How might I be more effective when helping others be more productive?
May 18, 2022 8:52 AM   Subscribe

I believe a basic necessity for an organization is to understand how they are performing, and seek to improve their performance to counteract the basic attrition of the world. I've sold many bosses on this, but have had very low success in implementing it. How can I help organizations be more effective?

Here is how I think any organization of any size should be managed:

1. a strategy that clarifies the fundamental value proposition. The service we provide, and what we need to do to provide that service.

2. A roadmap that clarifies our priority projects. What do we need to accomplish or deliver, either in terms of work for our clients or internal development work, in order to provide our services. This roadmap can also be used to manage team workload - how much additional work can we take on, and when?

3. A project plan, showing all the tasks that need to be accomplished, when, and by whom, in order to be successful.

4. A weekly progress update, showing each project, the tasks that were completed last week, the tasks that need to be completed this week, and any conflicts, questions, issues, or struggles that should be supported by others on the team.

5. Competent note-taking, highlighting issues identified, assigned tasks and due dates, messaging that needs to be sent, events that need to be scheduled or attended. And, a periodic combing through of notes to identify what notes need to turn into tasks, and be incorporated into project plans.

6. A periodic brain dump, consisting of cleaning out every random "oh, I also should do XYZ" and getting it into the project plan and task list.

I enjoy the weekly check in with my supervisors, because it helps me be confident that I am doing the right thing in order to help myself and the organization be effective, and it makes me feel confident that my supervisor understands the quantity and quality of my work and has the opportunity to maximize my performance.

9 times out of 10, I prepare for my weekly check ins by preparing a list of each responsibility I have been assigned, the critical tasks that I am prioritizing and their status, as well as any notes about low-priority work that is not being accomplished.

I really think this is pretty basic. It seems so basic to me, and yet, I just don't feel like I've had a shining example of success:

Story one: the new team leader hires me and asks me to make a dashboard for the team. I work with the team to understand their workload, create a spreadsheet that shows each project with timelines, and the boss tells everyone to log into the spreadsheet and add updates before each weekly standup. No one does, so the boss tells me to go to them each week to get their updates. A few people do, but most folks say they can't really explain the status, and everything depends on upcoming meetings with other departments. Eventually, the boss stops asking me to work on the project.

Story two: the new team leader hires me, and asks me to help standardize the development process across the team. I do so, to much grumbling by both company veterans and new (but highly experienced) staff, who all say "it just won't work." The boss puts her weight behind the new process, which she helped design, and tells folks to make it work. They don't. Monday morning standups are led poorly by this boss, and projects are managed secretly by consultants who are afraid they will be punished for poor client feedback. They don't trust the new process will improve their work, and the boss doesn't trust in their capabilities to deliver.

Story three: I form a volunteer work organization to support LGBTQ coworkers in the workplace. we create a clear strategy of what we want the group to deliver, with key deliverables in the form of blog posts, interviews, presentations, and activities. We assign responsibility to various members of the volunteer organization, but those responsible rarely deliver or work on their projects. Participation starts to dwindle, eventually I transition leadership to another member and quit.

Story four: I join a neighborhood association board - not a group of neighbors who complain about lawn care, but a group that wants to make an impact in segregation, gentrification, community safety, and other progressive issues. I host a fantastic strategy session, where we clarify that there are basically two main objectives for the organization, and there is a short list of high-impact activities we could accomplish to start to move the needle. However, the other board members do not follow through on their commitments to lead those activities, instead engaging in "decision" conversations about whatever the topic of the day is - "we need to argue about if we should send a letter to the mayor on this recent political issue or not."

Story five: the neighborhood association hires an executive director. I clarify for her very clearly that she needs to complete tasks that support projects that fulfill our strategy. She does not fill out the spreadsheet, she does not prepare project summaries for meetings, she does not prioritize her work at the beginning of the week.

Story six: I am hired to provide 4-hours a week of project management services to a local self-employed magazine producer. His job is to convince local organizations and nonprofits to provide funds so the magazine can hire a journalist to provide issue-specific investigative reporting. He has 10,000 irons in the fire, and can't seem to get through the week. Very very talkative, probably struggling with ADHD more than he realizes (we've discussed this). I help him create a Kanban board, showing the status of each potential client, each potential story, and moving it through the stages of acquiring a contract. He did not work to prioritize his projects, putting everything as "top priority" and overwhelming himself. After almost a year of working for him, I am rarely asked to advise on project management, and now mostly draft up emails and do research for him.

Story seven: I am hired by a local housing consultant as his first employee, to do research and consulting, and eventually to take on the role of Chief of Staff once he gets the contracts he's working towards and staffs up. I host a strategy workshop with him, we identify a few priority projects, and assign tasks. He doesn't really focus on the tasks, and isn't really strict about how I spend my time. Lately, I've had to reduce my hours because the contracts he had expected to win were put on hold. I'm often surprised by news from him about work that is not happening, that has not been prioritized in our list.

