The productivity paradox: Lessons from the sugar camp

Don’t confuse strategy and execution.

Strategy and execution are at opposite poles of the spectrum. The former demands a broad view and some imagination – the ability to speculate and innovate. A light touch. Sometimes even a sense of humor.

Execution on the other hand demands a tight focus and the ability to follow the rules. An organization needs both. When it comes to productivity–something you can measure–we are usually talking about execution. This is good as far as it goes, but sometimes we take it too far.

The other day I was pushing a vacuum around the office but I might as well have been on Mars. My colleagues were sitting diligently at their computers, headsets on, focused, being productive. Spending time diligently at your computer is the new definition of work. Anything else is suspect.

The Net is full of advice blogs telling you how to have efficient meetings—generally, the fewer and the shorter the better; with a tight agenda and action items—so you can get back to work, which means sitting at your machine, being productive.

Some groups have walking meetings, but come on?

Productivity is the gospel of our age, but what does it mean? From a distance it often means tapping on keyboards and sliding a mouse.

What is happening is execution. The tasks are relatively clear. Let’s get on with it. Today, most of the tools are digital. Whether you are an architect, a manager, a scientist or a cop in a patrol car, it’s mostly about the laptop, or maybe the PC and don’t forget the smartphone.

In the background of execution lies a set of shared assumptions. A fancy term for this is strategy—the roadmap of where we want to go.

The strategy may be brilliant, but it was set in the past. Execution is really just a test of strategy. Yet there is no perfect strategy.

It is the role of management to set the course and monitor the execution. But reality is complicated. Sometimes you get lucky—you are riding a wave you are not even aware of. Other times you deserve better, but some random act knocks you off course.

The only way to know is step back, sometimes way back. To remove yourself from the day-to-day and all those shared assumptions. You discover something new. It is often from a source outside your usual context. From your viewpoint, it is an anomaly. Suddenly the strategy is suspect.

You realize all that efficiency and productivity may be taking on the wrong route. Perhaps a nimble upstart has devised something new that will make you and your known competitors an anachronism. You have to study your world more deeply, cast a wider net.

This is inimical to the notion of productivity which, by its nature, demands a narrow focus.

How to find the balance?

Sometimes I do that “management by walking around” thing. It is informal. This is how I get to know people. “How is your day going?” is one of my standard lines.

On the surface, there is no agenda but instead a strategic purpose, to prepare the ground for what comes later.

Maybe some storytelling and a few laughs. After a while you get to know your co-workers, their likes and dislikes, their strengths and weaknesses. In a group setting, it creates a certain atmosphere and sense of belonging.

Later, when it is time to confront an important decision that must be made quickly, you discover there is a collective wisdom. Everyone brings their special talents to the table. A few scenarios are tossed out. The decision is made. There is a kind of cosmic efficiency that comes from this holistic approach.

I remember watching my father-in-law and his brothers at the maple sugar camp. They had grown up together and knew each other well. When the sap runs it is all hands on deck, day or night.

The boiling camp is a complicated operation. Wood is fed into the boiler, sap into the pan. Customers wander around enjoying the scene but getting in the way. Someone checks the specific gravity and the syrup drawn off at just the right time.

The customers buy some maple products: syrup, sugar, butter, leaves. People have to be fed. An ATV arrives with supplies.

It is a sort of controlled chaos. There are many technical operations to keep track of, some laughs and teasing at the same time. This is how people have worked in groups since the dawn of time. It is informal but sophisticated. There is a sense of flow.

People look up. They have to communicate in tight quarters. Joking around helps. Young people watch the older ones. They are learning a subtle set of social rules as well as the technical stuff.

Outside the weather changes. It is warming up. There is a light drizzle. The sap stops running. Soon it will be time to clean the pans. Head home.

Nature is a mysterious force. It is hard to predict exactly when the sap will start running and how long it will run. When the season will start and when it will it end.

There are many technical tasks but the groups has to have its own wisdom—that sense of the bigger picture. The tools are just tools and everyone knows it.

The “why” is clear: The season is short and the sap is rare. The syrup is delicious and it can be made into many more products. Making the stuff is an experience in itself.

You are out in the woods. Your senses are alive. Strategy and execution have to blend. At the end of the day someone sweeps out the boiling camp.

I shut off the vacuum. Get back to work.

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