I heard a conversation the other day.
A group of executives meeting, trying to figure out why their transformation plan was falling behind. One sentence stood out.
“It’s the run-the-business work. It gets in the way of our priorities.”
That’s more common than you might think.
You see it evident in big spreadsheets of priorities, with resources spread thinly across multiple rows. Competing requests for time. Or complex strategies that exist on PowerPoint but stall in reality.
This is a management question.
And all management is change management. At its essence, management applies limited resources, makes choices, and triages priorities. Management is the juggling of time.
Time is a fixed resource, and there is never enough of it.
This problem isn't going away; it’s getting more urgent. And it’s huge — this year alone, the business world will spend $4.4 trillion on transformation.
With change comes change fatigue.
Burnout, and its twin sister stress, run rampant. Employers then respond with wellness programs, education, counseling, and global reset days. These are all noble efforts — but smack of stable-door-bolting as the horse vanishes over the hill.
The root cause of stress and burnout is an overwhelming mix of workload, competing priorities, and unreasonable deadlines.
It’s time for a rebalance.
It’s time to sort out the work.
Critical work is the work of change.
Critical work improves things. It sets you up for the future. Without it, we would still be xeroxing memos, faxing change orders, or typing www before a website address.
Critical work can come in many forms, but the impetus is the same: once complete, the business is in a better position — more efficient, more effective, and more marketable.
Without critical work, there is no progress.
It takes work to improve work. Critical work can happen across the enterprise, for example, in large-scale transformation projects. It could occur in a team, rejigging a weekly staff meeting. Critical work can be individual, like learning to use a new piece of software.
All critical work requires you to set aside time.
Google famously ingrained critical work into its culture. This was the “20% time” rule. Sergey Brin and Larry Page wrote in their IPO letter, “we encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will benefit Google.”
This is critical work.
Core work keeps the lights on.
Core work is the production line. It runs the machine; the work which puts sales on the board and money in the till. It is the essence of what you do.
There is another type of work, though — busywork.
Busywork is neither core nor critical, and it accumulates over time.
Busywork is born from inertia. Busywork grows as an output of regular work, like cache files on your PC and paperwork on your desk. It’s that once-urgent quarterly report. No one reads it — and no one bothered to tell you. Busywork is the weekly meeting that could be monthly — but no one has changed the calendar.
Busywork is work you do because you did it yesterday.
Busywork doesn’t fundamentally improve the business. It doesn’t bring in money, service customers, or improve the product. But it’s work, and it sucks up time. You may even feel a calorie-free sense of accomplishment at the end of the day once you have completed it.
You need to get rid of it. It gums up the gears of the business.
Sundar Pichai, Google’s current CEO, recently called for a simplicity sprint. It’s an effort to crush busywork and refocus on what is core and critical.
Pichai asked employees to help “create a culture that is more mission-focused, more focused on our products, more customer-focused. We should think about how we can minimize distractions and really raise the bar on both product excellence and productivity.”
Remove the busywork; it gives you precious time back.
As a business, this might be exiting a market segment that isn’t profitable for you or sunsetting a product that costs you too much to maintain. It might be a finance team that stops doing a certain type of reporting. Or, as a meeting owner, you shift the meeting cadence from weekly to monthly.
You now have some precious time back.
But we still have the problem: “It’s the run-the-business work (Core). It gets in the way of our priorities. (Critical)” This is the essential change dilemma. What can you do?
Salesforce, Apple, Google, 3M, and Atlassian; all companies that put a premium on innovation. Across the organization, they also allocate more time to critical work. It’s a part of their DNA that helps them lead their respective markets. The value of critical work and the time needed for it is built in.
It’s autonomous critical work.
It takes an appetite for risk to push decision-making about what to work on down to the individual level. Google is the most famous company to do this but wasn’t the first. For years, 3M has run the 15% rule. William McKnight, 3M’s former chair, explained it as “encourag[ing] experimental doodling. If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.”
Others have various forms of self-directed, critical work. Atlassian follows the 20% time rule. Facebook, Quora, and Dropbox all run hackathons.
Markets and businesses follow an S curve.
Businesses repeat that cycle of (re)start to scale to maturity. Each cycle is followed by a strategic inflection point, at which point the business will either transform, stagnate or decline.
That’s why there are all these digital (and other) transformation efforts — to avoid the slippery slope of decline and the morass of stagnation.
At that point, the business has to direct critical work. Prioritize reinvention over business as usual.
Think Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T during their 4G growth cycles — a relentless focus on their core business and operations, meeting consumer demand. Then the transition to 5G. Navigating the transition means, hopefully, a transformation in the business, new markets, new opportunities, and new growth. A bumpy transition of the strategic inflection point could signal stagnation or decline.
The transformation — the strategic inflection point — requires critical work. More, it requires aligned critical work, where the creative work of reinvention is pointed at a new North Star. Where big, formal transformation efforts drive structural change; and are supported by a changing of priorities, and the rethinking of critical work, at every level.
This changes the conversation.
“It’s the run-the-business work. (Core) It gets in the way of our priorities (Critical).”
“Remove the busywork. That lets us focus on our priorities (Critical Work), and that will take precedence over the run-the-business work.”