Less Responsibility Can Mean More Innovation

Piling tasks on employees squanders an organization’s most precious commodity — time.

Less Responsibility Can Mean More Innovation

Bob Sutton

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More meetings. More tasks. More forms. More training. More programs. More hours.

For decades, “more” has been an accepted business mantra — a mindset that assumes a higher volume of duties and responsibilities for employees leads to corporate success.

There’s only one problem: It’s not true.

In fact, according to research performed by Bob Sutton, an organizational psychologist and a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University, employees nationwide are choking on work. The results? Decreased productivity, less innovation, physical and mental health issues as well as something companies these days can’t afford amid a labor shortage: high turnover rates.

Instead of continually asking employees to do more, managers need to pull a workplace Marie Kondo and effectively declutter their roles — free up more time to do things that add value, not detract.

“We need to get rid of useless tasks,” says Sutton. “If it takes two hours to fill out an expense report, that’s two less hours spent innovating. There’s too much low-value work driving out high-value work.

“It’s a huge problem,” he continues. “Organizations waste millions and millions of hours a year on meetings, filling out overly long or unnecessary forms and so forth.”

As an example, Sutton points to a study performed years ago by Bain & Company, a global management consulting firm, that estimated one large company spent a mind-boggling 300,000 hours a year on just supporting a weekly executive-committee meeting. In another instance, a noted accounting firm found it was devoting nearly 2 million hours a year companywide on performance management.

Addicted to addition

So how did we get here? Sutton says three key forces are at work. For starters, he says the default method of human problem-solving involves addition, not subtraction. In fact, in one study of this phenomenon, 89% of the solutions submitted to a university president that asked for ways to improve working conditions proposed adding things, he notes.

“We call it addition sickness,” Sutton says. “It’s hard for us to think about subtraction — it’s a human bias.”

Second, organizations tend to reward people who add things, such as new policies or programs. That leads to bureaucratic bloat as managers build little fiefdoms, he explains.

Third, anything that employees create becomes precious to them. As such, they get attached to things. And the harder they work on those things, the more attached they become.

The bottom line: It’s hard to eliminate things like forms, meetings and programs, Sutton says.

“Mindless habits and rituals become a source of comfort,” he says.

Sussing out bottlenecks

Managers can take steps to determine where wasteful time-sucks lurk, says Sutton, who worked with colleague Huggy Rao for the last seven years on what they call “the Friction Project.” The research essentially focused on ways organizations can make it easier for employees to do the right things (as in subtraction) and harder to do the wrong things (as in addition).

One strategy centers on asking employees affected by unneeded forms or meetings. He calls this “the subtraction game,” which he has played with more than 100 organizations.

“You need to assess your cone of friction and figure out who will tell you the truth about excessive meetings and work interruptions,” he suggests. “Here at Stanford, for example, we followed customers and employees on their various ‘journeys’ to see where they get snagged.”

The key is to give employees an opportunity to brainstorm about ways to eliminate things that cause needless frustration or perhaps once were necessary and productive, but now create bottlenecks. In one instance, a chief executive officer of an insurance company told his 80 direct reports he wanted two subtraction suggestions from each of them — then offered a $5,000 bonus if those suggestions were actually implemented.

Take stock of meetings

Another fruitful strategy is meeting audits, which take aim at excess meetings — the bane of many organizations and their employees. Sutton says he worked with one company to develop a “Meeting Doomsday” program, which started out by having a small group of employees identify the most useless recurring meetings they attend.

Then those employees were asked to remove from their calendars for 48 hours all recurring meetings attended by less than five people. Then they were allowed to restore any meetings they felt were valuable.

The upshot? Many meetings either became shorter or were eliminated altogether. And project participants saved an average of 11 hours a month, or roughly 17 work days annually, Sutton says.

“Now we’re working on a meeting playbook, which sets out methods for improving meetings.”

Create a movement

Organizations also can take a macro approach by creating a top-down, companywide movement to make work subtraction a part of company culture. A giant pharmaceutical company succeeded in doing this by creating a Center for Simplification Excellence about eight years ago, Sutton says.

A key plank in the movement was a so-called “million-hour challenge,” aimed at freeing up a half hour a week for each of the company’s 60,000 employees. (One step, which many employees would no doubt appreciate, made it more difficult to send a “reply all” email to more than 25 recipients.)

By 2017, the company had saved a total of 2 million hours, which freed up employees to do higher-value work.

“If you want to lead a movement like this, there are different off-ramps you can take, including a focus on leaders’ behaviors that unwittingly create friction,” Sutton says. He calls this “power poisoning,” where people in positions of power become blind to the trouble they cause employees.

“We also talk about who you hire, who you fire and who you reward,” he adds.

Whatever steps organizations take to lessen employees’ workloads, it’s not going to happen overnight.

“It’s a difficult thing to do,” he says, referring to cultural changes. “Clearing things out is hard. To make it work, it has to become a way of life for employees, not a special occasion.”

And it also involves teaching managers a new math concept — addition by subtraction. It may sound counterintuitive, but it adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts.


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