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  • Personal Branding Interview: Gaylan Nielson

    Today, I spoke to Gaylan Nielson, who is the co-author of FAKE WORK and the CEO of The Work Itself Group, Inc.  In this interview, Gaylan explains what “Fake Work” is, why it exists, how companies can avoid it and then shares some examples.  This information is important for companies and people who are looking to be successful and become more efficient, especially in this economy.

    What is “Fake Work”?

    “Fake Work” is any work that is not aligned with and directly linked to organizational strategy. It’s the wasted effort, wasted energy of hard working dedicated people who could have been executing work of value and helping get results that truly matter. Because about 50% of work is Fake Work, businesses and organizations of all kinds somehow endure extraordinary volumes of work that does not aid the results critical to their success.

    What led you to the discovery of fake work and, eventually, write the book?

    Experience! We have done our share of Fake Work, and it is really disturbing and painful to find out that hard work proves to have no value. As consultants, we have seen way more than our share of Fake Work and its consequences. It leads to exorbitant costs, unhappy workers, and ineffective organizations. All you have to have is one major project canceled or to see major investments in wrong-headed initiatives to get a gut full of Fake Work.

    Some of the major issues that led to the writing of the book are:

    1. Doing “The Work Itself” exposed misalignment to strategy. Brent and I have been involved in training and development and business consulting with mostly large corporate and government clients for over 20 years. Years ago, we created a non-training, consultative approach to help individuals and teams increase their results by aligning work to execute strategies. We call it: “The Work Itself.” Doing that work led to extraordinary new awareness of Fake Work.

    2. Research was revealing and shocking. We have done a lot of research and combined it with Gallup findings and dozens of other data resources. We found the numbers to be shocking and consistent—everywhere—all around the world. We have a long list in the book, but here are some concerning statistics that suggest how serious this strategy, alignment, and execution link may be:

    • 81% of workers do not feel a strong level of commitment to their company’s top priorities.
    • 73% of workers don’t think their company’s goals are translated into specific work they can execute.
    • 87% of workers aren’t happy with the results of their work.
    • 70% of workers don’t routinely plan how to support agreed-upon goals and tasks in their work groups

    3. Training that doesn’t link to business results. We have helped measure training results and assess the value of training investments and we have seen far too much training and exorbitant investments that had virtually no affect on business results. So, we developed a learning model called “The Organizational Learning Framework” to link training to business results.

    Why does it exist?

    Primarily, Fake Work exists because people don’t understand it. Organizations talk about keeping people on task, about developing strategies, about managing performance, and about lost time; but they don’t understand how these all fit together, so they end up being addressed in different silos. The biggest problem may be the assumptions: that the development of strategic plans and strategic focus will automatically make their way into the workforce; that the workers will understand them; and that workers will be able to translate them into their daily work. The statistics above suggest otherwise, and our weekly anecdotal evidence is just as persuasive.

    In the book, we discuss 10 causes that incorporate dozens of supporting causes, but for this discussion, I’ll discuss a three big ones that incorporate other key ones:

    1. Strategy is not driven through the organization. The news is full of the kind of careless attention to how strategy gets out of the boardroom and into the daily work of employees. So, while companies, in particular, spend lots of time developing strategy, they often make three big mistakes that ensure that their strategy doesn’t get implemented:

    • Poor articulation. Strategic Plans often look good, but aren’t always written well. They can cause more confusion than they clear up. Many assumptions lead to poor understanding of intended focus and critical change. Remember, change is usually the most important part of a plan because it is a call to actions that differ from current ones.
    • Poor communication. We have talked with companies who brag about how thoroughly and how well they have communicated their plans and found their statistics weren’t much better than those that agreed they hadn’t communicated plans well.
    • Poor translation. This is where strategy is really handed off to line managers and employees. This is the beginning of alignment.

