August 26, 2013

DO LESS, BE JUST AS PRODUCTIVE:

In praise of laziness : Businesspeople would be better off if they did less and thought more (Schumpeter, Aug 17th 2013, The Economist)

It is high time that we tried a different strategy--not "leaning in" but "leaning back". There is a distinguished history of leadership thinking in the lean-back tradition. Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria's favourite prime minister, extolled the virtues of "masterful inactivity". Herbert Asquith embraced a policy of "wait and see" when he had the job. Ronald Reagan also believed in not overdoing things: "It's true hard work never killed anybody," he said, "but I figure, why take the chance?". This tradition has been buried in a morass of meetings and messages. We need to revive it before we schedule ourselves to death.

The most obvious beneficiaries of leaning back would be creative workers--the very people who are supposed to be at the heart of the modern economy. In the early 1990s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist, asked 275 creative types if he could interview them for a book he was writing. A third did not bother to reply at all and another third refused to take part. Peter Drucker, a management guru, summed up the mood of the refuseniks: "One of the secrets of productivity is to have a very big waste-paper basket to take care of all invitations such as yours." Creative people's most important resource is their time--particularly big chunks of uninterrupted time--and their biggest enemies are those who try to nibble away at it with e-mails or meetings. Indeed, creative people may be at their most productive when, to the manager's untutored eye, they appear to be doing nothing.

Managers themselves could benefit. Those at the top are best employed thinking about strategy rather than operations--about whether the company is doing the right thing rather than whether it is sticking to its plans. When he was boss of General Electric, Jack Welch used to spend an hour a day in what he called "looking out of the window time". When he was in charge of Microsoft Bill Gates used to take two "think weeks" a year when he would lock himself in an isolated cottage. Jim Collins, of "Good to Great" fame, advises all bosses to keep a "stop doing list". Is there a meeting you can cancel? Or a dinner you can avoid?

Junior managers would do well to follow the same advice. In "Do Nothing", one of the few business books to grapple with the problem of over-management, Keith Murnighan of the Kellogg School of Management argues that the best managers focus their attention on establishing the right rules--recruiting the right people and establishing the right incentives--and then get out of the way. He quotes a story about Eastman Kodak in its glory days. A corporate reorganisation left a small division out in the cold--without a leader or a reporting line to headquarters. The head office only rediscovered the division when it received a note from a customer congratulating the unit on its work.

One of the main reasons schedules are so jam-packed is to disguise how little work we actually do.
Posted by at August 26, 2013 7:14 PM
  

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