The Effective Executive

Today’s book review is in regards to The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker

The Effective Executive is a book that I would recommend to any white-collar worker. Drucker was a great writer on management having written 39 books over 60+ years. This book, written in 1966 is probably his best known book and focuses on managers in business “getting the right things done.” While many aspects of the business world have changed, particularly in regards to technology, the principles at the core of this book have not.

As will be the case going forward, while I took many pages of notes on the books contents and it has informed my workflow greatly, I have gone deep on only a few concepts below. 

Managing Information

Knowledge workers do not produce a “thing.” They produce ideas, information, concepts. 

This “Knowledge Worker” concept struck me as profound. The knowledge worker (desk jockey) does not physically manufacture a product or service. A knowledge worker does not construct a house. They do not work on an assembly line of a car plant. They do not mow lawns. They don’t cut down trees. The fact that the knowledge worker does not produce a physical artifact is somewhat depressing at first glance. If we aren’t making something with our hands, then what good are we (knowledge workers)?

The knowledge worker only deals with information. Specifically they:

  1. Collect information
  2. Organize Information
  3. Recall Information
  4. Use existing information to produce new derivative information.

That is it. The rest is making decisions about that information which is a managerial function (though managers do the above as well). 

While the tasks that a knowledge worker performs seems limited, once a knowledge worker understands those roles the range of functions within those limits opens up . 

Collecting information is important. 

Information that an individual or company has at their disposal, means they can be more capable. No one wants to be in the dark regarding their business, operating in a vacuum. It should be noted that too much information can alternatively be paralyzing, so prioritizing or ranking the information at the point of collection is a vital part of this portion of gathering data.

Also, regarding collecting information, the tendency may be to collect everything. Through time and experience, knowledge workers will get an understanding of which information they will eventually use (making it valuable) and that which they will not use and should avoid spending any time cultivating. 

Lastly, if there is a source of information, particularly less valuable information, that another resource is collecting, it would be most timely to tap them for the data once you need it as opposed to trying to collect it yourself. I once tried to track all of the transactions that were occurring throughout my geographic territories. I spent about a half an hour each day researching articles and studiously filling out my database. Then I realized that there were other transaction brokers that were doing this anyways and the information they were collecting was more valuable and more frequently useful for them than me. Once I realized that if I needed that information, I could simply request that they send it to me. A two minute email request once every six months replaced a half hour of my time each workday.

Organizing information is possibly the most difficult and potentially time consuming component of the entire knowledge worker process

When one collects information, it is tempting from a timing standpoint to simply save the information as it is in the same format and with the same file name as it is received in. Furthermore, saving the information to various folders located at different points on your hard drive seems intuitive. It can also be messy. While users may think that they are being diligent in organizing the information they are collecting into folders, once they go to recall that information (the next step for a knowledge worker) they often waste minutes simply finding that information either in their email folders or hard drive. 

Another trap when organizing information is that it can become fetishized where formatting and labelling the information into various specialized folders can become cumbersome. Some people love their “precious” folder system.

My recommendation surrounding the organization of information would be to save the files to a limited amount of folders (the iterative trend would be towards one single folder) which saves time in organizing and recalling. To make up for that simplistic file organization, I would spend the time on labeling the information, starting with the date. It would look something like:

YYYY-MM-DD – General Topic – Specific Subtopic – Name of Information_Modifier

So an example would be: 

2020-06-01DealsWA-Seattle-123 Main StArchitectural Contract_Fully Executed

Looks cumbersome. However, when one wants to recall that information, they can simply go to the folder, search for the relevant information, and the appropriate file(s) would pop up. If one wanted to break that information up into folders, they could use General Topic and Specific Subtopics folders. In the example I used, the file could be saved under a “Deals” and “WA-Seattle-123 Main St” folder tree. That seems more intuitive, but if the information was saved in the incorrect folder, the user could waste more time finding the file itself, compounded over many instances. 

It seems like a really big leap to put all of your files into one folder and not break it up. I had to stumble my way through the logic about a decade ago. 

In a paper process, it would make sense to split it up. Folders would save time in recalling information in that case. Someone looking up a file could quickly narrow down where that file was stored that way as opposed to having a huge pile of papers on one’s desk.

In a digital world, with search functions at your fingertips, digital folders hinder progress and do not help when recalling information. 

Recalling information is the most important task of a knowledge worker.

We have spoken about recalling information now a lot in the context of organizing. The whole purpose of collecting and organizing information is to be able to recall it. Additionally, the ability to recall information, regardless of whether it is generated internally or externally, is a large component of how your performance, as a knowledge worker, is assessed. The more managerial your role is, the more that decisions and their follow up will be an aspect of your performance, but the ability to recall information, whether you control it or your subordinates/team members do it, will overwhelmingly dictate your success. 

Creating derivative information is how knowledge workers manufacture products. Unless the knowledge worker is actually out collecting data in the field, they are largely using information that has been provided to them in various databases, reports, invoices, etc… The derivative information is not necessarily more reports but could be aggregated information and/or related opinions for internal use, for external use, for project management, or for making strategic decisions. These functions would be based on the quality of the information collected.

