How to Be Productive When the Organization Isn't

What do you do when your personal productivity is high but the company you work for is dragging its feet? Anything but nothing.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #578

Today’s episode is a conversation between Stever Robbins—the outgoing Get-It-Done-Guy—and me, Rachel Cooke, your incoming Get-It-Done-Guy. Have a listen to our conversation by clicking the link to the podcast platform of your choice or clicking the audio player above.

(SIDE NOTE: You may find yourself thinking, Rachel doesn't sound like a guy at all! It's true! The masterminds at QDT are busy preparing to unveil a brand new show name soon. Stay tuned!) 

An organization-wide productivity problem

In our chat, Stever and I talked about how to be productive in an organization when it feels like you’re fighting an uphill battle. The challenges we highlighted will likely be familiar. But don’t worry—we’ve included solutions too. 

We began with Stever generously sharing a story of “unproductivity” from his past. In short, he joined an organization, was tasked with redesigning a website (an estimated one-days’ worth of work), and found himself laboring for nearly seven weeks to bring the project to completion. 

Stever’s story was incredibly relatable. We’ve all had that experience of staring down a project and knowing exactly how to get it done efficiently and effectively. And then, other people enter the picture, and suddenly we find ourselves thinking “How is this possibly taking so long?”

Organizational productivity is its own animal.

Stever discovered that the problem he had wasn't one of personal productivity. He had that in the bag! The issue was a problem with organizational productivity. 

Right on, Stever. Organizational productivity is its own animal. 

So we talked about why this project took so darn long and we highlighted strategies for improving efficiency the next time around.

So many stakeholders, so little time

While Stever was well-versed in the mechanics of redesigning a simple website, and knew he could easily execute the task at hand in a single day, this project required more than mechanics. The need for brand consistency, strategic messaging, and a clean user experience meant that marketing, corporate communications, and IT all needed a seat at the table.

Unfortunately, only top-priority items tend to get attention.

Stever needed approvals from these other departments. And approvals require attention. Unfortunately, only top-priority items tend to get attention. And while this project was priority number one for Stever, the others had bigger fish to fry.

So what do you do in this situation?

You compel those around you to buy-in to your vision. You craft a message that says “This project isn’t about designing a website. It’s about designing a vehicle for acquiring and engaging new customers.”

The key to gaining buy-in is to craft a story that creates value and excitement for everyone.

When stakeholders still aren't taking action

So, you’ve told a great story, you’ve garnered applause … and yet, people still aren’t moved to support your project. What do you do next?

You re-evaluate.

When nobody else seems excited about your project, it may be time to ask yourself: “Am I focused on the right priority right now?”

My dad, the math teacher, taught me this lesson as a kid: “When everyone in the room says that four plus four equals nine, you need to consider the possibility.” As a kid, it drove me nuts. I used to worry for his students. But as an adult, I see his point.

Before you continue banging the drum of needing support, it’s always helpful to make sure you’re banging on the right drum in the first place.

If no one else sees the importance of the project you're pusing, you may need to reassess. It’s helpful to ask yourself (and your boss) some questions like:

  • Am I focused on the most critical outcome for the business right now?
  • Is the work I’m doing designed to deliver that outcome?
  • Is there a more effective way I could be spending my time right now?

Before you continue banging the drum of needing support, it’s always helpful to make sure you’re banging on the right drum in the first place.

I’m on the right path—how do I motivate my colleagues?

Once you and your boss have determined this project is worth fighting for, it’s time to send the flag up the pole.

Organizations are hierarchies. And sometimes we all need a little command and control. So if you’re not having luck inspiring your peers to action, it may be time to call in the big guns. Let your boss know you need support from another team. And ask them to seek support from a peer at their level.

Don’t worry. You're not tattling. You’re driving alignment. 

Sometimes your marketing colleagues need to be redirected by their own boss. So talk to your leader. Make a clear case for what you need from your colleagues, what’s at stake if they don’t act, and how your boss can advocate for you. 

We’ve decided this project isn’t worth pursuing—what do I do now?

If you and your leader determine that this isn’t the right priority for you now, what do you do?

Anything but nothing. 

Your most critical job is to add value, whatever that might look like. If this project isn’t the best investment of your time right now, then scan the landscape and think about an alternative strategy.

Don’t approach your boss and ask “Now what do I do?” 

Instead, offer a proposal. You might say something like “I’ve noticed that projects A, B, and C are all humming along and each of them could use my expertise. Would you support me in jumping into one of those? Or is there something else important you’d like me to focus on right now?”

Taking this approach highlights a few wonderful things about you:

  • You’re mature enough not to take the shutting down of your project personally
  • You’re committed to adding value to the organization
  • You’ve done your homework
  • You’re being proactive but offering your boss the flexibility to redirect you

Hey, if you're someone who offers to jump into projects without being asked, I'd hire you!

Organizations are complex systems. And succeeding within them takes a lot more than competence. You’re going to make mistakes. A lot of them. It’s human. But take a lesson from Stever. Be reflective. Consider past situations that haven’t gone according to plan and be vulnerable enough to talk them through with a colleague. Dissect the facts. Pull out insights. And always do better next time.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.