The Winter 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review's OnPoint (which gathers selected articles from HBR around a common theme) is on "Find your focus: get things done the smart way". We could all use a refresher once in a while, so here are a few articles that particularly caught my attention.
Extreme Productivity, by Robert C. Pozen. This article outlines 6 principles to get more done:
1. Know your comparative advantage. This is not what you do best, but what you do well enough that can most help the organization. In other words, your comparative advantage also depends on the skills of the people around you.
2. It's not the time you spend but the results you produce. This one is self-explanatory, but professions like law (which Pozen mentions briefly) continue to value employees by the number of hours they log, and it is easy to judge people by the fact that they always seem to be working at their computer while others have long left.
3. Think first, read or write second. Pozen explains: "To be a speed reader, you have to be very clear in your mind about why you are reading." He gives the example of reading the Financial Times after the Wall Street Journal: in that case, he's only looking for news coverage that the WSJ hasn't provided.
4. Prepare your plan, but be ready to change it. This is true of people about to give speeches (speakers who prepare their speech sentence by sentence and then read it from the lectern tend not to engage their audiences as much as speakers who jot down a list of 4 or 5 key points and a concluding paragraph), but also of anyone who prepares a plan for the next day's work.
5. Let others own their space. Give them ownership in the outcome of a debate, let them agree on the to-do list and the deliverables. Pozen writes: "For instance, instead of assigning detailed tasks, you can present general priorities for the upcoming year and let your reports formulate specific ways to implement those priorities along with the metrics for measuring success."
6. Keep things short and simple. "The presenter at a meeting should circulate materials in advance to all participants. These should always include a one-page executive summary and the explicit norm should be that everyone reads at least the summary before attending the meeting."
Beware the busy manager, by Heike Bruch and Sumantra Groshal. This article distinguishes between purposeful managers and the others: the procrastinators, the disengaged and the distracted, and describes how to create purposeful managers using the example of the Lufthansa turnaround. The secret in a nutshell: "Give [your managers] meaningful challenges, then let them decide how to meet them. Empower them to turn compelling visions into reality. Stress how essential their contributions are."
Make time for the work that matters, by Julian Birkinshaw and Jordan Cohen. The authors provide the following guidelines:
- Identify low-value tasks: How valuable is this activity to the firm? To what extent could I let this go? How much personal value do I get from doing it? To what extent could someone else do it on my behalf?
- Decide whether to drop, delegate or redesign.
- Off-load tasks.
- Allocate freed-up time.
- Commit to your plan.
Management time: Who's got the monkey by William Oncken, Jr and Donald L. Wass. This article was originally published in the November-December 1974 issue of HBR and was republished with a commentary by Stephen Covey in November-December 1999. The "monkey" is the burden that subordinates put on the manager's back when they give back an issue to the manager and make it his problem, instead of solving it themselves.
The authors recommend for managers to develop their subordinates' initiative. "For example, when an employee tries to hand you a problem, clarify whether he should recommend and implement a solution, take action and then brief you immediately, or act and report the outcome at a regular update." In summary: encourage employees to handle their own monkeys so that you free up time to do your own job. The authors also give more specific recommendations to return monkeys to their proper owners.
The most fascinating part of the article, I thought, was the 1999 commentary by Stephen Covey, entitled "Making time for gorillas", which places the previous article in the context of the 1970s, where management styles were much more rigid and hierarchical. But I find the monkey problem as present as ever in academia, especially at institutions where the faculty has PhDs from better schools than the one they work at, and doctoral students know their PhD advisor would do the work much faster and much better if they decided to do it for their students. (There are additional incentives that work against the PhD advisor, such as the pressure to graduate students within a certain time frame, publish papers, etc.)
Resisting the impulse of doing the work for the student who shows up with little done, pretending she's read papers but is stuck although she hasn't even set up the problem is not as easy as it would first appear: the PhD adviser would want to see some output for the research assistantship's money, hit certain milestones before the end of the semester, and since there remains 55 min of the time allotted for the meeting, it is tempting to just get the work done to at least make progress. (This is where I developed a unique ability to talk and talk while writing equations so the student wouldn't be too bored watching me write, although in hindsight it might have been better to let her get very, very bored.)
When I started my faculty position, we had an orientation and a discussion on what the best teachers do, but frankly the two-day session lacked the slightest discussion on what good managers do, and that's most definitely what I needed the most. (Does a place where so many students think it's ok to type away at their laptop or check the messages on their phone throughout the lecture in small classrooms [not large, anonymous auditoriums, mind you] deserve the best teachers to begin with? I think not. But I digress.) PhD advisers are managers, first and foremost, and negotiating the transition from student to manager is a particularly difficult one. But you learn to give the problem back to the people who have brought it to you, develop their skills and help them grow (or accept they are lost causes, but not do their work for them). Nine years on, I like to think I've become a good manager in my trial by fire. This issue of HBR OnPoint serves as a great reminder of what managers should do.