The ‘Business Of Busyness’: How Productivity Keeps Us From Preparing For The Future

The ‘Business Of Busyness’: How Productivity Keeps Us From Preparing For The Future

Jeff Schwisow is a Melbourne-based strategy specialist, speaker and the author of Projectify – How to use projects to engage your people in strategy that evolves your business. In this guest post, he argues that our obsession with being busy right now is what’s holding us back from planning our futures tomorrow…

To survive in today’s highly dynamic environment requires future-focused thinking that’s fluid and activities that constantly adapt as conditions and events unfold. Yet, the ‘business of busyness’ – our obsession with being constantly productive – is a major obstacle in our need to do future-focused work.


As a result, the success rate for strategic plan implementation – the best measure of a business’s ability to adapt to the future – is dismal. The percentage of failed implementations ranges anywhere from 63 per cent to 90 per cent, depending on the research cited. In fact, Robert Kaplan of Balanced Scorecard fame estimates that 90 per cent of strategic failures are the direct result of poor execution.

The real enemy of business evolution is how ‘now’ cripples your ability to focus on ‘next’

Productivity is a simple concept. It’s the relationship between the value we produce, and the input required to produce it. Its power lies in the important insights it provides into the ‘effectiveness’ of your business endeavours.

However, today, as the daily demands on people’s time has increased, as the volume of information processing in our hyper-connected world places unprecedented pressure on the attention of business leaders, time and attention have become your business’s most valuable commodities. This has shifted much of the focus on productivity from effectiveness to efficiency.

Our day-to-day activities are focused on maximising the immediate results from our actions – irrespective of the value those results deliver. This drives an emphasis on minimising the expenditure of time and attention on things that don’t provide immediate value.

This can have some unintended consequences. Research on knowledge workers, conducted by Julian Birkinshaw of the London Business School, found an average of 41 per cent of their time was spent on discretionary activities that offered little business value or could be handled competently by others. Similarly, research I conducted for a client showed that around 35 per cent of engineers’ time was spent on work that created no value or wasn’t required to meet their business obligations.

This becomes a trap that the time- and attention-starved entrepreneur can easily fall into –busyness becomes a behaviour that’s valued over the effective allocation of time and attention.

The traditional strategic approach encourages a focus on the immediate

Time invested wisely in your business’s long-term health rarely has a cause and effect relationship. Strategic action taken today might not manifest as business value for months or, perhaps, years to come. However, our traditional strategic approach, the very practices that should focus our thinking and activity on the future, will often conspire with this productivity obsession to keep us anchored in the present.

A McKinsey study found that in 52 per cent of companies, strategic decisions are made by a small senior group and poorly communicated to the rest of the organisation. This often makes your strategy a high-level concept that people struggle to relate to their day-to-day activities.

In addition, most organisations are not intentional about making future-focused work a part of their operational fabric. Their strategy, although rich in analysis and planning, often lacks a clear framework for turning their plans into action and activity. This same McKinsey study found that only 23% of companies use a formal process to operationalise their strategic plans.

Without a framework and the leadership necessary to drive the future-focused work of strategy, decisions on how your people spend their time becomes disconnected from strategic considerations. Your people will keep themselves busy with the operational activities that allow them to feel productive – revelling in the strong sense of accomplishment from a day filled with solving problems, responding to requests or getting through their to-do list.

To bring the next into the now, take advantage of our affinity for the immediate

To make strategy part of your business’s day-to-day reality, bring the future into the present by taking advantage of how we naturally allocate our time and attention. Do this by translating the ethereal world of strategic aspiration into specific, outcome-focused initiatives – strategic projects – that move the business step-by-step toward your future goals.

Establish a strategic roadmap that makes the projects with the greatest strategic value a business imperative that has immediacy. This give your strategy-making priority.

Show that you’re invested in the strategic value these projects offer. Create a project execution framework that empowers your people to leverage their knowledge and experience to deliver successful strategic outcomes.

Give these future-focused activities meaning for the entire organisation by recognising and celebrating the strategic progress that each project makes. By valuing progress toward your long-term goals, your motivating your people to generate more meaningful strategic progress.

For future-focused work to compete with the immediate and urgent, it needs to be given distinction and importance. Today’s entrepreneurs need to create a culture where shaping the business for the future is an investment that’s a consistent and persistent part of the present.

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