Being Busy: Blights and Beatitudes

Monday, 27 June 2011 00:23 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Most of us are struggling for time. We have more to achieve than the available time. Being busy has become the order of business managers. Yet, the question remains whether just being busy will bring the desired results. The answer based on global research is a firm “no”. Today’s column features the facets of being busy, with emphasis on their relevance to Sri Lanka.

Professors Heike Bruch of University of Saint Gallon, Switzerland and Sumantra Ghoshal of London Business School did extensive research on the performance of managers on a global scale. They surveyed more than 10,000 managers across the globe with regard to the way they spend time. They identified focus and energy as two key factors that contribute to the way managers achieve results.

Focus

Focus means concentrated attention. It refers to conscious and intentional actions by a person in order to achieve a particular objective. One needs discipline to resist disturbances, and to overcome tendencies to deviate.

It is easier said than done with regard to maintaining focus. Henry Mintzberg, a veteran management scholar discussed this in his book, ‘The Nature of Managerial Work’. Managers must typically work on a variety of tasks simultaneously and rely on their colleagues to complete a job. Maintaining focus can be very challenging in some situations. It can be a case of e-mails or females. Ensuring concentration without getting confused is what is required.

Going deeper, focus is associated with the state of mind. In Zen Buddhism, it says your mind is like a “drunken monkey”. Meditation helps you to tie it up to a tree so that mind and body are intact. All great religions have spoken about the need to focus both on material and non-material needs. In a competitive business world, power of focus has become valuable as never before. It applies to Sri Lankan managers as well.

Energy

Energy means a variety of things. For our discussion, it can be regarded as a level of personal involvement that that is more than just doing something. It also implies effort, fueled by external or internal factors. As Bruch and Ghoshal further elaborate, energy is what pushes managers to walk the extra mile, in overcoming obstacles and meeting tight timelines.

This type of energy cannot be obtained simply by consuming “energy drinks”. It requires a whole-hearted effort with dedication. There are so many success stories of such energy in action. Committed manager working on an important project with a tight targets and time frames is one such case in point. Bruch and Ghoshal relate the story of the Sony Vaio computer, a first from Sony to integrate a variety of digital technologies, as a case of energy into results.

“Responding to CEO Nobuyuki Idei’s challenge to create an integrated technological playground for a burgeoning generation of ‘digital dream kids,’ Hiroshi Nakagawa and his team put in 100-hour weeks to create the kind of breakthrough product Idei hoped for. One manager, Kazumasa Sato, was so devoted to the project that he spent every weekend for three years conducting consumer reconnaissance in electronics shops. Sato’s research into consumer buying patterns helped Sony develop a shop layout that enhanced traffic flow and, by extension, sales. In the end, the Vaio captured a significant share of the Japanese PC market.”

Sri Lankan managers have also demonstrated energy in many projects, and software development for global firms can be one such example. However, overall status of managers demonstrating energy can still be improved a lot.

Focus and energy: Four scenarios

Based on the level of presence of focus and energy in a manager, four different scenarios emerge. Figure 1 shows the focus-energy matrix with such scenarios. It will be interesting to discuss them with special relevance to Sri Lanka.

Based on the matrix, we see four types of managers. Let’s look at them in detail.

Disengaged managers (Focus – high; energy – low)

According to the two researchers, roughly 20% of managers fall into the disengaged category; they exhibit high focus but have low levels of energy. Some of these managers are simply exhausted and lack the inner resources to re-energise themselves. Others feel unable to commit to tasks that hold little meaning for them. Disengaged managers have strong reservations about the jobs they are asked to do; as a result, they approach them half-heartedly.

I see a resemblance of such disengagement in the public sector. There are very qualified and experienced people who know very well “what should be done”. Yet, why aren’t they doing it and delivering results is the question.

Distracted managers (Focus – low; energy – high)

The two researchers have identified the largest group of managers studied – more than 40% – fall into the distracted quadrant: those well-intentioned, highly energetic but unfocused people who confuse frenetic motion with constructive action. When they’re under pressure, distracted managers feel a desperate need to do something-anything. That makes them as dangerous as the proverbial bull in a china shop.

I see such managers in the Sri Lankan private sector. They work, work and work but do not produce results at times. They might be the first to come to work and last to leave the office, but without proper focus, performance is not optimal.

It can be a case of inevitable multi-tasking. Typing an email with a sandwich in mouth and the mobile phone pressed to the ear, and waving a hand to say bye to someone passes by is one such distracted scene. The issue here is the lack of focus. You might send the email with spelling mistakes, and perhaps to the wrong email address. The person on the other end of the phone call might get confused of the response. Obviously, you might not enjoy the sandwich. The bottom line here is the sheer lack of focus.

Procrastinators (Focus – low; energy – low)

This is the worst scenario. The researchers observed that among the managers studied, some 30% suffered from low levels of both energy and focus. Although they dutifully perform routine tasks – attending meetings, writing memos, making phone calls, and so on – they fail to take initiative, raise the level of performance, or engage with strategy.

I see many such people, especially among the political appointees. They tend to postpone things as there is no compelling reason for them to pay attention or to put effort. They just see things pass by. They might be fearing failure or feeling insecure, as taking initiatives is the last thing for them. Obviously, they are the “passengers” in a team where the other performers have to carry the extra burden.

Purposeful managers (Focus – high; energy – high)

This is the exclusive club and the star-performing minority. The smallest proportion of managers studied by the researchers – around 10% – was both highly energetic and highly focused. Not only do such managers put in more effort than their counterparts, but they also achieve critical, long-term goals more often.

Purposeful managers tend to be more self-aware than most people. Their clarity about their intentions, in combination with strong willpower, seems to help them make sound decisions about how to spend their time. They pick their goals and their battles with far more care than other managers do.

I see such gems in both private and public sectors in Sri Lanka. They are in fact the true catalysts in making a better Sri Lanka. With the right blend of high levels of focus and energy, they know clearly what has to be done, and they do it in a committed manner in producing results. They see opportunities in obstacles and make stumbling blocks their stepping stones. Avoiding land mines of political interferences and seeking gold mines of sustained growth has to be the way forward.

Enhancing focus and energy

Having discussed the dynamics of focus-energy combinations, one might wonder how they can be enhanced. Let’s start with focus. It needs work in two aspects, physical and mental. For me, physical distractions are easy to overcome. Planning the work and choosing a conducive environment are some such actions.

Mental front is the more difficult one to confront. Mindfulness is one very effective practice to maintain focus. Psychologists simply call this, “present moment living”. Once we learn to drop the two heavy suitcases in our hands, one is called the past, the other is called the future, we will be better in focusing on the present, in truly experiencing what Eckhart Tolle, an authority on spirituality, called, “the power of now”.

With regard to energy, it is all about balance. Mid-body balance, work-family balance, strategic-operational balance, thinking-doing balance is some of these manifestations. Energy is a culmination of a variety of factors such as being fit, cheerful, passionate and committed. One needs to work on it continuously in order to maintain a high level of energy.

Way forward

As we have seen so far, simply being busy will not produce results. Being busy has its blights and beatitudes. Having the right blend of focus and energy would ensure purposefulness in words and deeds. Sri Lankan managers need to enhance the twin characteristics of focus and energy in order to reap the beatitudes of a purpose driven life.

Such individual actions together with interactive team efforts would result in institutional progress. This, in turn will pave way for the nation’s forward path, with purposeful managers spearheading purposeful growth and prosperity.

(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is a learner, teacher, trainer, researcher, writer and a thinker in the areas of human resource management and organisational behaviour. He can be reached on ajantha@pim.lk.)

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