I had arrived early and took up a seat in a quiet corner of the cafe. I was here for my first coaching session with Roseanne. Roseanne was identified early as a high potential leader within a major corporate IT team. Recently, however, her CIO had noticed a disturbing trend in her performance. Roseanne and her team were missing deadlines and seemed to be working on all the wrong things. She seemed incapable of prioritising her work and that of her team. Roseanne had gone from being a potential star to a concerning performance issue.
I was thinking about this when Roseanne walked into the cafe and spotted me. She came over, smiled warmly and introduced herself, but all was not well. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I could feel very strong “I don’t want to be her vibes.” We soon got down to business and began discussing why she was here and what she wanted to achieve from our time together. We skirted a few issues, but eventually came to the issues of missing deadlines and prioritisation. We circled the issue several times and eventually I said something subtle and sophisticated like “your boss thinks you can’t prioritise!”
If nothing else that broke the ice and opened up the conversation. Roseanne began to share her version of “I can’t prioritise.” Essentially it was “I can prioritise fine, the problem is that the CIO keeps changing his mind on what the priorities are!! Today it’s A and B. Yesterday it was C and D. Last week it was A and E. It’s a nightmare …….”
I listened intently to her as she unloaded her frustration. Unfortunately this is an all too familiar story and while you could spend a long time analyzing why this is, I reckon it mainly comes back to one underlying issue. There actually is more work to do than there is resource to do all the work.
Nearly every client I work with has this issue. When I was a CIO I had this issue. The work required of an IT team never ends there is always more work than there is resource. Always. Too many teams take this situation as a confirmation that they are not understood or valued by the organisation – “they just don’t understand what they are asking for …” is the common refrain and this “knowledge” is used to demonstrate that they are the victim of irrational, incompetent leadership.
Maybe this is the case. Maybe your leaders are incompetent, but maybe there is another explanation. Maybe having more work to do than there is time to do it in is our natural state. I know that in my personal life, if I have nothing to do I get bored really quickly and I start thinking of ideas and productive things to do. As Andrew Jackson said “there is no pleasure in having nothing to do; the fun is having lots to do and not doing it.” Add to this modern businesses obsession with constantly improving efficiency and this all adds up to a situation where having more work to do than time actually being the norm. In fact, if you and your work team find that this isn’t the case then this is a problem, as today’s organisations do not like apparent idleness!
I began to unpack this line of thinking for Roseanne. At first she was not receptive but as the conversation unfolded she began to reconcile herself to it and in a somewhat defeated tone asked “so what can I do about it?”
That’s a great question as it calls for positive action oriented answers. In the moment I choose to attempt to be Socrates and asked one of my favorite leadership questions – “I don’t know, what do you think?”
Roseanne contemplated this question for a while and then offered “I suppose I could write a list of all the things he has asked me to do and ask him to prioritise them for me.” It’s a great answer because apart from there actually being too much work, the root of “she can’t prioritise” is usually that no one is taking responsibility for clear communication around the prioritisation of work and the solution is for someone, and it can be anyone, to stand up and take responsibility.
So, we agreed a simple six step process to make this happen:
- Write down everything that she could think of that the team needed to do. Don’t worry if you miss a few things you can always add them later.
- Force rank the list with 1 being the most important 2 the next etc. Do not allow ties – there is no such thing as 1st equal in a forced ranking.
- Split the list into three groups based on their ranking and the availability of appropriate resources.
- doing now (with a planned end date),
- doing next (with a planned start and end date if possible) and
- doing later (no planned details)
- Take your three lists and discuss them with your boss or whoever needs to agree it. Take their input and adjust accordingly.
- Get to work on the agreed priorities, report progress etc as normal.
- Whenever you are asked to report on what you are doing use your lists to shape the conversation – “the team have just completed ……. we are currently working on ….. I expect this to be finished by ….. and we will then begin to …..”
Do this and your prioritisation issues are over! Well maybe. The real test is what happens when the CIO walks past your desk and goes “I’ve just been talking to …… we really need to ….. it’s urgent and you need to do it now please.”
When this happens you need to fit the new request into your forced ranking and adjust appropriately. So, having ensured you have understood the request properly then the conversation needs to go something like this “…. well, yes we can do this if it is an urgent priority. The impact of this is that we will need to delay our existing priorities A and B by X time or we could get additional resources at $XXX additional cost to keep these moving forward. Is that what you want us to do?”
We finished our session and Roseanne went back to the real world to implement what we had discussed. I checked in several weeks later with both Roseanne and the CIO. The process had worked well for Roseanne and all credit to her for working it (it’s one thing to know what to do, it’s is entirely another to do what you know). One of the unexpected benefits is that she found her meeting updates based off of her lists began to change the dynamics of the leadership meetings. Her ability to concisely summarise what was going on with her team was really appreciated by the CIO. This set her apart from her peers who couldn’t do this as clearly. The CIO began to notice this. He also noticed that she always seemed to be working on the right things.
A success! Roseanne then took this a step further. She took her lists and wrote them up onto a big whiteboard in her team area. Her team watched her wondering why she was doing it. Eventually one of her team asked. She explained that she was writing the team’s priorities onto the whiteboard so everyone could see them. The team was a little confused with this “.. well OK, but we all know what our priorities are?”
Roseanne smiled “I know. It’s not for you. It’s for the CIO.” Later that day the CIO walked past their workspace. Noticed the white board, stopped, read the board and began to engage with the team about the priorities and what they were doing. He loved the white board and soon was advocating that all teams began to do this. It was a win for the team too as they received some great feedback and recognition from their interaction with the CIO, something that hadn’t really happened before.
Six months later Roseanne was given a major promotion within the team. Not bad for a girl who couldn’t prioritise and was becoming a performance issue.