Story eight: personal life. There are a lot of things I want to accomplish and do with my life. I have lists of them, I have it on a white board. But there is always some reason to not do them. I am too tired to build this, too poor to travel there, too distracted to meditate and journal.

Is there a common thread in these stories? Why are these people not working towards what they say they prioritize, what they have staked the success of their team, business, or personal life on? I've got all the tools I need to *manage* projects - but it seems so rare that people actually do the work to move projects forward. How come? Am I just being hired by people who don't realize that it's impossible? Is it the case that change only comes from within, and there's no point hiring someone to try to help improve performance? Is the idea of a team working like a well-oiled machine just fantasies, with no real teams working like that? Or, is it very standard in some industries and I am just in the wrong industry? Or, is it something about capitalism, where we all are vastly overpaid with not nearly enough to do, and project management forces accountability and punishment?

Or maybe it's that the motivation is missing? I've always had an incredibly strong internal motivation to overcome challenges so as to ward off "the bad thing" from happening - I'm quite a perfectionist and an optimist, which is a combination that makes me demand that we work today to achieve the best possible tomorrow.

So, what do you think? I'd love any advice or suggestions on how I might be thinking about things wrong, or how I might be working with the wrong people (with advice for how to find the right people), or other frameworks I could learn about and try to master.
posted by rebent to Work & Money (35 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Or, is it something about capitalism, where we all are vastly overpaid with not nearly enough to do, and project management forces accountability and punishment?

Lol...what? I don't know what it is you're describing but "vastly overpaid with nothing to do" doesn't sound like any capitalism I've ever been a part of. Do you only work with insanely rich people? Flip that shit around to describe almost every person in capitalism ever.

The common thread in all your stories is they're about work, which people don't like, my dude! Work sucks, it's hard, it's boring, and dashboards are boring and annoying, and bosses are boring and annoying, and nobody actually CARES what their company does, we just have to pretend to care so they'll keep letting us exist and eat food.

Story eight: personal life. There are a lot of things I want to accomplish and do with my life. I have lists of them, I have it on a white board. But there is always some reason to not do them. I am too tired to build this, too poor to travel there, too distracted to meditate and journal.

Yeah, hi, you and literally everyone else! Hello! The same things that prevent you from achieving your priorities are the things that prevent all those other folks from achieving theirs. So step one is implementing empathy: if you, clearly the world's most organized and driven human (seriously, I have never thought about anything, in my entire life, as much as you think about your various jobs), cannot do the things you wish, why do you think anyone else can? So start by extending grace to yourself and everyone else, and then see what happens from there.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:22 AM on May 18, 2022 [22 favorites]

I think reflecting on your personal story (8) will go a long way to clarify how ideals and real life don't really go hand-in-hand. Multiply that by the order of magnitude of an organization. Organizational reform is hard work at any level especially when it's a combination of volunteer work or activism. (Also, being in similar line of work my personal opinion is NGOs could stand to use people more interested in filing and administration but then they won't be doing activism). I'm sure there are more considered and wiser answers incoming but I'll just begin by asking if you've considered trying to craft a strategy or plan that actually acknowledges how people in that organisation works and as much as possible either work with that established process/culture or remove the friction of moving to a new system as much as possible? Adjusting for the individuals who you worked with/for, have you considered tailoring your advice for what they were actually interested in, regardless what's objectively better.

(That exec director otoh i feel need more info. If they're not compelled to report to you directly then it's really hard to make a case as to why they need to follow your advised task list)
posted by cendawanita at 9:23 AM on May 18, 2022

1) People are not machines. It's a myth we've been sold by capitalism and industrialism that somehow, if we just manage right, or eat right or whatever in the most moral/efficient way, then we could be 100% productive all the time.

2) Just look at your Story Eight. You kind of answered your own question. Too tired, too distracted, too poor, too many demands from other areas of their lives, etc. Those are all reasons people don't do things at their jobs.

The thing about capitalism is the opposite of what you said, imo. With the exception of CEOs, we are all vastly underpaid with way too much to do.

Re: motivation, there are a lot of different reasons folks are motivated. You might find some insights in Gretchen Rubin's Four Tendencies. Perhaps you are an Obliger, and that's why you can't do your own personal projects--no external force that you feel accountable to.

There's also something to be said about how difficult it is to prioritize, or about how an organization's priorities might be different from your own or your boss's priorities, etc. but I don't have a fully formed thought about it other than that.
posted by purple_bird at 9:26 AM on May 18, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I think one of the big missing pieces in all the scenarios is real, consequence-producing accountability. The people at the top are not serious about applying consequences for not following the new plan, and without that, the people under them quickly figure out that they don't actually have to comply.

I did some reading a while back on TPS (Toyota Production System) which is similar to Lean/Six Sigma. The most memorable thing I gleaned from this was that it works well in Japan because the people at the top are absolutely committed to the system, as written, and compliance is compulsory. Just from what I've seen in my own company, upper management thinks TPS is a good thing and it has been implemented here and there, but when people inevitably tire of following the strict process and backslide into their old, comfortable ways of doing things, there are no real consequences or callouts. So it's turned into mostly back-sliding across the board.

