It may be helpful to consider the improv-comedy tenet of always responding to a fellow performer’s actions and ideas with a “Yes, and ...” attitude. Never reject. Always embrace and then pivot the action in a direction you like better.
In such a situation, one could say: “Sure, I can do that — do you want me prioritize it over this other assignment? Because it may not be possible to do both on the current deadlines.” Or maybe the pivot is different: You’re willing to perform the task, but so-and-so may have the flexibility to get it done faster. The point is to be clear about your positive attitude — and to offer a realistic picture of potential alternatives.
Keep that attitude in mind as you move forward. Apart from proactively signaling what you’ve mentioned here — that you’re learning a lot, and want to be a team player — you might want to sit down with the director to clear the air. Emphasize that this was a mere communication blunder and that it doesn’t reflect your willingness and ability to help the department. You might even ask for advice about the best way to handle competing deadlines in this agency. Either way, minimize discussion of being overworked. It sounds as if that’s already a departmentwide problem. Stress that you want to help solve it.
When Good Intentions Go Bad
I volunteer quite a bit for my children’s schools, our house of worship and our community. So I work with dozens of volunteers. We all give our time in the name of contributing to the greater good, and we understand that we are often amateurs taking on roles as event planners, treasurers, fund-raisers, historians, etc.
That said, every once in a while there are volunteers who do more harm than good. There are many variations on how this can happen — for example, by actually losing money on fund-raisers, or inciting too much drama. How do you best “fire” a volunteer with a long history of chronic issues?
AGOURA HILLS, CALIF.
It is a lovely thing to volunteer. And thus it is particularly tricky to deal with a bad volunteer; it seems churlish to punish someone for a donation of time and effort. But schools, community groups and charitable programs don’t exist for the purpose of serving volunteers. It’s the other way around. And a problem volunteer can have disastrous consequences. If the organizer of a money-losing fund-raiser causes other, competent volunteers to quit, the whole enterprise can be undermined.
So, unpleasant as it may be, proceed as if this were any other organization. First, ensure that there is relative consensus about this person among the broader group. Then consider whether this person has other skills that could be genuinely useful. If it’s purely a personality problem, discuss what can be done to minimize it: Maybe the drama inciter works better with some people than others. And maybe he or she has a particular grievance (an overlooked achievement? a perceived slight?) that could be addressed.
You may want to present the results in the context of a general set of changes, rather than singling out the individual. In other words: “It’s a good time to rotate responsibilities,” as opposed to, “Your bake sale was a catastrophe.” If the person resists, and if old problems persist or new ones emerge, be more direct. Again making it clear that this is a group consensus, point out the issues, note the attempted resolutions and offer this virtuous troublemaker the choice to shape up, or find another cause.
You should proceed in a more deliberate and humane way than the business world sometimes allows. But if none of the above work, you’ll end up in the same place as any other enterprise that’s interested in having a future: The person has to be told that his or her services, while appreciated, are no longer required.Continue reading the main story
Prioritizing project work is a challenge for project teams across many industries. While shifting priorities are a natural part of working life, when you don’t prioritize work you can lay havoc to all your team’s projects and initiatives, and even drain team morale.
Effective prioritization is as much an art as a science. Here are some best practices for prioritizing work for your project team.
1. Make the Project Schedule Visible to Everyone
Running a project team without using a schedule that’s accessible by everyone is a sure-fire way to set your team up for problems. At some point during a project an executive is likely to make a demand that shifts priorities; or, another team’s work is delayed and that has a ripple effect. This new information doesn’t always disperse itself through the entire team, so you have some individuals working on either a shelved task, or yesterday’s priority.
To keep team members updated on their top priorities every day, use a collaborative project and work management tool that lets everyone from individuals to managers to stakeholders have unlimited visibility into the project schedule and all the associated work in progress.
2. Create a Project Backlog
A great way to prioritize team work is to use the project backlog concept from Agile software development. This lets you capture all of your project tasks before you assign priorities to team members. A great way to put this into play, is to use a work management application that includes a folder for your backlog tasks; or, create your own team folder for backlog tasks yourself.
The project backlog concept can be an important tool to show management all of the work that falls under your team’s responsibility that still needs prioritization.
