Extreme Productivity Is Extremely Useful: Book Review of author Robert Pozen

11/19/2012 04:12 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

'Death by PowerPoint' has been an old adage batted about by managers who have seen too many flat presentations jammed with too much information, while falling short on clarity of theme or message. Today, the same lament can be said about email.

'Death by Email' describes the ailment of what professionals are losing today: Time and productivity.

A McKinsey Global Institute report, The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies, found the average worker wastes more than five hours a day managing, writing, editing, archiving, reading, cc'ing, and replying to emails. In a straight-line calculation of an average U.S. worker making $75,000 a year that unproductive black hole bleeds $50,000 per employee in downtime. Run the math by headcount in companies large and small, and the waste created by email is staggering.

Email wasn't designed to be a collaborative tool.

Perhaps worse than the time drain, another study found workers ignored 37% of emails that need responding to. Welcome to the e-blindspot of professional liability and lost opportunity costs by not closing a sale due to poor communication.

Hackers have retooled email for today's sophisticated phishing to install malware or a Trojan horse inside corporate networks. With 300 million "poison dart" emails sent out each day, hackers only need one person in a company to trick, fool or bait to get inside and steal sensitive data or do long-term damage to a brand's reputation.

So what is a professional who gets phished, wastes time, and loses his edge on being efficient supposed to do?

Read business productivity expert Robert Pozen's book Extreme Productivity (Harper Business).

Productivity Starts with You
In less than 260 pages, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and former associate general counsel of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission spells out how to regain one's personal and professional life. He shows the readers the steps to turnaround their lives before the age of big data buries them.

With wages still falling and unemployment high, professionals who want to wield an edge in an ever-increasing competitive jobs market should read this book as an investment in their career.

With his deep domain expertise and experience--he has written six books, held many high level institutional positions, and sits on several corporate boards--Robert Pozen is a living example found in the book's subtitle: "Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours."

In reaching out to Mr. Pozen via email, I asked: "What can an individual do?" to regain their balance at work.

He answered: "Two steps. Skip 80-90% of your emails, because titles show you low value such as daily messages or standardized announcements or solicitations. Second step is OHIO. 'Only Handle It Once.'

"If the email is important, respond to it right then and there. If you delay, you will forget or spend an hour later searching for the email."

Extreme Productivity is filled with such sage advice and pragmatism. A great deal of that was formed in his childhood growing up in rough Bridgeport, CT. He survived a bully's extortion threats for "protection money" by being ultra competitive and beating the bully in a game of basketball. But the real lessons he learned in high school came from a pair of teachers who left a lifelong impression on him.

In one case, the teacher assigned questions at the start of class, left the classroom for the students to solve the problems. "It seems that we had inadvertently stumbled upon a productive learning model: small interactive groups applying general concepts to specific factual situations," he writes in the book's introduction.

Today that methodology is called collaboration. It is all the rage among productivity apps in the mobile space and the cloud's software-as-a-service model.

In Part I 'Three Big Ideas,' Pozen emphasizes prioritizing one's goals, focusing on final product, while not "sweating the small stuff." The latter is akin to letting go. Identify low-priority items to be free to spend more time on tasks that matter. It's being organized with an ability to see what's important and deal with it in a timely matter.

The book is populated with practical, real world anecdotes. But it's the flow from chapter to chapter that grows on the reader, as advice turns into a system, and the system as orthodoxy. Each chapter concludes with a summary called "Takeaways" that help the reader focus on key points.

The only issue this reviewer had, and it's a minor one, is that two chapters in Part II: Productivity Every Day--"Your Daily Routine" and "Traveling Lightly"--belong to the back of the book, since the personal tone interfered with the workplace concepts.

Of Part II, chapter six "Efficient Meetings" is one of the best to get organize, save time, become more productive and be more efficient. The biggest time saver for meetings, "don't have one in the first place."

What Companies Can Gain in Productivity
I asked the author: What can organizations do to improve output of their workforce?

"Encourage employees to limit their emails to those who really need to know -- avoid tendency to send to big lists," he said. "Tell employees to generally hit reply button and not reply to all. Most do not need to hear your response. And avoid emails that just say thank you."

On the new mobile world, Mr. Pozen stated, "Mobility is here to stay. It's hard to stop young people from bringing own devices to work. They will tweet and text personally.

"A company has a choice between two strategies. Separate or integrate. Separate means that company business must be done only on the designated company device, which could be an iPad or laptop, with appropriate security and training. Personal messages can be sent on your own devices. This is what most Fortune 500 companies do now.

"The other strategy is integrate your employee's own device with the company's system," he said. "This presents a lot more challenges especially on issues like security. If an employee wants to use his or her own device for company business, he or she will have to accept the company's restrictions and conditions."

On the new global economy, he responded: "I believe that instant global collaboration is needed in some companies and divisions but not in all. Many firms are still local. Even among global firms, there are many projects confined to certain geographic or functional areas. Have to worry about global collaboration leading to unnecessary informational overload.

"On the other hand, there are firms that need global collaboration. In investment management, you must know what is happening in the tech sector around the world so collaboration between country offices is critical. And obviously global collaboration is needed if your software development team that is spread out among many countries.

"I guess that principle should be to have as much global collaboration among units as necessary to achieve the firm's objectives -- but no more. At some point, the virtues of global collaboration run up against the burdens of information overload."

As one who sits on several corporate boards, he emphasized that "greater expertise is needed" with the directors and, "small size is needed" for the board. "Lack of expertise among directors is a perennial problem," he wrote.

For companies' to have more effective boards, they will need to change with the times. A good place to start is to read Extreme Productivity.