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A dozen small ways to get productivity improvements to stick in an organization

As I continue to work with organizations at the individual "key talent" level, I've had some opportunities to expand the impact of the work to the next level up - the team. As I've said earlier [1], I'm very committed to getting the work I teach to stick at - a real challenge - and I'm motivated to learn new ways to do this.

In that spirit, here are a dozen or so ideas I shared recently with an executive and her team to continue adopting, sustaining, and deepening their practice. I hope you find them helpful.

Company policy opportunities/possibilities

At the company level, consider these opportunities:
  • Support members' scheduling daily blocks (1-2 hours) for processing & organizing.
  • Do the same for weekly reviews (pick a time that's works for most people).
  • Facilitate improved email habits by considering new policies (formal or informal) around urgency, and setting expectations about responsiveness (such as a 24 hour response time [2]).
  • Start adopting email "etiquette" changes that reduce volume, such reducing unnecessary "thank you" responses, or clarifying when CC and FWD is necessary [3].
  • Investigate email client/server configurations that reduce interruptions, including disabling visual and aural notifications of new mail, and increasing the time between when new messages are downloaded (or allowing it to be done manually).

Team suggestions to sustain, deepen

Here are a few possibilities and the team level:
  • Schedule monthly lunches to review basics, discuss what's working or not working, and share any discoveries, ideas, and "aha"s [4] you've come up with.
  • Dedicate five minutes at monthly staff meetings for a workflow discussion. Another possibility: During monthly staff meetings, one person talks for five minutes on one of the workflow phases, whichever she feels most accomplished in, or experienced the greatest improvement in. Or reverse it to have one person ask for help/support around one area.
  • Get playful: Give out small awards [5] for people who empty their inboxes (paper, email, voice) most regularly, or for those with the least amount of "stuff" in their spaces.
  • Create an information radiator [6] (e.g., a big wall chart) that shows things like: size of each person's email or paper backlog, # of days since last emptied inboxes, # of weeks since last weekly review, # of times checking email/day, etc. NB: Must be done positively, and without shame or guilt.
  • Host mini "field trips" to each others' offices. Talk about what stuff is still around, look at backlogs, talk about where to (re)start, supplies, filing, etc. Note that this must be done in a supportive and constructive manner. Remember that major self-management changes like this can be quite personal, and usually take a while to master.
  • Notice ways to help others adopt the new habits, perhaps when someone doesn't write down action and waiting for, is not emptying her inboxes every 24 hours, or not collecting paper in one place. Again, do this in a supportive manner.

Other resources

Finally, here are a few additional posts and discussions on I found helpful.
  • From the 43 Folders Getting Things Done forum: GTD for Teams - How do you get started?
    Emory's response reminded me of an article done by Joel Spolsky: Getting Things Done When You're Only A Grunt. It's a great article, and basically says that instead of trying to convert the team to use GTD, or your bugs database, just tell them where their input goes. If you are a hardcore inbox person like myself, instruct others to put anything that they need taken care of in your inbox. Get them to conform to the part of the system that they need to accomplish to keep your system running smoother. Eventually someone else will start to use an inbox as well. The key is to get people to adopt slowly by leading with example.
  • From Making GTD stick with teams:

    • weekly or monthly 'user group' meetings
    • group weekly reviews in a conference room with laptops and in-boxes
    • share tips and tricks or challenges and wins - in person or via a newsletter (company or dedicated)
    • a group purge day of reference filing; e.g., one hour on a quiet day
    • (re)read David Allen's book

  • From the davidco Getting Things Done forum:

    1. lead by example - set aside time to do the weekly review and be very vocal/clear that's what you're up to and you expect others to be doing the same during that time
    2. weekly mtg. over coffee - a support group type meeting where you discuss certain points of GTD that would really help the team.. even 15-30 minutes a week could inspire shared practices.
    3. get the newcomers on board ASAP - make it part of their initial training. give them the book as soon as they're hired
    4. create a private email list or google group for this type of discussion that only team members have access to


Reader Comments (16)

These are great ideas. I'm very happy to see you try and at least initially do this at a team level.

