A Requirement for High Performance and a Time Management Trap
The prediction that artificial intelligence will radically alter the way work gets done is the latest in the decades-spanning conversation of computers reducing workloads. However, the research so far shows technological advances have not resulted in fewer work hours. Instead, increased accessibility to information and the opportunity to be connected to colleagues and clients 24/7 have raised expectations of productivity and availability. The reason workloads remain high may have other causes than just technology.
Peter Drucker, often called the father of management, started writing about management in the 1930s and continued until his death in 2005. Many of his observations drew upon his understanding of the transition from an industrial economy to a more knowledge-based one.
He noted that relations with knowledge workers are especially time-consuming and drew a distinction with the time needed to direct manual workers. He speculated one factor may be the perceived closer affinity between the knowledge worker and the manager as well as the possibility that knowledge workers just simply take themselves more seriously. Another factor related to the difficulty of accurately measuring knowledge work. Drucker wrote, “One has to sit down with a knowledge worker and think through with him what should be done and why, before one can even know whether he is doing a satisfactory job or not. And that is time consuming.”
Even more to the point, Drucker noted that knowledge work is often self-directed so understanding the goal and the purpose are vital. Effective knowledge work requires understanding how what you produce will be used and how it fits in with all the other processes. This usually requires a fair amount of communication, dialogue, and meetings; not just with the manager but with everyone else on the team.
Unfortunately, this means while all those emails, meetings, and conferences do matter, they probably rank near the top of most people’s list of potential time wasters. Drucker’s observations from long ago help us see these items are essential for organizations to achieve alignment and, at the same time, create the most potential for inefficiencies.
Drucker’s findings reinforce one of the great underused leadership principles that effective leadership requires valuing both results and relationships. He believed knowledge workers’ performances, especially in large organizations, depend on regular conversations with their leaders to exchange ideas about organizational improvement and innovation. These “leisurely exchanges” produce the motivation and direction, so people know where to invest their time to add the most value to the organization.
Leaders who value results and relationships at an equally high level realize you can’t fake the relationship component by simply starting with a quick, “How’s the family?” and then diving into the results conversation. That approach more often leads to confusion and tension in the relationship, rather than building a deeper level of trust. Leaders need to allocate significant time to go deeper into both relationship-building and results-based conversations. Leaders find themselves facing a paradox; they need to spend more time interacting with team members, but that creates less time for them to work on their deliverables.
Drucker introduced a further challenge caused by the need for organizations to constantly innovate. Change requires leaders to spend even more time with their teams to clarify the ‘why’ of change and how to navigate through different challenges.
However, Drucker does not envision or promote a workplace of constant meetings. He wrote, “But above all, meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule. An organization in which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done… Too many meetings always bespeak poor structure of jobs and the wrong organizational components.” Meetings, especially those involving several people, may be the result of poor job or organizational structure. Leaders should ask if the desired result can be achieved with fewer people devoting more concentrated time instead of spreading it out among different people or teams.
This brings us to Drucker’s emphasis on the importance of consolidating discretionary time. Both leaders and knowledge workers need significant chunks of time to have deep conversations and complete detailed tasks. A workday filled with meetings and responding to emails and phone calls with small windows to get the deeper, concentrated work done is a recipe for inefficiency and ineffectiveness.
Effective time management starts with understanding how each person creates the most value for the organization and how they work best. This requires a deep understanding of people and processes. Leaders who value both results and relationships can more efficiently plan and execute individual and team meetings because they are clear about the desired outcomes of those conversations. They know how to steward their own time and that of the team, so meetings and conversations drive high performance and create more efficient use of time.