Eliminate Busy-Work to Create Engagement

One of my colleagues, Al, private-messaged me. “I'm so much more effective now that we're remote. I get a ton more work done. I'm so much happier. I love where the product is going. How can I do more of this?”

Al feels productive and engaged. Why does he feel this way? When I spoke with him, his managers had eliminated the busy-work he'd previously done.

Before his team started to work from home, he'd:

  • Waited for management signoffs before he could release to production. (This is a common example of risk theater.) He now pointed them to the done-and-not-released chart. (See Knowing When You Release Value.) Did they want to wait to release new features?
  • Created Gantt charts even though the team worked in an agile way. He asked, What Decisions Will You Make Based on This Data? and the managers stopped asking for the charts.
  • Waited for other people to review his work. Now, the team pairs or swarms or otherwise works collaboratively together. The team discovered they learned faster and created better products together. Their cycle time decreased.

He and the rest of his team are working better than they did in the office. They do less work that creates disengagement and more work that creates engagement.

At first, the managers were “freaked out” in his words, but now the managers have relaxed a little.

The managers now trust the team to complete work.

While busy-work wastes time, that waste is not the worst part. Busy-work creates significant employee disengagement problems.

Busy-Work Creates Disengagement

What occurs when managers ask people to do work that doesn't contribute to creating a great product?

  • People question why they're doing this work.
  • Even when the people doing the work have better ideas, the managers disregard those ideas. Or, maybe the managers can't imagine how those ideas would work.
  • The managers reinforce people as experts, which is an example of resource efficiency, not flow efficiency. Too often, when we think of people as resources, we treat them that way. We don't challenge people to give the product, the team, the organization, their best work.

We create more disengagement the more we create a system where people question why, where managers don't encourage innovation from people, and where we use resource efficiency.

That disengagement occurs in many ways. The result is that people don't want to go to work every day.

Disengagement costs the company money. (See 5 Surprising Statistics About Disengaged Employees, U.S. Employee Engagement Hits New High After Historic Drop. Even the Gallup “new high” numbers paint a grim picture.)

The more people disengage, the more they tend to look for a new job.

Options to Eliminate Busy-Work

Why did the managers eliminate the busy-work? The managers were too busy to insert themselves into how the team worked.

When Al explained they'd waited over a week for signoffs, the managers stopped insisting on signatures. When Al stopped creating the Gantt chart, no one asked him about it. And, because the team released more often, the team built trust across the organization.

Let's consider how we might rethink work to eliminate busy-work:

  1. Tell people what the goal is for the work. (See Delegate Problems and Outcomes). If the managers don't know the goals, that's a systemic problem.
  2. Explain the risks you want to avoid. Ask people to create experiments that will avoid those risks.
  3. Encourage people to work together. Software (and most knowledge work) requires that people learn as they create the product or the service. When people learn together, they innovate.

Al now has rediscovered the joy in his work because his managers are too busy to interfere with how his team works.

Want Engagement?

If you want engagement, stop disengaging the people and teams.

When managers stay out of the middle of the work, the managers can see the system and create an environment that makes sense for everyone. Al's managers were too busy doing their management work to remain in the middle of the team's work.

That meant the managers didn't create busy-work for the people in the team. That's not all the teams need, but it's a good start.

Eliminate busy-work, and you can create a better environment for the team.

2 Replies to “Eliminate Busy-Work to Create Engagement”

  1. Great post, I think this is extremely relevant for businesses during the pandemic. There is nothing worse than feeling uninvolved or bored with busy work. I worked with lockheed martin over the simmer and from what I heard people loved working from home. They felt they could get what they needed done without distraction and most importantly, efficiently. Working from home in their case involved non stop collaboration which in the end ended up benefitting the group. For me, seeing results of my work motivate me to work hard and when those results aren’t evident, it makes me question the purpose of the work.

    1. Chris, my experience mirrors yours. When people have the tools they need, (and sufficient hours of overlap), they can be even more effective when they work from home. They don’t have to wait to schedule a conference room and wait for people to arrive. That said, some of my Zoom meetings mirror in-person meetings—people come late, etc. Yeah, people!

      However, the more we focus on value-adding work, the better. I love what you said, that the results of your work motivate for you. Me too.

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