How to Turn Busyness into Better Business Outcomes

Today’s business world tends to value activity over accomplishment – we look to ensure our people are “being productive”, highly utilised, busy. However, in the business of busyness, doing lots of things doesn’t necessarily mean that we are completing those things. There comes a point where additional activity starts to mean that instead of creating more business value, you actually create less. It is by matching the organisation’s capacity to the most important activities that you accomplish more and get better business outcomes.

Capacity Concept on Dark Digital Background.
I often see teams and organisations tempted by the false belief that more activity is the same as more progress, so they start more projects, create more work fronts, and get more balls in the air. What they fail to recognise is that as soon as you exceed your capacity to manage, supply and execute all this activity, you actually become less efficient and effective at achieving your business outcomes. Activity that is not sequenced and prioritised in a manner that helps you reach your goals is like having “means” that serve no “end”. Having a lot of work happening on many fronts may be useful for creating the appearance of progress; however, it is simply expenditure – expenditure of time, energy and money with an ever-diminishing return. As this business reality begins to manifest itself, we blame the less-then-desirable results on a lack of accountability in our teams or poor leadership by our managers.

In fact, it is often simply over-extending the capacity of our teams and/or organisations that is the source of the problem.

One of the important focuses of the work that I do with my clients is to get them to understand the value of effectively managing their Work in Process or WIP. WIP is really just fancy production management speak for being smart about the quantity and importance of the stuff that you’re trying to do at any one time. Ironically, this is advice that I have been ignoring in my own practice over the last 2 or 3 months. I have ambitious plans my practice in 2016 – a book writing project, increasing my online presence, a speakership project – all in addition to my “day job” of thinking, selling and delivering value to my existing client base.

Over the holiday period, “life happened” – an injury, a family tragedy and lack of availability of clients and resources meant that I could only half do many of the things that I wanted to accomplish. What I found is what a great many businesses find when their ambition outstrips their capacity – I was keeping busy on a host of fronts, but nothing was getting accomplished. The breadth of what I was trying to take on kept me from making headway against the really important tasks. In other words, I needed to bring my own thought leadership to bear on my business if I was to get my 2016 back on track!

In reframing my business activity, I went back to these key elements to more effectively manage my capacity and begin to accomplish more.

  • Clearly define what’s important. While it’s easy to create a list of all the things you’d like to do, to effectively manage priorities and set the direction for the organisation, it is essential to define what’s important; to understand what must be accomplished to meet the overarching business objectives. Carefully evaluating the tasks to establish priorities and determining how they relate to each other is the first step. Are there dependency or precursor relationships between them that define the order the work needs to be done in?
  • Create a strategy. Work with your teams to create a strategy for getting from where you are today to your business objective. I’m referring to a roadmap that shows you the path that you will need to take through the various activities and projects to reach your target outcome. How do the projects link together on a time and outcome basis? What are the interim objectives (milestone and result) that you can use as key checkpoints in the journey?
  • Understand your capacity. Capacity isn’t simply a matter of hours in the day or people on the ground. Taking that view is actually demeaning to your people and represents a very narrow view of your organisational capacity. Capacity is influenced by a great many factors, including the mix of skills and capability required at any given time (especially when this is specialised capability), the day-to-day demands of keeping the business running, the capacity of management to lead the teams, the organisation’s ability to support and supply the teams, and the sum total of all the projects they are expected to progress. Understanding capacity is more art than science – it’s more than estimating the number of person-days of work and dividing by the number of days to determine how many people you need. Acknowledging this subjective reality is the first step in putting in place the adaptive processes necessary to manage capacity effectively.
  • Leave spare capacity for variability. In all business and life endeavours, variability happens. One of the greatest mistakes we make on projects is not making allowance for it. People get sick, key staff leave, creative processes require iteration and sometimes indeterminate resources, machines break and unforeseen circumstances arise. By planning for a perfect, variability-free world, we set ourselves up for delays and over-runs that not only erode the results on current work, but hamper follow-on activities that rely on this work. The business impact is a growing inventory of uncompleted activities and results that don’t fulfil their objective. The human impact is that your people become demoralised by the lack progress and diffuse their focus.
  • Match your activity to your capacity. Just because something is important does not mean that you should be working on it. Limit the things that you take on at any one time to 1) what you can reasonably see through to completion and 2) what needs to be done now in order to complete it when you need it. A number of studies have shown that multi-tasking is a myth and when individuals try to do it, they take longer and produces poorer results than doing tasks one-at-a-time. The same is true of teams. Production analysis has consistently demonstrated that teams achieve better overall efficiency and effectiveness when they only take on as much work as they can progress continuously through to completion, rather than workloads that require that they complete work in “batches.” Matching your current activity and project levels to your available capacity not only ensures that you maximise the results for what’s being done today, but provides better long-term outcomes for your entire portfolio of work.
  • Breakdown the work into bite sized portions. On projects, much emphasis is placed on detailed planning as a means to better results. However, given the variable nature of most knowledge work, there is very little value in detailed planning very far into the future. It is of greater value to break the work down in bite sized portions; portions that get smaller the closer they get in time. Identify the key interim objective over the two to three month horizon. Map the work leading up to this objective in one to two week blocks so that you can determine the sequence of the work and identify constraining activities. Then further break down these blocks into daily or weekly tasks over the coming two weeks so that you can clear identify the work that you will commit to complete over that period.
  • Allocate capacity to the highest priority tasks. On a day-to-day basis, allocate your available capacity to the highest priority tasks that they are in a position to complete. This may seem like common sense, but all too often it’s ignored. Where busyness is of utmost importance, tasks are often focused on so-called “low hanging fruit” or someone’s gut feel of what is a given day’s priority. Here we define the highest priority as those tasks that we need to do today in order to reach our objective on time – what is referred to as the Last Responsible Moment. There is a further subtlety as well in the caveat of “in a position to complete”. It is only by completing tasks that we release new work – simply starting a task does not. So we want to ensure that the work we are doing is unconstrained by prerequisite work and can be taken to completion.

By incorporating these 7 ideas into your projects, you’ll begin to translate activity into accomplishment and see accomplishment turned into better business results. By including these elements as ongoing business practice, you can continuously refresh the projects and activities that you’re working on and refine the match of capacity to current work. This approach will allow you to increase your organisational capacity – without more people or additional technology – because you reduce the capacity that is expended on inefficiency and wasted effort.

Perhaps of greatest importance for the busy executive, is the reduction in management capacity that is consumed. One of my clients commented that he knew that our work was making a difference because everything was calmer. “Our management team isn’t constantly trying to keep the team on track. We’ve gone from managing one crisis after another to supporting the team in stepping from one milestone to the next. It has really freed us up to provide leadership and look for ways to improve.”

Questions for consideration:

  • Does your organisation value activity over accomplishment?
  • Are you busy on a number of fronts but struggling to feel like you are finishing things?
  • Do you understand your organisational capacity and whether it is a fit for the amount of work you’re trying to do?

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Please share them in the comment area below.

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