Workload management – the 3 Ds

It’s a common saying that if you want something doing, give it to a busy person, but accepting work can quickly take you beyond your capacity for sustained performance, disappointing everyone and making you ill.

As we surge back into the whirlwind of work after the relative peace of the Christmas break, I thought it would be a good idea to recap on my disciplines for holding workload in control, the 3 Ds:

  1. Decline: the simplest, though not the easiest, is to say “No” to extra work. If you are not accountable for this work, and don’t have the best specialist skills, you should reject responsibility for it and recommend who it should go to
  2. Delegate: if the work naturally sits with your responsibilities, ask whether it needs your personal input, or whether it can be delegated (limiting your input to tasking and monitoring).  Teaching one of your team to do it may be the right strategic choice, but that is more time-consuming, so do that when you have the chance
  3. Defer: be effective in prioritising work – when does it really need to be done by? When can you realistically do it?  I worked in one organization where all IT work was prioritised “1” i.e. all top priority, so they introduced the “1*” priority – higher than “1”. Within a month, all requests were priority “1*”.  Work must be spread out over time when there are finite resources – push back those tasks that can be

Of course, this doesn’t mean what is left is always achievable, but if you don’t try, things go pear-shaped much quicker!

Performance versus reliability – a people issue too

I was just watching an old TV programme, in which the central character is highly-driven, very effective but is not promoted because his superiors don’t consider him reliable. They don’t trust him to ALWAYS do the right thing.

The concept of “a safe pair of hands” is familiar to most, and seems to be a vital element of career progression.

The analogy to quality in products and services suddenly became blindingly clear – a “quality” person is someone who meets requirements and is fit for purpose, not necessarily a high performer.

I was first introduced to the eternal trade-off between absolute performance and reliability by a senior manager from a manufacturer of razor blades, over 40 years ago – he explained that their blades were quite intentionally not as sharp as their competitors, but were more consistent.  He claimed that a good blade from their competitor would give a better shave, but a poor blade would create havoc with the skin. Sooner or later, every customer of their competitor’s would get a bad blade, and swap brand! This company’s strategy was to catch the others’ customers “on the rebound” and never lose them again through a bad experience.

Likewise, individuals are walking a tightrope in their career; they continue to progress so long as they are reliable, but once they lose that reputation for reliability, their only hopes for progression are if they have an indispensable speciality they out-perform everyone else in.

My motto in stakeholder management is “no nasty surprises” – ensuring that all stakeholders are fully aware of risks, mitigating actions and contingency plans from the earliest opportunity. This isn’t just a project management approach – it’s a personal integrity approach, and builds trust!

One small step for a man …

I got a “Thank you” card yesterday from my daughter’s house-mate I had helped. I put him in contact with a company that then offered him an internship for his year in industry (in event management).

As it’s a prestigious company in London, he’s pretty happy (though when he faces the joys of living and working in London, he may be less so) with the prospects it offers. I hope it’s a giant leap for him.

So what was in it for me?

Nothing tangible, nothing financial – just the warm feeling of having helped someone who benefited from it.

There is a downside to trying to help others – they may not want it or appreciate it. Why might that be?

  • Clinical Depression is a real condition that needs treatment
  • Whingeing is the national participation sport of the UK – just read the papers.
  • It’s much easier to feel sad and hard done by than to change your life – change is really hard work and needs help and support

In business, one can try to “pull rank” to insist on some changes, but only if the culture is positive – most of the time it requires deep empathy and influencing skills. Most of all, it requires patience – people sunk in the Slough of Despond are short of the drive, energy and traction needed to get out – you have to help them little by little.

If you have enough money, improve your own life by helping others!

Soft skills: how to make friends and influence people?

I’ve recently come across a couple of folks who have caused significant levels of challenge due to a common problem:

  • They are so busy transmitting (talking, writing etc) that they don’t receive (listen, read etc)

I know, we all do it to a certain extent, but in business it’s a huge problem and, I suspect, costs the UK £Billions each year in lost effectiveness.

When I was at PA, the taught wisdom was that we have 2 eyes, 2 ears and only one mouth, and therefore we should be receiving 4 times as much as we transmit – completely appropriate for a consultant. We also had lots of training in active listening; stimulating and guiding the client’s own transmission while receiving accurately.

The nuclear technology management programme that I’m currently managing the development of is, I’m told, the first of its type in the world, and so it needs to be a success. Whilst there is plenty of technology in the curriculum, the aim is to develop the skills and ability to manage that technology, and that means managing people.

