Are we really productive? What would Dan Say?

I’ve got a lot of time for Dan Pink. Not just because he’s a best-selling author 6 times over, or because he uses a combination of research and examples to bring his stories to life, but because he tackles some of the fundamental struggles of modern work and the foundations that we might just have got wrong.


If you’ve been distracted with Harry, Megs, and Oprah, and asleep for the previous 12 years, you may have missed Dan’s HUGE impact TED talk on “The Puzzle of Motivation”, and the intriguing elements of Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose. It’s been viewed like a gazzilion times, and even made into an RSA animate. Interestingly, this was the very first time I’d heard of an Aussie start-up called Atlassian…but that is a different story.


So the question I asked above, is what would Dan say about Productivity.


Taken from Dan’s podcast with the amazing Jay Shetty.


“Let’s talk about what productivity is. I’m going to be literal. Productivity is the amount of units you produce over a given amount of time. So it is inherently time-based because time is in the denominator of productivity. OK, so so again, I’m not sure that productivity is necessarily the best measure. I say that as a writer. OK, so I could be like I could be a product like suppose I wrote more words per hour today versus yesterday. I would literally be more productive. But am I a better writer? I don’t know. It probably doesn’t matter. Like, what are the words?”

Dan rightly points out that this is a slightly old-school and mass production way of thinking about work, and a potentially more effective way could be “the quality of the contribution and the subsequent impact”.


The current narrative

Open any business news, HBR or Forbes, and you’ll see someone waxing lyrical about the “our people are more productive at home” phenomena. I’ve currently got a list of unanswered questions for these writers and observers?


How are you measuring productivity, especially of knowledge workers?

Are you measuring the individual, team, or organization productivity?

What is the trade off’s of higher productivity? The unintended consequences?

Where does our obsession with productivity come from? Is it even relevant anymore?


The Data; correlation or causation?

So one particular article I read this week, on HBR, cited a 13% increase in productivity.


The same day, I read another article on LinkedIn that the average worker was working up to an hour more per day in the pandemic. Theories range as to whether we’ve replaced our commute with work…whether we’re more job conscious in a recession…if we’re more or less efficient…but no-one was debating the extra time.


What I find remarkably odd, is that no-one seems keen to connect the extra hour of work (about 13% if you assume an 8-hour working day!) with the increase in productivity (about 13%).


Could it be that we’re not more productive at all? That we’re just working longer, and wrongly calculating the outdated measure of productivity?


Help me, help you, to help others

I honestly have a deep dislike for productivity right now. I feel like a business community, it’s used as a singular measure when it should be combined with life balance, wellness, mental health, etc.


I feel like we should have matured in a world of high tech and advancement, to things like quality, impact, and effect. The outcome we’re trying to achieve.


But enough about me.


  • What measures (lead and lag) are you using to build your awareness and confidence in your teams' effectiveness?

  • What is working, and anything that has spectacularly failed?

  • What are your thoughts on productivity? Is it a barnacle we’re destined to keep? Can it be re-purposed?

  • What insights can you share with this community so we all might get a bit better at this?

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