“It’s like a madhouse,” he explained.
“I turn up every day with great plans to get things done, and before I know it the day has passed me by and I’ve yet to get to any of the important stuff. It’s never-ending. No matter how late I work, even if I take stuff home, I still never seem to get on top of things. If someone asked me what I do every day, I’d say I was trying to eat an elephant. . .and getting nowhere.”
This was a friend of mine, a relatively senior manager, explaining to me his frustration at the fact that most of his time at work is devoted to urgent tasks but not necessarily important ones in terms of delivering on what he is supposed to achieve. We sat and talked about the issue over a pint or three and I could sense the stress this was causing him. Unfortunately, as is similar in all the cases I come across, there isn’t really any magic answers to the workload problem and part of the solution will always be improving personal time management skills, but that’s not the specific element I want to focus upon here.
The discussion with my friend got me focused again on that all too common clash that occurs between what is urgent and what is important at work. Sometimes they overlap, but more often than not the pressing concerns are addressing immediate or short term problems without necessarily have any lasting long-term benefits. Of course, the urgent and the important both have to be managed but, sadly for most managers, 80% of their working day is often devoted to activities that couldn’t really be considered critical in terms of strategy execution, or other vital management responsibilities.
Here are some general thoughts which I think can help any manager faced with the elephant eating problem:
Narrow the Focus
Funnily enough, in terms of trying to improve the current situation, a useful starting point is often to step back and really consider what actually falls under the ‘important’ umbrella. In asking my friend the very same question, the list of activities he recounted to me in response was simply too long for it to be considered truly important. Not everything can be deemed important in my mind, and you should consider creating a new category – ‘imperative’ – which are those few things that take precedence over all else.
In my experience, all managers could benefit from narrowing the focus of what fits into the ‘imperative’ category. It is a proven fact – thanks to the law of diminishing returns -that the more goals you have the less likely you are to achieve them, because lack of focus equates to lack of effectiveness which in turn means you do a bit of what is required across many areas, but not enough to really make a difference. So, your first step has to be to define what your key goals are – define the imperative. This may require you sitting down with your boss, and yes that’s likely to be a tough discussion, but you have more chance of success if you don’t begin it with statements like “I can’t do all of this…” but instead open with something like “I could be more effective if…” At the end of the day, a business, department or individual that has too many goals, or too broad a description of what is important, is living in a fantasy world.
Plan back from the goals
Goals are of course only realised through focusing continuously on the specific actions necessary to progress towards them and it is during the whirlwind that is work-life for most people that the battle for effectiveness (in terms of achieving goals) is won or lost. A number of years ago I developed a tool called The Goal Achievement Framework which I use msyself and a number of managers have told me it has helped them in this regard.
To achieve your goals, you need to define the imperative activities and tasks that move you in the right direction and then you must be both efficient and effective in moving towards them. Efficiency and effectiveness are not the same thing. Efficiency comes from having some approach to planning, such as a diary, which you adhere to daily and as stated above, time management is always an important consideration in terms of achieving what you need to achieve. That said, being efficient is only part of the equation, as you can actually be efficient without ever achieving your goals. The following framework can help you:
This framework provides you with an easy to follow mechanism for working towards your goals and whilst it is nothing earth-shattering, it works well because you spend time defining priority goals from the start and subsequently plan the imperative activities required to achieve them. The framework also combines efficiency and effectiveness. You become more effective, as you start thinking first about your goals and are consciously moving towards them. You become more efficient, because you define the key activities and tasks that need to happen to reach your goals and enter them into your planning system to ensure they happen.
Shed the less important activities
This is an area that I have written about a number of times before, but I make no apology for rehashing old ground because I see delegation as being one of the critical issues in terms of management productivity. If I had a penny for every time I heard managers, and not only those at senior level, tell me that they “wished they could delegate more” I would be a very rich man indeed. And, apart from my own direct evidence, lack of, or poor delegation is a widespread concern in business life and is certainly a well-documented phenomenon and any number of studies show that delegation is a problem for many managers young and old. But as my friend acknowledged, there are only so many hours in a life, or so much patience in the wife, that in order to get time to focus on the imperatives, then you have to shed some of the less important tasks.