With 30 years experience, I’m now completely convinced that soft skills are the critical element of management success. Making friends? – perhaps not, as command is a lonely position, the more so when there are hard choices to be made, but influencing people? – indispensable!

Business Processes; the good, the bad and the ugly

I’ve recently had a series of discussions with colleagues, clients and other professionals that I respect, on the subject of business processes. They are all strongly in favour of them, and I know why, they:

  1. systemetise the work flow, making it more predictable and manageable
  2. assist in delivering consistency
  3. encourage the right people to be included in decisions
  4. make it easy to measure performance (and diagnose issues with performance too)
  5. can prevent individuals making serious errors
  6. make training new staff (and handling staff turn-over) relatively straight-forward
  7. allow straight-forward IT automation

and have many other positive aspects that make them ideal for the more straight-forward jobs.

So are they a panacea? Sadly not, as they have serious weaknesses that can compromise more complex types of work. The key issues are that they:

  1. tend to serialize workflows, slowing them down by introducing bottlenecks
  2. become inflexible and over-prescriptive to prevent a small minority abusing the system, preventing justifiable initiative being taken
  3. become over-dependent on IT performance (which is driven by a completely separate budget)
  4. become more complex to handle extreme cases, causing following them to become a chore that is skipped if possible
  5. remove the spirit to think amongst some staff
  6. generate “malicious compliance” amongst other staff
  7. provoke rebellion from a tiny minority
  8. become a strait-jacket that prevents business agility
  9. eventually break when they no longer reflect business needs

People are not machines, and their greatest asset is their versatility and intelligence – watch a plumber at work!

Of course, the greatest free-thinkers of all are the salesmen, so if we can design for salesmen, we’ve cracked it!

A colleague raised a hugely valuable point – what is needed is something that ensures that all aspects are considered, without forcing mindless compliance, while harnessing the best aspects of human behaviour: checklists.

Yes, checklists – so simple, so easy to maintain, yet so powerful – it’s what saved the lives of all  on board US Airways Flight 1549 when it crashed into the Hudson River (Thanks, Neil)!

So how can we get the benefits of checklists in lieu of hard-coded business processes? Redesigning ICT to provide real-time decision support around a checklist front end could do the job nicely. I know it’s very “Mission: Impossible”, but with 4G, Internet-enabled cameras, tablets and mobile comms, we really do have the technology to build a real-time decision-supported salesman!

What do I mean?

I mean that the salesman can collect information from the client that is immediately transferred back to base, where the team (and IT systems) analyse that information and offer up both validated options and further information to gather.

Such technology has been available in a limited way for contact centre staff for many years  as “case-based reasoning” tools, but we need to include the option of expert advice from real people if the sale is valuable.

Most salesmen can cope with the freedom of the checklist – making sure that they have the right information to correctly tick the box in real time would massively improve both sales and sales quality.

And if it works for salesmen, it can work for everyone.

Leadership: best by example?

Just been marking assignments that analyse projects that fail to deliver a quality outcome i.e. the right solution on time and budget. These assignments are from people with responsible jobs in big-name companies.

Earlier this week I was running a workshop with engineering and project delegates from a global energy company. I asked them to analyse the reasons that quality wasn’t always delivered in their company.

2 years ago I was leading an innovative project for a multi-national manufacturer of consumer goods, which went well during feasibility, but got into major difficulties after I handed over the implementation.

The pattern is very clear; executive-level managers are normally focussed on numbers, and know the cost of everything. Unfortunately they are often so divorced from the reality of the coal face that they know the value of nothing (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde), and are reliant on robust cost-justifications coming up from the “front line”.

This gulf between the people doing the work and the executives prevents leadership by example i.e. “do what I say, not what  I do”.

The contrast with my recent project at the University of Manchester couldn’t have been greater. Not only did I try to lead the project team by example, living by the standards that I hoped others would adopt, but I found that the executives involved were doing the same, displaying a real enthusiasm for rolling up their sleeves and pitching in as needed, and everyone was happy. The outcome? We overcame all the challenges to deliver a successful launch.

I’m told that isn’t always the case there either, so perhaps I can take some credit for an approach to leadership that transfers between organization. It’s not about process or tools, it’s about values and behaviours – friendship, trust, support, sharing problems, solving issues together, and no “blame storms”.

Leadership is about “Do as I do”, not “Do what I say.”