Why do people with the longest lists get the least done?

Do the people with the biggest to-do lists get the most done?  Are multitaskers really more effective.

Graham and Paul explore the dangers of aiming to do much, and the compromises that cause us to make to our own productivity.

This podcast is part of a short series on productivity, where we are exploring how you can Sell More, Save More and Do More, both personally and for your team.

Why should we involve people who don’t think like us?

We are all predisposed to work with and spend time with people who are like us, but this lack of diversity can be limiting in business decisions, reinforcing assumptions and creating cultures that miss opportunities.  One area where this can have a massive impact is sales teams, who often ignore other perspectives as they appear to create obstacles.

Richard and Graham explore how diversity of thought can be achieved just by including colleagues in different roles, to help you see the world from different perspectives, and create better solutions.

This podcast is part of a short series on productivity, where we are exploring how you can Sell More, Save More and Do More, both personally and for your team

How do we create permission?

Managers are often frustrated by the lack of initiative taken by the people in their teams, while the team members are frustrated by the perception that they are not allowed to get on with what needs to be done.

Rob and Ricky explore how this common misunderstanding happens and look at how managers can create the sense of permission that their team members need to move forward.

This podcast is part of a short series on productivity, where we are exploring how you can Sell More, Save More and Do More, both personally and for your team.

Why do we hesitate to pick what we actually want to do?

We some many options available to us, it feels like it should be easy to work out what it is we need to, or which goals we should focus on.  However, this wealth of choice can be overwhelming and sometimes leads to people hesitant to focus down on any specific area.

In this episode, Rob and Paul look at some of the causes and discuss strategies for getting momentum on the few things that will have the biggest impact.

This podcast is part of a short series on productivity, where we are exploring how you can Sell More, Save More and Do More, both personally and for your team.

Cognitive disfluency: What does it mean for your organisation?

In our work helping business teams to become more engaged and active with learning, time and again the concept of cognitive disfluency comes up. The idea that we process information differently depending on how much effort it requires is a fascinating one, so we thought we’d take a look at it in more depth here.

What is cognitive disfluency?

Cognitive disfluency is a term that was first coined by the psychologist Adam Alter, assistant professor of marketing and psychology at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

What it essentially describes is the idea that people process information differently, and that some of it is easy (fluency) and some of it requires effort (disfluency). An example of how this works was shown in an experiment that presented a printed question in two different typefaces – one hard to read and one easy – and asked people to spot the mistake. The proportion of people that noticed the error in the hard-to-read font was higher than the easy-to-read one. Alter suggests that a harder-to-read font makes us put more mental effort into reading, and we are therefore more likely to retain the information.

On a wider scale, fluent processing allows us to take in key information quickly but not necessarily to retain it or even understand it in a meaningful way. The whole experience becomes meaningless, less engaging and unsatisfying. Conversely, we process disfluent information more carefully and deeply, and this naturally results in us understanding it better. This is why the idea of cognitive disfluency has been suggested as a great way to assist learning.

Why is cognitive disfluency important in business?

Think of all the data and information that is presented before us – or our teams – within the workplace. Most organisations now offer their people key decision data in an easy (fluent) way, whether through dashboards, reports or search engines. While these tools can be invaluable, they can also make the data meaningless and hard to retain because they allow people to get to the specific number, target, forecast or performance data whenever they want to. This often means we don’t have to think about, generalise or extract the data.

So why is that a problem? Well, if people don’t have that data with them when making key decisions, or if they don’t have an intuitive understanding of the information and what it means, they will be unable to incorporate it in their decision-making. They will also be unable to learn from it. Data creates knowledge, and knowledge creates understanding – but when there is too much fluency in the information, it reduces this second step.

So should we make information more disfluent?

A lot of the data that we use day to day needs to be fluent.  We need to be able to access and use it quickly, so it should be easy to digest.  However, information that is easily consumed is also easily forgotten.

In almost everything we do there are a few key measures that tell us how we are doing against our goals and targets.  Data such as production data, sales information or financial projections need to move beyond abstract numbers and become more intuitive, becoming much more central in our awareness, moving from organisation knowledge to personal understanding. It is this data that needs to be deeply understood so that it can underpin the decisions we make.

How should organisations present their people with important details and data to ensure it is meaningfully understood and retained?

It’s a good idea to look at the fluency of key data or information within your organisation. If it’s being presented to people too easily, make it more disfluent so they have to think about it. You can do this by:

  • Asking for reports that require some small amounts of manual work to create, such as looking stuff up
  • Ask people to interpret data, not just produce it
  • Change layouts so people have to search a little, or read more carefully, to find things

But beware

A word of caution, though: Disfluency should be used sparingly. We’re not suggesting that you should make your people work hard for every piece of information they need. After all, not all data needs to be retained or fully understood.

In addition, too much disfluency can be draining. It uses up more energy, increases complexity and heightens stress levels. Instead of continuous disfluency, there should be brief moments of it when appropriate for processing essential data and information.

How should we bring the (sales) number to life?

Bringing the number to life is vital, whether you’re working in sales, managing a project, leading a team or running a production line.

