A great example of student-centered and project-based learning.
A great example of student-centered and project-based learning.
The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School returned to class Wednesday morning two weeks and moral centuries after a tragic mass shooting ended the lives of 17 classmates and teachers. Sen. Marco Rubio marked their return by scolding them for being “infected” with “arrogance” and “boasting.” The Florida legislature marked their return by enacting a $67 million program to arm school staff, including teachers, over the objections of students and parents. Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill opted to welcome them back by ignoring their wishes on gun control, which might lead a cynic to believe that nothing has changed in America after yet another horrifying cycle of child murder and legislative apathy.
But that is incorrect. Consumers and businesses are stepping in where the government has cowered. Boycotts may not influence lawmakers, but they certainly seem to be changing the game in the business world. And the students of Parkland, Florida, unbothered by the games played by legislators and lobbyists, are still planning a massive march on Washington. These teens have—by most objective measures—used social media to change the conversation around guns and gun control in America.
Now it’s time for them to change the conversation around education in America, and not just as it relates to guns in the classroom. The effectiveness of these poised, articulate, well-informed, and seemingly preternaturally mature student leaders of Stoneman Douglas has been vaguely attributed to very specific personalities and talents. Indeed, their words and actions have been so staggeringly powerful, they ended up fueling laughable claims about crisis actors, coaching, and fat checks from George Soros. But there is a more fundamental lesson to be learned in the events of this tragedy: These kids aren’t freaks of nature. Their eloquence and poise also represent the absolute vindication of the extracurricular education they receive at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Despite the gradual erosion of the arts and physical education in America’s public schools, the students of Stoneman Douglas have been the beneficiaries of the kind of 1950s-style public education that has all but vanished in America and that is being dismantled with great deliberation as funding for things like the arts, civics, and enrichment are zeroed out. In no small part because the school is more affluent than its counterparts across the country (fewer than 23 percent of its students received free or reduced-price lunches in 2015–16, compared to about 64 percent across Broward County Public Schools) these kids have managed to score the kind of extracurricular education we’ve been eviscerating for decades in the United States. These kids aren’t prodigiously gifted. They’ve just had the gift of the kind of education we no longer value.
Part of the reason the Stoneman Douglas students have become stars in recent weeks is in no small part due to the fact that they are in a school system that boasts, for example, of a “system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age.” Every middle and high school in the district has a forensics and public-speaking program. Coincidentally, some of the students at Stoneman Douglas had been preparing for debates on the issue of gun control this year, which explains in part why they could speak to the issues from day one.
The student leaders of the #NeverAgain revolt were also, in large part, theater kids who had benefited from the school’s exceptional drama program. Coincidentally, some of these students had been preparing to perform Spring Awakening, a rock musical from 2006. As the New Yorker describes it in an essay about the rise of the drama kids, that musical tackles the question of “what happens when neglectful adults fail to make the world safe or comprehensible for teen-agers, and the onus that neglect puts on kids to beat their own path forward.” Weird.
The student leaders at Stoneman Douglas High School have also included, again, not by happenstance, young journalists, who’d worked at the school paper, the Eagle Eye, with the supervision of talented staff. One of the extraordinary components of the story was the revelation that David Hogg, student news director for the school’s broadcast journalism program, WMSD-TV, was interviewing his own classmates as they hid in a closet during the shooting, and that these young people had the wherewithal to record and write about the events as they unfolded. As Christy Ma, the paper’s staff editor, later explained, “We tried to have as many pictures as possible to display the raw emotion that was in the classroom. We were working really hard so that we could show the world what was going on and why we need change.”
Mary Beth Tinker actually visited the school in 2013 to talk to the students about her role in Tinker v. Des Moines, the seminal Supreme Court case around student speech and protest. As she described it to me, the school’s commitment to student speech and journalism had been long in evidence, even before these particular students were activated by this month’s horrific events. Any school committed to bringing in a student activist from the Vietnam era to talk about protest and freedom is a school more likely than not to be educating activists and passionate students.