I'm not sure what, if anything, could be done to change this. If there is not the passion and commitment from the top down, you're only likely to get buy-in from the few people who naturally prefer to work in a more orderly, directed way. Everyone else is only going to go as far as they are forced or motivated to go.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:26 AM on May 18, 2022 [7 favorites]

The problem here is that you're working with humans. We may say that we want change and efficiencies, but our actions say otherwise. My thought on most of your scenarios is that maybe you're implementing too much change too quickly. Start with small changes to get buy-in from folks. If they can see that these small changes are helpful, they might be on board with other changes. Also work on getting their input so it feels like a group decision, not just you dictating changes.
posted by hydra77 at 9:26 AM on May 18, 2022 [7 favorites]

I'm a worker, no project management specialist, but tl,dr your approach is sounding one-size-fits-all and top-down, to me, rather than being built by listening to specific needs. If you think this might be relevant to some of what you're experiencing (you have a variety of different cases I would say), some angles --

What outcomes does a specific organization need to achieve, from your management process change? Are they slipping schedules due to critical-path fumbles? Making small errors that just shouldn't happen? Pursuing dead strategies for months? The boss has some knowledge here, but listen to everybody.

How is an organization functioning today, and how could that go better? Here the boss is not a reliable source. How do the problems they have align with the problems you're looking to solve?

How do people working here think your process will work for them, in costs and benefits? When they say "everything depends on upcoming meetings with other departments", do you understand why, what their work is? How does this infirm your prescribed prices?
posted by away for regrooving at 9:33 AM on May 18, 2022 [9 favorites]

I've always had an incredibly strong internal motivation to overcome challenges so as to ward off "the bad thing" from happening

Lots of other good comments here, but consider this one. Is this good? It doesn't sound good to me! What bad things do you fear? Do you fear them due to random/can't-explain-it reasons, a history of bad things happening to you personally, the standard American "two paychecks from homelessness" situation, witnessing bad things happen to people in your life, etc?

I mean, maybe if everyone in these organizations was sufficiently afraid of bad things happening if they didn't follow productivity systems then they would follow the productivity systems, but that's a hell of a way to live. "If I don't adopt this new inconvenient productivity booster, a Bad Thing will happen" seems undesirable to me. (At my job, we had some process changes that were designed to create better reporting...and they create a lot more work for staff plus a lot more one-off process situations which create errors that have to be fixed, etc. At the end of the year, reports are finer-grained, but the work is harder day to day - my point being that "productivity" has a lot of meanings and what benefits the org may make things a lot harder for the individual.)

People who are employed and who do not make the rules are incentivized by the rules - either to change their work or to leave. If the boss doesn't work with you to create requirements that are both reasonable and genuinely required, no one is going to change their process because they are already working a lot.
posted by Frowner at 9:37 AM on May 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

I'm in a management position and I really do not mean this to be rude, but my first thought at reading your post was "wow, if I was in a manager and someone came into my organization and went about things this way, I would be both exhausted and very annoyed."

I think some of the other posters have touched on why I'm feeling that way. First, you have identified and seem very committed to your own personal beliefs without having much interest in 1) how each of these specific organizations/groups work or 2) how the human beings that you are asking to do these things feel about them. Management – including increasing productivity, efficiency, etc. – is not a one-size-fits-all, top-down thing. It's about listening and learning for awhile, identifying where the problems are, and coming up with tailored solutions for each that everyone buys into. You will never be successful with improving processes by foisting them upon people without any interest or consideration into how they feel.

Second, and again, I really do not mean this to be about you personally, but the overall tone that I'm reading in your post is "I'm the absolute best at all of this and I alone can fix these problems." Maybe it's just this particular post or maybe I'm reading this wrong altogether, but if this is the attitude that the folks that you're working with are getting, it could explain why things don't ultimately work out. A lot of your post mentions things that you did and then asked people to start doing accordingly, but again, I see very little listening and discussion here. I never ask my team members to start a new process or approach without at the very least asking some basic questions like: "What do you think about doing it this way? Does it make sense? Is there anything I'm missing here? Is this going to make things easier or harder for you, and is that okay?"

Third, and I think this ties into the first two points and others have mentioned it too: humans are humans. People generally aren't just "lazy" when they don't fill out a form that you want them to or they forget to update a dashboard. They're dealing with competing priorities, personal lives, a worldwide pandemic, etc. You can't just give up and walk away when someone isn't doing what they should be doing, and you also can't just badger them in the hopes that they'll start doing it. You need to find out where the blocker is and remove it. It may be that they think it's a low priority, but it's not. It may be that they find the form difficult to understand. It may be that they don't understand why it's important but once they do, they'll be more likely to do it. All of these are things you cannot know without asking!

