CIOs: Give Your Best Talent the Worst Work

David Wagner, Managing Editor | 11/17/2011 | 38 comments

David Wagner
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.

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nasimson   CIOs: Give Your Best Talent the Worst Work   11/30/2011 1:29:13 PM
Re: Rotation
I agree with the concept of rotation of work. A lot of times emloyees like to have experience of a different department or get bored of their routine tasks, rotation does no only provide opportunity for renewed interest but also broaden the perspective of employees and cultivate better understanding between teams.

Another way to keep employees motivated could be to have the star employees train other team members on ways to carry out routine work more smoothly. This way the star employee can feel rewarded for doing the grunt work while at the same time preparing a team through demonstrative training to carry it out just as efficiently in future.
nasimson   CIOs: Give Your Best Talent the Worst Work   11/30/2011 1:18:29 PM
Re: Interesting concept, but...
While an employee might not leave due to grunt work but constant flow of such work can be demotivating in the long run. Similarly, even challenging work can become demotivating if it means firefighting all the time. So the tasks have to alternate between all kinds, with highs and lows, varying from easy to difficult, and ranging between menial and intelligent.
The_Phil   CIOs: Give Your Best Talent the Worst Work   11/26/2011 9:08:16 AM
Re: CIOs: Give Your Best Talent the Worst Work
Brilliant, a good idea for managing tough jobs. I accept the very fact, that we must not always push troublesome jobs rockstar employees as it may make them feel sick of the day-to-day. Try to make all team members aware of the situation that a task is quite tough, but we have to do it with team spirit and everyone will be rewarded with gratitude when the task is completed successfully.
tekedge   CIOs: Give Your Best Talent the Worst Work   11/24/2011 12:43:13 PM
CIOs: Give Your Best Talent the Worst Work
This is a very interesting concept. I believe this would work if we also include the following:

1) Make it a  part of the annual performance objectives for the star employees to interact with employees in the lower bands to identify ineffecient tasks and  suggest or implement alternatives. 

2) Make these kinds of tasks have high visibility so that the star employees are well noticed and appreciated.

3) For the star employees these kinds of tasks need to be of a short term nature or they could get bored.

4) Have monthly, quarterly and yearly votings to identify and publish the efforts of these champions. 
David Wagner   CIOs: Give Your Best Talent the Worst Work   11/21/2011 12:40:48 PM
Re: Interesting concept, but...
@Broadway- Now you're beginning to sound too reasonable. You might have to leave corporate life before they notice.
Anand   CIOs: Give Your Best Talent the Worst Work   11/20/2011 2:30:28 AM
Re : CIOs: Give Your Best Talent the Worst Work
@David, I strongly feel a team should have both the star employees and mediocre employees. Its not a good idea to totally replace mediocre employees with star employees because star employees doesn't like to stick at one place as they are highly ambitious.
geeky   CIOs: Give Your Best Talent the Worst Work   11/19/2011 4:30:00 AM
Re: Taking One for the Team
Sara: Yes, that particular work might have been easy enough for anyone to do except the one who flunked i,t but handling work is like playing with your mind. You have to be smart enough to identify whether you can cross this line with your work. If not you simply cannot give up. You have to try hard and finish it at your best.
Broadway   CIOs: Give Your Best Talent the Worst Work   11/18/2011 2:45:36 PM
Re: Interesting concept, but...
@David, how's this for an idea. You assign an old head to oversee/mentor the youngsters, sharing operational knowledge and advice when needed and making sure they're not on a wild goose chase.
Da-11   CIOs: Give Your Best Talent the Worst Work   11/18/2011 12:39:33 PM
Re: Taking One for the Team

@Technocrat, I agree with your cost vs asset idea. There is a lot American companies can learn from Japanese companies, and also there’s a lot Japanese companies can learn from American companies. Both nations would benefit highly from more cultural exchanges.



Sara Peters   CIOs: Give Your Best Talent the Worst Work   11/18/2011 12:32:58 PM
Re: Taking One for the Team
@geeky   Sometimes dumb work may look dumb but its very tricky and you need a good stable mind to complete it properly.   Hm. That's very wise. Just because a task is unpleasantly boring and tedious doesn't mean that it's easy. However, I would posit that one person's boring is another person's fulfilling. Sometimes it's simply a matter of finding the right high-performer. For example, I find most forms of repetitive work infuriating, but my brother-in-law -- who is both exceptionally smart and exceptionally hard-working -- finds that kind of work fulfilling and soothing.

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