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What basketball tells us about recruiting, dealing with an employee goof, the dangers of employee recognition programs and much more.

Metcalfe's Law has always been viewed as a blessing. But it is now a curse, one that you suffer through every day. Understanding the problem, however, might open up some significant opportunities for improving your productivity.

The principle – named after Robert Metcalfe, who invented the Ethernet – is essentially that a network's value increases exponentially with its size. The more people use something like the telephone, fax or Internet, the more their participation strengthens the entire network, as everyone benefits from everyone else's availability.

But unfortunately the concept of exponential growth applies in all our companies' internal communications systems. As more and more people try to communicate with each other, the number of interactions increase immensely – and in this case, it's not beneficial. Bain & Co. consultants Chris Brahm, Greg Caimi and Michael Mankins call it "the dark side of Metcalfe's Law" in an article published on its website.

By their estimates, a senior executive who in the 1970s might have received fewer than 1,000 outside phone calls, telexes or telegrams a year now faces 30,000 e-mails and other electronic communications annually. "Moreover, connected enterprises and automated scheduling have driven meeting time through the roof. At one company we analyzed as part of an organization-wide time management study, employees throughout the organization spent a staggering 300,000 hours a year supporting a single weekly executive committee meeting," they note.

In their research, a typical manager spent 16 hours a week managing e-mails and attending meetings that were unnecessary. Sound familiar?

"For any organization, this degree of lost productivity is corrosive. But it also represents a significant opportunity," they write. They foresee as much as a 30-per-cent increase in productivity for companies that deal with the issue.

An essential step is to build a corporate culture that values disciplined and engaged interaction, oriented toward action and results. You need to reject "swirl, indecision and collaboration for collaboration's sake." In that vein:

– Analyze your company's e-mail, calendar and customer relationship management data to see how people are spending their time.

– Provide executives with insight into the organizational load they create. Consider the meetings they schedule, the e-mails they send and the other ways they impose on people's time. How much time is wasted preparing for their meetings?

Essentially, you want to create awareness so that people realize the extent of the problem and react, changing practices so that Metcalfe's dark side is overcome.

Recruiting lessons from basketball

Speaking of connection, it's usually assumed that connections pay off in the recruiting game. But they don't pay off in the basketball game, so we need to rethink our assumptions.

Warwick Business School professor Leif Brandes of the United Kingdom decided to look at the value of contacts in recruiting by studying the National Basketball Association, looking at every player transaction from 1977 to 2010 and discovering which managers used their contacts to sign players and which managers didn't. "For those teams that used their manager's contacts to sign players, we found that they performed 5 per cent worse than those who didn't, and that was after factoring in the quality of the team, club budgets and a host of other influences. That doesn't sound like a lot, but for 64 per cent of the seasons we studied, that 5 per cent would have been the difference between landing a playoff spot and missing out," he writes in the Ivey Business Journal.

Relying on contacts saves time and money. It seems to give you inside insight on potential hires. But he notes that when you rely on contacts, you are drawing from the same pool time and time again, accessing the same ideas and talent. You aren't conducting an objective search, broadly, for the best person, but narrowing your horizon. And cozy relationships might lead to bias in evaluating people.

So don't drop the ball on your next hiring.

How to handle goofs

Years ago when he worked in retail while attending college, leadership blogger Ron Edmondson goofed, ordering 12 times what was required for restocking a minor item – perhaps a decade's worth of supply. The next day a memo went out: "From now on, all orders will need to be signed by a supervisor prior to completion." Nobody said anything to him, and everyone's work was needlessly slowed down.

In such situations, he advises you to:

– Never send a department- or company-wide e-mail to correct an action. Talk with the person responsible.

– Never overreact to a minor issue. The cost of his mistake was minor. If somebody had talked to him, he might have volunteered to pay for it himself.

– Never make a policy to correct a single error. Keep your policies as few as possible. "When you use a policy to address broad issues when it's really a singular issue, you burden people with needless bureaucracy, which only stalls efficiency and frustrates people," he says.

– Never punish everyone for the mistake of one person. It's unfair and builds resentment.

Test your adspeak

The Carlin Ad-Speak Calculator allows you to paste your ad copy into a website text box and have it checked to ensure there aren't too many clichés and ambiguous or overly flowery phrases. Creator Tom Wanek named it in honour of George Carlin's comedy piece "Advertising Lullaby," which runs through a laundry list of bland and colourless advertising terms.

Quick hits

– A new study suggests employee recognition programs can reduce a firm's productivity as people try to game the system to win and those who lose out become frustrated. Specifically, a well-meaning attendance award program in five industrial laundry plants cost 1.4 per cent in productivity.

– A simple tip to improve your meetings: Put the most important items at the top of the agenda.

– Of all the things you worked on last week, how many were due last week? Entrepreneur Seth Godin says short-order cooks rarely make change happen. Ensure the impact of your agenda extends further into the future.

– Make your job postings more attractive by specifying the compensation, recruiter Andrew Fennell advises.

– Kraft Foods Group, Hewlett-Packard and General Motors Co. were all forced into major corporate changes after coming under assault by shareholder activists. All three companies are headed by women and research by W.P. Carey School of Business professor Christine Shropshire of Arizona State University shows that female chief executive officers are far more likely to be targeted for shareholder activism than their male counterparts and more likely to face investors who are betting their firm's stock price will drop because as women they are assumed to be weak leaders.

– And in closing, businessman Arnold Glasow said: "One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency."

harvey@harveyschachter.com

Special to The Globe and Mail