Pardon Sisyphus, Part 2

by Johanna Rothman.

Part 2 from Shaking off the Shoulds.

Don't take on work just because someone else thinks you should. Answer these sanity-saving questions to trim your workload, be tactical and optimize productivity. Part 2 of 2.

Remember Sisyphus? That unfortunate who angered Zeus was cursed with a job that may feel all too familiar to overburdened managers: When he finished pushing a huge rock up a steep hill, poor Mr. S. felt the exquisite frustration of watching it roll down to the bottom of the mountain-whereupon he had to make his fruitless rounds all over again. If your job feels too Sisyphean for comfort, defy the gods by asking yourself these final three questions-and get some answers that will help you abandon that futile rock-rolling forever.

Read part 1.

Enable Your People

Question 4. Will the task help finish the project faster? Sometimes you'll do work that may not appear to be managerial just to speed the project along. When I'm not sure if the task will help the project finish faster, I ask, “What are the consequences of not doing this work now?”

Mavis, a senior engineer who traveled extensively for her job, told this story: “My boss hated paperwork. He had three weeks of travel reimbursements on his desk to sign, and he asked me to leave in two days for a two-week trip, to handle a crisis for our best customer. I refused unless he signed all of my outstanding reimbursements.” Mavis' boss met her demands, but the eventual cost to the company was high. He continued his lackadaisical paperwork, and Mavis left the company a few months later. The trip expenses were minimal compared to the costs of replacing her.

Focus on Business Value

Question 5. How does this task help you manage the business?

In his classic tome, The Practice of Management (HarperBusiness reissue edition, 1993), Peter Drucker writes, “Management's first job is managing a business.” Does a task help your organization recognize more revenue? Does it increase someone's effectiveness?

IS groups frequently run into this problem. If you work in an organization's support department, numerous other teams have probably requested that you help them work more effectively. You and your management must judge each request based on its merit to the organization as a whole. Knowing the business's strategies helps you choose tactical tasks.

Meryl, an IS Director, felt as if she and her three-person group were constantly pulled in different directions. Service wanted a new customer database. Sales wanted a new lead-tracking system. The mail-server vendor was phasing out the software that her company used, so her group needed to find a new vendor, bring the software in and install it. Meryl knew she couldn't do the work with her limited staff and time frame, so she sat down with the senior management team and laid out their options: prioritize the work together; hire more people, contract or permanent; or live with the priorities she assigned. At the meeting, the salespeople explained that they'd lost a significant amount of potential business due to their inadequate lead-tracking system; the service people didn't have that problem—they could live with their software for a while. Meryl had one person investigate mail-servers for a month while the rest of the team worked on the lead-tracking system. Then she shifted the work so that only one person supported the lead-tracking system and the rest of the group worked on the mail server. With all this in place, she was able to pay attention to the service database.

Meryl also asked for and received liaisons, so that each group could customize the software and train their own people. By weaving this complex web of tasks and responsibilities, Meryl helped the individual organizations perform their business objectives—although not at the same time.

If you find yourself in Meryl's position, look at your organization. Does each requestor have to pay some sort of cost? Manny, an IS vice president, begins each year with a budget of zero. He figures if he can't find enough work to pay for his salary and the salaries of his group, he doesn't deserve to work there. He claims that this filters out requests that don't directly benefit the organization.

Manny discovered that if his requestors assigned some of their key people to each project, they helped to manage the requirements and release criteria, expediting the project. Manny said, “If they can't spare the people, the project can't be that important. This forces my customers to set priorities. And if we have conflicting priorities, we deal with the priority problems at the senior level, where we should be making business decisions.”

Choose Importance Over Urgency

Question 6: How do you spend your time? Maybe you've already avoided the work you don't need to do and handed back the work that's not yours. If you're still having trouble, ask yourself these two questions: “Am I working on what's urgent instead of what's important?” and “Are interruptions preventing me from completing things?”

In his landmark book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon & Schuster, 1990), Stephen R. Covey differentiates important work from urgent work. To determine what's important, ask yourself: Does this help my group perform its mission, the reason the company funds us? Does this work move the organization forward? If so, that's the important work. Important work helps you manage the business.

Urgent work, such as much of the voice mail and e-mail we receive, is not necessarily important. Keep your group's objectives in mind, as well as the company's objectives, and you'll find it much easier to differentiate between important and urgent. I find three techniques particularly useful when dealing with e-mail and voice-mail requests: Limit the number of times each day you check e-mail and voice mail; increase the time you take to respond to the requestor; and look for requestor patterns. Some people can't plan their own work, so they want to make their crises your crises. Don't let someone else's emergency dictate your work.

Stop the Insanity

If you're frantic with overwork and can't see a way out of it, stop and think: Is the work necessary? Is it yours—either your group's or yours personally? Will performing it make the project go faster, or move the business ahead? If the answer is yes, take it on. Then, examine your daily schedule and see if you can change what you do when.

Keep a Time Log

Are there unproductive patterns in your decisions, communication or focus?

If you're like most managers, by the time you've arrived in your office, people have descended on you by voice mail, by e-mail and in person, asking for decisions. Between the time you spend in meetings and interruptions, it's a miracle if you can accomplish anything. However, if you're trying to do more, first, analyze what you spend time on. Keep a log of everything you do.

Time management guru David Allen says that we can manage action, not time. So, what actions do you take when? When analyzing your log, use three key metrics:

  1. How many decisions did you have to make in the period of a week? If you must revisit your decisions, you didn't have enough information to make them in the first place.
  2. How many times do you have to re-communicate the same information? Are you not having meetings or sending memos? Are you unaware of who needs to know what, when?
  3. How often did you lose track of what you were doing (how bad was your context switching)?

After reviewing my log, I set up weekly one-on-ones with my peers, suggesting that my manager meet with us submanagers so we can solve problems together. That one action reduces the number of interruptions and helps us peer managers recognize when we're not prepared to make informed decisions.

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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