When doing less is more

Futurist Lisa Bodell gave advice on simplifying work to make it more effective during the 2022 AACC annual opening plenary. (Photo: Adam Auel)

NEW YORK — Imagine getting a pay raise for coming up with ways to do less work.

Businesses typically give an annual pay bump because employees have done more work. But futurist Lisa Bodell, who spoke Saturday at the 2022 AACC Annual plenary, said companies may consider rewarding employees for helping to weed out inefficiencies that lead to more meaningful work.

That idea illustrates how companies can reflect on finding simpler ways to do work better, said Bodell, whose company, FutureThink, helps organizations Google, Lockheed Martin and Pfizer develop techniques to simplify the workplace.

Bodell said the Covid pandemic over the last two years is fueling a transformation in the work world because it has challenged our assumptions about the way we work, the things we work on and how we spend our time. Many employers and employees are realizing they spend much time on “unnecessary things, things that were adding no value and things that were obligations,” she said.

Streamline strategies

Bodell, who wrote the best-selling Why Simple Wins and Kill the Company, noted that many employees are overwhelmed with longer days, more meetings and being available to answer questions nearly 24/7. But too often those things are just a list of tasks compared to parts of a strategy, she said.

“Right now, we are not leading; We are really executing,” she added.

Bodell presented three themes as guides to simplicity:

  • Challenge the status quo.
  • Engage with impact.
  • Eliminate the unnecessary.

As an example of the first theme, Bodell said a company can hold a work “hack-a-thon,” which is a challenge to find shortcuts for employees’ tasks. Often, employees already have workarounds because they have found more efficient and effective ways to do things, but they don’t share it because it’s not the official process and they fear it can be viewed as cheating, she said.

For the second theme, Bodell gave an example of how the company Merck handled one of its biggest slow-down issues: emails. Too often, employees felt obligated to respond in detail to emails. But in many cases, the senders weren’t seeking a response, just sharing information. The solution: NNTR, or No Need To Reply. That’s how employees began to tag emails that didn’t require a thread of explanations.

Along the same vein, the company also started using “BLUF” — Bottom Line Up Front — on emails. Basically, just get to the point.

“People that are receiving that email know exactly what you want from them, and people sending it know why they are sending it in the first place,” Bodell said.

Meetings are another area that aren’t typically well-used and often lack a point. To help Microsoft with this, Bodell instructed the company to develop a question for each meeting it holds. Instead of just forwarding a meeting agenda, she encouraged the company to also include one question the meeting was supposed to tackle. This gives employees a chance to mull over the question and come to the meeting with ideas to address it, she said.

What to kill, what to keep

Bodell noted the importance of focusing on one’s “sphere of control,” meaning one’s daily work. A department head can address work in that department, whereas a college president can look at things more broadly.

“If you’re the head of the college, you’ve got a bigger sphere of control,” she said.

For the final theme, Bodell posed the question: If you could kill or change any two rules that would help the organization be more innovative, reach its goals or reach its potential, what would they be and why?

“It tells people in a structured way how to get rid of things that aren’t working,” she said.

Even in 15 minutes, people come up with dozens of things — but most of them don’t pertain to rules, Bodell said. They deal mainly with “cultural annoyances,” like lengths of meetings, she said. Compiling a list of those things to determine what to address can make a big impact, she added.

Bodell recalled working with the human resources team at publisher MacGraw-Hill on this. The group was drowning in paperwork. As part of an exercise, the team covered a wall with Post-It notes on things they wanted to change — and Bodell let the boss see it.

“It’s a little hard, a little offensive at first, but you realize why people are saying them,” she said.

The group wanted to kill a regular report they had to produce — which the boss said he created because he thought they wanted it to help them organize. Within three months, the department nixed the reports.

“There is a huge impact you can make by just killing stupid rules,” she said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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