To be sure, the story of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students is a story about the benefits of being a relatively wealthy school district at a moment in which public education is being vivisected without remorse or mercy. But unless you’re drinking the strongest form of Kool-Aid, there is simply no way to construct a conspiracy theory around the fact that students who were being painstakingly taught about drama, media, free speech, political activism, and forensics became the epicenter of the school-violence crisis and handled it creditably. The more likely explanation is that extracurricular education—one that focuses on skills beyond standardized testing and rankings—creates passionate citizens who are spring-loaded for citizenship.
Perhaps instead of putting more money into putting more guns into our classrooms, we should think about putting more money into the programs that foster political engagement and skills. In Sen. Rubio’s parlance, Marjory Stoneman Douglas was fostering arrogance. To the rest of the world, it was building adults.
MELBOURNE, Australia — At Lumineer Academy, a newly opened primary school in Williamstown, Australia, there is no homework. There are no classrooms, uniforms or traditional grades.
Instead, there are “creator spaces,” “blue-sky thinking” sessions and “pitch decks.”
If the school — furnished like a start-up with whiteboards and beanbag chairs — sounds like the idea of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, that’s because it is.
That entrepreneur is Susan Wu, 44, an American who has been called one of the “most influential women in technology” and who has advised or invested in companies that include Twitter, Reddit and Stripe.
Ms. Wu and her team believe they are starting an education revolution. They say they have created a new model for teaching children, called Luminaria, that promises to prepare them to become the architects of — rather than mere participants in — a future world.
“Our current school models were built 100-plus years ago for the Industrial Revolution,” said Ms. Wu. “What they cared about were homogeneous factories that produced a template of a kind of worker. The world has changed.”
In the United States, as more tech executives have tried their hands at opening schools, education experts have debated, and in some cases warned about, the effects of corporate money and influence pervading the classroom.
In recent years, schools and education programs have been founded by Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla; Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix; and Marc Benioff, the founder of Salesforce.
Despite glittering launches and promises to disrupt education, schools founded by tech executives have yet to demonstrate success. AltSchool, founded by the former Google executive Max Ventilla, announced last year that it would close several of its schools after a series of reported losses, despite raising $175 million from investors like Mark Zuckerberg, and charging tuition fees of around $28,000.
Ms. Wu is aware of the challenges her technology sector peers have faced, but she says her school’s model, team and location in Australia could set it apart.
Private education is much more common in Australia than in the United States. About a third of Australian children attend private schools — nearly three times the rate of American children — meaning there are fewer national sensitivities around unions, corporate influence and tuition. Like most independent Australian schools, Lumineer Academy is a nonprofit.
Ms. Wu says that she and her co-founders, Sophie Fenton and Amanda Tawhai, pack a one-two punch that combines her business acumen with their knowledge of education.
Ms. Fenton won Australian Teacher of the Year in 2013 and has written exams for the Victorian Certificate of Education — the final assessment required of students in the state of Victoria.
Though similar ventures by tech entrepreneurs have failed, Ms. Wu’s Silicon Valley peers said she was uniquely suited to founding a successful school.
“She brings new perspective to problems that have existed for a long time,” said Mike Curtis, vice president of engineering at Airbnb. “Almost any problem space — no matter how different it is from the last — she seems to be able to tackle.”
Lumineer Academy opened in January in a former customs house in a wealthy suburb of Melbourne. There are 130 students enrolled and tuition costs around 10,000 Australian dollars, or $8,000.
Unlike most Australian private schools, students at the academy do not wear a required uniform. Instead, students are encouraged to build their own wardrobes within a prescribed palette. (In nautical stripes and khakis, many children resemble those in a J. Crew catalog.)
Classrooms in the school have been rebranded “studios.” There are no desks, but rooms include couches, beanbag chairs and tables to stand at while working.
The Luminaria model claims to balance hard S.T.E.M. subjects, like computer programing, with soft skills like emotional intelligence and teamwork that are increasingly sought by employers. Ms. Wu said the model was based on a concept in physics known as first principles, in which ideas are reduced to their purest form, unencumbered by assumptions, analogies or biases.
Several recent studies have suggested that 30 to 50 percent of Australian teachers leave the profession within their first few years of work. Lumineer Academy has sought to capture some of them with a promise of freedom from strict curriculums.
