How to Avoid Getting Sucked Into Needless Activity

abstract downward spiral

Off-track suggestions pulling you into a rabbit hole of needless work?

There’s no shortage of important work to do – both at home and in your job. So, the last thing you want tossed your way is unnecessary work. Nobody likes needless activity, right?

But this is easier said than done. I’m sure you can easily recall getting pulled into something that did not add value – at least not in your opinion.

From a workplace perspective, here’s where I think part of the problem lies:

The past couple of decades have seen the rise of The Group – self-directed work teams, participative decision-making, etc. These work formations and processes definitely have many benefits; they also have drawbacks. In my observation, one unfortunate byproduct of group interaction is that needless activity gets added in the name of innovation and collaboration.

Add to that dynamic Americans’ love affair with Taking Action and you have a recipe for non- value-added work.

The “people equation” looks like this:

Inclusiveness + Compulsion to Act = Making Things More Complicated

For example, consider the story of Clarice and Sebastian, two department leaders at a large multinational corporation.  Once a month, Clarice and Sebastian participate in a 15-person global conference call for their division.  As Clarice gives her update, Sebastian offers a suggestion.

Sebastian: “Clarice, regarding [topic she is discussing] have you ever considered doing XYZ? If you did this, then you could  . . . [Sebastian goes on to describe the process he would us to resolve the issue Clarice is reporting on.]

There are a few possible responses that Clarice might offer in reply to Sebastian.

A. “Sebastian, that’s a very interesting idea, let’s schedule a time offline to discuss it further.”

B. “Sebastian, I hear what you’re saying. Here’s the reason why we’re not moving in that direction . . .”

C. “Thanks for your feedback Sebastian.”

Response “A” is very inclusive and action-oriented. It’s a valid response if Sebastian has offered a workable solution. But what if his solution doesn’t hold water? Then, Clarice could offer up response “B”. However, she may hesitate to do so in a large group conference call, because her company stresses “thinking outside the box” and “inclusion”. Response “B” might be seen as shutting down innovation and collaboration, even if the solution offered is not feasible.

And what about response “C”?

This response requires no action from Clarice other than a polite acknowledgement of Sebastian’s comment. This response is a wise one IF Clarice already knows for a fact that the solution being suggested has been tried, or absolutely won’t work.

When determining how to respond to a comment that potentially adds work to your team’s plate, ask yourself this question:

Is the person making a direct request or a suggestion?

A suggestion sounds like: “Clarice, have you ever considered doing XYZ? . . .”

A direct request is: “Clarice, can we meet to discuss how your team could improve the ABC process?”

In the phone conference example above, Sebastian was offering a suggestion. Because his comment didn’t explicitly state a call to action on Clarice’s part, she has the option of simply saying “Thank you” and moving on. To do so requires discipline, especially if the corporate culture encourages “collaboration”.

Well-meaning colleagues are full of great ideas that will ostensibly help you do your job better.  Making the distinction between a direct request and a suggestion can help you avoid getting sucked down the rabbit-hole of wasted activity. It’s not a responsibility-shirking move, but rather an astute practice to help keep your team focused on their goals.

You may also enjoy: Use This Conversational Tool to Avoid Getting Swamped.

Updated in 2019

Image credit: bikerboy / 123RF Stock Photo

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