Only Focus On Results

(Effective Executives) gear their efforts to results rather than to work. They start out with the question, “What results are expected of me?” rather than with the work to be done.

Employees often get work dumped on them. It is also hard to see that increase in workload from a management perspective. Managers simply add the task to the growing list of things for the employee to do but often have no concept how high the pile of tasks is in the employee’s inbox. 

Yet, at the end of the year, an employee is judged by the results that they are expected to produce. Other people assessing a knowledge worker’s performance will cut through the workload and get to the heart of what the employee was supposed to produce. It is up to the employee to ask themselves the question “What am I being paid to produce?” If the employees time is being eaten up by tasks that do not add to their expected results then they need to a) tell their managers/teammates that their assigned tasks are time-consuming and not valuable and/or b) avoid doing those tasks or at least do them in as short a time period as possible.

(Effective Executives) know that they have no choice but to do first things first—and second things not at all.

To be truly successful, in the high-level global way, is to ruthlessly eliminate those things that do not add to a knowledge employee’s bottomline.

Being ruthless is really hard. We all want to help out. We also think that the extra secondary work is (can be) a good idea. But those little tasks start to eat into your day making your priority task more diminished. Soon there is little time for what matters as you are bogged down in the superfluous. 

“What would happen if this were not done at all?” And if the answer is, “Nothing would happen,” then obviously the conclusion is to stop doing it.

This question and the underlying concept is difficult to internalize. Many of us have tasks that we “have” to do because our boss asked us to do it or we are helping out our coworkers or it seems like somebody should do it. The initial inclination, and the recommendations from most productivity gurus, is to delegate the task if you do not think it helps you to produce results. But if you don’t find the task beneficial for you, then why do you think another person would find doing that work valuable towards their results either? 

The real way to address these lower-level tasks is to simply eliminate them. That is not to say that you should hold a meeting and assess the validity of the action and come up with a standard operating procedure that revolves around that task. I mean that the task simply does not get done. Maybe the person requesting the task be done is told firmly “No.” Or maybe the request simply gets archived in your inbox and is never addressed again. 

Abdicating responsibility for tasks sounds both unreasonable and unrealistic. I was of the same thought. Yet, through trials, I have found that at most a few months later the original sender might ask about that one time that they asked about that one thing. By then it is not urgent or important to them. If you are chastised for not completing the task, then apologize and realize it is at least important to someone. This is unlikely, I have found. Your real results are more important to your organization than getting busy work completed. 

Choose Right

One has to start out with what is right rather than what is acceptable (let alone who is right) precisely because one always has to compromise in the end.

Decisions are made in the moment. However, those decisions are often revisited months later to understand the process that went into determining that direction. Email chains are analyzed. Meeting notes are pulled up (if they exist at all). People’s opinions are weighed. The decision is effectively made all over again. Most hard decisions involve a lot of competing positives and negatives and sometimes a direction is made that is the lesser of two bad options. 

It is in this context, revisiting past decisions, where participants would rather determine that directions were dictated because it was right and fair to all parties. It is not a good look when past decisions are analyzed and it is determined that while the decision was the most expeditious or most lucrative for the organization, it compromised relationships with the other parties involved and hurt the reputation of the firm in retrospect. The integrity of the individuals and the company as a whole is paramount and lowering that level should be avoided.

When a decision is being made at the time, it is easy to spin how it is a good one. When reviewing it much later on, it is hard to make the same compelling case to the affected parties, especially if the situation turned out sub-optimally. 

Here, an example is warranted. In this scenario, the project manager and management team chose between two consultants. While one of the consultants is familiar, qualified, and well-respected, the other has the benefit of being less costly though they are an unknown commodity and their reputation may be spotty. The decision is made to go with the second consultant due to cost even though more hand-holding will likely be required. Months go by and the chosen consultant has now: monopolized management’s time, produced sub-par work, experienced delays, issued a number of change orders for scope they did not suspect was in the original contract, and have nickel-and-dimed every invoice that has been issued to the hiring company.  In the meantime, the more qualified and respected consultant, who would have done a better job, is now hurt because they felt their proposal was fair and that your past relationship was strong enough to select them. 

The project is in peril and in determining why this problem-consultant was chosen in the first place, the decision to go with them is revisited. It was clear that the acceptable path would be to go with the lower cost option as the project’s budget would benefit from that selection, which is what happened. The right path forward would have been to go with a tried and tested option, even at a higher cost, as it would have saved time, possibly money and a better work product would have resulted. Relationships would remain in good standing assuming no major issues would have occurred with the first consultant.

The second consultant needs to be managed as a result of these problems and, in addition to worsening your relationship with the first consultant, there is a lot of conflict with the second consultant as well. All of this reputation damage serves to lower the integrity of the hiring company in the marketplace. This result is due to the company choosing the acceptable direction and not the right path.