Come for the products,
stay for the community

The Atlassian Community can help you and your team get more value out of Atlassian products and practices.

Atlassian Community about banner
Community Members
Community Events
Community Groups

Can we kill productivity as a performance measure?

Jamey Austin Atlassian Team Sep 14, 2021

I get really excited by challenges to long-standing convention. Not just by the possible changes that might get triggered but by what the challenges often reveal about the conventions in the first place. For example, we take the 40-hour (or longer) workweek as almost sacrosanct. But look into its history and you discover how arbitrary it really is.

In Dominic Price's recent Work Life article, "It's time to stop measuring productivity," he exposes a slew of conventional ideas we have about productivity. The main one?

More productivity = good.

Fred Taylor.png

But is it, always? 

As he says, "productivity is just a mathematical equation: output divided by time." Which means that productivity is fundamentally linked to output – not outcomes. When we talk about increasing productivity, we’re actually talking about increasing output.

This might apply to certain work, but what about knowledge work?

In that context, more output doesn’t necessarily mean better results. Dom says, "As best-selling author Dan Pink told me recently, he could write two mediocre books in the same time it takes to write one really good book. Two books is twice the output! Twice the productivity! Hallelujah! But his publisher would have some pretty choice words for him because mediocre books don’t sell."

See, even though Pink would've been twice as productive, the results wouldn't have been twice as good.

"And yet, as a society of knowledge workers, we are obsessed with productivity," says Dom. "We’ll click on any article with that word in the headline." 

Here's a question: could you leave the "cult of productivity?" Could you (and your organization) move away from output and focus instead on outcomes? Could you make the switch from efficiency to effectiveness?


Curt Holley Community Leader Sep 14, 2021

Great post @Jamey Austin and hinged off Dom's awesome article.

To answer your question: Where I work I can see this transformation occurring. Yes, it's a work in progress, Yes! there are pockets of resistance, but as someone who has yearned to switch/be part of "the switch" I can say...."It is happening".

I'm lucky enough to be answering to someone who believes in and encourages it, as well as with autonomous teams. #lucky

But I realise that globally, this journey is in various states, from "not even started" to "fully enlightened" and everywhere in-between.

Like # people like this
Jamey Austin Atlassian Team Sep 15, 2021

Thanks @Curt Holley – glad to hear it, and I appreciate the response. Clearly there's a lot of nuance, and much trial and error. What a fascinating concept, especially in light of things like "Bezosism" which I read about this morning here: I suppose Amazon workers aren't "knowledge workers" per se but there's something frightening about a person being on the clock like that. Sure, we can do it. Probably in certain situations we can excel, with a kind of productivity gamification or natural competitive instinct? But the whole enterprise seems rooted in something that isn't healthy, long-term.

Like Natalie likes this
Curt Holley Community Leader Sep 15, 2021

Sad, but true @Jamey Austin 

My $1.99 is that the fastest way to kill productivity as a performance measure, is to trace the source of performance measures. 

  • What does the organization prioritize through visible communications? 
  • What does senior leadership give accolades for?
  • What are bonuses or promotions based on?

It seems to me that work goals often trickle down from on high. So if OKRs or success benchmarks are tied to productivity-related metrics, then we won't change as individuals or teams. But if they're tied to outcomes, then everyone will adjust.

Of course it's not that simple. Doing this^ requires accountability, positive reinforcement from leadership, consistency in teams setting outcome-oriented goals, and managers who can guide their teams towards approaches that change outcomes over productivity. But the goal-setting is where it starts.

Like # people like this
Jamey Austin Atlassian Team Sep 15, 2021

Good points @Christine P_ Dela Rosa I might even give you $2.03 for 'em. :)

Like Christine P_ Dela Rosa likes this

Hi, community!

I sometimes find such "spirited conversations" about productivity missing an idea: what if your teams already define productivity in terms of outcomes/value to customers/problems solved over time? 

And as @Christine P_ Dela Rosa notes, your organization/culture/leaders provide focus, give timely feedback, incentivize better behaviors, and hold people accountable for improving (e.g. learn more that helps, reduce mistakes, share/collaborate, seek to understand your customers, etc.).  Then it would seem improving productivity is a result of having already managed people performance effectively...rather than the other way around.

Like # people like this
John Funk Community Leader Sep 15, 2021

Agreed - the only way to stop productivity as a measure is to replace it with something better - as in measuring outcomes. You usually can't take something away that people rely on without replacing with with something else better - or at least perceived as something better. 

Like # people like this
Jamey Austin Atlassian Team Sep 15, 2021

Yes @John M Funk it takes developing a new system. I like how Dom describes that in his piece. But @Bill Sheboy is right in the sense that productivity, per se, would be viewed a little different if you / your org already had new systems in place. Then productivity is talking about how you're managing your efforts toward those goals.

Like # people like this

That's one interesting approach to productivity and I agree with it. Time has change so did the tools... Great article !
Thanks for the insights and I'd love to share an article about the subject, hope you like it:

Like Jamey Austin likes this
Esme Crutchley Community Leader Sep 24, 2021

Great article! In my business, we're more focused on outcomes because no task is created equal...a task might take a whole blummin' week (because it's technically a project), which would mean that by 'traditional' standards, we'd 'achieved' a single thing. But that item might be the most important thing at that time and nothing can move on without it. We try and look at the highest impact project or task and focus on that, not 'how many things can we get checked off our to do list today/this week to show that I'm pulling my weight.'

Like Jamey Austin likes this
For several years now, I took the initiative to use my annual evaluation as an opportunity to experiment OKRs. This has changed the way I discuss my objectives with my boss. 
Like Jamey Austin likes this
Laura Holton Community Leader Oct 06, 2021

That's a good question, I think it may always be a work in progress but for us in general outcomes are the main focus however output is always a little in the background. 

Like Jamey Austin likes this

Although I am a strong believer of a focus on outcomes (it no use going at 200 mph if you're going in the wrong direction), I also think that there is nothing wrong with measuring productivity as well.

Even for knowledge work, the ability to deliver and the speed at which you can release new stuff has become of utmost importance in a very competitive market. I don't think it would be smart to sail blind in that area, keeping in mind that the direction you're taking should indeed come first.

Like Kishan Sharma likes this
Curt Holley Community Leader Oct 11, 2021

If you are focusing on ensuring everyone is pointed in the right direction (they know why, when and where they are going) and they get there successfully in a timely manner. Isn't that the definition of Outcome focus?
I think it is important to drop the old "productivity" terminology, so as to assist reset the thinking (often of senior leadership) away from previous ways of measuring/thinking.

Gaurav Community Leader Dec 27, 2021

Great article @Jamey Austin!!
Thinking about the question, my opinion is we can't choose one over the other as both output and outcomes are somewhere interlinked. We need to balance out the usage of both the parameters as 1 alone might not be sufficient.


Log in or Sign up to comment

Community Events

Connect with like-minded Atlassian users at free events near you!

Find an event

Connect with like-minded Atlassian users at free events near you!

Unfortunately there are no Community Events near you at the moment.

Host an event

You're one step closer to meeting fellow Atlassian users at your local event. Learn more about Community Events

Events near you