How to Exponentially Increase Team Productivity

Last week, I wrote about personal productivity pointing out that not everything on the ‘to-do list’ has equal impact. I also wrote about planning using your energy levels and briefly touched upon the concept of ‘deep work’. I think that most people know about these concepts but if knowledge was the only thing we needed, the advice on the internet would have made us all billionaires!

Knowing what to do and doing it are two separate things. The knowledge is easy to attain but changing behaviour is exceptionally difficult.

Value-Add or Non-Value Add Work

When I worked at Urenco, Greig Walker taught me about Lean. He explained the concept of value-add vs non-value add which I have to admit I struggled to understand initially. I think part of this was because it was my first job in the civilian world having just left the Royal Marines. I had so little context of the commercial world, it made it hard for me to understand the fact that people might come to work and be unclear about what they were meant to focus on.

I learnt that value-add work is basically work that the customer values and therefore is willing to pay for. Anything that falls outside of that remit, is by definition waste. So if you’re working on a manufacturing line, time spent on the line is ‘value-add’ because you are building something that the customer pays for.

That’s relatively straight forward and easy to understand.

The ‘Customer’ of a Leader is their Team

Where people struggle is when they get promoted into leadership positions. The customer is no longer the external customer of the firm. It is the people they lead. Therefore time spent, improving the performance of your team, planning, coaching, helping them to produce operating instructions is value-add. Anything that does not improve the performance of your people is non-value add.

This is very similar to the concept of servant leadership which those of us who have served in the Military will understand. In the military, the enemy is your external ‘customer’ because everything you do is designed to have an impact on them. Therefore, the role of an Officer/NCO is to improve the performance of their people so that they can have more of an effect on the enemy. 

Value-add time in the military is time spent shooting, developing field craft skills and tactics. Non-value add is all the other stuff that you have to do. 

So now you understand the concept of value-add and non-value add, the next step is to work out how to apply it to your team. 

Most productivity advice will focus on small tactical incremental improvements. 

Massive improvements in productivity can only come once you’ve clarified the following and are confident that everyone understands them and is working towards achieving them.

Team Purpose

The first thing you have to clarify is the Purpose of the Team. In short, why does the team exist? How does it make the world a better place in some way? 

This should not be about making money because frankly, people don’t care about that. They don’t expend discretionary effort to give your shareholders a better return. There has to be something deeper, unconnected to money, that provides the purpose for the team. When I was in the Corps, there was a sense of belonging and being a part of an elite community of professionals. The aspiration to be part of a brotherhood got me through training. 

When I worked in the nuclear industry, the purpose was connected to being part of an industry that provides a low carbon stable electricity source. Bluntly, it you aren’t pro-nuclear, you are pro-fossil fuels because the green technology is not yet ready to keep up with our demand for electricity. 

The concept of purpose comes from Victor Frankl, an Austrian psychotherapist who was interned in Auschwitz during WW2. He observed that prisoners frequently died when they lost their reason to live, when their purpose expired. Simon Sinek built upon this concept with his brilliant TED talk.

Why does your team exist? How do they contribute to making the world a better place? A short statement that clarifies this can be extremely powerful in motivating people.

Team Mission

The next thing you have to clarify is ‘what you do and for whom?’ 

This clarifies who your customer is. It might be internal or external. If you have a marketing team, chances are that their customers are the sales team because the better they do their job, the easier it will be for the sales team to do theirs. 

They thrive together or they die together. In a football team, it’s no good if the strikers score five goals if the defenders concede six but that’s how many people think in the business world – they think (and are often measured) in terms of silos so it’s rarely necessary for them to work together.

Clarifying what you do and for whom will identify the priorities and who you serve. If you are unclear on the priorities, ask whoever you serve, your customer, what it is they value from you and how you can do it better.

Team Vision

The final element that you have to clarify is the vision. What are you working towards? What is the clearly articulated future picture that you are trying to make into a reality? 

Kennedy’s ‘Man on the Moon by the end of the decade’ speech is a great example of a clear vision bound by a time frame. There are plenty of others, some more aspirational and long-term, others more time-bound and short-term. It doesn’t matter what you chose so long as you have something to refer to making sure that whatever you have on the to-do list works towards making that vision a reality. If you don’t have a vision, how can you apply this test?

Agile Consultation

Most firms will tell you that they have a vision, that isn’t the test. Go to the team and ask them what the vision is. Get them to explain it. If they can’t, you have a communication problem. If the answers are different, you have an alignment problem which may be related to the communication issue.

You cannot over communicate the vision. Telling the team once is not enough. You have to remind them of it every day. It’s like telling your spouse that you love them on their wedding day and then saying  ‘I’ll let you know if anything changes’. You cannot over communicate the message!

Once you have these elements clarified, you can start to use some tools to help them live and breathe in the organisation. But you cannot do it until you’ve worked out the answers to the above.

The tools below will make you efficient. 

The above makes you effective. 

You need to be effective before you worry about becoming efficient.

Performance Centre

The Performance Centre is simple a tool that clarifies what everyone is working on. This is a really simple management check to confirm that everyone is working towards the same goal. There are other elements to it which improve team productivity and reduce email traffic but I won’t go into them now. The key is to get together around this whiteboard once a day to talk about ‘what everyone is working on’. It will feel a bit strange at first but you’ll get used to it and soon you won’t remember what you did before you had this tool.



If you can’t see it – you can’t manage it. Make performance visible.

The Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix is a useful tool to clarify the difference between what is urgent and importance as the two are rarely the same. I’ve written about this before but the key point is to understand what is important and prioritise that first. Exercise and spending time with your family is important but rarely urgent. It often becomes urgent when you’ve neglected them – and often, it’s too late to do anything about it.

Team productivity is one of the outcomes of good leadership and management. Most of the advice you’ll find online will focus on tactical productivity tips which help you become more efficient. The gains are usually minimal.

Productivity is about becoming effective and then working out how to be more efficient. 

The above steps are designed to help you achieve that but it’s just knowledge. It’s what you DO that counts.


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