This is all to say that if any of us have any chance at making an organization run more smoothly, it will only ever happen if what we do is fully collaborative and inclusive.
posted by anotheraccount at 9:48 AM on May 18, 2022 [22 favorites]

As close as I can find a theme amongst all the examples, I think it's "incentivization". People whom you need to do things are not sufficiently incentivized to do those things. Incentivization varies from person to person, which adds another complication. This applies to even your personal life - you want to accomplish a lot, but you're not? Why not? Because when push comes to shove, you find other things you'd rather do instead of working on those goals. Chilling on the couch instead of doing anything else has some immediate benefits and gratification when you're tired and stressed, even when you know there are other things that would help your long term goals. Those don't help you today, however.

When properly incentivized, people can do amazing things. But the hard part is getting them to want to do the work, and do it on a specific schedule. Even yourself.
posted by cgg at 9:54 AM on May 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

Yeah to piggyback off of the above:

1. You think any company should be managed in precisely one way
2. You have tried to manage at least 7 companies in this way
3. It has never worked

How is number 4 "what's wrong with these stupid lazy companies?!?" and not "oops guess I might be wrong about how companies should be managed!"

Like all of your steps of management in theory sound "fine" but who is the person doing all of these tasks? Does that person also have to do actual production on top of those tasks? Because then they have two full-time jobs. Does the company even have a workload/priority list/flow that lends itself to weekly updates or are the time frames much longer/shorter than that?

You mentioned people being unable to give status because their work depended on people upstream; well, 1) how is that not a status? and 2) why is that a failing of them to provide a status and not an indicator that hey, on Level X, there's a real big fuckin backlog? That's literally what the status updates are meant to identify!

Right now at my work we have been asked to use what is essentially a project management tool designed for coding. It's a much-beloved tool, so trendy! so slick! v popular with CEO types! Everyone talks about how efficient it is and how well it works to track all of the phases of a coding project and keep people on target.


And probably all of the people who mandated use of this PM tool are like what is wrong with those idiot editors, why can't they manage to track their work and stay on microtarget?? But they have no idea what we do, how we do it, or what we need to succeed at it. Did they ever, even once, ask us?? No, they did not. They just threw their system at us and wonder why we're too stupid and lazy to use it.

Just sayin.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:05 AM on May 18, 2022 [16 favorites]

Stories one, two, and five are bad management. Stories three and four are mismatched expectations. Stories six and seven are both. The common theme is that you care more about the people responsible for delivering them. A lot of these seem like small and/or early stage organizations where you see an opportunity to build a strong foundation and everyone else sees an opportunity for like socializing and self-congratulation.

Here's the thing: If one of my co-workers came to me and asked me to be a part of a volunteer interest group at work (and this isn't an abstract question for me; my direct supervisor is a member of the company's Community Involvement Committee), I would say "heck yeah". But you know what else I'd say "heck yeah" to? My actual job responsibilities. Spending time with my wife and kids. My hobbies outside of work. Sleeping. Quite honestly, no matter how enthusiastic I am about a work extracurricular group, the reality is that it's going to be pretty far down the list of my priorities. I might commit to giving a presentation or writing some blog posts, but if something came up, like one of my kids getting sick or a big deadline on real work, I would have to break that commitment. It sucks, and I'd feel bad, but not as bad as I'd feel if I prioritized that over other, more important stuff.

For all these stories (including, ahem, eight), that's almost certainly what's happening. These people have other priorities than compliance with a rigid process you designed. In stories one and two, unless you're also managing these people, there's nothing you can do. Think of your process as a tangible object. You made a chair, you gave it to these people, and now they'll either sit on it or they won't. You can't go back every day and say "sit on my chair!!!!!!".

It sounds like you might have that power over the executive director in story five. If the ED reports to the board, the board has the right to specify which chair she sits in, and if she doesn't sit in that chair, you should reprimand her, up to and including removing her from her position as ED. Then when you hire a new ED, make sure they're on board with your process. If they're not, hire someone else who is. This is a little micromanage-y, though. Presumably the reason you hired the current ED is because she has some qualifications you found appropriate. Consider that maybe she might know more about being a neighorhood association ED than you do, and let her do things her way unless her way is clearly causing problems for the organization.

Also consider that stories six and seven are the just the inverse of story five. Just like how your board hired the ED in story five, there's something about your resume that made the magazine guy and the housing consultant guy think you'd be good at the job. But then, once you started doing the job, they realized your way of doing it wasn't what they really had in mind. (I hinted at this earlier, but here I'll say it outright: Both of these sound like lifestyle businesses rather than mission-driven organizations interested in maximizing impact.) The thing with these, though, is that the only reason you're there is to help the owners do what they want to do. If they don't want to do your thing, the problem is your thing, and you either need to find a way to work with them or stop working with them (not a terrible idea, actually).

