Prioritize Unlocking Work

This article is the third in the series, Making Things Happen. In this series, we are exploring the habits and priorities that help high-performing managers and executives create unique momentum, advance their key metrics, and lead projects across the finish line again and again. Last week, we explored the workload many leaders face and a few skills and practices for making the most of your personal productivity with the limited time you have each day. 

This week, the focus is on how leaders can enable great team productivity by prioritizing what I’ll term “unlocking work.” 

Priorities and Time Management 

Getting lots of things done is one one side of the time management equation. Getting the right things done is the other. The challenge for most professionals however is determining what the right things are, and then executing on their plans despite interruptions, last-minute deadlines, and the sheer volume of their to-do lists. 

Unfortunately, much of the available information on time management and prioritization at the personal level is very generalized. For example, though very helpful for managing personal productivity, the Covey Time Management Matrix encourages professionals to consider tasks in terms of urgency and importance. The goal is to prioritize appropriately, and stay effective by dedicating focused time on “proactive work,” relationship building, learning, creating thinking, and so on that is important but not yet urgent. Similarly, David Allen’s five-step approach to Getting Things Done—capture, clarify, organize, reflect, engage—is another helpful approach to managing to-do’s and tasks. 

From personal experience, I can say both these approaches are excellent methods for streamlining personal productivity and moving things through your task lists efficiently. However, both fall short of explaining the nuances of how to prioritize as a manager for team efficiency.

Alternatively, many of the works written for an audience of business executives is focused on the prioritization of strategic or organizational issues.  For example, in an article for the MIT Sloan Management Review, contributing editor Leslie Brokaw provided a number of excellent insights for executives in managing personal and organizational resources to choose the right projects for the business. While the article offered excellent pointers for selecting the right strategic projects, it did not delve into the specifics of making them happen over the long term. 

A recent article in the McKinsey Organization Blog examined the issue of executive and leadership productivity, noting that effective leadership teams could be at the core of significant outcomes across an organization. Summarizing research into the behaviors of 37 organizations’ leadership teams, authors Natasha Bergeron, Aaron De Smet, and Liesje Meijknecht explained that executive teams’ behaviors related to organization, alignment, execution, and renewal was essential to achieving their collective goals. However, the goals at the focus of the research were still organization-level goals and large scale change initiatives. 

Though important works for professionals and executives, many of the resources on time management and professional effectiveness leave a glaring gap: how to prioritize those things that enable your employees’ productivity and team momentum. 

Do Your Employees Have to Manage You? 

The problem of team productivity is an often-discussed issue however. In fact, resources on how employees can work around their controlling or unproductive bosses are widely available and hugely popular.

For example, a 2017 study by Capita Workforce Management Solutions into productivity in the UK found that more than two-thirds of employees will admit to wasting at least an hour a day at work. Moreover, while nine out of ten managers reported active efforts to motivate their employees, nearly 40% of workers stated their organizations did not have any real ways of motivating them. Worse, 23% of employees participating in the study cited bad management as a cause of poor productivity, and 25% of managers agreed. 

In 2015, the Harvard Business Review ran a special series on managing up, featuring articles with advice for employees needing to work around their “overextended, overwhelmed, or downright incompetent” leaders. The series covered problems for employees ranging from brand new bosses and long-distance managers, to all-knowing, insecure, and indecisive leaders, hands-off leaders, and even the “manager who isn’t as smart as you.” The series proved wildly popular, and the theme has continued into regular articles such as the January 2020 article, How to Work for a Cowardly Boss, and the February 2020 piece, How to Work with a Leader Who Doesn’t Care About Details.

Inspired by works from executive assistants for high-ranking executives, the idea of “managing up” was originally intended as a positive approach to influencing leaders: anticipating needs, communicating effectively, and becoming a resource for solving problems. In one of the original works on the topic, Rosanne Badowski—longtime executive assistant to GE CEO Jack Welch—couched the idea as a positive approach to prioritizing, helpfully sifting information and correspondence, “multitasking at warp speed,” and exhibiting grace under fire to keep her boss on track. 

