This is the latest in the View From the Top series of blog post written by the management of Microsoft.com Operations and Portal Team. This contribution is from Todd Weeks, Sr. Director.
Have you ever had a manager tell you “Work Smarter”, and then be really frustrated or even offended at the fact that it implied that you weren’t? Well, as a manager, I have had the overwhelming desire to actually use this phrase, but instead of just saying it and frustrating or offending, I’ve decided to add a little context to it. As I have boiled it down, there are a couple of fairly universal things that almost always impact us “Working Smarter”.
The first thing has to do with the title of this post. For many reasons, in almost all projects, teams are letting some of the hard questions/concerns go unattended. But as you probably all have noticed, the longer you let a lagging issue be a lagging issue, the more disruptive it becomes to a project. What is tough about finally addressing the “Elephant in the Room” (meaning, the issue nobody seems to want to talk about but everyone knows is there), is that it is most likely going to cause conflict, and usually people tend to want to get their jobs done without conflict. The way that this ties into the fact that you are now not “Working Smarter” is that if you don’t address the issue, everyone will not be on the same page and heading in the exact same direction. When there is a lack of agreement or understanding, people still do work, code is still written, milestones are still checked off; but will that work all need to be re-done to get us back on track when we finally do decide to address the issue? Usually the longer your teams avoid addressing large issues, the more re-work/additional work required to come together. We all have full workloads, but by knowingly avoiding issues everyone sees are there, we are knowingly adding work to our plates for that project which has absolutely no value. It actually has negative value because you will need to do more work to come to the same goal eventually.
So, how do we bridge this social gap and begin to inspire people to address conflict more easily? There are many tools out there today for people to use, the one we are trying throughout the team is called a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. While many project teams use SWOTs to look at their projects in the initial phase, we are going to use them as the monthly or milestone report structure for all our projects. What we are looking to do is have the “issues” addressed sooner by doing SWOTs more frequently than normal.
What is great with this process is that the issue can come up in many forms in the SWOT. Perhaps fixing the issue is an “Opportunity”, now it can be broached in a more positive light, and possibly avoiding conflict. But an issue may also come up as a “Threat” or “Weakness” too, and bringing threats, weaknesses and opportunities up as part of the normal process helps to break down some of the social barriers that might stop people from bringing the issues up.
The final piece that can’t be forgotten when using a new processes or tool like SWOT is: reward the behavior of finding or bringing up these issues in such a way that they resolve the issues, but more importantly resolve the issues without tension. If people on a team are seeing potential problems and getting them addressed and solved before they cause more work, they just helped everyone on that project “Work Smarter”. And as you reward people and look to highlight the greater impact on a team they may have, the SWOT is a great vehicle to track where the ideas came from and their impacts. Now people are not just getting their job done and inspired to approach hard issues, they are looking out and helping others avoid unnecessary work so they too can get their jobs done. Make that behavior core to your reward systems and you will see the culture of your team change, and people will “Work Smarter”.
The second thing I quickly wanted to touch on that drives me to want to say “Work Smarter”, is hearing people say, “that’s not my problem” or pushing back on something someone is asking of them. Now you just can’t take on everything, but the way you address someone asking you about work that isn’t your deliverable can make all the difference. The small amount of time it takes to pay attention and get that person directed to the right person, may be a huge time savings. Taking just a few moments to ask yourself, (even though this isn’t your deliverable), “Can I help?”, might save hours. Who hasn’t seen those frustrating mail strings where people debate who should do something? And when you look at the amount of time put into that mail string, it was often more time than it would have taken to have just do the work.
The goal of the entire team, working as a unit, should be to get work on and off its plate efficiently as a group. We don’t want to have a culture of randomization where we are just looking for ways to solve quick small problems that aren’t ours, but on a case by case basis, see if a bit of your time might actually go a long ways to saving not only your time in the future, but others’ as well. And as a bonus: getting something done so it isn’t out there hanging on the group’s “to-do” list. When it comes down to it, taking the time to just listen usually only takes a minute or two, and more importantly it reinforces behavior that should be aspired to for a team where people are willing to ask questions and be open with one another.
As a manager, you should be looking to say to your team, “Work Smarter”. For me, I want to be prescriptive when I say it so it can have the most impact and achieve the desired result. And I know that if I am going to ask, having tools in mind like a SWOT analysis, and then reinforcing the behavior with our rewards systems goes a long way towards our group “Working Smarter” and will help me as a manager not just randomize my team by letting 200 people try and each figure out “the goal.”
My team recently conducted a "post-mortem" analysis of our recent milestone performance. There are lots