Given the speed of communication and the demand for talent, every team currently feels the same pain: there’s too much to do, and not enough time to do it.
At NOBL, we’ve worked with teams of two to 200, and no matter what the size, their first instinct to fix it is to add more people. But this is one problem you can’t grow yourself out of: as you add more people, you inevitably take on more work — even if it’s just the work involved in managing more people. And of course, budgets often make this a moot point. Once adding resources has been ruled out, teams turn to working harder: working late nights and weekends, double booking meetings, and ultimately, causing burnout.
So if you can’t add people or time, how can you possibly manage all the work that there is to do? It’s oh so simple and oh so hard: focus only on the work that matters.
Setting the strategy
Before you think about task management, it’s critical to think of the bigger picture: what is your team’s purpose, what are the objectives, and what trade-offs are you willing to make to achieve them?
Of course, everyone wants to deliver great work on time, but when the deadline is looming, what’s more important: a product that’s perfect, but delayed? Or a product that’s good enough, but shipped on time? What’s more important, quarterly sales numbers, or brand value over time? Should your focus be on higher margins, or should you invest in innovation for longer-term gain? For simplicity’s sake, we like to summarise these as “Even Over” statements: “Innovation even over margin,” or “Sales even over brand.” There’s no right answer to all of these questions, but if your team doesn’t agree on these trade-offs, competing priorities will make getting things done a constant balancing act.
What’s urgent, what’s important — and why it matters
Once you have a clear understanding of what needs to happen, it’s time to break down the work and start executing. Everyone likes to complain about the busywork involved in their jobs — the endless meetings, the mindless paperwork. What they’re less likely to admit are their own bad habits: running from fire drill to fire drill, for instance, or checking tasks off a list to feel productive. To become more effective, identify what tasks will have the greatest impact on your business. The easiest way to do this is to use an Eisenhower Matrix (see below), which plots tasks against two matrices: how important they are (that is, what will have the greatest impact on your goals), and how urgent they are (how quickly they must be addressed).
- If your tasks are important and urgent, do them right away. These should be the tasks that no one else has the skills or expertise to do.
- If they are important but not urgent, schedule time to do them. It’s easy to get caught up in always doing the urgent things, but if you don’t dedicate time to those non-urgent tasks, they have a way of becoming more urgent.
- If they are urgent but not important, delegate. Is there anyone else who may be better equipped to handle that particular task? If so, discuss what acceptable outcomes look like, and hand over the authority to make decisions.
- If they are not urgent and not important, re-evaluate. If you can’t eliminate them altogether, automate or do them in your downtime. Your goal should be to process them as quickly and painlessly as possible, so you can get back to what matters.
Unfortunately, what often happens after sorting tasks into an Eisenhower Matrix is that EVERYTHING ends up as highly urgent and highly important. That’s why it’s so important to think about capacity: how much can you reasonably accomplish in a given week? We like using T-shirt sizes. Look at all your projects and sort them into small, medium, or large depending on their level of complexity. Then, estimate how many of each size you can complete in a week — maybe 1 large and 5 small, or 3 medium and 2 small. Then, at the end of the week, review your list to determine how accurate your guess was.
This method isn’t perfect. Humans tend to be very optimistic when it comes to estimating how much they can do, ignoring historical data. And if you’re doing something for the first time, it’s even harder to accurately judge how long it’ll take. But by making a conscientious effort to estimate your required time — and comparing to the actual time required — will make you more accurate in the future. When in doubt, overcompensate for your optimism by building in some buffer time. Remember, you can always add a project to your workload once everything else is done.
In fact, just focusing on completing a task before starting a new one can make you more effective.
Tools for aligning the team
You know what tasks are urgent — emails and calls pile up from people looking for an answer. But “importance” is harder to define, especially because it’s not always clear what tasks will have a direct, positive impact on your objectives. And of course, what’s important to you might not be important to other people.
To align teams around importance, some companies have created task marketplaces. At Warby Parker, for instance, managers assign points called “Warbles” to each task. Teams are allowed to work on any tasks they like, but the teams with the most Warbles gets a reward. (And you only get to collect when a task is completed—reinforcing the idea that you should only take on so many tasks at once.) At Pandora, they estimate how much each feature costs, and then give engineers sticky notes with dollar amounts to allocate to each feature. “Fully funded” projects — that is, the ones in which the cost matched the engineers’ allocation — became the priority. This simple exercise quickly cut the amount of proposed projects in half, and helped the team truly focus in on the projects that were feasible and impactful.
You can try this on a simple level with your team: create a to-do list for the team, and then give each person 100 points. Ask everyone to distribute their points across the tasks whichever way they like, and discuss the top tasks. It’s a great way to remove personal frictions and group think from the process.
When all else fails
If you’ve tried these methods, and you still don’t know how you’re going to do everything…. Then don’t. Don’t send that weekly report, and see if anybody comes looking for it. Skip the meeting and see if anyone notices, or send a delegate. If someone does come looking for the information, or you, then you can address it. But you might be spending countless hours on work that ultimately doesn’t matter. Try a Start/Stop/Continue exercise: thinking of all your regular tasks and habits, identify a few which are safe to stop, key activities that you must continue, and which new habits can help you better streamline your work.