To Get More Done, Focus on Environment, Expectations, and Examples

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In 2008, I was designing advertising products at Google. For the first time in my young career, I was going to lots of meetings, and my job had become as much about convincing, cajoling, and coordinating as it was about designing. My manager told me about a team that was working on the Google Help Forum. They needed a designer, and he thought the project was a good way for me to try my hand at a consumer-facing product. The project itself was unremarkable apart from one feature: my work had to be approved by Marissa Mayer.

Marissa was a VP personally responsible for reviewing and authorizing every change made to Google.com. She was a smart, passionate, forceful, and somewhat feared decision-maker who critiqued, gave direction, and (hopefully) approved proposals from various teams. During our meetings, I often envisioned an upside-down pyramid, where the time of many rested on the decisions of one. We were product managers, designers, and leaders. Each one of us would take Marissa’s decisions back to our team, make a plan, and get to work. Our team members were another layer in the pyramid. Their time also depended on her choices.

We all make choices, every day, about how to spend our time. Most of our decisions are small, but over time they add up, and eventually they become decisions about how we’re spending our lives — and our work lives. When managers are careless with their decisions, it creates big problems for their teams. But when they are deliberate and thoughtful, it can create opportunities and give their teams the time they need to do valuable work.

Below I’ve put together a list of tips to help leaders of all kinds be deliberate with their choices, based largely on my years advising startup founders on product, marketing, and management at Google Ventures — and my subsequent work studying and experimenting with personal time-management techniques for my book Make Time. They fall under three categories: the environment you create, the expectations that you have, and the example your choices and actions set.

Environment

1. Treat new tools as debt. Before you add a new product, process, or platform to your company, ask yourself if it’s worth it. There will always be new technologies and processes you can adopt — an app promising better communication, a service promising smarter collaboration. But these products don’t always deliver. And when you’re overeager about trying shiny new things, it can hurt your team more than it helps them. People may become bogged down incorporating a new tool into their workflow, or scattered while attempting to learn a new process. Of course these things can be useful if the timing is right and the strategy is solid, but they also come at a cost.

2. Block as a team. Blocking your calendar is a simple and defensible way to make time for the work that matters. You can supercharge this tactic by agreeing to block your calendar as a team. When everyone in a group or department has the same “do not schedule” blocks on their calendar, it’s much easier to spend that time focused on work.

3. Make your workplace a place for work. Ironically, most offices are not great for getting work done, and open floor plans deserve most of the blame. Moving walls may not be realistic, but you can change the default behavior of your team by instituting Library Rules. Jason Fried, co-founder and president of 37signals and co-author of Rework, has a brilliant suggestion: Swap one default (you can talk to anyone anytime) with a different default, one that everybody already knows (act like you’re in a library).

4. Keep it small. Large teams have more overhead than small ones. Complicated projects have more unknowns than simple ones. Long timelines encourage people to take on unnecessary work. This probably seems obvious, but my experience is that most leaders make things bigger than they need to be. Keep teams, projects, and timelines as small as possible.

Expectations

5. Reward the right behaviors. The 21st Century workplace is full of rewards for long hours and fast responses: compliments, promotions, and cultural badges of honor. If you want to get better, more valuable work from your team, think about which behaviors you reward — even if those rewards are small and unconscious. Instead of thanking someone who promptly replies to an after-hours email, encourage them to write a thoughtful response while at the office. Rewarding people who spend their time productively will encourage team members to practice that behavior, and discourage the notion that overwork is better work.

6. Have a contact contract. We have so many ways to keep in touch at work — writing emails, sending chats, scheduling meetings, hopping on calls. Which form of communication is the most appropriate, and when? You can help your team decide by having an open discussion about everyone’s preferences and then making guidelines that work for the majority. Think about timeliness, thoughtfulness, interruption, and synchronicity. The decisions you come to don’t have to be a literal contract, but they should create an understanding about when and how to communicate.

7. Don’t ask for updates. Nothing triggers anxiety like an email from the boss late in the day: “Hey, can you send me a quick update on Project Alpha?” This kind of message appears urgent — even if it’s not — and it will likely take time for your employee to respond. They may have to run numbers or ask collaborators for updates. A better way to keep tabs on projects is to ask your team for summaries. Explain to them that summaries come at the end of a project, or mark a milestone, and include: the results, the lessons learned, and what needs to happen next. It’s a semantic difference, but it’s significant. If you set clear deadlines, your team can anticipate when a summary is due, and plan updates around the data you want to see.

8. Be mindful of what you say, because everyone’s listening. When leaders make careless comments or suggestions, they can unintentionally change the workflow of their teams. As an employee, I’ve seen this happen many times, but my favorite example comes from Fried and his co-author, David Heinemeier Hansson, in their book about productivity, It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work: “It takes great restraint as the leader not to keep lobbing ideas at everyone else. Every such idea is a pebble that’s going to cause ripples when it hits the surface. Throw enough pebbles in the pond and the overall picture becomes as clear as mud.” Leaders need to recognize the weight their words carry, and practice speaking with thoughtful intention.

9. Don’t expect consensus. Getting everyone to agree before moving forward with a decision can waste time if consensus is not realistic. In fact, a little conflict often inspires learning and innovation, especially on diverse, thoughtful teams. The key, then, is to collect input from everyone, consider your options, and then make a decision based on what you think is best given the information you have. Be transparent with your team about how you made the decision — what you considered, and why — and set time aside to answer questions. People should walk away with a clear understanding of your choice and how it affects their work. This will save you time later on.

Examples

10. Turn off the green dot.  Your decisions about how you spend your time sets the example for your employees. As a leader, you might want them to know you’re available when they need you — but if being logged in and responsive at all times becomes your default, it might become theirs too. Projecting this kind of presence (whether in person or in the form of a logged-in “green dot”), sends the message that it’s okay for people to interrupt you whenever you’re needed, or worse, that the company values the appearance of availability over the time and focus needed to do great work. The solution is to create boundaries. Be straightforward about your time, when you need to focus, and when you are free. A good option is to create “office hours” — periods when anyone can drop in or schedule time with you — and regular check-ins with direct reports. These meetings will allow you to give people your undivided attention when you’re available to do so.

11. Be thoughtful, not reactive. When leading new initiatives, take the time to thoughtfully write your ideas down and consider them. Try not to “think out loud” in meetings. Even if you are brainstorming with others, avoid making a decision on the spot. Give yourself the mental space you need to feel confident that the decision you make is the best path forward. This will save time down the road, and help your team avoid unnecessary road blocks or last minute changes. Ask: How can I make this — product, service, or company — better right now? What are the first steps?

12. Take real breaks. Leave the office early. Take a weekend getaway. Go on a long vacation. And when you do, tell your team you’ll be out of the office and offline. Delegate people to make decisions while you’re out, or defer those decisions until you come back. Real breaks can make you a better leader, a happier person, and set the standard that people need, and deserve, time off.

If you’ve ever wished for better work, greater job satisfaction, or less stress for your team, you have the power to make those changes by rethinking the decisions you make about time. New behaviors have a funny way of becoming habits. What sounds crazy and new right now will seem normal and inevitable in a couple of years. Take these ideas as experiments you can run with, and start testing them tomorrow.





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