Being more productive

20 Years ago, if you wanted to go to a new or unfamiliar destination you had to get a map and either memorize the route or constantly refer to the map.  If you got lost, you had to pull over and find your current position on the map before you could continue.  A GPS changed all that and was more productive.  All you have to do is type in where you want to go and select your preferred route option.  Do you want to get there fast (time matters most)?  Or do you want to travel the shortest distance (money spent on fuel matters most)?

A good GPS helps you get to your destination, based on your preferences.  It guides you towards your goal one step at a time and it corrects you automatically when you accidentally take the wrong turn.

It doesn’t matter so much that you make mistakes while on-route towards your destination, it matters that you correct your mistakes and get back on track as soon as possible.

Unconventional productivity hack #3

Similarly, productivity is your ability to reach your goal.  It doesn’t matter that you sometimes make mistakes or get distracted, it matters that you correct your mistakes as soon as possible to get back on track. As long as you’re going in the right direction and making small corrections continuously, you’re bound to get to where you want to be.

In the previous posts unpacking productivity, I introduced two unconventional productivity hacks.  The first post in the series proposed that the more achievable a task, the more productive a team is.  The second post elaborated on the power of positive organizational change.   Today, I will be introducing the third hypothesis on productivity.

Hypothesis 3: The better the feedback loops, the higher the productivity

What gets you to your destination is feedback. Feedback makes you more productive.  The progress bar, while you’re waiting, tells you how long you have to wait.  The status report tells you how healthy a project is.  The performance evaluation tells you how you are doing and whether you’re meeting expectations.  Without feedback, we will not be able to know whether we’re productive or not – whether you’re the manager or the employee.

When we, however, think of productivity, we have two main schools of thought.  The first aimed at using technology to help us save time, with tools such as Slack, Toggle, Skype, Evernote and Proofhub popping up as search results on Google. The second, advocating for low-tech solutions such as reducing the emails in your inbox, avoiding distractions and advising against multi-tasking.

Technology in itself isn’t enough to make you more productive.

Although there is value in both perspectives, I believe in low-tech solutions when it comes to productivity.   Technology simply isn’t enough.  Often, it slows you down even more than before.  Or it helps you do the wrong thing faster.

Does technology make you more productive?

Slack doesn’t make you more productive. It merely allows you to chat on demand with resources that is not in your immediate surroundings.  On the one hand, it might allow you to get the answers you’re looking for faster, saving you time.  On the other hand, though, it increases distractions, the need for multitasking and the risk of being involved in non-value add conversations, all reducing your productivity levels.  What makes you more productive is access to information.  You could, however, get this using Slack, or by having a real-time dashboard of information, or having an in-person meeting.

Similarly, Skype doesn’t make you more productive.  It allows you to put a face to a voice which is one step up from a voice-only telephone call.  This might help you be more productive by reducing the need to travel to a meeting, possibly saving you a few hours or even days. Yet, on the flipside, it causes you to disconnect with what’s happening on the floor and seeing the person in their immediate surroundings, possibly missing something obvious that is being overlooked.  What makes you productive is communication.  You could, however, have emailed, phoned, or made the Skype call.

What makes you productive or not is so much the tools you use, but what you choose to do, when.   The tools simply help you be more efficient at a task you’ve already mastered.  Whereas productivity is part mastery of old tasks, and part exploration of new tasks.

To become more productive, you need to understand the underlying mechanics of productivity.

Exploring unconquered territory

Feedback is the cornerstone of productivity, especially when you are travelling to a destination you haven’t been before.  If there are no road signs to indicate where you are, you might potentially end up somewhere else than where you want to be.

The better the feedback loops in a team and organization, the higher the productivity.  But what exactly is better?

More frequent is better

First and foremost, better feedback loops are more frequent feedback loops. Productivity is about frequency.  An annual performance appraisal, for example, is less effective than a quarterly review, with real-time feedback and regular coaching sessions even better to align expectations and actual performance.  A daily stand-up or catch-up over coffee far outweighs a lengthy meeting once a month.

The more frequent the feedback, the higher the chance that expectations and actual performance will match.

Relevant is better

The more relevant information is to a user, the more useful it is.  The more useful, the more productive.  The less time someone needs to spend figuring out what they need to extract from a given set of information, the more time they can spend doing the actual work.  Having to filter through unnecessary noise increases confusion and being confused is the opposite of being productive.

Only give feedback to people who might find it useful.  Don’t bore the entire team with the financial results when only the finance department is interested in it.  Give relevant feedback.

Accurate is better

Thirdly, accurate or precise is considered better.  Boundaries must be clear and values must be as unambiguous as possible.

If, for example, you give someone feedback regarding their performance, be specific.  Don’t say something vague like “You need to be more responsive”.  Be specific.  When did it happen, what happened, what was the impact?  “When you didn’t respond to the email I sent you last week asking for an update on the sales figures I couldn’t provide a new customer with the numbers he needed to secure the deal.”

Be factual, and have concrete evidence.

Clear is better

Clarity is king in the world of productivity.  When you don’t have to spend time figuring things out, you spend less time achieving your goal.

Often, people tell us what we’re doing wrong, but they never actually tell us what they would rather have us do.  Be explicit with expected results.  What do you want to see?

Don’t say “Please be more responsive”.  Rather say “Please give me a one-page summary with an indicator on the project health every Friday by 12.00.”

Just in time is better

Good feedback is about good timing.  Information is most useful when it is needed.  Provide feedback early enough to prevent a crisis, and late enough not be be forgotten.

Just enough, just in time. Perfection is a waste.

Keep calm and give good feedback

Good feedback is feedback that is heard by the person you are giving it too, relevant, timely and accurate.

When psychological safety is jeopardised in any way, the best feedback will not be heard by the recipient.  As soon as a person feels unsafe, they will shut down and spend their energy defending themselves rather than receiving the constructive feedback needed to complete a task.

When you give the same feedback in a calm and relaxed environment the chances that your feedback is taken to heart is much higher than when you angrily scream at them.

To be productive, you need to give and receive feedback.


Photo by Fikri Rasyid on Unsplash

With 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.