About geraldgraham

Professor, author and management consultant.

Improve Efficiency with Firm Deadlines

“My first few days on the job,” explained Verdi, “I completed all of my tasks by early afternoon.  I’m not one to just sit idle so I started thinking of ways to add value to my job.  My supervisor liked what I was doing.”

Verdi added that after several weeks, although her tasks were the same, she struggled to get everything done.

I once asked a manager, who had a reputation for bringing design projects in on time, how he did it.  He replied, “I give the design teams a reasonable deadline and then I take the projects away from them.”  He added that–perhaps with intended exaggeration–left to their own devices, the engineers would keep sprouting ideas and never complete their assignments.

In 1955, British historian C Northcote Parkinson made the observation that (later identified as Parkinson’s Law), “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Of course, a project that may reasonably take six to eight weeks could not be completed in one day.  But a deadline of eight weeks may see a team scramble toward the zero hour and possibly ask for an extension.  A six-week target date would likely see the same result and save two weeks.

How Do You Make Complex Decisions?

When I’ve asked managers how they make important decisions, I get responses like:

“Who can say. We talk about an issue and after a lot of back-and-forth propositions and challenges, an option sometimes emerges.”

“We discuss and discuss. We may not even agree on the problem.”

“It’s like trying to get a pro golfer to explain how he hits a ball so far. We just do it.”

Too often, leaders plunge into discussions that just keep churning and churning until there is a brewing chaos. Amidst doubt and confusion members adjourn without a clear direction. Or worse, members agree to a watered-down option for which there is only lukewarm support.

To avoid endless delays or high-risk moon shots, present an issue and discuss until key players agree on the exact problem. Set a deadline for making the decision. Create a climate that encourages vigorous debate of multiple options. View differing opinions as helpful. Take no votes or polls.

Strive for an option that most all can, at least to some extent, support. If no such option emerges, the leader makes the call. Close by saying, “This is what we are going to do and I need everyone’s commitment.”

Fast is better than Slow

Vendor:  “There will be about a two-week delay in the delivery of your supplies.”

Customer:  “It may be another four weeks before we get our revised specifications to you.”

Project Manager:  “We’ll need another three or four weeks to complete the project.”

A print company increased its business dramatically by promising and delivering product with much shorter lead times.   A manufacturer of auto accessories doubled its business in three years by shrinking delivery times.  A retail outlet increased profits and reduced labor costs by anticipating customer questions and resolving issues in their first communication.

News alert—speed adds value.

Surprisingly to many, it is often possible to be faster and better at the same time.  Look to increase speed in multiple ways–shorten meetings, schedule fewer meetings, time agenda items, create deadlines on everything, make the decision (If it does not work, change it.), reduce approval processes, ensure that people have the talent to perform their jobs, time every major task, complete lesser tasks quickly, assume your day ends at noon.

Make it a point to deliver some items ahead of schedule.  Money swirls down the drain when projects, decisions and deliveries take too long.  Contrary to the fable, fast is better than slow.

How Do You Frame Your Messages?

Avery and Jamison were both good at communicating their expectations.  However, they framed their messages quite differently.

Avery said things like, “The vice-president thinks we did a good job on the project.”  “The Human Resources’ (HR) policy requires. . .”  “The customer insists that we meet the agreed upon deadline.”  “The IT (information technology) staff thinks we should all be onboard with the new software system by the first of the month.”

When communicating similar information, Jamison said things like:  “I’m very proud of you, and the vice-president told me he really likes the project.”  “I support our HR policy which requires . . ., and here is why.”  “I want you to meet the customer’s deadline as we agreed.”  “I’m committed to being in full compliance with the new software requirements and I expect you to be also.”

Put simply, Jamison owned the messages and made them personal.  Avery treated the messages like a contaminated substance and served only as a conduit through which they passed.  Avery’s approach gives rise to the expression, “He passes the buck.”

Managers who personalize their messages generate more employee commitment, as expressed by a staff member who said, “I just didn’t want Jamison to be disappointed in me.”

Do Your Employees Know Exactly What You Think of Their Work?

Janice’s manager said to her, “You seem frustrated.  Are you OK?”

“I’m not always sure where I stand,” Janice responded.

“How so?”

“I turn in my work and I get another assignment.  If something is unacceptable, I get it back; but I don’t know if accepted work barely made the cutoff or set a new standard.”

“Janice, your work consistently meets and even exceeds my expectations.  I guess I assumed that you knew how much we value your contributions.”

I ask workshop participants, “How did management evaluate your work product last week?’’    Most have a general idea such as “OK, I guess,” or “not a good week.”  But few can respond with precise confidence.

I think most managers can increase employee engagement by giving frequent and precise feedback.  Look for opportunities daily or weekly to report to employees exactly what you think about their work.  Offer more than a simple “thank you.”  And avoid willy-nilly phrases like “good work,” or “not quite what I expected.”

Try cutting the deck a little deeper with more precision language such as, “top ten percent,” “that’s about a six,” “bottom half,” and the like.  All employees should know at all times how their work product is valued.

Team Harmony May Not Always Equal Commitment

“We have a very cohesive team,” a manager commented.

“How do you determine that?” I asked.

“Members respect each other and get along really well.  I think it is because I seek consensus when making tough decisions.”

I had a chance to visit with some of the members of this manager’s team and got differing opinions.

“He calls a meeting,” said one member.  “Two team members are pretty vocal.  They offer opinions and most everyone else just goes along.”

Another member commented, “I did offer a different view at one meeting but no one responded.  The conversation continued as if I had never said anything.”

Still another, “We are all very polite and friendly and we tend to go along with whatever the talkers want.  But I don’t think the team is really committed.”

Managers who strive for consensus decisions often send signals that conflict is undesirable.  But in reality, team members will have differing ideas about almost any issue.

Effective leaders understand that “disagreement” is the natural order of teams.  They strive for passionate debates among members and then select the option that best serves the mission.  If disagreeing members have a meaningful voice, they can still support the decision.

Today’s Younger Employees May Not Be That Different

“Today’s employees are too rebellious.”

“They don’t care how they look.”

“They are just too impatient.”

“The young ones are not willing to follow orders.”

While these expressions may sound like descriptions of today’s younger employees, they were written more than thirty-five years ago.

Can we say “enough already” with lamenting the short comings of today’s young workers?  Of course, the under-thirty-somethings miss more work, are impatient, seek meaningful work, and are not apt to blindly follow policies.

But these things were also true of younger employees twenty, forty, fifty and probably one hundred years ago.  Why do fifty-year-old employees behave differently than twenty-five-year-olds?  Can we say “maturity”?   Older employees, on average, have more experience, more responsibilities and hopefully more wisdom.

Some managers, mistakenly in my view, agonize over whether they should modify their policies, job assignments, and leadership approach to accommodate talented, younger employees.

If your current policies and leadership climate are not appropriate for educated, talented millennials, I say they are probably not right for wiser, experienced employees either.

Take a personal interest in all employees, be clear about what you expect, put them in positions where they can succeed, provide training and support and don’t worry about their ages.