This week was not unlike many others. I had multiple conversations with colleagues about the amount of work expected of them. Common phrases include:
“We don’t have enough resources.”
“We are working hard, but are we working smart?”
“Are we working on the right things?”
“I plan my day with important activities, but then urgent activities take my time.”
Thoughtful answers to this classic dilemma usually involve some form of level loading to try to even-out and prioritize the work expected from employees. Last year I wrote about one technique my group uses to try to control the volume of input on our development team leads. One the biggest challenges in controlling work inputs is a concept I call organizational entropy. I define organizational entropy as a measure of disorder or randomness by which work is created within a company. This ultimately causes workers to be out of alignment. The misalignment isn’t necessarily with organizational goals; rather it’s more so a timing alignment with other workers and expected delivery dates for projects.
It’s chaotic in the middle of it all.
A common scenario helps add color to my thought. Jane is a manager of a team that provides customer service functions. Jane is asked by HR to complete a new required training by a specific date. Jane is asked by a process improvement analyst to participate and own tasks in a customer service improvement project. Jane is asked by a Sales manager to participate in a project to onboard a new customer. Jane is asked by a compliance analyst to update a process because new compliance regulations require it. Jane is also asked by her manager to complete managerial and process tasks related to her day-to-day operational jobs. The chaos ensues when the due dates conflict with each other.
Unfortunately, situations like this are not uncommon. All the colleagues that asked Jane to complete work by a certain deadline do not know if their due dates overlap or cause conflict with Jane’s schedule (and truth be told, they usually only care about their project deadlines). So it’s very easy for Jane to quickly become over-tasked. If Jane is late on a task, then the project leader may escalate to management. Escalation does have a purpose, but it also can easily promote more organizational entropy.
How do we find relief?
There are no easy answers to this dilemma, but I have a few thoughts that may drive conversation between employees and managers to reach a better understanding of what is happening and to better load level expected work:
- Managers need to acknowledge the employee may have been asked to do more than is possible in a standard week. Seek more input from the employee, examine their workload. Ask for visibility to the situation in a tangible format. You can’t help level load and employee’s work for what you don’t see or acknowledge. This is the best way to help lead your employee and position them for success.
- The employee should provide visible proof of the situation and not just say “I’m overworked”. This means listing tasks, requested due dates, and effort required to complete them. You can’t expect a manager to help level load your work unless you give them specific and actionable evidence. This isn’t a call to make excuses or place blame. It’s a call for an honest assessment of your situation and to make it visible.
- Time management techniques like the Eisenhower Method provide good tactical methods for organizing multiple tasks.
- As much as possible try to perform level loading before committing to new work. Over extending commitments creates more unmet deadlines, causes irritation with requestors and customers, and creates more process waste. But remember to use the tangible evidence when making your case.
Maybe this topic is proverbial elephant in the room for you and others. I don’t proclaim to have all the answers. But I’m wrestling with the concept and looking for ways to improve.
Onward and Upward!
Photo Credit: Graeme Newcomb via creative commons