    2. Alignment is the “execution gap” in almost all organizations. Here’s the secret and missing ingredient. Articulation and communication are only setting the stage so team leaders and their teams can begin to interpret plans into work. Translation is how accurately they can turn strategic intent into daily work. Translation happens on the floor—in the heart of the workplace. Strategy is either understood or not. People are able to interpret or not. Alignment is a collaborative process that:

    • Brings teams together to understand strategy.
    • Helps individuals, through the lens of their team, begin to translate strategy into work.
    • Helps teams establish common purpose, focus, and direction.
    • Helps teams build work plans that make sense.

    3. Execution is the team’s work and not the bailiwick of leaders. Most books talking about execution focus on leaders. The authors assume that leaders set the stage, motivate, and drive execution. We agree with setting the stage, but after that, execution is all about workers owning their work, understanding it in the context of strategy, being responsible daily, and holding each other accountable.

    How can you avoid doing fake work?

    Above, I have identified several causes of Fake Work. In the book, after we identify the causes, we turn our attention to the “Paths to Real Work.” They contain some of our prescriptions for getting Fake Work out of the workplace. These “Paths” are very valuable because they discriminate between the concept and the actual things that must be done. Many of the problems stated above are easily turned to solutions by cutting the Fake Work, such as:


    1. Define and identify Fake Work and begin to look for areas of the organization where Fake Work may be occurring: new initiatives, projects, pools of people working in silos, etc.
    2. Effectively establish, articulate and communicate strategies.
    3. Set the conditions for teams to align to strategy by translating strategies into individual work plans, but while working with the team to do so.
    4. Communicate often, better, and specifically about work.
    5. Rethink your performance management process and make it more open and collaborative.
    6. Get teams to rethink their relationship to each other and to their work.
    7. Stop rewarding performance, work, and behaviors that make be or may enable Fake Work.
    8. Train leaders, especially line managers and supervisors, to focus on work. This is a critical re-tooling process.

    Please give some examples of companies that have restructured to eliminate fake work and were successful.

    Most of the stories in the book are about Fake Work and once you really understand “fake work” versus “real work”, it’s not hard to see the problem and how they could have solved it. Because we have confidentiality agreements with most clients, we have to be careful about exposing them. In the book, we realized that the stories are universal regardless of products, services, or industry, but here are few examples:

    • At one very large fast food group, a team was in place to build a new market in Europe. They were working hard, but lost track of a primary strategy to acquire properties to open restaurants. So, they re-aligned their entire workload to better target critical strategies. They stopped tasks that pulled them into costly and distracting Fake Work.
    • At one of the large grocery companies, they brought several training teams together from several acquired companies. We used a process to help them identify business strategies and then link the entire curriculum to strategies and business issues. They cut over 50% of their courses and redesigned courses to better align with business needs. Fake Work was reduced when they stopped developing, updating, and managing courses that had no value. They cut thousands of hours and millions of dollars out of training hours that would have served no purpose.


    Gaylan Nielson is the co-author of FAKE WORK along with Brent Peterson. Gaylan is the CEO of The Work Itself Group, Inc., which he co-founded with Brent. He has spent more than 22 years consulting on a multitude of issues, including strategic planning, alignment, and execution; and he consults, speaks, and writes about those processes extensively. He has also facilitated more than 1500 workshops and lead many critical projects for clients. He and Brent have worked with corporations and government agencies around the world—in every industry, at every level, and in every functional part of their organizations. He is the father of two fabulous daughters and a great son. Brent has written 20 books, consulted for over 20 years, and has facilitated thousands of workshops and seminars. Brent also has three wonderful children—two daughters and a son.

    Dan Schawbel is the Managing Partner of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and consulting firm. He is the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success (St. Martin’s Press) and the #1 international bestselling book, Me 2.0: 4 Steps to Building Your Future (Kaplan Publishing), which combined have been translated into 15 languages.

    Posted in Book Reviews, Career Development, Corporate Branding, Interview, management, People, Personal Branding, Success Strategies
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