How To Manage A Massive Workload Increase - Part 1

Mike & Mark,

Thank you for beginning to tackle the "massive workload" topic with your release of part 1 today - I think many of us are deeply appreciative of your insights & wisdom on this matter.  Since the Great Recession, this has become all to common for many managers - perhaps it's the "new normal" - as much as I hate that term. 

While I thought part 1 was very good, I would really like to see you address what I believe to be the toughest situation - and that is when everything you are working on is a top priority.  And I'm not talking about tasks you should be delegating to your admin or your managers & analysts. 

Let's face it, sometimes we are simply asked to do more highly-important work than can be accomplished while also being told that no additional resources will be provided.  This is a real, frequently encountered issue, and I would love to hear how you guys would approach it. 

These are situations in which choosing "what to get in trouble for not doing" will invariably be a choice between which highly important deliverable is going to suffer.  I know that creativity & re-thinking one's approach can translate into tangible productivity gains, but they do have their limits in many, many circumstances. 

I would love to hear how you guys would consider tackling the above - when the answer is not simply "prioritize & delegate".  I hope the answer is not to simply look for another job :)   Thanks in advance for your input!

Regards,

PD1900

amen.

and ditto :)

I also am very interested in this.

No.

PD,

forgive me for being blunt, but you're missing the point. Granted, I
have heard the entire podcast and you have not, but I think you'll get
more out of the remaining parts if you change your mindset.

No-one has 'not important' work. If anyone in corporate anywhere has
managed to get through the last 20 years without being piled with
work, and is still managing to do things which are 'not important' I'd
like to meet them. From your perspective, it's all important. Of
course it is - you don't say to your wife, it's Wednesday, I think
I'll go to work and do some busy work - do you? You say, it's
Wednesday, I've got 3 client deadlines on Monday and that report to do
for my boss.

Conventional time management would tell you to prioritise. I bet your
list looks like this:

1. Client Deadline
2. Client Deadline
3. Client Deadline
4. Report for Boss
5. Prepare for Client Meeting
6. Fix problem with X
7. Talk to procurement about Y contract
8. Minor Client Deadline
9. Do my expenses
10. Find out how department z is dealing with client C.

What we're telling you, is that if in a day you can only get to the
top 4, get to the top four, and STOP kidding yourself you're going to
do any of the others. Either delegate, or ditch. I bet if you needed
to, you could prepare for a client meeting 30 minutes just before the
meeting. No, it's not perfect, but it means you don't have to do it
today, or even this week, potentially. How long has X been a problem?
If it's more than a week, it can wait another week. When does the
contract run out? It CAN'T be today, because it would be in your top
4. Let it go. And so on.. and so on..

Does this mean you're firefighting? You could call it that, or
prioritising. We'd call it delegating to the floor.

What happens when someone notices you've delegated to the floor - you
admit it. I have this conversation with Mark all the time. "Wendii,
why haven't you done anything about the minor client deadline?".
Fortunately, I work for Manager Tools and can get away with 'I
delegated it to the floor and it didn't do it's job properly. I'll
pick it up". You might want to try: "I've been working on 1,2,3 and
4. I'm planning on getting to 5 next week". If your boss turns
purple, you chose what to drop badly. Pick up 5 and drop 1,2,3, or 4.

This is what deciding what to get in trouble for means. You know what
10 looks like to your boss? 100. And to his boss? 1000. EVEN
THOUGH it's important to you, and it's a priority, it's not.

I'll confess, there are some weeks where there are only 2 blog posts
not 3 on our site. Even though it's an important part of my job, Mark
doesn't care. I don't want to be in trouble for not writing a podcast
though. Not writing a blog post is a feedback moment. Not writing a
podcast is a serious discussion about what I think my priorities are
(that I don't want to have). That's what deciding what you get in
trouble for means.

Please, listen to the rest of the series with an open mind. I promise
you, you don't need a part 2. Part 1 applies to you. If you still
don't get it when all the casts are out, we'll find 30 minutes to talk
to you on the phone and help you see it.

