How am I wasting your time?

At the weekend I was reading this fascinating column by Oliver Burkeman on cutting out time-wasting activities. He talks about the importance of having a “stop doing” list, as well as a “to do” list. It’s an interesting, well-written piece, mainly about the work of Peter Drucker

I was particularly interested in this quote from Drucker.

“if you’re a boss, develop the habit of asking your underlings, “without coyness”, the one question that will trigger more improvement than any other: “What do I do that wastes your time without contributing to your effectiveness?”

The team culture quadrant

One of the early lessons I learned for myself when I started managing teams was how the culture and strength of the team largely dictated the manager’s job.
team culture quadrant

I formulated a rough quadrant illustrating what I felt my priorities were, shaped by experiences with two employers, with differing cultures.

If the team is weak, consisting of inexperienced or poorly performing members then the priority is to help the team shape up; assisting the willing but inexperienced as they develop, removing the time wasters if possible, and at least preventing them from disrupting the productive team members.

If the culture is healthy then this a challenging, but relatively straightforward and certainly rewarding role, provided that the manager really understands what the team are supposed to be doing.

If the team is strong but the culture is unhealthy then the job of the manager is to protect the team from distraction and problems that would waste their time. The manager deals with the crap so the team doesn’t have to. The manager should also be trying to change the culture, pointing out the problems, arguing for improvements and generally trying to shape the environment so that good teams can do good work as efficiently, effectively and happily as possible.

That’s obviously a tough task, and it might not be possible for an individual to bring about serious improvement, but it’s better to fight constructively than to suffer passively.

I was managing a team in this position once, and a programmer asked me what on earth I did with my time? He couldn’t see what work I was doing? He was a friend, so he knew I wouldn’t take offence. I actually regarded it as confirmation that I was doing a good job.

The team were all high calibre and hard working. I had to spend a lot of time handling the users, turning mushy requirements into stuff we could work with, negotiating with other departments. In the meantime the team were whizzing along in fine style, oblivious to the problems that they weren’t hitting. If the team is in the groove it’s just fine by me if they’re taking that state of affairs for granted.

The job gets really tough and stressful when the manager is faced with a weak team in an unhealthy culture; endless unproductive meetings, pointless reports, meaningless metrics for layers of management who can’t understand them, and overly detailed and proscriptive plans that pretend we can know what individuals will be doing in a few months? Yup, I’ve been there and got paid a good salary for doing little that was genuinely valuable. Meanwhile the team is floundering and needing positive, patient time-consuming support. This is where you earn your ulcers.

The time-wasting rubbish is inescapable, but the priority has to be to strengthen the team. Here it is particularly important to weed out those who are slowing the team down; the idle, the awkward, the cheerfully incompetent who have no interest in improving. It’s never easy, unless they’re contractors. The poor performers are generally well known, and no-one is going to willingly take them off your hands.

So – exactly how am I wasting your time?

If you get to the point where you have a strong team in a healthy culture then that’s great, for the short term at least. The trouble is that you are almost redundant, and you need to be careful that you are not getting in the way of the team. If things are humming along smoothly it’s not a great idea to coast. Sooner or later someone is going to twig that you aren’t contributing much. It’s far better to speak up and point out that your skills are being under-utilised, and maybe it’s time to move on to a new role.

I managed to work all that out for myself, and I still stand by it all. However, I’d never explicitly thought of that point from Peter Drucker; why not ask team members what you do as a manager that wastes their time?

It’s exactly when you might feel you’ve arrived at the happy combination of strong team and healthy culture that the sole, significant remaining problem could be you. I can’t believe I missed it. I’m sure Drucker was right and that it could be the most important question you could ask your team. How am I wasting your time?