As I collect with other Business Leaders in these hope motivated days, it is inevitable the discourse will magnetically be pulled towards inquiries of each other’s confidence of the

Busy People

ensuing market potency.  “What are you seeing out there?  How is your business doing right now? How are you feeling about the next several months?”  With the unrelenting nonexistence of visibility in the market, Leaders are imploring for reassurance that their yearning to “push on” is justified and affirmed by those Leaders adjoining them.  More often than not, these interlopes turn towards an interchange of a reciprocally experienced surge of activity.  “Wow, we are really busy right now.”  “We are so busy too. I’m thinking of hiring.”  “I am busier than I have been in the last three years.  Things are looking up.”

Everyone is busy these days! Are you busy too?  Doesn’t it feel wonderful?  It shouldn’t!

In recent years Leaders have travailed arenas filled with anxieties of desolate survival where it appeared there might not be enough activity to keep their doors open.  “Busy” comes like rain from the heavens to fill these drought vacant caldrons of worry.  I will ask again, “Does it feel good?”  If your answer is affirmative, you may have swallowed the temptress of non-productivity.  “Busy” is worthless.  It is a trap which takes a Leader’s eye off the ball.  At best, busy “by itself” can only mean one thing. Costs are likely to be increasing.

Busy is typically a young manager’s trap; a no-man’s wasteland where the act of being busy camouflages unproductive results and the inability to reach goals.  Their teams routinely run up against every deadline with only seconds to spare often creating a work product of lesser quality.  The call of this naiveté is usually to hire more people or reduce demands.  Busy does not equate with your team working harder; it certainly does not denote it is working smarter.  It only proposes that there is “activity” which is expanding to meet the time available.

The Busy Trap

As a Leader today, regardless of your standing, you must combat the Busy Trap.  You must avoid the temptation of the euphoric feeling that is created by witnessing the hustle and bustle of your team’s activity.  Leaders must resist the pride-felt utterances of impressing their bosses and peers with how busy they are.  They must further resist those feel-good “pat on the backs” to their teams with compliments of how they made it “just in time”.  In today’s challenge to move forward, being busy just doesn’t count.

It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

This interesting statement was made by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, the famous British historian and author, in 1955 – first appearing as the opening line in an article for The Economist and later becoming the focus of one of Parkinson’s books, Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress.

C. Northcote Parkinson

Parkinson had studied the British Government noting that regardless of the shrinkage of work due to the Empires retraction, government continued to grow by 5-7% per year “irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.”

Parkinson’s Lawwork expands to fill the time available for its completion – means that if you give yourself a month to complete a one week assignment, then (psychologically speaking) the task will increase in complexity and become more daunting so as to fill that month. It may not even fill the extra time with more work, but just stress and tension about having to get it done.  And often tasks are procrastinated until the last minute, all the while people remain ostensibly busy pontificating the progress they are making.

We all know the drill when we have too much time to complete a task.  We tend to slack off until the task becomes urgent.  Then, when meeting the deadline becomes imminently impossible, we become super-productive and miraculously pull it off — getting the job done just in time.  Does your team conclude essential projects at the last minute with a frantic fury of activity and emotion which drives the organization into chaos?  Instead of recognizing your team’s valor, you should examine the reality that they have more than likely expanded the work to meet the deadline.

As we grasp for restoration of profitability, growth and prosperity during these changing economic times, it is necessary for Leaders to preserve the focus on productivity in the proficient attainment of goals.  Leaders must have a system of measurements to determine if there are real gains in productivity before increasing cost structures.  They must scrutinize with a skeptic’s evaluation the true efficiency and effectiveness of their teams performance before entertaining the rookie manager’s mistakes of adding costs or increasing time as a solution.

Remember, during the economic slow-down your team became normalized at running 35 mph.  As they ramp up to competitive “100mph performance” levels they are bound to feel out of control.  Good Leaders will stay steady while demanding and inspiring increased performance.  Tight time limits and deadlines force your brain to figure out ways to get tasks done in the time available.  By assigning the right amount of time to a task, we gain back more time and the task will reduce in complexity to its natural state.  By increasing the work of an apparently busy team, you condense the time available for each task and improve key elements of your future success – Creativity and Productivity!

If you determine your team has “truly” become “busy”, without increased productivity or performance gains, it is time to revisit the effectiveness of your strategies.  Are you spending your team’s time pursuing winning situations?  Are you picking the right battles?  Do they have the necessary support?  Are goals clearly understood?  Are bureaucratic policies and people strangling progress?  These types of impediments can easily cause a team to be unproductive and busy at the same time.

One reason Parkinson’s Law is so prevalent, especially in corporations, is that Leaders have settled for the C-Team.  These C- Players question why they should improve productivity only to be given more work.  Rather than possess the Values of Excellence and Quality they fill their heads with degenerative thoughts of, “Soon as I finish, they’ll just give me more work.” Or “If I’m too fast they will just bring the deadline forward next time!”

If you are hiring, building, and rewarding your A-Team appropriately, you will see these barriers of negativity disappear from your team.  Keep your team focused on the prize and they will soar above these questionable distractions.  A-Players want to do more and be more.  They wish to excel and out-perform others, especially the competition. If you sense resistance to productivity gains from someone on your team, it is time to look for their replacement.

As a Leader you will be pressured and tempted to increase costs and headcount as your business grows.  Push back.  Push back hard!  One of my current mentors, Scott Lazarus, is known to say, “If you want something done, give it to a person who is already busy.”  Scott understands that productive people will always find a way to get more done and they thrive on the challenge.  Leaders must prepare for the growth.  Street Smart Leaders must exhaust Creativity and Productivity as the crucial tools for turning growth into bottom-line profitability.

Just for fun – Here are other Parkinson Law offshoots:

  • Expenditures rise to meet income.
  • The number of people in any working group tends to increase regardless of the amount of work to be done.
  • The amount of stuff one has expands to fill available cupboard space
  • Data expands to fill the space available for storage
  • Network traffic expands to fill the available bandwidth
  • Highways congest to the maximum allowable traffic

         Can you think of some others?