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How to Work Smarter, Not Harder

by Katherine Hunter on Friday, February 22, 2013 12:37 PM
“Work smarter, not harder” is a cliché tossed around as if what to do is just plain obvious. The problem with clichés is that while, the end result is obvious, getting to that end is not. Seriously, if we knew how to work smarter, we would already be doing it. So where to do we start?

First of all, “work smarter, not harder” is usually offered when an organization is chasing its tail in a scramble to meet the month end numbers. When so much is at stake and the stress level is already over the top, telling someone to work smarter is as effective as touting the benefits of vegetables to a five year old.

The problem is that when the cognitive threshold is reached, by definition the part of the brain responsible for higher level processing shuts down and brain function shifts to those areas responsible for basic survival. Think of it this way: when you see a lion coming at you, you want your brain to automatically launch a response to get away. If you have to rationalize the benefits of running you will be lunch.

The similar process is true for an organization. When the objective is to keep the doors open, organizations double down the effort to deliver product anyway that they can. The problem is that while working harder at inefficient processes may work this month, the effort isn’t scalable and doesn’t solve the long-term problem. What is needed is a fresh set of eyes to help see what has become so much “just the way we do things” that the dysfunctional patterns have become transparent.

When working with clients, I look for ways in which we can leverage the skills and expertise of the employees. The assumption is that most of the competencies are resident somewhere in the organization. My job, then, is to leverage these competencies thereby raising the cognitive threshold of the entire organization.

The focus is in three areas:

Mental Capacity: Since high levels of stress decrease the capacity for rational thinking, the objective is to find ways to lower the stress by increasing the mental capacity. Information is the lifeblood of an organization and communicating operational information facilitates timely action. One strategy for raising the mental capacity is to organize the information so that it is usable. Structured information that is communicated in a consistent and reliable manner reduces uncertainty and gives employees ownership in the process. Everyone needs to know how the full cycle works, what their role is, and have absolute clarity about what information they need to receive from and distribute to others within the organization.

Situational: Experiment, plan, do, act, and adjust. The key here is to get better by doing. Try something different and don’t expect it to be perfect the first time. It is OK to get messy. See what works, what doesn’t, and don’t toss the baby out with the bathwater. When something fails find out why. Generally failures occur because of unintended consequences that have exposed a process few, if any, really understood. Find out what that process is and how to meet the needs it fills on the next try.

Training: Build capacities by learning from others. Training doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in a classroom. People learn best by doing. Encourage communication across departments, teach problem solving strategies and then give the team a real problem to solve.

Raising the cognitive threshold of an organization isn’t difficult, but like any new skill, it takes time, practice, and patience.

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Katherine Hunter

Katherine has completed three advanced degrees in human behavior including a doctorate in Transformational Psychology. She is passionate about transformation: transformation of business, company culture and individuals. Katherine believes that the success of an organization is directly proportional to the passion of the individuals to make a difference and works with clients to leverage teamwork and collaboration as key components of sustainable performance.

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