Leaders need time. For the observational leader, the pandemic has allowed us to see bad habits get amplified. One reason seems to be a penchant for busyness. Things we did that were a distraction have now become a drain. We value people being busy rather than thinking about the value of what that busyness produces. A Harvard Business Review article came by that put some of that in perspective.

Here’s the article (the HBR edition is paywalled). TL,DR: you need time for strategy. If you value busyness, you are creating impediments to having that time.

Busyness is a term of art. I don’t take any credit for it.

Review Your Busyness

Case in point: meetings. I. struggle. with. meetings. Not because there’s something inherently wrong with them. Just that they are so often done poorly, unncessarily. No agenda. A sharing of content that could have been done (since interactivity isn’t required) by email.

We have a meeting-based culture in our organization. While meeting-centricity can be valuable in a project environment, it is not always the best way to communicate and share ideas. In most cases, you need to maximize people’s ability to do the primary work.

An employee emailed me the other day and asked why I’d marked them all tentative acceptance. She’d just sent a year’s worth of standing meeting appointments. No agendas, because it’s too far in advance to know if we even need the meeting, let alone what we’d talk about. I always mark that sort of a meeting as tentative. Frankly, if I have a more pressing need or better offer, I’ll take it over the standing meeting.

As our organization shifted to work from home, our meeting culture went into overdrive. I went from having quarterly meetings with my divisional colleagues to weekly ones. The periodic one-on-one meetings were now bi-weekly. We had shifted from business to busyness.

The reality is that there are lots of ways to communicate, even in a pandemic. A meeting is often not the best choice. A video meeting may be the least best. Does it need to be synchronous? Can you let people do their work and get back to you when it fits their schedule? What is the best tool to get the job done most effectively?

Another area is email. One department doubled its all-staff email blasts, and two departments created weekly blasts. Since they’re corporate lists, there’s no opt out.

It would be one thing if they added value, but they don’t. One of them is just a summary list of embedded tweets. Another provides tips, but the tips are only relevant if you are using corporate technology.

Some of this is just adaptation to a crisis. It’s not that the work is necessary but it makes people feel better to do something. That can be a legitimate goal. But we should be cognizant of the delivered value, particularly when it impacts other people’s time.

The good thing is that it should be easy to spot. What are you doing now more frequently than you were before your law library went into lockdown?

Remove the Busyness

The busyness is in our business procedures and our workflow as well. There are things we do because people are comfortable doing them. Those things may be more visible now, and it can make them easier to identify their negative impact.

I have just submitted what must be my 300th discrepancy report to our finance team. All but a handful have been blank, but we are required to send them in each month. The pandemic has made it hard for the people who normally complete the form to access it so at least we’ve saved a step. I can sign a blank form without someone having to send it to me. Make some time for yourself and see if there aren’t things you and your staff can stop doing to make even more time for everyone.

You may just be able to stop doing it. We decided to stop paying a publisher whose invoices were in a terrible state. We reset the workflow so it fit our needs, rather than attempting to accomodate the business failure of the publisher.

If you have to do it for compliance or business reasons, determine if you’re doing it the best way. Is the right person doing it? Do they have the best tools to do it well and efficiently?

I am a bit concerned that these amplified examples of business will continue when we return from our homes. It will compound the challenges of managing one’s time for strategic purposes.

Good case: the law library leader can free up time for more strategic thinking, planning, and execution. Ideally, the time discovery flows through the team so everyone can benefit from time to be creative and thoughtful about their work.