I'm often drawn into conversations about productivity around this time of year. People are looking for tricks on how to maintain momentum during the holidays or re-establish momentum in the new year.
I think the answers to both are found by using the same disciplines. In fact, my advice works year-round. It just seems like we notice the need more during this time of year.
There are three things you can do that will help you and your organization.
First. It is absolutely crucial that you get and stay focused on the critical few priorities that are most valuable and important right now.
I once worked with a CEO who had the belief that since he did not really know how much could be done, he would get the most out of his people by loading up their lists way past their maximum capacity. He just figured that good people working hard on an impossible list would get done the largest quantity of items. He thought he would get more output this way than if he just guessed at what the right capacity load should be.
This didn't work very well. It went wrong on a number of counts.
Emphasizing quantity so directly had a negative impact on quality. Items got checked off the list, but the work was often not done very well and had to be re-worked. Busy but not productive.
Since people figured out they could not do everything, they often guessed at what was most important. Or they worked on what was most fun or easiest. The result was near impossible integration with everyone working on uncoordinated tasks.
If they received a follow up on something they were not working on, they would drop everything they were doing and start working on the new item. Their people felt jerked around and after a few of those it became clear that not much of anything ever got completed. It didn't take many of these fire drills to completely ruin the team's productivity.
This approach also resulted in an unnecessary increase in stress levels in an already high stress organization.
What eventually helped this CEO and senior team was very, very precise agreement on which projects were first…. Yes, prioritization!
Second. It is absolutely critical that capacity be understood and managed. During times like holiday and summer periods original planning must be reviewed and re-set to allow for the time that people will be away.
In the case mentioned above, the solution would be only partly successful by setting the priority list if the CEO still would expect his list of 55 prioritized items completed without respect to rational capacity management.
This team had to learn to fight it out and to agree on not only what was first or second, but also where to draw the line. They all had to agree on what would be worked on and what would wait until later. Doing this once at planning or budget time is not enough. It has to be done over and over, and especially at those times of year when time is taken away from the job.
Once the team figured it out and practiced it year-round, they saw a big reduction of stress and an increase in momentum. When holiday and summer time rolled around they learned to schedule special sessions to address capacity taking into account vacation times and travel. More got done, no one had to feel guilty about being away, and stress was reduced because expectations were realistic.
Third and Last. Eliminate perfection assumptions in your planning models.
Whether it is financial planning, product development, strategic planning, recruiting, merger integration savings, capacity planning or your own work planning, I have found that organizations fall into the trap of assuming perfection in their planning cases.
It’s probably not as important to dig into why this happens than to recognize it does happen and to work very hard to make our planning assumptions realistic.
If we do our prioritization work well, and try very hard to apply rational capacity management, it can all still come apart if our planning assumes that all elements will go perfectly and exactly as planned and in the optimum time and at the optimum cost. Nothing ever goes perfectly. Emergencies come upon us. Customers present immediate demands. Stuff happens.
I'm not suggesting easy plans, nor am I suggesting not reaching for big outcomes. I'm just suggesting that you face reality when you predict how long something will take, how much it will cost, how many people will be needed, and how much time they really have to contribute to your tasks.
I remember in our unnamed example above that a vice president was being pushed very hard about a project completion date. He tried very unsuccessfully to persuade senior management why more time would be needed. The interchange was an almost one-way conversation about how long each project element ‘should’ take. Eventually, I remember hearing something like… “If you can’t get this done by then, I’ll find someone who can.” He was removed from his job. I also remember the replacement candidate saying that he could deliver the project on time because he agreed the planning assumptions were ‘sensible’. The result was that the project missed the deadline and came in exactly when the original vice president said it would.
Obviously that was an extreme example, but it is meant to jar you into thinking about how much perfection you place or demand in your plans.
Difficult periods do not have to result in more stress, missed deadlines, and lost momentum. Remembering these three simple keys will help your organization stay on track.