A consulting view of the hot air balloon tale

Andrew M. Lothian, Insights Group

A man in a hot air balloon realised he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below.

He descended a bit more and shouted, “Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

The woman below replied, “You are in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You are between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and between 59 and 60 degrees west longitude.”

“You must be an engineer,” said the balloonist.

“I am,” replied the woman, “but how did you know?”

“Well,” answered the balloonist, “everything you told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is that I am still lost. Frankly, you’ve been no help whatsoever.”

The woman below responded, “And you, you must be in management consultancy.”

“That’s amazing, I am,” replied the balloonist, “but how did you know?”

“Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are or where you are going. You have risen to where you were due to an ability to generate a large quantity of hot air. Coming down to earth you need to find someone to talk to. You made a promise which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, you are blaming me.”

Andy Lothian is Chief Executive of The Insights Group


How To Keep Your Job Without Working Yourself To Death


Just when we thought the economy might be improving, on the cusp of a holiday weekend the March jobs report was disappointing. Then this week Sony Corporation announced plans to cut 10,000 jobs, or about 6% of its global workforce.

All this confirms what, deep down, we already knew: Employers are reluctant to hire and want more productivity from fewer people. In this age of working 24/7 and constant connectivity, how can we fulfill the company’s expectations, while getting the rest we need and having some semblance of a personal life? That’s the question we all grapple with.

Before your blood pressure rises, take a deep breath. Remind yourself that whatever goals the company sets from on high, you don’t have to single-handedly fulfill them. Keep in mind, too, that the person best suited to look after your interests is the one who stared back at you in the mirror this morning. Here’s a survival guide for the week ahead – and for today’s tough economic times.

Harness your biological clock. By figuring out your best and worst times of the day–what scientists call circadian rhythms–you can take less time to complete complicated tasks and improve your creativity. For instance, if you hit your stride between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., schedule the most challenging work for this high-energy period. Save job-related activities that require less attention, like answering e-mail or returning phone calls, for mid-afternoon when your energy lags.

Avoid multiple breaks during the work day. Each time you leave your desk—for example, to get a cup of coffee, fetch a glass of water, or bring back lunch–it probably takes you 20 minutes to resume concentration on what you were doing. Ditto personal phone calls and e-mails. The more intensely you focus while you’re there, the more quickly you can get your work done and go home.

Leave your work at the office. This means physically and mentally. Unless you’re up against a deadline, don’t bring home things to do. Zealously protect dinner time with your family or significant other. Although it’s pleasant to ask each other, “How was your day?” a lot of conversation about everything that happened just causes you to relive the events, and hampers your ability to disconnect.

Limit e-mail during off hours. Query whether you really must check your office e-mail when you’re not at work — and if so, how often. If you really do need to stay in touch, don’t start the thread or reply to a message unless there is an emergency.

Schedule personal time. Make sure the agenda includes taking care of yourself (perhaps by exercising, preparing healthy foods or going to the doctor), recreating with family and friends and doing activities that you enjoy. Being overworked can be an out-of-control sensation. Choosing to do certain things (rather than being required to do them) combats that feeling of powerlessness.

Don’t make a habit of working on weekends. You can’t schedule inspiration, creativity or innovation. In fact, sometimes we think most clearly about a work-related issue when we are out of the office. (For examples of inspiration in the middle of “down time,” see my post, “Wasting Time Can Make You A Star At Work.”)

That said, just because you’re feeling clearheaded during off hours doesn’t mean you need to drop everything and implement the idea. It might be enough to jot a few notes to yourself and use them to boost your productivity on your next regularly scheduled day in the office.

Take vacations. Burnout hurts your company as much as it hurts you. So there’s nothing noble about piling up unused vacation days. With your boss’s permission, take time in the way that benefits you most. That probably means setting aside a decent interval, rather than taking off days here and there over the course of a year. Longer vacations also make more financial sense if your getaway includes airplane travel.

Changing your venue and getting away from familiar stimuli will leave you feeling more rested than puttering around the house on a “staycation.” Here, too, resist the temptation to check e-mail and don’t volunteer that you will be reachable by cell phone.

The Productivity Paradox: How Sony Pictures Gets More Out of People by Demanding Less

Read the spotlight article.

Companies are experiencing a crisis in employee engagement. One of the problems is all the pressure companies are putting on employees to produce. Workers are trying to get more done in less time-and are burning out. But while time is finite, energy is not; people can increase their reserves of personal energy. The key is to establish rituals-such as shutting down your e-mail for a couple of hours a day so you can focus on priorities, or taking a daily 3 p.m. walk to get a breather-that renew your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy. These behavioral changes are sustainable, though, only if leaders at the most senior levels of an organization are willing to set a context for them, both by creating their own rituals and by setting a tone where people feel safe taking time out of the day on a regular basis. This is just what the leaders of Sony Pictures Entertainment did. Working with Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project, they implemented energy management training that has reached nearly half the company so far. To date, the reaction to the program has been overwhelmingly positive. Eighty-eight percent of participants say it has made them more focused and productive. More than 90% say it has helped them bring more energy to work every day. Eighty-four percent say they feel better able to manage their jobs’ demands and are more engaged at work. Sony’s leaders believe that these changes have helped boost the company’s performance. Despite the recession, Sony Pictures had its most profitable year ever in 2008 and one of its highest revenue years in 2009.

The new normal means constant change. Companies must reinvent themselves if they want to survive. This HBR Spotlight section looks at organizational change through two very different lenses-the first examining the connection between restructuring and improved performance, the second making the case for reorganization as a means of keeping a company’s structure in tune with the human dynamics that drive creativity and innovation. A third article suggests new ways to keep overworked employees engaged and productive in an economy struggling to recover from global recession.

The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time

Why is it that between 25% and 50% of people report feeling overwhelmed or burned out at work?

It’s not just the number of hours we’re working, but also the fact that we spend too many continuous hours juggling too many things at the same time.

Read this excellent HBR article foin further insights and advice on how to managtop your time and be more effective.

The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time – Tony Schwartz – Harvard Business Review.