“When I saw the job advertised, I thought, ‘This can’t be true,’ ” said Kim Staples, a 31-year-old teacher. “I was so frustrated in other systems, because they’re quite prescriptive.”
Ms. Staples said she would have stopped teaching if she hadn’t joined Ms. Wu’s school.
“I felt like I was too restricted,” she said. “I couldn’t give children the type of learning experiences that I knew was best for them.”
There is evidence of tech-world thinking throughout the school. In one studio, 8- and 9-year-olds worked on a project about socializing. The students outlined their thoughts using a multistep design process that could have been lifted straight from a start-up’s business plan: blue-sky thinking (thinking outside the box), scope (the work and resources required to get something done), MVP (minimum viable product), delivery and launch.
Outside observers say many of these tech-driven schools are giving new names to old pedagogical ideas.
“I was kind of impressed with the number of clichés and buzzwords that they packed into a short amount of marketing copy,” said Audrey Watters, whose blog, Hack Education, analyzes the intersection of education and tech. “In the case of Luminaria, they have everything, they have all the buzzwords: social and emotional learning, mind-sets, grit, S.T.E.M., mindfulness, authentic learning, global consciousness. I mean, pick two of those.”
Glenn Savage, an Australian education policy expert, said that it was difficult to see how the school’s lofty goals could fit within Australia’s “very structured” education system.
“It’s important that parents don’t work on the false assumption that sending students to a school that claims to do things radically different means that the students won’t be doing anything like students in other schools — because that’s just not the case,” he said.
The students had created a “pitch deck” — tech jargon for a PowerPoint presentation — aimed at persuading the group to collaborate with them on a project (it worked). In a nearby “creator space,” students were working to build a profitable micro-farm. They have been assigned to grow and sell goods at the local farmers’ market by the end of the school year.
One student, Ines Morgan, 8, said she particularly liked a project in which her class observed an ant colony.
“Our hypothesis was, ‘What happens when an ant colony gets disrupted?’ ” she explained. “They lived in chaos for like a day or two, but then, a few days later, they stuck together and just all decided to rebuild again.”
The school’s website promises to remove the “stress and anxiety” students encounter at other schools.
But if students are shielded from emotional adversity in their early years, critics say, they may struggle to cope when they reach high school — where desks, traditional teaching methods and puberty await.
Ines, the 8-year-old ant colony disrupter, said she had seen “a little bit of bullying” but that it was dealt with as a collective.
When asked how the situation was resolved, another student, Noah Helu, 8, said, “Well, it’s like what Ines learned about the ant colony: Sticking together helped us stop the bullying.”
What will today’s kindergartners need in order to succeed in the world as the Class of 2030?
“Student-centricity,” according to research conducted by McKinsey & Company on behalf of Microsoft Education, and showcased on the opening day at Bett, the world’s largest educational technology show here.
“That’s a theme we heard loud and clear: focusing on the learner,” said Barbara Holzapfel, the general manager of education marketing for Microsoft, during a presentation about the findings that attracted hundreds of people at a “standing room only” session of the conference.
They want to be supported by teachers who understand their needs, and want to be able to explore for themselves what interests them, she said.
Exhibiting that very trait were three 10-year-olds from Hong Kong, who came to the massive ed-tech show with their teacher Ms. Wong, to show off some of the inventions they built and programmed, including a paper airplane launcher and a tea-making machine that allows their teacher to choose how strong she wants her tea.
Here, the 5th-grade students from a government school explain what their invention does:
The automatic tea maker was a gift for their teacher, who explains their invention:
And the girls explain their favorite part about collaborating on the month-long project to create an automatic tea maker:
But what will all this student-centricity mean for teachers? “Teaching is one of the professions at the least risk of being automated,” said Holzapfel, who said the field is expected to grow exponentially.
The teacher “will morph into a guide and coach for students,” she said. “This is a generation that expects to have voice/choice in their own learning journey…and how they navigate it.”
Lower-skill jobs are likely to continue to be replaced by automation. By 2030, “the fastest-growing occupations will require higher-level cognitive skills in areas such as collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity,” the researchers found, according to an announcement about the study. “To help all students build these crucial cognitive and social and emotional skills, educators will need training, technologies, and time.” (See the special report Education Week produced recently on this topic: Schools and the Future of Work.)
