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The psychology of ‘how’, the importance of people and the matter of productivity

Another day, another panel on Radio 4's Today Programme lamenting Britain’s dismal productivity record.

" Please," says the psychologist pulling out the last vestiges of hair, "pretty please, sugared and dusted and wrapped with a bow, just pay attention. We have been increasing productivity by enormous chunks since 2003. It is not a mystery, just follow the science."

Here is what you do, in only three steps:

Step 1.

..and this is logically easy, but emotionally difficult for any manager with a bit of an ego.

Treat people like grown ups

This means;

  • Trust colleagues to decide what tools and time they need to do their job. Neither prescribe nor proscribe what they can and cannot have.

  • Remember humans are fabulous, irrational unpredictable entities and occasionally do brilliant things.

    • Never look to standardize them, nor sort their stuff, nor set them in order. They are not crayons.

    • Instead give them room to thrive

      • Grown ups may be trusted to crack on with their own work in their own way

So scrap the baby monitoring systems, don't walk about the office with a twitchier nose than an anteater, and can the spyware. Unless, that is, you are going to let somebody install spyware and monitoring systems in the boardroom, and allow union officials to wander about whenever they feel like it. Quid pro quo and all that. I'll give Mr Lynch a call.

Step 2

Give people decent spaces in which to work. Essentially remember that people should always come before buildings. If your building is really expensive or your floorspace is becoming tight, then remember...that people should always come before buildings, and stuff the alternative.

  • Humans are animals, jolly fine animals, but animals. Cram any animals into tight spaces and they stress, fight, sulk, don't sleep, have anxiety issues, fail to perform materially or sexually and die early. Yes that is right, many a workplace will be contributing to Pfizer’s profits.

  • Privacy is a basic human need, make sure it is available in plentiful, non-bookable supply. Make people feel loved. Give them nice things on which to sit, at which to look and with which to interact.

  • Remember the grown up thing (above), let colleagues decide for themselves what type of workspace they want.

Step 3

Learn how to measure.

Measuring productivity is hard. The only way to do it is to measure the tasks that contribute to the job being done. Some of these tasks may be apparently ephemeral.

For example, many call centres measure productivity by

1. How long it takes to answer a call

2. How long it handle the call

3. How long it takes to complete the administration associated with that call

More calls = higher productivity, right? Wrong. Under this method the most productive worker will tell the caller to “Get lost!” An operator would run through thousands of calls each day. You must capture the essence of what it is that makes that job work, whether it is money, re-framing perspective or client satisfaction and measure that.

And measuring productivity by customer satisfaction? Hmm, a business may have many customers who are entirely satisfied by offering them a loss making service, but well...

Measurements must be objective. Productivity is a performance measure, it should never be assessed by questionnaire. Just think:

“NASA’s latest rocket is 13% more powerful than its predecessor.

When asked how they measured the increase, NASA’s Chief Scientist said “Oh we gave the guys some really pretty questionnaires and asked them how much more powerful than the old rocket they thought the new one was”


“82 year old man shatters Usain Bolt’s 100m world record.

When asked how they sanctioned the record, a leading track official explained “Well, we gave the dude a questionnaire after he finished – it was a really nice one, prepared by one of the top consultancy firms and everything – and he said he felt like he had run the course in nine seconds flat. Amazing, eh?”

Asking people how productive they are at work is every bit as valuable. Measure appropriately, measure accurately and measure what is fundamental to the job.

And there you go, that is all there is to it.

Finally, would you like some really good news?

If you manage steps One and Two, then the only productivity measure you will really need is your P&L accounts. The business will be easier to run, people will be happier and productivity will shoot through the roof.

There is published and ongoing scientific data in support of all of this, and no scientific support for arguments in the opposite direction. The increases available are of sufficient size that, do it right, and we add 15%+ to the country's GDP...and juicy, low hanging figures apply to just about all businesses of 20 people and more (with no upper limit).

If you need help with any of this, please, please…just ask. Highly significant increases in productivity are available to just about every business.

Keep well

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