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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.

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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.

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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.

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Jamey Austin Atlassian Team Sep 15, 2021

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

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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.

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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. 

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Jamey Austin Atlassian Team Sep 15, 2021

Yes @John 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.

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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:

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