But yeah, story eight gives the game away. As it turns out, you don't really believe that "a basic necessity for an organization is to understand how they are performing, and seek to improve their performance to counteract the basic attrition of the world". It's a nice thought, and you might be consciously sincere, but your subconscious is telling you you don't. It's actually pretty impressive that you have been able to sell so many people on this given your own doubt. This is like Marie Kondo having a messy bedroom. (Though I do have to say, I appreciate that your commitment to the concept of productivity consulting is such that you presented your post as a list of user stories.)

Moving to the armchair psychoanalysis portion of my comment, what probably happened is that you were exposed to someone who thought this way early in your career, and that person either mentored you, or you adopted their philosophy because there was something about them you admired (not least being the fact that, as you've found, this can be a profitable endeavor).

Indulge me while I tell a story from earlier in my own life. My senior year of college, I got really into modern art and architecture. I decided that I was going to decorate my apartment with, like, Barcelona chairs and Rothko prints and be like a museum with geometric precision. But I was still in college, so I didn't have the money to do it yet. So I'd sit there in my apartment, with a hideous overstuffed recliner and a watercolor my sister made in high school art class and groceries laying all over the floor because there wasn't enough storage space in my kitchen. Then one day, I was planning how I was going to replace the recliner with a Barcelona chair, and I thought, nah, I'll keep the recliner. It was my dad's, and I grew up at the foot of it, and I have lots of good memories of that. So I'll do the Barcelona chairs *around* the recliner. And then I thought about replacing my sister's watercolor with a Rothko print, and I thought, nah, I'll keep that too. I'm close with my sister, and she has special needs, so this was a pretty cool thing she did. I'll hang the Rothkos *around* her painting. And gradually I went one by one through everything in my apartment, until I realized that the reason the stuff is in my apartment is not because I was broke and it was all I could afford. It was all stuff I chose, and stuff I liked. "You are not your khakis" and all that, but this stuff was *me*. The Barcelona chairs and Rothko prints weren't really me; they were 21-year-old me's idea of what would impress a cool adult. I realized that throwing away what makes me me in order to adopt someone else's philosophy of life was a path I didn't want to go down.

Maybe I'm wrong about this, but with story eight in mind, I would urge you to consider what you actually do value. Because it's clear you've got a lot to offer: you write well, you're intellectually curious, you seem to be able to sell yourself, and those aren't always found together. So while you'd like to "build this" or "travel there", what are you actually doing? Maybe it's productivity consulting, but maybe it's sitting back and watching TV with your partner. Lean into what you actually like, not what you think you *should* like, or what someone else thinks you should like.

Thanks for coming to my TED talk.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:10 AM on May 18, 2022 [11 favorites]

Yes, it sounds like you're trying to apply a general idealized framework to actual humans, who are messy and tired and underpaid and overworked and who care a lot more about doing Task X because Linda in Accounting is a huge pain in the ass if her paperwork is delayed than they do about doing Task Y because it's higher on the priority list you handed them based on your big picture vision of the company as a whole.

The cogs in the machine don't know and/or don't care about your big efficient vision; they care about the part of it they can see. You need buy-in from them at that level. How is what you're doing to change their processes going to improve things *for them*, or if it's not, then how can you convince them to care anyway? Maybe you can make a compelling argument about the big picture or maybe the unfortunate answer is "their bosses will make them care by implementing consequences if they don't do the new thing", but if there are no carrots OR sticks in your new process for the people actually using it, and they have no personal stake in it because it was imposed on them by you without an intensive process that takes their inputs and needs into account, it's not terribly likely to succeed once management moves on to caring about other things.

In the more one-on-one projects, honestly, you're just putting too much weight on what people say are their priorities. You're seeing that in your own life; you have notional priorities but in the actual day to day, you've got too much other stuff going on and your actual priorities are something more like "money/rest/comfort/entertainment" so you're not actually living those priorities. Hardly anyone is. I think you have to assume that when people tell you their priorities they're telling you the ideal-world situation that doesn't actually exist. Your job may be to identify what their *actual* priorities are, and help them come up with ways to bring the two into closer alignment, rather than just running with their idealized picture of what they would do in a perfect world.
posted by Stacey at 10:12 AM on May 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

Here's a logistical suggestion: Choose a tool that works with the processes, however vague and disorganized, that are already in place. If everyone uses email, or Slack, or Teams, to communicate, then they should be able to update task status by sending a message in email, or Slack, or Teams. I'm most familiar with Slack, and there are tons of integrations that allow you to create tickets and update statuses. You can even chain together different integrations so they all talk to each other automatically and your people don't have to add steps to their processes. ChatOps, if you will.
posted by expialidocious at 10:14 AM on May 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Regarding carrots and sticks, let me tell you about two initiatives at my company that have succeeded, and why.

1. Our parent company gives out a yearly award that is very important to our company president. Our sales team in particular has to jump through a lot of hoops in order to qualify for the award. Any time our parent company wants to encourage compliance with a new process or initiative, they tie it to our eligibility for this award. So the president puts pressure on the sales directors, the sales directors put pressure on the sales managers, and the sales managers put pressure on the sales team, because nobody wants to be the reason our division was disqualified for the award, and risk the ire of the company president. And because of this, the parent company's initiatives are generally accomplished via the "stick" of potentially getting yelled at by one's boss, all the way from the top down.