McKinsey’s research was based on input from 70 “thought leaders,” an analysis of 150 pieces of relevant research, and surveys of 2,000 teachers and 2,000 students across the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Singapore.
The future of learning, work and life “is going to be profoundly social,” said Holzapfel, so students will need to develop and apply social and emotional skills. In fact, researchers found these “soft skills” to be twice as predictive of academic achievement as home environment and demographics.
Among the students surveyed, 50 percent indicated social-emotional skills were among their top priorities, compared with 30 percent of teachers. But perceptions differ. While only 30 to 40 percent of students feel they are receiving feedback on these skills, between 50 and 60 percent of teachers feel they are providing it.
Personalized learning is one of the most promising ways to develop social-emotional skills, according to the study. (See the special report Education Week produced recently on this topic: Personalized Learning: Vision vs. Reality.)
“Research in the past has shown that personalized learning improves cognition and skill development,” said Holzapfel.
“Seventy percent of students believe they can achieve higher growth and more content mastery when they are supported by teachers who really understand them as individuals,” and their individual learning needs, she said.
But personalized learning “is in very high demand, but very short supply,” she explained, noting that 70 percent of teachers say time is a barrier to the approach. Teachers and students in the study disagreed on the pace of learning, with educators identifying time constraints and the ability to individualize to so many students as central to the problem.
Microsoft sees technology as key to the solution. “Artificial intelligence, mixed reality, collaborative platforms, and technologies that go way beyond that—all of these technologies can be really powerful tools” to help teachers save time and gain insights into the learning and progress of each individual student, Holzapfel said.
Just last year, Kiowa Kavovit, then 6, became the youngest to pitch her invention—a liquid bandage called Boo Boo Goo—on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”
In the United States, there is no age requirement for filing a patent.
Alexis Lewis, a 15-year-old inventor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, wants children across the country to know that an inventor isn’t something you have to be when you grow up; they can be one now. Lewis holds a patent for a wheeled travois—a triangular load-carrying device with a bamboo frame and a bed of netting that she designed to serve Somali refugees, who need to transport their children many miles to camps and hospitals. Her patent-pending emergency mask pod is a football-shaped canister with protective gear that firefighters and first responders can throw through a window of a smoke-filled building to those trapped inside.
The two-time winner of the ePals-Smithsonian Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge, a competition for young inventors age 5 to 18, is a vocal advocate for “Inventing 101” courses to be a part of middle school curriculums.
Why should more people invent?
I think not only is it important to tell people that they can invent but it’s important also to tell them that they should be [inventing] because they have their own unique perspective on the world. Everybody has lived a different life, everybody has seen it [the world] slightly differently and I think everybody has a slightly different take on each problem. And I think if we all work together we can solve a tremendous number of problems.
What motivates you to invent?
My inventions are motivated by one of two things usually. One, it’s a humanitarian issue, basically people who aren’t getting the help they need, people who are dying unnecessarily when they could be saved. Another reason that I often invent is that I’ll get myself absolutely buried in a piece of physics, just learning about it obsessively. Then, I start to realize that there are little things that can be done to make technologies revolving around it a little bit more efficient here, a little bit more effective there.
Can you tell us a little bit about the environment you grew up in and how that’s impacted you as an inventor?
My mom would always read to the family about various world issues. When Hurricane Katrina hit [Alexis was 5 years old], we learned all about that—what a hurricane was, how it worked, the effects of Hurricane Katrina itself, what they were doing to help clear out floodwaters, all sorts of fascinating stuff. Being homeschooled, I had a lot of free time in which I was encouraged to basically go and do and build almost anything I wanted. I had access to videos on any subject, so I got to learn about the science of everything, and I read voraciously. I think having those channels of knowledge open to me was completely invaluable.
Do you think you have some advantages as an inventor given the fact that you’ve started young?
I don’t mean to put adults down, but when you’ve grown up and you’ve seen the world for a long time, you think its one way. I’d say that starting young has had an advantage in that I have the ability to look at something and not think, “oh this is a problem that can’t be solved,” but instead think maybe we’ve been looking at it just a little bit wrong. Kids, since they haven’t been told this is something that would never work over and over, have the have the ability to do that.
