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It’s Time to Rethink Productivity

Empowering employees and teams to work towards a common purpose, not just quotas or routine expectations, frees everyone from the energy often misspent on micromanagement.

Ever since the management style of the Pharaohs was deemed unsustainable, we’ve all sought new ways of inspiring worker productivity. From Ford’s assembly line to Google’s 20 percent time, the challenge of getting more out of less has been the driving force behind many process innovations. Productivity tricks are as cheap as buying an app these days, but we still haven’t cracked the code on getting and keeping employees motivated.

What is known about productivity comes straight from the motivational speaker’s proverbial handbook: the amount of time we have is constant, it’s our energy that’s expandable. The more energy we have, the more we can do. Aside from installing more latte machines, how do we supercharge our team’s energy and productivity?

Energy Project author Tony Schwartz proposes twelve “whole-person” ideas that can be used to expand employee energy and their ability to get things done. The tenets range from well-timed, protein-rich snacking to eliminating unnecessary choices. Most profound of all is the final insight of the series: finding purpose. According to Schwartz, a near-infinite well of energy is available to people who take the time to identify their personal motivation.

This won’t come as a surprise to high performers; they know what this type of purposeful motivation is worth to an organization. Headhunters and recruiters battle to land these productivity dreamboats. If these workplace heroes tap purpose as the source of their super powers, no amount of 401(k) matching can make up for that. Successful leaders ensure their teams know, understand, and believe in something more.

If these workplace heroes tap purpose as the source of their super powers, no amount of 401(k) matching can make up for that.

It’s ideas, not widgets, that drive commerce. Companies have gotten so efficient at the production of physical and digital products that the market is cluttered with inexpensive, and mostly commoditized choices. As the market shifts from valuing the physical to prizing the intellectual, it’s the best ideas that command our attention and a premium. And ideas take energy. They take purpose.

An example: which payment pioneer would you rather work for, Square or PayPal?

Both seem to have the ingredients that make for success these days. Both have shown impressive revenue growth year over year; both have support from Silicon Valley royalty, both have even nailed the holy business skill of consistent innovation, regularly cranking out new features and products. Even if I told you that Paypal’s revenue in 2013 was $6.6 billion and Square has yet to turn a profit, my guess is you answered Square.

Why? PayPal has struggled from day one to find their purpose. While everyone at Square knows their collective job is to make commerce easy, you’d have a hard time getting even a veteran PayPal-er to recall its stated purpose that PayPal is the faster, safer way to pay and get paid online, via a mobile device and in store. It’s not about character count, it’s about clarity of concept.

A quick search on says it all:

At PayPal

  • 63 percent of employees would recommend working at PayPal to a friend.
  • “Great Benefits, passionate people, poor management”
  • “awesome technology, but culture has changed for the worse.”

At Square

  • 81 percent of employees would recommend working at Square to a friend.
  • “Meaningful work and mission”
  • “Working at square is amazing. The people, the work, and the mission make coming to work every day a pleasure.”

PayPal is in the black today, but I’d bet on Square for the win.

Unfortunately, not every team is part of a purpose-driven company and the reality is that a company-wide purpose, clearly told, won’t happen without the work or at least the permission of the Chief Executive. Here’s the good news: individuals within a purpose-driven team are just as likely to reap the benefits as those in a highly functioning company like Square.

The knowledge worker productivity is a new kind of productivity. It isn’t about extracting every last drop of effort from employees, nor is it about dangling rewards to get from milestone to milestone. When a company, team and individual understands their purpose, it enables each employee to hook into a greater cause on the level that fits them best, so that each team member actively builds towards the ultimate goal. A passionate, driven organization will always outpace those that have no purpose.

Empowering employees and teams to work towards higher goals, not just quotas or routine expectations, frees everyone from the energy often misspent on micromanagement. It takes trust to make your staff responsible for achieving your purpose as well as their own, but a productive company culture depends upon it.

Here’s what you can do to inspire a new level of productivity and passion, pronto:

1. Write your purpose statement. 

Even if the company doesn’t have one, your team can. Ask what one thing you’d like your group to be known for accomplishing. Have everyone contribute a few ideas and as a group, choose the best one. The best statements are succinct and don’t even have to have direct involvement with the actual product. For example: Zappos aims to “deliver happiness” — the shoes are a byproduct.

2. Create a “purpose trajectory.”

Encourage each team member to keep in mind purpose when making choices. By having each person connect their everyday responsibility and role with the far-reaching purpose, individuals can create a larger context within which to make decisions. From the front lines to the back office, everyone should be able to tie their day-to-day to the bigger picture. 

3. Reinforce with great stories.

At weekly staff meetings have one team member share a story of something they or a colleague did that supported the team or organization’s purpose. Treat the brave soul who shared their story to a coffee. Those stories will resonate with your team more than any mission statement ever will.

How about you?

What is your purpose? How did you find it?

Comments (16)
  • Bob Marshall

    And there was I, hoping for a more humane take on the whole question of the obsessive pursuit of “productivity”. Sigh.