I've been part of teams that have agreed upon ways to do things that manages productivity better for them (e.g., rules for meetings).

The tricky part is that large companies reorganize themselves every six months and all that work goes out the window.

But, we try again...

September 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterScot Herrick

Scot, I'm glad to her it's possible, and I agree about its being hard to stick. I'd love to hear any lessons or tips you'd like to share.

Hey - I really like the phrase Action Office ( from [ About Cube Rules | http://cuberules.com/about-cube-rules/ ] ), in spite of the eventual outcome of cubes.

September 3, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Here's four of the things that worked within the group, specifically for meetings:

Agreed to end any meeting five minutes before the end to to "wrap up" and not start until five minutes after the hour to allow others to get to the meeting.

Have a facilitator for each meeting (from the group) to ensure the meeting stays on track.

Have a note taker for the meeting who not only took the notes, but also captured the "next actions" to be done by individuals in the group.

Have a timekeeper to ensure the agenda (done in advance!!) topics are completed.

These are pretty basic, but it's surprising how well they worked -- and how often these simple things are not done for meetings, resulting in poor productivity and no decisions made.

September 3, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterScot Herrick

Thanks, Scot. I'll tuck those points in my meetings ideas file.

September 3, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Want to make you aware of a potential resource for you. I've written a book entitled Help Is Not a Four-Letter Word: Why Doing It All Is Doing You In, published by McGraw Hill identifying a self-defeating behavior I call The Self-Sufficiency Syndrome where many of us can't ask for help, do everything all by ourselves, can't delegate cause no one can do it as well as we can and we're headed for burnout.

All this obviously affects team performance in a big way. I wish some smart CEO's would step up to the plate and create standards for asking for help and promoting that it's a stength to ask for help in their culture.
Great site!!
Peggy Collins

September 3, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterpeggy.speaks

Thanks very much for your comment, Peggy. I had not before heard the term Self-sufficiency Syndrome (from your [ book | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/007147790X?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=007147790X ]
), but it makes sense that it's a problem. I'd also not made the connect between my personal productivity consulting and the (un)willingness to ask for (and pay for) this kind of help.

Thanks for reading.

September 3, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hear, hear, totally. I couldn't agree more, particularly about disabling the default "10-minute check/alarm" in email programs, even Thunderbird, my favourite.

Most companies won't go for the 1-2 hour block per day to process, but... they should. It's necessary.

Failing that, the employee who wants to get ahead has to put in the time him-or-herself.

If not every day, then certainly once every week or weekend for a [ killer weekend review. | http://christophdollis.com/#Bullets ]

If not... well, there's no getting ahead without catching up.

September 3, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChristoph Dollis

Most companies won't go for the 1-2 hour block per day to process, but... they should. It's necessary. I suspect you're right, and that only by a top-down approach would something like this happen.

Thanks for the comment, Christoph.

September 3, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

After Priscilla Palmer's self development list my friend Jenny and I have decided to try to help build the self development community as well with a little contest. I would like to invite you to find out more details at [ Win a $25 Gift Certificate. | http://jenny-and-erin.com/2007/09/win-a-25-gift-certificate/ ]

September 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterErin

Interesting, Erin; thanks.

For everyone else: Erin's putting on a contest to answer a question around how important personal habits are to folks. I'll take it as an extension of this post to the personal habit level, from the team level. (Hey, I'm flexible :-)

September 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Matt: you've shared some great ideas here (as usual).

A friend of mine used to practice the "slow email movement" (cf [ In Praise of Slowness | http://www.inpraiseofslow.com ] (the author of that book is not the friend to whom I'm referring)). Although he was in another organization, we were on the same conference committee; I found the practice very annoying at first, but once I adapted to his practice, it became very workable (though I've never been willing to adopt the practice myself - I get too strong a "hit" - overinflated sense of self-importance - when I get email, and am unwilling to go too long without a fix).

While my emails (and blog posts (and blog comments)) tend to be rather long, I have adopted a practice of simply inserting "Thanks! [EoM]" as a prefix in the subject heading in an email reply - rather than putting "Thanks!" in the body and leaving the subject the same (EoM = End of Message).

