At the start of every new project or work assignment, managers are full of optimism, enthusiasm, and fire in the belly. They have been here before. They know the right formula. They lead because they are experienced, wise, and insightful. They use their trusted process, tracking specific tasks, assigning the right people to them, and holding everyone to the deadline.
It’s all very simple—until everything goes sideways.
As logical as the process may be, every project will have bumps along the way. Work managers can often deftly steer around or through them. That’s what they are hired to do, after all. But things can get seriously screwed up for good by ignoring three crucial work problems.
Work chaos plagues every team and department. There’s no quicker way to decrease your productivity or peace of mind than by assuming there’s no way to solve it or work through it, or by simply giving in to it. Chaos arrives on the scene as a result of work mismanagement, and, in addition to the cornucopia of headaches that it brings, it leads to a world of wasted time, disconnected activities and poor resource visibility.
Today, requests for work happen in more places and more ways than ever before. They come as emails, sticky notes, phone calls, conversations in the hallway, instant messages, desk-side chats, and even texts. Sometimes they come so frequently that it’s chaotic trying to stay on top of them, let alone prioritize them.
But prioritize you must, or you may very well find yourself in a vortex of merely reacting to requests, rather than creating and following a strategic work system. And that’s when you realize you’re doomed to exist in work chaos.
Work chaos will declare victory unless the project manager successfully creates streamlined information systems, processes, and workflows. You do this by designating a single place for inputs and requests, so regardless of whether work requests come from your team, clients or other departments, they’ll arrive in the same manner and to the same place, where they’ll never be overlooked or improperly prioritized.
The biggest favor you can do yourself is to unify the communication and collaboration process. True collaboration comes not from email and status meetings, but from learning how to work together on the right things at the right time. This is accomplished by collecting information into a single online location: one that is visible and accessible to all team members.
Give your entire team a reliable way to see all work that needs to be done, the priority of that work, visibility into who is doing what, and the ability to accept work assignments based on their own availability. Your team, even when geographically disconnected, will be in sync and are accurately informed of the work processes, reducing bottlenecks and increasing overall team productivity.
When best practices are employed and the time is taken to set up systems correctly, maintenance and update time is reduced. A crucial part of selecting an online system is to identify one that will meet all your process needs, eliminating the temptation to create and use multiple systems.
Frequently, a project manager will be faced with a particular challenge—such as streamlining a process—and with the best intentions he’ll be tempted to solve the issue by simply adding another point solution or tool into the mix.
He may have one spreadsheet that outlines the project timeline and work responsibilities, another for all the requirements and a third to track all the bugs. He might then add another one to improve online collaboration. Next thing he knows, he's using five different tools—and that’s just him. He will soon discover that each one of these tools only meets a fraction of his needs, and that the entire process is disjointed.
Of course, each team is also using different sets of tools to manage their pieces of the project, communicate and track issues. Workers are not in sync, which will lead to greater chaos, as team members continually create and update their own spreadsheets. Information is scattered among the different tools and collecting it is often time consuming and difficult. The lack of visibility also makes it difficult to see who is working on what and when; in the end, no one is on the same page.
Studies show that people spend 50% of their work time bogged down in activities related to document creation and management. If this sounds like your team, it might be time to look for a better way to manage information.
Select a single gatekeeper and collectively decide on a system that works for your team. Find a tool that provides a single, central place to better manage work, improve visibility, and increase productivity by eliminating wasted time dealing with fragmented tools and processes. Look for a tool that eliminates unnecessary meetings, better allocates resources, creates true collaboration and provides real-time updates to everyone.
With your ideal online system in place, don't neglect the possibility of unforeseen organizational issues—like the surprise ad hoc project. An ad hoc project can easily screw up a plan, and too many people forget to account for them in their project planning.
When unanticipated projects come to a project manager via email, sticky notes, desk "drive-bys," and other one-off angles, timelines and priorities get shifted and resource visibility can get lost. Suddenly, team members no longer know who is doing what, when, and if their projects are going to meet their deadlines.
Without an established workspace collaboration system that considers ad hoc requests, unexpected projects can truly be the downfall of an organization’s project management ability. But when consideration for such projects is given focus at the onset of any project, paths are put in place to keep control over the situation.
Let's be realistic and acknowledge that unexpected items will crop up that need to get done. Here are three practical and doable steps that will assist in dealing with unexpected work requests or priority changes:
- Only allocate 60% to 70% of your and your team’s time to planned work.
- Work frequently in smaller chunks or sprints to help teams have flexibility to take on urgent work when it arises.
- Make it okay to say "no" or "later" when the request is a lower priority business objective.
In today’s complex work environment, having the right work management processes in place is critical for success. If you want to avoid the three-headed monster of work chaos, superfluous point solutions, and unconsidered ad hoc projects, focus on unifying your communication and collaboration through a system that meets the needs of all your team members—and do it with the anticipation of unforeseen issues and side projects interrupting. Your project can finally be streamlined, and you can enjoy the peace of mind that comes from not screwing up your project.
—Eric Morgan is CEO at AtTask.
[Image: Flickr user Dave Matos]