I’ve recently spoken to several executives who have more than two thousand unread emails. They all said roughly the same thing: “If someone really wants me they’ll keep trying”. Others have said the opposite, they are keen to be easy to reach.
There must be a better way. Last month, I wrote about personal skills (see White collar productivity). However, the capability of the individual is only part of the story, with the interface between roles and activities reflecting the efficiency of the whole enterprise.
If the leadership of an organisation is struggling with productivity, the pieces of work aren’t necessarily fitting together. It might be time to introduce some inefficiency into the workplace in order to get the most from the extended leadership and management team. It is more important to have agreed protocols for interactions between roles and activities than to optimise every individual task.
A good metaphor is the introduction of containerisation through different modes of goods transport over the last couple of centuries. At face value, the idea of trains and ships using containers with so much free space seems inefficient. Yet their introduction marks the start of the cheap mass movement of goods all over the world. The key insight the industry gained was that standardisation is more important than wringing every ounce of efficiency out of each shipment.
We get to know the working style of each executive that we rely on. The best way to engage them, insert things into their diary and get their buy-in as stakeholders. In trying to be as efficient as possible, leaders and managers have tailored their individual approaches to work. This is equivalent to ships being packed individually by their captains, great for each instance but not for the whole network.
Some years ago, I wrote Information-Driven Business (Wiley 2010). While there is still much to be done, many of the goals of that book have now come to fruition in business. It is time now to talk about “information-driven work” as part of the “future of work”.
While Information-Driven Business is about the direction of business, the future of work needs to be informed by who is best positioned to take on given activities and ensure that hand-offs are seamless and free of friction.
One of the causes of friction is the lack of transparency on the distribution of the leadership load. Each activity needs to be assigned based on the skills, strategic alignment and capacity of the whole leadership and management team. This group, more than any other, bring a wide range of experiences and capabilities to work but little of that background is necessarily visible to other stakeholders.
Worse, it is very hard for anyone to see what load each executive has at any point in time. However, there is ample data available from collaboration, messaging, diaries, phone and other data sources which can be interpreted and scored so that the workload for each executive can be easily estimated and the leadership agenda adjusted accordingly.
Many executives are their own worst enemies. In an era where work is almost entirely mobile, there are few constraints to taking on more work. The result is a high degree of stress as the most capable are constantly being loaded-up with more and more to do.
The future of work will allow more leaders to shine by smoothing their workload and providing clear reporting on their progress and freeing them to spend their efforts on the creative aspects of their role.
To do this, we will see greater standardisation of day-to-day activities, metrics and information flows supporting the application of artificial intelligence to a broader range of leadership functions. For example, approvals and mundane decisions are crying-out to be automated.
We can expect to see new artificial intelligence solutions surface that detect patterns in decisions made and hint at repeatable rules applied to the more mundane activities. Like semi-autonomous cars with human drivers still in the seat, they will start by writing emails in an executive’s typical style but leaving it to the human to press “send”.
For all of these measures to be effective there will need to be some hard actions put in place. Perhaps stopping email inboxes from getting so full by redirecting certain requests when there are a given number of outstanding messages or blocking meeting invites when diaries are becoming overloaded.
We’ve already reinvented many aspects of how business is done, but the future of work is only just beginning for the leaders of tomorrow.