What is Inventing 101? Where did the idea come from, and why is it important to you?
It’s a class I hope to have administered to middle school students across the country that would basically tell them that they are capable of inventing. It would show them kids who have already invented. If people aren’t told when they’re young that they can invent, it’s going to be much harder to convince them that they can.
I had this idea when I was looking back at the stuff I had done, at my inventions and realizing that these are some simple [designs.] It’s not going to necessarily be the collapsible travois with custom made specially fabricated joints, it’s going to be the simple bamboo one that anybody can make. It’s not necessarily going to be the $700 grenade launcher, it’s going to be a little football-shaped pod that costs all of $4. People are stunned when they hear what I’ve done. But these are things that I know for a fact a lot of people can do. So I thought there’s got to be some way to awaken that self-confidence in people to enable them to do that.
How does your Emergency Mask Pod (EMP) work?
The emergency mask pod is basically a two-part football canister that holds a smoke mask made by Xcaper Industries, a pair of goggles and a little light-emitting device, most likely a LED light strip in the final version. The goggles allow people to concentrate more fully on getting out without having to worry about their eyes burning. The mask gives people the ability to breathe without dealing with the toxic effects of the smoke, and the light strip allows people to more easily locate the pod when it flies into a dark smoky room.
Designing the EMP pod was a process of trial and error. I’m a kid. I like things that go boom and shoot, and so my first thought was let’s just launch it up there. I did a whole bunch of research, and I was looking at a couple of different launcher mechanisms. I had the mascot of a local sports team fire a pneumatic cannon, basically a t-shirt cannon, into an open window from a very close distance, and accuracy was pretty abysmal. I went from a pneumatic cannon, which didn’t work at all, to a couple of so-so throwable devices, and ended up finally with a throwable canister with an accuracy of over 75 percent.
People think that the inventors of the world are the crazy mad scientists and white lab coats working long hours developing crazy new technologies. But that’s not the case. It’s not something reserved for Edison, Graham Bell, all the greats. Inventors are basically anybody and everybody who’s ever tried to solve a problem.
Most Americans work impossibly hard. We put in long hours and maximum effort, but better performance often eludes us. I’m no exception. I remember being in my 20s and landing my dream job as a management consultant at the posh London office of the U.S.-based Boston Consulting Group. I strode through the front doors on my first day wearing an elegant new blue suit and equipped with what I thought was a brilliant strategy for impressing my bosses: I would work crazy hours.
Over the next three years, I toiled for 60, 70, 80, even 90 hours a week. I drank an endless stream of weak British coffee and survived on a supply of chocolate bars I kept in my top drawer. One day, as I struggled through an intense project, I happened upon some slides created by a teammate I’ll call Natalie. Paging through her analysis, I confronted an uncomfortable truth: Natalie’s work was better than mine. Her analysis contained crisper insights, more compelling ideas.
One evening in the office, I went to look for her, but she wasn’t there. I asked a guy sitting near her desk where she was, and he replied that she’d gone home for the night. He explained that Natalie never stayed late—she worked from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., no nights, no weekends.
That upset me. We had similar education and experience and had been selected for our skills by the same rigorous screening process, but she did better while working less. The “Natalie Question,” as I came to call it, bothered me for decades. Answering it became the aim of my work when I left management consulting to study workplace performance as an academic. Why had Natalie performed better in fewer hours? More generally, why do some people perform better than others?
The knee-jerk answer to what distinguishes great performers from others is simple: talent. Social scientists and management experts explain performance at work by pointing to people’s innate gifts and natural strengths. How often have you heard phrases such as “She’s a natural at sales” or “He’s a brilliant engineer”? These talent-based explanations deeply influence our perceptions of what makes for success.
Are they right? Some experts say no, arguing that an individual’s sustained effort is just as critical as talent or even more so in determining success. According to this view, people perform well because they work hard and put in long hours. They end up doing more, taking on many assignments and running to lots of meetings.
But neither of these arguments accounted for why Natalie performed better than I did, nor did they explain the performance differences I had observed between equally hardworking and talented people.