If you understand and internalise the number, it allows you to monitor your progress and your tracking, intuitively know where you are and what you need to do, inform your decisions, understand how you need to react in real time, and see the bigger picture.

Otherwise, it’s just meaningless data to you.

Here, Paul and Rob discuss why many people are looking at the numbers but not really thinking about what they mean. They discuss the importance of bringing the number to life, and how we can do it.

What’s stopping us from bringing our number to life?

  • There is too much information at our fingertips.
  • Think of the wealth of reports, dashboards, BI systems and other technology that we can extract data from
  • It’s too easy.
  • We can easily look up the number we need at a particular point in time, and therefore we don’t need to retain the information in our head
  • The desire to measure everything.
  • You simply can’t retain every single piece of information put before you – which leads you back to relying on dashboards or systems

So, how do we bring the number to life?

  • Keep it simple.
  • If you have a wealth of data in front of you, focus on maybe the three or four core measures that really tell you something. Break down the number to give you something tangible about what you need to achieve each week/month
  • Engage with the data.
  • Too many people just input numbers into a system or sales platform without recognising the importance of thinking what those numbers mean. The idea of ‘cognitive disfluence’ is key here – the fact that we retain information and learn more if we actually interact with what we’re trying to learn
  • Start with the goal.
  • Instead of looking at the data and feeling that we have to do something with it, look instead at what you’re trying to achieve. What numbers do you need to pull out and understand to reach your goal?
  • Leaders. If you’re a leader, help your people to work with the data and think what the number really means. Give them the raw information they need and ask them to compile a report about some of the core data. You could break it down and ask different people to look at particular bits of the data. Ask them: Help me understand what’s in your figures and what does that tell you? Are you seeing what I’m seeing? Why has this bit changed? What does that mean?

Why do some sales people only think about the sale?

In our work, we usually tell people that having focus is a good thing. But when it comes to sales, just being focused on the sale and nothing else is not so good. Sales is part of getting your service to your customer, but you can’t just be focused on that – you’ve got to have a bigger purpose as an organisation.

In this podcast, Richard and Graham discuss why some salespeople only think about the sale – and how such tunnel vision can impact on your customers and your colleagues.

Sales people are, of course, very targeted and often very driven by what they need to achieve. But having such a singular focus can mean you forget about the other important things that sit around the sale.

If all you’re concerned about is getting that sale – hitting your targets, getting the number – then you disregard the other parts of the sales process that are really important. A company that’s all about sales creates an aggressive culture, with salespeople who are highly motivated and focused just on getting money from the customer. They’re not bothered about the end product that the customer gets, or the quality of service. And colleagues in other departments, particularly customer-facing staff, can often feel like a spare part, tasked with delivering impossible promises made by the salespeople just to win the sale, or sorting out complaints from dissatisfied customers who have been promised one thing and received another

Of course, if your job is in sales, you need to be concerned with ‘the number’. But you also need to consider the customer experience, your product, the health and wellbeing of your colleagues, and your organisation’s culture and ethical boundaries. Ask yourself: If I make the sale in this way, what does it mean for the customer and for us as a business, and how might it impact on the other departments?

Considering the culture of your organisation is particularly important if you’re the person setting the targets. Be mindful that the targets you set will drive a certain kind of behaviour so make sure that the sales process you’re encouraging reflects the culture of your organisation.

How can you talk yourself into the sale?

Assumptions, beliefs and past experiences are going to shape how we think about the sales process and the customer. Added to that, we also have to deal with pressure from targets and our managers.This will all condition how you behave during the sales process.

In our latest podcast, Ricky and Rob first discuss the reasons why we typically talk ourselves OUT of the sale, before looking at ways of talking ourselves INTO it.

Reasons we might use to talk ourselves out of the sale include making assumptions that our competitors are better than we are or that the customer doesn’t want what we are selling. We’ll second-guess how the customer’s going to react and what they’re going to say. We’ll ask ourselves: Why do they want what I’m selling, and why do they want it from me? Am I good enough? Is my product or service good enough?

So, how can you turn that around and to talk yourself INTO a sale?

Firstly, focus on all the great things you do, the great experiences you’ve had in the past, and the wins. Play over the narrative that was in your mind when you did well in that call, sales meeting or sales follow-up.

Get other people involved, if possible. Reflect on a sales meeting with a colleague or sales manager, look at the successful elements that you can draw upon and learn from. For the less successful parts, think what you might do differently next time.

Be self-aware. You will only improve if you can reflect and learn from what you do. Nurture a growth mindset in yourself. Ask: What can I learn from this?

Finally, during that next sale, don’t get caught up in the moment and in the pressure of having to make the sale, or the need to deliver targets or win a new customer. We might wonder if our product or service is good enough, or worry that we don’t understand the product fully. As sales people, we’ll focus our attention on the product’s weaknesses, which we may have to defend, but spend hardly any time on why the product is great. We need to think from the customer’s perspective, not our own, and see the world the other way round – after all, they are buying it for what it can do, and not what it can’t.

What you actually want is to get the right outcome for the customer rather than selling for selling’s sake. Just focus on building a great relationship, understanding your customer and what they need, and then positioning your product for them.

