It pays to take a step back from our work occasionally and ask, “Am I producing value?”
In this article, you will learn to reconsider whether you are working smart or simply going through the motions. Notice that “working smart” still includes the word “work”: any effort to escape that point will lead to failure.
Two Ways To Think About The Value You Produce
There are two ways to think about the value you produce in your work. First, there is the value that you understand and appreciate. Second, there is the value that others (e.g. managers, stakeholders and customers) perceive. For the best results, these two perspectives need to overlap substantially. Let’s define both these perspectives and see how it applies to working smarter. Most people perceive their work as highly valuable. In contrast, the recipients of your work product tend to focus on a few aspects that relate to their needs.
Tip: When considering what to do with unexpected free time, ask yourself “what task would deliver the greatest value to my number one customer?”
The 4 Ways To Work Smarter
Use the following strategies to work smarter and achieve more valuable results in your work. The first strategy asks as a foundation that to enable the other strategies.
1. Seek End-To-End Understanding (i.e. Be Curious About The Organization)
Once an organization expands beyond a handful of people, specialization takes hold. That process brings many benefits such as increased focus and the ability to recruit experts. However, there is a cost in the form of decreased understanding. For example, sales staff may not understand the invoice and accounting implications of their work. In contrast, accounting staff may not understand how a new product launch will impact their budget. This point is especially important for “back office” functions like IT. Take a page from leading CIOs who emphasize the value of learning the business operations and the sales organization.
Action Exercise: Seek an an end to end understanding of the processes and tasks you are involved with. Who works on the process before you get involved? Who uses the outputs of your work? This understanding will equip you to add more value.
2. Execute At Key Moments
There are certain moments and tasks that are key moments in our work. Delivering a quality result at those times make a big difference. Following this rule often becomes difficult because “key moments” tend to come at the end of a long process. For example, the “go live day” at the end of a long project – if this event is not well executed, your reputation will suffer. Delivering a presentation with energy to an important audience is another example. During these moments, you have the opportunity to shine!
Action Exercise: Examine your calendar for the next 30 days to look for “key moments” that have the potential to make an impact on your career. Schedule additional time to prepare and seek outside help if needed.
3. Seize The Initiative
Executing on orders you receive from above matters especially if you are getting started in your organization. Delivering on those requests from managers and others shows that you are a team player. However, a passive outlook or simply waiting for orders from on high is not enough. The third work smart strategy is to seize the initiative. If you are operating in a conservative or risk averse organization, start small and build up from that point.
Here are a few ways that you can proactively take initiative to get ahead.
- Solve A Messy Problem. Every organization has messy problems that have lingered on for a long period. Messy problems may mean confronting another group about their ineffective interactions. In other cases, it may simply be complicated, detail heavy work that few people want to work through. Sitting down to review a complex Excel spreadsheet or PowerPoint presentation, line by line, is an excellent way to add value.
- Improve Personal Productivity Through Process Improvement. There are many ways to improve processes and make an impact. In the short term, there is a benefit to this work because you can free up additional time. You can then redeploy that additional professional capacity in new ways. Asking for cross-training on a colleague’s work tasks is one approach.
- Support Another Department`s Goals. Stepping up to help another department shows that you have a vision that goes beyond your job description and current department. Ensure that your additional assignments do not undermine your regular portfolio.
4. Complete Strategic Work/Education On Your Time
In the book “Nobodies to Somebodies: How 100 Great Careers Got Their Start,” by Peter Han, I learned of a Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Dietrich who worked on projects on his own time. Here is a quote from the book describing his approach:
Journalist Bill Dietrich remembered having to fight for one of his early award-winning efforts to write about the deinstitutionalization of mental health patients across the country. ‘I heard about this and could see that it was going to be a major change… The city editor said, ‘Well, this paper doesn’t do big stories… so forget it.”
“So what I had to do was do a lot of the reporting and writing on my own time, then bring it to the paper as a fait accompli, and say, ‘See, isn’t this interesting?’… I also learned at that first job that you can’t wait for people to invite you to do things.” (pg. 106-107)
Other ways to apply that strategy include seeking out education on your own time. For example, I have met a number of executives, managers and other professionals who have gone back to school to earn additional degrees. In some cases, they had employer support. In other cases, they did not have such support.
All of these strategies involve taking some degree of personal risk and being willing to embrace a trade off. You might be turned away when you seek to add value to another department. Your personal project may not lead anywhere interesting. That uncertainty discourages many people from using smart work strategies. Therefore, you have the opportunity to stand out by being one of the one or more of these strategies.
Further Reading On Working Smart
Today’s article was inspired by a book I read last week by Peter Han. There are numerous fascinating insights from the book including the smart work concept discussed here. Find additional resources below on how to work smart.
Nobodies to Somebodies: How 100 Great Careers Got Their Start by Peter Han. This book features interviews and insights from one hundred leaders from a variety of fields. The book emphasizes the early career and advice to young professionals.
The big difference between smart work and hard work by Blaz Kos. An in depth article that explores multiple aspects of working smart. The article covers some important big picture concepts such as understanding your organization and knowing the career potential of your industry.
5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder by Jeff Haden. The Inc.com article presents research on how we work. The first tip in the article? Take more breaks! Breaking the day up with breaks tends to refresh you.
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