Focusing on the Important Things

We all live in a modern world that has many traps that result in us, almost unknowingly, slipping into unproductive modes. A good leader recognizes these tendencies and helps influence his team to avoid such traps.

Recently, there was a very good article in the Wall Street Journal on ‘How to Save an Unproductive Day in 25 Minutes’.  I found it useful that the article points out a few techniques to keep that day from being a complete loss. But while the authors pointed out a portion of the cause of unproductivity (fragmentation and interruption), they failed to really pin down why so many of us struggle to be productive at work. Or perhaps to put it another way, why so many of us spend nearly all of our time killing alligators and spend so little time draining the swamp. This tendency of being ‘too busy to be productive’ finds particularly fertile ground in IT organizations.

The reason this is more prevalent in IT teams is because in IT there are the usual ‘urgent’ distractions of email and phone calls and business meetings AND there are additional and very real urgent distractions of production issues and high priority projects that are running late but must be completed on a specific date. Thus, the opportunity and time to do important foundational tasks is even smaller. As a result, I come across many IT teams that are running at 100 miles an hour, not doing a good job of delivery of production or projects and their teams are at or close to burnout. And yet the solution to this very real and overwhelming issue is close at hand for IT leadership to leverage.

To solve this ‘too busy to be productive’ issue, as a leader you must address it on two levels: for yourself and for your team. If you are running around with your hair on fire, then no amount of coaching by you will change how your team approaches their work. Let’s start with the knowledge that we will be able to change both your productivity and your team’s dramatically in two to three months. Understand that going forward, things that are important (and may or may not have a critical time deadline) will take precedence over everything that tends to interrupt but is not important. And you must demonstrate this improved choice everyday for the next 3 months. Here are the steps to get you and your team out of burnout and delivering with much greater quality and capability:

For you:

a) First, get your calendar balanced. Take your calendar for the next two months and let’s implement some radical changes. First go through your calendar and categorize your activities as either important or not important, reactive (dealing with a crisis demand or the fallout of an issue) or proactive (e.g. planning or addressing root causes). After categorizing, it would be interesting to see how much time you are spending on important and proactive work. My bet is it is less than 25%. And it is even less than that because the first part of the meeting focuses on today’s production failure rather than the planning work you were going to do. Next, either delegate or eliminate all the not important meetings from your calendar. Then, at least 3 times a week allocate 2 hours for important proactive work. Ensure you cover the areas you know need the most attention. If production is a problem, then spend two hours on root cause and how to improve change quality. If project delivery is a problem, spend an hour with your key team reviewing your project metrics and constraints affecting delivery and how to solve them. Spend at least 1 hour per week ensuring your key goals for the next 3 months and the next year are clear, and craft the messages to ensure they are well-communicated. Spend another hour figuring out how you can improve or coach your team to better performance. And stop doing every email and phone call that comes in. You do not need to meet with vendors for new products and solutions when you are having issues with your current delivery. At least half of your emails never need to be read or responded to – ignore them. Stop interrupting your meetings due to phone calls unless it is your boss or a very important customer.   Throughout your day, continually evaluate if you are spending good, solid time on important proactive work.

b) Make clear decisions and ensure you empower the team to execute with quality. Sometimes the cause of the productivity issue is a team caught up in over-analysis. If you are not making clear decisions or if you are making micro-decisions then you can cause your team to do 200% of the work necessary as they try to buttress their recommendation and collect every data point possible. Or the team may abdicate doing work they should do because in the end, they know that you will overrule them and make a micro-decision. Be self aware enough that you are causing these effects. If, in the past three months you have either recalled previous decisions more than once or sent multiple decisions back for more research than either the team is inadequate or you are not decisioning effectively. Sound out with a trusted colleague or coach if you need to improve your decisioning process. The bottom line is that you must stop requiring or doing unimportant analysis work or decision work. Let your team make the decisions for the areas they are accountable for and stop requiring perfect facts to make a decision in this imperfect world.

For your team:

a) First, set goals and expectations that i) you want them to deliver with quality and ii) you will support them to fix things so their work can be done in an improved manner. You must let them know that not only is it ‘safe’ to do things with quality, it is expected. Your team and organization may have fallen into the trap of thinking the only thing that is important is that work must get done based on the timeline, even if it means slamming something in that is riddled with defects. By insisting on quality first, you put your team on notice that this is foundational. Now, it should also be noted that this is not a pass to then have endless delays and no accountability to deliver. Instead, you must work hard to deliver in as timely a manner possible, but with the quality.

b) Use the proactive important time or your calendar to work with your team on the things that will improve how the work is getting done. Are your processes convoluted and time-consuming? Then spend time with the team to straighten them out and lighten the load. Are the tools inadequate? Then figure out what is best practice and pilot an improved set. Are things going in with lousy quality and causing production issues and lots of rework? Then stop letting poor quality change in and fix it before production. Do this even if it means a train wreck on a promised implementation date with the customer. Go and personally talk to the customer that quality is too important to you and to him or her. (I have never met a customer who remembered they insisted something go into production when it was known poor quality and instead blamed IT. Conversely, if you delayed something by a few weeks or even months yet it went in with quality, 6 months later, they invariably remember the successful launch versus the delay.) Spend your time with your team draining the swamp.

c) Set their goals and their schedule leveraging the fact the people do urgent things first. In other words, it is a natural tendency to focus on the urgent things like email instead of getting a backout plan done for a change or mapping out how we improve our development process. So, as the leader, set clear deliverables and clear dates and accountability for the important things (thus making the important and proactive work important AND urgent) for your team. It is a very effective management technique. Then, you will find that much more of the proactive work will get done.

Watch what happens then as a virtuous cycle takes hold. Because implementations start to get done with more quality, there is less fallout and production incidents. With reduced demand to work production issues, your team should have more time and focus on doing more proactive work (you must do (c) above to get this effect, otherwise they will just do more email or other urgent and unimportant work). And as they do more proactive work, they eliminate bottlenecks and rework and become even more productive. This cycle will take a few months to gain traction. And if your organization is really in a rut it may take as long as 6 months to show measurable difference. But usually, the effect is much quicker, and the first lift can be outpaced by the second and third and subsequent lifts as the cycle repeats. I recall one infrastructure component team that had a terrible production track record, the rest of IT viewed them as a bottleneck in the project process and the team, being close to burnout, saw no solution except to double or triple the number of staff. By implementing this approach, within a few months their change success rate went from the mid eighties to better then 99% and they trimmed their implementation processes significantly in terms of effort to deliver a unit of work. Everyone understood what their goals were and what was important to get done to be successful. And when I asked one of the managers to compare his team’s work to the state three months prior, he said ‘It is night and day. I can get all the important work done and our implementations go smoothly. I no longer spend every evening on a bridge call trying to figure out why something is not working. And I come in the next morning refreshed and productive. My week is in a box.’ This was the result in just a few months.

It can be tough in IT with the press of production incidents and the pressure of critical project deadlines. Add to that our everyday distractions of email and mobile devices and trying to keep up with the pace of technology and we soon lose the forest for the trees. Perhaps the best treatise on this effect is in ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen R. Covey and his time management matrix.  By leveraging this knowledge of techniques to ensure we work on the important things versus the unimportant but urgent, you can be a better manager and your teams can be more successful and have their week in a box. You might even buy copies of this book for your managers so they understand what is happening themselves and learn personal techniques to address it. Becoming a great leader means mastering how you and your team spend your time. These techniques will enable you to become much more productive.


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