Wendii

They'll tell you everything is #1

But it's not.

The "aha!" moment for me was realizing that I would have to prioritize, based on my own judgment. And that I was, in a sense, alone. I was making this decision and I would have to defend it. And, most important: this is what they were paying me for!

Leadership, responsibility, and decisiveness were not something to come from above, but from me. A very sobering realization, because failure could result from bad decisions. Welcome to management.

Our decisions have consequences. We have an obligation to make hard decisions, to engage colleagues so we understand their implications, and to report effectively our actions.

When we succeed, well, that's one of the best feelings there is.

PS: All those folks above you telling you you have to do more with less....they have the same problem and are struggling to prioritize, too.

 

John Hack

 I agree whole-heartedly

 I agree whole-heartedly with Wendii's comment.  (Where's the "Like" button?)

How many of us have delegated a task, recurring or not, and then not followed up on it?  Do your directs do 100% of everything you tell them to do 100% of the time?  And do you fire them when they don't manage to do everything?  Of course not.

The last few years may have highlighted this a bit more, but this isn't a new problem.  The trick, then as now, is to separate the signal (the really important things) from the noise (the things that everyone says is important, but isn't really).

My only "disagreement" with Mark is that I have had days when I've gone home with nothing, and I mean nothing, on my plate.  And the next working day I started a new job at a new company... :-)

--Rich

More Communication

I agree with Wendii and John.  I found creating a list, like Wendii did in her example, and communicating to my manager the current workload and priorities (boss can always rearrange) in our 1:1s works well.  Don't be surprised if there is significant priority reshuffling the first time.

Your and your team will perform better focusing on your manager's priorities.

For those lower priority items, you and your team need to communicate to your customers their needs won't be immediately met and provide revised completion date estimates.

Good luck.

Important point....

 Jamie P makes an important point:  you need to know your boss's priorities. 

John Hack

there can't be a podcast on the impossible

Adding to Wendii's point: If, after delegating, prioritizing, requesting help, and giving 110%, I still have ten high-importance, high-priority tasks due within 24 hours, well, then I'm in an impossible situation. Perhaps, in hindsight, there's something I'd have done differently last week. Perhaps my team and I truly did all we could. Impossible situations do happen. They are rare, but we live in extraordinary times. I'd follow Wendii's advice, motivate my team, alert my superiors, keep a good attitude, do the greatest good for the greatest number, and I'd accept the consequences with grace. Those consequences might even mean I lose my job.

Wendii, Mark, and Mike offer all the insights they can, but Manager Tools can only advise us on how to solve extremely hard problems. There is no podcast in the world that can tell us how to solve an impossible problem. Col. Custer rode into Little Bighorn with 250 soldiers; Sitting Bull brought 1200 warriors. No podcast, even one from West Point grads, could have saved Custer once the situation became impossible.

Star Trek fans, feel free to substitute "Kobyashi Maru" for "Little Bighorn" in the above example.

 I bet you can still

 I bet you can still re-prioritize.  Not all 10 tasks are of equal priority/importance.  There must be hundreds of factors you could use to differentiate tasks.  For example, not all 10 tasks will be customer facing, with the same project dependencies, dependency deadlines, revenue impact, etc.

Candidly, all my "customers" think their work is the top priority for me and they all want it done today.  In reality, I "have to" do all of them, but I'll work on the one with the $3 billion revenue stream before the nine with the $200 million revenue streams.   Then, of the $200million customers, I'm working on customer "W" because they're launching a new product that will double their revenue and need quick turnaround on their re-work.  Then customer "S" because their second largest customer is threatening to pull their business.  Then...

JHack's right.  Use your judgement.  Make a decision. Be prepared to explain how you arrived at your decision. Execute the decision. Repeat with the next one.

 Afmoffa, I'm going to

 Afmoffa,

I'm going to answer for Mark here in regards to your Kobyashi Maru comment:  "I don't believe in the no-win scenario."  

