What Would That Do For You?

I often hear people asking for something, such as “How do I measure productivity?” In knowledge work, you can’t measure productivity. You can measure the throughput of a team, but you can’t measure the productivity of a person. But that doesn’t stop people from asking the question.

What you can ask is, “What would that do for you?”

That question, the “What would that do for you” question asks about the underlying problem that the questioner wants to solve. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Does the questioner want to know:

  • Do I have extra people available to work on another project?
  • Is everyone busy? (This is a crazy question, too. I have a management myth about the myth of 100% utilization.)
  • What are people working on?
  • How do I know what people are working on?

There might be more options. You can see there are many possibilities.

If you hear a question that doesn’t make too much sense to you, before you flip the Bozo Bit on the questioner, try this question: “What would that do for you?” You might be surprised by the answer.

(I was trying to think of a personal story for this. I couldn’t. I wondered why. I decided I didn’t have an interesting-enough life. I was fine with that. I hope you are too.)

If you are stuck, consider “What would that do for you?” and see what happens.

5 thoughts on “What Would That Do For You?

  1. Dwayne Phillips

    And then ask the question again and again…
    A: I wish I had more money
    B: What would that do for you
    A: I wouldn’t have to worry so much
    B: What would that do for you
    A: I would sleep better
    B: What would that do for you
    A: I would feel better
    B: What would that do for you
    A: I would sleep better
    and so on

    1. johanna Post author

      Dwayne, nice! This is another version of the 5-whys, without asking why.

      This question can be even better than asking why. Sometimes, asking why can sound like blaming, or like a two-year-old.

      Thanks, Dwayne.

  2. Don

    Hi Johanna,

    I was struck by your statement that you can’t measure knowledge worker productivity. That puzzles me and makes me wonder what I did for a number of years under the pretext of knowledge-worker productivity. And yes, I was/am a big Peter Drucker fan.

    As a (now-retired) manager of knowledge workers (engineers, scientists, etc.) I found that productivity per worker could be measured but not in a conventional bricks-laid-per-hour scheme.

    I worked for a for-profit company where everything was presumably done for a profit. Each year each employee identified the “products” that he or she would produce that year. Each product had a legitimate dollar value assigned to it. The product could be either a profit or a cost savings to the company.

    The base dollar amount of productivity for each employee was three times his or her annual salary. An employee could work “for himself” or he/she could team up with others so long as the three times their salary requirement was met. Secretaries (remember them?) and other supporting staff ere an integral part of the process.

    At the end of the year (review time) we sat down and reviewed how much “production” had been accomplished. The results were invariably astounding … not just to me and the employees but to the company as well.

    Making the process work wasn’t as easy as it sounds. As a manager you had to make sure your employees got the resources they needed to succeed. You also had to pitch in with your company perspective. In the back of your mind you had to accept that you had to generate three times your salary as well.

    After giving a few seminars on the process, I found most managers just didn’t want to make the early and on-going efforts to assure productivity of their employees. Maybe because they didn’t want someone measuring their productivity?



    1. johanna Post author

      Don, you smart cookie, you, you measured throughput. Those products? That was throughput. You cracked the code! You said it yourself, “not in a conventional bricks laid per hour scheme.”

      That’s why it wasn’t easy. This is really hard. A manager’s productivity might be:
      – decisions made that allow his/her people to complete their products (projects). This is managing the project portfolio.
      – hiring decisions, and how you bring people in.
      – feedback to people
      – meta-feedback and coaching of people, if they want it
      – career development for people

      All of these are long-term “projects,” and people-based. I found it difficult to measure my people-projects, but I could ask my staff, back when I was a manager, how effective I was for them as their manager. I might not like the feedback, but I received it.

      To return to the statement though, this is throughput, not productivity. Maybe I’m splitting hairs? Could be. I have been known to do so :-)

      1. Don

        Hi Johanna,

        I’m sure these thoughts are old hat to you but I felt better jotting them down.

        Peter Drucker agonized over measuring knowledge-worker productivity. He stated that management’s greatest challenge was to increase knowledge-worker productivity even though he couldn’t articulate a means of measuring that productivity.

        I didn’t find it that difficult to measure knowledge-worker productivity in my past employments. I started from the premise that I could recognize the difference between the absence of productivity and the presence of productivity. Hence, the problem became one of finding a measure for productivity.

        The conventional measure of labor productivity can be expressed as the amount of products, goods, services, or whatever, produced during one unit of time. It makes perfect, logical sense for many manual-labor situations. Where it gets dicey (even for manual labor) is when one adds qualifiers such as quality of goods, attractiveness of product, or value to the intended end user. And those qualifiers can be critical.

        For-profit companies allowed me to consider labor productivity as the amount of profit produced during one unit of time. I chose to use profits or savings produced per year as my measure of knowledge-worker productivity. The profits/savings from my employees’ products/throughputs were simply proxies for dollars.

        BUT WAIT!… yells the audience at this point. I know, I know. Knowledge-worker-oriented audiences can’t sit still for this and for many good reasons. For example, what if you are a manager in a not-for-profit company? What if you manage the business department? What if your “products” take longer to produce than a year? What if you work for the government? What if…?

        And this is where your point comes in crystal clear (if I understand it correctly.) What is a manager’s role? How does a manager add or subtract from knowledge-worker productivity? How is a manager’s productivity measured? What the heck is productivity for my workplace, anyway?

        For many managers, these are such difficult questions that they choose not to wrestle with them, often under the cover of “… we can’t measure knowledge-worker productivity.” Well, gee, wouldn’t it be worth trying?

        It’s a brave new world out there, full of knowledge workers wanting and waiting to work productively.

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