Thursday, February 17, 2011

Are you Playing Work?

You get up in the morning and put on the suit and tie. Grab a cup of coffee on the way to the office. Settle into your desk chair, fire up your computer, check your regular websites and answer email. The 9 am status meeting comes next, followed by back-to-back project meetings. Answer a bit more email and then it’s time for lunch. After a bite to eat, it's back to the desk to answer some emails, review a proposal for the new project, update the business case spreadsheet, hit the 3 pm staff meeting and then wind down the day. When you get home, you loosen the tie and say, “Wow, what a busy day!”

We’ve all had days like this. When meetings string into other meetings and your email inbox looks like the backup of planes at O’Hare Airport. At the end of the day, you’re not really sure what you accomplished, but it sure was busy. I call this phenomenon Playing Work. Just like my 4 year-old daughter Meredith likes to dress up and play house or have a tea party, we can all fall into the trap of playing work – going through the motions, but not focusing on what really needs to be done for our future. We get dressed up in our business clothes and our briefcase. We drive to the office and find our desk with a well equipped computer and phone. Everything is as it should be, and yet it’s easy to miss the fundamental of what we do – serve customers, create value, solve problems and take advantages of opportunities.

The point of it all is not what I did today, but what did I accomplish for our long-term future? It’s not how busy I am, but where did I make a positive impact today? Were my actions today focused on the vision and what’s important, or was I distracted by all of the urgent tasks around me?

For most knowledge-based workers, our projects, meetings and email can distract us from the real work of serving customers and building value. It’s easy to have an internal focus that moves from meeting to meeting, email messages to business cases to reports. And at the end of the day, we can forget who really signs our paychecks – our customers.

I knew an entrepreneur who spent three days per week working “in” his business – doing the things that needed to be done to keep the lights on and the income flowing. The other two days each week he worked “on” the business – doing the things that were vitally important for the future but were easy to miss in the urgency of everyday life. I liked the focus.

Not everyone can take 40 percent of their week and work on the big picture things that will drive the ultimate success of the business. But everyone can refocus their efforts from “what I did” to “what was accomplished?” In your project meeting, change the focus from an internal perspective to an external, customer-focused one. Which emails are best not to waste brain space dealing with? Which reports could you stop asking for because they really don’t create any real value for you or your customers?

In the end, my opinion is that we need to stop Playing Work. We need to stop letting our efforts be dictated by the Tyranny of Outlook – if it is on my calendar or in my email box, I have to deal with it. Take an hour or two this next week and work on the one or two things that, if successful, would dramatically improve the customer experience or move your business/project/department forward. My experience is when you proactively refocus your efforts, you won’t say, “It was a busy day,” but instead, “I had a great day.”

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