:-)

--Rich

Col. Custer

 Afmoffa,

and in the Ia Drang valley of Vietnam Col. (later Lt General) Moore led around 450 soldiers against over 2000 North Vietnamese regulars and various irregular forces at landing zone X-Ray.  The solution turned out to be an agressive counter attack and call in more resources.

I recall reading about Custer at school, it was a military school so we went into the tactics as well.  As I recall the majorioty view was Custer could have won decisively but he allowed Sitting Bull to choose the ground and format of action, Sitting Bull's warriors had freedom of movement and Custer had no way to concentrate his fire.  Custer fought where his enemy was strong and he was weak.  Had he withdrawn a couple of miles he could have forced an engagement where Sitting Bull lost much of his freedom of movement and Custer could concentrate his fire by forcing Sitting Bull into a frontal charge against fire from cover on three sides.

 Often the battle is won before the first sword is drawn or first round in chambered.  Choose ground where the advantages play in your direction and against your opponent then make them fight you there.  Often the greratest battle is the one that never happened because the enemy looked at the situation and realised they couldn't win so either went home or sued for peace.

There's probably a way to apply that in management and I know there's a lot of business books that reference Sun Tzu.

Stephen

--

Skype: stephenbooth_uk  | DiSC: 6137

"Start with the customer and work backwards, not with the tools and work forwards" - James Womack

 

I worry perhaps my analogy has sidetracked my point

I'm sorry if Custer (or Klingon!) drew attention away from Wendii's point. My analogy was a bit incendiary, and I regret that.

My point was that the podcast was about the importance of prioritizing deadlines and deliverables. The original posts by PD1900 asked what to do in the event of a workload even more bracing than what was described. To which Wendii chimed in with her belief that the same combination of optimism, industry, and delegation would still apply.

Hypotheticals of "but what if it was even harder than that?" seem counterproductive to me. A good employer won't invite inevitable failure. A good manager won't let things get that far gone. Maybe you believe in the no-win scenario, maybe you don't. But let's not ask for a "Part 2" podcast that posits the existence of a no-win scenario and then offers actionable advice for winning.

Damn

I have just lost, while airborne, one of my best posts ever.

I will try to recreate it.

While i do, though, consider this:

Since when is the possibility of winning NECESSARY to begin work on something??!?

I wish for the world in which I only have to compete with people who must KNOW that something can be done before trying to do it

Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it.
Action has magic, grace and power in it.

Mark, with angry eyebrows

my 10 cents

I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by overwork.

In my case, I have a boss who is not acknowledging that workload/responsibilities have tripled, and that any project is less than a urgent priority.  I've tried everything from negotiating, laying out my perception of priorities in writing, and simply saying "I have to finish X before I can start Y; I'll add it to my list."

Not working. My boss is a perfectionist.  It all must be done, and it must be done perfectly.

I get what Mark was saying in his post--but speaking as someone in a job where layoffs have been constant for the last 3 years, many of us are not working in conditions that are conducive to healthy work/life balance.  I don't need to "win."  I just need to SLEEP.

Sure, my job is still orders of magnitude better than what is common for many parts of the world. And many days, I love it.   But as someone who starts work at 7am and doesn't get home until well after 7pm most days, that is not as motivational as I need it to be.

In some ways knowing that I'm being laid off in 4 months is a relief*; but I am so very concerned for my directs, who will have all of my duties now dumped on them, in addition to all the things they are already doing. 

(*a relief aside from the "OMG I need a job" part, anyway :)

 

I haven't heard this one yet

I haven't heard this one yet (for some reason it takes a while to appear in iTunes) but was interested in the comments and so I've stopped waiting patiently and have read the shownotes instead.

The "first announcement" reminded me very much of some well-conducted "Hey they just announced a merger" meetings I have been involved in, working in country operations in large multinationals. In these situations, the local manager has known no more than what's in the press release everyone has already read. There is, in a sense, nothing for them to say - they have no idea what will happen, there is no plan, they don't know when there will be a plan - yet saying this "nothing" is vital. The outcome I have seen through too many mergers is that the way in which the local manager says this "nothing", how positive the manager is, the way they acknowledge the fear and uncertainty yet direct everyone to positive-mindedness, makes a significant difference to not just how people walk away feeling after the meeting, but also to measurable business results and staff turnover in the coming months. (Obviously this is a little simplistic - that same integrity and positivity of messaging needs to continue to be applied consistently).

