In my line of work, I have regular conversations with people on how to increase productivity across a whole team, or across an organisation. At Adapt, our main training delivery is focused on how individuals can improve their personal productivity. But it has become increasingly apparent to me that to boost productivity across a group, personal productivity systems alone do not cut it.

I believe that helping everyone individually to work more productively through a set of systems, processes and habits is a crucial starting place. But we need to go beyond this and look at how we work together – how we collaborate and how we communicate if we want to create a culture that will allow productivity to flourish in the long term.

The truth is, no matter how good our personal productivity system is, every time we interact with others we will potentially drag their productivity down, or they will potentially drag our productivity down.

Not necessarily because we mean to. Just because we are busy, under pressure, tired and sometimes a bit lazy. We are human.

A great example of this was presented to me at a team offsite for one of my key tech clients last year. I was presenting to the leadership team and their top 60 managers. I had been working with the executive team for several months, and this was the start of an initiative to drive the productivity principles down to the next level.

Being a tech company, they all received a high volume of email. Most managers were getting 300-400 emails per day, with some getting over 500 per day. Ludicrous volumes of email in my opinion. This high volume of email was causing stress, missed deadlines, lots of rework and was keeping the managers from the important work they should have been focusing on.

Midway through my presentation, their CEO, Rob, stood up and asked if he could pose a question to the group.

“How many of you feel like you are getting hammered by emails?” Almost everyone put their hand up.

So, Rob said “Think about this. Last month we were all at the half-yearly conference for three days. How many of you noticed that our email volume dropped to about a third over those three days?” Again, most put their hand up. “OK” said Rob, “Connect the dots for me. What happened there?”

Finally, someone in the audience said “We were all in a room together, so we were not sending emails to each other. So, our email volume fell”. Suddenly the penny dropped for everyone in the room – they were their own problem when it came to email volume.

In their heads, they had been blaming external forces for their high volume of email. Or their US head office. Or their customers. Or their suppliers. But the truth was they had created an email culture themselves that had gone wild. Email was the preferred communication method, even when people were just at the next desk. Everyone was CC’d on everything. ‘Reply All’ conversations were rife, sometimes generating 30-40 emails for each individual, even though the conversations were not relevant to many. It was no wonder their inboxes were overflowing!

While I was brought in to help this team to manage their Inboxes, I knew that I had to go beyond that. I needed to attack the root problem, and that was the poor use of email across the team.

I needed to firstly make them aware of the problem, and how their behaviours fed this problem. Then I needed to make them care about not only their own personal productivity, but the productivity of everyone in the team.

This is an ongoing journey with the client, but over time we have achieved great results by attacking productivity from both a behavioural and cultural perspective.

I find the same stories play out in most of my client companies.

Many people operate in a way that shows a complete lack of awareness for how their behaviours impact on the productivity. So, the first step is usually to create awareness by designing training initiatives that highlight poor behaviours and agree on a more productive set of productivity behaviours.

A second challenge is that some people just don’t care. They either willfully do what they want with no regard to how it impacts on others, or at least they don’t see it as such a big problem, and don’t care enough to try to change their ways. Sometimes they are just too stressed or busy to care. Either way, it is critical that they do care, as the productivity of the wider team depends on it.

When people are aware but don’t care, this causes FRICTION.

This is a friction that is born out of injustice as the people involved have decided to operate in an ultimately selfish way. This presents itself not only in a reduction in productivity, but in friction between people involved.

When people are unaware but do care, this also causes FRICTION. This time a friction born out of frustration. Sometimes people mean well but still cause a reduction in team productivity.

When people are aware and care, this creates FLOW.

When a team can spot unproductive behaviours, to stop themselves from operating this way, and to hold others to account, you know they are both aware and care about the productivity of themselves and the whole team. Productivity is a leadership issue, make no mistake. It is up to leaders at all levels to work with their teams to create a ‘flow’ culture.

When this happens, productivity has the space to flourish.

Dermot Crowley is the best-selling author of Smart Work, and director of Adapt Productivity. He is passionate about creating productive cultures in Australian businesses. Download a sample chapter from Smart Work, free here

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