Q&A With David Allen: How Growing Businesses Can Get Things Done - InformationWeek

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9/20/2008
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Q&A With David Allen: How Growing Businesses Can Get Things Done

Renowned productivity guru David Allen shares his insights about working smarter and tips to help managers promote a culture of productivity and accountability within a department or across an entire company.

Every business struggles with how to maximize productivity. It's crucial to maintaining and extending competitive advantage. David Allen has built his reputation by focusing on enhancing individual productivity. His principles, first presented in the bestseller "Getting Things Done," (Penguin; 2002) offer individuals methods and tools for how to manage their work better from e-mail to task lists. Recently, Allen shared his perspective on productivity with bMighty, including how to promote a culture of productivity across the company and his view of social media.

David Allen

bMighty: What do you see as the biggest productivity busters in businesses today?

David Allen: The lack of executive decision-making about input. You have conversations in halls and in meetings but if there isn't an emergency or a crisis, everyone lets it lie. That creates a huge backlog. Most people are living in emergency-scan mode and there is no light at the end of that tunnel.

Working from a zero backlog is the way to do it. The bigger the backlog, the tougher it is to deal with that new input. People complain about new input because they have too much old input.

bMighty: What is the first thing you would recommend to a growing business to enhance its productivity?

Allen: It has to be addressed at the individual level, especially with key individuals. You have to make sure they install their own best practices. You can run the best meeting, but if you don't track action items, you're not solving anything.

If you have to send your boss four e-mails before they pay attention -- if you always have to raise your voice in your organization --- the boss has to change. Otherwise, it gets too loud and noisy.

I say you have to address it at the individual level because it's almost impossible for a culture to legislate systems, but if the boss is highly efficient and is holding people accountable, it changes people's ability to respond. The more senior and influential people who model these best practices, the more it trickles down. It can even trickle up! Sometimes, it's the middle management people who are most in pain, and they have to implement from above and below. When key people start to implement behaviors, it shows up real fast.


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bMighty: How do you boost productivity across an organization as a manager/supervisor/leader?

Allen: That requires a status report that your people have to do, a weekly review. Most businesses don't have a clue. One of my clients is a two-star general. It took him a while to realize the power of the weekly review. It catches everything. When that starts to be expected, if you report to me and you're feeling overwhelmed, you'll bring me a list of all your projects and we'll go over it. You need a vocabulary that assumes people are keeping track of what they need to do. You can't legislate systems but you can say you need people to keep track of their projects. Maybe they just have Post-its on their screen, but every person has to have a coherent system.

IT often has systems for bug reporting, but when it comes to things like new hires or research when they don't have to be immediately responsive to their environment, they don't have a way to interface or incorporate those easily defined projects.

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