Yawn... Every company has boring work. In fact, it is boring work that makes most companies go 'round. And let’s face it, in most companies we know who gets the boring work: low-paid and often inexperienced members of the rank-and-file.
According to Michael Schrage, smart companies need to reverse this practice. They should give the worst, most boring, most mind-numbingly dull work to their best employees. Schrage admits that this is a contrarian idea, but hear it all the way through. It just might make a real difference in your enterprise.
The concept is that, as most companies grow, there are phases in their growth where bad legacy policies and processes take hold. There isn’t enough time for all of these processes to grow with the company. Busy folks come to accept that this is the way they have to be done. All over your enterprise right now, some of your employees are hand-inputting data into spreadsheets, putting up with applications that only partially fit their needs, or otherwise plodding along in morale-killing, efficiency-robbing, and money-wasting ways.
Schrage suggests that the cycle can’t really end with mediocre employees addressing the problem. But put a great employee in charge of your dullest, worst processes and he will find a way to right the ship fast. He’ll fix the problem and he’ll probably find some chances to add value to the whole thing.
I have to say that the argument seems really compelling to me. There is no doubt that most enterprises are full of scutwork. And if you can eliminate the scutwork with some creativity, you’re going to improve morale and efficiency. My only problem with this plan is that if you really want your star employees handling this stuff, you'd better be the greatest manager in the world or come up with some other plan for keeping those star employees around. Repeated studies have shown that top performers don’t respond merely to a paycheck. They look for challenging work.
A Corporate Executive Board survey in 2010 showed that, despite the bad economy, 27 percent of star employees were looking to leave their current jobs. Money and perks were low on the list of reasons. Recognition and challenge were the most important reasons most stars were looking to move. The problem with putting your best people on your worst work is that, while it might be challenging in the abstract to fix bad processes, it doesn’t feel important. Star workers might feel punished or under-appreciated if asked to continually work on the worst projects.
An article in Fortune suggests that star employees want a sense of a promising future. Fixing the scutwork isn’t necessarily going to make someone feel he's on the fast track.
The article does, however, suggest the key to using your stars to do work they may not find appealing: transparency. The need to feel appreciated and valued drives us all. Pulling aside your top employees and impressing upon them the importance of the work you’re asking them to do, no matter how dull it might seem, can help a star understand why you’ve put him in such a situation and mitigate any feelings of being punished. Granting autonomy and freedom can help, too. Even the king of a junkyard is still king.
I also believe that balancing assignments can work. Alternating between “dull” and “exciting” projects can help people stay fresh without overtaxing them. Another important factor is creating a culture around the value of problem solving. Find employees, especially star employees, who thrive on the idea of being the plumber you call when you have a clog.
It is a tall order to manage the emotions and needs of your top employees. And it gets even harder if you insist on using them to do what seems like busy work. But if you can achieve an effective balance, you just might bust out of some of the worst inefficiencies holding your company back.