Industry watch: Achieving valuable outcomes with meaningful busyness
February 6, 2024
By Paul Hogendoorn
Many years ago, a person I have immense respect for said to me, “If you want to get something important done, ask a busy person”. I instantly recognized the truth of that statement, but I can’t say it fit me too well. I was indeed a busy person, and I did get things done, but I continually operated at a level of unrelenting frenetic busyness and the cost of getting important things done was often misunderstandings, hard feelings and sometimes fractured relationships. Upon completion of the task, when I felt that we should be cheering our accomplishment – i.e., slapping backs and clinking glasses – there were scars that needed tending to, but no time to slow down for that as there were other important things waiting to be done. Being busy doing important things is not just a full-time job, it is an addiction.
About 20 years ago, a friend of mine had just been hired to turn around and save a long-running manufacturing business in my area. They employed a couple hundred people, and their financial runway was incredibly short – one payroll period, or two weeks. Long story short, he succeeded and stayed for about five years, and the company continues to operate successfully to this day. The most amazing thing about watching him work, however, was how little work he seemed to do. He would often be out of the office, not working, but at charity golf tournaments or on mini-long weekend vacations with his wife. One morning when I was in his plant, I mentioned that me and a few buddies were riding up to Manitoulin Island later in the week, and without hesitation, he said, “Sounds great. Mind if I join you?”
On the trip, I asked him how he could take so much time off at such a critical juncture, and although I don’t remember the exact words, it came down to something like this: “I know how to get things done – because I really dislike being busy”.
Most of us say we are too busy and we think that we yearn for a less demanding workload, but the truth is that’s not how most people are wired. We have an innate need to be important in the organization we work for, both for financial security as well as personal self-worth. We think of busyness, especially important busyness, as keeping us valuable to the organization and our efforts meaningful.
My colleague (the turnaround specialist) hated being busy at work. Speaking candidly, I do too. I would rather have discretionary time to choose what I could busy myself with rather than a full slate of things that keep me so busy there is little time left for things I choose to spend my time on. The faster he could make himself unbusy, the better, and the best way to make himself unbusy was to get things done.
Here are three tips I learned, not only from him but from all the company leaders I worked with who demonstrated the same ability to build their companies while having plenty of personal time.
The first is obviously to triage and understand the difference between truly important objectives and perpetual busyness. The meetings you run are a reflection of how you want to run your company. Are the meetings filled up with seemingly important dialogue and go on for an hour or longer? Or, is there a clear point and objective to the meeting that everyone knows in advance of, and do clearly stated outcomes come from them?
The second is to delegate effectively – to help your people get unbusy as fast as possible. Don’t delegate simply to get things off your plate, delegate to get important things done. Your role is to simplify life for those you delegate to and help them find the shortest path to get the critically delegated things completed. The quicker those things get done, the quicker that person will be available to delegate another important objective.
The third is measurement and accountability. What outcomes are you being measured by in your role? What outcomes are the people you delegate to being measured by? If measurements are vague or anecdotal and objectives are fuzzy or ambiguous, your outcomes will be equally vague and fuzzy. Remember that what gets measured gets improved. (If busyness is what is in effect measured, more busyness will likely be the only result. If completed tasks and outcomes are measured, more and better outcomes will be the result).
There’s some truth to the statement “Actions speak louder than words.” However, in this way of thinking, “outcomes speak for themselves.” There’s not much explaining to do when things get done on time, nor is there a need for an ongoing superhuman effort to demonstrate commitment to the company. The task is done, and on to the next task. And that’s how it goes. The people who get things done get other important things assigned to them, which they then pursue with the same disciplined diligence, and they get those things done too. They gain valuable time for the business, and while this drives the business forward, they also gain more time for themselves. They golf more, ride more, and get home for dinner on time far more often.
Efforts can be appreciated, and words can be helpful, but only the outcomes have tangible business value.
Paul Hogendoorn is a serial entrepreneur who has built multiple manufacturing and manufacturing technology companies. He has been a regular contributing columnist for 15 years. For more on Paul’s current activities go to www.tpi-3.ca or email him at email@example.com
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