Come Up for Air: How Teams Can Leverage Systems and Tools to Stop Drowning in Work
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Come Up for Air: How Teams Can Leverage Systems and Tools to Stop Drowning in Work

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Come Up for Air: How Teams Can Leverage Systems and Tools to Stop Drowning in Work

Nick Sonnenberg is a former high frequency trader and entrepreneur. He currently heads an operational efficiency consulting firm called Leverage and he is also a guest lecturer at Columbia University.

Below, Nick shares 5 key insights from his new book, Come Up for Air: How Teams Can Leverage Systems and Tools to Stop Drowning in Work. Listen to the audio version—read by Nick himself—in the Next Big Idea App.


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1. Teams should optimize for the retrieval of information, not transfer of information.

In Asana’s 2022 Anatomy of Work Index report, they found that 58 percent of employee time is spent on what they call work about work. This consists of activities outside of their primary job function, like communicating about work, searching for information, managing priorities and more.

This can be referred to as the scavenger hunt. It’s when you find yourself spending more time searching for what you need than it actually takes to get the work done itself. When you’re out of capacity, you’re overworked, you have no time whatsoever, you get into this mode where you’re just trying to get things off your plate as quickly as possible. Does that sound familiar? Need to send something to a coworker? What’s the harm of a quick text message and it’s just done. Or, delegating tasks; it feels a bit faster if I just send it off to another person.

Not having an aligned framework and process around where different types of information live results in this game of hot potato. Everyone does whatever is quickest for them in the moment. You do whatever you can to just get things off your plate and be done with it so you can move on to the next thing.

The problem is when your colleague needs to find that piece of information next week or next month, they don’t know where to look. Was it in an email, a text message? Maybe it was a Slack message. Was it in a direct message or was it in a channel? What channel was it in? Social media-marketing or marketing-social media? So, the idea here is simple. Align as a team on where information should live and stick to it so everyone can easily find what they need.

We already do this in so many aspects of our personal lives. For example, when you do your laundry, do you just take all the clothes out of the dryer and throw them into one drawer? Probably not. What you’ll do is take your clothes out of the dryer and separate them. Your underwear goes in one drawer, your T-shirts in another drawer, and so on. It would be easier and faster to transfer all your clothes from the dryer into one drawer and be done, but you spend the time to separate things today, because tomorrow, when you need to put an outfit together, it’s much faster.

If everyone is doing what’s easiest for them in the moment, it creates major problems long term. Instead, teams need to shift their mindset and optimize for the retrieval of information, even if that means that it takes a few extra seconds or minutes right now.

2. Complexity scales exponentially with team size.

When teams are drowning in work, their natural inclination is to hire more people so that more can get done. It only makes sense. If you’re out of bandwidth you need to increase your capacity, so hire more people. But have you ever hired more people in hopes of improving your productivity only to find that for some reason you don’t have any more time? Now, you’re managing a new person and having to deal with delegating, managing, training, and all the different activities involved with overseeing another new person.

“Hiring more people is a knee jerk reaction that can often be the worst and most costly strategy.”

The reality is that there are many ways to increase capacity. Hiring more people is a knee jerk reaction that can often be the worst and most costly strategy. Think about all the costs associated with hiring someone. There is recruiting, onboarding, training, and their salary. Unfortunately, many teams that hire more people find that they’re even more bogged down than they were before. That’s not only because of the additional cost, but every person you hire also adds exponential complexity to your team and organization. This is a hidden expense that, in some cases, could be even bigger than paying their salary. Each new person exponentially increases the number of ways information can be communicated, transferred, and lost. This is best explained by what’s often referred to as the network effect, which stems from a formula called Metcalfe’s law.

Metcalfe’s law states that communication networks get exponentially more valuable as people are added because the number of possible connections also increases exponentially. What many people fail to realize is that there’s a dark side to Metcalfe’s law. As the number of connections increases so does the complexity. The more people you add to a team, the more difficult it becomes to work together. There are more people to manage, more miscommunication, information loss and, misaligned priorities. Work becomes inadvertently duplicated. When teams hire more people to increase their capacity, they’re often putting a band-aid on a larger underlying problem. The real problem is that they’re not operating efficiently as a team. As a result, they’re only getting a fraction of the full value of their people, tools, and systems. Improving team efficiency is often the most cost-effective way to increase your capacity and should often be done before hiring new people.

3. The CPR Framework: communication, planning and resources.

This is the mechanism that allows teams to get on the same page, eliminate the scavenger hunt, and start working together more efficiently. Over the past two decades, time spent in collaborative activities at work has increased by over 50 percent. That means that even if you have a team full of highly productive people working in their own ways, it’s just not enough. Teams need to be aligned on the best ways of working together so that they can maximize their collective output. The solution to this is my CPR framework, which stands for communication, planning, and resources.

Through years of consulting across thousands of teams and organizations, I discovered that everyone encounters the same problems. It doesn’t matter if you’re a seven figure, 10-person financial advisory firm or a multi-billion dollar Fortune 10 tech company. Ultimately, these are the three buckets that you need to optimize for if you want to collaborate and operate efficiently as a team.

