Prevent disengagement with basic organizational skills

”There’s a place for everything, and everything in its place.”

We’ve all heard someone say it. It may have been a teacher gently admonishing a sloppy student, an aunt encouraging a youngster to put their toys away, or a dad chanting the words to impose order on his toolbox. You may have (heaven forbid) even been the youngster or the student receiving the earful. The conditions vary. Yet at some point, this two-hundred-year-old adage—equal parts advice and a chide to the disorganized—has met most of our ears. Why has it persisted through the years? Like many adages, it carries a striking and simple truth: it’s easy to remain organized when you know where to get everything and where to put everything. And like many adages, it’s a timeless comment on life. It may no longer be the era of tidy Victorian homes from which the phrase originates, but our desire and need to stay organized hasn’t diminished with the passage of time.

As a former school superintendent, athletic director and IT guy, I’ve seen how simple organizational systems can not only improve the performance of an individual, but also collaborative efforts. Let’s examine both.

Orderly Individuals

I’ve seen that many follow the advice to have a place for everything subconsciously. We build our own tried and true systems of personal organization. If a mother does the shopping and puts away the groceries away week after week, she ends up knowing where everything is in her refrigerator. She begins to place the items in an order that makes sense to her. In the toolbox example, no outside force instructs a dad to place a screwdriver in a specific spot. He uses the toolbox the most, and gradually he bends it to his organizational will. You may do the same. You probably know where everything is on your computer’s desktop because you placed the files and shortcuts there yourself in a way that makes sense to you. It’s your system. You understand your dresser and your closet. They’re your systems, tailored to your own sensibilities.

This isn’t just pontificating, and it isn’t just for the “naturally” organized. Thought leaders in organizational theory have long suggested that a disorganized person can become organized if they find or create such a system and apply the effort to follow it. Annette Reyman, CEO at All Right Moves™ & Former President of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers: “There really is no organizing ‘gene.’ With some people it comes more naturally, but it absolutely can be learned.” A Professional Organizer and author of Organizing from the Inside Out: Julie Morgenstern,“The truth is, when you are overwhelmed, the best way to spend your time is setting up a system because the return on investment for doing that is so high…Organizing is sustainable if your system is built around the way you think.” Author and professional organizer Stephen Covey has even constructed a system of habits that effective organizers should develop. He offers it as a template to those looking to control their lives and become more productive. Time and time again, experts argue that most people are either already organized or could easily become organized if they applied themselves to the task.

However, the robust and simple methods of organization we create for ourselves can become delicate and unbalanced when more people are added to the equation. We hone these systems so closely to our own sense of utility and aesthetics that others won’t always understand them. Take the mom and her orderly fridge. Then add a dad and a teenage daughter to the equation. The result is predictable: chaos. Dad doesn’t understand mom’s fridge layout intuitively. He puts the pickles where the orange juice should be. After all, that makes sense to him. The teenager puts the cheese into the fruit drawer and sighs “does it really matter, mom?” Not only has mom’s system broken down, all three family members have wasted their valuable time. Dad and daughter both exerted the effort to put things away only to put them in an incorrect place. Mom must now correct both of their errors if she wishes to maintain the system.

Workplace Woes

Yet even the above scenario seems paltry in comparison to another: a workforce or team. The number of people, items, places, and technologies involved only amplifies all of the mentioned difficulties, and the gripes associated with workforce disorganization are familiar to us all. The use of multiple overlapping tools and storage systems makes it a chore to know where to locate items and how best to communicate with team members. Documents and projects disappear in a perpetual shuffle and can’t be found when they’re needed. Work is sometimes repeated merely because the original work was too difficult to locate or one team was unaware that another team had already completed the work in question. According to Forbes, the average office employee spends 90 minutes per day searching for things. That’s almost 20% of an eight-hour workday and amounts to six weeks per year of lost time. Read: thousands of dollars of wasted capital for the organization and immeasurable frustration for their valued employee.

Other sources support Forbes’s claim. Market research firm IDC estimates that a business employing 1,000 knowledge workers wastes $2.5 million per year due to an inability to locate and retrieve information. In the course of the same study, a manager at a Fortune 500 business estimated that if he were to invest money in the improvement and standardization of the company’s information storage and retrieval systems, the investment would not only be recovered within one month but would create a productivity gain of $2 million monthly for the company. The report concludes with the insight that the return on investment for implementing improved information and content management systems could be as high as 600%. Yet for many organizations, the goal of having a place for everything seems to have fallen by the wayside.