2. Our company created a voluntary employee program whose aim was to educate the employees on various aspects of our company and our brand, as well as encourage professional development through continuing education. This was a somewhat time-consuming program with a number of levels to work through, and tests to pass. But it wound up getting a really good level of participation, because successful completion got you points that would bump up your yearly increase a small but significant amount; as well as completion certificates for each level, suitable for framing and hanging on one's cube wall. Yummy carrots!

Meanwhile, the TPS'd supply room has gone completely to shit because no one is waving around either carrots or sticks in defense of it; and it's easier to just take or leave stuff willy-nilly if no one is making it worth your while to carefully follow the (multi-step, boring) process documents that were meant to keep things organized and ensure timely replenishment of stock.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:48 AM on May 18, 2022

I clarify for her very clearly that she needs to complete tasks that support projects that fulfill our strategy. She does not fill out the spreadsheet, she does not prepare project summaries for meetings, she does not prioritize her work at the beginning of the week.
But does she, well, complete tasks that support projects that fulfil your strategy?
I mean I can certainly see that not updating people at meetings is a problem, but she's being paid to do a job, not to fill in spreadsheets about the job.

I and my colleagues are pretty self-managing; we all get our day to day jobs done and do projects sometimes- each of us managing our time and our communication in our own way, and sometimes those ways are wildly different. And yes, sometimes we drop the ball and forget things, and if they're key, our boss reminds us (by email. I think she does use some sort of e-card system to track stuff herself, and good for her).

But when we've had management tools imposed on us, we don't use them, because they either don't work for our context at all, or they work for some of our brains but not others, or we've got too damn much to *do* to go to a box and put a tick in it to show we've done it. I'm sure it would make life easier for the boss if there was a system we all followed, but by her adapting herself to us, the job does get done!
posted by Shark Hat at 11:00 AM on May 18, 2022 [4 favorites]

Reading your stories it is not clear to me that productivity really was an issue in most of these situations- deals fall through, people sometimes have to wait on others or forget to share information, experience suggests having a Monday morning meeting where a largish group of people reports on status is a complete waste of time, the vast majority of them do not need to know what’s keeping everybody else busy.

I had a 1:1 with a new team lead for a team I support 25% of my time this morning. He was happy to see me make time to attend the weekly team meetings and I said I was happy to be in the weekly team meeting because we limit ourselves to updates relevant for everybody and thus never use all the scheduled time and that if we ever started to take all the time we were doing something wrong.

Perhaps challenge your assumptions about how things should happen a bit as well?
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:02 AM on May 18, 2022

Best answer: I've been on the receiving side of some of these kinds of initiatives. Skipping the stories where there isn't buy-in from management (because that dooms everything), I think you're running into a fundamental problem that's not really solvable by you:

You're asking people who already have too much work, to do more work. And you can't show why this additional work is helpful, other than something vague about "increased efficiency". When you are added, the organizational overhead goes up, but the capacity for actual work doesn't go up.

I can only think of a few cases where these productivity exercises actually did anything, and that is when this happens:

We stopped (or reduced) working on something low priority, to work on something high priority.

Organizations don't really like this; the grand hope is that you'll magically make everyone work harder and nothing will be dropped. This is usually impossible, unless you're also tasked with hiring more people.
posted by meowzilla at 11:10 AM on May 18, 2022 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: Just from what I've seen in my own company, upper management thinks TPS is a good thing and it has been implemented here and there, but when people inevitably tire of following the strict process and backslide into their old, comfortable ways of doing things, there are no real consequences or callouts. So it's turned into mostly back-sliding across the board.

I've seen this in my companies too. Most places, promotions were favoritism and demotion dragged on forever. Leadership never made decisive examples of good and bad performance. This is a very interesting point you bring up.
posted by rebent at 11:13 AM on May 18, 2022

Response by poster: We stopped (or reduced) working on something low priority, to work on something high priority.

Yes, this is, in essence, what I am trying to enable people and teams to do. But, as my examples show, I don't feel like I have been successful.
posted by rebent at 11:18 AM on May 18, 2022

People aren’t really incentivized to improve or change at the workplace unless they’re going to be fired very soon for not meeting some very clear criteria. And even then, people are pretty much working at capacity (of what they are capable of doing OR, more likely, willing to do.)

Even imposing quotas with management buy-in at best allows you to fire low performers and take your chances on new hires.
posted by kapers at 11:25 AM on May 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard for different perspectives and ideas for how to effect change across organizations or just for yourself. It includes plenty of examples of "Why weren't they doing this thing even though they knew that they needed to? Well, here's what was happening ... and here's what helped improve the situation ...."
posted by cadge at 11:33 AM on May 18, 2022

Yes, this is, in essence, what I am trying to enable people and teams to do. But, as my examples show, I don't feel like I have been successful.

