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Reflection on Productivity

September 12, 2008

I thought Glenn Kelman’s latest post on Yammer was a treat — it’s rare for those of us in the management ranks to get management insights and thoughts from a CEO that aren’t prepackaged and heavily worked over by a legion of editors. The post is ostensibly about Yammer, the new corporate Twitter, but it’s really about how to manage people to be productive:

While I am glad to try a new technology — Dan is such a fearless pioneer — I worry that Yammer might be worse than work, and worse even than no-work. At least when you’re browsing, you feel bad about it. Yammer happens at work, and it sounds like work — you can always tell when someone is writing an email, IM or Twitter, because their typing is so much faster and noisier — so people think it is work, with one crucial exception: it may not get work done.

I’m not sure I buy the talk about collaboration. I’ve seen passive-aggressive arguments happen over email and (less over) IM — Skype’s workrooms are the exception; they’re awesome — that could have been avoided or settled in a few minutes face to face; will Yammer be much different?

As it is, I have elaborate fantasies about outlawing the whole Internet for hours at a time, or even for an entire workday. When I marvel at how a historical colossus like Theodore Roosevelt (definitive naval history of 1812, four-volume history of American frontier, a staggering number of slaughtered animals, U.S. President) or Honore de Balzac (dozens of coffee-fueled novels, written from midnight – 3 in the afternoon, while standing up) had time to accomplish so much, I usually attribute it to talent, servants — and no Internet.

I have to struggle with this issue as well, on a daily basis. Especially when overseeing the corporate blog is part of my responsibility, and a task for my team. The product management team has to be on the Internet constantly, looking at developments, reading blogs, interacting with people both inside and outside the company. And now, we’re in week two of the NFL season, which means fantasy football will undoubtedly eat into my productivity (and my team’s productivity).

Thinking about Yammer, about Twitter, about blogs, about all these “is it work?” type of tools reminds me of David Ogilvy, who built Ogilvy & Mather into an advertising giant. One of his observations has to do with brilliant creative people:

There are very few men of genius in advertising agencies. But we need all we can find. Almost without exception they are disagreeable. Don’t destroy them. They lay golden eggs.

He writes about how he always thought better and more creatively after a few drinks. He talks about how he has to coddle the borderline-unstable personalities of his best copywriters, because they are the ones that produce the best work.

I think managing people is by far the most difficult thing that any person can do. I have enormous respect for great managers, whether they be Jack Welch or David Petraeus. It is so difficult. But there appears to be a common thread among the great managers: insistence on results.

That’s the nature of business, at the end of the day. It is what makes business fun: you have winners and losers, and a scoreboard. Is Yammer going to destroy productivity? Perhaps. But then the work of your people will reflect that destroyed productivity. Are my people wasting too much time on the Internet? Then they will not be able to deliver what I expect.

In my management philosophy, I find that I am more and more going with the following approach:

Do whatever you want, whenever you want, however you want — but I don’t want to hear any goddamn excuses.

I’m not all that great at enforcing this, but I’m getting better. If you need to take a day off, take it. If you need to leave early, leave early. Come in at noon, that’s fine with me. Spend half the day playing video games? That’s okay too. But miss a deadline, or fail to deliver results, and it’s your ass. I am not interested in excuses. At all.

I have never seen an excuse raise revenues by a dollar, or cut costs by a penny.  Never.  I have never seen excuses get a product to market.  I have never seen competitors willing to wait on us because we have a great excuse why we didn’t do what we needed to do.

I suspect that at the end of the day, this is the key to productivity: the absolute unwillingness to entertain excuses coupled with freedom to let people be productive in their own way.  Some people concentrate for an hour, but then need to take a breather.  Others need to maintain a low-level focus for the whole day.  Still others might need to get stinking drunk to be creative.  Each individual is different.

What remains the same are results.

So my unsolicited, probably horrid, advice to Glenn is to let people Yammer away, check ESPN, play fantasy football, do whatever it is they gotta do.  But never, ever accept an excuse for failure.  Ever.  I think the unproductive people will hang themselves on the rope provided, while others will make lassos out of the rope and bring in more business.


One Comment leave one →
  1. WorkloadMaster permalink
    September 13, 2008 2:41 pm

    Thanks for the tip about Yammer. I’m going to check it out. It sounds like another interruption and we have enough of those already. BTW, I like your “no excuses” philosophy. The good people will shine but the turkeys will still have their excuses…well they won’t change. Oh yes, I like your quote from Ogilvy. We need more Don Drapers in the workplace.

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