If you want to get the best out of yourself and your team, energy beats time—every time. It’s common for senior leadership to feel exhausted managing time and tasks for themselves and their team. It’s never ending, and despite tremendous effort planning and producing, there’s always more. What if instead of being exhausted, you could manage yourself and your team in a way that was energizing (and more effective to boot)?

If you want to get the best out of yourself and your team, energy beats time—every time. Tweet This Quote

Everyone knows that in any given project, X people will work for Y hours. On the face of it, it means you’ll get XY work hours from your team, and this has been the basic currency of almost all organizational approaches and processes. Whether you follow waterfall, scrum, or the fad of the day, you’re operating on this same underlying assumption. Yet, I would argue that the most important dimension of work is being ignored. I’ll call it factor Z—and it represents how effective, creative, and driven those X people are in those Y hours of work. It springs from a sense of personal purpose and can have people operating at their creative and energetic peak.

To understand what this might mean, let me share a story from Steve Chandler. Imagine for a moment that your responsibility was to drag an 80-pound bag of sand five miles across town on a hot day. It would be exhausting—you might drag it for a stretch, then rest, then complain, then drag it a bit more. It wouldn’t be surprising if it took the better part of a day.

While you will rarely have the chance to quickly add 10x the staff or 10x the time, you can have conversations that make the work 10x more meaningful. Tweet This Quote

Now imagine that instead of a pack of sand, this 80-pound weight was your young daughter and she’s badly injured—the only hospital lies 5 miles across town. With no hesitation or complaining you will find some way to be there within the hour.

So what’s the key difference between the two cases? A clear sense of meaning. It’s an extraordinary difference that can easily result in 10x improvements by having you more focused, more creative, and more committed to the challenges at hand. While as a leader you will rarely have the opportunity to quickly add 10x the staff or give your team 10x the time, you absolutely can have conversations that make the work 10x more meaningful. Achieving that boost in meaning is transformative, and given the potential, changes to the Z factor can easily trump changes to staff or timelines.

So why isn’t this done already? I believe it’s because it requires a kind of listening and aligning that most leaders have not been introduced to. It’s also something that must be approached person by person and can’t be done via behind-closed-doors planning or top-down decree. All that said, it’s well worth the investment and leads to better project outcomes and expands opportunities for personal growth in the team.

If you can find the overlap between an employee’s passions and your priorities, you can help bring out the best in each person. Tweet This Quote

I sometimes call this the “personal meaning framework,” but it can also be described as the “what/why/why framework,” as it consists of just 3 questions:

  • What are you most passionate about on this project? If nothing else, what would you be most passionate about contributing? [Project Element]
  • Why are you passionate about that aspect? [Passion]
  • Why is that important to you? [Source of Meaning]

The result of these questions is insight into the person’s source(s) of meaning, and it’s usually approached in a 1:1 context. As a leader, you’ll want to hear the factual answers, but listen especially carefully for the underlying motivators. To understand how to use the answers to these questions, let’s look at sample answers from three hypothetical people:

  1. What [Project Element]?
    Doug: “I’m enjoying the server work—it’s been great for improving my Python coding skills.”
    Molly: “Requirements gathering has been good—the time with clients has been refreshing.”
    Alice: “The business analytics have been fun.”
  2. Why [Passion]?
    Doug: “Well it’s important to me to keep learning. I enjoy it, and it keeps work interesting.”
    Molly: “I really enjoy talking with people and understanding how to help them.”
    Alice: “I love to explore ideas with numbers and also working hard to find the best answer.”
  3. Why [Source of Meaning]?
    Doug: “My parents told me that I should be a lifelong learner. Plus, I feel more capable.”
    Molly: “Ultimately, I enjoy helping people and seeing our work improve their lives.”
    Alice: “If you can use your brain to find the best way forward, why not?”

By the later answers, the conversation is revealing personal sources of meaning that tend to hold over time. This is a tremendous gift to you as a leader, as it is a direct answer to what drives the person’s Z-factor. If you are able to surface the overlap between their passions and your priorities, you can create circumstances that bring out the best in each person’s potential.

So for Doug, even if the server code finishes up in a few weeks, you’ll know to map him onto something where there is something new to learn. For Molly, you may find other ways for her to stay in contact with the clients—perhaps running a program that gets feedback on the product in progress, etc.

Managing the energy of your team over their time leads to greater focus, creativity, and empowerment in overcoming obstacles. Tweet This Quote

None of this needs to be hidden from the individual. Quite the opposite—as you get ideas on how to better map people toward their passions, you can audition what you think is a match, and take their feedback on what would make it even more meaningful. Their excitement and commitment is your guide, and ultimately a better match means less day-to-day management. Consider this a uniquely high leverage activity. In essence, you are managing the energy of your team, not their time, and it leads to greater focus, creativity, and empowerment in overcoming whatever your organization may face.

Finally, back to managing your own energy in life. There’s a test that boils down to three types of activities: Type A, Type B and Type C. Type A activities are ones you do and feel energized. Type B activities neither give nor take energy—like sitting on the couch watching TV. Type C activities drain you of energy—you get tired even thinking about doing them.

Every life is a mixture of these three, but a simple way to understand where your energy is on the whole is by examining your relationship to Type B activities. If you can’t wait to grab a beer and zone out in front of the TV when you get home, then your life is probably filled with Type C activities. Since those activities drain you, just going to a state of not being drained feels like a relief. But if you get home and Type B activities feel like a waste of time, then you know your life is largely filled with Type A activities. When you understand this, you can get curious about your day and start to shift your proportion to more Type A activities—and you’ll learn a lot about what inspires you in the process.


A version of this post originally published on UNREASONABLE.is in June 2013. 

About the author

Tom Chi

Tom Chi

Tom is the CPO and Head of X at Factory building teams that can build anything in the world. He is an entrepreneur, teacher, rapid prototyping enthusiast and part of the founding team of Google X.