“We could get rid of 20% of our employees and it would have little meaningful impact on our output.” That was the assertion of a leader I was working with. He runs a sizeable organization, so 20% represented thousands of people. Was he really saying that his organization was carrying thousands of people that some might refer to as “dead wood?”

I doubt it.

So what’s the issue? What could possibly lead him to conclude that so many people could be removed without negatively impacting the business? It’s not that there’s dead wood, it’s that there’s dead work.

What is Dead Work?

If Google defines dead wood as “people who are no longer useful or productive,” I would define dead work as “work that is no longer useful or productive.” And I think there’s a lot of it around. I would include the following examples in the broad category of dead work:

  • Working on a project that is no longer a priority for the business but is still being clung to by your manager, whose idea it was. If you’re doing this work, you are now spending your work hours on (and attaching your reputation to) your boss’ hobby—or worse—his pipe dream.
  • Chasing people around like a kindergarten teacher to complete tasks that they are accountable for. You have made yourself a glorified nanny and will be viewed as such rather than as a key contributor to the business.
  • Creating an exquisite PowerPoint presentation for an internal discussion. Do you want to be known as the one who brings home the bacon or the one who puts lipstick on the pig?
  • Compiling reports that people don’t actually read. You’re probably an Excel ace now because of the number of times you’ve had to use it to massage the data you pulled from three different systems into the report designed for the dude three Controllers ago.

I bet you can add your own dead work to the list.

The Confusion between Dead Wood and Dead Work

Here’s the problem: the boss way up high in the organization (the one surveying the forest and marking the trees for removal) doesn’t know you. She doesn’t know your academic pedigree and she certainly doesn’t know how hard you’re working to make her look good. All she knows is that nothing earth shattering is coming out of your team. From that distance, your dead work makes you look expendable.

It’s really important that you not be caught doing dead work. Challenge your boss if you’re spending too much time on work that doesn’t add value for your customer or your shareholder. Ask your manager:

  • What are your boss’ top three priorities? Where does this work fit in with that?
  • What’s the most important aspect of this work?
  • What if I were to suggest some ideas to make it more efficient? Where do you think there are opportunities?
  • When I’m finished this, what would be a really high value task I could take on?


Periodically ask yourself how your work would appear from the top of the house. If it’s not adding value for the customer or the shareholder (and preferably both), you’re vulnerable when the lumberjack at the top starts chopping.

Further Reading

Make Work Projects

Focus your Time on your Real Value

Dealing with A Co-Worker who Doesn’t Pull Their Weight

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