Cut the crap: The key to eliminating wasteful work

Does your workweek most closely resemble your attic—jam-packed with things that were once valuable, but no longer hold any appeal? This clutter may include staff meetings, “reply all” emails, information-sharing meetings, and unclear messages that require more time in clarification than the worth of the original question. Such is the noise of everyday organizational life.

Most of us suffer in silence.

No one else seems appalled at this senseless waste of time and energy.

I became a crap crusader in my early days of management consulting. There was simply too much work to do to tolerate anything other than the most essential collaboration. For example, I read town hall transcripts rather than attend the meetings because I could read them significantly faster than listen. I constantly looked for the shortest line from Point A to Point B.

Efficiency is highly valued in professional services organizations where time truly is money. But shockingly, at my clients’ organization, it seemed to be just the opposite. Their meetings never started on time. No one balked when the conversation veered off course into a seemingly adjacent (at best) topic. Time appeared to be a regenerative resource that could be endlessly squandered.

In private conversation, however, my clients were miserable. Their days consisted of back-to-back meetings, emergency interruptions, and barely time for a bio break. Worse yet, the meetings they attended were dull, ineffective, and rarely produced any tangible outcomes. Their “real work” would begin after dinner and easily last well into the night.

From that sad situation came the kernel of an idea: What if work could be both joyful (a great experience) and productive (efficient and effective)? What would it take to manifest that reality in the world?

Over the course of my career, I’ve learned a lot about how to eliminate wasteful work in organizations. Here are the three things I universally recommend:

  1. RUTHLESSLY PRIORITIZE: Work can and will expand to fill the time allotted, but the value rarely expands to the same proportion. Clarify the priorities for your team and be relentless about putting those front and center every single day.
  2. ADOPT A NO-TOLERANCE POLICY FOR MEANDERING MEETINGS: Require that all meetings have a specific and achievable purpose (e.g., “Decide which customers to invite to the annual conference.”). Provide feedback to meeting hosts on the value of each meeting to raise expectations for how time is used.
  3. KILL ALL INFORMATION-SHARING MEETINGS: Providing updates in meetings is a terrible use of time because no one, except the leader, listens to any updates other than their own. The goal of these meetings—noticing cross-functional interdependencies—is rarely realized because it requires a level of listening that is not expected in these forums. Ask your teams to provide written updates and expect that everyone else will review them in advance of your (very short) recurring team meetings.

Knowledge workers frequently spend well more than 40 hours a week on work. If your work life is miserable, your real life is too. Say no to wasteful work and invite joy back into your day.