Figure out what’s essential

A few years back, I remember that many managers were using a catchphase when asked, "How are you?" The frequent answer was "Crazybusy." The phrase even made it into the title of a book on the subject by Edward M. Hallowell entitled, not suprisingly, Crazybusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life. Now that is a long title that captures much of the frustration that managers still share. So many projects! So many meetings!

I recently read a great interview from MITSloan Management Review that offers a helpful way of thinking about this challenge. The interview, titled "Easing the Invisible Burdens of Collaboration," is based on work done by Rob Cross and others at Babson College. He and his team used some sophisticated network analysis to show that "both the number of collaborative demands and the diversity of them were overwhelming people." More dismaying, he notes in the interview that "Even the most efficient collaborators I interviewed were stretched beyond belief." So much for the idea that some people can magically manage the overload.

He has several suggestions to address the burden of collaboration. Use these suggestions as a way to get started on reducing the crazybusy of your leadership responsibilities.

Identify no more than three things that you should focus on

In his work, Rob Cross discovered that being a part of several different project teams ends up creating an overwhelmingly large set of networks of communicating and collaboration. From my view, managers often try to be "just a part" of way too many efforts. This work means too many meetings, too much email, too many Slack posts.

An individual has to pick the one or two or three – not more – projects where they are going to spend their time. This is true for individual performers for sure, but it is also critical for managers as well. You can't be a part of every project that your team is working on, so give them the autonomy that they want!

Cross suggests that you can save 18 to 24 percent of your time by minimizing your project list. That's two to three months per year!  

As a coach and team builder, you also should help people sort out their own prioritizations. Ask them good questions about what it most important of all the projects they are working on. You might use the great coaching question, "If you choose this, what are you going to give up in its place?"

Let others carry their own project responsibilities

But wait, you might say. My team is responsible for dozens of projects! I have to be on all the teams with them! They can't operate without my great advice!

And there is the first place to rewire your thinking. Yes, your team may be responsible for many projects. But those projects can't also be your responsibility as well. You hired great people for your team, so let them manage projects themselves. The help that you offer may not be so helpful at all.

In my experience, my best managers got out of my way. We didn't do team reviews with those managers; instead, they dropped into the reviews that our team was scheduling for ourselves – where real work was being done. They didn't constantly give advice. They were available if WE asked for help, but by letting us do the worrying, they gave us more empowerment and responsibility. This strategy also reduced their own workload. They could focus their time on their own projects.

I have had many years in different levels of management, with different teams in different industries. The one rule I used and shared with others was this:

If someone is worrying about a project or a task more than I am, then I should let them worry about it for me and stop worrying about it myself.

Of course, stopping worry is more easily said than done. But by having my rule about letting other people worry for me on their own tasks, it helped me to make better choices about how I spent my day, and left me time to work on (and worry about) my own tasks.  

Try out a focus exercise with your team

In his interview, Rob Cross narrates the story of a Wall Street investment banker who adopted a "'Friday rose' exercise suggested by his wife to just keep track of if people were stressed or if things are OK."

(Pause here to imagine how people might have reacted for the first time in the Wall Street firms of your imagination or experience.)

As Cross tells it:

On every Friday, have people write their "stem," the thing they learned this week or how they grew in some way; their "rose," the cool thing that happened that week; and finally their "thorn," the thing that didn't go right, or got messed up, or they wish they had done differently.

And yes, people did laugh at the exercise at first. But, he reports, "within two or three weeks, it became a norm."

What likely happened here is what you are also looking for as a leader:

  1. Everyone saw the work differently. They already knew their metrics. Instead they shared more about what they were learning and feeling, which gave opportunities for sharing and collaboration instead of competition.
  2. They created empathy and trust, allowing employees to connect on a deeper level by becoming a bit more vulnerable.
  3. They opened the door to experimentation. Every thorn became an opportunity to change things that didn't go well or they wished they had done differently.

By trying to do too much as a manager, you end up doing too little, or even doing damage. Use these ideas to help you remember to get out of the way, and instead use your time and effort to help your team focus on their work and grow as autonomous individuals.

Questions for reflection and action: How much are you doing to help your team that is actually getting in the way? What specific behaviors can you change or stop to give your teams more autonomy and give yourself more time?

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn is a teacher and student of leadership.
Madison, Wisconsin, USA