Context, prioritization and definition are the keys to great task management.
People can often confuse having task management processes with micro-management and a lack of autonomy. When done poorly this is definitely one possible result. However, when done correctly the opposite is always the case.
In fact, a lot of organizations fail to consider how they manage tasks across their teams. This usually leads to different processes in each department, and multiple tools being used across the company. Generally, it’s left to the individual employee to figure out how they should be planning their workloads and their day.
There definitely should be freedom for employees to use a system that works for them, this article isn’t arguing to the contrary, and at the same time you can create processes that create an empowering context for your teams.
When designing processes for managing tasks the context you want to create is one of eliminating decision fatigue. The only constant in life is change. Often, the best plans we create are immediately disrupted when they make contact with the real world. This means that in order for your company to execute on its short and long term objectives your people will need to adjust, and do so frequently.
Having a task management process is not about the leadership maintaining control, it’s about ensuring everyone in the company is marching to the same beat and pointing in the right direction. Ensuring that when the unexpected happens, teams can make fast decisions about how to deal with the new set of circumstances in line with the overarching objectives and vision.
If you create this context with your team most people will immediately see the benefit of having this kind of structure in place. If it’s not immediate, after a couple of “oh shit” situations people will start to see why it’s vital. Finally, if they still don’t “get” it, start being curious. There’s something to discover here. Maybe there’s something missing from the process you made, the context you are creating, or maybe this is an opportunity to help that team member get a better handle on managing tasks.
Prioritization – Important & Urgent
When it comes to managing tasks there are really only two questions you need to be asking.
- How important is the task?
- What is it’s urgency?
This matrix is great for visualizing how we should manage our tasks. Let’s take a look at each quadrant.
- Urgent and Important: If something is both urgent and important these are the tasks you should be working on. These tasks should always be your priority.
- Important and not Urgent: If something is important you want to get it done regardless of its urgency. Ideally you find someone else in the company who can get this done. If you aren’t in a position to delegate, this might be because you don’t manage a team or because of a lack of available resources, then you should schedule it as the next thing you are going to work on.
- Urgent and Not Important: These tasks should be scheduled in your backlog of work ideally before the deadline, if any exists.
- Not Important and Not Urgent: If a task is not important and it’s not urgent; why are you doing it in the first place? This is a trap that people fall into. People often put the same value on everything when they don’t have a proper prioritization process. You have a limited number of hours in the day, you want to make sure you spend them on the stuff that matters.
When you start to classify based on these quadrants the team can make quick and easy decisions on what they should be working on next. There’s one more component to this that will have your teams managing tasks like a pro, and that’s creating definitions.
Defining Urgent and Important
Now that you have a good structure for dealing with tasks, the part that will make a real difference in your organization is how you define these two things. Depending on your company, what services/products you provide, the people you serve and the values that drive your organization these things will be unique to your business.
What does urgent mean to you? When I ran operations for a Software as a Service payroll provider one definition we had was; “a customer has a deadline that is at risk within the next 48 hours.”
A good way to decide on what is urgent for you is to look at the factors that might make a task turn from urgent into an issue. Like the example I used above, if a customer missed a deadline because of an issue with our software then they would become extremely frustrated, and that would cause problems. Whatever that threshold is, that is your “urgent” limit.
You can, and probably will, have a few of these urgent definitions. That’s ok as long as they are clearly defined and leave no room for misunderstanding.
Creating your important definitions are very similar to what I mentioned in the above section. You want to figure out what are the important things in your company. These should always include your overarching objectives. Then take a look at your values. What would these look like in your company every day? You might end up with a list that looks like:
- Happy Employees.
- Happy Customers.
- Achieving the quarterly objectives.
- Our products are always manufactured on time and on budget.
What’s important to the company might change from department to department, and that’s totally fine. However, if your departments have their own priorities, it’s important to make sure that they are all in alignment with the main list. See the example below.
This is intentionally oversimplified to make my point, but hopefully it demonstrates how each departments’ “important” definitions align with what is important to the business.
Make sure that they are numbered in priority order, this way if two issues arise at the same time your team always knows how to prioritize them.
This allows the decision making process to be super simple. Team members can look at the task at hand through these filters, and decide confidently whether the action they are going to take align with the needs of the business. They can operate with autonomy without having to stress about whether they are making the right decision.
Task management and prioritization is vital, and when the shit hits the fan this is often when we make most of our bad decisions. Humans have evolved to be poor decision makers when they perceive a threat, and that’s exactly how we perceive challenges and problems at work; as threats. Creating structures that acknowledge this will set you up for success in situations when you need to do less thinking and take more actions.
What processes do you have in place for managing tasks? Is this something you would be willing to try? I’d love to hear about it in your comments below.