BOOK REVIEW: How to work smarter, not harder

Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More, by Morten Hansen 

DO YOU know anyone who is more successful than you at work (define success any way you wish) and doesn’t work nearly as hard as you do? What do they have that you don’t? This is the question Professor Morten Hansen’s book answers.

The usual answer is either that they put in more time than you do, or they are simply more talented. Hansen’s thorough research has a different answer – the highest performers across industries, age groups, gender, education, and other dimensions, work smarter, not harder.

Of course, no one wants to work ‘dumb’, but few people work ‘smart’ because there is so little solid guidance on how to do it. This book is the solid guidance we have been looking for.

In 2011, Hansen launched one of the most comprehensive research projects ever undertaken on individual performance at work. It was based on in-depth interviews with 120 professionals and a 300-person pilot survey. The framework that emerged was used in a study of 5 000 managers and employees.

“In the end,” Hansen reports, “we discovered that seven 'work smart' practices seemed to explain a substantial portion of performance.”

People who work smart select a tiny set of priorities and make huge efforts in those areas. They focus on creating value for the end user, not just reaching pre-set goals.

The fact that you get your excellent reports in on time, every time, doesn’t mean they add any value. They only add value if they are read or considered by the recipients.

Smart working avoids mindless repetition. The famous 10 000 hours of practice won’t improve your management ability. It only works with an activity that has a fixed rule structure. Instead, you need to practice ever better skills.

Strive for passion and a worthy purpose

When work is infused, deliberately and thoughtfully, with passion and a worthy purpose, it leads to work that really produces.

These practices relate to mastering your own work, and the next set of practices addresses how to get the most out of working with others.

When working with others, smart work requires the effective use of influence to elicit support. Working efficiently and effectively requires that you avoid time-wasting meetings, and participate only in meetings that spark vigorous debate.

The interdepartmental projects you commit to must be exclusively those that are most productive.

I will focus on just two practices that were found to be foundational – “Do less, then obsess”, and “P-Squared”.

As you no doubt know, people who prioritise well, perform well, but Hansen’s research revealed that these people do something else as well.

They obsess over those chosen tasks to produce quality work. They have a smaller volume of activities and are able to exert more concentrated effort.

If you rank as a middle level performer (in the 50th percentile) and then change to choosing a few key priorities, and channel a tremendous amount of effort into doing exceptional work in those areas, your performance will leap into that of the 75th percentile of achievers.  

This particular practice affects performance more than any other of the 6 practices in this book.

The need for narrowing your activities is to avoid the “complexity trap” and the mental exertion that is wasted on a wider spread of your attention.

To do anything exceptionally well requires great effort on a focused area. Alfred Hitchcock required more than 70 shots to perfect the shower scene in the movie ‘Psycho’. James Dyson created 5 000 prototypes of his famous vacuum cleaner.

This book is very practical. It deals, for example, with the common problems real people have in real workplaces where they are not in total control.  

How to say 'no' to your manager

How do you say “no” to your manager? Hansen suggests that you make it clear you’re not trying to slack off. You’re prioritising because you want to excel in a few key areas that will add most value. And no, it is just not possible to give the attention necessary to excel in all areas: so which area is preferable?

Seven hundred years ago, European friar and philosopher William of Ockham formulated a principle known as ‘Occam’s razor’.

According to this principle, one pares activities and explanations down to their simplest form, but no more simple. Do you really need all those steps or intermediaries in the production of goods or services? What can you eliminate that will not affect the desired outcome?

There are few parts of your responsibility where you will find nothing to eliminate. Now you can “obsess” about what remains to perfect it - and keep perfecting it.

A second fundamental is the issue of passion and purpose. This not the simplistic view that you should “just harness your power to your passion”.

Following your passion is not the one key to success, it also leads to poverty, as so many have found out the hard way. Ignoring your passion isn’t great either, as anyone working at something they don’t feel for, knows well.

Match passion with purpose

The solution uncovered in Hansen’s research is to match passion with purpose, something available to almost everyone, almost everywhere.

To clarify these terms, Hansen explains: “Passion is ‘do what you love,’ while purpose is ‘do what contributes.’ Purpose asks, ‘What can I give the world?’ Passion asks, 'What can the world give me'?"

The statistical analysis of 5 000 people shows that people who match passion with purpose perform much better, on average, than those who lack either purpose or passion or both - by 18 points!

When you love what you do, you work with vigour. And if you also feel that you’re helping other people - that they need you and depend on your contribution - your motivation to excel becomes that much more intense.

What the research shows is that nearly everyone can achieve this match, and that there are no truly special workplaces.

“We found that nearly every industry or occupation boasted at least some people who reported lots of passion and purpose.”

That only certain industries and jobs allow for passion and purpose is a myth. Hansen found one might not hear much about passionate truck drivers or shop attendants or call centre employees, but the data indicates that they are there. Passion comes in various forms.

You can find passion for your work because you love achieving and your work allows you to achieve; or be creative; or be with people you like; or learn and grow; or do what you do best every day.

A strong sense of purpose only comes from activities that don’t harm anyone - customers, suppliers, your manager, your organisation, employees, the community, or the environment.

In a 2009 study of zookeepers, researchers found that some saw cleaning cages and feeding animals as a filthy, meritless job, while others saw it as a moral duty to protect and provide proper care for the animals. Same job, different feelings of purpose. One can find purpose anywhere.

People with both passion and purpose are more energised, and accomplish more in each hour of work. The challenge is to find both in the context in which you operate.

To work smart means to maximise the value of your work by selecting a few activities, and applying intense targeted effort.

This book offers a sound method for increasing your effectiveness at work. It is well worth reading very carefully; it holds value way beyond what is contained in this short piece.

Readability:       Light ---+- Serious

Insights:           High +---- Low

Practical:           High +---- Low

  • Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.

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