A truism is that a primary role of an organization and its leaders is to improve the skills of its employees. While this may seem sacrilegious, I propose that skill development has been over emphasized and a faster route towards increasing productivity has been ignored. The shortest, most reliable, and most effective route towards increasing productivity is increasing employees’ allocation of time spent on core job tasks and behaviors that directly lead to results.

Consider this simple example. The average baseball player has a batting average of .250, meaning s/he gets a hit on average every four attempts or “at bats.” Let us assume that there are no restrictions to the number of at bats a player has and that they play five days a week. With ten at bats a day, a player will have 12.5 hits a week. If time allocated to at bats is increased by twenty percent to twelve at bats a day the player will have 15 hits a week. To get the same result by building skills and not increasing at bats, you would need to turn the .250 batter into a .300 batter.Based on historical data, that would equate to a full standard deviation movement from the 50 percentile to the 84 percentile. That’s not easy and would involve a great deal of concentrated training with little likely return. It is a lot easier to skip the skill building and get them up at bat twice more a day.

Let’s consider an analogous corporate role, the Financial Advisor. When working for a large wirehouse early in my career, I had access to a large volume of Financial Advisor data. We found that sales performance was remarkably stable over time.Three month sales performance had an extremely high correlation with thirty six month performance. Basically the rank order of Financial Advisors in terms of their performance was pretty constant over time. That’s true across many jobs, after an initial training period the skill levels do not change easily. How employees spend their time however, is more controllable and a leader can coach their employees to use their time more productively.

This seems incredibly obvious. Essentially, in the example above, sales people should spend majority of time calling on clients. Studies, however, demonstrate that the time allocated to core sales tasks is not optimal. This is true for both producers and managers. In one study of branch managers, only 15% of branch manager time was spent on recruiting or coaching Advisors, the two drivers of revenue growth.The majority of their time was spent on administrative and compliance tasks.Without constant monitoring and discipline, time allocation, like all systems in the universe, moves to a greater state of disorder. Improving allocation of time spent on core tasks by twenty percent is not by any means unrealistic.

Besides being a lot easier than skill building, focusing on improving time allocation does not require an increase in cost. Even very small gains represent profitable growth. Certainly more profitable than spending money on training or hiring more salespeople

Now in truth, understanding the core tasks of a job can be easier for some jobs than others. For many sales roles, core job tasks are relatively straightforward i.e. calling clients, providing advice, asking for the sale etc. For professional services roles, like a consultant or an accountant, it would also seem clear i.e. hours spent on tasks that are billeable. For other roles core tasks may take more thought to identify i.e. research scientist. Yet the exercise of identifying core tasks in all cases is important.Ernest Hemingway, for example, was extremely disciplined about the time allocated to writing and had a fixed daily quota of time spent and output.

Bottom line is that a short route to increased productivity involves leaders doing the following:

  • Identifying behaviors that are central toward achieving desired results
  • Communicating these to employees
  • Helping employees focus by eliminating non-core demands
  • Coaching employees to monitor their time allocation and make adjustments to spend more time on core tasks

You don’t hear much about time allocation in the latest leadership books. And that’s too bad, because the clear truth is that for the majority of jobs out there any employee, regardless of skill level, can improve their performance by using their time more wisely. Helping employees in this way would seem an optimal use of a leader’s time.