07/29/2016 02:05 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2017

The 4 Keys to Fixing Your Productivity Challenge

As a leader, you could be the biggest cause of lost productivity in your whole organization.

For 20 years of my career, I was a consultant. When companies needed help expanding their business and optimizing productivity, I was brought in to help streamline processes and show them how to clarify which targets and goals to focus on.

After hundreds of trips to the offices of the Fortune 500 and global 100, I started to recognize common trends that were crippling these businesses. And I began to understand ways that I could help them.

Oftentimes, one of the key components to increasing productivity was to first identify the things standing in the way of productivity. But here's the interesting part: most companies would actually hurt the team's productivity when they thought they were creating a solution to increase productivity.

Parkinson's Law

In 1955, British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson published an essay in The Economist in which he examined why bureaucracy grows. In the essay, Parkinson states: "It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." This basically means however long you have to complete a task is usually how long it will take.

Without a sense of urgency - like a looming deadline - our tendency is to fill the time given with irrelevant decisions and distractions. Parkinson's Law essentially states that despite the intention not to, everyone is prone to wasting time and effort.

This is an extremely prevalent problem in the workplace. But why does this happen?

Part of the reason, Parkinson explains, is the multiplication of team members, sometimes without strong reason. And in my years as a consultant, this is something I saw all the time.

When I coach my clients on building a team, I always tell them to hire a role, not a person. And Parkinson's theory on the multiplication of teams explains this phenomenon perfectly. Through a study of British naval bureaucracy over several decades, Parkinson discovered that bureaucracy grew at a rate which could actually be calculated. In fact, bureaucracy grew after the end of war despite a drop in number of enlisted men, officers and ships (that means more men were hired to manage fewer assets).

The Productivity Challenge

I used to frequently walk into offices that had this problem. Let's say a manager, Amy, feels slightly overwhelmed. Instead of examining priorities and compressing deadlines, Amy hires an assistant, Bob. But Bob requires onboarding, and Amy is left with more work, which prompts the hiring of Carl. Now Amy, with assistants Bob and Carl, is generating more business, so Amy hires help for Bob and Carl (Dan, Elly, Frank, and Grace).

There are six more employees now, but work seems to take more and more time to get completed. With each hire, the complexity of getting a task done increases by virtue of the number of hands it must pass through. Each time a task is shared, additional variables get added to the task, including communication, scheduling, miscommunication, clarification, correction, etc.

As a leader or entrepreneur, this may sound familiar. And even though the intention was to delegate work and increase effectiveness, the increased complexity (and lack of proper communication) actually causes more work and decreased profitability.

The Solution

Knowing what makes you less productive or effective is the first step toward finding solutions.

If a task will take the time given to complete it, productivity can often be increased by compressing deadlines--within reason of course. Too much time to complete a project or task leads to the possibility of irrelevant decisions, which in turn lead to distractions. By compressing the amount of time a task needs, team members are forced to sharpen their focus and spend time only on the elements of the task that are critical to its success.

When working together, I tell teams that it's vital to clearly define the intention, outcome, milestones and deadlines of a given project. Clarifying these things will help ease communication across channels and ensure the right result. And here's how you do it:

Set the Intention: Take a minute to lay out the vision for this project. Let your team know how and why this project is critical to the success of the team. Also, be sure you define the criteria for success when giving your vision. Explain what the ideal outcome for this project is and what elements you'd like to see incorporated.

Set Milestones: Often, we find goals daunting because we focus on the end result as opposed to the steps along the way. Be sure you define what those steps are that will build toward your goal. These should be given aggressive deadlines, which you can adjust.

Check-In: Create a feedback loop in which you're confirming the milestone, verifying progress, troubleshooting any challenges and resetting or clarifying expectations for the next milestone.

Set Deadlines: It's easier to give more time for a task than it is to compress the time later, so be aggressive in deadlines. Record the actual completion, so that you'll have a better idea of how much to compress deadlines in the future.

Once you turn these tactics into a repeatable process for all projects, you'll be amazed by the increase in productivity for your company. A little intention goes along way in improving the efficiency of your team and the impact your business can have. If you're interested in hearing more business hacks I learned during my time consulting to the Fortune 500, global 100 and self-made billionaires, join me on my upcoming webinar.

Everyone's job gets easier when the team is fully leveraged and engaged. A lot of the time, just a little more intention and accountability can have a massive impact on the efficiency of your company.