Well, in that case it's either that:
-nobody agreed with your assessment of priorities
-nobody was actually authorized to deprioritize anything, despite your advice

It doesn't sound like in any of these cases you were actually anyone's boss. People know their bosses, and what they have to do to make their bosses happy. People are incentivized to not get yelled at, hassled, or fired by their bosses. If what you're telling them conflicts with what they know to expect from their boss, the boss wins every time.

I have a lot of ideas about how my department could be allocating its time and resources, but nobody cares what I think, so instead I spend a lot of my week doing stuff that by any objective measure is only minimally important to my corporation's stated goals. Because my job isn't to save the company from itself, my job is to do what my boss tells me when she tells me to.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:45 AM on May 18, 2022 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I do not want to set priorities - I want to help teams set their own priorities and then accomplish them.
posted by rebent at 11:49 AM on May 18, 2022

It sounds like you're putting far more focus on people supporting your system, rather than your system supporting them - and that you are, in fact attempting to set priorities, elevating updating tracking tools past where most people prioritise them.
posted by sagc at 12:00 PM on May 18, 2022 [14 favorites]

When my work has been project managed to terrible results it’s been something like the project manager’s arrogance in considering “can’t be explained/needs input from other departments” to be the workers’ fault, and not the project manager’s fault for imposing the inappropriate system. If most users can’t use it, you need to find out why because you’re likely missing some nuance and applying the wrong approach because you don’t understand the work.
posted by kapers at 12:02 PM on May 18, 2022 [2 favorites]

Every company on the planet has downsized to the point that all their employees are doing what should be three jobs. They don't have enough time for the work they currently have, let alone adding more overhead.

Plus, the moment you produce this kind of output, someone in management decides to prove their importance by digging into the data and terrorizing people, which creates even more work and unpleasantness.

So the question is less "why won't people do this?", it's "why on Earth would people ever want to do this?"
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 1:22 PM on May 18, 2022 [6 favorites]

(How do you feel you're doing at discerning your own personal priorities?

Not gonna therapize you over the internet, but the final example seems like possibly you're talking to your CEO Superego and getting the Vision Statement aligned with them but it doesn't track with the whole of your purpose.)
posted by away for regrooving at 1:56 PM on May 18, 2022

You're missing emotional intelligence in your roles at work.

Unlike some people above, I do think people like to work effectively. However they often think they are just as a effective before the new process and without implementing - and also, they're often right.

For your dashboard, I would first ask - who is it for? The boss? Everyone? What's the benefit of it to the person doing the spreadsheet? Some possibilities would be:
- it lets them predict their bonus
- it helps them manage their workload (timing, contingencies)
- it highlights their work in a way that will add to their status in the organization

If the answer is there's no benefit to them, then that's kind of your actual challenge. If there is a benefit to them, it doesn't sound like you have expressed it well.

To me, in your story, it's actually clear that the productivity issue is not actually related to a dashboard. It's "most folks say they can't really explain the status, and everything depends on upcoming meetings with other departments." Instead of building a tool, someone needed to ask people what's holding them back. They probably would have said "Lack of information from other departments," not "we have no status dashboard."

Second example:

""it just won't work." The boss puts her weight behind the new process, which she helped design, and tells folks to make it work. They don't."

So, I work in an org where sometimes I get this response. Maybe 5-10% of the time it really is people just not wanting to do it. But all the rest of the time, it's either:

- the process really is flawed
- the process is not flawed, but the way people are working is really different from the assumptions in the process.
- there's what I think of as a training hiccup, but it's more of an understanding hiccup - either the people doing the work don't understand something or the people designing the process don't, and neither will pooch the thing but it makes communication really hard.
- there's political/organizational stuff going on that makes people unable to have bandwidth for change - basically crisis thinking always trumps new stuff
- there's a critical piece that is so outside how things "should work" that bosses that design processes based on "should work" find they just - don't.

Often this last is that there's a someone who doesn't do the work "right." For example, my boss designed a process based on a past process being followed. But there was someone who never, ever followed it and had trained his team to do a whole other thing...basically to mitigate that he never got a critical step done on time, so they couldn't get the other steps done in the correct order.

This takes a lot of listening to uncover. And I can tell your problem is one of those because the boss designed the process. If you don't involve the people doing the work in the process design, there will be issues.

If you really want productivity gains, you have to get way better at people, and understanding their day-to-day work, than your tools. Because then you can figure out what will really make their lives better. It's hard!! Really hard.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:56 PM on May 18, 2022 [8 favorites]

Often this last is that there's a someone who doesn't do the work "right." For example, my boss designed a process based on a past process being followed. But there was someone who never, ever followed it and had trained his team to do a whole other thing...basically to mitigate that he never got a critical step done on time, so they couldn't get the other steps done in the correct order.