You need to communicate, both internally with your team and externally with clients and vendors. You need to plan and manage all the tasks and projects that need to happen so that work is always being done in the right order by the right person on time without duplicating efforts. Finally, you need to document the company’s resources. These are things like standard operating procedures, processes, assets, so that people can easily find what they need to do their job, and that company knowledge is retained even when people leave.

“Modern teams that are drowning in work need to use digital tools in the right ways and at the right times in order to come up for air.”

Imagine you are going to go camping in the forest with your team. You’d need walkie-talkies to communicate with each other. You would also need a map to navigate out of the forest. Maybe you’d need a guidebook to make sure that you have the right gear and that people know how to set up the tent. All three tools need to be used in conjunction with one another, and most importantly, they need to be used correctly—just like a team would need to use those camping tools in the right ways and at the right times to get out of the forest.

Modern teams that are drowning in work need to use digital tools in the right ways and at the right times in order to come up for air. The overarching principle is that knowing when and how to use each of the tools is far more important than the tools themselves. This simple framework allows teams to get really aligned.

4. Don’t let your inbox control you.

According to a study done by Carleton University, most people spend an average of one third of their time at work on email, and 30 percent of those emails are neither urgent nor important. Everyone is up to their neck in email with no end in sight, and that’s simply because email is the most misused tool in the workplace. You surely use email, but has anyone ever sat you down and taught you how to use it properly, or how to get to inbox zero, or when you should be using that versus all the other tools?

The first step is to recognize when to use email in the first place. Email should be used for external communication only. That means with people outside of your organization. So many organizations use email for practically everything. Tasks are delegated via email. Priorities are clarified in email. Conversations between coworkers consist of hundreds of back-and-forth emails. The reality is that email was never built for this. Email is a very simple tool and lacks the functionality required to handle those sorts of things.

So, the first thing to do is take all internal communication out of email. This should be moved into an internal communication tool like Slack or Microsoft Teams. Beyond that, action items and anything project related should be moved into a work management tool. These are purpose-built tools that will handle those functions much better than email ever could.

When you think about the logic of how email works, it’s chronological, meaning it’s in time order, versus these internal communication tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams, where you can organize conversations by topic. Just by separating your internal communication versus your external communication, that alone will significantly reduce the volume of email.

“Most people spend an average of one third of their time at work on email, and 30 percent of those emails are neither urgent nor important.”

The second step is to adopt Inbox zero, which is a simple email management methodology that allows you to work through emails in your inbox until there’s almost nothing left, no unread emails or emails marked as read. To get to inbox zero you have to understand that there’s only three actions that you can take when an email comes into your inbox. We use the acronym RAD. This stands for reply, archive, or defer. Those are the three things that you can do with any email. It also ensures nothing slips through the cracks or gets lost. Even though you’re moving emails out of your inbox, they’ll always be in your archive and can be retrieved at a moment’s notice. They’re just out of sight, out of mind. If you think that you’re an outlier and this method won’t work for you, trust me, we’ve gotten clients to inbox zero who have literally had hundreds of thousands of emails. It’s simple and you can do it too.

5. Not all time is created equal. It’s not just about saving time, it’s about optimizing time.

If you think about your calendar, not all time slots are worth the same. Some are far more valuable than others. It’s kind of like a heat map where different slots have different values. Think about whatever your hourly rate is. If you’re not sure what it is, you could just take your salary, for example, say it’s $100,000 a year and divide it by 2,000, which is roughly what you would get with a 40-hour work week expectation. So the hourly rate is around $50 an hour—but realistically, each hour of the workday isn’t always going to be worth $50 an hour. You might find that 9:00 AM on a Monday after you’ve had a relaxing weekend and done your morning routine, your brain is at full horsepower. That time slot might be worth $500 an hour to you. The end of the day on a Friday, however, after you’ve had 100 Zoom calls and are barely thinking straight, might be worth only $5 or $10 to you.

Recognize the high value time slots versus the low value time slots and optimize your schedule around that. Meetings are one of the most expensive line items in business. It’s estimated that each year, in the U.S. alone, there are over one billion meetings. When you start factoring in what everyone’s cost is in those meetings, you get to a staggering number. One of the ways of not just saving time but optimizing your time is analyze your meetings. If you can shift any part of a meeting from being synchronous to asynchronous, meaning you don’t need to cover that topic live, you have an opportunity to optimize your time.

Here is an example: let’s say the 9:00 AM on Monday slot is your most valuable time slot. If you have a one-hour meeting during this time slot and 15 minutes of that meeting is someone giving a report on something that they’ve been working on, you could consider to reduce that meeting by 15 minutes and have them send a video of that report to you. You could then watch the video when you’re in the back of an Uber after work one night after you’re exhausted from the 10th Zoom that you had that day. You’re then taking advantage of low productive time—when you were doing nothing that useful in the Uber—and now you’ve been able to unlock a very valuable 15 minutes from one of your high value time slots.

To listen to the audio version read by author Nick Sonnenberg, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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