The counterintuitive truths I learned about productivity (the hard way)

Credit: Dilbert

Why we are drawn to the siren songs of productivity tools and how they lead us away from productivity

When you are planning your business processes, how often do you default to the choice of software tools as your first action item?

Time and time again efficiency-hunting team end up spending many months, some years trying to come up with a plan to architect some all-encompassing, fully integrated automation process that will solve their business case.

Start-ups and small businesses by nature have heightened budget instincts , but they are just as plagued by the same tendency as bigger companies to fantasize the existence of an IT solution that will solve their big problems: customers and top line growth.

Why doesn’t this approach work, and yet we all do this?

We all have a very human tendency to have our choice influenced by what is available.

To think: if the the sales & marketing software marketplace is overflowing with thousands of tools claiming to solve every task imaginable, then a) Those tasks must truly be important (important enough someone wrote an app for it!) and b) We need to have those too because others must be using them!

This leads us to believe every business problems must have a software solution, and somehow software vendors must know more about the business problem than us, and we need to buy something if we have any hope of solving our problems. This is how we are led astray to poor decisions.

By the way, this cognitive bias happens to largest, smartest enterprise companies in the world

Levi Strauss:  $5mln Original Proposal for Enterprise-wise Software Led to $200M loss

So don’t feel bad, you are on your way to rehabilitation.

If you want efficiency and improvements, jump into the problem head-first, but try it without productivity tools first.

Often times teams will end up spend months debating and trying automation tools (CRM, mailing list management, email tracking, analytics etc) for months, before diving into the real business case. We know we sure did at one point.

There are two good reason why you shouldn’t do this:

Starting with tools de-emphasizes the utmost importance of learning in the beginning

When you first start a functional area or task, you have very little idea of what matters.

To be able to tell what matters apart from what does not, learning (the kind that is specific to the task you are performing) must first occur through experimenting.

In order words, get your hands dirty!

Try sending 30 emails without having to worry about MailChimp, or calling 30 customers without an expensive VOIP automation, or writing 10 blog posts without worrying about search ranking and content distribution automation wizardry.

The uncommon truth here, is nothing can replace the awkward initial skills development stage when you are ploughing through manual and tedious tasks – why?

Your intuition about what works will develop faster with no tool as your aid. You will understand what steps require a lot of time and a human touch, which processes create bottlenecks, and what cannot be automated away. This intuition will prove critical to our next point, which is:

Tools are awesome in cutting down on repetition. Start thinking about them when you are repeating yourself.

Once you identify where the repetitive actions occurs in your process, this is where software really shine.

All modern productivity tool and apps, from document management (Evernote and al), sales process management (Salesforce and thousands of others), mailing list management (MailChimp and similar tools) and other subcategories, are there to help you cut down repetition. If you did the previous step (learning to identify what tends to repeat), now you can set up conditions for the software to overtake your manual effort, and the software can do it much faster than you with no errors.

Wrapping-up: watch your priorities! When you are learning tools, you are not doing!

The uncommon truth is when we are first learning a functional area (first time marketers, first time bloggers, first time anything since more and more people are learning cross functional areas!) we are at our most vulnerable to default to fantasy thinking – namely that if we ‘d choose the best tools, we’d a) Not ever have to plough through menial and tedious tasks and b) good outcomes will naturally flow.

Productivity tools are big, big investments. Most can easily see the monetary part of the investment, when in fact the real investment comes in the form of time and productivity lost from doing things manually.

Hopefully we have demonstrated the principle that for efficiency to improve, learning must supersede the desire to automate ourselves out of the mundane in the beginning, and we hope that knowledge will help you not only focus on your goals, but appreciate the learning process itself!