Quick Hack to Make Your Boss (and you) More Productive

Posted on Aug 19, 2010 | 36 comments


Yesterday I wrote a post about the “Urgency Addiction” and how many people start important tasks late and then motivate with a huge wave of productivity and inspiration driven by deadlines and commitments to others. In the comments section Bill DAllesandro offered some insight that he had seen from Microsoft on “interruptions”

“A study by Microsoft showed just how lethal interruptions are to productivity. The researchers taped 29 hours of people working in a typical office, and found that they were interrupted on average four times each hour. Sounds like a day at most offices.

Here’s the kicker – 40% of the time, the person did not resume the task they were working on before the interruption. The more complex the task, the less likely the person was to resume working on it after an interruption.

That means most of us are getting derailed from our work four times each hour, maybe more if you work in a high email traffic office.”

He also write a nice post on limiting email and managing on the important / urgent matrix from the perspective on a recovering ex investment banker.

This comment and blog post prompted me to write a post that has been in my queue for a long time.  I often write that I learned more than I care to admit from working at Andersen Consulting.  Compared to being an entrepreneur it feels like I didn’t learn much there but on reflection I learned much more than I think even I realize.

One of the earliest lessons we learned was how to make our bosses productive through a very simple tool called a “point sheet.”  The premise is simple: whenever you have a question or get stuck on something you’re tempted to quickly ask your boss or your colleagues for help.  This solves your immediate need but it greatly interrupts the productivity of others.

So the solution was that any time you had a question you had to write it down on these pre-printed tablets of paper called “point sheets” and once you had accumulated enough questions you could bring them en masse to your boss (everyone who worked at Andersen in the early 90’s is giving a small chuckle from nostalgia about right now).

And the funny thing – by the time you were ready to walk through 7-8 issues with your boss you realize that you had already figured out 3 or 4 of them on your own.  With a bit of patience it’s surprising just how many times you find answers to your own issues if you just try (seems like a lesson I’m trying to teach my 7 and 4 year olds these days). Now imagine in the world of email, IM, Twitter and mobile phones imagine just how much worse this problem has become.

So if you’re managing a team why not ask them to all abide by the PSP (point sheet policy) and save yourself from all of the distracting productivity drains.  Set aside one block in the morning and one in the afternoon for going through your team’s issues. Of even if you don’t have a team I’ll bet you have a boss.  Why not tell them you’re implementing a new tool designed to make THEM more productive.   Chances are they’ll love you for it.

  • http://www.imcomfy.com Ron

    Amazing what happens when you have to think for yourself rather than run to a superior to get the answer. Take out the easy option and come up with your own solution. Stop asking for solutions and start making your own solutions. Not only will this cut out the interuptions but it will cut out the back and forth time wasting. Go ahead and take action; action is better than being passive. Even if you are wrong you can ask forgivness later.

  • http://twitter.com/xenoterracide Caleb Cushing

    Don't forget to have a stuffed bear in your room for you and other people to talk to… It's the talking it out that helps most people…

    I think I got that from Time Management for System Administrators http://oreilly.com/catalog/9780596007836. I could be wrong though… that's a good book anyways..

  • http://www.matthewburgess.com/ Matthew Burgess

    I love it. In addition to asking one's team to use this policy, there's a variation that I like to impose on myself.

    I keep an instance of Notepad open, or a piece of scratch paper handy, at almost all times. As things pop into my head–questions that I have for myself–I write them down rather than investigate. I keep on the task at hand, confident that whatever unrelated idea I just had will not be lost.

    Then, I set aside 20 minutes near the end of each day to attend to the random things jotted down. And that time is on my calendar. Every day, as a recurring entry, because I know that I'll have something on my list most days. So, like you were saying in you last post, it's a commitment (to myself). And if there's nothing on the list, I can take a walk instead during that allotted time. Someday that might happen.

  • http://www.billda.com Bill DAlessandro

    Glad you enjoyed the post Mark. Looks like your link got messed up though – for those looking for the post Mark is referring to, you can find it here: http://www.billda.com/the-urgent-vs-important-m

  • http://twitter.com/arnorhs Arnor Heidar

    This is such a gimmick, but I still believe that's a great idea. I wish I had thought of that when I had my interruptions period, from ca. 2006-2009. Horrible times…

  • http://blog.teamly.com/about Scott Allison

    Nice! I used a slightly different version of it, in the other direction. At my last company, as CEO, I used to keep a list of things I wanted to discuss with each of my people. The temptation was, send an email or an IM, but we were (mostly) all in the same office and why be in the same office if you're not going to speak to people face to face? It was much better – and I was interrupting them a lot less. (Of course when you're the boss no one tells you to come back later).

