Book Review: The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working

August 6, 2010

The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance by Tony Schwartz, Copyright © 2010 by Tony Schwartz.

How are you dealing with the pressure for faster decision-making, greater innovation, and the demands of instant communication in an era where we’re always “doing more with less?” In the book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, Tony Schwartz observes:

“The defining ethic in the modern workplace is more, bigger, faster. The technologies that make instant communication possible anywhere, at any time, speed up decision making, create efficiencies, and fuel a truly global marketplace. But too much of a good thing eventually becomes a bad thing. Left unmanaged and unregulated, these same technologies have the potential to overwhelm us. The relentless urgency that characterizes most corporate cultures undermines creativity, quality, engagement, thoughtful deliberation, and, ultimately, performance.”

The book points out that the combination of instantaneous communication and the expectations of immediate responsiveness create a situation of continuous partial attention, where everyone operates in a reactive mode. This negates the goals of realizing higher productivity and innovation, because more absorbed focus is required to achieve these things. In short, we get busier and more active, to the detriment of ourselves and the organization.

The book makes a strong case that renewal is one way to improve productivity, and this starts with the age-old vacation. Consider this tidbit from the book:

“On average, Americans now fail to use 439 million paid vacation days a year. In 2008, one-third of Americans said they intended to take no vacation at all. Another 33 percent planned a vacation of seven days or less. Only 14 percent scheduled a vacation of at least 2 weeks during 2008.

“Performance is closely related with vacation time. A 2006 study of employees at Ernst & Young, the accounting firm, found that for each ten hours of vacation employees took each month, their performance reviews were 8 percent higher the following year.”

Another way to improve productivity is taking breaks during the day. Tony Schwartz observes that top performers intuitively understand that 90 minute cycles work best in terms of productivity. That is, we can concentrate for 90 minutes, either learning new things or working on complex tasks, and then we need to “renew” (recharge).

And while Tony Schwartz makes the case tuning our day to improve overall performance through regular renewal, he acknowledges one reality: “From an early age, many of us are programmed to believe that rest is for slackers. Building intermittent breaks into the workday is not only counterintuitive; it’s also countercultural in a vast majority of organizations.”

The book also makes a great case that taking care of yourself is important to your long-term productivity as well as your health and well-being. Eating right, getting enough sleep and regular exercise factor into the equation, Entire chapters are dedicated to these subjects.

One example that tied some of this together was the experience of Steve Wanner, a young partner at Ernst & Young who was accustomed to working 12-14 hour days. He felt perpetually exhausted, slept poorly, and made no time for exercise. Steve began a new regimen of going to sleep earlier and waking up to take an early-morning run before his family rose for the day. He found that running made him feel better physically and it made him feel better about himself. At work, Steve felt more positive and alert, and when he arrived home he felt less tired and more able to engage with his family.

For us managers, the book delivers this message:

“As a manager, creating a new way of working begins with recognizing that renewal serves performance. Stop evaluating performance by the number of hours employees put in and instead measure it by the value they produce. The second shift in a leader mind-set is from a singular focus on the competency of employees – the skills they need to get their jobs done – to an equal emphasis on capacity – the quantity and quality of fuel in their tanks.”

How often do managers feel grateful and inspired when employees are logging those extra hours and making personal sacrifices by staying late into the evening working on a project? Once in a while is fine, but if this is happening on a regular basis, we aren’t doing our employees or our organizations any favors. Like many things, there is a delicate balancing act. The book points out:

“Building a culture that deeply values people doesn’t preclude holding them to high standards. Leaders inspire the highest performance by pushing those they lead beyond their comfort zones. Stress is the means by which we expand capacity, as long as it’s balanced by intermittent renewal. That means leaders and organizations must intentionally spend time encouraging, recognizing, appreciating, rewarding, and celebrating people’s accomplishments. Pushing people too relentlessly, even with the most positive intent, eventually runs them down.”

The book cites how Sony changed the way it evaluates its leaders in Europe. “In the past we accommodated leaders who were technically skilled and hit the numbers,” explains Roy White. “Now they also have to be able to harness the energy of their people. We want people to be led positively, because we know that translates into productivity. We’ve redone our compensation structure for leaders to take into account the satisfaction levels of people working for them.”

Setting the stage for greater creativity and innovation is even more challenging for the typical, very busy organization. The book makes a solid point that creativity and innovation requires a right-hemisphere focus. And this requires slowing down – and quieting down. The book asks, “Where are you when you get your best ideas? In the shower? Working out? Driving? Walking? It’s not at your desk, in front of your computer.”

John Kounios sums up the issue of dealing with creativity and innovation and the need for quiet time: “Solving a problem with insight,” he says, “is fundamentally different from solving a problem analytically.”

Consider the following Stages of Creativity outlined by the book and the need for slowing down and quiet, think-time:

First Insight: The point at which creative challenge is defined.

Saturation: Gathering of the facts.

Incubation: Mulling over of information, often unconsciously.

Illumination: Some new combination of the data leads to a break-through or an “Ah-ha!”

Verification: The creative insight is rigorously tested for accuracy.

Overall, I found that The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working made an excellent case for regular renewal and taking care of yourself to improve productivity and stimulate creativity and innovation. I agree that many of the concepts run counter to many organizational cultures and implicit expectations – particularly American corporations, but it’s worth examining the thoughts and examples put forth in this book if we want to continue moving up the productivity and innovation curve.