The career-defining consequences of value productivity

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 15, 2013
You can go years without reading a blog post on time management worth the time you spent to read it. But I recently read one that knocked me on my tuckus. Here's why.

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You can go years without reading a blog post on time management worth the time you spent to read it. But I recently read one that knocked me on my tuckus, Woody Allen and the Art of Value Productivity. The post is a masterful debunking of busywork in favor of career-defining productivity.

What some may have missed is that this post is not only relevant to artists but to enterprise professionals.

Author Cal Newport starts by undermining the obsession with time management, or what he calls 'task management':

As a graduate student I was known for being organized ... To be organized is a nice thing. But it didn’t take me long at MIT before I realized it’s also unrelated to what matters most: the consistent production of high value results.

Newport contrasts with a much more potent workstyle he calls 'value productivity':

There’s a lot written about task productivity (the ability to organize and execute non-skilled obligations), but much less written about value productivity (the ability to consistently produce highly-skilled, highly-valued output).

I jumped to the same conclusion Newport reached. Any competitive advantage I have achieved in the last five years is directly tied to the creation of high-value deliverables:

It’s not that task productivity lacks importance — it has saved me much stress — but I think the value variety is what will rule in an increasingly competitive knowledge economy.

Why is that? Newport goes on to share stories of Woody Allen's workstyle, which includes interesting tidbits like his continued use of a manual typewriter.

From an enterprise perspective, we have always faced the threat of skills commoditization. But that threat is more intense with each passing year. Blame the ease of outsourcing low-value white collar tasks, increasingly on a piecemeal basis via cloud services.

The career goal of enterprise work is to be the opposite of outsourceable: indispensable. Oversimplification? Yes, because you can now be indispensable while working remotely and not skip a beat. But the point remains - you don't want to be replaced by a cloud service. Oh, and indispensable also means 'highly marketable outside your current employer.'

I don't see many ways of being indispensable to the enterprise anymore. Some of this comes back to the joke Brian Sommer and I were kicking around: 'golf course relationships aren't what they used to be anymore.' Here's a few indispensable profiles I see:

  • Executives who can deliver (or who have that always-handy golden parachute)
  • Salespeople who can 'make it rain'
  • Legal team (maybe)
  • Geniuses

I'm sure I'm leaving a couple out, but not many. Even geniuses are barely-fashionable these days; few enterprises have tolerance for eccentricity. At any rate, you're not getting anywhere without being a subject matter expert. Mastery is now table stakes. Even the best hired guns are on a short leash; no rate mercenaries need apply.

Charisma and/or celebrity aren't what they used to be in the enterprise either. Just ask Robert Scoble, whose 347,000 Twitter followers didn't save him from being compelled by his employer to apologize after belly-aching on social channels about Workday's expense functionality (You probably noticed I did not put social media ninjas on the indispensable list either).

Update: 'managers' of various flavors didn't make the cut either. Bringing out the best in others is laudable but managing doesn't spare you from the burdens/opportunities of creating. One person's manager is another's 'expense layer' that gets an unsparing look come cost-cutting time.

So where does that leave the rest of us?

In need of consistently-produced deliverables that demonstrate our internal value and differentiate us from our peers.

And that's where Newport's 'value productivity'  hits home. I am fond of saying, 'we don't get paid to answer email.' We are all under a constant influx of interruptions that threaten our ability to create the deliverables that transform our own value. How we protect the time to get those products out the door has moved beyond career-defining; it may be the difference between 'continued success' and Craig's List.

Newport's story on how Woody Allen gets it done is relevant; we all need our own version of it. Allen's use of a typewriter is quaint but what is essential is that he has trained himself to shut out distractions and founded a daily routine that opens like a funnel but often starts in creative solitude. I'm guessing Allen is not checking his Facebook pings while he types.

I'll leave you with a few implications from where I type this morning:

1. Mastery is insufficient. We need to embed that mastery in work product, some of it publicly shareable. This hopefully brilliant work product is the real driver of our social reputation (Hugh MacLeod calls these 'Social Objects'). And yes, I am absolutely including developers here. Building apps to share expertise is a win.

2. Toastmasters probably wouldn't hurt either.

3. Deliverables should not be about 'me' but about 'team.' Those who mentor and bring others along have much higher value. Enterprise projects have a reduced tolerance for assholes.

4. The spoils will go to those who unplug. Managing your time is not enough. You still have to keep interruption culture at bay. As I once wrote,  'protecting your solitude is becoming a key to competitive advantage.'

5. Personalize your filters and prioritize your alerts. Few of us can secure an unplugged hour, much less a cabin in the woods. But with trial and error, we can design communication channels and filters that allow us to reduce or increase the interruption flow at will (enterprises are struggling mightily with filters too).

6. Give more of your content and products away that you ever expected to. Digital consumption thrives on free; pricing introduces friction. Giving away can be counter-intuitive but there is always something left to sell and something new to build. Once you win loyalty through demonstrated value the money will flow.

7. Study your peers, consume their best output, rethink your own approach.

Then: Rinse/repeat. Fail faster. Whatever you want to call it.


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