Are you tethered to the now?

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Written by Liz Hill-Smith on 22 October 2014

The recent Deloitte Human Capital Report identifies the “overwhelmed employee” as a growing and increasingly serious issue. It highlights the growing number of people in organisations who are overwhelmed by immediate and urgent concerns. 

We see this in our clients, symptoms being driven by habits of checking the email too often – because it is easy to and always on, of losing sight of what is important, of endless days in back-to-back ineffective meetings, of technology that doesn’t really save any time, and of managers struggling to access the information they need when they want it. This trend has been termed “hyper employment” and some commentators note that even the unemployed can suffer from it due to the sheer explosion of information.

Amazingly, despite being always on, always connected, always checking, most employees still can’t find the information they need from their company’s systems. Crucially, people do not have the time, energy and thinking space to think about how they create value tomorrow.  Their focus is on surviving today. In many organisations, executives cling to a belief that their organisation will grind to a halt if they don’t check their phone every 30 minutes. By contrast, in Google, they famously gave each employee 20 per cent of their time to explore ideas they wanted to play with. Now, it is so essential to their business they couldn’t stop it if they wanted to.

Most typical responses to this challenge are around managing the technology, often introducing yet another system. However, the real gap is that future thinking and innovative thinking is increasingly lacking. It is hard to do the thinking needed to create value tomorrow when you are overwhelmed by today.

The Deloitte report goes on to suggest that the key leadership components are about understanding the business, setting direction, clarifying shared business goals, building effective relationships with customers and internally, managing diversity, driving innovation, and developing people and creating effective teams. Interestingly, none of these have a particular need to be “always on” and these are the parts that are being sorely missed. A large part of these leadership elements are about thinking forwards, and working out how the business will create value in the future

The challenge is to lengthen the time horizons of people’s thinking, at all levels in the organisation, and help them become more able to think about their longer term, strategic goals. Easier said than done, and it makes a big difference if this is addressed across the organisation at both cultural and systems levels. That can then drive how individuals manage their own time, their thinking, their attitude and their behaviours.

In most organisations we are invited to work with, there is initially a strong need to free up time to permit people to focus on what really matters to the business. From senior levels down, having well run meetings, making it easy to find the important information, simplifying systems, and addressing frustrating work practices are all a good step.  However, it is even more crucial to enable and create priority for the leadership thinking you need to do among all this busyness. 

It makes a big difference when we see senior leaders setting an example here. The effect ripples through the organisation. Often that needs leaders agreeing together to give themselves permission to work in a very different way to that driven by habit, and to build a shared capability to do that. When they build their ability to think and plan longer term, and share this clarity, they are more able to delegate decision-making. People can then start to make their own decisions without involving too many people – and the endless meetings and cc-ing become less necessary.

When purpose is clear, passion and energy follow and the culture starts to reflect this.  Where new ideas are welcomed and explored; and where innovation seen as exciting and essential, more innovation happens and breaks through. When a curious mind-set is encouraged, it helps the future stay alive in conversations. When meetings are focused on the important issues, they become more dynamic and effective. When technologies are harnessed well, they can save time and add value, not destroy it.

Liz Hill-Smith is a senior consultant at DPA 


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