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Project Teams and the "Productivity Myth"

by Davin Wilfrid

May 5, 2010

By Davin Wilfrid, ERP Expert

The economy is getting more productivity out of US workers, says Tony Schwartz at Harvard Business Review, but at what cost? It's one thing to brag that US workers are producing the same volume of goods and services as we did in 2007 despite 10% fewer jobs -- it's another thing to lift the curtain and see what's driving the situation:

There's a simple, visceral reason for the gains, Mr. Chairman, and it's called fear. If colleagues around us are being laid off and cut back, we can't help worrying that our jobs may be next. Our survival instincts kick in, and we push ourselves harder, so we're not the next one to go.

Later, Schwartz analyzes why this isn't necessarily a positive development:

Getting more tasks accomplished — say writing and responding to scores of emails in between other activities — may technically represent higher productivity, but it doesn't necessarily mean adding greater value. Instead, the ethic of more, bigger, faster ultimately generates value that is narrow, shallow and short-term.

There are lessons here for SAP project managers, who have increasingly been asked to do more with less since the economy began heading south in 2008. I've heard from dozens of SAP professionals in recent years who say they are among the last members of a once-thriving team -- or that their projects are stalled or behind schedule because they can't free up the resources to complete vital tasks.

Many of those resources will simply add project work on top of their day jobs. We all know what happens next: Corners are cut. Testing is sloppy. Documentation is incomplete or non-existent. 

In times like these it is vital for project managers get out in front of the productivity myth. As Ian Wright of Deloitte told me last year, it is critical to use the planning period to prepare incentives, create a support structure for employees struggling outside the workplace, and establish a clear plan for transitioning employees back to their former roles once the project is complete. The economy may not be back to full strength for a while yet, so conserving the fuel of productivity is vital.

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Sven Ringling

9/25/2013 8:43:13 PM

I can absolutely relate to this thinking.

These issues can be observed across, the globe, but from a European point of view, it always struck me that productivity gains in the US seem to rely heavily on
- putting in more hours
- making the work flat and repetitive, so that it can be done very fast processing a checklist,
whilst people are often not given the training, coaching or even just thinking time to really understand the nature of a task, which is required to make the big leaps.

Looking at the statistics, the approach seems to work, but I have the occasional doubt, whether this can be sustainable for much longer - doubts often confirmed when working with Americans in the knowledge based economy.

Learning, and therefore higher productivity in future projects, is one of the first things to suffer, if there is no breathing space left in a project at all.

William Newman

9/25/2013 8:43:13 PM

A very mature SAP customer recently engaged my firm to assess issues a program team had in its design. We considered four dimensions: accountability (of the business), scope (of the program), technical management, and program management. While the eventual recommendation suggested refining the technical approach and slight change in scope, the root cause was communication. The IT and business teams were running lean and failed to communicate key assumptions as to the forward change in process and operating models leading to the "block" in the technical and program design. Once these assumptions were revealed -- and senior management allowed the stakeholders and project team to reflect and mentally "breathe" and communicate without fear of retribution -- the answers became quite evident.