Thursday, February 18, 2010

Yet Another Rule of Management

I always say there are only a few rules. Turns out, there are probably 10. And we're slowly getting through them, in no particular order. 

I learned this one in consulting from a particularly acute partner who was training me to lead my first team. And, I think it applies to any circumstances in which you have a team to whom you delegate, and your own set of "individual contributor" tasks, from cleaning the house with the kids to managing a volunteer organization.

Always Delegate First.

Of course, you might be hesitant to delegate. Of course, you may feel like you need to structure things more. Of course, your work is absolutely time critical. But, in order to ensure you and your team are as efficient as possible, ensure all your resources are working all day long. Make sure their To Do list is at about 125%. And set them up at the start of the day, and only then, go to your own tasks.  If you're working and they are waiting, you're burning daylight. Period.

It absolutely sucks. Once you get in the rhythm of it, everyone grows comfortable with the morning check-in and the divide-and-conquer. And, you start putting things in people's piles in your mind as your day goes along. The ancillary rules are:

a) Whenever possible, do not augment the list during the day. Get in the rhythm of morning to-do lists, not ongoing lists. People need to manage their time, their priorities, and their day on their own, and getting in the way all the time aggravates them.

b) Manage your own interruption stream, both from your team and from new inputs. Things either are critical enough to merit a diversion or not - and if they aren't, set them aside for the late-night/early-morning triage. As you develop a reputation for handling things in a timely (12 hour/24 hour) manner, people will give you the time you need to reply.

c) Always adhere to the 125% rule. Some things go faster, some things go slower - but always make sure people aren't "done." It counter-intuitively leads towards laziness rather than "I let him knock off a few hours early" behavior.

wouldn't it be nice to be managed like this?


Priya said...

this is GOOD! i can use this, thanks

Capt. BS said...

This is pretty much how I'm managed, almost to a fault. There are few days when I don't wake up to find an email or a voicemail from my boss waiting in my inbox (of course, it helps that he usually rises around 4am) asking me about the current status of various initiatives and updating me on pending sales, projects, demos, and so forth. The underlying message is always clear: here's where we currently are, and as a result, here are your priorities. Since every day brings about new ideas and opportunities, the to-do list never shrinks; if it doesn't grow, it is merely rearranged.

The benefit to this approach is that I'm never left thinking, "Gee, what should I do today?" -- not only am I overbooked, the items that take priority are also clearly identified. I then have the rest of the day to execute against those tasks to the best of my ability, with minimal interruptions, and only the rare intra-day reshuffling of priorities.

The drawback (and difficulty for the manager) is that the manager has to know how far above 125% is too much for each of his/her team members, and has to reevaluate their individual workloads against those upper-limits on before delegating something else to them... and that isn't as easy as it sounds, especially in a rapidly-changing environment. I'd estimate my current high-priority to-do list is overbooked by a solid 3000% or so (such is the nature of startup life), and while I'm usually okay with that, someone else might not be. And this still doesn't stop my boss from injecting new, more tasks into the middle of my queue, sometimes because the new task is genuinely more urgent than the others, but oftentimes because he's simply lost track of what else I'm working on, and would never, ever want my list to fall under that 125% threshold.

So, in summary: for managers with a competent, self-starting team, this is sound advice. Just make sure that you're in tune with their capacity being overbooked, and keep track of where they currently measure up against it. (Hint: <shamless plug> having a robust, workflow-based task management system at your disposal definitely helps.</shameless plug>)