Eliminate and Delegate to Save a Day a Week

Knowledge Worker Productivity

Knowledge workers can recoup an entire weekday by eliminating and delegating nonessential tasks.

A Knowledge Worker is an employee whose job involves developing and using knowledge. Software developers, doctors, engineers, attorneys, financial analysts, and teachers are all Knowledge Workers. Their job is fundamentally to "think for a living".

Improving the productivity of Knowledge Workers is especially challenging. It often involves the redesign of priorities, work processes, responsibilities, and activities. These are complex areas which are often subject to corporate culture and internal politics.

Julian Birkinshaw (Professor, London Business School) and Jordan Cohen (Management Consultant, PA Consulting Group) conducted research on ways for Knowledge Workers to improve their productivity. They performed a detailed review of knowledge workers across various industries. They published their findings in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, "Make time for work that matters".

Knowledge Workers present a real challenge.. The work they do is difficult to observe.. And the quality is frequently subjective
— Study Authors

Key Observations of their Research on Knowledge Workers:

  • Knowledge Workers often spend a large percentage of their time, up to 40%, on low-value tasks that can be performed by others.

  • They spend a significant amount of time on “desk work” and low-value administrative activities.

  • Another large area of time use is in "managing across", such as attending non-essential meetings with other departments.

  • Cost-cutting over the past few decades has resulted in the elimination of many administrative roles.  This has caused many low-value tasks, such as making travel arrangements, to now be transferred to knowledge workers.

  • Increasingly complex  processes and growing regulations have created risk-averse corporate cultures that can discourage delegation to less senior colleagues.

Our research shows that desk-based work and managing-across takes up two-thirds of knowledge worker’s time
— Study Authors

So, what did the authors discover and what do they recommend?


Key Recommendations to improve Knowledge Worker Productivity:

1) Identify low-value tasks:

  • Actively assess how you are spending your time.

  • Determine which tasks are truly important to you or your organization and which ones are not.

  • Focus on tasks that should be relatively easy to drop, delegate or outsource.

2) Bucket low-value tasks into three categories; Drop, Delegate, or Redesign:

  • Quick Kills ("Drop") - Things you can just stop doing at once with no detrimental impact.

  • Off-Load ("Delegate") - Tasks you can delegate or outsource to others with minimal effort.

  • Redesign - Activities that need to be completely restructured to be less time consuming and more efficient.

The researchers found that delegation was the most challenging activity for the participants.  Many were initially very hesitant to delegate their activities.  But the beneficial outcomes from delegating were tremendous.

Delegation was initially the most challenging, but ultimately rewarding. They delegated from 2% to 20% of their work with no decline in their productivity

— Study Authors

A side-benefit of delegation is that many of the subordinates that received the delegated work benefited from becoming more involved and learning new skills.


The Pay-Off - A Day a Week!

The researchers worked with a number of knowledge workers across different companies. By following these recommendations, they were able to free-up approximately 8 to 10 hours (20%) of their time. This is the equivalent of a full day a week!

Of course, the goal of this activity was not just to reduce work, but to also become more effective. In place of these lower value activities, they were able to focus on more value-added work. Some participants also noted more time with family and less stress.

Organizations, under the encouragement of their leadership, should require knowledge workers to perform a periodic, formal assessment of their work activities utilizing this framework.

The goal should be to identify areas where work elimination, task delegation, and process redesign can improve overall organizational performance.  

As the study authors discovered, the actual activity analysis is not necessarily difficult to perform.  The challenges are more in convincing the participants to execute plans against their findings.  

However, the results of this study show that the benefits gained by following this approach can be significant and lasting.

Are you a Knowledge Worker?

Do you spend too much time performing low-value activities?