Efficiently Doing Useless Things

A Critical Doer generates motion from “why” more than “what”

 A Critical Doer understands time; long and short view

 “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

Peter F. Drucker


 “Why are we doing this?”

This is one of the most often asked, most misunderstood, and most dismissed questions ever asked at home and at work.  Some interpret asking why as a challenge to authority.  Some interpret why as a question leading to evasion of work.  Some don’t know why and frankly don’t care that they don’t know why…it’s just what we’re supposed to do.

A Critical Doer, one who is committed to thinking critically and deeply through a problem to the point where action can begin and then continues to think while doing, understands the linkage between “why” and “time.”  To my knowledge, there has been no breakthrough in quantum physics that has fundamentally reconstructed time.  Despite our wishes, especially when the morning alarm rings, there is still only 24 hours in a day.  The way we allocate those 24 hours is the most important decision we make whether you’re a stay at home parent or a Fortune 500 CEO.

The late Professor Warren Bennis highlighted something very important about our obligation as leaders, followers, and doers when it comes to why and time.  He said “managers will ensure things are done right; leaders ensure we do the right things.”  This relates perfectly to Peter Drucker’s quote about the futility of efficiently accomplishing the irrelevant.

Ultimately, the question of why comes down to a basic principle of economics called opportunity cost.  If there are only 24 hours in a day, what is the cost of doing activity A if it prevents doing activity B?  All of our time and tasks have a relative value, and productivity depends upon the choices to spend time doing things that provide the greatest return.  This is how you make choices to invest your money…why would you do any differently with time?

One technique I’ve used in asking why from a top down rather than bottom up approach is to ask people why they are doing a particular task.  If they don’t know, there’s either a problem with communication of the task’s importance or necessity of the task.  Drilling down further, if there is not an explanation of the bad thing that would happen if a task were not accomplished…you may have just identified a penguin to shove off the iceberg to make room for one of much higher value and return.

I will caution you to beware of becoming overly enamored with any of a number of management techniques that will help as your compass in gaining efficiency.  As a Critical Doer, you need to rise above the task level and let your “why” questions address an entire series of tasks or an entire enterprise.  Maintaining a strategic perspective…being closely attuned to the long range goals that define your organization’s identity…will allow you to be the compass that points towards the right things to do rather than efficiently accomplishing the unnecessary while your competitors gain an advantage.

Your challenge, Critical Doers, is to take a hard look at the opportunity cost of where you are devoting either yours or your organization’s time and energy.  If you can’t reflexively explain why, do some critical thinking to figure out whether you really need to continue this activity or go in another direction to free up time for activities that directly relate to accomplishing strategic goals.  You won’t just do more…you’ll do what’s right, and that’s what a Critical Doer would…do!



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Updated: April 22, 2015 — 8:50 am