ATD Blog

Busywork Won't Achieve Your Business Goals

Monday, July 11, 2016

You can safely assume that all employees in your organization are responsible for at least one time-consuming task that they consider loathsome, inefficient, and possibly nonessential. Rather than question the task itself—or empower employees to focus on high-value work—we’ve trained our people to stay busy and “just get it done.”

Yet a recent study in Harvard Business Review found that on average, knowledge-based workers spend 41 percent of their time on activities that give them little sense of accomplishment and could be handled competently by others. As the CEO of an innovation-training firm, I’ve personally witnessed the false value of busywork and seen it distract entire organizations from reaching innovation and business goals. If we want employees to enhance our business, we must encourage streamlining and elimination of busywork so people have time to make a meaningful contribution.

Whether you’re designing a new learning management system, leading a training initiative, or anything in between, there’s a proven exercise that enables you (and your team) to identify time-consuming or complex tasks and find ways to streamline and simplify them. In the table below, answer the following questions to uncover what hinders you from being more productive, innovative, or efficient, and why. Then pinpoint ways you can simplify those complex tasks.



With your team, discuss the following questions with the goal of identifying tasks that add the least value. I highly encourage you to eliminate or suspend at least one task per team member.

  • What exceptional time-saving solutions did team members offer for their most time-consuming tasks?
  • Can any of these solutions be applied to other team members’ tasks?
  • Is there any duplication of tasks between team members? If so, can just one person complete this task?
  • Of the tasks that employees wish they could eliminate, which can you get rid of, or at least suspend for 30 days? A month from now, re-examine the value of those tasks as a group or in one-on-one meetings.

Removing time-sucks and streamlining complex tasks allows for more time in employees’ schedules for high-value work. Assessing and eliminating low-value tasks builds morale and starts a dialogue that’s much more productive than the typical “just get it done” approach. Through the above exercise, employees will engage in critical problem solving, leaders will uncover staff pain points, and tasks with the least value will be eliminated (or, at the very least, suspended).
Feeling brave today? Discover the exact areas in your organization that need simplifying by emailing me ([email protected]). Ask for a complimentary PDF of futurethink’s Complexity Diagnostic, which appears in my forthcoming book, Why Simple Wins (Bibliomotion, October 2016).

About the Author

As a globally recognized futurist and expert on innovation, Lisa Bodell ignites new thinking at every event with high energy, humor, and audience engagement. She is an award-winning author and CEO of futurethink, serves as a global council member of the World Economic Forum, and has helped thousands of senior leaders ignite innovation at companies including Bloomberg, Pfizer, and Lockheed Martin. Rated as a top speaker at Google’s client events, Lisa brings her message to nearly 100,000 people each year in more than 30 countries. She wrote the bestselling book  Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution, which won the 2014 Axiom Best Business Book Award and was voted Best Business Book by USA Book News and Booz & Co. Her new book, Why Simple Wins: Escape the Complexity Trap and Get to Work That Matters, will be released October 2016. Lisa has appeared on NPR, FOX News, and in Fast Company, The New York Times, and WIRED. She is a frequent contributor to strategy+business, Forbes, and Harvard Business Review. Lisa is an adviser on the boards of the Association of Professional Futurists, and Novartis’ Diversity and Inclusion Board in Basel, Switzerland. Lisa has taught innovation and creativity at both American and Fordham Universities. For more innovation news and ideas, follow Lisa on Twitter at @LisaBodell.

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