Are we really ‘doing more with less’?

Why much of our celebrated productivity is an illusion

I’m always amazed when managers brag about shrinking their organizations. “We’re doing more with less,” is the rallying cry. On the surface, it sounds pretty good.

But that’s only on the surface. You don’t usually have to dig very deep to discover the reality. In fact, sometimes you don’t even have to dig at all. The long faces, the beaten demeanors, the harried actions and a host of other indicators can make you wonder if they’re working in the salt mines.

I’m told it’s what increased productivity is supposed to look like. Of course, they’re never happy when I ask what they’re giving up to achieve such levels of performance.

“What do you mean ‘giving up’?”

“When’s the last time somebody had a brand new idea for improving something around here?”

“We don’t have much time to think about those things.”

Much of our celebrated productivity is an illusion. We’re getting more “work” out of people, but we’re losing the ability to harvest and benefit from their knowledge and ideas.

Figure 1 is a picture of the age-old time management grid. We can divide our time into four categories. Some of the things we do are urgent and important. We call these firefighting. They have to be done, but we never make any forward progress doing them. Other things are urgent, but less important. Ringing phones, interruptions and much of what we do are good examples. Although difficult to avoid, they’re not often productive uses of our time.

Unfortunately, many of us spend a fair amount of time doing things that are not urgent or important.

Finally, some things are important but not urgent. These are the most valuable and important things we can ever do. We need time to sit back in a relaxed fashion and think. The right kind of thinking usually leads to questions, and we often need research time to find the answers. Research in a hurry, and you’ll take the first answer you find, which is often not even close to the best one.

Unfortunately, this most valuable quadrant is where most people no longer have time to spend. They’re so busy putting out fires, they can’t even think of what to do to prevent the next one.

Back to Figure 1: The green area shows where most people are spending their time. It’s not like they have no time for the greatest value quadrant; they have very little, and it really can’t be considered quality time. Contrast this with the yellow area. That’s how people spend their time in the companies that are really making money.

Maybe you really are doing more with less, and if you don’t mind giving up improved profits and possibly your future, just keep it up. On the other hand, if you’re getting a little worried about the future, you just might want to make sure you and your people have enough time to design it to happen the way you want.

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or