Managers Manage Actions Including Decisions


My colleague, a senior manager, is inundated with too much to do. Hundreds of emails, seven of hours of meetings every day, hundreds of emails, hiring the next level managers so he doesn’t have to backfill, project portfolio management, and backfill of those management roles not yet filled. My colleague is trying to manage his work, but he’s working too many hours and not finishing enough. Luckily for him, this is a short-term problem, but it’s not for too many managers.

Here’s what I suggested he do:

  1. Collect all the work. (Esther and I call this the universe-of-work.) The work includes projects, periodic work, ad hoc work, and ongoing work.
  2. Decide what you need to do at your level. The higher you are in the organization, the more strategic work you need to do. (Every position has strategic work, the work that helps you get the rest of your work done.) Even if you can only do one of your strategic things every day, make sure you do one every day. I recommended he continue to focus on filling those management positions that would free up many hours of meetings and the backfill of management work he’s attempting to do.
  3. Decide what you don’t have to do. (Esther and I call this the not-to-do list). If you transitioned out of a previous job, don’t fall back into it. You can make a conscious decision to take on some of those responsibilities if you decide it’s strategic for the organization.
  4. Ruthlessly cull out the work you don’t need to do. In this case, I asked him if he had to attend every meeting he attended.
  5. Admit you’re not reading all your email. Filter it into mailboxes and decide what to read when. David Allen says to make your inbox truly an inbox. I can’t say I can do this all the time, but I’m there about 10% of the time – which is a huge improvement for me over last year. See below for Allen’s techniques for managing actions. I also tell people not to copy me on email unless they want me to be able to make a decision about something. And if they think they know my decision and don’t like it, they shouldn’t send me email 🙂
  6. When your managers or project managers go on vacation, do not allow them to delegate the work up to you. Make sure they delegate to people in the project or in the functional group.
  7. When you’ve done that, try David Allen’s approach to managing actions. First, if you can handle this thing (email, paper, whatever) in two minutes or less, handle it. If not, place it into one of these folders: Action (which could be any of: Call, At computer, Errand, Office action, At home, Agenda, Read/review), Waiting For. (See Chapter 7 of David’s book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity for the whole story.)

This sounds easy but it’s not. If you are really stuck in to-do-list hell, take one of Allen’s seminars. I took one a few years ago and learned a ton. I implement part of what I learned. My husband (the incredibly organized guy who likes this stuff) implements much more. But I get to 0 emails in my inbox more often.

So where does the decision part come in? If you're managing your actions and all the information flow, you'll be able to make good decisions quickly. If you think you don't have enough information to make a reasonable decision, think about where and when you received information leading up to the decision. Too often, the information is buried in all the emails you receive every day.

Whatever you do, remember that you have two responsibilities as a manager: deliver results and increase capacity. The way you do that is by managing your actions and deliverables and by helping your staff increase their value to you. You can only do that if you take control of your information flow and make good decisions. Remember, the more strategic your decisions, the more valuable they are to the organization. Not easy, but necessary.

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