Is it the best we can do? Barriers to progress on productivity

Managers barriers to progress

Lazy, insular, complacent – words used to describe the state of enterprise in Australia. Harsh words indeed, but are they right?

Anatomy of Opportunity

In my last article (here) I described the Anatomy of Opportunity. It highlights the opportunities for government agencies and businesses alike to unleash greater productivity, innovation and return on investment. I highlighted three practical, value-creating actions:

  1. Engaging people from a wider range of disciplines or business functions to more realistically define the problem you’re tackling
  2. Resolve problems by designing new (not adopting old) solutions
  3. Focus on your people, helping them to take achievable steps and exhibit the behaviours that ensure success.

Together these actions can have a tremendous positive multiplying effect. An example of what this can look like in practice was posted in an earlier article. Are there more examples? Sure. Are there enough. Most definitely not.

These practices should be (or at least become) core competencies in all our organisations. They’re fundamental building blocks for success, particularly in our modern hyper-connected world.

Australia is falling behind

What’s holding us back? Have we become complacent? Have we enjoyed too much prosperity? Why do we shun thinkers, innovators and scientific inquiry? What are the barriers, and can they be overcome?

Recent research by the Australian Industry Group demonstrates that, on an international scale, Australia’s ranking in leadership and management practices has been going backwards in recent years [1]. Evidence shows that workplaces with more effective leadership and management capability are more innovative, productive and profitable. Other studies have shown Australia’s similarly poor standing in commercialising innovation, and last-place standing in industry collaboration within OECD nations [2]. Hence, it’s difficult to see how we can unlock potential in our organisations without addressing the barriers to improved leadership.

Give managers more attention

Did I say give more attention to managers? Surely I meant to say we need more effective leadership? Yes, I’m sure we need more and better leaders, but I think we risk overlooking a significant aspect of our current predicament if we ignore the critical role of managers in enabling innovation and productivity growth.

In all our organisations I believe we currently have more managers (or management influence) than leaders. Those managers, particularly mid-level managers, have a huge influence over what gets done and how. That is, they materially influence what strategy actually gets implemented (and how much that differs from the espoused organisational strategy).

The point is, if we want to understand the barriers to productivity, innovation and growth, we need to understand the situation of managers. Barriers to progress exist because we (and particularly managers) allow them to. So what’s going on at a deeper human level that’s impeding progress? I’ve categorised my observations from experience under headings related to perception, belief and need.

“I don’t perceive it”

As I’ve argued in previous articles we can be blind to our blindness. We simply fail to perceive problems (or their full nature) in our approach to managing people, tasks, customers or stakeholders. It means we’re failing to experience an incentive to improve by overlooking risks and opportunities. It also means our effort is less productive than it could be. It’s a misdiagnosis problem because, individually, we’re ill-equipped from our cumulative life and training experiences.

“I don’t believe it”

As humans, we’re hard-wired to make sense of our world based on prior knowledge and experience. Our brains quickly construct stories that we often accept without question if they make sense (whether they are really accurate or not). Accepting such stories is efficient, useful in common situations, and comforting.

The same story-telling routine can play out in our organisations. Often we won’t ask simple questions like “Do we have the important facts at our disposal?” or “Are our assumptions sound?” As Alecia Simmonds put it in her article “Why do Australian’s hate thinkers?” we prefer home-spun wisdom to years of research [3].

So when faced with the proposition that there might be a relatively straight-forward way to improve productivity, innovation and growth – with a quick ROI – many people will dismiss it. The stories they’ll tell themselves and others might be “If this were true others would be doing it”, “It’s just another strategy fad”, “We’re successful (enough) without it” or “We don’t have the time or resources to get involved”. Sound familiar? Frightening, isn’t it.

“I don’t need it”

Then there’s the need to change. I think this is the most important factor. In many situations, I don’t believe managers experience sufficient personal incentive to seek out better ways of operating. In reality, it means they’re not personally exposed to real motivating risk. Even in situations where organisations are struggling or failing, managers can often shield themselves from the direct fall-out. So even with a sincere acceptance of a need for change and innovation, managers’ belief and incentive structures can prevent them from taking necessary action.

Interestingly, in 2013 Ernst and Young found Australian workers say they could be 21% more productive every day if they could change just one or two things at work. They also said the main obstacles to improving productivity were poor staff management and a lack of motivation. The unrealised productivity equated to more than $305 billion every year [4].

We fear risk

At the most fundamental level, fear is the strong motivator. People fear looking stupid or making a mistake. Our organisations have layers of systems, controls and narratives that reinforce this avoidance of risk. We’ll celebrate success far more than learning, despite the common wisdom that we learn and improve more as a consequence of failure. So it’s comforting to fool ourselves that our busyness is productive, and it’s often safer not to ‘rock the boat’ even if it defies our reality.

Two sides of the same coin

So what’s this all mean? Many people – your colleagues, customers and commanders – may be squandering enormous opportunity for productivity, innovation and growth, consciously or more likely, unconsciously. That’s the risk.

The flip side of the coin is opportunity. You can stand out from the crowd. You can excel. You can succeed. Simply by doing the things that most other folk aren’t – fuelling dissatisfaction with the status quo, engaging the perspectives of others, challenging your own and others assumptions, failing fast, and designing to succeed.

Take a simple action

So what can you do today? There are insights, tools and methods that can really unlock the latent potential in your team and organisation which you should seek out. In the interim I suggest you ask a simple question of yourself and your people: “Is this the best we can do?”

As Seth Godin points out, the answer to this question is always no. (He suggests a better question is “What resources would enable you to do even better?” If the benefit exceeds the cost of the resources, then go for it. If you can’t make it better, at least hire someone who can. [5])

The value I see in this question though is that it creates both the intellectual challenge and incentive (or discomfort) to do better.

Expecting and achieving more

As the world becomes more connected and competitive, with greater challenges and opportunities, are we able to drive the productivity growth we need, underpinned by innovation? I believe Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is right when he says “The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative. We can’t be defensive, we can’t future-proof ourselves. We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it.” [3]

Whether we have become lazy, insular and complacent is open to dispute. I’m in no doubt that most people are working hard – but are we working on the right things? I’m also in no doubt that many younger people and entrepreneurs have boundless energy to drive change for good. What they need, particularly in our larger public and private enterprises, is the engagement and support of management to do better.

The Australian Industry Group concluded “there exists an enormous amount of latent potential in organisations that will continue to remain largely untapped unless it can be unlocked through a paradigm shift in our leadership approach” [1].

We must expect more of each other. Are you doing the best you can do?

[1] AIG (2015) Addressing Enterprise Leadership in Australia, Australian Industry Group, Sydney.
[2] PwC (2014) Industry Research Collaboration: Discussion Paper, PricewaterhouseCoopers for NSW Business Chamber, Sydney.
[3] Alecia Simmonds (2014) Why do Australian’s hate thinkers?, In: womankind, 30 October 2014
[4] EY (2013) Reaching our $305 billion productivity potential, Australian Productivity Pulse™ Wave 4, May 2013, Ernst & Young, Sydney.
[5] Seth Godin’s blog, 22 January 2014