I couldn’t get it done, because I had to help Tess with the report which is due tomorrow.
I’ve heard this sort of statement a lot during my time leading teams and it can be frustrating. Particularly when you feel there are more important tasks that need to be completed by your team.
In most workplaces there are many conflicting priorities. Different stakeholders have different targets and often people call on others for help to get them done. This is to be expected, and part of working in a collegiate environment.
However, it does not help efficiency or achieving goals. If left unaddressed, your team can be distracted by other work that you never even expected.
There are a few reasons why it can be frustrating when what you consider to be important tasks are simply left undone while your team works on something else.
- It’s unexpected. If someone had told you about this unexpected work, you could have made other arrangements to make sure the important tasks could still be done.
- Your view of the important tasks differs from that of your team. If you think a task is important and your team doesn’t, they might just go off and work on whatever they like.
- Other people think it’s OK to disrupt your team. If others are OK to interrupt your team working on important tasks because they have a request, then you’ll struggle to get anything done when you expect to.
How to keep your team focused on the important tasks
It’s not always easy to keep your team working on the important tasks, but there are ways to make it more likely.
Keep your team focused on the important tasks by communicating priority effectively
It’s obvious right? This one is the most important task. Unfortunately, not necessarily. If you never really agree with your team what the most important tasks are, how can you be sure you have the same opinion?
It’s important to communicate to your team what is important, who should do it and when it should be done. This is just the starting point.
Note that your team may be resistant to this. Particularly if they are used to playing “choose your own adventure” (as a colleague once put it). Sometimes team members like distractions because they provide variety in their day. Variety is good for motivation, but you need to make sure that the variety is built into your process, not just from unexpected distractions.
Keep your team focused on the important tasks by understanding where work comes from
I’ve led some teams where work comes from many different places. Not all of them were expected. Some of them were right out of left field. Some came from people I’d never even heard of.
As a simple starting point, monitor the work your team is completing, by category. In a simple spreadsheet is fine. Note down who asked for the work to be done and how it was communicated and tracked. Was it just emailed? Entered into a system? Or was it just a phone call?
For each of these work items, also note down the relative importance. Was it urgent? Nice to have? Not critical in any way?
After you’ve done this basic analysis, you will have a sense of where your team’s work is coming from. In addition, you will understand the relative proportion of expected vs unexpected work.
Keep your team focused on the important tasks by tracking work in a system
There are many task management systems out there. They range from project management systems down to simple task boards and many of them are fully online, without requiring any software installation. A few examples include Asana, Trello, JIRA, and Basecamp, but the options are endless!
Many of them can be used for little cost and without a great deal of arduous setup time, which means starting to use one is not as daunting as it used to be with older software products.
Once you start tracking work through a system, you can easily report on progress and set relative priorities to identify your most important tasks. Your team will know where to look for work and what needs doing next.
Keep your team focused on the important tasks by throttling your incoming work
If your team is often bombarded by ad-hoc requests by phone, email, fax or smoke signal then you need to put some processes in place to manage this.
One of the most significant levers you have at your disposal to control the workload of your team is to throttle the work that comes in, and make sure it comes in using the appropriate channels.
Without this in place, a lot of work is done “off the books” and you don’t really know how much work your team has to do. Without this understanding, you don’t know if your team is adequately staffed or not.
A starting point for this is communicating the process for submitting work requests to relevant stakeholders. One of your team’s stakeholders is Bob, who likes to ring up with ad-hoc requests for your team.
Follow these simple steps:
Step 1. You will need to tell Bob that he needs to enter his request into your tracking system, rather than yell it across the room or tell your team over the phone. If you don’t want Bob entering it directly, you may tell him to direct it to you first, and you can enter it for him.
Step 2. Assign a priority to the task in your system. If your team is already working on other important tasks, it is likely that Bob’s request won’t get to the top of the queue immediately. If you work in an environment with many stakeholders, you may need to organise a forum for stakeholders (not you), to agree the priority. Otherwise you may be blamed for making decisions on their behalf, when they’re actually your customers.
Step 3. Communicate with Bob to let him know when his task should be completed. He might not like that it takes longer than it usually does. “But before, I’d just ring Tanya and she’d make the change on the spot.” Yes, Bob, that’s the old way of doing things. Now, we work on things in an organised, traceable way, in order of priority.
Step 4. Ensure that your team knows the rules and that there are consequences for not following them. If they don’t track work in the proper way and you find out, it will reflect poorly on them. Maybe it will get them a black mark on their performance review. Perhaps someone else will get to go on that training course, instead of them. And you *will* find out, because they won’t be getting their important tasks done and you can see that!
Watch what happens when you start to throttle your incoming work
Once this approach is understood and embedded, you’ll see two things happen.
- Stakeholders will understand there is a proper process and their expectations will soften. After a while, they will no longer expect things “right now”.
- The number of work requests will decrease. Why? Many people can’t be bothered submitting a work request properly. They want to just send a quick email or call somebody and get an instant response. When they realise this is no longer possible, they will realise that this work request often doesn’t matter that much. They won’t even bother submitting it. It’s like magic and it works!
As you might realise, this is all about training your team and stakeholders in the way you want to work. Some leaders will say “That won’t work here, there are just too many distractions.”
Well, the way that your team works is up to you. If you want to change it, you can. It’s time to stop playing the victim and put some processes in place to work more effectively.
Don’t get me wrong, it will take time. Setting expectations takes time. But it will work and it can be done. If you want your team working on the important tasks first, then this is what you must do.