I’ve had my share of crazy experiences in my last five years within the corporate world. Most recently I switched from my temporary “vacation from stress” position back to my “holy crap, since when is everyone selling pumpkins and turkeys?” job. Before I was teleworking as often as I wanted, showing up in business clothing for key meetings, and defining my own workload. Now I’m in person every day for ~9-10 hours, plus working most nights and weekends just to keep up with the demand.
The weird thing isn’t that I’m working at this pace; it’s that I had absolutely no transition time. In every other transition it’s taken 2 weeks for me to get fully up to everyone else’s pace. Plenty of time to orient myself to the new politics and the demands on the team. In this case I was pulling overtime shifts on the first day back. It’s given me an amazing contrast with no “this is normal” bias. Every single activity has come as a shock and even orienting myself has become a “task” that gets prioritized along with all the others (i.e. close to the bottom).
So, as I fly off to Alaska for my first vacation in 6 months I will write a few of these ideas down to hopefully get you thinking about your own work. Each of the following 4 items are tools/tips that I have used and will use to manage myself and others.
Knowing “Who is Doing What” is Critical
My management had done a decent job of writing down all the major tasks on a whiteboard in the boss’ office. Each task had a person assigned to it and had been classified with some kind of “type”. Unfortunately, I quickly noticed that the tasks on the board had started changing without getting updated, and employees didn’t go into the boss’ office as often as he did. While he may have been oriented to his list, everyone else was oriented to the demand.
I started enumerating the tasks that weren’t represented on the list, talking with the boss to ensure that I understood what each task meant, and developing a web-accessible system for each of the people to track the tasks they had assigned to them. This has already been immensely helpful for strategic planning, resource planning, and identifying the tasks that no one wanted to do and were most at risk of being dropped.
Scope is an Engineer’s Greatest Tool
I don’t know if I made this expression up or if I pulled it from somewhere else. Regardless, it’s one of the truest things I’ve ever known. It’s a generalization of the necessity for requirements gathering and focus on the design phase because of how widely this can be applied. Senior executives? Mission statements. Software developers? Code perimeter. Grocery hunters? Shopping lists. It’s everywhere
For each task that I began, I was obnoxiously focused on writing mission statements for each task. Once the mission statement was completed, I developed 3-6 objective level items that fully defined the space, then rewrote the mission if I missed something. Here’s a fake example:
Mission: Minimize the communities impact on the environment due to use of retail-provided plastic bags.
Objective: Lead development of retailer strategy for purchasing eco-friendly bags.
Objective: Support eco-friendly economic policies in local and state government.
Objective: Develop and implement consumer recycling program.
Objective: Provide metrics to community, government, and industry on effort status
The key here is to cover the space with high-level terms that can easily orient others and you to the problem that you’re trying to solve. Many people overlook this step, but I have learned that I literally cannot function without it. One reason may be that others typically have only 1-2 projects that they’re working at any given time. Currently, I’m supporting anywhere from 10-40 personal and professional projects at any given time. It’s just not possible to keep it all inside your head.
This step is also not easy. It takes about 30 minutes to really flesh out any of these mission statements. Even for my example I had to sit and think about the core functions of a plastic bag program. You may think it’s somethign simple, but look at what a full effort can entail. The key is getting what you think needs to be done and not what you want to get done or can get done in the short term.
Making the Resource Call
The natural inclination here is to just start running with each task and getting the job done. For smaller projects this might be reasonable, but don’t! When you’ve got a large project or multiple projects to complete it becomes extremely infeasible to maintain and YOU WILL DROP THINGS. IT WILL HAPPEN. Sorry, don’t mean to shout…just dealing with sore memories. Sometimes you drop things that can/should be dropped, but more likely you’ll drop sporadic items without realizing how critical that item is to your overall objective.
With the objective breakout you can start tying “2 hours a week” and “3 hours per day” to each item on the list. Better yet, you can start saying “Lou – 6 hour per week”. Something magical happens at that moment! The moment when you write “Lou” down, you start to let go of that task and entrusting that to the other person. You can also write things like “Me – 1 hour check-in per week” to really get the ball headed in the right direction.
Please keep in mind that there are 2 main ways for looking at time in these discussions: task- and resource-based. In task-based management, you see time and money as parts of a whole task. Ex. To build a pool table we need 4 people to work for 20 hours each. But in resource-based views you see what a person is working on and how they may/should/will view their time. Ex. Lou is building pool tables for 2 hours per day, writing software for 5 hours per day, and collecting plastic bags for 1 hour per day. It is CRITICAL that you review time from both perspectives on a regular basis.
Monitor your Resources
Once you get a picture of how much time you’ve allocated you need to track that time for some period. Make no mistake, this is THE HARDEST PART. Again with the shouting. Just because you think that you spend 40% of your time working on the plastic bag policies doesn’t mean you are. Without some understanding of the real time being expending on each project you have no motivation for course correction.
When I was working with college students on study habits one of my favorite methods for time management was to force the student to spend two days in a “rigorous scheduling exercise”. During this exercise they would allocate the full amount of the two days (including nights) in 15 minute increments. I didn’t care what they did, but they had to plan, execute, and document where it deviated from the plan. If you can do a 30 minute mapping of a single work-week it would be equally valuable but for a different reason. Instead of trying to find new places where work could get done, it will give you a great benchmark for how you’ve allocated. Here are some great questions to ask yourself:
- How far did my time deviate from my allocated amounts for what I had planned?
- Did I spend enough time on each planned project relative to the amount of need?
- What activities didn’t I plan for this week that I worked anyways?
- How can I account for these unplanned activities in the future?
- Am I spending time on tasks that I am not effective on that could be moved to someone else?
- What tasks am I enjoying the least?
- Learning from a practical week, what tasks aren’t on my list that need to be?
- The Whopper: Are there any tasks that I’m working so much that they’re killing productivity elsewhere?
An entire blog post could be written on “The Whopper”. This question takes significant reflection and meditation before deciding to kill a task. The most important thing that will help you in making this decision is the knowledge that we are all given finite time on this Earth and for every thing you do there are millions that you don’t. You have to be the gatekeeper to your time and your skills because no one else knows more about them than you. Caveat: you’ll automatically exclude yourself from the process if you choose to know nothing about the organization’s mission.
To continue, I recently created a new term in our office: “Donner Party Resourcing”. The concept is exactly as it sounds, but a little more aggressive than the Donner Party actually was. There’s a natural tendency in those that seek leadership to kill things that aren’t shiny or new, but in most cases that I’ve observed it’s done through gradual resource starvation until the project dies. Once complete, the remaining resources are divided and shared. It’s the objective of the “productive” to avoid this by spotting early those tasks that are not recognized as part of a resource plan but are sucking away time and talent under the radar. “The Whopper” can help kill those tasks early on to combat that idiotic approach or just make the tough decision and make room for that new project.
There are thousands of ways to reflect after reviewing your work and your progress, but for resourcing these are some great ones to get you started. This blog continues to serve as a great mechanism for me to reflect on my approach, document it, and try to hold myself to the standards that I want to see others hold.