Fake Work: Why People Are Working Harder than Ever but Accomplishing Less, and How to Fix the Problem

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9781416586357: Fake Work: Why People Are Working Harder than Ever but Accomplishing Less, and How to Fix the Problem

How many countless working hours have you spent on projects, proposals, paperwork, and meetings that felt useless or were ignored or dismissed? Hard work is not the same as real work. Half of the work we do consumes valuable time without strengthening the short- or long-term survival of the organization. In a word, it's fake. Not only does fake work drain a company's resources without improving its bottom line, it steals conviction, care, and positive morale from employees, and adds the burden of high turnover, communication breakdowns, and cultural patterns of poor productivity. But how can you turn fake work into real work? Internationally renowned business consultants Brent D. Peterson and Gaylan W. Nielson explain how to identify needlessly time-consuming and sometimes difficult tasks (which aren't always as easy to spot as they seem) and shift your focus toward rewarding work that will achieve results. With more than twenty years of experience, Peterson and Nielson have successfully helped corporations, government agencies, nonprofits, schools, and community groups increase their productivity and retain talented employees by understanding and using their skills on things that actually matter. They illustrate their advice with stories about real world employees who have been trapped by fake work. Fake Work offers solutions that will change the way you view work, including how to recognize fake work and how to get out of it, how (and what) to communicate with your colleagues to eliminate fake work, how to recognize and counteract the personality traits that encourage fake work, and how to close the gap between your company's strategies and the work that needs to be done to reach the results critical to your and your company's survival.

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About the Author:

Brent D. Peterson, Ph.D. is a partner and co-founder of The Work Itself Group, Inc., an organization that provides learning interventions that help organizations and individuals align strategy with work. He serves as chairman of the board of two learning and change companies, Integrative Learning Corporation (headquartered in Singapore) and The Navigational Leadership Group (a U.S.-based learning company). He has spent 30 years at 5 universities as a professor of human resource development; is author or co-author of 20 books; is founder and owner of 3 consulting companies; has facilitated more than 3,000 corporate workshops; is a trusted business partner with many Fortune 500 Companies; and was a Senior Vice President for the FranklinCovey Company and directed their Center for Research Assessment.  

Gaylan W. Nielson, M.A. is a partner and the co-founder of the Ascent Group. As a business consultant, he helps organizations focus on organizational results by developing strategies and aligning those strategies at the team and personal level. He has been a senior consultant for more than 20 years; an owner, director, and general manager for 14 years; a strategist, implementation consultant, and process designer for numerous clients; a trainer and facilitator for more than 1,500 corporate and federal agency programs; a trusted business partner with Fortune 500 Companies. He was also Vice president, director, and general manager for Custom Projects for Custom Learning Group for FranklinCovey Inc.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1 Fake Work: Building a Road to Nowhere

Joyful is the accumulation of good work.

-- Buddha

Suppose you are building a road on a mountainside leading to the site for your new cabin. You have worked for months clearing sagebrush and aspen trees. You've moved rocks and filled in roadbed through the exhausting heat, the raging downpours, even early snow. You've pushed forward, working from your best understanding of the surveyor's plans. Your road winds over a dusty hill, cuts through the trees, moves along a rocky ridge, and then -- you find yourself looking down from the edge of a cliff.

Fake work looks and feels like that. The building of the road was purposeful. Your effort was admirable. The blood, sweat, and tears you poured into the project were real and your commitment was profound. But none of that really matters! You are still left with a road to nowhere.

So many of us have dedicated weekends and long nights to a project, proposal, or presentation that ended up being canceled, ignored, or dismissed -- essentially roads to nowhere -- and see all one's efforts lead to nothing. That is the road to fake work -- work that, at the end of long days, weeks, months, or even years, just seems to drop off a cliff.

What Is Real Work and What Is Fake Work?

We spend more than half our lives and a vast percentage of our waking hours going to work, being at work, leaving work, and thinking about work -- even when we're not at work. What we sometimes miss, when we think about work, is outcomes.

Real work, as we define it, is work that is critical and aligned to the key goals and strategies of an organization -- any organization, corporation, nonprofit company, government agency, church, school, or family. It is work that is essential for the organization's short-term and long-term survival.

Fake work, on the other hand, is effort under the illusion of value. Fake work is work that is not targeting or aligned with the strategies and goals of the company. Fake work is what happens when people lose sight of their personal or company goals -- whether it's increasing sales, opening new offices, or designing new products -- and what, amid all the work being done, they're actually doing to achieve those goals. Prime examples of fake work -- which drains both the individual and the company -- are meaningless paperwork, time-wasting meetings, empty training initiatives, or countless other activities that do nothing to move us toward our objectives, either as individuals or as companies.

Often it is easy to identify fake work, simply because it is so blatantly obvious and stupid. One manager, Ricky, describes one such situation:

Picked to Waste My Time

I was put on a committee to study my company's travel policy. A lot of complaints had surfaced, and employees seemed to have a lot of problems interpreting the policy correctly. But most of us on this committee felt that the real intent of upper management, which put together the committee, was only to validate the current policy, because we had been through the same kind of charade before with other issues.

