We met the performance thief. It is us.
by Isabella Mader

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Monday, 9 a.m. The board urgently needs your report. It will take you 45 minutes to do it.

9:02 a.m. “Do you have a minute?” You don’t. “What’s the matter?” […]

This goes on all day.

Tuesday. Same.

Wednesday, 2 p.m. “When can we expect your report?” Do you say “Sorry, I was interrupted”?

In an average office you will spend more than two hours on emails and text messages every day, attend meetings for 1,5 hours, search information for an hour, and spend around three hours concentrating after an interruption. That’s because the time to focus on what you’ve done before an interruption takes up to 40 percent of your workday.[1][2][3] A whopping 3 plus hours of an 8 hour working day doing nothing?

Yesterday’s management and tools

To all those who think that we will digitize the work of our best people and replace them with an algorithm: good luck. No AI will replace people who can cater to the inventive weirdness of demands that come up overnight. Instead, we use our best people as a cheap call-center.

No-one needs 8 hours of concentration time. But we don’t even get an uninterrupted 10 minutes. Already one hour of concentration time per day would unleash a massive productivity gain.

Today, we live in an environment of an at least 30-to-50-fold increase of information to be processed per person since the 1970s.[4] We migrated to the information age with the information habits and management styles of the industrial age. Now, we try to manage knowledge worker productivity with the tools that we used to increase the productivity of manual labor. It’s not working.

Knowledge worker productivity still not managed

The most important contribution of management in the 20th century was the 50-fold increase of manual worker productivity, Peter Drucker famously wrote in “Management Challenges for the 21st Century”. Only to add: “The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century will be to increase the productivity of knowledge work and knowledge workers.”

To date, we do not even differentiate between the productivity of physical labor and knowledge work. There is only one indicator on labor productivity.

Also, we don’t have a common set of definitions for performance, productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness. These four terms have been used interchangeably to date.

Research and relevant current practice can be summarized as follows:

Labor productivity relates growth in output to growth in hours worked. Similarly, we also know total factor productivity (TFP) that relates growth in output to the growth in a combination of inputs like labor and capital, energy, materials, and purchased services.

Productivity measures the efficiency of resource allocation.[5]

Performance is a much broader term that covers both economic and operational aspects and expresses the degree to which (the desired) success has been achieved. Performance therefore includes almost any objective of competition and excellence that can be related to cost, flexibility, speed, delivery, or quality, etc.[6] Whilst delivering a high ratio of defective products or useless reports can be considered highly productive, performance would pick up on the lack of quality, errors, complaints, inconvenienced clients and colleagues, etc.

Efficiency was defined by Drucker and others with “doing things right”, and effectiveness with “doing the right things”.[7] In practice, efficiency boils down to the minimum resource level required to achieve the desired output, while effectiveness is rather difficult to quantify and can be broadly defined as how well results are accomplished. If results are not a specific goal, effectiveness could possibly be limitless[5]. The same could apply to performance: If defined by the degree to which – possibly limitless – success has been achieved, performance could be considered limitless as well.

Let’s look at the challenge at hand. How will we improve the productivity of knowledge work? Two points, to start the conversation:

Culture: If we consume each other’s productivity with unnecessary interruptions, we will lack the time for the really important conversations. What do we celebrate, what is it we don’t tolerate? What happens if leaders promote those who suck up instead of those who perform best? What if leaders interrupt others whenever they please? What will our culture learn? Everyone will have learned that performance doesn’t matter and that we disrespect others. No “culture workshop” will turn this around. That’s good and bad news. Culture is the consequence of management and leadership. If you don’t like what you see as a leader you need to change first.

Bureaucracy is not invented by admin or by authorities. Bureaucracy is the natural consequence of rules. Authorities don’t check on the ventilation in your restaurant if they don’t have to. They tick off the list provided by legislation. Up to a certain point, rules create useful structure and quality. We are way past this point. Most regulations (public and self-inflicted corporate alike) are so complex that we need extra staff to deal with the reporting. Staff that are not involved in value creation. While we won’t limit information growth in society, we will have to slash rules and regulations, on a societal level but also self-inflicted corporate red tape. Not inhibiting the growth of rules can be considered an utter management failure.

Albert Einstein’s assistant asked why he gave the same exam questions to his students every year. He responded: “The answers have changed.”

It’s the same with management: The answers have changed. Working more or faster the old way is not the solution. We need to work differently.


The above is condensed from a book (first to be published in German by Springer in early 2023) and from 15 years of research and several hundred projects on knowledge work productivity and overall performance.

[1] Brown, E. G. (2014) The Time Bandit Solution: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had. Cohen Brown. Los Angeles.

[2] BAuA (2019) Interruptions & Multitasking (German). Federal Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (BAuA). Dortmund. doi:10.21934/baua:praxis20170914

[3] Baethge, A., Rigotti, T. (2013) Effects of interruptions and multitasking on performance and health. (German). Federal Institute for Occupational Safety & Health. Dortmund, Germany.

[4] Mankins, M., Brahm, C., Caimi, G. (2014) So managen Sie Ihr knappstes Gut. (German: This is how you manage your most scarce resource). Harvard Business Manager, 10/2014

[5] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Productivity https://www.bls.gov/productivity/

[6] cf. Tangen S (2005) Demystifying productivity and performance. International Journal of Productivity & Performance Management Vol. 54 No. 1, 2005 pp. 34-46. doi: 10.1108/17410400510571437

[7] Drucker P. F. (1967) The Effective Executive. New York: Harper & Row.

About the author:

Isabella Mader is CEO of the Excellence Institute, Executive Advisor for the Global Peter Drucker Forum and lecturer at universities in the fields of information and knowledge management, IT- strategy and collaboration.

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