This made me think of something related! Generally there is a process for how things should be done, but the actual people doing the job are skipping pieces of it, because actually doing everything you're supposed to be doing ("rule-book slowdown") is actually a light form of a strike that can bring the system to its knees! But of course, no one wants documentation that they're not following the official process either, so they're going to resist anything that would have that effect.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 3:37 PM on May 18, 2022 [7 favorites]

I think you mean well, so I'd like to caution that you sound like every Fresh MBA Dude (and it's always a dude) with Big Ideas that my industry has ever hired. These Fresh MBA Dudes have no intent on talking to and learning from the people who actually do the work. Instead they view my team as a rung on a ladder to get them moving up closer to the CEO pantheon in 12-14 months. They implement massive procedural changes based on nebulous theories of productivity that double our work process and provide no discernable benefit to anyone except their own careers. If they do talk to people in the trenches, they only talk to the men, which in my industry's case is approximately 5 percent of the workforce. With apologies, my industry doesn't take people like this seriously.

If you'd really like to help, I would reiterate the above: be humble, listen, be prepared to learn that you know nothing, and be prepared to rebuild everything you thought you knew from the ground up with guidance from the people who actually do the work. Good luck!
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 8:25 PM on May 18, 2022 [5 favorites]

I'll be honest with you, when I was reading through your question I was getting mildly irritated, in a dripping-tap sort of way, despite efforts to keep my best non-judgmental AskMe user / consumer thinking-hat on.

Then I read story number eight, and had my perspective and assumptions totally flipped.

There's already a ton of food for thought in the answers here on the work side of things. If I can add any useful insight, it's that you wrote well over a thousand words about this aspect, before tucking in about 60 related to your own - rather than your work - self.

There's a jagged continuum between person <> people <> organization ; the latter cannot exist without the former ; basic necessities for the former are fundamentally different from the latter.

But much more importantly, when it comes to your - your own - self, there is no continuum. It's just person, all the way down.

You quite obviously have a high level of drive and engagement in your work and associative life ; if you can bring yourself to be selfish with a small portion of that energy, you may well find it easier to recalibrate the framework you use in other contexts.

You're not an organization... or if you are, you're the only organization in the world that can ever come close to setting itself goals which balance its own perfectionism and motivation with a genuinely equitable employee welfare programme.
posted by protorp at 12:42 AM on May 19, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We stopped (or reduced) working on something low priority, to work on something high priority.

Good project and time management doesn't mean never dropping any balls, it's knowing which balls will bounce back and which will shatter when you drop them. But it's a bit hard to be honest about that, because you probably don't want any of your stakeholders to find out that you consider them a ball that can be dropped on occasion. It's not exactly the kind of thing one likes to put in writing. So many corporate types and probably just humans in general prefer to cloud that sort of consideration in some cosy plausible deniabilty, which of course tends to make all your strategy sessions and status updates and regular check ups more or less pointless. If people aren't honest (and often, they can't be, because they aren't even honest with themselves), these things are a waste of time.

In order to manage projects, and time and people more efficiently, you first need to find out people's real priorities. And that is clearly a lot harder than you apparently have so far accounted for. You need people to be real with you, and for that, you need them to trust you. You need accountability, sure, but you also need a good error culture. Having clear priorities means choosing what to sacrifice, and sometimes such choices can turn out to be wrong. It's important that what happens next is not a merry-game of shift-the blame. People need to be given a margin of error to learn from mistakes, otherwise there will just be a lot of unproductive intransparency to hide them. You need people willing to make hard choices and willing to own them. You need people to trust each other that this is how it will play out.

Once you have that, you can use or not use all the spreadsheets and project management tools you want. It's never the tools. It's always the people.
posted by sohalt at 2:12 AM on May 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

TLDR: Spend less time on selling the tools, spend more time on building trust.
posted by sohalt at 2:17 AM on May 19, 2022

How do you approach change management within these engagements? Have you studied or researched different change management methodologies? Look up things like the “change management curve” and, with a colleague or mentor, go through some role playing scenarios to improve your skill set for coaching through change.
posted by ohneat at 3:37 AM on May 19, 2022 [2 favorites]

1. You gave people more work to do. Spreadsheets, updates, high-impact activities, blog posts, interviews, presentations. More work on top their existing work. Even change itself is a form of extra work.

2. You assumed that it's possible for every single person in an organisation to agree on priorities. Maybe your strategy meeting process came up with the idea that A should be most important and B should take a back seat. You're under the impression that that's all it takes and the rest should just flow naturally from that decision. But maybe Fred loves doing B and it's what he joined the company for and he's not giving it up unless he's forced to. Maybe Gina has seen a dozen project managers with big ideas come and go and knows this will pass and it's not worth getting excited about. Maybe Shelley's dad is sick and honestly is she going to stay late at work for half an hour filling out your spreadsheet, or is she going to swing by and see her dad before getting home to feed the kids?

Change is hard, and takes time and energy and extra resources. You can't just announce it and consider it done.
posted by penguin pie at 12:10 PM on May 19, 2022 [3 favorites]

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