In the first meeting, Katrina, a committee member, asked,"Does anyone think that we can make any changes, or make any difference at all?" Most of us answered no. Kurt, another coworker, added, "Nothing is going to change, so let's write up a proposal and get this over with."

I had been here before. I'm in HR, and last year I was asked to renew our benefits plan and make recommendations on changes. So I wrote up a long analysis and proposed a lot of changes. Then later I learned from a coworker that most of those changes had already been determined. They just wanted to say that they'd asked for my contribution. I knew -- most of us knew -- that we could write or propose anything, and the leaders would say they had given all the issues due attention and were confident that the current policy was working.

There were a few committee members who felt honored to have a seat at the table. But not me, not most. I just wondered why management would pick me -- "honor me" -- with a total waste of my time.

But we went ahead and did our work. We reviewed the travel policy and benchmarked it against other company policies. We gathered data and recommended four key changes in the policy that seemed to respond to the criticisms. We filed a report and we presented our recommendations to some key people.

And what do you think happened? Sure enough, a while later, the company leaders announced that, after looking at all the data and reviewing our report, they would make "no changes at this time." We can't say we were at all surprised, but we sure were annoyed.

Other times, fake work can be hard, dreadfully hard, to detect, as we will explore in the following chapters. As the next story illustrates, the line between real work and fake work can be thin, but very costly and time-consuming.

Engineering vs. Reporting

A large engineering firm asked us to pinpoint areas where its engineers and managers could be more productive. Management thought the fault lay with engineers who were not planning and organizing their work effectively. But we discovered a more obvious culprit that was stealing enormous amounts of essential, client-focused work time each week: the lengthy activity reports that the engineers had to write and file.

Management expected a thorough activity report from each engineer each week. In addition, the engineers were also to file monthly reports. The reports were extensive, averaging about fifteen pages each. In fact, the reports took about four days per month per engineer to prepare. Managers told us the reports were important. We didn't disagree, but we were concerned. For one thing, we found that most of the content in the weekly and monthly reports was lengthy narrative that was already captured in their daily logs.

We asked several managers if they would show us how they used the engineers' reports and what important information they disclosed. One manager, Rafael, seemed to represent the other managers well. He pulled a huge stack of reports from his in-box, complaining that he would never get through them. We asked Rafael to mark, with a yellow highlighter, the parts of the reports he was interested in reading -- what was most important. He stopped reading and started hunting for the pertinent information by jumping from the front of the report to the back and then skimmed it over page by page. When we asked what he did with the reports when he was finished, he showed us a huge bookshelf crammed floor to ceiling with past reports.

We then asked him why he read the last page so early. He said, "If anything of value appears in the report, I usually find it in the last few pages." Then we tried to pinpoint what he was looking for. We reviewed the highlighted content and found that Rafael was looking for three key pieces of information:

1. Problems that had to be solved

2. Recommendations that managers or others needed to act on to solve the problems

3. Conclusions from projects. Something final of importance.

Given that most of the managers had needs quite similar to Rafael's, we helped the company design a two-page summary that the engineers could file every week, instead of the fifteen-page reports they were currently writing. It had three headings:

1. Problems found on ______ project

2. Recommendations for action

3. Conclusions regarding ______ project

Then we cut out the monthly report entirely because the short summaries gave the managers all the information they needed.

This simple change significantly reduced the time managers spent reviewing the reports. But it was the engineers who saved the most time; their reporting time was reduced by 75 percent, freeing three more days each month for them to do real work. More important, eliminating so many hours of wasteful, fake work on the part of both management and the engineers, added to their enjoyment of the work, helped solve retention issues, and improved overall job satisfaction.

As challenging as it sometimes is to answer, can you afford not to ask yourself the critical question: Am I doing fake work? And once you've asked yourself if you've fallen into the fake-work trap, other important questions will arise: Are my coworkers doing fake work? Where does fake work begin, and who has the ability to control it? How do leaders affect fake work? How can work teams control the value of their work? What about individuals? Throughout this book, we hope to illuminate these questions and offer meaningful answers. In the process, we will challenge readers to ask the right questions, to understand the issues, and to find their way back from the road to nowhere.

The Changing Nature of Work

Go to a bar, restaurant, hotel, or sporting event on any given night, and you'llfind people checking their work voice mail and reading work-related e-mail on their BlackBerrys or iPhones; you'll see conference calls happening on commuter trains at 6 a.m.; and in the airport you'll see people who routinely travel to a faraway city during the day for work and return home at ten p.m., often multiple nights a week. As a culture, we're defined by our work, and many of us are consumed by doing our jobs all the time. We're working harder and faster than ever before, and we're doing it on a 24/7 schedule.

But our research points up a painful fact: All too often the incredibly hard work spent on a project or task is not what needs to be done to meet company goals: It is fake work. The intent is to accomplish good work. The intent is to be responsible. The intent is to be proud of our work. But can you be working hard, with good intentions, with amazing effort, and still be doing fake work? Sadly, yes, and way too often. Much of the reason for this grim reality is found in the fact that work has changed. In fact, the very nature of how we see and measure work has shifted dramatically in a v...

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