You may be organized on the individual level, and everyone else on your team may be too. Does that mean that your team in the aggregate is organized and avoiding these inefficiencies? Do you function as one goal-oriented unit? Do you have one place for everything, and is everything in its place? We discovered that the answer for many teams is a resounding ”no.”

One personal example I can share is from when I was the Principal of an elementary school. We had a problem with our dismissal process and bus-line so I gathered a team of teachers, supervisors and select parents to solve our problem. Innocently, I asked the team to share suggestions among the team but, in hindsight, realize that I failed to create “the right spot” to put suggestions and new procedures. So guess what happened… yep! Everyone created their own system. Some people handed me written notes, some used email and yet others created online shared documents. The offline members felt left out and ultimately felt they were wasting their time.

This initially benign lack of organization created two weeks of confusion! If I had only communicated where our process would be developed I believe the community would have benefited and the whole ordeal would have been done in just a few days.

At Align Us, we’re organizational tinkerers ourselves, and we launched a survey that included public and private organizations with employee counts ranging from 20 to 50,000. We wanted to see if the claims of poor information management and frustrated employees that so concerned Forbes and IDC hold true to this day. The results were illuminating:

  • 85% of respondents said that their organization used multiple project or document management systems. That doesn’t sound like “everything in its right place” to us. But how many “places” were in use?
  • 72% of respondents said they used 6 or more systems to share and store documents. Six different places to store documents among who-knows-how-many coworkers? That sounds confusing. Those surveyed agreed…
  • 2 out of every 3 respondents felt confused when trying to figure out where things are supposed to go at work. OuchTeam members are being confused and inconvenienced by the very set of systems that’s supposed to be improving their productivity.
  • 100% of respondents said that coworkers are likely to recreate documents if they can’t locate them. As bad as poor Mom’s fridge and then some. Items are being placed in the wrong location and effort is being wasted to not only put them back in the right location, but duplicate entire documents and projects.

 However, what shocked us the most was this corollary…

Disorganization Breeds Disengagement

“Disengagement” should be a spooky word for team leaders and organizations. It’s the feeling of emotional detachment and dissatisfaction that starts to seep into an employee’s life when they aren’t interested in or satisfied with their workplace. Its downsides are well-documented: A 2013 Gallup study estimated that 70% of employees are disengaged. This may cost the US economy $550 billion/year in lost productivity. Research firm McLean & Company found that disengaged employees cost organizations $3,400 per year for every $10,000 in yearly salary. That’s a completely avoidable cost that most organizations would rather not stomach.

Yet if they remain disorganized, then stomach it if they may. We launched a second survey which revealed that the above-listed symptoms of disorganization lead directly to disengagement:

  • 25% of respondents said that they felt a sense of mistrust when organizational systems were used that they were not aware of. ”Mistrust” is not a word that you want to hear out of a teammate’s mouth. Disorganization leads to employees feeling that there is not enough transparency in their organization’s project and document management process. They feel left out.
  • More than 40% of respondents experienced frustration when the location of documents they needed was unclear. It goes without saying that being frustrated and being productive don’t go hand-in-hand, but what worries us is that continued frustration of this type leads to chronic disengagement.

When Dad puts pickles where the juice ought to be, it doesn’t just inconvenience Mom. It upsets her little by little. Before you know it, the whole household is giving each other the cold shoulder. We saw this on my bus-line-solution team even with something as simple as submitting suggestions. This is not how a team should function.

One Place Again: Find a Template for Team Organization

If disorganization breeds the most deadly ailment of team culture, the solution seems obvious: eliminate disorganization. Having multiple project management systems, multiple document storage and search systems, and multiple “not wrong” places to put things only makes it more difficult for team members to know which to use. It complicates decision making and negates the entire purpose of the system.

Simplify the means through which projects and documents are managed. Change your team until it matches the old adage again: “a place for everything.” One place. Like Covey’s template for individual organization, teams should have a single concise template or framework for team organization—a simple one that leaves no room for misinterpretation and mistrust. No one can misplace something if there’s only one agreed-upon place to put it. No one can fail to locate something if there’s only one location it could be found. No one can feel mistrust in the system when the system is simple and transparent and easy to use. With a framework like this in place, teams can free themselves of headaches and replace disengagement with productivity, satisfaction, and success.

See? ”There’s a place for everything, and everything in its place…”

There is still room for this advice.

team illustration

Align Us provides a social media work productivity platform. If you need to be better organized in your work or group, check out Align Us.

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