Last Monday I rather flippantly replied to a #CommsChat tweet from Emma Leech:

The phrase ‘work smarter’ means different things to different people. Too often it’s confused with finding a technology-based solution to a problem, regardless of whether or not the problem is actually a problem and whether technology is the solution.

I use the phrase to mean ‘small gains’, as popularised by British Cycling. Think about the whole problem and break it down into smaller steps, then find the best route through those steps – not always sequentially.

As a former public sector employee, the example I give when asked about such things comes from the early days of the Rail North Partnership, a regular meeting between relevant people from Rail North and the Department for Transport. It was decided that the other Rail North partner authorities should be informed of the outcomes of these meeting by way of a ‘flash summary’.

Given that summary had to be approved by the Rail North members present, then by the DfT members present, then by the Partnership members as a whole, ‘flash’ it wasn’t. But that wasn’t my problem.

The expectation was that I would sit in during these meetings, saying nothing (as I wasn’t a Partnership member – made sense to me), writing a summary of what was said, then typing it up for immediate-ish circulation and approval. And that’s what I did for the first one, having been brought in at short notice, and the first meeting not having that much to discuss.

But these meetings were like Council meetings. Whatever is in the papers for the meeting would be pretty much rubber-stamped by it; requests for decisions contained within the papers would not be there unless the author was sure that the decision would be passed. That’s how Council meetings work – it’s the officers and sub-Committees that do all the work, the full Council is there to allow everyone to have their say and feel like they’re justifying the time and expense.

Therefore I made sure I got a copy of the papers when they were circulated and wrote my summary based on them. I’d then walk into the meetings with my summary already written, just needing to make sure of numbers, timescales and similar and I was done. Circulation for approval could start 15 minutes after the meeting ended.

I needed to read the meeting papers anyway to make sure that there was nothing in them that could cause us problems down the line, so writing a summary as I read them was a bit of a no-brainer. But when people found out what I was doing, they couldn’t get their heads around the idea that I was writing a summary of a meeting which wouldn’t take place for a few days.

Which is another thing about working smarter – it’s about being able to see the things that others can’t. Working smarter is about improving yourself as much as it is about improving workflow.