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Productivity in your team: thoughts for the next Innovation Cafe meeting in Sydney

On Wednesday morning, I will speak at ‘Innovation Café’ at the Sydney Hilton to an important audience of Australian CEOs and entrepreneurs. The assigned topic is productivity: a crucial issue for the sustainability of most of the economic activities, here in Australia as well as in Europe. If possible, here it is even more important, given the great influence of the Asian market and of China in particular.

Some organizations hope to improve productivity in their offices through control measures and detailed regulation of the activities of their employees, typically through coercion.

For example, often the access to internet is allowed just to those sites with supposed ‘relevance to the business’, even professional social networks are banned. Policies may be imposed to control e-mail abuse, to ban private cell phone in office hours; start and closing time are strictly regulated as well as leave, holidays and break time. Even dress code and consumption of food and drinks at the desk may also be strictly regulated, with a better productivity goal in mind.

Do you really think that these policies are effective in increasing productivity, or they may even eventually be counterproductive?

My opinion is negative: if you are forced to impose these methods in order to improve or preserve your teams’ productivity, it means that you can’t count on a reliable middle management able to successfully manage and motivate the team. You should wonder why, perhaps with self-criticism. I look forward to debating these ideas with the audience in Sydney, as I do not know what the dominant school of thought here is.

On another note, I invite you now to ask what a major enemy of productivity is. I have a suggestion: what about the routine, the slavish replication of the daily experience, the comfort zone, the boring ‘normal’?

If not properly stimulated, people are spontaneously brought to act with the minimum possible energy, lowest involvement and creative tension, developing a sort of mindless ‘auto-mode’. It is probably a biological mechanism: if you do not invest in a constant self-discipline you may automatically slip into a mode of low intellectual stimulation, probably because of some energy savings ‘benefits’. Is it because of the second law of thermodynamics? Is it its application to psychology? Maybe, but in order to preserve and improve the productivity of a team, the management should constantly intervene with measures to break the comfort zone and to disrupt the routine.

I have recently started here in Australia my seventh experience in the management of international, multidisciplinary teams in high complexity environment, where productivity is closely related to the amount of involvement, creativity and passion that each team member pours in daily activities. I have been always fighting against the comfort zone and I have experienced and tested for years several different methods to fight the routine in my teams.

One of the methods that I will share with my audience in Sydney is the periodical rotation of the workplaces of the team members. Not for any particular logistic advantage, but just because when moving in a new workplace you break the routine, stimulating a regenerative process (and you get rid of all the useless stuff accumulated for some time). The proximity with different colleagues also shakes the consolidated system of preferential relationships, improves the flow of information, better connecting ideas reducing the always present and dangerous silos.

You can also get many ideas about productivity from neuroscience research.

For instance, let’s think to the research on brain multi-functionality patterns: there is little to do, it is demonstrated the our brain is not a multitasking machine. Every time you move your attention from one topic to another, a lot happens in your brain: several connections that were simultaneously involved in a cognitive work must slow down and switch off, while several others must be activated and ‘warm up’ again.

Each shift requires time and costs you a lot of energy: your main task will take more time and you will feel more tired when done.

When your phone gently vibrates to notify you something, or your screen displays a pop up with the first line of a new e-mail message, your brain gets involved in a severe slowdown of the task that was performing and an unnecessary amount of energy is consumed even when you manage to resist the temptation to read the message. Then it takes some time to restore the same level of attention.

We should therefore make sure that every team member is allowed to focus on a single task without any interruption for at least 25-30 minutes: a pause is then welcome, for instance to check incoming messages, emails, phone calls, to stretch legs and then a new 25-30 minutes session may start, again in complete isolation. This is the so-called ‘pomodoro technique ‘, quite diffused in Europe but probably not so well known here in Australia.

Other neurological studies have also shown a clear link between the quality of our intellectual performance and the level of our physical activity. When moving you oxygenates your brain; with just a short physical work out you restore some important chemical reaction in your brain, leading to an improved yield in important neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin.

The studies will continue and new data will be produces, but it is already evident that when we close ourselves in a room sitting for a three-hour meeting, we hardly manage to be brilliant and creative, and we finish with a strong tiredness. If we were allowed to walk, or cycle, or move when discussing of the subject, the increased oxygenation and the reactions of synthesis of neurotransmitters would greatly influence the outcome of the meeting, the creativity of the ideas and the overall quality of our decisions.

Productivity it would greatly benefit: better ideas, in less time with less fatigue!