This article was based on episode 41 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the mini-guide here or the full guide at Patreon.
I had never thought about the phrase “your eyes are bigger than your mouth” applying to work until recently. Yet the concept–that we think we can do more than we actually can–is quite relevant. So what do you do when you realize that you can’t actually do everything you need to, at least not with the level of excellence the job demands?
That’s when it’s time to reflect on how you’re working. When you’ve taken a good hard look at all the goals and responsibilities for your team and decided that nothing can be eliminated, you need to find another way to make it happen. That way might be redesigning how your team works.
TAKE A PAUSE FROM DOING THE WORK
One of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “Sharpen the Saw.” He explains this as taking care of yourself so you are able to do your best work. It also makes reference to a famous anonymous quote: A woodsman was once asked, “What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?” He answered, “I would spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.”
Both Covey and the woodsman point out the importance of the person’s ability to complete the task. Whether that ability comes from being fully rejuvenated or having the right tools, we cannot be effective and efficient if we don’t take time to reflect on and invest in how we work.
With so many tasks to do each day, we can easily feel like we don’t have time to stop and reflect, let alone handle the additional work created by redesigning processes. But at the end of the day, that’s exactly what we need to do. If we don’t keep our ways of working fresh, they become outdated and overly burdensome.
When you take time to assess and revise your team’s ways of working, not only will you be more efficient and effective, your team members will become more engaged as they have greater influence in how work gets done.
PREPARE TO REIMAGINE YOUR WAYS OF WORKING
Understand Current Reality
It helps to have a shared understanding of what’s currently consuming the team’s time so you can identify areas of work with the most potential for streamlining. A 10% reduction on an activity that takes 10 hours per week would relieve an hour, whereas an activity that takes 2 hours per week would require a 50% reduction to alleviate that same hour. Usually, but not always, it’s easier to gain significant time wins from streamlining big areas of work rather than small ones.
Prior to holding a process redesign session, ask each person on your team to estimate the amount of time they spend on different activities. If you prefer, everyone can complete a time-tracker for 2 weeks. Decide how you want tasks tracked - by activity (e.g. email, meetings, research), by project, or by responsibility (e.g. grow social media followers, manage client relationships, advise internal stakeholders). Then gather the results and present it in aggregate so the team can see the group’s percentages of time spent on various activities.
Open up to Possibilities
Help your team think creatively about incremental and transformative change by sharing ways to hack their productivity. The list below includes various approaches to streamline or redesign your ways of working. I discuss a few of these in episode 19: Time Methods, Mindsets, and Approaches. If you’re a member of The Modern Manager community, you can get the slide deck I use with my clients which provides additional information on each approach.
Bundle: group similar activities together
Standardize: develop templates to support simpler and consistent action
Time-block: limit the amount of time on a given activity
Improve Skills: develop your capability to do the work
Automate: utilize a technology solution to complete part of the work for you
Replace: replace an activity or process with an equally effective yet less resource intensive one
Delegate: assign the task to another internal or external resource
Rotate: share the responsibility among multiple people
Reduce: lessen the number of times you do a task
Rejuvenate: get proper nourishment (sleep, food, exercise) and ask for help
WHAT YOU CAN DO IN TWO HOURS
I recently completed the following process with a team and their results were truly transformative.They questioned previous assumptions and identified opportunities that would revolutionize how they work.
Here’s what we did over the course of two hours:
1. Align: We spent a few minutes reflecting on the time tracking results and clarifying what was in and out of scope for the day’s session. Within this particular team, there are some activities that almost everyone does or can do, and some that are highly specialized. We agreed to focus on streamlining those activities that multiple people engage in and that are a decent percentage of the overall workload.
2. Identify: We posted each area of work on a flip chart hung around the room. We spent 10 minutes brainstorming quietly, writing the answers to the following two questions on sticky notes. (If you have a geographically dispersed team, you could do this on a Trello board or in Google Doc.)
What’s currently working well that we don’t want to change or that we can learn from.
What’s not working? What pain points exist? What takes a lot of time or more time than it should? What processes are overly complicated?
3. Clarify: Each person posted their sticky notes on the appropriate flip charts. We visited each chart as a group so people could read all the stickies and ask clarifying questions.
4. Ideate: Once we made it through all the charts, each person picked one pain point which they had a solution for. This team was large, but with a smaller team, you may want people to pick 2 or three pains to solve in order to have more ideas to choose from. The pains they chose did not need to be directly related to their area of work. I encouraged people to consider:
The 10 productivity hacks
How work is done on other teams or at other companies they’ve experienced
Other analogous processes, procedures or policies which they might replicate
5. Share: After a few minutes of thinking, each person presented their idea(s) to the group. They were asked to share the pain point they chose and their solution. This was time for listening without judgment. Only clarifying questions could be asked.
6. Decide: As people shared, I tracked the pains and solutions on a whiteboard for everyone to see. After all the ideas were captured, the group voted and identified the top 4 ideas to pursue.
7. Develop: We began to bring the ideas to life by working in small groups to answer the following questions:
What exact pains are we trying to address?
What does the solution look like?
What resources are needed?
What questions need to be answered or what information needs to be gathered?
What are the next steps?
By the end of the two hours together, the team had concrete steps to move their ideas forward. It was clear they felt empowered to design processes and tools that would work best for them, which, at the end of the day, will also work best for their stakeholders.
POWERFUL CHANGE COMES IN ALL SIZES
Sometimes powerful results come from completely reimagined ways of working while other times, the change is quite minimal. In either case, there is potential to eliminate dozens of pain points and save hundreds of hours without necessarily spending major resources.
In the case of my client team, one solution was a high cost endeavor in both time and money, but many of their ideas were low cost, only requiring a few hours of time and some good communication skills. For example, one group worked on this issue: Customers mark every request as “rush” adding complexity and urgency to requests that likely don’t need it. The solution: Develop a set of criteria which qualifies an item for rush status and standardize turnaround times for non-rushed items. Then communicate this to their customers so they understand and can plan accordingly.
IT’S TIME FOR CHANGE
There is no perfect time to rethink your team’s processes and ways of working. So get started now. What are the pain points that you’ve been ignoring? What problems has your team been dealing with because you’re too busy doing the work to take time to address them? What assumptions have you made that should be questioned?
To help your team reflect on your way of working, this week’s mini-guide contains the facilitator’s agenda and notes I use when working with teams to rethink their ways of working. Use this as a model to facilitate your team’s discussion. The full guide available when you join the community on Patreon includes the 10 productivity hacks to streamline your team’s work.
This article was based on episode 41 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.