In 2011, I decided to try to answer the question of why some people outperform others. I recruited a team of researchers with expertise in statistical analysis and began generating a set of hypotheses about which specific behaviors lead to high performance. We then conducted a five-year survey of 5,000 managers and employees, including sales reps, lawyers, actuaries, brokers, medical doctors, software programmers, engineers, store managers, plant foremen, nurses and even a Las Vegas casino dealer.
The common practice we found among the highest-ranked performers in our study wasn’t at all what we expected. It wasn’t a better ability to organize or delegate. Instead, top performers mastered selectivity. Whenever they could, they carefully selected which priorities, tasks, meetings, customers, ideas or steps to undertake and which to let go. They then applied intense, targeted effort on those few priorities in order to excel. We found that just a few key work practices related to such selectivity accounted for two-thirds of the variation in performance among our subjects. Talent, effort and luck undoubtedly mattered as well, but not nearly as much.
‘The best performers ask a crucial question before they draft their goals: What value can I create?’
The research makes clear that we should change our individual work habits if we wish to perform better, but the implications are much more far-reaching. We also need to change how we manage and reward work, how we measure economic productivity and perhaps most important, how our culture recognizes hard work. We should no longer take it as an automatic compliment to hear that we’re “hard working.” Hard work isn’t always the best work. The key is to work smarter.
How did the best performers in our study do this? Rather than simply piling on more hours, tasks or assignments, they cut back. They unknowingly applied a dictum invented 700 years ago by William of Ockham, a European friar, philosopher and theologian. Ockham is famous for a principle that came to be called (in a Latinized spelling of his name) Occam’s razor. It stipulates that the best explanation in matters of philosophy, science and other areas is usually the simplest one.
At work, this principle means that we should seek the simplest solutions—that is, the fewest steps in a process, fewest meetings, fewest metrics, fewest goals and so on, while retaining what is truly necessary to do a great job. I usually put it this way: As few as you can, as many as you must. The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry neatly formulated the same idea in his memoir: “Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”
Sometimes “the fewest” means just one. I used to labor through too many slides in my presentations. More, I thought, was better. Then, before a meeting I had with the CEO of a large European company, I was asked to present a proposal for executive education in just one slide. “One slide?” I asked in disbelief. I labored to reduce my 15 slides to four, and then to shrink them down some more. After some struggle, I thought, “What is the key issue here?” Applying Occam’s razor, I discarded all of my slides except one: a color-coded, hourly calendar of our program that I obsessed over to get just right. When you present one slide, it needs to be excellent.
And it worked. Since I didn’t have to take the time to present 15 slides, the CEO and I were able to spend our 45 minutes discussing the program in greater depth. When we finished, he remarked on how productive the meeting had been.
Once you’ve cut the clutter in an attempt to be more selective, it’s tempting to add new items back in, often in response to outside pressures. In our study, a full 24% of people blamed their inability to focus on bosses who set too many priorities. The top performers we studied combated this by following a second key practice: They said no to their bosses.
Of course, how you say no makes all the difference. The most astute performers explain that their overriding goal is to deliver great work. They are prioritizing, they say, not to slack off but to go all out and excel in a few key areas.
The next time your boss piles on new work, enforcing an old-fashioned “work harder” mentality, try asking if he or she would like you to re-prioritize, giving less attention to previously discussed tasks. Put the decision back on their shoulders. In our data, people who focused on a narrow scope of work, and said no to maintain that strategy, outperformed others who didn’t. They placed an impressive 25 percentage points higher in the performance ranking—the difference between being a middling and an excellent performer.
That number should interest managers. If you can set fewer priorities for your team, they will likely perform far better. But there’s also a caution here for team members. Some tasks truly don’t need to get done, or can wait, or can be delegated. But be careful not to say “no” too often or to focus too narrowly in your work. Doing one small task well doesn’t amount to strong overall performance.
The experience of one participant in our study, a customer-order handler, pointed me to a third simplifying practice: reorienting work around its actual value rather than internal goals. The order handler reported that his shipments reached corporate customers on schedule 99% of the time. That’s pretty impressive—except for one thing. When his boss surveyed the customers, a full 35% complained that their shipments were arriving later than they required. And why was that? The order handler was focusing on whether the shipments left the warehouse according to his own targets rather than on the time frame that mattered to his customers.
