Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Lights! Camera! Focus!

Ok, that's not how that saying goes. It's supposed to be "action." Of course, focus is a type of taking action, so I think that I am allowed to use the phrase as the title on technical merits as well as artistic license.

As a manager, you have two jobs to do: 1) your management job and 2) your "regular" work. Rarely does a manager JUST manage people, and a person who just does "regular" work and no managing is not actually a manager no matter what the label on the tin says.

No one tells you when you become a project manager or a people manager that these are two distinct jobs. No one tells you that if you're doing a good job at one, you're probably neglecting the other one at least a bit. Most employers assume you know what to do and leave you to do it (unless you're working in a less-than-happy environment with a micro-manager...this is not that blog post, though).

So how do you do it?

On the surface, it seems pretty sensible: come in and work. All work is work, right? Wrong. Like the features in your products, the work you do has different priorities. Unlike the features in your products, there is no general consensus about the priorities of your work; most people giving you work are usually unaware of work you've gotten from other people or that you have work of your own to do. They just know they need the TPS report by Monday and you're their source for that report. To them, the requests they make of you are, with very few exceptions, your highest priority.

As you know five items that are all marked "highest priority" basically means that the person going through the list of the five items is the one who really prioritizes those items...if you label all items at the same priority (even if it's the lowest possible), it sort of renders the concept of you setting the priority as moot because it really doesn't give information to the person who is looking for it in terms of priority. So that person makes up the priority themselves.

Note, that's an excellent argument to have with a boss, stakeholder, etc. who wants everything done now, at the highest priority. But this article is about staying focused and doing your two jobs.

This means that you are the arbiter of priority. Your boss, the CEO, the President of the United States may come to you and give you work to do...but at the end of the day, you're the one who does it (or passes it on to be done) and you are the one who decides the final order in which it is done, by doing it in that order.

For me, this sort of enforces list making habits. I need to know, somewhere, in a concise way, all the stuff I have to do. There are lots of organizational programs out there, even tasks programs available in Microsoft Office Outlook. Notepad and pencil also works. The gist is, write down everything you have to do for a set period of time, in whatever order you can remember it.

Next, go through the list and prioritize it. Use the information from the folks asking for the outcome of those tasks, but don't let it control the priority; a 12 hour task might be your boss's highest priority, but a 10 minute task might be his secondary priority. Knocking out the ten minute task could make you look like a hero before you start on the 12 hour one. 

My rule of thumb for writing down tasks in a list is that the task has to take more than 10 minutes or is easily forgettable (or both). Oftentimes, if its faster to do the task than write it on the list, I just do the task. Also don't forget to include tasks that you know you have to do but don't often consider tasks--things like going to a daily 15 min meeting or, if you take up more than 10 minutes a day doing it, checking your email. This means you also include all your management stuff as well as all your "regular" stuff.

Base your decisions on priority by:
  • Due date
  • Rank of person who gave it
  • Emphasis on priority as given by the person who gave it
  • What you'd like to get accomplished in this time frame (ie: finally knocking down that gigantic thing you haven't been able to get to for weeks or cranking out a piece of low hanging fruit so you look productive to your manager and his manager, or anything in between)
  • Relationship to your measurable performance goals
  • If you are blocking other people from being productive by not doing a specific piece of work (ie: not completing a code review that blocks someone from checking in code, for example)
  • Anything else you deem important criteria
 Note, I used "bullets" instead of numbers--the importance of any given item on the above list is determined by you regarding your own work. For example, you could receive a piece of work that is already beyond its due date because no one found it important enough to get to yet.

Now review the prioritized list and determine how much stuff there is managerial, and how much is "regular work." There are some days--for example, when you're working the week between Christmas and New Year's and everyone except you is on vacation--when doing managerial stuff is not as important as regular work. There will be other days where regular work is less important than managerial work, such as when you have to work with an employee to map out their paternity or maternity leave.

On the whole, however, you need to not only stay on top of your high priority issues, you need to balance your time between your regular work and your managerial duties. The exact balance of work 50%-50%, 25%-75%, etc., is determined by you, time of year, and anything else you can think of. But now is your time to review your tasks, their priorities, and make sure they measure up to the balance of the two jobs you have. This might alter the order of the things you do, and will likely affect their priority.

Then you do the work.

I do this a few times a week; when I start a new job, I do it at least once a day. Eventually I get into the rhythms of the day and need the list less often, but its always good to do it at least once a week to make sure that neither of your two jobs are suffering.

It's too easy to get distracted. Too easy to lose focus. Both jobs you do are very important. But its equally important that you stay focused, manage the work, and are ready for the camera and the lights at any time.

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