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Why Are We All Here?

Fall 2012

Soundings

Why Are We All Here?

By Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is an author, consultant, executive coach, trainer, and founder of Duncan Worldwide. From Change-Friendly Leadership: How to Transform Good Intentions Into Great Performance (Maxwell Stone). ©2012

In virtually every organization on the planet, people are doing fake work. I’m not talking about the laggards who deliberately invest more energy in getting out of work than in performing meaningful service. I’m talking about earnest and honest people who work very hard at well-intended things that don’t really contribute to strategic purpose. This includes a lot of the meetings, reports, briefings, procedures, and other activities that consume people’s time on the job.

One of the most common causes of fake work is the unchallenged assumption. Here are two examples.

A major public utility company held a bi-weekly “leadership council” meeting of key managers. I was invited to observe one of the meetings. It was a sweltering summer day, and the meeting was in a windowless room with little ventilation. About thirty people crowded around a huge table. An ancient projector was at the end of the table, its fan throwing off enough heat to melt a glacier.

Over a three-hour period, we endured several death-by-PowerPoint presentations. Only six or eight of the people in the room ever uttered a word. The folks in the room—none of whom looked ready to do a Bowflex infomercial, if you know what I mean—mostly seemed determined to sip their Diet Cokes and shift in their chairs in an effort to stay awake. At the end of this marathon, I asked the senior executive, “What’s the purpose of this meeting?” It was apparently a question he hadn’t considered. “Oh, uh, to keep people informed?” he responded, with a question mark of his own. I asked what he meant by that, and he said the idea was for the meeting attendees to take what they learned back to their people so everyone would “be on the same page.”

I told him my observation was that the meeting has no such effect at all. In fact, in my interviews with many people in the company, I’d received basically two responses when I asked what goes on in that bi-weekly leadership-council meeting: (1) “I don’t have any idea, but my boss is gone for three hours and that’s a good thing,” or (2) “I don’t have any idea, but my boss is gone for three hours and we really need him here with us.”

Thirty managers times three hours each times twice a month for many years. You do the math. With no specific strategic purpose for the meeting, with no measures of desired outcomes, with no real protocols for follow-up, it was nothing but trust-busting fake work.

In another example of fake work, one of my Canadian clients proudly produced what was called the QBR, for Quarterly Business Review. The expressed purpose of this massive report (several hundred pages of charts and graphs and meticulous descriptions of operating results) was to “keep people informed” and, you guessed it, “on the same page.” I did some digging, and here’s what I found. No fewer than thirty-five people worked virtually full-time gathering information from disparate sources and stitching it all together into a patch quilt of mind-numbing data. The report was distributed to several dozen people, but only six of them—six—told me they ever even looked at the report. And all six of those readers said they looked at only a small portion of the report—which contained information they could easily access elsewhere.

When I reported this Canadian version of the Abilene Paradox to senior management, they were incredulous. The QBR had been produced for years, and nobody had ever complained (certainly not the thirty-five editors who were gainfully employed doing fake work). Only after further interviews and verification did the senior management team agree to disband the QBR in favor of a much simpler and more useful reporting system.

Again, most fake work is the result of unchallenged assumptions, not the deliberate behavior of someone who merely pretends to be busy. Most fake work is done by honest people who simply have not connected the dots between the work they do and the strategic goals of the causes they serve.

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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.