Let's remember too that a merger is going to mean a huge increase in work for many people for an extended period - and that the manager who is being so positive now is not only someone who will have a huge increase in work, but is quite likely the person whose job is most at risk .

These are the leaders you will follow to hell and back. They are the ones you'll bust a gut for to find a way to make it happen. And it's amazing what you *can* do when you believe you can. It's also interesting to discover what work will wriggle over, disappear in a puff of smoke or squish itself into a smaller space when it has to.

So yes, I've seen this in action and I know it works.

 Back to PD1900's original

 Back to PD1900's original scenario about the impossible scenario where everything is a top priority.  (Actually, I don think it's a different scenario; the solution is still the same - prioritize.)  Here's a situation I recently went through:

Executive management decides to off-shore (NOT out-source!) our group's work halfway round the world.  They'd made the decision 6 months before they announced it to us, so asking them to reconsider was out of the question (though I'm sure some did anyway...).  Note that our group is critical to the success of the company (30% of company revenue is dependent on our platform - it doesn't work and we lose millions of $ per day).  Also note that we thought we were understaffed by ~25% relative to the amount of work we were already being asked to do.

We had ~6 weeks to plan the transition and prepare for hiring the new team.  We estimated that it would take ~4 years to properly hire, train, and transition the work to the new team.  The Executive Team asked us to make it happen in 18 months.  And not impact the current pipeline of work.

In my area, my Boss had known about the decision and had decided to re-architect our area's entire framework.  I estimated it would take 7 full-time people 2 years to complete the work.  Oh yeah, our area was already short-staffed by ~30% and we wouldn't be getting any additional staff.

To recap - already 30% short-staffed and then expect everyone to do the job of 4 people for the next 18 months.  And don't let any balls fall on the ground!

To top it off, halfway through the project, all the management between me and the Executive Team changed (moved to roles inside and outside the company, depending ;-).  So I got to train new management in the middle of it.

There were many days I thought it couldn't be done, but I never told my directs that.

And we got it done because a lot of people worked very hard and made hard choices.

 

I love all of your comments & insights!

First off - thank you to all who have comments on this post - I greatly appreciate the sharing of your wisdom and personal experiences.

The reason for my post was because this is an area that I have struggled with at times - and that is setting expectations above (with my boss, my boss' boss, etc.) in a manner that does not in any way make me sound like I or my team are "just not pulling our weight". At times, to my detriment, I've taken on more than my folks & I could handle because I've had some bosses who follow the philosophy, "keep piling on the work until your employee begins to push back." 

I would love to hear any recommendations regarding how you all have been able to set expectations in the face of increasing workloads & demands (with decreasing resources) while maintaining your standing as a "top performer" (or high performer)?   I realize a lot of it depends on your boss' style, but I imagine there are some underlying principles that apply to most situations.  And yes, for sure good, frequent, open communication is critical.  But I feel that there's more to it than that...

~PD1900     

 

 

 

 

I'm sure I'm doing it wrong :)

I'm fairly sure that none of what I've tried is the MT approved way of doing things :D

I tried:

--Making a list of all open requests/tasks, putting my priorities on them, and checking with boss to see if they matched (they did not. and s/he thought of new ones. sigh.)

--making a calendar of seasonal tasks that are time consuming and require me to be involved, to see if any can be offloaded, and also to remind boss that February is a bad time to try to start a new initiative, for example, since it's one of my busiest months.

--Immediately handing off small change requests to an underutilized indirect, and just letting go of the fact that occasionally things are not spelled correctly, or, SHUDDER, in comic sans font. I can't proofread all materials going out the door, and our website, and....

--Not indulging myself by spending time doing fun job things--(ex: riding around in the golf cart with the new interns and orienting them when they arrive; leading tours)--and focusing on the hard stuff that has to get done. 

