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Q&A With David Allen: How Growing Businesses Can Get Things Done

Renowned productivity guru David Allen shares his insights about working smarter and tips to help managers promote a culture of productivity and accountability within a department or across an entire company.
September 22, 2008
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/197296

By Naomi Grossman

Every business struggles with how to maximize productivity. It's crucial to maintaining and extending competitive advantage. David Allen has built his reputation by focusing on enhancing individual productivity. His principles, first presented in the bestseller "Getting Things Done," (Penguin; 2002) offer individuals methods and tools for how to manage their work better from e-mail to task lists. Recently, Allen shared his perspective on productivity with bMighty, including how to promote a culture of productivity across the company and his view of social media.

bMighty: What do you see as the biggest productivity busters in businesses today?

David Allen: The lack of executive decision-making about input. You have conversations in halls and in meetings but if there isn't an emergency or a crisis, everyone lets it lie. That creates a huge backlog. Most people are living in emergency-scan mode and there is no light at the end of that tunnel.

Working from a zero backlog is the way to do it. The bigger the backlog, the tougher it is to deal with that new input. People complain about new input because they have too much old input.

bMighty: What is the first thing you would recommend to a growing business to enhance its productivity?

Allen: It has to be addressed at the individual level, especially with key individuals. You have to make sure they install their own best practices. You can run the best meeting, but if you don't track action items, you're not solving anything.

If you have to send your boss four e-mails before they pay attention -- if you always have to raise your voice in your organization --- the boss has to change. Otherwise, it gets too loud and noisy.

I say you have to address it at the individual level because it's almost impossible for a culture to legislate systems, but if the boss is highly efficient and is holding people accountable, it changes people's ability to respond. The more senior and influential people who model these best practices, the more it trickles down. It can even trickle up! Sometimes, it's the middle management people who are most in pain, and they have to implement from above and below. When key people start to implement behaviors, it shows up real fast.

bMighty: How do you boost productivity across an organization as a manager/supervisor/leader?

Allen: That requires a status report that your people have to do, a weekly review. Most businesses don't have a clue. One of my clients is a two-star general. It took him a while to realize the power of the weekly review. It catches everything. When that starts to be expected, if you report to me and you're feeling overwhelmed, you'll bring me a list of all your projects and we'll go over it. You need a vocabulary that assumes people are keeping track of what they need to do. You can't legislate systems but you can say you need people to keep track of their projects. Maybe they just have Post-its on their screen, but every person has to have a coherent system.

IT often has systems for bug reporting, but when it comes to things like new hires or research when they don't have to be immediately responsive to their environment, they don't have a way to interface or incorporate those easily defined projects.

Tech Tools For Boosting Productivity

bMighty: What are the tech tools you recommend to help growing businesses get things done?

Allen: People just need good list managers. Whatever tools you use to, for example, keep track of calls, is good. It can be Lotus Notes, Outlook, or a Gmail folder, but it's not rocket science. Most environments have project management templates and every project planner is different in terms of how many details you need. I use Mind Manager, it's a great mind mapping system.

My lists are kept in Lotus Notes and they are synced to my Treo. The question is, how current and complete are your lists? The idea is to keep projects out of your head and on your lists. If it's just in your psyche and not in a system, it's in the wrong place. Everybody on this planet gets overwhelmed and feels better when they sit down and make a list. You'll feel so much better when you get it out of your head. Most stress is coming from implicit agreements you have with yourself that you're not keeping. People have these commitments they're not dealing with and that's where the stress comes from.

You need to reorganize yourself and you can't do that if stuff is in your psyche. The one thing that is not distracting is where you have to be a week from Thursday. Everyone trusts their calendar, so your mind gets to let that go. I figured out that your mind could let go of everything.

bMighty: Where do you struggle with your own productivity?

Allen: Total over-commitment -- because the better you get, the more you create. I constantly have to re-decide what I'm not doing. I know how to get it off my mind, but I have to decide where to focus. At least I can move fast even if the focus I choose is not right.

You don't want to be doing the wrong thing efficiently. Are you focused on the right things? You don't need training on what to focus on, but you do need training on how to focus. It takes a couple of years to install these new habits.

bMighty: Are there any basic business processes that can be improved to speed up the work flow?

Allen: Read chapter two of my first book! Capture everything that has your attention outside of your psyche, clarify what these things mean to you, organize the results of this thinking, and then review and reflect to keep the system alive and current. This happens hundreds of times a day and that's why it takes 3- to 90 minutes a day to stay current, and that doesn't include cleaning up the backlog.

bMighty:Is social media a productivity enhancer -- or a waste of time?

Allen: It's just a Rolodex. It's fancy way to have a Rolodex that's alive and well. It's just like the Web is like the Yellow Pages. But don't shoot the medium, it depends upon the purpose. If you're trying to network, it can be effective. It's a big global party out there these days.

bMighty:In light of current economic conditions, is there any advice you can give to growing businesses to help them get things done while keeping an eye on the bottom line?

Allen: It's basically good ol' business stuff: Maximize your output with as little effort as possible and be ready to recalibrate with as little effort as possible. The whole point is how flexible and lean a business can be. If you get new input, you need to recalibrate your resources as rapidly as possible. It's a lot easier to focus then and take on new responsibilities and it's a lot easier to handle.

bMighty:Some who have used the GTD system say that over times they lose control again OR find it difficult to maintain the system. What are the best practices for maintaining organization and efficiency over time?

Allen: You need to raise the bar internally with how uncomfortable you are with all the extra e-mail volume. It's not about the volume, it's about how much you can tolerate. Until you change that, you'll let yourself keep all that in your head. It won't creep up on you if you don't change your internal standards. I won't tolerate the volume. Checking e-mails for me is like taking a shower. Otherwise, I'm living in emergency scan mode. It takes more effort for me to not keep it at zero. If you won't deal with that e-mail, dump it. You need to triage. There's a certain point where you have to come in and clean house and that's all about internal standards.

bMighty:Are there any downsides to working in the way you proscribe?

Allen: No. There are a million copies of my book in print and nobody has said it doesn't work. That's because it's not a system but a systematic approach.

Naomi Grossman is assistant editor of bMighty.com.