Your Schedule vs. Your Mission

March 18, 2000
Sit back, shut out your other thoughts, and imagine what it would be like to spend ALL of your work time on activities that directly relate to your mission.

Think about it: a minimum of meetings, hardly any paperwork or internal bureaucracy, no make-work activities, no delays while the work sat in someone's in-box awaiting sign-off. Create a picture in your mind. Envision yourself going through the day doing work that truly makes a difference. Wonderful, isn't it?

[finger snap] Okay, you can wake up now.

In my ongoing research on workplaces, I've heard from hundreds of people, and most of them say it's vital to have a clear and compelling mission. But they're quick to point out that simply having a mission is not enough -- they want workplaces and work systems that enable them to devote the bulk of their time to mission-relevant activities. I call this concept "relevance," and it's one of the twenty-two keys to creating a meaningful workplace.

Now that you've spent some time exercising your imagination, let's weigh reality. The following five-item assessment will help you take a light look at a heavy issue.

1. The work activities I'm involved in on a day-to-day basis:

Directly support the organizational mission.
Usually support the mission.
Support something...I guess.

2. When it comes to workplace meetings, my colleagues and I:

Get together when we need to and make the most of our time together.
Seem to spend quite a bit of time in discussions that don't add much value.
Have so many endless meetings that we've thought about installing La-Z-Boy recliners in our conference room.

3. Of the following questions, the one that surfaces most often in our meetings is:

How can we help our customers to be more successful?
Are we staying true to our underlying purpose?
Would you slide the donut box over to me?

4. The internal paperwork (for travel reimbursement, timekeeping, purchasing, etc.) in my organization:

Is kept to a value-added minimum.
Ranges from minimal to fairly extensive, depending on the form.
Has earned us the "Golden Chainsaw Award" from the American Papermakers Association.

5. Our internal processes involve:

An absolute minimum of delays while people wait for sign-offs and approvals before the work can move on to the next step.
Quite a few sign-offs and accompanying delays, but we're working to reduce them.
I'm not sure I can answer this. Please wait while I check with my boss.

This diagnostic tool isn't exactly approved by the Academy of Reliable Assessment and Testing. But it'll give you a quick idea of what you're up against, and it leads us to the question that begs asking: What can you and your colleagues do to spend more of your time on mission-critical activities? Here are some practical ideas:

  • Make an exhaustive list of all your work activities during the typical week. Then go from item to item applying the following five questions:

Does this activity help you fulfill your organizational purpose?

Does it help you serve your customers better?

Does it help your colleagues serve a customer better?

Does it bring you closer to the future that you and your colleagues are trying to create?

Does it relate directly to one or more of your goals or objectives?

  • Whenever you find an activity that doesn't pass any of these relevance questions, look for ways to trim it down or dump it from your schedule. Even if we're talking about fifteen paltry minutes during the work week, achieve a small victory by directing that sliver of time to a mission-critical activity.
  • If you can carry out this analysis with your colleagues, all the better. Mary and Bill might reveal for the first time that all the data-crunching done each week simply isn't necessary -- that a trimmed-down report would do just fine. Expect all sorts of time-saving revelations if the analysis goes deep enough and if people are truly honest with each other.
  • If certain activities seem "kind of, sort of" important, exert your skepticism. Why are they important? Search for a good reason, and if none turns up, seize this as another opportunity to stop doing the unimportant -- and to add more mission-critical activities to your schedule.
  • If you're in a position to do so, put on your mission lens and take a close look at your policies and paperwork requirements. Bureaucracy can become your mission's mortal enemy. And it can be terribly stealthy, creeping into the organization through the very best of intentions. There are many ways to fight back, and they range widely, depending mainly on the size of the organization. It might be possible to overhaul the entire policy manual -- or it might make more sense to set up a team that reinvents a specific process.
  • Last but certainly not least: If you can't tell whether an activity is mission-critical because you don't have a well-understood mission, declare a workplace emergency. Get together with your colleagues and start figuring out your deep-down workplace purpose as individuals, as a work unit, as a whole organization. As the dialogue unfolds and folks get clearer on their mission, start taking a look at work activities. Be ready for some surprises -- and some wonderful opportunities.

Other columns by Tom Terez: