Employee Productivity: Do More By Taking On Less and Focusing on the Few Things that Matter

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I have probably had 10 conversations over the last couple of weeks that involve me trying to get individuals, teams, or companies to take on fewer initiatives.  My point to them as it relates to employee productivity isn’t that they should do less, but rather that they can do more by taking on less.

Let me explain.

The problem that everyone has in expansion stage companies is that the number of things that they could do dramatically outstrips what they can do.  There are just too many things that could get done, which means resources and capacity are ALWAYS constrained (even for the most well funded and/or largest companies).

Different people react to this problem in different ways, most of which are problematic to both individuals and to their company.

Some of those reactions could include: 

  • People try to take on everything and end up frantically trying to do too many things, disrupting others in the process, stressing themselves out, and never really getting great impact.
  • People feel so bad that they are not getting everything done that they start pretending that they are getting things done to make themselves feel better.  The net result is a house of cards.
  • People point fingers as to why others are actually responsible for portions or all of their initiatives, and ultimately fail to get the work done, stressing others out in the process.
  • People actually do focus on only a few things and get them done well. This works in some instances, but they may not have chosen the most important things to work on, they may have dependencies on others who are not focusing on these initiatives, they may have others make them feel bad about the initiatives that are not getting done, or they might just generally feel bad that they are not getting everything done.

There are a lot of good, hardworking people in expansion stage companies that are encountering problems and they react in many ways that ultimately results in problems for them and/or their company.

The Solution: Focus on the Few Things that Really Matter.

There is a pretty easy solution to this problem, but you need to understand the nature of the problem and you need to have a disciplined approach to solving the problem.


The Nature of the Problem

The nature of the problem starts with the fact that everyone, me included, gets an idea and wants to get it done. We start working on getting things done, get a great new idea, add it to our list, and keep going.  Then we get another great idea, add it to out list, and keep going.  And this process continues, generally killing employee productivity.

We are all backpackers hiking up a mountain collecting rocks and putting them in our backpacks.  We keep adding shiny new rocks, but each additional rock slows us down. In the end, we carry more and more rocks but gain less and less ground.

How Can We Fix that Problem? 

I learned a great solution to this problem when Jeff Sutherland taught me about Scrum, more specifically the idea of having a prioritized list of goals and then only working on the few most important goals for a period of time. Jeff calls this a “sprint,” because you pick a few goals and then sprint to complete them.

The specific approach that I really like is:

  1. Get a clear idea of where you are trying to go in the longer term.  You can call this a vision for the future or just some clear strategic goals that you are trying to accomplish over a longer period of time (for pure startups this might be as short as a month or a quarter, and for larger expansion stage companies this might be six months to a year, or even 2-3 years as the company matures).
  2. Carry around a list of possible initiatives that you could do (i.e. your idea backlog).  If you come up with a new idea, put it on your idea backlog rather than starting to work on it. Going back to the backpacker analogy, you would write down that there is a shiny rock in a specific location that you can come back to later if you decide it is worthwhile, but you don’t pick the rock up and put it into your backpack.
  3. Periodically, consider where you are against where you are trying to go in the longer term. When you do that, pull out your idea backlog, and figure out what the 1-3 “most important rocks” are that you will take on and accomplish over the shortest period of time possible. The trick is to force yourself to try to make the list short and only contain the most important items. You are fighting human nature, which is ALWAYS oriented toward making the list too long.
  4. Execute against implementing those 1-3 things. If you have any new ideas along the way, simply add any new ideas to your idea backlog.
  5. Rinse and repeat once you have completed the list. This also applies if you have mostly completed the list, and you have room to restock your goals.

This process works really well as an individual contributor (generally a prioritized “to do” list), but it gets more and more valuable when it is done by a larger group that works together. You can do with your operating team, your department, or even your entire company (I have led many “Extraordinary Execution” workshops for OpenView’s portfolio companies, training them on how to do this company wide and we execute this approach at OpenView Venture Partners).

The Key is Discipline

You have to do real work to establish this process, and then you have to do some level of work to keep it going. It takes some level of discipline to get it going, but the result of it is significantly improved employee productivity — more impact, less work, higher quality work, and less stress.

I have noticed that once people get into this rhythm they are happier and have more impact.  I have also noticed that the process is easy to fall out of and hard to get back into, so it is particularly important to have discipline.

Give it a try and also leave me a comment if you have tried this or other approaches to getting things done!