  • David Bloom

    About eight months ago I started my new venture. The email inbox was completely empty- nothing in it, and no one writing me. Pathetically I signed up for a bunch of industry newsletters; it was too intimidating to be completely alone with my idea. The inbox is no longer empty but I suspect I'll look back on this as the golden time. Just me and my (now our) work. Crazy how much can get done when no one is looking.

  • Nari Kannan

    This is the whole idea behind Stand Up meetings in Agile Development. Stand Up, do not sit down, you have half an hour, review progress made yesterday, bring up issues, plan new progress, half an hour, no more and then you go do stuff. Communication is the bane of all business activity, whether it is internal, customer focused or software development related. Quick face to face communication gets things done that all manner of electronic mechanisms like email cannot match!

  • http://thoughtalliance.wordpress.com/ Lance Woodson

    This is something I've done in the past sort of instinctively that I think my bosses/coworkers have appreciated. Good advice.

  • http://twitter.com/wfjackson3 Willis F Jackson III

    I wish there were more studies like this. In my day job, I work in a still very new Project Sales team. It is a couple of engineers doing outbound bid spec sales work. The company has traditionally been a boxed product business. Lately they have added some product support responsibilities to us where we are answering calls from the field and it derails our spec review time. Attention and focus are not a zero-sum games.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Excellent!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I wish I had the discipline to do this! With ADHD I jump head strong into the next task that pops up and as highlighted in the Microsoft text sometimes don't circle back to what I was working on!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Whoops. Sorry. Fixed now.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Not really a gimmick at all. We used it very effectively. More than anything it's a reminder to each individual that there seemingly innocent question becomes somebody else's distraction. And if you're a boss with 8 reports to you then imagine how many distractions you have on a regular basis.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Fair point. As CEO it is easy to get in the habit also of just asking when you have a question. And you're right – people aren't likely to tell you to queue your questions!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    For sure. I love stand-up meetings. Most regularly scheduled meetings are a pure waste, have no objective and run too long. Agile development drives a lot of positive discipline. It also drives a lot of deadlines that help focus the mind on outputs and it drives public awareness of what you're working on so you make group commitments. Maybe Agile needs to come out of the tech department and into the organization more broadly.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Your comment is PRECISELY why it is best practice to have first-line, second-line and third-line support. First line gets trained in routine tech questions, second-line might be on call for more difficult questions and third-line are the people whose productivity you really don't want to mess with. They get back to you on an as-available basis.

  • http://twitter.com/wfjackson3 Willis F Jackson III

    Oh wow. Is this the kind of thing you are referring to when you say you realize how much you learned as a consultant? My boss has been suggesting our support staff use that kind of model for a while, but we haven't been able to verbalize the specifics of why. Thanks!

  • http://wojo.com Robert Wojciechowski

    I've always fantasized about bringing the agile way of working to our sales or implementation teams, for example. It's harder to convince non-developers to use it, even though they love the artifacts and transparency that comes from their development teams using it in the same company. Go figure.

    Also, when I took my Scrum training in NYC with Jeff Sutherland he mentioned his wife uses it to manage church activities. Heck, it's even been used for wedding planning, see http://devblog.point2.com/2009/09/18/how-scrum-….

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes. I did several projects where we looked at how to increase the productivity of customer service.

  • http://twitter.com/edwinmoh Edwin Oh

    What a great SIMPLE idea! And it fits well with the most effective “to do” list tool I've used: an 8-1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper folded into 1/8ths and stuck in your pocket. To do list on one side and now your point sheet on the other.

  • http://www.ryanborn.net ryanborn

    This one is great. I used to do this at MediaVast / WireImage with the team but I didn't actually know it was called a point sheet. We simply thought of it as “wait till you have enough questions and ask them all at once.”

  • http://twitter.com/mrbellavia Michael Bellavia

    I'm going to try this with myself today instead of constantly interrupting myself with trivial distractions like the urge to check email or check in on the news.