    FWIW We *have* cracked the code on getting and keeping employees motivated. See, for example, the #AntimatterPrinciple .

    BTW At what point in history (date) was the management style of the Pharaohs deemed unsustainable? And by whom? Seems like it’s still going strong in most organisations.

    – Bob

  • Sarah Peterson

    I love the premise, and the focus put back onto each employee understanding the purpose and the vision, and buying into it. I agree and believe that is the number one key. However, I don’t like the subtle twists at the beginning, about “no amount of 401K matching” being able to stack up to a passionate employee. That’s accurate and true if you’re the employee, but for a employer, it’s translating as a blank check to cash in and get around the fair compensation. Just take a look at recent news articles about the airline industry if you don’t believe me….

  • Dave Rothacker

    I’ll offer a different perspective. The purpose of a company that I previously worked for was to make the owner rich. Trapped by financial responsibilities and paralyzed to escape, I realized that to survive I needed to have a purpose. So mine was to protect my team from bureaucracy and the owner’s evil intent. I viewed myself as a fighter pilot and would strafe any activity I deemed invasive.

    Sadly, the only way to keep the owner off of our backs was to contribute to his mission. As long as we did profitable work, we got to do our own thing. The owner’s eyes were clouded by dollar signs. He didn’t have a clue to what we were actually doing (neat projects and teaching each other undercover).

    After a few years I ran out of energy maintaining this arrangement and I ended up leaving the company.

    I would suggest finding a company that has a purpose you can believe in. Trying to sustain a vibrant culture within a team, when the company lacks it, is beyond incredibly difficult.

    • Tony Dovale

      Hi Dave – please can I use your story in my talks and website….


      Tony Dovale

      • Dave Rothacker

        You got it Tony!

  • Josh Levine

    Great point, @daverothacker:disqus . We wrote from an assumption that leadership was unaware, not aggresively ignorant. Not many can survive in a toxic organization like that. You should write a piece on your experience and toxic leadership intervention! ; )

    • Dave Rothacker

      LOL Josh! Jim Collins wrote all there is to write about my experience in Good to Great. It’s called the Stockdale Paradox.

      Seriously though, good idea. Presently I am writing about the Pieces of Freedom I find in other’s lives. Usually to attain freedom, one must navigate mine fields of toxicity. So there’s a tie in. Thanks!

  • Josh Levine

    That’s true @disqus_Y6obxapoRc:disqus . Everyone should be fairly paid. I like how Dan Pink puts it, businesses should provide enough in compensation to take the subject off the table. It’s a great measure that can scale to the situation.

  • Ryan Wells

    I’m starting to think that productivity isn’t the measure you strive to master. It’s profitability. Personal, professional, emotional, mental, physical and financial. If we’re in deficit we have a problem. We need to find profitable ways to spend our time not waste our much precious resource. Sure, it might sound like a subtle nuance but I was reminded recently that some of the most successful entrepreneurs do less. They’re more focused, determined and relentless in pursuing their goals than others, but focused on less, prioritising for profit. The ambition is to do better, to be world class and achieve mastery in one or two things. To profit is to be successful, to be productivity is simply do more. It’s not always a good thing.

  • David Lowe

    Totally agree with Schwartz: if you can tap into the personal motivation (e.g. Align personal goals to company goals), then there’s so much more energy.

  • Guest

    As a designer, My purpose is to “Delight the People” by design. I found my purpose of designing when i hate using any mobiles, interface, posters, sending mail etc., i wish even composing a mail should be delightful experience to users. So i decided to put the ‘delightful user experience’ first always!

  • Arun Raj

    As a designer, My purpose is to “Delight the Users” by design. I found my purpose of designing when i hate using any mobiles, interfaces, posters, sending mail etc because of it’s annoying experience, i wish even composing a mail, filling a form should be a delightful experience to the people in the world. So i decide to put the ‘delightful user experience’ first always in my design life!

    • alex ringer

      Being a designer myself I can be identified with your words

      • Arun Raj

        Glad ! 🙂

  • Miguel Ángel

    Implicación, propósitos y sentimiento de pertenencia a la organización son imprescindibles para conseguir nuestros objetivos. Un post con valor añadido. Un saludo

  • Norman Ridenour

    I feel that most of you work in a tech environment. I deal with the problem from another aspect. I have been a craftsman in wood for over 30 years in two countries / languages. I find that because people have no personal experience with hand work, most do not even cook, there is little respect for the linkage between idea / design and finished product. I just returned from a month in Spain and an idea I have been planning to get into my blog was reinforced. Buying / acquiring quality hand labor used to be the mark of personal wealth. Today only the image of good work is valued, Chinese copies of painting /sculpture is valued, carved marble is replaced with cast plaster; it is less expensive, few will note a difference, and who cares what it will look like in 50 years, it will be torn down by then. Norman Ridenour,

  • Shannen Ellis

    “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” – mark twain

    Once we know our purpose in life, nothing’s going to stop us, not even fear!

    I’ve read some nice article about going for your dreams. You may check it out here:

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