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By Francis Wade

Thursday, July 28, 2011

It’s no secret that the Caribbean region lags developed countries in terms of productivity and time management. Each island has its own time (e.g. Trini time,) deadlines aren’t meant for rushed completion and miscues are to expected rather than treated as surprises.

We have come to expect that we are simply lacking something in this area, and are amazed by statistics that tell us that some 65% of Americans don’t take all their vacation days, preferring instead to work.  Contrast that with our upcoming plans to take off Carnival Monday and Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, a day off to pick up our costume, another day off to pick up the costume that wasn’t ready the first time plus days to recover from various fetes.  It’s easy to conclude that greater productivity would have to come at the expense of "Fe-Weh culture."

This turns out to be a mistake.

Trinidadians who migrate to the US and all of a sudden realize new levels of accomplishment don’t do so because they have simply adopted a new culture, as if by magic.  Instead, those who are able to upgrade their personal productivity do so because they are instantly surrounded by better role models.

In the workplaces of the UK, US and Canada it becomes apparent to a new immigrant that the old standard they used to follow when they were back home, is far below the average that they must now demonstrate in order to keep a decent job.  In the absence of formal training, the best way to adapt is to copy those who are demonstrating success.

The fact is, this tactic isn’t very different from the one that we Caribbean people use here at home.  We take a glance around the workplace at other employees, and once we are satisfied that we are not the least productive, we relax, and take a laugh at those who can barely make it to work on time each day, and always find emergencies to make them leave early.

We look at them and mentally make them wrong: they are "wutless," stupid, lazy, etc.  We talk as if their performance is a function of their character, personality and culture.

Fortunately, books like "Talent is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin and others share modern research that demonstrates that success has more to with consistent practice than anything God-given.  Time management and personal productivity are no exception.

West Indians who migrate and suddenly becomes productive are able to see and mimic the habits of others who are more effective than anyone back home.  This mimicry leads to higher performance, especially when there are many role-models to follow, and clear consequences for not measuring up.  This isn’t just a matter of giving up one’s vacation time, which some would argue correctly is counter-productive.

Instead, success comes down to practicing these new habits, and how well one executes time management essentials.  These are generally not taught in classrooms anywhere, and must be learned by osmosis from others.   The essentials are applied to new technologies like email, smartphones and information overload.  Furthermore, continuous upgrades are a must, given the rate at which technology is expanding.

We Caribbean employees also need to change our benchmarks: instead of measuring themselves against the productivity of others, we need to learn something about world-class standards and look to emulate them.

This is what our cricketers, athletes and soccer players do, and it’s the reason they stand out.  The same can’t be said for our employees, who become satisfied at a young age at being just good enough. According to "Talent is Overrated," this unwillingness to set high standards and practice new habits until they are mastered is the reason why experienced lawyers, actuaries and teachers are no better than those who are fairly new.  A good comparison is the learned ability to drive: we improve rapidly in the beginning, but once we get our license, we stop getting any better, and ultimately  our skills deteriorate.

Time management and personal productivity are universal skills that all working adults possess to some degree, and those that stop developing them are fall behind quickly.  We shake our heads at CEO’s who don’t know how to use email, and have their secretaries print them out so that they can read them individually.

The joke is on us, however, if we relax into thinking that our personal productivity levels are fine where they are, and that there’s no need for an international comparison that would lead to new hard-to-learn habits. This thinking keeps our entire region well behind the rest of the world.

Francis Wade is a management consultant based in Kingston, Jamaica. He blogs at  http://www.2time-sys.com/

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