--trying to reduce the number of meetings I have. This, alas, has had dismal results. I sat in a 4 hour meeting last Friday, where each person talked about what they were doing. And that was all we did *head desk*

Where I am now is the "I'll add that to the bottom of the list" stage; one of my coworkers has stopped answering email, she's so overloaded.  That is, obviously, unhealthy and unproductive. 

I am now also fitting in succession planning, since my position ends in May (well, converts to 1/2 time, which I don't intend to hang around for.)

That's freed me to focus on things that are long term, and to put a hold on small tasks. (Ok, I freed myself :)

If there were different personalities involved, I would be able to cope better, I think--most of the time I  am able to let things roll off me. Lately things are sticking.  That means it's time to go, IMHO. 

A much more high energy person than me needs to be in this position to keep up with my brilliant superstar, high I boss.  Ultimately, I think it's just not a good fit for me.  I need more zen in my day, and this job is harshing my mellow.

Visualisation of tasks vs priorities

 Driucker1900,

one thing that comes to mind is to perhaps list out your tasks in relative priority order (even if they're all high priority there will likely be relative priorities) with an estimate of effort required to deliver them (person hours).  The make two estimates, a realistic estimate of how many person hours of effort you have available in the coming week (not necessarily worst case but what you believe, based on your experience, is reasonable and realistic without overtime but factoring in breaks, meetings &c) and best-case-if-everything-goes-perfectly estimate of the number of person days you have available to you in the coming week.  Take your list and look at the cumulative time effort for tasks working down from the highest priority.  Below the lowest task where the cumulative effort is less than the realistic estimate draw a line (or otherwise mark, you could probably do this in Excel and use Conditional formatting) then below the lowest task where the cumulative effort is less than the best-case estimate draw another line.  This divides your list into three zones: Expect to do this week, May do this week but may not, Won't do this week.  e.g.

A

B

C     "Expect to do this week"

D

E

-------------------------------------

F

G     "May do this week but may not"

------------------------------------

H

I

J

K

L     "Won't do this week"

M

N

O

P

 

This gives you and your team a visual representation of what you should get done in the week and what you should aspire to get done in the week.  It also means that when your boss tries to give you a new task they can see what that will push off the bottom of the will (expect to) do and may do zones.  This isn't refusing work or asking the boss to prioritise, just making it clear what the consequence of this new task will be (the Juggling Koan made visible).  They can accept it or re-prioritise.

At the end of the week remove any completed tasks or tasks that are now irrelevant (e.g. have passed their deadline), move the remaining items up the list to fill in the gaps thus made and make your estimates for the following week.

 Stephen

--

Skype: stephenbooth_uk  | DiSC: 6137

"Start with the customer and work backwards, not with the tools and work forwards" - James Womack

 

"ASAP" is meaningless

I take in work orders and pass them out to my team. The work orders have a blank for the requestor to fill in "First Proof Target Date" and "Completion Target Date."

It took YEARS, but I finally broke everyone of writing "ASAP" in those blanks. I confess I got a little passive-aggressive at times. "Sorry, it hasn't been possible yet."

I'd tell them, "'ASAP' goes underneath all the jobs that have real dates on them." And stick to my guns. If someone complained, I could show them the stack of jobs that had today's date, tomorrow's date...

Now, for a small comment on the podcast... I didn't understand the phrase "delegate to the floor" at first. I thought you meant delegate to the individual contributors. (the "shop floor," was the analogy I was thinking of) I did figure it out over the course of the episode, but I probably need to go back & re-listen now that I understand the terminology.

Bug Girl

I think I'm glad for your sake that you are leaving. Good luck with the next step!

Your first post, where you said that your manager had not acknowledged the increase in work, is where the problem starts. I suspect (and I don't want this to sound patronising; I've been where you are!) your feelings about the job, your ability to manage the excess work etc could be very different if your manager was handling it differently. The odd "I can see how much you are putting in; thank you" goes an awfully long way, doesn't it?

I'm guessing that your boss a) is High D and b) does not listen to Manager Tools? <grin>