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Cartoon: unproductive employee thrown out upper floor window

Why Productivity Monitoring is Deadly for Innovation

Productivity monitoring technology is great for monitoring productivity, but lousy for innovation.

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Productivity monitoring technology now allows businesses to monitor everything every employee does, when they do it, where they go, when they return and calculate how productive they are every second of the day. It enables you to identify your most productive employees, so you can reward them, and the least productive, so you can fling them out of an upper floor window (or whatever you do with unproductive people). It identifies behaviours that improve productivity and those that hinder it. Productivity monitoring technology is also really bad for innovation for three reasons − well, actually more than three reasons; but neither you nor I have the time to go into more detail. We both need to be productive today.

1. Thinking is not measurably productive

Innovation is the result of the implementation of creative ideas. Creative ideas are the result of thinking. If you do not stop and think, if you do not play with ideas in your mind, you cannot be creative. Without creativity, there is no real innovation. It's as simple as that. However, sitting and thinking does not register as productive time, does it? For all the productivity monitoring software knows, you're having inappropriate thoughts about the incredibly attractive new colleague.

Moreover, few if any people have creative ideas while sitting at their desks, especially if they are interrupted by every email, phone call and text message that bursts in. If you really want to think, it is better to leave your desk and go for a walk. But what would the productivity monitoring technology make of that? Not only are you not doing anything measurably productive, but you're leaving the building during working hours! You'd surely get negative productivity points for that.

On the other hand, mindlessly performing administrative tasks, filling in spread sheets and attending meetings will give you productivity points. But these actions will inspire few creative ideas.

2. Taking risks is risky productivity

So, let us imagine that in spite of your avoiding thinking, you accidentally have a super, creative idea. As with most such ideas, you are not sure if it is a brilliant one that will transform your business and make you a hero or if it is a stupid idea that would never work.

Your first action, most likely, would be to do some research to find out if others are using similar ideas. Very likely you start with Google and read through the top results. If no one is doing quite the same thing, your next step might be to investigate the details of your idea. Is a technology needed to make it work? If so, you would want to check that. As far as productivity monitoring software is concerned, you are browsing the web which typically is not very productive. So, no productivity points for your research.

Nevertheless, if you pursue your idea, your next step probably involves talking to people in order to develop your idea. You would hope to get feedback, advice and recommendations on who to contact for help developing your idea.

If your idea still looks good, you will need to develop it further, such as by making a prototype or business case to present to corporate decision makers. If they reject your idea, then you are back where you started from. You may have learned a lot, but as far as any productivity monitoring technology is concerned you spent a great deal of time browsing the web, talking to people and preparing a document that led to absolutely nothing measurably productive.

Why take the risk? Better to do your usual routine and get productivity points.

3. People get selfish

When each individual's productivity is measured and forms the basis of her pay, promotion and likelihood of keeping her job, she is motivated to maximise her productivity score rather than work to the benefit of her team, her colleagues or her company.

Why on earth should she spend a couple of hours listening to someone else's idea and offering tips to help that person when it does not result in her gaining productivity points? Better not to waste the time or, better still, give bad advice so the colleague screws up and gets negative productivity points.

That older guy who spends a lot of time drinking coffee, walking around the office and chatting with people? He may not seem productive, but he knows everybody and he knows the latest gossip. If one of his colleagues has an idea, he can tell her who to talk to for advice and who can help her develop the idea. He might even be able to offer some tips on how to get it past the incredibly stingy purchasing department's procedures. But there's one little problem. He was laid off  because his personal productivity ranking was awful.

Even if you have your best ideas on your own, you need to collaborate to develop and implement those ideas − and so do your colleagues with ideas. But why should anyone help anyone else out when there is no productivity benefit for doing so. If anything, you are boosting the productivity rating of the person you are helping

And there is more

As I wrote recently, playfulness is essential to creativity. But it's not measurably productive.

People do not like being monitored all the time, so it leads to stress. Stress is not conducive to creativity. Stress is not even conducive to competent work.

Mistakes inspire creativity, but mistakes are not measurably productive − quite the opposite, in fact.

The Solution

The solution is rather obvious: if you want to be a truly innovative company, do not monitor your employees' every action. Give them freedom to think, to play, to try things out, to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. If you feel you need to measure and improve productivity, do two things. Firstly, speak to a psychologist. This obsessive need to measure productivity may be the result of your being a psychopath*. Don't feel badly, lots of bosses are psychopaths and very successful ones at that. Secondly, measure team productivity or organisational productivity rather than individual productivity.

And, if you want to improve individual productivity, don't measure it. Use your collective creativity to invent ways that your people can improve their productivity.

Further Reading

  1. The New York Times: "Unblinking Eyes Track Employees - Workplace Surveillance Sees Good and Bad" by Steve Lohr
  2. MIT Technology Review: "The Measured Working Man" by Tyler Cowen


* Don't worry, I'm just joking. You and I both know you are not a psychopath!

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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




My other web projects

My other web projects 100s of articles, videos and cartoons on creativity - possibly useful things I have learned over the years. reflections on international living and travel. - paintings, drawings, photographs and cartoons by Jeffrey