Whenever I have seen people struggle, it’s when they have too much to do and it all seems important.
Between the cost of task-switching and the paralysis of overwhelm, productivity drops dramatically the more unfinished tasks and activities we have on our plate.
I see this personally with myself, I see this among my friends, and I see this in organizations.
Within organizations, there is this DEMAND that people multi-task, despite all of the research and observation that it doesn’t work. I think this demand is a result of:
- Management not being willing to say no. This sometimes appears under the guise of “We need to take advantage of an opportunity.” And not asking whether that opportunity aligns with what they say they want to do.
- Management not being willing to ask some hard questions and prioritize. So even if the new activity aligns with what they want to do, they don’t ask what the cost of changing priorities is.
- Individual managers valuing the appearance of busyness vs. actual results. Busyness you can see now. Results you need to wait for.
- Us, as workers, being told repeatedly throughout our media, our self-help books and via peer-pressure that busy is good. No one seems to ask “To what end?”
Not prioritizing has a personal cost – for yourself and your staff – in stress and health.
Not prioritizing has a productivity cost – in missed deadlines and never finished work.
And, maybe more convincingly to your senior management, not prioritizing has an economic cost. Not just in employee sick days and overtime, but in your project costs. “Scope creep” just scratches the surface.
I’ve seen this scenario in multiple organizations and across multiple project types.
A project team is humming along on a website. They managed to get version 1 launched and are now working to take care of the backlog.
With the project champion, they prioritized functionality that wasn’t working at launch, and that required significant political negotiation with the affected executive to not hold up the go-live.
The team has the vast majority of the functionality working and is about 1 week from go-live.
Then the project champion comes in with the announcement “We need to change the appearance of the website in time for a conference!” Admittedly, the site as it stands isn’t pretty, but it works. The team has 2 weeks.
The project team “pivots” to address this new priority.
All efforts to get the functionality working are dropped. The vendor puts together another statement of work for a ton of money that wasn’t planned by the project. The project team is also distracted by on-boarding a user experience consultant since the champion is not happy with the user experience.
Meanwhile, 1 week out from this conference, with the project team still scrambling to change the website appearance, the project champion announces “We’re going to announce a new community feature for the website at the conference! I’d like at least a demo available before we go!”
No one told the project team this was a thing.
So now they are also scrambling to elicit requirements, design and develop a prototype of a new community feature + the new website appearance and user experience.
Oh yeah, and more statements of work from more vendors. Plus overtime from those vendors and any hourly employees involved in the project.
Unbeknownst to the project, the tech lead gets pulled to work on a new app. And, despite all of the vendor’s assurances, the work is not nearly as straightforward (nor as functional) as claimed. So the tech lead’s tasks for all of this start falling behind. Again, the project team scrambles to get yet another vendor to help make the deadlines.
Result of all of this:
- 1 angry executive,who was promised that her pages would work a few weeks after go-live in exchange for not stopping go-live.
- A pretty-looking website where some of the buttons still don’t quite work right, causing the help desk to get multiple calls from the end users.
- A community feature that wound up being a series of mock-ups on a PowerPoint and not the demo site the champion wanted.
- An app that barely works in the field
- A burnt out, and highly frustrated, project team who now feel like they will never be able to finish anything
- A budget that just quadrupled in 4 weeks. And will require still MORE spending to get everything right.
To me, prioritizing and executing on those priorities has four disciplines:
- Focus – What needs to get done today
- The middle slog is often not fun and requires focus. Life is also very distracting.
- Patience – Not starting an activity until it is time to start it if it doesn’t need to be started today
- Starting new ventures is fun. The new, shiny thing is more appealing than the old thing you are working on now. Especially if the old thing is not going well. This is where patience comes in.
- Full disclosure – this is the discipline I have the hardest time with 🙂
- Letting Go – Letting go of any activities that really don’t need to be done. They just seem to be a good idea at the time.
- New ideas are fun. But not all new ideas need to be acted upon. Having the new idea is good. Write it down. See if you are super-excited and motivated. Ask whether it helps you get to where you want to go. Let the new idea simmer a bit. And don’t be afraid to let it go.
- Finishing – Focusing long enough to get your task to a minimum acceptable definition of “done” where you (and the team) can put it out in the world for awhile, not use precious mental bandwidth on it, and pick it back up later without extra cognitive load for remembering “where you were”.
- Finishing and putting it out in the world is scary. “What if they don’t like it?” I find that the more work I put into something, the scarier putting it out into the world feels.
Over the next few posts, I’ll share the questions I ask when I prioritize activities.