Culture and the Cigar-Smoking Triathlete - Next Action Associates

In my thirties I was an amateur triathlete. I wasn’t good at it, but I showed up for the training and finished a few events per year. At the same time, I was also a 5-a-day smoker of cigars. Big ones. In this, I excelled.

Even at the time, I was aware that training my cardiovascular system for long-term health while concurrently inhaling lethal gases to accelerate my death made no sense. But in my thirties I was still immortal, so I figured it would all be fine, somehow. This inconsistency in our thinking and actions is part of what it is to be human of course, and so is on display all around us. The lung cancer patient wheeling his IV drip outside the hospital doors for a post-op puff is a classic, as is the diner order of diet coke with a side of cheesecake made by people performing ‘dieting theatre’.

This inconsistency isn’t limited to individuals, however. In the past few decades, ever more businesses have been successful at adopting improved ways of working in routine, process-based activities. Things like automation, business process reengineering, Lean, Six Sigma, Agile, Continuous Improvement, and Kaizen are now all part of a playbook that has delivered significant benefits in speed, cost, and quality.

So it is all the more striking that those same businesses have often ignored – or failed at – finding those benefits in their non-routine activities. This “knowledge work” is in the sales, management, market research, product development of a company. It is equally critical to the success of the business, but consists of unstructured, infinitely varied, rarely repeated tasks that arise in response to dynamic market forces. Often these tasks are unique to an organisation, role or even individual.

These are not small things in term of their impact. On a high level, this is about how we manage our attention and energy to be productive as individuals, teams and organisations. It’s about how time gets managed, commitments handled, emails answered and meetings completed effectively and on time; how we go about defining goals and making plans to achieve them; how we handle interruptions to our plans; and when and how we choose to prioritise responding to those interruptions – or not – with reference to our existing commitments (assuming we have any idea what these are…).

In many ways, this kind of work has become more critical to business success than simply making even more processed-based improvements, because it is one of the few ways that companies can really differentiate themselves. So many of their competitors have adopted the same approaches to process-based work that it is in how non-standard work gets handled that an organisation can really generate unique value.

Because of the transient nature of this activity it is difficult to document and to measure, and can seem impossible to manage or improve systematically. It is so challenging that some choose to ignore it entirely, assuming that if they hire smart people, they’ll work it out somehow. But it isn’t about smarts, and they really can’t work it out without guidance.

The goal is the same here as it has been in efforts to transform process-intensive activities: to identify and then systematically eliminate waste in the way work is done. The difference is that the focus needs to be on the drivers of waste in knowledge work: 

  • waste of effort (on non-critical projects, chasing others for actions, and too much communication with too little decision-making)
  • waste of time (in poorly run meetings, compulsive snacking on email, procrastination due to poor prioritisation, and waiting for information or decisions from others)
  • waste of energy (on spinning of wheels in overwhelm, getting frustrated by lack of clarity, re-thinking and worrying rather than deciding and taking action)

More and more businesses are recognising that it is possible to transform the productivity of knowledge workers. Using GTD®, they are building businesses where knowledge work is completed faster, cheaper and with better quality and impact than their competitors. They are also finding significant additional benefits for the workers themselves: less work-related stress, greater work satisfaction and, as a consequence, enhanced engagement with the workplace.

Oddly, part of the solution is to give them a consistent process for handling all of the ever-changing flow of tasks, projects and problems that come their way.

The approach our clients are using to eliminate waste – to get more of the right things done faster, with fewer resources and more impact – is to define and embed proven “best practice” ways of getting knowledge work completed efficiently. We call them ‘working standards’, but another way to think of them would be as the building blocks of a healthy high-performance culture.

These standards focus on the three key drivers of individual and team productivity for knowledge workers: 

  • what they choose to do (making the right decisions about where to focus their attention and effort),
  • when they choose to do it (making the most of the time and resources available where they are), and
  • how they choose to do it (managing their energy, breaking goals into projects and projects into actions)

Perhaps surprisingly, given the variety and uniqueness of the work itself, it turns out that the core of this best practice is remarkably common across all types of knowledge work. Our work with clients provides a simple but powerful set of productivity principles that address directly those three key drivers. Where our approach differs from broader culture change methodologies is that we can be more specific and granular with clear guidance on how specific behaviours can immediately drive positive cultural change.

GTD is famous for helping individuals improve their own productivity and perceived stress levels, often with life-changing results.  Implemented on a team the GTD approach goes even further, as a common language and practice make previously invisible synergies accessible. When multiple teams get these benefits, the organisational culture begins to shift.

At the very least, it is a consistent approach to reducing waste in all aspects of an organisations activity. After all, team of cigar-smoking triathletes are unlikely to beat the competition.

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