Improving workplace productivity, step 3: The cost of interference

If I told you that you were only performing at 60% of you, would you want to do something about it?

Once you got past the emotional reaction of feeling criticised (“Who is this guy?”, “Who is he to challenge me?”), it is likely you will feel the need to justify yourself. You’ll probably point out how hard you and your team are working and highlight your performance versus your targets and KPIs.

But this is not about targets and KPIs, this is about potential.

It is not my intent to criticise; I am instead challenging the way you see the world. I see it in every client we work with, and it sits at the heart of our Thinking Focus belief statement:

We believe that people, teams and business units underperform, not because they want to, not because they mean to, but because they can’t get out of their own way!

Every day you and your people face challenges and constraints, either self-imposed, real or perceived. Your people face systems and processes designed with the best intent yet which fail to empower them to deliver greatness, forcing compliance and restricting innovation and creativity, all in the name of consistency. Well, guess what: the only consistency is your people consistently underperforming and not reaching their potential!

In over a decade of working with clients across the world, I and my colleagues at Thinking Focus have noticed the startling reality that, when asked, people in all businesses state that ‘interference’ (the stuff that gets in our way) amounts to an average 40%. Yes, 40%! Which means that, if this is true, people are performing at an average of just 60%!

While I accept that this observation is hardly scientific, the consistency in what more than 200 clients have reported to us over all these years is uncanny. Moreover, a CIPD survey suggested the exact same number, give or take 1%. It would seem that our anecdotal findings are actually supported by an external reference point!

So we know there is a problem, now let’s look at what can you do about it.

Here are three things you can do to get started, and they won’t cost you a penny or a huge amount of time:

1. Quantify the size of your problem or opportunity

The key here is not to get to focused on the number, but instead to look for the opportunity. Dig beneath the surface. One obvious thing to do, which is rarely done, is to ask your people what it is that gets in the way of them doing their best work. So ask them:

  • What ‘interference’ do they have to deal with every day? Get them to externalise it but don’t justify, defend or seek to fix it at this point. Your goal is to understand the issues
  • Can you quantify this interference as a percentage? Ask them how much it affects their ability to perform at 100% of their potential
  • Use this as a rudimentary guide, to size your problem/opportunity

So, for example, if they suggest that the ‘interference’ is at 35%, this means that they are performing at 65% of their potential. Ask them what impact a 1%, 2% or 10% shift would have on their performance. Is it worth fixing? If yes, go to step 2.

2. Review the ‘interference’ list

Invite your people to review the list of ‘interference’ and ask them to focus on just three right now; three that could add the greatest value with least effort. In essence, identify the ‘low hanging fruit’ which will eliminate, improve or mitigate the impact of ‘interference’. Then invite volunteers to pitch up and take on the challenge to fix one.

3. Let them go!

Now, support them, provide time and resources, and let them go unlock some potential for you. This is important as you are empowering them to own the problem and fix it. It also means that any long term solution will be owned by them and will likely lead to wider adoption of their solution than any imposed by management.

There are many benefits from adopting this approach, including:

  • There is a cathartic release from sharing ‘interference’
  • Your people feel listened to
  • They feel included in the choice of priorities
  • Your people feel empowered to improve their world
  • Ownership will increase as they go fix it
  • Business performance improves

I am not sure I can see a reason not to, can you?

Improving workplace productivity, step 2: How interference affects productivity

In our last blog Improving workplace productivity, step 1: Recognising interference we looked at the different constraints within the workplace that stop individuals and teams being as productive as they can be.

We talked about how this interference can be either organisational or self-imposed, and discussed the importance of recognising interference as the first step to improving productivity.

In this blog, we’ll take a look at how important it is not just to identify these barriers, but to understand just how interference affects productivity.

Regardless of whether the constraints to productivity are organisational or self-imposed, all forms of interference have the same effect. Here are just some examples of how interference affects productivity:

  • It slows down our rate of work, which causes frustration
  • It causes us to repeat work tasks and processes, leading to inefficiency and wasted effort
  • It creates mistakes, meaning that valuable resources need to be used to rectify the mistakes
  • It causes us to avoid doing things, which means that potential deadlines can be missed and work is not completed on time
  • It creates stress, which can ultimately result in absenteeism
  • It causes a feeling of isolation and anxiety about doing the right thing, which means that we don’t achieve our best result
  • It can lead to poor decision-making, lack of clarity and ambiguity, all of which means that we don’t actually complete the work required to the standard that was asked of us
  • It causes tensions and protective behaviour by individuals within teams, leading to disagreements or arguments, and people avoiding responsibility and not taking ownership
  • It creates the need for more supervision or management of tasks and people, which means that the amount of management time and resource increases
  • It can become a talking point among individuals and teams, rapidly turning into moaning, fault finding and finger pointing – during which time less work is actually being done
  • It can create a perception of unfairness when a person or team doesn’t seem to ‘suffer from’ the same interferences as another person or team, which in turn creates gossip, rumour and a culture of blame

Thinking Focus works with organisations to identify and remove barriers to productivity, helping teams and business units achieve their potential. Read more here about our approach to unlocking productivity.