Boost Your Performance at Work

Formerly a professor at Harvard Business School and INSEAD (France), Morten Hansen is ranked one of the world’s most influential management thinkers by Thinkers50. He is an international keynote speaker, helping companies and employees become great at work.

By Morten Hansen
Management professor at University of California, Berkeley

What can you do to boost your performance on the job? When we want to improve our performance, we often ask, “what more can I do?” By taking on more things and working harder, we will do better. Sounds like a good idea, right? Well, I found the opposite to be true. In a large study of 5,000 managers and employees, the best people did less, not more. Instead of piling on more priorities and hours, they worked differently. It’s like the “Think Different” campaign that Steve Jobs launched at Apple. Work different, and less. It may sound crazy, but it isn’t. Here’s how you can adopt this idea.

REDESIGN WORK
When we take on a job, we often take for granted the job description handed to us: “as a warehouse manager, your goals are to …,” and so we work hard to accomplish those objectives. But what if they are not optimal? I found in our study that top performers do something else before they fixate on goals. They ask, how can I create the most value for my organization and customers? It’s a completely different way of thinking.

To get the idea, consider a manager we came across who was running a warehouse operation. His given goal was to get the trucks to leave on time according to the company’s schedule, and so he worked hard to succeed. And he did: They left the warehouse on time 99% of the time. Goal accomplished, right? Yes, but when the company surveyed the corporate customers, they said only 65% of the shipments arrived on time when they needed them. By this metric, he performed poorly. The first one (leaving his warehouse on time) is an internal goal, while the latter (arriving when customers need the equipment) is a value metric. The manager accomplished his internal goal, all right, but his value creation was rather poor.

“Value is about the benefits your work output creates for others.”

Try this: Write down the three most valuable activities you (and your team) can pursue (hint: some of them you may not be doing today). Then craft goals and metrics that put those into action. Finally, redesign your work (and that of your team) to carry this out. For example, the logistics manager had to redesign schedules and the warehouse design to get 100% of those shipments to customers when they needed them.

Do Less, then Obsess
There may be many things you can do to create value, but we found in our study that top performers zoom in on very few. And I mean extremely few—as few priorities as you can, and still excel in your job. Why? Because it gives you an opportunity to obsess. Yes, you read that right:

Top performers obsess over a tiny set of priorities. They go all in, pay fanatic attention to detail, go the extra mile, and strive for perfection.”

And you can only do that if you (and your team) work on just a few things. Managers and employees in my study who focused on very few things and obsessed to excel performed far better than those doing more—25 percentage points higher in the performance ranking in my data, to be exact. That’s the difference between good and great.

What can you do? Start by freeing up time. Get rid of busywork, say no to unnecessary meetings, ditch extraneous tasks, say no to pesky colleagues, and push back on your boss if he or she gives you a lot of trivial things to do.

Look at your calendar the past two weeks: How much of your time was spent on the most valuable activities? I found that in one senior team, no one spent more than 40% of his or her time doing that (most were in the 20%-30% range). That’s got to change.

Every hour not spent on busywork can be redeployed into obsessing over the key valuable priorities you’ve identified. I don’t have a scientific basis here, but let’s say we should all try to push that to 50%–that is, 50% of our time spent on say the three most valuable activities in our jobs (and similarly for your team and organization). Now we have a winning formula: Obsess over a tiny set of the most valuable activities.

TAKE-AWAYS

1. To ensure your work creates benefits for others, do the following:

  • Select the 3 most valuable activities you and your team can pursue.
  • Craft goals and metrics to track those activities.
  • Redesign your work to focus on those activities.

2. Top performers zoom in on very few priorities every day. It gives them an opportunity to obsess on details and catch mistakes. It can bring up to 25% increase in their performance ranking.

3. Ditch the busy work! Many managers can spend only 30% to 40% of their time on the three most valuable activities. This number needs to be at least 50%.

For more information, visit www.mortenhansen.com.

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Andrea Karen Hammer, a Philadelphia-based freelance writer, is the founder, director and owner of Artsphoria Media Group. As CEO, she leads the operation and innovation at Artsphoria: Arts, Business & Technology Center, Artsphoria International Magazine (https://www.artsphoria.com) and Artsphoria: Food for the Soul (https://artsphoria.live).