Some Strategies for Beating the 61% Work Overhead!

posted by Dilip on February 7, 2019

There is nothing so useless as doing a task with great efficiency that which does not need to be done at all! —Peter Drucker

A McKinsey study of knowledge workers conducted a few years back concluded that these workers spend nearly 61% of their working hours managing their work and the remainder 39% actually doing their work. I think that this observation applies broadly to even our daily lives these days: just look at your own typical day. It is no wonder that most people work 70-hr. weeks and are burnt out, as a result, which further exacerbates their plight.

Look at your own typical day, working or not: How many times you have to wait for your hand-held device or your laptop to upgrade its software each time you open it; how many times it requires your password before it allows you to install that upgrade, and how many times you struggle with what that password is for that particular device and then end up calling the support person who puts you in a que and then, after an interminable wait, tells you how to reset your password, which sometimes does not work.

My own observation is that regardless of the premise of this study and its context there is a great opportunity to improve how we manage our work and how some changes to the existing work practices and paradigms can free-up your time to do the work that is productive, uplifting, and meaningful.

Let us count the ways!

Managing your work: If you are an individual contributor and are taking on assignments from your boss making sure that your assignment is clear, and all its requirements are expressly stated, should be a logical starting point for managing your work efficiently. This approach requires your boss to do some preparatory work before she calls you in her office and tells you what she wants from you. This typically happens in a perniciously ad hoc way.

Let me give an example: Your boss calls you asking you to attend an urgent meeting with many of your colleagues. In that meeting she is excited about the new idea the company’s CEO had presented in his staff meeting, which your skip-level boss attended. In a typical way, how these C-level meetings take place, your skip-level boss quickly promises the CEO that he knows exactly how to solve that problem for the CEO and promises a solution in an unreasonable time frame, without even understanding what the problem is and what will constitute a viable solution that would satisfy the CEO, to show is bravado. This is now the seed of an impending boondoggle, with you in the driver’s seat.

In that meeting your boss urgently called, she rattles off some ideas of what she perceives that problem to be and how she intends for you to solve it. She looks at you and asks you to take charge and make this a top priority, while all your pending tasks get shoved aside. Very quickly, you realize that the problem is much more complex and requires more time and resources. When you are finally able to get a handle on the solution and deliver it to your boss, you realize that you have solved the wrong problem, wasting precious resources, compromising your work priorities, and demoralizing the team.

How to avoid such boondoggles? Simple. Do not take on any task from anyone without fully understanding its requirements, including what would constitute a response that would satisfy the originator of the problem. In fact, get those requirements in writing so that there is no ambiguity in the problem statement and what would constitute its solution. If the perpetrator refuses to write these requirements down, you send them an email with your understanding of the problem and how you plan to solve it. If they do not refute your email statements, they are now on the hook for the problem statement.

Such a shift in one’s approach to taking on meaningful tasks requires those up the food chain to think and plan their demands in ways that are actionable and meaningful. So, as an individual contributor your responsibility is to hold your boss accountable for how they parcel out their work for you to prosecute. This will make them think twice before assigning their next urgent task for you to complete.

Managing your team: Most would agree that too much time is spent in meetings of all kinds. Many of these meetings are merely to gather status and to show those attending these meeting who is in charge. If, instead, the manager spends time up-front defining the work package of each team member, define its requirements, lay out the milestones and dependencies, and how it affects others in the team from an I/O standpoint and its workflow, such status meetings are often not only redundant, but also are demoralizing. Those attending such meetings spend much time debating about the content of the meeting and what it means to them, following such a meeting.  


They can become redundant because, once you have taken the time to define each work package or task and the person responsible for it knows what you expect from them and when, your only subsequent interaction with this person is now by exception. This means that this person notifies you not of the status of their ongoing progress, but of the hurdle they are facing to complete their task and has a clear demand of what will it take for them to overcome that hurdle. You, as their manager, must expect such a person to come not just with the problem they are facing, but also with some suggestions on what constitutes a solution that they can work with. Your job then devolves down to picking the right option and providing them any help that they cannot themselves get. Demand that each of your report not just come to you with their problems, but with a solution that they can live with. Your job then is reduced to challenging that solution and providing the resources if you agree with their approach.

Such a regime not only empowers the team members but also frees-up your time to do things that ONLY you can do. This shift in how you manage your team and how you manage your boss, in turn, requires you to think differently and set different expectations up and down your chain of command.

When I was head of engineering as a functional head and also as a program manager of a large program (with 300+ on the team) in another role in a different company, I learned how to establish such a regime and make it work for you and your team. When operational it is amazing how much it frees-up your own time for you to do the things that you should be doing as a manager and also how much it empowers the teams to take charge of their own tasks. It is a win-win.

Doing the Work that Only You can DO: Getting into the mindset of understanding what your value-added work is and then teasing it out from all the stuff that stares you in the face every day of your work life, this is the hardest part. It is tempting to overdo your role and usurp the work that those around you and those who report to you would gladly take on. If you make a serious audit of your work and plan it so that each person around and below you—even above you—does their part you’d be amazed how much of your “work clutter” simply disappears, providing you much “free” time for you to do the work that truly adds value, both to your workload and to your own professional growth—and to your résumé.

Once you identify what your work is that only you can do, you can then decide what components of it can be automated, eliminated, delegated, and outsourced. Although such an audit and the act of taking charge of your own work requires discipline, leadership, and perspective, it is something worth doing, if for no reason other than keeping your own sanity and of those around you.

Good luck!