A very interesting TED talk was released recently by Adam Grant where he presents his research regarding procrastination and creative work.
I wrote a bit about procrastination in organizations before, and I think that a distinction needs to be made between procrastinating on a task while having to execute others, and procrastinating while engaging in non-work tasks.
I think everyone has experienced that flash of inspiration that happens in the shower or while stuck in traffic, when the solution of a problem you’ve been working on suddenly hits you. There is something to giving yourself time to process the information and make the connections, I recommend long walks with your dog.
In my professional experience, it has been common that the person I report to directly is not close to my day-to-day activities. Early in my career, when having a performance review, I would complain that my boss had no idea what I had done or been through this year, leaving me feeling like the review was inaccurate.
What about now? Been a consultant, my direct manager is even further from the action than before, so I started writing a status report and sending it periodically to her. I believe that the best approach to make sure something happens is to be the driver of the action.
One of my favorite TED talks is from Dan Ariely regarding what motivates people at work. As he describes his research on the topic, you cannot help but having small revelations about your own professional life.
A key point that always resonates with me, if what you’re building will not matter in the end, you will lose the motivation to build it. This is a very powerful insight that unfortunately has not been embraced in organizations. How many times have you been asked
forced to “put together a slide deck/report/document”, while knowing no one will read it or use it? This doesn’t even address whether the task adds value or not (although if the task doesn’t matter in the end, it’s likely zero value-add), it is about making sure the organization recognizes the work it asks from their teams.
Being aware that feeling demotivated about a task points to not seeing the purpose of the task can steer you in the right direction to improve your organization, how it connects people’s work to the organization’s purpose and reduce pointless work.
Have you ever worked at an organization that has very well defined processes? You must use this form, you have to have this meeting, you must wait two weeks for the committee to meet.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
This quote always comes to mind in situations like this, because having such a heavy-handed rigid structure stifles new ideas, it does not provide enough wiggle room to improve.
Why not instead define clear boundaries for your team, and as long as they stay within their boundaries, give them full reign to use their judgement?
The purpose of a process is to ensure you have repeatable results, but in modern organizations there are usually many ways to reach a successful outcome and not having the chance to adapt to circumstances can put your work at risk.
If your organization has created new processes to allow people to circumvent previous processes, you should really ask yourself why are the processes there to begin with? It may be time to let the teams doing the work determine the best approach.
Having been “thrown under the bus” a couple of times in my career managing projects, I have always been curious about the reasons why this behavior appears in different organizations.
I think there are several factors at play, a key one been a pervasive fear. Fear of making mistakes, fear of stepping out of line, fear of been noticed, fear of been called to the boss’ office. This is a clear warning sign, sooner or later something will go wrong and people will start throwing others under the bus out of fear of been the target of the consequences (real or imagined).
If you find yourself in an organization where this happens, why not approach your manager about it? Suggest a small project and discuss ahead of time what can go wrong and how will you respond to it. Make sure you capture what you learn in a way that is very visible so you can turn one mistake into everyone’s experience.
Sure, it’s riskier. But the only way to improve is to take risks and an organization that rejects this may not be the right place to be.
The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything.
– Teddy Roosevelt
If you get to work on Monday morning and you have seven different projects demanding your attention urgently, you will pick one to start with. How will you pick? Usually by selecting the project that is about to be late, or is already late.
While you’re working on this immediate red-hot item, by definition you are procrastinating on the other six. It does not make you a poor worker, after all you’re likely working more than 8 hours a day trying to keep up with the stream of urgent tasks. This cycle means that the work that for one reason or another can wait, will wait, regardless of its importance.
Breaking this cycle is not easy, as it requires a change in the culture of your organization. Looking at all the pending work and focusing your resources on the important work over the unimportant (but urgent) requires the courage to question why the unimportant work is been done in the first place.