How Not to Waste Time
Did you know that the most effective managers get as much productive work from their teams by 10 a.m. Thursday as the rest get done all week?
That’s one nugget among many findings from a survey of more than 300 executives worldwide conducted by Bain Capital and the Economist Intelligence Unit. In Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, Michael Mankins and Eric Garton, two Bain partners, explore the findings of that survey — and their implications. Mankins spoke for both authors in this interview.
What else did your research discover?
We found that companies in the top quartile of our research sample are actually 40 percent more productive than all the others — and, by the way, we looked at companies in 12 different sectors. They not only get more done by Thursday morning, but they keep on working until Friday afternoon. This productivity difference compounds over time so that in a decade, they can produce 30 times more than the competition and with the same number of employees.
What was the motivation behind this research?
In business school, people are taught that what separates the best from the rest is the disciplined use of financial capital, which is assumed to be scarce and expensive. But we realized that in today’s world, financial capital is actually abundant and historically cheap. What has become scarce and expensive is talent, and we wanted to examine how talent is best managed.
And you found that wasteful managerial practices can be really costly, right?
Yes. We call it “organization drag,” and the average company loses more than 25 percent of its productive power as a consequence of these practices. Too many unnecessary meetings, for example, prevent people from getting things done. Not only are there too many unnecessary meetings, but these meetings are also attended by a lot of people who really don’t need to be there — something truly effective managers understand. There are other studies of wasteful practices, which not only cost companies dearly but also pose a problem for the economy itself. By one measure, the U.S. economy alone loses $3 trillion a year to wasteful practices like this.
Collaboration is important, but the best companies don’t consider it an end in itself. They don’t have collaboration for its own sake. And they understand how collaboration really works, which gets to what the best companies do right.
How do you account for this problem of too many meetings attended by too many people?
We discovered that in most companies, an average front-line supervisor is likely to spend two to two-and-a-half days a week in meetings with four or more people — and a lot of those meetings are unnecessary. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, it was expected that managers would go to meetings and then communicate what they learned to people who for one reason or another couldn’t attend.
For understandable reasons, managers decided that communicating all this information was just too much work. So they decided to just invite more people to the meetings. Over the past few years, there’s been a 7 to 8 percent growth per year in the number of people who attend meetings, which gives rise to the problem of attending meetings as a status symbol. The more meetings you attend, the more important you’re assumed to be. And people who don’t get invited to meetings resent it. They worry that they’ll be “out of the loop.” That’s why even necessary meetings are over-attended. And there’s still another contributor.
What would that be?
Also for good reason, we’ve developed a culture of “inclusion.” That mind-set, which is commendable in itself, results in more and more people “included” in meetings. Here’s an experiment any manager should do. Look at your calendar for the past two weeks and see how many meetings you attend and how many people attend those meetings. We found that 50 percent of meetings are attended by more than 10 people. And a related problem crops up in other ways. We’ve developed not only a culture of inclusion but also one of “collaboration.” Collaboration is important, but the best companies don’t consider it an end in itself. They don’t have collaboration for its own sake. And they understand how collaboration really works, which gets to what the best companies do right.
What they do right is manage their talent effectively. That includes not wasting their time and energy in unnecessary meetings. But beyond that, it means deploying that talent in a smart way. About one in seven employees is a “star,” no matter what area they work in. What separates the best from the rest is using those stars effectively. An example we like to use is from NASCAR. Kyle Busch’s pit crew can perform 78 maneuvers in 12.12 seconds. That crew is composed of real stars at what they do. But if you replace one of those stars with someone who is not as skilled or experienced or whatever, the time to perform those maneuvers goes up to 24 seconds. And if you replace two stars, the time goes up to 48 seconds. It’s geometric.
What is the implication of that for managers?
Companies tend to spread their talent around when — in a business-critical task — they’d be better served by bringing all that talent to bear on that one task. The best companies concentrate their talent. They might treat all the employees fairly and equally, but that doesn’t mean that in the interest of inclusion they will dilute the talent by spreading it around in tasks that are not business-critical — or by including non-stars in some of these roles. Or even in these meetings.
And they also keep the workforce “inspired”?
Yes, and this is huge. Workers we describe as “engaged” are 45 percent more productive than those who are merely “satisfied.” Satisfied workers feel their jobs are safe, they have the tools they need to do their jobs, and they are fairly compensated. Engaged workers feel that they can complete the tasks before them and that doing so will make a difference. “Inspired” workers are ones who find their organization’s leadership to be inspiring and who feel their work enables them to reach their full potential. By the way, the percent of “dissatisfied” workers in any organization is the same: It’s 7 percent wherever you are.
It’s not easy finding inspiring leaders, is it?
No. But another thing we learned was this: It isn’t true that inspiring leaders are just born that way — that it’s innate. The best companies invest in developing leadership qualities in their people. A lot of this can be learned and it can be taught. There’s a significant return on investment in developing leaders.
Reach Mankins at Michael.Mankins@Bain.com.
Read more author interviews in the Impact archives.