Maximizing Organizational Productivity Requires Prioritization

Maximizing Organizational Productivity Requires Prioritization

Doing more with fewer resources has become the corporate mantra, especially in the decade since the Great Recession. In response to this do-more-with-less mandate, many training programs have popped up to help increase individual productivity. But what if I told you that increasing the productivity of your organization actually has little to do with maximizing individual performance?

Skill training that focuses on individual productivity is based on a widely held belief that the path to greater organizational productivity is one where everyone performs at 100% of their capacity. (Or 110% if they’re a football team.)

This belief stems from an outdated operating system that emphasizes top-down, or vertical, management, and it simply does not apply to today’s complex matrix organization. Not only because you can’t run people ragged 100% of the time, but also because the focus of productivity should be set at the organizational level.

Focus on the Team

The theory behind most command-and-control, hierarchical structures (what we call vertical management 1.0) focuses on optimizing the parts, and in this case, the individual. In other words, optimize the individuals—make sure they’re working efficiently, give them the necessary training, etc.—and you will optimize the organization.

The problem with that theory is that it has been proven wrong by the introduction of systems theory in the 1940s, which basically determined that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Up to now, you’ve probably spent most of your time as a leader in the vertical dimension, focusing on managing individuals and trying to make them productive. But that’s the old paradigm of leadership. You simply can’t improve productivity by manipulating the vertical hierarchy.

The new paradigm builds productive teams in the horizontal dimension. 

In a matrix, a high-performing team is the most important unit of the organization; therefore, your goal is to focus on team productivity, not the individual’s.

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A team is nothing more than a group of people working collaboratively to achieve a common goal, but to reach high-performing status, everyone must be motivated. Otherwise, you won’t achieve the desired engagement and integration.

One of the biggest de-motivating factors for a team is conflicting priorities amongst leaders—a common symptom inherent in organizations plagued by functional silos.

Silos Kill Productivity

In most large and complex organizations today, silos come in many forms and are often associated with obvious functional groups, like marketing, IT, sales, human resources, etc. But silos also occur within geographies, where each region is operating well, but each regional president runs his or her area like their own private company. Well, that’s a silo—especially when the company wants to operate globally.

And many of the large organizations we’ve worked with have silos within silos For example, within a large marketing department, you often find separate functions like public relations, advertising, event planning, content marketing, etc., each operating their own budgets, tasks, and priorities.

Because everyone has their own set of priorities, they often conflict with each other, such as when department heads compete for available resources or budget.

Conflicting priorities run amuck in functional silos because of the rules inherent in a vertical management operating system, which focus on the productivity of a function.  And those function’s priorities will always take precedent over team, and even organizational, goals. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to keep organizational and team priorities in mind if you’re tasked with maximizing a function.

Everything that gets accomplished in an organization is done through initiatives. If competing priorities sabotage those initiatives, not only will they not be productive, but the overall strategy execution will also suffer. The organization gets stuck in the mud, unable to gain traction.

Then there’s the opposite problem, where no priorities are set at all. By default, everything, everywhere becomes a number-one priority. I’m sure you’ve heard an executive say, “It’s all important!” And everyone talks about having to “put out fires” instead of focusing on the priorities that the organization has deemed most important.

Well, I call bullshit.

It’s simply not possible to have 100, 10 or even two number-one priorities. The number is one.

Prioritization exists in the first place because of the limited resource of time. Each person has only so much time to spend at work in a day, and they can work only so many days in a week.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that number is 45 hours per week. If a person has more work than they can complete within that amount of time, then someone will have to decide what gets done and what does not.

In this scenario, who do you think that is?

It’s the individual. That decision may be based on which one leader is screaming the loudest. It might be based on what that person wants to work on. Or maybe it will come down to the easiest tasks so they can show progress.

I’m sure you can see the problems with this approach:

  1. Individuals are choosing initiatives based on what benefits them personally, not the organization as a whole.
  2. The individual’s priorities likely differ from the ones that their team members are making.

Therefore, we end up again with conflicting priorities, resulting in sub-optimized and unproductive teams. So when a company launches a cross-functional initiative to build a new product or make an important organizational change and each silo sends a person to the team, guess what happens?

Yep, they all have competing priorities.

They are all moving in different directions, and the initiative flounders as a result.

The Fix

In short, the goal here is to create a culture of success, where senior leaders make requests versus demands of team leaders and where deadlines become realistic and achievable because they are based on capacity rather than fantasy.

That means changing the rules around governance, prioritization and accountability.

Governance must now focus on building high-performing teams that are based on the horizontal, not the vertical, dimension.

Accountability must shift to a voluntary commitment that people make to do something that is achievable, and not assigned. For example, the team determines together how quickly something can be done—based on the priority of the initiative, other commitments, available resources, etc. Then, they come back to the steering council and say, “We can do X by Y date for Z money.”

In addition, they need to include contingency time and money in their proposal because not all unknowns are known (by definition!). Then, they commit, and accountability is locked in.

You can’t shove accountability down people’s throats. If they don’t own the deliverables for which they are accountable, accountability becomes a weapon, not a useful productivity tool.

Conversely, when teams are aligned around priorities, they have planned out what they can achieve, and they have organizational support, they will work hard to meet their goals. They will be productive, and they will enjoy the process of achieving something with a group of people—something that moves the organization forward.

Work can be productive and fun, but we need shift into a new way of operating where prioritization is set at the organizational level first.

About Jason Myers

As the Editor-in-Chief of OD Innovator Magazine, Jason Myers is on a mission to help people transform their organizations into more innovative and collaborative environments. He co-developed a Crash Course in Collaborative Project Leadership to arm leaders with needed skills to drive innovation in any organization.

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