How to Work Less and Achieve More

By Morten T. Hansen February 1, 2018
How to Work Less and Achieve More

​Many people never question whether their work produces value. When I conducted research at Hewlett-Packard, I visited an engineer at the company's Colorado Springs offices. After I introduced myself, he waved me off, claiming he was too busy to meet. And he was busy: he had to complete his goal for the week as specified in his job description, namely, submitting a quarterly project status report to headquarters. 

He sent off the report in time, as he had every previous quarter. Goal accomplished, right? Yes, except for one issue. What I knew—and he didn't—was that the corporate research and development division in Palo Alto, Calif., no longer used those quarterly reports. His dispatches sank to the depths of an e-mail box that no one bothered to check. He had met his goal according to his job description, but he had contributed zero value.

The advice to "start with goals" when planning an effort is wrong. We need to start with value, then proceed to goals. Ask yourself: what benefits do your various work activities produce, really?

You may wonder why so many people like our HP engineer focus on activities that yield marginal or no value. One answer: poor metrics. A customer order-handler in our study reported that his shipments reached corporate customers 99 percent of the time. That's pretty impressive, except for one thing. When his boss surveyed the customers, a full 35 percent complained that their shipments were arriving later than required. And why was that? The order handler was measuring whether the shipments left his warehouse according to his schedule (an inside-out view) rather than when the customer needed the equipment (an outside-in view).

Another problem is our perverse tendency to equate volumes of activity with accomplishments. Doctors have traditionally measured their performance according to the number of patient visits they handled rather than how often they arrived at the correct diagnosis. Lawyers bill clients based on how many hours they work, regardless of whether they're dispensing good counsel. Salespeople fixate on revenues, regardless of whether their products end up benefiting customers. Then we have people who rack up volumes of activities and run around bragging about how busy they are, as if busyness equals value. People mistake the number of meetings, task forces, committees, customer calls, customer visits, business trips and miles flown for accomplishments, even if in reality all of these activities may not add value. Being busy is not an accomplishment.

As our study revealed, a number of people do add value by taking an outside-in view and focusing on how they can benefit others. For example, an HR professional might set a goal-focused internal metric of completing annual performance reviews for 70 percent of all managers. However, the value-focused benefit to others would be to ensure that 70 percent of managers receive helpful feedback for how to improve.

Terry, a production technician working at a New Orleans food packing plant, oversaw a machine that stuck labels on cans and packed cans in boxes. His bosses measured him on "throughput" —the number of boxes processed. But Terry didn't just concern himself with that narrow measure. When boxes streamed out of his machine, they headed to the warehouse, where workers stacked them onto pallets for shipment. "The other day," Terry told us, "I went over to the warehouse and asked, 'Is there something we can do better?' They said that the boxes weren't square coming out of my machine—they were closed, they were proper, but they weren't perfectly squared." As a result, it took extra time to assemble the pallets, and trucks filled with them were leaving the warehouse late.

Terry redesigned his packaging process so that the boxes emerged perfectly square. This change allowed the warehouse department to improve its throughput and the trucks to depart on time. Terry didn't have to take that initiative. He could have confined himself to an inside-out view, paying attention only to the number of boxes he processed. Because he focused on adding value and not simply fulfilling his job specification, he scored as one of the best performers in our study (top 15 percent).

To gain a more precise understanding of value, it helps to contrast it with how people have traditionally thought about productivity. Here's a traditional productivity equation:

A person's work productivity = output of work/hours of input

Charles can transcribe 60 words per minute from an audio file, while Beatrice can manage 120 words per minute. She's twice as productive. Now consider an equation that emphasizes value: 

The value of a person's work = benefits to others  X  quality  X  efficiency


The value equation hinges on three components. The first of these, as we've seen, has to do with how much your work benefits other people or your organization. It's no longer an issue of how many words of text you transcribe, but rather how beneficial that transcription is to others. Maybe the transcript isn't necessary in the first place. If the benefit is zero, the value is zero (that's why there's a multiplication sign in the equation, because total value goes to zero if the benefit equals zero). It doesn't matter how fast you type out a document if nobody reads it.

The phrase "benefits to others" can mean contributing to your department, your office, a colleague, your company, your customers, your clients or your suppliers (or even to the community or environment). The benefits themselves can take various forms, including enabling others to do their jobs better, helping create new products or devising better methods for getting work done. Terry helped his colleagues in the warehouse stack and ship the boxes more expediently.

The second component of value is the quality of your work—the degree of accuracy, insight, novelty, and reliability of your work output. We want an error-free transcription, for instance.

The final component of value is how efficiently you work. In the transcription example, productivity was measured through speed—the number of words per minute. Speed matters in the value equation too. After all, you're not adding much value if you're delivering an error-free transcript at 10 words per minute.

Putting it all together, we get a more precise view of value: to produce great value at work is to create output that benefits others tremendously and that is done efficiently and with high quality.

If you want to perform at your best, you need to home in on a few key tasks and channel your efforts to perfect them—the "do less, then obsess" principle. But which activities warrant such focus? If you're going to focus on a tiny set of activities, they'd better be the right one. The answer is to redesign work so as to focus on activities that maximize value.

From Great at Work by Morten Hansen. © 2018 by Morten Hansen. Excerpted with permission by Simon & Schuster, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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