Tue | Apr 7, 2020

Distraction-free discount

Published:Sunday | September 15, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Francis Wade, Sunday Business Columnist

Recently, I made a change to all my strategic planning proposals. I've added a 'distraction-free discount'. If executive teams bar all digital interference and interruptions from meetings, I reduce my fees.

Here's why I did it.

Over the past few years, consultants and trainers have learned that it's become near impossible to get a group's full attention during planning and training sessions.

With no mobile policies in place, all meetings have turned into free-for-alls reminiscent of preschool. It gets especially silly when highly trained employees attempt to refute the obvious: They have stopped paying attention, even though they claim, 'I'm listening' and 'You have no idea how well I can multitask'.

As you may know, the research clearly disagrees. Human beings are awful at multitasking when each activity requires cognitive attention.

After a few such sessions in which the CEOs were the worst offenders - one insisted on checking email, making Skype calls, leaving the room at will and accepting visits from outsiders - I decided to counteract the inability to follow commonsensical ground rules with my distraction-free discount.

It's simple. From now on, teams that follow the necessary standards for focused meetings can pay a pre-arranged lower price. No interruptions are permitted while the team is in session, unless they involve life-threatening emergencies.

CONSIDER A BAN

Smartphones and other devices are banned unless they have a specific purpose within the meeting, but they are freely allowed during specially designated breaks.

The distraction-free discount is intended to benefit teams in the following ways.

1. It realises the cost of inefficiency.

Most companies can't tell you how they got to the point where distractions and poor productivity became the norm. No policy was announced. No decision was made. Yet ineffective meetings became accepted because they originated from the executive suite, where the first BlackBerrys were handed out.

When executives read the offer of my distraction-free discount, they encounter the dollar cost of this inefficiency. It's the first time most of them are seeing such a

thing, and I expect

that some CEOs will scornfully reject the discount, considering themselves too important, too big, and too urgently needed.

2. It ensures that the facilitator's
time isn't wasted.

Interruptions cause
large-scale meeting dysfunctions: attendees who arrive late, get lost in
their smartphones or take private breaks from meetings sometimes cannot
be ignored because they play a critical role.

Each
time they return, they disrupt the meeting because they simply must be
brought up to speed and included.

It falls on the
facilitator - me or a member of my team - to keep them, and the meeting
on track. It becomes needlessly stressful when these personal time-outs
are allowed to run the show, and we have to exert extra effort, extra
energy and extra time to compensate for bad habits that have been
allowed to become permanent.

My discount communicates
that I'm willing to work with these interruptions - at a
price.

3. It guides companies toward more
efficient practices in the future.

Beyond my
work on individual occasions, I want to help companies form better
policies for the future. At all levels, I have seen teams contending
with the cost of seemingly small distractions, struggling to resist the
growing drain on productivity.

By highlighting the
cost of inefficiency within a single session and offering a discount for
greater productivity, I hope to spur an ongoing dialogue that lasts
long after I am gone.

This conversation should be
conducted as an open inquiry: 'What will it take to improve our
productivity as an organisation?'

NEW
THINKING

To help get answers, firms should recruit the
help of its recent newcomers. Often, they are able to spot widespread,
inefficient behaviour, and may already have made some quiet
remarks.

When they aren't taken seriously, however,
they lose their unique point of view and join right in, copying the
practices they once saw as foreign.

Their point of
view should be cherished, as it provides a company with a unique look at
itself. The problem is that most managers aren't interested in what
newcomers have to say, and become defensive when explicit comparisons
are drawn to better practices in other firms.

In the
future, I hope that executives are held accountable for the productivity
of employees.

Today, they are often the worst
offenders. In the future, they can set an example and create an
environment that actively fosters individual
improvements.

Most firms desperately need a single
executive to own the problem of employee productivity, in order to stop
it from falling through the cracks.

I don't know how
well my discount will work - it's only a few months old - but I'm sure
it comes as a surprise to most. Where it doesn't get me thrown out of
companies for its rank 'facetyness', I hope it will provoke some
thought.

Francis Wade is president of Framework
Consulting and author of 'Bill's Im-Perfect Time Management
Adventure'.Email: columns@fwconsulting.com