The APQC Blog

Feeling Unproductive? Maybe It's Not Your Fault.

Is your organization performing as well as you think it could? Are you using your fullest potential at work? Why or why not?

If you, like many working folks, feel that your potential is untapped or that you could be contributing much more, maybe the problem isn't just you. Maybe occasional laziness and/or distraction aren't the only reasons you can't get as much accomplished as you'd like. Although lack of employee motivation might be one reason why businesses don't reach their objectives, two other causes usually explain the situation much more accurately.

1.  Expectations are too high.

We only have 24 hours in a day, and most of us don't spend all 24 at work. Still (in the United States especially), we operate according to the notion that we should always achieve and do more than the day before. But this is a game of diminishing returns; at a certain point, we can only do so much. We are constrained by time, resources, and the number of projects on our plates. Many people struggle to complete all the tasks assigned to them. And when the assignment is not just to complete the task, but to excel and innovate, the struggle increases—at least when the organization does not allot the time or resources required to excel or innovate.

People have no shortage of creative ideas, but they do have a limited amount of time and energy. If people were assigned a couple of manageable tasks at a time, maybe we could take the time required to innovate. As it stands, most people don't have the time or don't know they are allowed to take it.

People need space to be creative. The greatest ideas can come in an instant, but we need time away from daily tasks to register those ideas when they arrive. When the objective is to get things done as quickly and efficiently as possible, people rely on old ways of doing things. Known methods seem easier and simpler, and when we use those methods, we can confidently estimate how much time and resources a task will take.

On the other hand, if we innovate and try to imagine new ways of doing things, that innovation time appears to take minutes or hours away from actually doing the task. We know that innovations could reduce the time it takes to do the work, but we are under such pressure to simply get the work done. What's more, our innovations may end up producing worse results than what we were doing before. Innovation is a gamble. And the risks of embarrassment, lost time, lost respect, lost promotions, or even lost jobs can steer people away from the possibility of failure.

We don’t have enough time. Our attentions are too divided. And we've somehow convinced ourselves that this is how it has to be. What if it isn't? What if innovation is worth the time? What if re-imagining our processes ultimately yields bigger dividends and happier employees? This leads to cause number two.

2.  The process needs improvement.

Processes exist to support employees and the work being accomplished. If a process isn't reaching its targets, it is tempting to blame the employees or set higher quotas. But often, it's the process that needs to be fixed. Employee motivation goes down if people are consistently unable to do things efficiently or if their skills are left untapped. Again, the issue of time comes into play. Organizations need to take the time to think about ways they can restructure and change processes so that they leverage employee abilities and work within the larger organizational scheme. Organizations can train managers to approach missed quotas and other issues differently, with a focus on process improvement rather than on rallying cries and micromanagement.

When you've done all you can and still don’t feel like your process performance (or your own performance) is up to snuff, don't immediately blame yourself. Instead of coming up with new ways to incentivize and motivate yourself and your colleagues, consider the process itself. Think about what could work better and how the process could better support the activities of your department. Make process improvement the focus. Always discuss proposed changes with management and align your plans with the entire organization's vision. But in the beginning stages, brainstorming is the way to go. Make time to come up with new ways of doing things. Organizations can free up the time of their employees so that they have space to think and innovate. In fact, they can designate a certain amount of time for such activities.

Check out how organizations are dealing with these issues in:

What do you think about this issue?  How does your organization handle it?  How would you handle it if you were in charge?