In my experience, there are a number of reasons why any particular manager won’t delegate, or does so poorly, and these can range from being a control freak to a lack of understanding as to what delegation actually entail. As a manager, you are accountable for others and there will be many duties and tasks that you will allocate to them in the normal course of the day. If these tasks fall within the remit of the employee in question then this is just part of your role as manager: if the employee has to do it, then it’s not delegation, it is allocation. The main concern in terms of how you allocate work is that you do so fairly, communicate your expectations effectively and ensure the employee has the necessary skills, knowledge and motivation to do the work in a manner that reaches your expectations. Most of what you do in terms of managing workload is actually allocation not delegation. At the other end of the scale are tasks that you should do – they are part of your remit – but you hate doing them, so you might fall into the trap of offloading them onto others. This is abdication and is not good practice, for obvious reasons.
Delegation lies somewhere in the middle. It involves passing an important task, which you are ultimately accountable for, to someone else. They don’t have to take it on board, but do so for a variety of reasons which may include that they are ambitious and want to learn, or that they are simply just talented and helpful. Of course, the only value from delegating arises if you use the time you free up from having to do that task to focus on something more important. In seeking to become a better delegator, consider the following points:
Analyse your job – what are the tasks that you could delegate to others and, if you did so, how could you use the time saved more efficiently to focus on imperatives?
Select the right person – not all employees want to be delegated to so you need to define the right person and ask them if they would like to take on the task. You cannot force them to do it, as it falls under your remit. By the way, pulling rank on someone or using your position to subtly intimidate an employee into accepting to take on what is in reality part of your workload is never a smart move in the long term and will usually come back to bite you.
Delegation is a process – you need to recognise that when you first delegate the task, you are likely to lose time not gain it. This is due to the fact that if it is an important and meaningful activity then you will have to spend time with the individual to train and coach them. As part of that, you need to communicate how to do it, explain the outcomes required and support them initially as they get to grips with it.
Delegate authority relevant to the job – if the task requires your employee to request support and assistance from others, it is important that you communicate to all concerned that you have delegated responsibility to them for this task; otherwise, he or she may be faced with difficulties when requesting that support.
Monitor and review but don’t micro-manage – as you remain accountable for the task, you will always follow up to make sure it has been completed to standard, but once you are confident that your employee is competent at it, don’t stand over his or her shoulder constantly – this means you haven’t actually delegated the task and will likely lead to them feeling frustrated or believing that you don’t trust them. It goes without saying that you should offer praise for a job well done.
Track your progress
Measurement is naturally a critical activity in terms of measuring progress towards your goals but too often the focus of measurement systems is on what could be called the ‘lagging’ measure – i.e. the end-result, without enough attention paid to the ‘leading’ measures – those which drive the outcomes seen. But if you think of it, by the time you get the lag measure at the end of any given period, it’s too late to do anything to change the outcome. It could be considered akin to trying to drive a car by only looking out of the rear-view mirror.
Think of a non-work example here. If you wanted to lose weight, standing on the scales at the end of each week will give you a result, but if you don’t like that outcome, there’s nothing you can do about it until the following week. It would be much better to continuously focus on lead measures such as ‘number of calories in-taken daily’ or ‘number of hours spent exercising’ – if you get those measures right during each day, then you will see the positive result at the end of a week because there is a direct correlation between those lead measures and the lagging result. So, as well as lag measures related to your goals, you must define what the lead measures are associated with them, and then focus your efforts on getting those lead results right on an on-going basis.
There is no easy answer to manage your way through the mire that is often daily work life, but shifting the emphasis even a little away from thinking of urgent-important to a focus on urgent-important-imperative then you can at least pinpoint those activities that cannot be ignored.
During our chat my friend asked me did I know how to eat an elephant? Given that he had just downed his second drink, I went along with the odd question, and answered no.
“One bite at a time.” he said.
That’s a bit like what you have to do in terms of reaching your goals.
Enjoy your day!