I'm not sure about my openness to an any anthropological expedition to my office (which is a perpetual state of disarray). I suppose it could serve as an extreme example.

Good luck on your migration up the impact chain!

September 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJoe


You’ve been tagged for the “Does Most Leadership Suck Challenge”. Check the link for details.


Take care...


September 7, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJohn W. McKenna

Hi John. Thanks for thinking of me. I'd love to contribute, but I don't have any original thoughts on the subject. If anything develops, though, I'll give you a holler.

Best of luck with the ChangeThis Manifesto - that would be a big feather in your cap!

September 10, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hello. I 've read your introduction . But I find it a bit difficult for me to understand your professsional. What does it mean by "workflow consultant?" Does it mean that you provide services for those companies especially those bosses who need suggestions or advices in their management of their staff?
I'm sorry that my English is just limited to understand a bit English. I'm a teacher teaching English in Shanxi, CHina. I'm very happy today because I have read your blog by chance ! I'm sure definitely that my English will be improved if I scan your blog often .

October 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPearl

Pearl, thanks for letting me know the phrase is confusing. I'm leaning toward "personal productivity specialist," which I hope conveys that I help individuals get on top of everything in their lives. The ultimate goal is to allow their natural talents to come through, leading to progress on their most important tasks.

Thanks again for the feedback. Good luck with the English. (BTW my 1st grader is learning a bit of Chinese in class.)

October 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell
[old comment that didn't import]

Thanks very much, Joe. I appreciate you insightful comments. Some points:

o The "slow email movement": Neat! I found more about it in the CNET article Driven to distraction by technology http://news.com.com/Driven+to+distraction+by+technology/2100-1022_3-5797028.html?tag=nefd.lede. The ideas of reading your mail twice each day and turning off the new mail alarm are quite consistent with what I teach (though I do get serious pushback from the idea to Never Check E-Mail In the Morning http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0743250885?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0743250885. I was surprised that he takes his time replying to messages - This would be a shift for me...

o I like this passage from Carl Honor's FAQ http://www.inpraiseofslow.com/slow/faq.php:

> Getting a good work-life balance often entails working less. But the economic cost is often not as high as you think. Working fewer hours, or finding room for slow moments in the workday, can actually make people more productive. But when you talk about a society working fewer hours, then you have to ask a bigger question: What do we really want from life? An economy whose sole aim is to maximize GDP growth and make everyone consume as much as possible? Or an economy that allows people to be ambitious and entrepreneurial, but without turning every moment of the day into a rush, and without burning out the planet and everyone on it? When push comes to shove, I think most of us want the latter.

o Here's his book: In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed (Plus) http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0060750510?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0060750510

o The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0060005696?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0060005696 is on my candidates shelf http://matthewcornell.org/blog/2007/3/25/a-reading-workflow-based-on-leveens-little-guide.html

o Also related: Take Back Your Time http://www.timeday.org/ (I know one of the board members) - also a candidate.

o I really enjoyed the video version of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (Bk Currents) http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1576753573?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1576753573. (A fascinating quasi-related story: What the World Eats, Part I - Photo Essays - TIME http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1626519,00.html. Note quantity and quality - not necessarily related to national economic status...

o I took the ten day meditation retreat at the Vipassana Meditation Center http://www.dhara.dhamma.org/ns/index.shtml. It was a real challenge, but useful. And, it was the only time I seriously considered stealing a car!

o I also took a Conscious eating class. One person claimed he chewed a bit of banana 500 times. It really did change significantly improve how I eat.

> overinflated sense of self-importance - when I get email

Exactly. This is a big factor in my own email addiction (if that's not too strong a word).

> I'm not sure about my openness to an any anthropological expedition to my office

Are you referring to a specific program? My two-day intensive is not a study, but more of an intervention. Though I always get the question "Is this the worst you've seen?" And I always answer "Not at all!" :-)
October 6, 2010 | Registered CommenterMatthew Cornell

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