Over time however, the idea of managing up has taken on an alternate meaning, referring to how employees can struggle forward in spite of their overworked or ineffective (even if well-intended) managers. The volume of information on the topic inspires an important point for every manager to reflect on: are there times my employees have to manage me?  Do they have to achieve their work in spite of me? Are there specific things I can do to remove barriers and enable forward progress  for my team? 

Unlocking Work

Given the competing demands on your time as a manager, when you only have time to tackle a few things on your to-do list, prioritize those things that remove barriers or “unlock work” for others. Unlocking work might be the quick review that unlocks the project that’s held up waiting for an approval from you. It might be the phone call that kicks off a series of tasks for one of your employees.  It might be the draft review that gets your team started on revisions well in advance of the big client meeting. 

Unlocking work can be difficult to discern in the depth of your to-do lists however.  The following are a series of questions to consider as you’re prioritizing how you will spend your time and focus at any given point. 

Where are people waiting on me for a decision, cue, or direction? In one of his hallmark works,The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker cautioned managers that a failure to proactively prioritize and make intentional decisions would inevitably lead to sacrifices of time, quality, and opportunities. This failure can also lead to a lack of ownership, slowed productivity, and hampered team effectiveness. Prioritizing tasks related to decisions or direction enables employee action, creates forward progress and productivity, and allows team members to stay engaged in the momentum of their work.  

What is on my list that should be delegated? In a close and critical review of your to-do list, are there items that don’t belong? Are there tasks or projects that are opportunities for development for someone on your team? Dartmouth professor and director of the Tuck Center of Leadership Sydney Finkelstein explains that the most effective leaders, or Superbosses, regularly practice hands-on delegation. They actively look for opportunities to match their people with the next great challenge. If done properly, the result of this style of delegation generally includes team wins and learning as well as individual employee growth, engagement, and ownership. 

What road blocks are holding things up? Are there challenges your employees are facing that they don’t have the influence or resources to overcome? As much as we want to facilitate wise empowerment and avoid creating learned helplessness, there are times when you should step in and get things moving again. For example, do you have a prickly client who is non-responsive to your employees, but a call or email from you will jump-start a project again? Is there an information gap you can help address or a key resource shortfall you can tackle to obliterate the obstacles your employees constantly have to work around? 

Does someone need essential feedback? In many cases, employee inaction is not the result of malice or even laziness: they just don’t know any different. Sometimes employees simply aren’t aware their lack of progress or productivity is an issue. Management coach Bruce Tulgan explains that “without clear expectations, accountability means nothing.” Time managers can spend having much-needed but difficult conversations and clarifying expectations can unlock new work or higher levels of productivity, often simply by awakening employees to new possibilities, structures, or pathways to getting things done.

Where can I create renewed focus? Sometimes in the morass of tasks, competing priorities, busywork, their own personal lives, team dynamics, and any number of other demands on their time and focus, employees’ focus can drift away from the key goals you care most about. In my own dissertation research, I interviewed executives who had led performance excellence transformations in their organizations, leapfrogging key metrics from mediocre into sector leadership. One CEO reported feeling like a cheerleader throughout the process, constantly working to create alignment by tirelessly repeating goals and asking questions to create “laser focus” at all levels of his different teams and departments. Are there tasks on your list (or that should be put on your list) that relate to highlighting, celebrating, or emphasizing focus on the big goals for your team? 

The Manager as a Catalyst 

The most effective leader-managers are those that serve as catalysts for change, learning, and productivity for their teams. They continuously advocate for the information, resources, and influence their teams need to create key outcomes and find strategic opportunities. They consistently prioritize the tasks and projects that unlock work (and success) for their employees. 

How will you go about unlocking work for your employees this week?  Leave a comment below with your thoughts and ideas! 


Image by MasterTux from Pixabay

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, meaning that at no cost to you, I may earn a small commission if you click a link and make a purchase.