Are You Productive, or Just Busy? One Word Can Help You Find Out

Written by Tracy Vanneman on February 19, 2019

To work is to use resources - time, talent, expertise, energy, or a combination thereof - to create a new output. What makes work productive is when our effort has transformed resources into new output of value.

If we spend half our waking hours leasing our personal resources to our employer, productivity is worth the pursuit, knowing that our efforts have created value through improving a situation, solving a problem, or anticipating a future need within our association and the members and industry it serves.

How do you know if you are creating value? In some careers, the answer might be clear and present. Firefighters observe that they have been productive when they successfully extinguish a fire. Surgeons know their work has been of value as they watch a patient’s once-broken leg heal to its prior healthy state. In association management, however, we might need to dig into abstraction. Have we improved, solved, or anticipated, or have we simply remained busy?

It is easy to choose or accidentally arrive at “busy” without necessarily being “productive”. Without a raging house fire or cracked femur before our eyes, the best application for the resources we have to offer can be difficult to determine. We seek feedback from our members, volunteer leadership, and coworkers, but our response too often is an attempt, good-hearted but nevertheless short-sighted, to alleviate the pain point without first gaining a true understanding of its root cause.

Let’s say an association has declared, “We are tired of our tech woes. We simply need a new association management software (AMS)!” The IT staff identifies vendors, the finance staff crunches numbers, the membership staff develops stars in their eyes over the potential within a shiny new system while simultaneously losing sleep over the impending data conversion. Associations can easily jump into action, even on a massive project like an AMS transition, based solely on surface-level issues. Their work to come is likely to keep them busy, but not necessarily productive.

A helpful tool from the Lean / Six Sigma space is The Five Whys. Simply put, to fully understand a problem, you need to ask the question “Why?” five times. Doing so may initially feel childish or obstinate, but it is a useful exercise to ensure that resources are being devoted to productive work.

Like any skill, mastery of The Five Whys takes practice, but little effort is needed to see its potential. Let’s revisit our colleagues who are neck-deep in AMS transition preparations and deploy The Five Whys.

“We simply need a new AMS!”

Why? (#1)

“Our membership reports always have discrepancies. We just need something new and better.”

Why? (#2)

“When the membership department runs the reports on lapsed members, current members, etc., they get one set of data. But the accounting department reports different numbers. Nobody really knows our membership counts. Everyone operates under different assumptions.”

Why (and also, YIKES, but let’s press on…)? (#3)

“The membership department defines a ‘lapsed member’ as XYZ, but the accounting department defines a ‘lapsed member’ as ABC. The variability is high based on who is running the report and for what purpose.”

Why? (#4)

“The two departments use different report date parameters and filters. There is no knowledge sharing across departments.”

And, finally, why? (#5)

“Each department is convinced that their method is correct. If we change how we define our membership statuses, then everyone will have to redo their projections and adjust their historical data. We don’t have the resources for that.”


Who would have guessed that asking the same one-word question a few times over would be so exhausting, yet so illuminating?

In just about 200 words, we’ve learned the following about this association:

  • They have unrealistic expectations about software’s utility to solve all their problems.
  • Departments operate in silos, without a method for and culture around sharing information.
  • Data accuracy is not highly regarded if operating under different data assumptions is permitted.
  • They lack a set of agreed-upon standards in their membership reporting.
  • The staff is reluctant to change perspectives and processes around membership activities.

If the association simply launches into the new AMS project without sufficiently asking “Why?”, the same or similar problems are likely to resurface, and the project will have been an exercise in busyness rather than productivity. It’s worth taking the time to ask “Why?”

The resources required to create value are precious and finite. Respect them by having confidence that you are addressing the right situation, solving the right problem, or anticipating the right future need, and then your work will assuredly be productive, and your output valued by the members and industry serve you.

Tracy spoke in the “Productivity - A State of Mind at Work” session during SURGE Optimism 2018, an interactive virtual conference hosted by on November 7th-9th. Click here to watch the sessions on demand.