To Win: Focus on Results, not Activities.

 We have a saying in our office:  “Don’t Confuse Activities with Results”. We find it applies to so many different aspects of our work, because many of us fall back to old habits thinking that larger size papers, more hours put into a project, higher costs for a project, etc.  necessarily make it better.   It doesn’t.

As a teacher, I have countless students who graduate college and start jobs for large consulting firms, investment banks, etc.,, where interns and junior associates are encouraged to work sometimes between 12-18 hours (or even longer), because the “culture” reinforces spending time of the project rather than measuring the quality of workmanship/productivity throughout the process. These young people later confess that they feel they make more mistakes and spend more time trying to check for and correct errors, because they’re sleep-deprived and not able to think things clearly.

Recently, one such person, after several months of “killing himself” and getting little positive feedback voluntarily choose to reduce his workload slightly, in order to focus on quality of results, not just throughput. Within two weeks, he received kudos from team members for offering new perspectives and insights making the work more valuable for the client and team; these results could not have been accomplished under the old regime.

Morten Hansen arrives at the same insight in his new book Great At Work: How Top Performers Do less, work Better and Achieve More. While working at a large consulting firm for several years, he often worked as many as 80-90 hours per week. One day,  he noticed that a colleague’s presentation “contained crisper insight, more compelling ideas” and wondered why. Talent might seem like an answer, but both had similar education and experience and had been selected for skills through the same rigorous screening process. One key difference is that she worked from 8 Am to 6 PM, no nights no weekends.  Was she doing better because she worked less?

This led to lots of research including a five-year survey of 5000 managers and employees in a wide-range of industries. What differentiated highest-rank performers? Top performers mastered selectivity. Whenever they could, they carefully selected which tasks, customers, meetings, ideas to undertake and which not. They applied “intensive, targeted effort on those few priorities in order to excel….Rather than simply pile on more hours, tasks, etc., they cut back.”

The researchers discovered that “just a few key work practices related to such selectivity, accounted for two-thirds of the variation in performance about the subjects. Talent, effort and luck undoubtedly mattered as well, but not nearly as much.”

The results make two points: (1) individually, we can change our work habits to perform at a higher level and (2) the organizationally, we should change our cultures to not focus/reward those who engage the most hours in the most activities, but enable those who, within accepted standards of performance, produce the most excellence results.

What’s your experience in this area?  Have you ever tried to change such a culture? What tips do you recommend companies adopt to cha shift cultures focused on maximizing people’s activity time to ones  focused on excellence in results.

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