What Cleaning Your Closet Can Teach You About Complexity In The Workplace

Is your workplace cluttered? Not in the physical sense, but the figurative one. Do you have a bunch of old tasks and procedures taking up space without adding much value? Just like you have to dig through your closet every so often and get rid of questionable items that you once thought were good purchases, sometimes you have to assess the mental clutter that has built up in the workplace over time and recognize when policies have gone out of style. Tasks and rules that were once must-haves can build exponentially and increase complexity until employees have time for little else, like innovation.

Luckily, there are simple best practices to cut back on clutter and make space for creative thinking. The following four Little BIGS will leave your organization with the same feeling you get from an overhaul of your closet–a clear mind and renewed hope.

Try talking instead of writing

Sure, having an email chain to document interactions can be useful to reference, but it frequently takes more time to write an email than to simply explain details in a live conversation. If you’ve ever sat in front of your computer staring at a half-drafted email, you should be able to relate.

Luckily, there are simple best practices to cut back on clutter and make space for creative thinking.

When you find yourself struggling to organize your thoughts in an email, stop and ask yourself if it would be quicker to verbally explain the situation. Having a two-way conversation is also helpful for answering questions immediately, and preventing future back-and-forth emails.

Eliminate low-value tasks

Let’s face it, most people work on tasks that aren’t always the best use of time. Senior leaders who assign these tasks can be so far removed from certain processes that they aren’t aware when assignments are more trouble than they’re worth. Sign-offs required in triplicate? Recurring meetings that no longer serve a purpose? Encourage employees to keep an eye out for inefficient tasks and challenge them to suggest a new way of doing things. Make it clear these suggestions won’t be taken as complaints, but instead viewed as creative ideas for improving productivity.

At futurethink, a popular tool we use is called Kill a Stupid Rule. Our clients have found it useful for identifying and eliminating ineffective processes, procedures, and redundant tasks that were adding more work and complexity than value.

Tell people when they don’t need to respond to your email

One of the biggest time-sinks in the corporate world is managing an ever-growing inbox. To simplify the process of sorting through emails, people should be clear about what they need from specific people. If someone is copied as an FYI but no action is required, say so at the beginning of the message. Another helpful strategy is to use the low-priority flag in Outlook so people know the email is an FYI before they even open it.

Even better, try this trick: add ‘NNTR’ – No Need To Respond – in the subject line of your email. Train staff to also consider whether people should be taken off the email chain, rather than automatically replying to all. Some companies, like Ernst and Young, discourage internal blasts by making the reply all button harder to access in Lotus Notes. By adding to the number of clicks needed to reply all, the company sends the message that it should only be used in specific situations.

Empower staff

Another opportunity for freeing up time is to get out of the business of checking and double-checking your people’s work products. If you’ve hired good people and trained them appropriately, you probably don’t need to review all revisions of their assignments. Sure, when documents are being sent to potential clients in hopes of gaining their business, or to very senior managers, it’s a good idea to make sure they are thoroughly reviewed.

However, not all work products have that kind of impact on business outcomes. So for outputs that are not mission-critical, make it clear to staff members that it is their responsibility to proofread their own work and ensure their own quality control – and that you trust them to do a great job. That’s why you hired them in the first place, right?

Eliminating unnecessary items that are just taking up space will allow you to focus on what really matters to you.

All organizations are slowed down by the clutter of unnecessary processes and procedures that reduce productivity and hinder innovation. While you’ll never get rid of all of the clutter and it will keep coming back, think of it as a project that requires regular maintenance, just like your closet. Eliminating unnecessary items that are just taking up space will allow you to focus on what really matters to you.

By Lisa Bodell

About the Author

Lisa Bodell is the founder and CEO of futurethink, an internationally recognized innovation research and training firm that helps businesses embrace change and become world-class innovators. She has devised training programs for hundreds of innovators at leading companies such as 3M, GE, and Johnson & Johnson.
She is also the author of provocative culture change book, Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution.

Follow Lisa on Twitter @LisaBodell.

Photo: Different icons flows into open garbage basket from shutterstock.com

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