we call it inquiry driven leadership. So that responsibility for fixing problems and seizing opportunities is spread down through the team. So the people with the customers who are doing the job are saying, I’ve got a quicker, better way of doing this that actually supports the patient or whoever we’re here to serve. So so a lot of my work around is teaching people to ask better questions. So and, you know, we’re working with learning organizations, at the end of every meeting saying, you know, we’ve made this decision, how could we have got to this decision quicker? What did we need to have done in the last meeting to get to this point? Why are we here? What have we learned, you know, those wash ups that we should all be doing, we probably do more when we fail than when we succeed. But learning organization should have five minutes at the end of every single learning, meeting, I think, every interaction to talk about learning but with a view of looking forward. And I spend time with managers to say why is Mervyn sitting on a meeting where that’s seen, Everett is giving him all the excuses. He has listened to why she hasn’t done what she said she’d do last week. But she’s got full intentions of doing it this week, which we used to do. Do you remember? On a Friday, and we do it again on Monday? I mean, we’ve learned so much anyway.

Mervyn Dinnen 22:21
Yes. I don’t talk about my old days.

Zena Everett 22:25
We’ve come a long way that people are still doing that stuff, aren’t they? Whereas I think managers have to be taught to look ahead, what can derail us? What can get in the way? What do I need to know about that can stop us achieving that. So you’ve got the whole team innovating, looking forward and getting excited about it. That’s that’s where I come from on that. And that said, that is having a brutal disregard of everything, that’s a distraction that gets in the way. And you know, so this is great stuff. But if you’ve got too many internal meetings, without an agenda, internal meetings are always the problem. If you’ve got meetings that are kind of, you know, they’re an FYI, about the new health and safety policy, it’s insane to make everybody down tools to talk about it, when that could be sent out in some different way. Got all this exciting technology. Now let’s use it. So being much more intentional with time and we know that there’s that we need more meetings now, better, quicker, communicating more touchpoints. But it doesn’t have to be those dreadful old fashioned, you know, lingering one to ones where you know, and not enough contacts in between them. So a lot more touch points.

Mervyn Dinnen 23:40
Okay, what’s wrapping up? I suppose my last question would be, what’s the one thing that listeners to this, particularly HR people can take as a one thing, they can finish listening to this and go and do to begin to make things better?

Zena Everett 23:58
Just one, seriously. Okay. And the number one thing?

Mervyn Dinnen 24:02
No, okay, well, three things, two things, then go on.

Zena Everett 24:07
Thank you. Right. I would say, first of all, just to take 10 minutes and think right out of everything I do, what’s the most important thing? What am I measured on? What is it I really need to learn this this quarter, this half year, whatever it is, and when am I going to find time to do that? So and you know, one of okay, yeah, so that’s it. And so what one of my clients doing they call it jury service, which is when you have to sit on a jury does that happen in the US, but anyway, it so we do it here where you can get landed to sit on a jury in a court case for two or three weeks, and you just have to go and therefore you have to hand over your work, and you have to do it. And so one of my clients says we call it jury service, where somebody says right, this system is not talking it’s slowing us down so much it’s making us so inefficient, it’s costing assemblage money, I’m going to fix it, and I need two weeks to do it. And if it’s worthy of it, they say, Fine, we’ll call it jury service, you hand over your work to somebody else, and you do it once. So I would say a bit of jury service to deal with that priority task, that would have a domino effect on everything else and make you look great, but would really solve all those problems. And if I can sneak in another an easy, quick way is to look at your meeting calendar, and maybe really think about your internal meeting, etiquette. So again, another organization staring level and being sneaking out because it’s too, another of my client says if somebody gets involved in a new project, that’s another couple of meetings a week, they’ve got to come out of a couple of other meetings. So they really limit the time because they want people doing the work not talking about what they should be doing if they went in a meeting. More than Can I come back? Do you know how I was sent every single day globally?

Mervyn Dinnen 26:02
I fear, I fear to think how many?

Zena Everett 26:07
Last time I looked, but that was a while ago, because I couldn’t bear it. 330 billion emails were sent every single day, you know, and we wonder why we can’t get anything done. Something like 65 billion WhatsApp. It’s crazy. So we’re just you know, you are fighting a wall. People in HR people related culture of excessive content. So the number of your communication channels you can cut down the best fit.

Mervyn Dinnen 26:37
Okay, Zena, it’s been fascinating. I’m sure there’s a hell of a lot here for people to chew on. So let listeners know how they can contact you. And also, I’ll give you a chance for another plug for your book. Now. What award did it win? Remind me?

Zena Everett 26:54
It won the Business Book Award? 2022 I don’t think I’ve ever won anything in my life. Apart from you know, I don’t know something when I was at school. The nice handwriting or something.

Mervyn Dinnen 27:09
The crazy busy cure. It’s available in the US and Europe.

Zena Everett 27:13
Yes, it’s available. It’s available globally, wherever you get your books from?

Mervyn Dinnen 27:20
How can people reach reach out to you?

Zena Everett 27:22
I love an email. So ignore what I said about that. So Obviously, I’m on LinkedIn and all those channels as well. So yeah, I really would love to talk. So thank you. It’s a pleasure.

Mervyn Dinnen 27:38
Zena, thank you for your time. Lots to take away lots to ponder on. Thank you very much.

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