  • http://www.researchandcompare.com Alex

    Great post Mark. I suggest in addition to the question, you should have pre conceived answers. Of course, sometimes you will have no idea, but if you can think of three (important three, not two) you have the start of a framed discussion. I also think it is good to have some research along with those ideas. Did you Google your question? Sometimes its not appropriate, but it is amazing how many people have written on how to solve even the most complex questions and then put their findings on the web. For example, if you see that your boss is frustrated with your questions, you might google “How to make your boss more productive” and you will find a compelling blog post at the top of the results.
    http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=chrome&ie

  • John Schultheiss

    Good one, and I also enjoyed and related strongly to yesterday's post. I think this particular hack can be generalized to a number of things. Though we sometimes look at procrastination as a vice, it can be a virtue (or at least a tool); you said as much in yesterday's post. Bottom line: some things take care of themselves if you put them off. One kind of successful, productive person is the one who's skilled at discerning which things those are, and can free up more of his or her time that way. Ineffectiveness lies at both ends of the spectrum, but the right balance is a powerful tool.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, procrastination can be a virtue if followed by bursts of productivity but by itself it's lethal.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    That's excellent, Alex! It's amazing how quickly Google can index content and drive up the search results. Now, let's see if anybody actually ever searches on those key words ;-)

  • http://www.researchandcompare.com Alex

    With Caffeine, I have seen content indexed within 5 minutes. It changes what people that do SEO can do to test results.

  • Igor Tkachenko

    Why do we need to invent the wheel and new terms when everything has already been invented? :)

    I'm just ask my colleagues to ask me using email (even if they sit in the same room with me) and I check it and answer 1 – 3 times a day. By the way describing the problem with email gives the same effect of figuring out the issues. Many of them became resolved in the process of describing :)

  • http://twitter.com/KRAASecurity KRAA Security

    Hi Mark
    Sometimes I feel like I am my own biggest distraction. Several years ago I either read or heard someone say that at the begining of your day you do the thing you most dread. I have tried to follow this on and off. When I am off, I find that i am pretty distracted by that thing i do not want to do and its like being interrupted throughout the whole day. When I do that onerous task first thing in the morning the rest of my day is more more stress free.

    Regards
    Gary Bahadur
    (ex- Big Sixer)

  • http://twitter.com/JAndert0n Karun AB

    Andersen Consulting in its current form, does not follow the PSP (Point sheet policy) in all of its offices.
    It is indeed a good idea. Definitely something worth incorporating in our day to day work-lives :)

  • http://twitter.com/karthiksync Karthik

    Excellent, It's simple and yet powerful. Just wondering why this idea does not came to my mind till now. :(

  • http://apatontheback.com Jodi Henderson

    I've heard Jason Fried talk about this in a couple of interviews and it also appears in his book ReWork. Love, love, love the idea. I lead a software development team and I suggested this as a way to help everyone stay “in the zone” when they're working on something challenging. I even went so far as to recommend putting a sign on the back of the chair (neon posterboard no less) so that people walking up got the message without even having to ask if now was a good time. A couple other ideas relative to email: either turn it off so incoming emails don't distract you OR set an auto-reply so you passively advise people that you can't get to them right now.

  • Cassie

    This post is incredibly timely! I have couple of coworkers who are constantly interrupting me and asking questions. Some of the stuff I have explained time and time again. Other stuff can be found by searching the internet (I want to ask them “did you google it?”).

    There's another coworker who I think could benefit from the PSP… she's pretty new so she has to ask about everything. Well, it's annoying the heck out of the manager who doesn't have the patience or interest to train her (instead, the manager just lashes out at her). The coworker, meanwhile, doesn't understand “why” she can't ask the manager for help. I wonder if I could suggest this to her, but somehow do it in a more casual way so I don't step on anyone's toes. (she is not one of the coworkers I mentioned above, that ask me for help).

  • Mark Swanner

    Similar to the “I dropped dead” process I learned a long time ago. I would tell a team member “I just dropped dead, what are you going to do to now?” The training was over 40 years ago when I was a young Marine. My platoon Sgt. always said the same thing to us. We knew the answer but were afraid to make the decision or try and figure it out on our own.

    Decision or indecision is a foundational skill for success. 10% of something is still much better than 100% of nothing.

  • http://www.lionite.com Eran Galperin

    Part of the magic of this system, is that having to explain the problem to others forces you to organize your thoughts and simplify the problem. A lot of times the solution just reveals itself when you finish writing the problem in a detailed question form.