“As much as talent counts, effort counts twice.”
– Angela Duckworth
I know I’m preaching to the choir, but it bears repeating: companies right now are under a level of strain that is unprecedented. The volume of decisions that must be made each day can feel crushing, and we’re all navigating uncharted waters.
AND in many ways, COVID-19 is an opportunity for businesses to streamline in a way they may not have been able to otherwise.
It’s holding a magnifying glass to weaknesses that were invisible or unnoticed when business hummed along.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in our teams.
If a team was running like a well-oiled machine, they’ve probably adapted well and stayed productive. If a team had invisible flaws before, however, stress has raised them to the surface.
Now is the right time to take a good hard look at your organization and ask yourself if everyone really is pulling in the same direction.
PRODUCTIVITY IS DIFFERENT FROM BUSY-NESS
It’s easy to forget that being “busy” is not the same as being productive. Warren Buffett famously said, “Busy is the new stupid.” (I wish I’d said it first.)
Zen philosophy calls an overly busy mind the monkey mind.
Monkey mind is busy, but it’s far from productive. It spends too much time jumping from thought to thought, or task to task. It never lingers on just one thought long enough to get anything of substance done.
This is where my advice veers from what you normally see in articles on “productivity hacks”—I’m much more focused on impact and quality of output than just cramming as much into your day as possible … or checking as many items off your list as you can.
I’d much rather you focus on why certain tasks are on your list in the first place.
I often get calls from clients who worry because they aren’t getting everything done, and the unfinished tasks keep piling up. Worrying only increases your stress and makes matters worse.
Worrying is useless. Planning is essential.
What MUST be done because it’s truly necessary, or in alignment with your company’s wildly important goals? Identify those things, and make sure they’re widely understood to be the most important.
Of the tasks that must be done, how many must YOU do? And how many could be delegated to your team?
If there’s more work to be done than is humanly possible, there’s simply too much work.
No productivity hack is going to fix that.
THE PARETO PRINCIPLE
If you’re not familiar with Vilfredo Pareto by name, you almost certainly know his work. He’s responsible for the 80/20 rule.
The basic idea is that 80% of your results come from just 20% of your actions. This principle can be extrapolated in all kinds of ways. 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your customers. 80% of your problems come from 20% of your team members.
(Heck—80% of the value came from 20% of the original draft of this article, so I cut a lot of it out.)
The key is knowing WHICH 20% is having the effect.
TASKS FIRST, THEN PERFORMANCE
Where tasks are the “what” your team does, performance is the “how well” they perform those tasks.
When working to focus and streamline your team’s output, first turn your attention to the tasks that need to get done, regardless of who might be doing them.
Keep the Pareto principle in mind when you’re auditing your team’s tasks to pick out the ones that are essential. Train your eye to find the 20% of tasks that have the most impact.
Then, you can also apply the 80/20 rule to evaluate your team’s performance. This way, you keep your analysis “in the math” and avoid falling prey to any stories that would fracture your accurate and dispassionate judgment.
Is there one employee who’s handling 80% of the work in an area who could use some support? Are 80% of team conflicts and tensions coming from 20% of your employees? (Depending on your size, this could even be a single person.)
THE MOST DIRECT ROUTE ISN’T ALWAYS THE EASIEST
When it comes to streamlining operations, look for the path that creates the least friction.
This is not always the easiest path.
To be clear, the simplest, most direct route from Point A to Point B may or may not “feel” easy.
But it does create the least amount of drag or friction as you’re navigating it.
This is most critical when time is your biggest variable you need to solve for.
The most direct path over the Alps may not be the easiest but if time is of the essence, it’s the route you take.
If you have more time and want the journey to be easier, then you can afford a few detours and less steep inclines.
CLEAR OUT THE CLUTTER
Once the path is understood, you can focus on task clutter.
Are there any tasks being performed that just don’t make sense for the person doing them, or for their job description?
What about the tasks that NO ONE actually needs to be doing?
You may have passed tasks along to someone because that’s just the way things have always been done. Their predecessor did it, so now they’re doing it—whether or not that responsibility fits the role.
This kind of thing happens ALL THE TIME in startups.
In the beginning, it’s not efficient to hire a dedicated employee to perform small tasks (updating help center articles, for instance). So different people fill in over time, and eventually someone on the Customer Success team might become “the person” who updates those articles.
But are they the right person to be doing that task? Or are you allowing these kinds of accidents to determine how your team spends their time?
These little nonsensical tasks here and there might seem insignificant. But over time, they create inefficiencies that compound exponentially.
Imagine a sailboat. Hundreds of tiny course corrections over time make the difference between arriving safely at your destination, and drifting miles off course.
The Organizational Triangle® applies in business the same way it does at home. Keep like with like. Don’t allow similar tasks to be scattered around out of habit. Be intentional.
Identify those tasks that no one needs to do, and throw them away.
If someone is overwhelmed, you need to look at why.
Is it too much work for anyone to do, or just this team member?
If essential tasks can be redistributed, don’t make the same unconscious mistake outlined above and just hand them to the next warm body.
Give these tasks to people who have the right skill set for the tasks AND who can do them in addition to what they are already committed to.
If that isn’t possible, you have a bigger problem.
RIGHT BUTTS, RIGHT SEATS
When you know how work needs to flow to be efficient and effective AND the tasks that are required for that to happen over and over again allow for current work loads and will stand up to scaling activities, then you know your operations are sound.
So if there is a problem, it’s a people problem.
And that means you need to decide whether you have the right people on your team.
And if you do have the right people, are they in the right roles?
This is what they mean by saying ‘having the right butts in the right seats on the bus’—there’s no literal bus …
You could have a super talented team doing things they suck at.
In which case, they’re unhappy AND underutilized.
Let them pivot into work they love AND do well and they will be unstoppable.
Maybe you have a strong team with a few weak links?
If so, you need to figure out if you just need to move those weak players into new positions OR if they don’t fit the culture and can’t execute in the ways you (and the company) need them to.
And when you’ve streamlined and removed all unnecessary tasks, the answer to this becomes clearer and clearer.
When essential work is understood by everyone and you’re all traveling in the same direction without much drag or resistance, the fun begins.
Because now you get to get better at what you’re doing.
You can grow organically and sustain that growth.
The point is, you won’t be able to make any of these key decisions about hiring and firing until you’ve identified the work that must get done.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Teamwork is make-or-break important right now. Prioritize auditing your team and their task list closely.
Determine if all the tasks are essential AND if the team you have in place makes sense for where you are and where you’re headed.
You’re evaluating if the tasks you’re working on align with your values and support your business goals.
And evaluating if your current team can support both your short-term and long-term goals.
If not, trim the tasks first and then, it may be time for some hard decisions.
Pay attention so that unimportant tasks don’t creep in and steal your time—they often present as new initiatives or programs but are really distractions borne out of boredom or fear.
If staying productive while working from home is an issue for your team, check out my recommendations for staying focused while working remotely.
Remember that hundreds of tiny micro-corrections, over time, will yield incredible results.
Here at AMI, we coach businesses every day that are struggling with how to optimize their teams for peak performance.
If you’re ready for a major organizational change, we can help. Click here to schedule a free strategy call with our COO, Kevin Smith.
We’ve helped dozens of businesses get back on track and produce better than ever, and we’d love to do the same for yours.