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Our focus for improving productivity tends to be ourselves: What can we do to get things done quickly? But after writing seven books on personal productivity, consultant Laura Stack realized that when work is a group effort, improving productivity is not just a solo effort. And she offers insights in an area where we often don't think about productivity: Making effective decisions.

In Faster Together, she offers seven ways your team can make group decisions more quickly:

  • Work from a template: Try to base a new decision on similar decisions you have made before. “If you already have a policy in place for handling a decision of this type, use it; if not, modify a similar policy or decision-making process,” she writes.
  • Get the information first: Before your team meets to make the decision, make sure you understand all aspects of the situation. Gather all the expert knowledge you can find and then take the time to digest it. Only act after you have given the issue the thought it deserves.
  • Limit the reasonable choices: Meet with your group to brainstorm possibilities. Then narrow them down to a reasonable number.
  • Limit your debate time: You’ll now want to discuss them and make a decision at a short (repeat: short) meeting. She says that with most decisions, an hour will be sufficient if you have gone through the previous steps.
  • Ensure universal acceptance: Now everyone must commit to the decision, whatever their preference in the discussion. This is the final word, the group’s wish.
  • Include error-checking and exit strategies: One factor that slows down decision-making and implementation is the fear of making the wrong decision. That inspires procrastination or perfectionism. Such care may be necessary with decisions that are life-changing, irrevocable or dangerous. But for most decisions your group will make, all you need is flexibility and agility to adjust. So devise a battle plan that includes ways to check whether you’re on the right course and develop possible exit strategies if you aren’t.
  • Execute immediately: Move forward with the decision immediately. Challenges will no doubt arise. Deal with them as they are revealed.

Ms. Stack also urges you to consider the permission/forgiveness quandary with your team to speed up the many decisions individuals face. That is drawn from Rear-Admiral Grace Hopper's axiom, "It is often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission." Usually that quote is followed by some individuals and abhorred by others, who believe in permission first.

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So discuss it. If you're the supervisor, help your team to understand that for ordinary decisions they don't need to ask your permission. They can take the initiative on run-of-the-mill stuff. At the same time, when their decision impacts others, a different approach may be necessary. She notes that you don't want an IT tech changing or upgrading the operating system of an important server without consulting other people.

"As team members, we rarely have the complete picture and total information. But we should always ask ourselves what steps we can personally take to move the project forward and help the team execute faster. We may be able to complete a portion of something bigger to see forward progress," she adds.

She also recommends a "presumptive close" technique to speed up decisions: Tell other folks, "if I don't hear from you by ___, I'm going to do X." Even if a high-level decision hasn't been taken, you can do your piece of it and put the results back in front of the responsible people for reactions.

Faster together is the goal.

How to deliver your presentation in half the time

Sometimes you don't want to go faster. But you're set to make a presentation – to a client, a government committee or a conference – and you're told you only have half the time you were allotted originally.

"Your first instinct is to just try and talk faster and maybe breeze past a less-important point or two – hopefully you can still cram in everything else, even if it's a little rushed? Nope, wrong strategy. Nobody can be effective speaking in hyperspeed," presentations specialist Anett Grant writes in Fast Company.

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  • Give your conclusion first: It would be devastating to run out of time before you get your key message across. So begin with it. “Get to the point right away, no matter what. You may worry that your core message is kind of complicated and takes a little bit of background to spell out. Even so, get it out there first and then use your remaining time to fill in the context,” she stresses.
  • Speak in “layers”: Design your presentation from the inside out, conscious that any presentation could be cut short. The inner “layer” will be your key message, the next layer will be your other major points that directly support it and the third layer will be the details that support those key points. She asks you to think of it like dressing for winter weather, where you can take off a layer if it’s warmer than you expect. If you plan your presentation in layers, you can pull off layers when the time is cut short.
  • Speak in “modules”: Similarly, you’ll be more flexible if you initially prepare your presentation in modules that you can eliminate if necessary. You still give the key message first, but the arguments in support can be viewed a separate items. Maybe you then only give one argument in strong support rather than diluting its importance by giving three other arguments. “Think of it like going to dinner: You may want to skip either appetizers or dessert if you’re worried you’ll be late for the movie you bought tickets for,” she writes.
  • Adjust your slides: If you worry that you could be cut short, design your slides around the layers or modules so you can adjust on the fly. Alternatively, design a few different slide decks to handle the different time slicing that could occur.

Questions to ask someone other than "what do you do?"

If you want to prolong conversations when you are meeting someone new and make the conversation more stimulating, jettison the old standard, "what do you do?" for these alternatives from Oral Roberts University leadership professor David Burkus in Harvard Business Review:

  • What excites you right now?
  • What are you looking forward to?
  • What’s the best thing that happened to you this year?
  • Where did you grow up?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • Who is your favourite superhero?
  • Is there a charitable cause you support?
  • What’s the most important thing I should know about you?

If you flinched at the superheroes gambit, consider Prof. Burkus's reasoning: "This might seem random, but it's one of my favourites. Occasionally, asking this question has led me to bond over the shared love of a character, but more often you'll find a shared connection or two in the reason for why the other person chose that particular character … or why they're not really into superheroes."

Quick hits

  • Before referring somebody for an opening in your company, make sure the referral will represent you well. You may not know their professional competence, and you also need to make sure their personal character is top flight, advises recruiter Robin Reshwan. Also: Resist the tendency to oversell the person.
  • Continually using the word okay is not okay, says career coach Brian Lee. It’s a cop out, avoiding giving a proper opinion when asked something and encouraging you to stop thinking.
  • Not sure what’s important as the priorities you are asked to handle grow and grow? Ask your boss, says consultant David Dye. If your boss isn’t clear, think about what people a level above that boss want.
  • When working from home, you can improve focus by counter-intuitively taking more breaks throughout the day – ideally every hour, for a few minutes, says consultant Lisa Kanarek. It will refresh you and give you a new perspective on the item at hand.
  • Consultant Guy Harris has two colleagues with similar opinionated styles that often involve sarcastic humour. One irritates him, the other he laughs off when a touch too edgy. That leads him to wonder – and he suggests you apply the same approach – whether the problem is him and to try to remember that his reaction, not the irritating action by the other party, could be critical in interactions.
Mark Mortensen of INSEAD discusses his findings about teamwork and how knowing what teams others are on can improve workflow Special to Globe and Mail Update

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