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The Illusion of “Busyness”

Busy office scene -- cartoonI have recently returned from a very relaxing holiday which gave me plenty of time for reflection. For me, part of a good holiday is always that juxtaposition and uncomfortable jolt that happens when you return home.  The rhythm changes, the environment changes and it feels very different.  The jolt of returning to normality isn’t always easy, but it is a sign of a holiday well spent!

This time I experienced this jolt when landing back into London.  As the plane descended, I noticed how green the UK is.  There seemed to be miles and miles of green fields (as opposed to the dust and palm trees that could be seen in my holiday destination).  As we got closer I saw rain.  Then cars.  Lots of cars.

I was pondering these sights as the plane landed—quite firmly—on the grey and rainy runway.  Having just had a ten-night break where I hadn’t followed much of a schedule at all, it was a culture shock to have seen cars queuing on the motorway with people trying to dash around, presumably desperate to get to their destination.

It struck me quite suddenly that what I could see was “busyness”.  Of course, the airport itself was the epitome of busyness—people coming, going—some on holiday, some on business—each with different concerns, priorities and aspirations.  And what I was returning to was a busy world.

Now, I just know some of you right now are thinking “You’ve had too many Mojitos Adrian.  Of course the world is busy”.  Yep, I agree. Sort of.  But what if busyness was a choice?

A Shift In Perception…

Time, ultimately, is a leveller.  Whether you’re rich or poor—whether you’re an entrepreneur, a business analyst or a CEO, there are only 24 hours in your day.  And tomorrow, if you’re lucky, there will be another 24 hours.

I read an article a couple of years ago that suggested we shouldn’t say “I haven’t got time for that” we should say “That isn’t a priority right now”.  This subtle shift is interesting.  I’ve been guilty (in the past) of saying “I haven’t got time to see a doctor about x”.  It is far, far harder to say “My health isn’t a priority right now”.  And try saying “Spending time with my partner/spouse isn’t a priority right now”.  Good luck with that one 🙂

In most circumstances we don’t lack time—we lack focus.  We scrabble around with tedious tactical tasks, managing pointless to-do-lists and fire-fighting.  We would do better to start each day by saying what we won’t do, and ditching at least one stale, overdue, unnecessary item each day.

Busyness is a choice.  We can say “no” to some things so that we can say an emphatic and enthusiastic “yes” to others.  We can delegate, query and ask ‘why’.  We can defer.  We can choose to focus on those few activities that really ‘move the needle’ and those that are aligned to our core purpose.

What This Means For Business And Business Analysis

Ultimately, organisations are systems involving a number of components—including of course, people!  So, it’s unsurprising that this pattern of incessant busyness without purpose and focus can be seen at an organisational level too.  So often, projects are initiated on a whim—often with a highly dubious business case—and there is then a race to the temptingly exciting and sickly sweet ‘development stage’.  And once that gets boring, another project is launched.  And another.  Then all of a sudden hundreds of unrelated projects are being juggled, with an exhausted workforce and frustrated executive team.

But here’s the thing: Busyness is a choice in organisations too.  And business analysis is one of the key disciplines in helping executives to make informed decisions about what they do.   We can work with sponsors and CEOs to ensure that projects are aligned to strategy and the organisation’s core purpose.  Then we can define them in detail, help facilitate the design and delivery.  Working with a range of project stakeholders, we’ll have a laser-like focus on achieving the desired project outcomes.

The irony, perhaps, is that if we do less we’ll achieve and finish more.  And that, to me, sounds like a winning proposition.


What are your views on “busyness” and managing priorities? Are there any other angles that should be considered on projects?   Please add a comment below, and lets keep the conversation flowing! 

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About the author:

Adrian ReedAdrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

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4 thoughts on “The Illusion of “Busyness””

  1. ……… and before you know it, busyness becomes the goal. Our KPIs become a measure of how busy we are and we enthusiastically pat ourselves on the back when those KPIs turn a lovely shade of green – if we can find the time!

    1. Sue, I agree! That is so true. As the saying goes “you get what you *inspect* not what you *expect*”. Chose inappropriate measures and undesired outcomes will likely appear! Thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂

  2. Hi Adrian, like where you’re going with this more ‘philosophical’ piece. One of my favourite books is ‘Essentialism’ by Greg Mckeown – a great, quick read on the subject.

    A follow on comment to your observation that “so often projects are initiated on a whim” would be that, so often failing projects or ill-conceived projects are not closed down. Essentialism talks about the logical necessity of trade-offs, we have limited time and resources, so before starting a new project how about closing down two?

    1. Hi Tom, Thanks I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

      I completely agree regarding failing projects often continuing for too long. There is almost certainly some behavioural economics/cognitive dissonance theory behind that (perhaps the ‘sunken cost fallacy’?). And of course there are often political reasons that projects continue, as a sponsor has made a commitment and are now politically exposed. However, we can often provide an objective and unbiased view — which won’t always be popular of course!

      I wrote an article on a similar subject a while back that you might enjoy (“If your project is a turkey, kill it early..”)

      Thanks again for the comment! Hope to catch up soon… Adrian.

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