Few people spend much time pruning work from their pile of work to be done. This is one of the key reasons productivity has been so elusive in office work, and how the “productivity gap” with IT investment came to be.
Let’s start by thinking about what work is.
The work you do for your organization falls into two broad classes: work that adds value to the enterprise, and work that does not add value (as in lower costs, higher revenues, or both).
I am not concerned at this moment with how you might trace this out — few of us actually work in positions where a direct correlation between what we do and the profit-and-loss (P&L) statement exists and is clear to us — but for now let’s just distinguish work that improves the P&L and work that does not (whether it diminishes the P&L is also not important).
Clearly, in an ideal world, we would all only do the first type of work (whatever that work was).
The reality is, of course, that the world is not ideal, and some work of the second type does creep in.
The goal, however, especially as times become more turbulent and the next round of the recession digs in, is to minimize this work that does not augment the P&L, because we need (as revenues may be falling and costs may be rising) to eke out every improvement we can get.
So, for each item in your stack, consider carefully where it might fall.
Is it obviously going to lead toward P&L improvement, obviously not going to do so, or is it ambiguous? Given that resources may get tighter in a recession — more astute organizations have imposed spending and headcount freezes already, so every person who retires or resigns leaves a vacancy, and bridging contractors are not able to be engaged — we need to spend more time avoiding the non-productive work. Take all of the “will not improve the P&L” — and just don’t do it.
This will make enemies.
Much of this work is composed of status reporting, survey work for other departments, analyses “requested” from executives and the like. It needs to be challenged, deferred, ultimately made to go away.
I see managers who are successful at doing this as being willing to make a business argument about use of resources and P&L outcomes, hypothesizing (if data is not easy to confirm) what the impact is. For every executive (say, for instance in HR) who argues about how important the latest survey is, another one (say, in Finance) will be noting the business-relevant approach and marking you down as someone who “gets it”.
Reality, of course, intrudes: some things must be done to satisfy regulators (e.g. a diversity count, a response to questions), regardless of what value this may have.
Others (e.g. responding to changes in this year’s staff survey) may, in the grand scheme of things, be leftovers from before the start of the recessionary period.
Learn to know the difference; learn to argue to do the right thing — and slowly but surely, your contribution will increase, and with it, the prospects for a return to growth in the company you work for.
Finally, you may be in charge of a unit that requires others to conduct analyses for it.
Ensure that the ones you ask for are essential, either as a matter of external factors, or because the data has a strong payback potential. Downturns are times when this kind of staff work becomes a luxury.
Helping the enterprise prosper when times are tougher is the key difference between those who come out of these times stronger and ready to exploit opportunities, and those who struggle to return to “normalcy”. Even in staff work, the P&L still rules. Make it so.