To Simplify, First Clear The Underbrush
Many people envision the upper rungs of the corporate ladder as an inspired, innovative place where leaders spend their time on stimulating projects that shape the organization’s future. But this vision is not always a reality. In many companies today, even the most tenured individuals are just as bogged down with policies and procedures as their entry-level colleagues, if not more so. In addition, the focus on producing short-term results often leaves little time for long-term strategy — the area where the expertise of experienced professionals is needed most.
To make way for innovative and big-picture thinking, managers need to clear the underbrush that often chokes productivity. This is the first of seven strategies for simplifying your organization that we outlined in an earlier post. Here are four best practices to get you started:
Pick up the phone. Sure, having an email chain to document interactions can be useful to reference, but it frequently takes more time to write an email than to simply explain details in a live conversation. If you find yourself struggling to organize your thoughts in an email, stop and ask yourself if it would be quicker to vocalize the situation. Having a two-way conversation out loud is also helpful for answering questions immediately, and preventing future back-and-forth messages.
Encourage streamline ideas. Let’s face it, most people work on tasks that aren’t always the best use of time. Senior leaders who assign these tasks can be so far removed from certain processes that they aren’t aware when assignments are more trouble than they’re worth. Sign-offs required in triplicate? Recurring meetings that no longer serve a purpose? Separate reports that include the same information? Encourage employees to keep an eye out for inefficient tasks and challenge them to suggest a new way of doing things. Ask: What meetings can we eliminate? What reports can we stop doing? What steps in a process can be removed right now? Make it clear these suggestions won’t be taken as complaints, but instead viewed as creative ideas for improving productivity. For example, one senior manager did this by sponsoring a yearly “spring cleaning” that was essentially a contest for identifying low-value or time-wasting tasks. (And of course it can be done any time of the year.)
Rethink “reply all.” One of the biggest time-sinks in the corporate world is managing an ever-growing inbox. To simplify the process of sorting through emails, people should be clear about what they need from specific people. If someone is copied as an FYI but no action is required, say so at the beginning of the message. Even better, try this trick: add ‘NNTR’ — No Need To Respond — in the subject line of your email. Train staff to also consider whether people should be taken off the email chain, rather than automatically replying to all. Some companies, like Ernst and Young, discourage internal blasts by making the reply all button harder to access in Lotus Notes. By adding to the number of clicks needed to reply all, the company sends the message that it should only be used in specific situations.
Stop reviewing low-impact work. Another opportunity for freeing up time is to get out of the business of checking and double-checking your people’s work products. If you’ve hired good people and trained them appropriately, you probably don’t need to review all revisions of their assignments. Sure, when documents are being sent to potential clients or very senior managers, it’s a good idea to make sure they are thoroughly reviewed. However, not all work products have that kind of impact on business outcomes. So for outputs that are not mission-critical, make it clear to staff members that it is their responsibility to proofread their own work and ensure their own quality control — and that you trust them to do a great job.
All organizations are slowed down by unnecessary underbrush that reduces productivity. And while you’ll never get rid of all of it — and it will always keep coming back — these best practices can give you a starting point for clearing some of it away.
This post was coauthored by Lisa Bodell.