3. Manage Your Team for the Long and Short Game
I once worked for a manager prone to distraction because he was eager to please his managers and show off to his office crush. To display his industriousness, he responded to incoming work requests by pulling the whole team off ongoing work, despite looming deadlines. If he used a project schedule, he would have realized the team was almost evenly spread between longer term projects and short-term work.
Instead of always defaulting to all hands on deck, this manager could have pulled a team member or two from a project where the new priority wouldn’t compromise the whole team’s deadlines. Managing the short and the long game means effectively prioritizing work on longer ongoing projects, as well as the shorter projects that will occur as well.
4. Know Your Business
The manager from the preceding point #3 had a few more shortcomings: He didn’t understand the subject matter, the technology or the processes underlying his team’s projects. Further complicating matters, he would take work management advice from his office crush, someone who knew even less than he did about the team’s work. This combination really messed with the team’s priorities.
When you know your business, you’re in a much better position to prioritize project work. Here are some ways to learn more about your business, and continually stay on top of trends:
- Read widely in your field and industry.
- Pursue continuing education.
- Ask each team member about the work being done.
- Learn what matters to your manager, other stakeholders and customers.
When you know the business, and understand how your team’s work fits in to a larger vision, you’ll be able to set the right priorities for your team.
5. Give Project Tasks a Finish Date
Most organizations are kept in business by meeting deadlines and delivery dates, especially manufacturing companies. When team members receive a task that has a deadline attached to it, they’re much more inclined to start that over another one without a finish date. That’s why best laid project plans always include deadlines or finish dates assigned to every task that makes up the project. The dates alone can help both management and team members prioritize their work. And if priorities still aren’t clear, or there are too many overlapping dates, this spurs conversations about project priority and what work most matters to move forward.
6. Add Buffers: Account for Uncertainty in Your Schedule
You can be sure that something unexpected will occur during the course of your project—a stakeholder request, a delay, resource issue, you name it. When you work in an environment that’s especially notorious for shifting priorities, some project or team managers will build in a buffer of time to plans. For example, a buffer could be a few hours or days added to a review period. You can remove a few hours from the buffer without disrupting project delivery while still meeting new priorities.
Another way to do this is to use a project management tool that accounts for uncertainty by letting you make ranged estimates for work and consider best case/worst case scenarios, rather than a single-point deadline. This way the buffer is automatically built in to the schedule.
7. Learn How to Predict Incoming Priority Shifts
I once had a project lead who was able to create a little oasis of productivity and rationality in what was otherwise a dysfunctional organization. His secret was that he could tell when a priority might shift before it even happened.
He did this by becoming a student of project failure and dysfunction; he could identify the exact project milestones where the process might break down and priorities would change.
He took a proactive stance: Whenever he saw a possibility where a priority would shift, he adjusted team priorities and schedules accordingly. The lesson I learned was to always try to be aware of all parts of the project, not just my own responsibilities. The issues that affect your team’s priorities usually begin upstream.
8. Draw the Line between Urgent and Important Tasks
Managing the long and short game also means balancing priorities on urgent and important tasks, and knowing when to draw the line.
Drawing the line means:
- Urgent tasks get immediate attention based on business-critical factors like winning new business and keeping existing business. Getting a check from a customer as the result is often the big decider with urgent tasks for many organizations.
- Important tasks receive ongoing attention, and are only put on hold when an urgent task truly requires all hands on deck. Important tasks support the projects that together keep the business going, so don’t undervalue their priorities.
When a new work request comes in, ask yourself if it falls into Urgent or Important task buckets. If you’re not sure, use it as an opportunity to have a conversation clarifier around what the larger goal is, and structure your priorities from there. You don’t want to be the person always saying “yes” to an incoming “urgent task.” Because as we all know, not every piece of work is business-critical—no matter how much it might feel like it is.
Be a Proactive Manager of Priorities
Your team wants to be working on the right priorities! They want to know that the work they’re doing is the right work to move the business forward, no matter how often priorities change. As a project manager or team leader, it’s up to you to stay proactive in directing the undulations of the team’s priorities. Make sure your team has the tools and schedule access they need to know what their priorities are; get to know what your team is doing, what individuals need, and what your stakeholders are expecting from you.
If you manage priorities effectively, not only will you increase productivity, you’ll improve your team’s morale. Everyone wants to do work that really makes a difference!
Are your team’s priorities supported by a solid project management process? Find out! Take ourProject Management Health Check, a 9-question multiple-choice assessment of your project management process.
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