Productivity and Planet X

Productivity and Planet X

Productivity. An omnipresent word and modern obsession. I was at first enthusiastic about becoming 'more productive'.

Then my brain caught up to my mouth.

Productivity is a vague and diffuse word. Like many a piece of modern business jargon it has taken on a life of its own. To me, it is a state to attain or a quality to have.

It's a word that's wandered a long way from its verb. The idea to produce meant to empower or to bring into being. So to be productive is to be generative or creative.

It's a word that needs balance. Like the much maligned word ‘efficiency’ needed the word ‘effectiveness’. While we might turn our noses up at efficiency, it's easier to measure. And we do what we measure.

I have seen well meaning people prefer the rabbit hole of efficiency to the open plain of effectiveness.

Because we value delivery, we prefer what we can subject to efficiency measurement. Such is human nature and in the history of the practice of [.] there’s nothing particularly bad about this.

But it’s also human nature to take something worth doing and overdo it. And to apply something that works in one domain to another. And to ignore the clear evidence that doing so wasn't such a good idea.

And to ignore people that point it out.

My sense is that productivity is going down the same path as efficiency.

I still read some of the several billion productivity articles on the interwebs when they come across my feed. At first I wanted to read them all and set out to become the best productivity machine I could.

Then I became aware of something missing.

At the time I was doing some work around measuring ‘intangibles’. Or to be more accurate, finding ways to quantitatively express observed cultural behaviour.

Or in other words, effectiveness and the absence of effectiveness.

As I looked at existing controls to test for visibility of effectiveness measures, I was also doubling down on productivity porn.

And I began to realize there was something missing from the productivity literature. I couldn't define what it was, but there was something that I wasn't seeing that I should have been seeing.

One of my favourite tales of history is the search for ‘Planet X’, the second planet perturbing the orbit of Uranus.

The first influence was Neptune but it soon became clear there was a second influence. Percival Lowell started searching for Planet X in 1906 and Clyde Tombaugh found it in 1930. Planet X became Pluto.

What interests me is the idea of searching for something unseen that affects the seen. Or the search for the influence of the invisible on the visible. Or the search for elements of effectiveness in the array of efficiency measures.

Or the search for the something that emerges from productivity. The search for what it is that we empower or bring into being when we are 'productive'.

I'm fortunate to teach strategic thinking. Its hard work. Thinking is hard enough without requiring a strategic element from it.

Strategy is all about achieving an end. It was my strategic classes that helped me find the Pluto of productivity. Well, my take on it anyway.

Strategy is all about achievement. The desired end is to achieve something of importance, something of significance. Something that effects a qualitative change of state.

And then once we've more-or-less set our sights on the desired end we put our backs to the oars to get there.

I grew up on a farm so I grew up with an appreciation of the productivity of systems. Once you've set your end point you organise the heck out of everything to get there.

In New Zealand we use the term ‘number 8 wire’ that we apply to many ends. The simplest way to understand it is applying a solution of least effort to an interim problem.

It’s much like the idea of minimum effective dose. Do just enough to get the job done and move on.

So an element of productivity is doing just enough so you can move on. Ideally without leaving behind an expensive infrastructure beyond that which is absolutely necessary.

But the critical element here is that the movement must be directed: it must be impelled. It must proceed towards your desired end state. Movement must be directed towards an end.

Productivity must orient towards achievement. Without achievement there is a lot of kanban pomodoro nap-room awesomeness that doesn't really go anywhere.

So what do I think productivity looks like in the context of the modern profession of [.]? Productivity must be balanced with, impelled by and directed towards achievement. But achievement of what?

A qualitative change of state. A change in the essential nature of something.

All a business has is its ethics and business can only find its true expression in duty to society. This means the change in quality must be something outside of the business and within society.

There needs to be a change of state within some element of society that enables that society to be more achieving.

This is why a focus on digital technology without a deeper commitment to some social quality just results in an increased tech burden.

We have enough mindless apps already. We need more apps that help people to achieve something of genuine and lasting value in their lives.

Improving the quality of life is the end to which the means of productivity should be turned. And this is not an easy proposition.

How to improve the quality of life? By focusing on one specific part of it. Otherwise it becomes too abstract, too diffuse and too easily dismissed as being 'intangible'.

The innovation activities of business are all about making the intangible tangible. This is why it is so important to find ways to quantitatively express the unseen.

Because if we fail to do so, if we avoid the hard work of defining change, all we get is more of what we already have.

I wish that the first thing taught to business professionals would be the philosophy of business. Philosophy in general would be a big help. Philosophy guides behaviour and behaviour determines results.

And by philosophy I don't mean ideology. Because we had enough ideology in the 20th Century.

Business is about organising the change you want to see in the world.

The challenge to overcome is we learn the mechanics of the thing before its purpose. And too often we permit the mechanics to suffice.

Taking responsibility, which is the fundamental element that distinguishes the modern [.], for something as diffuse as the quality of life stops many people in their tracks.

And rightly so.

Because being blase about the important things in life is not a recipe for business success.

It's easier to pick up tools of the trade and get stuck into the job at hand than it is to leave the tools where they are and put time into imagining the change you wish to create with them.

If all this sounds vague and indistinct, then you’re at the right place. Imagining your way forward is a lot harder than it seems. It is easier to get busy. It’s easier to be productive and assume the achievement will come as a result.

This is why I see productivity as a new set of clothes for efficiency. They might be more fashionable (now) and cut from better cloth. But its still an expression of our desire to substitute action for thought.

I've put my money where my mouth is on this topic. I established a business called Decisv. It’s based on the principle that a decision only takes form through action.

Otherwise it was only intention. It might be a good intention, but we’re familiar with the road paved with good intentions.

Thought must precede action, but we require action to stimulate thought. It's a cycle, an eternal return, an ouroboros. We need them both to avoid thoughtless action and actionless thought.

I've focused on this principle because I'm interested in helping people change their world. I work with people that realise they need to change their results by changing their behaviour.

These people are searching for their Planet X.

They are searching for the achievement that will make their productivity meaningful. They have identified in some way, shape or form that particular quality of society they want to improve.

These qualities, this quality of life, are expressions of what it means to be human. It isn't about the money. It isn't about the increased menu of stuff that can we can buy.

Its about providing people with a greater facility for achieving more from life.

A basic need in providing the means for more achievement in society is cultivating the means to do the same within yourself. This means searching for the best of yourself and using that to create the means for others to do the same.

This is why we can't use bastard behaviour as the basis for responsible business.

Where achieving a qualitative change for society is the expression of responsible business, basic elements of integrity must be present in the core of the business.

This is why a focus on character over skills is fundamental to the hiring strategy of responsible business.

Business is too prone to abstraction and justification to permit critical decisions by people who happy to include dubious options in their choice sets.

Responsible business is built on integrity and a clear commitment to creating qualitative change for society.

The search for achievement and the harnessing of productivity to that end is a hard road and one that many will seek to avoid. It’s a hallmark of responsible business to avoid taking such shortcuts.

Productivity means quality.