Boost Your Team's Productivity. Today. Before Lunch.
This single action immediately enhances a team’s focus and output. It requires little actual time or effort to do, but it’s not easy. It require us to challenge traditional expectations and work outside our comfort zone.
Here it is: Clearly state what isn’t a priority
How to do it
Identify an important output where you want to increase performance. We’ll call that X.Identify another really important thing that also should be done but isn’t as high a priority. The more painful it is to say it’s less important, the better. We’ll call that Y.Communicate to your team that for right now, we need to Prioritize X, even over Y.
Why this is important
The day-to-day work of your team is full of distractions. Important distractions. Contributors come across plenty of unplanned opportunities to provide immediate value to others. They invest effort in things like resolving issues for colleagues that are blocked, responding to a sudden, pressing customer issue or generating an extra report for some demanding internal stakeholder. All that “helpful” behaviour is at the expense of the top priority.
It’s not that they don’t know what the top priority is, it’s that they don’t want to be an asshole to the kind human beings that are making valid, reasonable requests.
In a leadership role, you have a tremendous opportunity to remove the discomfort that comes with saying no. The discomfort doesn’t get removed by just saying what’s top priority. You also need to explicitly acknowledge and take responsibility for the requests they’re going to deny, as well.
Let’s say there is an important software feature that needs to be delivered on time. What might compete for effort even if the priority is clear?
Embarrassing bugs in the previous release
Tantalizing improvements that would turn an already workable solution into something to be proud of
Support tickets where they’re tagged and feel responsible
Rush scoping required on a custom-development contract that might land a big customer
To clear the way, then, you say Prioritize shipping the minimally viable product, even over refining the software to make it more easily extensible and independent.
Re-examining Your Assessment of Team Capacity
The hardest part of this concept is probably shifting mindset from “they should be doing more,” to “I haven’t provided what they need.”
Teams can sometimes be told everything is equally important; that they simply need to do it all. However, I haven’t seen a team that can notably increase (and definitely not sustain) output because a “leader” says they need to buckle down.
“It’s all a priority” implies your colleagues have a discretionary capacity to do more than they are now. However, if they don’t have that excess capacity lying in wait, saying “it’s all a priority” is asking them to turn up a volume knob that doesn’t exist.
If we assume for a moment that these individuals care and work as hard as you, it’s much more likely that these competing priorities can’t all be done at the same time within the current environment. If that’s the case but we say everything is important, this required strategic decision defaults to each individual’s discretion. I guarantee you they’re choosing the path that minimizes discomfort, regardless of whether it’s the top priority or not.
Let me put this another way. If you’re unwilling to Prioritize X, even over Y because “it’s all a priority,” you’re wrong. Teams can’t prioritize it all equally. That means one of the fastest, most effective things you can do is remove this impossible expectation.
You need to make that hard choice. You’re supposed to make that hard choice.
If you don’t make an X even over Y choice, then at least please remember this concept when the wrong things get done. Yes, you were explicit about what you needed. However, you didn’t equip the team with a way to say no to all the other stuff.
Your team will like it. Others may not.
Typically we balance effort across all our responsibilities so we don’t have to say no. We spread ourselves thin and don’t give our best on any particular responsibility. Unfortunately, just barely “keeping a pulse” on many things often turns into a cycle of responding to whatever happens to be at crisis levels.
In contrast, when we deliberately choose where the team won’t put focus, it is a visible statement. Instead of earnestly working hard on everything, it’s going to be clear that you’ve chosen not to work on some things. Others might disagree and criticize with the choice you’ve made, especially if they have a need that isn’t the X.
Those critics won’t be arguing about what’s right for your team’s productivity, though. They’ll just be arguing that you made the wrong prioritization choice. They might be right. Maybe you’ll find out that the organization needs Y, even over X. That’s fine. You just can’t honestly promise everything is a priority.
I am certain — and I hope you are too — that saying “it’s all a priority” guarantees our results are going to suffer. We can’t let the silent killer of “secondary needs” go unaddressed.
Increasing Capacity Isn’t Short-Term
A really reasonable question is “Why doesn’t the team have capacity to do both?” We should ask that. Right now, they don’t have that capacity and we shouldn’t pretend they do, but over time we should help them build capacity.
Long-term, there are plenty of actions we can take. When we stop trying to twist a non-existent volume knob, we can apply a lot more focus on figuring out why these committed individuals don’t have the capacity we’d like them to have.
We can’t do that one before lunch.