Tasks are bad! Well, sometimes they may be useful, but most of the time they are abused and are used by management to try to command and control their staff. There are other ways other than using tasks.
This is the post for a presentation presented at LAST Conference. The idea for the presentation, and this post came from a client that asked me to ensure that all the tasks in their system, that had not been completed within 2 days of the due date by subordinates, were to be escalated to their manager, and then if they were not completed within 2 days by the manager, escalate to the GM. I said no, I would not be building a system that does that, there are other ways we can deal with things getting done.
This is the anatomy of a task (source: wikipedia).
How many go through the failed flow?
How many go through the forwarded flow?
Or just wait to they don’t matter anymore.
How many just get done (straight to completed).
When we think of a task in this detail, then when we do, or get given 100’s of tasks every week, it’s mind blowing. No wonder we are stressed about the amount of work we have to do.
Tasks are important and help us plan to achieve the things that we need to, if they are the right type of tasks. Think of the Next Action concept in GTD.
Now let’s add the layer of command and control on top of that. Not only are we having to keep on top of all our own tasks, but those tasks we have delegated also. It is a perfect recipe for failure.
Now let’s take simple tasks and put interdependent constraints on them – all of a sudden we are in Gantt chart hell!
Or we have Gantt charts as wall decorations:
Or the Gantt chart’s cousin, and my favourite, the PERT chart.
Classic line from the Wikipedia entry on PERT charts:
“When the PERT/CPM charts become unwieldy, they are no longer used to manage the project.”
I think that can be said for any task management tool.
These project management diagramming tools are useful for one-off projects, like software development or construction projects, but what about day to day work – the process of selling and delivering widgets or providing services in a repeatable way.
We’ve now got a series of interdependent tasks being undertaken by multiple people on multiple projects, and we are trying to control it all. IT JUST DOES NOT WORK! (speaking from experience, of course).
We are all told that we should delegate tasks, but when delegation is not done well it is a nightmare to be on the receiving end of, and probably a nightmare to do (I wouldn’t know, I just don’t do it).
Computer says No
(Thanks Little Britain)
What are the extra tasks and processes that stop things getting done in your organisation?
One person being responsible – when that person is sick or busy, things just don’t get done.
Complicated approval processes – how many things in your organisation need two or three levels of approval before you can something simple?
Regulation – how many processes in your business exist just to fulfill some form of regulatory requirements? How many forms are filled out manually in triplicate still, or hand written and faxed or scanned?
Signed forms – do you really need that form to be signed, scanned and emailed back in? What do you do then – manually enter it into a tracking system?
Tweaking the numbers – what systems do you have in place that are just about tweaking the numbers – not doing anything of real value. Eg a metric that says you must make 5 calls a day – who to – your Mum?
Filing, paper shuffling, looking important, the list goes on…
Yes We Can!
So, what is the antidote to tasks and processes gone bad? Let’s try to find out.
Challenge the stupid
There is so much red-tape around, but does it have to be that way?:
If the Australian Electoral Commission now accepts online enrolments and a signature with your finger, what makes your organisation so special that you need a leave form signed in triplicate?
If the Victorian department of Health can get a system in place where forms submitted at one council are accepted at all the others, what can you do that is similar to help your customers?
Visualise the workload
Kanban boards are helpful as they simplify task statuses to Todo, Doing, Done, and help visualise the workload of the entire organisation. Different colours for different projects or people are helpful.
Limited WIP seems to work effectively with organisations that have repeatable processes as clearly demonstrated in this video. I’m not really convinced about Limited WIP, but then I’m not on top of all the things I am currently juggling, so maybe there is a lesson for me right there.
Feeds – Push vs Pull
The more notifications you get in your inbox, the more you will ignore them. Why not just have a feed, like twitter, where you can dip into it occasionally when you want to “feel the pulse” of what is going on in the organisation. Go and pull the meaningful information towards you when you want it, rather than having meaningless data pushed at you every hour of the day.
If you and your team keep each other updated by Working Out Loud, then everyone can benefit from the reduced inbox clutter. There are so so many tools out there to do feeds – eg Chatter, Yammer, Hojoki. Just don’t turn on email notifications for your feeds, (except for maybe a daily digest) as it really defeats the purpose.
If something is important enough, you will find out about it by other means. There are even great apps to help with that. Ring My Bell celebrates when a deal has been won, Group Alerts for Chatter allows you to add any important milestone reached into the feed so that everyone can see it.
When setting up systems for my clients, I often use the concept of the queue. A queue is simply a list of things that need to be done and the list should be empty (eg everything done). Eg set up a queue for all support enquiries or new sales leads. Your team knows that it’s their job to deal with things in the queue every day, or hour as the case may be. At any time you can check on the queue to see where things are at.
For things that have to be done in a set process, I like to ensure that every process has a queue and every record (job, sale, question etc) is in at least one queue throughout the life of the process. Also ensure that the queue is not visible to only one person (A PERSONAL INBOX IS NOT A QUEUE), so that things don’t get missed when people are on leave or sick for the day.
If things need to stay in the queue for more than a couple of days (depending on your process), then flag it to follow up. As simple method I use is a formula for the “Chase-Up Date”. Each time you update a record, enter a number X days after the start of the process that this record needs to be chased up by then create a queue for those records that are past their chase-up date. Eg if the current value of Chase-Up Days is 15, set it to be 18 – then in 3 days time, this record will be in the Chase-Up Queue.
“Seek Forgiveness not Permission” is an old adage but is a powerful rule to live by. How can your team be more empowered to do things? What can you learn from the masters of employee empowerment, Zappos?
(start at 22:10, but watch the whole thing anyway)
For the real control freaks out there you can set up exception reporting. What is the worst thing that can happen? What are the limits where things are bad enough that you really need to know about it? Start with a few questions like that, then work back well within those limits to set up some alerts (such as email or text message) when things need to be actioned or known about.
At the talk at the LAST Conference, we split up into small groups and came up with a few antidotes to Command and Control, then shared them with the group at the end. Some of the ideas were:
- Empowerment – trust the staff to do what they do.
- Team Ownership – make the team responsible for the tasks, rather than individuals. Peer pressure and not wanting to let the team down, may help getting things done.
- Definition of Done – define what it means for the task, or project to be considered done.
- Enjoyment – there is something to be said for enjoying what we do, and if we are working together, and not being so combative, then we will not need this level of command and control.
- Focus on the Process – define the process that needs to be done for each project or sale – if the process is followed, there is no need for command and control. Focus on the what, not the how and focus on the Quality not the Quantity.
- Communication – it is obvious that communication between staff and management is key to reducing the need for command and control.
- Metrics – are there other metrics that can be measured other than completion of tasks. Eg something like Net Promoter Scores or 360 degree feedback may be helpful.
- Value adding – if we are adding value, then does it matter that the specific tasks are done?
There, of course, is no right answer, and the path to moving away from command and control is going to be difficult if that is where you, or one of your team members is stuck right now. Having the discussion and asking the questions is the first step. Do we really need to be doing things this way? Are there better ways for us to be working?
I love that one suggestion that came from the group was “send that person to counselling”, which may be a valid option also.
I enjoyed presenting this topic and I hope that my talk or this post can help someone along their journey.