Are You a Productive Manager or a Busy Manager?

busy manager versus productive manager

We all know that being busy isn’t the same as being productive.  Or do we?  The fallacy of the busy manager is a bad business trope that many of us just can’t seem to shake.  We know that spending time productively is the best way to build a business, but many of us have a hard time differentiating between what’s actually important and what’s busy work.  And – unfortunately – that’s deadly, as being a busy manager can kill your company.

Business analysts Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal wrote in the Harvard Business Review about the dangers of the “busy” manager.  Their 10-year study of managerial habits at a dozen corporations (including Sony, LG and Lufthansa to name a few) repeatedly confirmed that “busy” managers are dangerous to the companies they work for.

The authors warn that because the manager is rushing around the office putting out fires and moving from one project to the next indiscriminately, these types of workers leave no time for actually thinking about their actions – or their consequences.  Additionally, these busy managers don’t have the time or energy to come up with business innovations that will propel their companies into the future.  As you might expect, this leads to dangerous stagnations in corporate thought that can eventually cause the company to fall apart in the face of pressure from both competitors and the consumer base.

But how widespread is the epidemic of busy managers?  Incredibly, the authors insist that a full 90% of the managers they observed spent their time on “active nonaction” tasks.  This squandered time can’t be recovered and leaves little room for the actual, productive work that needs to be done.

So how do you recognize this busy work and how do you combat your own personal tendency to equate action of any kind with productivity?  Consider the following ideas…

Challenge Routine Habits

Routine can be a company-killer – or it can be your best friend.  But how do you know which situation is most likely in your case?

On the one hand, routine can help you stay productive and on track when your mind has a tendency to wander.  Stephen King, in his remarkable memoir On Writing, credits his unshakable writing routine as the “secret” to his success.

Before he published his first novel Carrie, King was living in a tiny house with his wife Tabitha and working two jobs.  His office was a used and abused school desk jammed in between the washer and dryer.  While this sounds like a recipe for disaster, King was able to sit down at the typewriter every day and religiously bang out words on paper.  That productive routine helped him to push through obstacles and become the literary star he is today.

But routines can also signal the slow and painful death of a company, simply by their repetitive nature.  After all, insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.  Without innovation, forethought and preparation, companies are at risk of growing outdated, out of touch and – eventually – irrelevant.

As a result, it’s important to shake up your daily routine from time to time.  Skip the email first thing in the morning and dedicate at least an hour to planning the rest of your day and tackling the most important task on your to-do list.  Next, get out of the office – remember, no man (or woman) is an island.

Focus on Innovation

Even the most brilliant manager will never come up with a new idea unless he or she is inspired by some outside force.  Whether that force is internal data, external studies or just gossip around the water cooler, new input is essential for new ideas.

Get to know your team and your business associates.  Look at what your competition is doing.  Follow trends in complimentary business industries.  Read prolifically (and not just trade journals specific to your industry).  Interact with your consumers.  All of this input will percolate in your brain and interact in new and exciting ways – eventually forming the kernel of new and glorious ideas.

Don’t be afraid to implement these new ideas—just do so wisely.  Learning to fail cheaply is an essential business skill.  Instead of jumping in with both feet first, test the waters and launch pilot programs, limited trial runs and/or product and service tests in order to minimize the financial effect of the inevitable failure.

Throw the Meetings Out the Window

Robert Pozen, productivity expert, author and contributor to The Wall Street Journal blog, recently wrote that meetings are “the bane of corporate life.”  Pozen insists that companies are scheduling far too many of them, failing to maximize that wasted time and – in effect – ignoring the “real” work of getting things done.  In short, meetings are an excellent way to showcase how busy you are, but are a horrific way to let actual productivity slide.

Pozen suggests limiting the size of necessary meetings by inviting only those who actually need the information being presented.  Think about it.  You don’t need the whole management tree if one person can sit in and then fill in the blanks for everyone else.  Pozen also suggests that most meetings run far too long.  If you can’t get everything out in the open within 30 minutes (and certainly within an hour) you’re probably biting far too much off for one gathering.  Split it up into smaller chunks instead.

Don’t Pay Attention to Your Boss

It’s easy – especially in today’s business culture – to put the desires of your boss over the needs of your employees.  After all, the higher-ups hold the ultimate power over your career’s life or death.  But when it comes down to it, you can’t afford to put too much emphasis on what they think the company needs.

If you’re functioning as a “Yes Man” (or a “Yes Woman”), you’re not bringing anything new or vital to the company.  While this may mean fewer bumps in the road along the way, the results you experience will hardly be extraordinary.  In addition, the added stress and busy work associated with trying to please your supervisors will definitely contribute to you spinning your wheels.

This doesn’t mean that you should be confrontational in your approach to work.  However, by being able to offer new ideas, alternative approaches and contradictory opinions, you can help make the workplace a vital and productive setting.  Again, testing is essential.  Convince your boss to let you handle things your way for a period of time and then examine the results.  If you’ve done your homework, you may just end up hitting the ball out of the park.

A Shining Example of Success

In the study referenced earlier, Bruch and Ghoshal followed the saga of Lufthansa closely in order to understand the factors leading to organizational success.  In 1990, the company was “teetering on the brink of bankruptcy,” but thanks to the laser-focus of new Executive VP Thomas Sattelberger, turned that around and posted over DM 2.5 billion in profits within 10 years.

How did one man accomplish this?  By instilling a single-minded and radically different approach to “business as usual” at the airline.  Sattelberger invested in executive-level education (creating a dedicated business school for his managers) and threw out the outdated routines that had nearly driven the company into the ground.  Innovation, streamlining and dedication all contributed to a stellar success story for the German airline.

Prioritize Your Time and Avoid Being “Busy”

It’s not enough for a manager to be active – they have to be productive.  The simplest way to do this is to prioritize responsibilities.  If a task is absolutely essential, it should be at the top of the day’s to-do list.  If it isn’t, bump it down.  And watch out for those time sucks like email, phone conferences, meetings, extended lunches and so on.  Don’t let the “work” get in the way of actual business.

That may sound impossible when the inevitable “crises” arise, but proper planning, thoughtful action and diligently-applied habits will eventually stop the majority of business emergencies before they ever happen.  As a result, you’ll be in the best possible place to shift your efforts from “busy” to “productive.”

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