Many people mistakenly obsess over goals such as the number of sales calls made, patients seen, hours logged, customers visited, and so on. The best performers instead ask a crucial question before they draft their goals: What value can I create? And by value, they mean the key benefits they bring to customers and others, not themselves.
Many people never question whether their work produces value. When I conducted research at Hewlett-Packard some years ago, I visited an engineer at the company’s Colorado Springs office. He said that he was too busy to talk: He had to complete his goal for the week as specified in his job description, namely, submitting a quarterly report about the status of a certain project. He sent off the report in time, as he had in every previous quarter. Goal accomplished, right?
What I knew—and he didn’t—was that the corporate research and development division in Palo Alto no longer used those quarterly reports. His dispatches sank to the depths of an email box that no one bothered to check. He had met his goal according to his job description, but he had contributed zero value.
‘One useful way to simplify work is to confront a “pain point,” a thorny problem plaguing a set of people.’
How to add value? Our study found that people sometimes do it by simply changing something to help colleagues do their work better, downstream or upstream. A production technician at a food-processing plant reported, for instance, that his bosses measured him on “throughput”—the number of boxes he processed with the help of a packing and labeling machine. His throughput was fine, but he found out that when his boxes reached the warehouse, they weren’t “square” enough to fit neatly on pallets for shipment and required extra handling time. He took the initiative to adjust his packing process and straighten up any tilt in his boxes, which made the work flow smoother for his colleagues down the line. This effort placed him in the top bracket of performers in our study.
Attending to what’s valuable often highlights ways to redesign work to make it smarter. At the multinational shipping company Maersk, manager Hartmut Goeritz told me, in the course of our study, how he focused on just one pivotal activity at his terminal in Tangier, Morocco: moving containers on and off ships.
One day in 2011, as Mr. Goeritz strolled around the shipping yard, he noticed that some of the trucks were puttering around empty. “They picked up the container at the side of a ship,” he recounted of the dock workers, “then drove to the back of the giant yard to set it down, then drove back to the ship empty-handed to pick up the next one.” That’s how it had been done for years.
What would happen, Mr. Goeritz wondered, if trucks unloading one ship dropped off their containers in the yard and then carried back other containers destined for nearby ships that were loading? He tried out the idea, encouraging the truckers heading back to the ships to ask their colleagues if they could pick up any waiting containers. Soon team members began using walkie-talkies to coordinate this work, so that they could find more containers ready to ship out. The motto became “never drive empty.” This simple redesign nearly doubled efficiency.
Such redesigns aren’t just the purview of managers. Our study found that successful junior people also challenged and changed their ways of working. Those with a tenure of less than three years carried out redesigns as much as people with a tenure of 10 years or more (in both categories, just under 20% of our subjects made such efforts). Employees at large companies were almost as likely to innovate at work as those at small companies, despite more bureaucracy to overcome.
One useful way to simplify work is to confront a “pain point,” a thorny problem plaguing a set of people. A business analyst for a Minneapolis-based life insurance company in our study processed payroll for the company’s agents scattered across the country. For years she noticed that she got the most calls for help for one particularly labyrinthine part of the online filing process. She reached out to the company’s software coders and worked with them to turn it into a single computer screen’s worth of simple, quick clicks. She thus made it possible for a large group of her co-workers to devote less time and energy to a task secondary to their real work.
So much in our workplaces is premised on the conventional wisdom that hard work is the road to success, and that working the hardest makes you a star. Our analysis suggests the opposite. Yes, the best performers work hard (about 50 hours a week in our data, like Natalie), but they don’t outperform because they work longer hours. They outperform because they have the courage to cut back and simplify when others pile on, to say “no” when others say “yes,” to pursue value when others just meet internal goals, and to change how they do their jobs when others stick with the status quo. They’re innovators of work.
—Mr. Hansen is a professor of management at the University of California, Berkeley. This essay is adapted from his new book, “Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More,” which will be published by Simon & Schuster on Jan. 30.
Appeared in the January 13, 2018, print edition as ‘The Key to Success? Doing Less.’