Prioritizing Strategic Work

by admin 17. August 2013 12:05

I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues. —Duke Ellington

By DEBRA SNIDER 
In the law department I led, we used a task-based methodology to get a handle on what we were doing all day every day, and whether it was the kind of activity that would result in achievement of our stated mission and purpose.  The astonishing result of the methodology was our discovery that around 17 percent of the total time spent by the 60 people in the department was focused on tasks that evidently did not need to be done at all. (Do the math—that’s a LOT of time.)
This wasn’t an efficiency conclusion, but rather a matter of no one being able to remember, imagine or otherwise articulate a reason for doing these tasks. Who had asked for them? Whom did they benefit? We had no idea.  Would anything horrible happen if we simply quit doing them?  Not as far as we could tell.  This was the departmental equivalent of what drives us as individuals to cry out, “There’s simply not enough time!”  Since we’re all stuck with the rigid realities of the calendar and clock, it behooves us to look instead at what we’re spending our limited time doing.
Not all tasks are created equal, and many are affirmatively meaningless.  Knowing which activities matter a lot, which matter a little, and which don’t matter at all is crucial to spending your time productively.  Have you ever had the experience of realizing that you haven’t done anything you really needed to do despite a day spent legitimately busy?  Do you know the old story about the people too busy bailing water out of the boat to spend time plugging the holes in the boat?  Bailing water out of the boat is tactical.  Plugging the holes in the boat is strategic, and it’s a far more intelligent and effective use of time.
Strategic work is not only more fun, it’s also more valued in every organization.  You’ll buy time and get more recognition if you provide longer-term process improvements instead of short-term, one-off solutions.  Being effective is more important than being hard-working, and building relationships is more important than processing paper.  That doesn’t mean you don’t have to do all four, only that you have to give higher priority to the strategic activities.
Whether it’s the pile of work on your desk, a project you need to manage, a network you want to build, or any other collection of to-do-list items, you have a choice before you begin working.  You can simply plow in, starting with whatever’s on top and working until you finish.  This is a tactical approach and, while your work ethic and sense of responsibility will cause you eventually to finish the work, you’ll likely waste some time, encounter some frustration, and personally handle some tasks better handled differently, whether by others or in terms of the nature of the task.
Alternatively, you can choose to work strategically.  If you do, you will, without fail, be more efficient and productive.  You’ll produce higher quality results, and spend more time on things you are good at and like to do (thus, making you happier).  Sometimes you’ll even get a chance to offer a developmental opportunity to someone else, build a relationship, create a reusable tool or otherwise contribute extra value. 
To ensure that you always work strategically, spend a few minutes before you plow into your work to ask yourself the following questions about each task:
Does it need to be done at all?  Who needs it and why? How does it tie to accomplishment of a goal or project? If it’s not necessary or valuable, drop it.
Does it need to be done now?  In light of everything else you could be doing, how should it be prioritized?  If it’s not a top priority, defer it appropriately.
Is “it” the best thing to be doing to get the job done or is there a better “it?”  If a modified or different effort would lead more clearly or efficiently to the right result, then do what actually needs to be done instead of merely doing the work as presented.
Am I the right person to do the work?  In light of all organizational and personal goals, would it be better handled by someone senior (who could get the result faster), a peer (who has more expertise, experience or time and could get a better or quicker result), a subordinate (because it doesn't require skills where you add value), an outside service provider (who has more bodies to throw at it, more expertise, better process or other tools, etc.).  If the right result can be achieved more effectively by someone else and it’s appropriate to do so, enroll the someone else.
When you’ve cleared out all the tasks you can clear out by honestly answering these questions, you’ll be left with what you should actually spend your time doing.  Productivity comes not from superhuman effort, but from clear priorities, A+ organizational skills, and a relentless focus on what matters most.  Not incidentally, so does balance.
Debra Snider is an author, speaker, no-longer-practicing lawyer, former senior executive, blackjack player, and mother of two grown children. Her published works include two nonfiction business books, one specifically for lawyers, and the novel A MERGER OF EQUALS, which readers have called “one of the most enlightening and true works of fiction about corporate life and love” and “virtually impossible to put down.”  A Chicagoan until 2005, Debra and her husband of 36 years now live in Nevada.  Click here for more info on her biography, books, and appearances.

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