How We Stopped Being Productive…and Became Effective

I don’t check off completed tasks from my to-do list at the end of the day. Sometimes weeks go by before I even look at my Trello board and archive tasks that I completed way back when. Am I productive if I don’t check things off my to-do list? Not sure, but I’ll tell you what, as a team we are pretty darn effective.

Here’s the thing — we are all adults here. We don’t need to be constantly reminded and supervised about what to do next. It reminds me of my daughter’s schedule that we run through each night — piano at 5:30, dinner at 6:00, homework at 6:30, etc., etc. It’s great to have a list of goals or tasks, but it sucks to have your entire day dictated by a list.

Actual task list for my 4 year old on a typical week

But we are constantly inundated and distracted by emails, tweets, LinkedIn (yes) notifications, Google+ pings, and so on. So much so that we now have to block off our calendars, hide at home, and turn off email to get work done! There was a time in my career that I used to average 250 emails and six meetings a day. I would answer emails at 2:00 a.m. and function on two hours of sleep. I’m not saying this to boast about all the work I did. Instead, I look back and regret all the time I didn’t spend with my family.

When I was drowning in emails and meetings, I struggled to cope. I figured that if I became more productive, I would finally see the bottom of my inbox. I looked at ways to do things faster. I “multi-tasked” by attending meetings and answering emails at the same time. I kept track of my tasks in Excel spreadsheets, and I prioritized and re-prioritized tasks every day. I tried this and that. I eventually ended up with multiple lists — one on my phone, one on Evernote, and one in Excel. Ugh.

Things would finally get to the point where I would have to consolidate lists. I would then read the latest and greatest “Top 100 productivity hacks” blog post and try one more time. Here’s a little secret about me (and about most people) — I remember three things at most when I look at a list. Remember five and you are an overachiever. Remember 100 and you should be starring on The Big Bang Theory!

So when I started my own business, I traded in my never-ending email flood for a never-ending list of things to do. So we still had a problem. How do we achieve more in a given day? I had one infallible model to leverage.

The Infallible Model

Years ago when I took a project management class in business school, I learned about the triple constraints in project management. The constraints were scope, time, and cost. The way this works is that you can demand any two from your project team, but then the third has to give.

For example, if you want the project done fast (time), and you want it done exactly as you envisioned it (scope), then you have to be ready to spend a lot of money (cost).

Alternately, if you are working on a tight budget (cost), and you want it done yesterday (time), then don’t expect the project to be delivered per your specifications (scope).

This makes a lot of sense. Choose two of the three — scope, time, or cost — but not all three.

I lived by this mantra when I did a brief stint as a project manager, and while it frustrated business owners, it was a very effective way to channel work. As I moved on into the eCommerce realm, the tables turned on me, and it was my turn to squirm as my technology project teams worked under the scope-time-cost triple constraint.

Throughout this time, one thing was constant — the constraint never broke. It was true back then, and it is true today — scope, time, or cost.

So we wondered whether this principle could be applied to work we do. Here’s what we came up with:

Creating a Role-Based Triple Constraint

As a startup creating analytics products and providing web analytics services, we have our hands pretty full any given day. Working off of to-do lists only gets in the way, particularly when crises erupt (such as Subversion going down!). We applied only three rules when creating a new frame of reference.

1. It had to be easy to remember (I can only remember three things at a time)

2. It had to be practically applicable (It could stand the craziness of working in a startup)

3. It needed to be flexible (No rigid lists, please!)

Here is our framework:

All work personas can be categorized into three neat buckets — Thinkers, Talkers, or Doers.

You can don only two personas any given time, and the third needs to take a back seat.

So you can be a thinker and a talker, but you will not be a doer.

Or you could be a thinker and a doer, but you will be a poor talker.

Try to do all three, and you will become highly ineffective (but possibly highly productive?!). Think about the chances at hitting the jackpot at a casino — everyone thinks they will hit it, and once in a while they do. But in the long run, they just lose.

Here are the definitions of these personas:

Thinker — You come up with this brilliant strategy to increase sales this year. You look at all kinds of data and have a trend across your sales people that you can leverage. Congrats! You donned a thinker persona!

Talker — You communicate out all the great work your team is doing. You share fantastic insights from an analytics deep dive with the purpose of driving action. You pick up the phone and sell a solution to your customers. When you sell, pitch, market, you are the master “talker.”

Doer — You write up kickass code that will change how your site converts customers online. Or you work your way through some highly disjointed data and find actionable insights. Simply put, you take an idea and put it into action. You are a master “doer.”

So did this replace the to-do list? No. Here’s a screenshot of my to-do list today:

You know what is different though? My list doesn’t have due dates.

Applying the triple constraint freed us up from doing tasks that we were not the experts at. It helped us create awareness of what we should focus on. Instead of constantly adding to the to-do list, it provided us a way to question who should really be doing the task!

So now, we actually want to do the tasks instead of being forced to do the tasks!

Sure we are all specialists in what we do, but there is still a fundamental level of specialization that gets ignored. Once that is understood and accepted, then suddenly the distractions melt away, the scope of delegation becomes clear, and the effectiveness of a team goes way up.

Whether you are a manager or an individual contributor, you can apply this framework to be more effective. Not more productive, but more effective.

But it did free us up from doing tasks that we are not the experts at. It helped us create awareness of what we should focus on. Instead of constantly adding to the to-do list, it provided us a way to question who should really be doing the task! It helped us define what success really means for each of us and for the team.

While we are all specialists in what we do, there is still a fundamental level of specialization that gets ignored. Once that is understood and accepted, then suddenly the distractions melt away, the scope of delegation becomes clear, and the effectiveness of a team goes way up.

Whether you are a manager or an individual contributor, you can apply this framework to be more effective. Not more productive, but more effective.

But I Don’t Fit This Mold!

Don’t take the names of the personas literally — “Look Ma, I just talked; therefore, I must be a talker.” Instead, the idea is this: We can become masters at selling, masters at executing, or the master of ideas. When we try to do all these three things well, that’s when we get into trouble.

I have limited myself to be a thinker and talker at Bay Leaf Digital. Why? Because I am best positioned to be the thinker and the talker for the company. There’s a reason why my Twitter background image still looks like an eyesore — I did it fast so that I could knock it off my to-do list. I had no business being the creative person on the team! So why does this happen? Even with the best of intentions, we tend to want to get things done just to get them out of the way. And this trait is frequently found in your most versatile employees.

The thinker-talker-doer model is not meant to discourage learning or picking up a new skill. It is meant to shield one from adding to to-do lists left and right. It is meant to organize work to focus your most versatile employees’ attention on the things they do the best.

There you have it — our persona-based work model — thinker, talker, doer.

What are your thoughts on this approach for bringing the best out of you and your employees?


This article was originally posted on LinkedIn Pulse.

About Abhi Jadhav: I am a founding partner at Bay Leaf Digital, a marketing analytics firm. Our next start-up — Amplytics, is focused on solving a web analytics auditing problem.