Modern business protocols often require high levels of teamwork in order to achieve the company’s goals. More than ever, workers interact like cogs in a machine, and most of us have to mesh with lots of other cogs in order to get our work done. Fair enough, assuming everything runs smoothly. But as we all know, human beings don’t always work together with mechanical efficiency. Occasionally, things get caught up in the metaphorical gears, causing work to slow—or even stop.
This might happen, for instance, if someone doesn’t get a piece of information to you when you need it. Similarly, if a supplier can’t provide a certain part or computer program, you may be stuck waiting. And if a project needs approval to proceed, and you don’t have it, then find yourself at someone else’s mercy. If these people don’t follow up in a timely fashion, you can forget to keep in touch with them, putting you further behind.
Whatever the cause, these bottlenecks make your workflow uneven at best, and may even cause it to grind to a halt. Clearly, you want to minimize such occurrences; and you can’t count on anyone else to keep your workflow machine in good repair, either. So how do you grease the gears? By setting up a reminder system—basically a babysitting mechanism—a schema that helps you get the answers, approvals, and resources you need when you need them. That way, you can always track down all the people you depend on to keep you active, and urge them along as necessary.
Breaking Through Bottlenecks
Have you ever been driving along on the highway and hit a traffic bottleneck, where an accident or construction narrowed several lanes down to one? You can go from zooming along at a steady 60 miles per hour to a near-standstill in seconds. No matter how efficiently everyone drives, your progress inevitably slows down.
This can happen in the workplace as well, but you can’t allow such bottlenecks to hamper you for long if you expect to maximize your personal productivity. Immediately analyze the cause of any workflow “traffic jam” that occurs. If you find you create the bottleneck yourself through your own behavior or from a breakdown in a process or system, then jump right in and take steps to clear it. Sure, it may require some hard work; but if you can take care of the matter, then do so without hesitation.
However, not all bottlenecks lie within your purview. Dependencies—blockages you have little or no direct control over—may also hinder your progress.
Dependencies occur when you have to wait for others to do their jobs before you can move on to the next step in your own workflow. Sometimes they emerge from below, from end users or subordinates. More often, however, dependencies arise from lateral sources (co-workers at roughly your own level in the corporate hierarchy) or trickle down the chain of command from above.
Like it or not, you often have to depend on others for answers to questions, for approval or sign-off on work already done, for buy-in on projects or strategies, or simply to put work on your plate. Even though you have little control over these bottlenecks, you can’t just sit there and wait. So let’s look at a few ways you can smooth your workflow and maximize productivity even in the face of such frustrations.
Streamline Your Dependencies
While you can’t eliminate all the dependencies constraining your productivity, you can certainly eliminate some of them and make the rest easier to deal with. First of all, always make sure that the lines of communication remain wide open between you and the other person, and do your best to communicate with crystal clarity. Don’t beat around the bush, hem and haw, or couch your requirements in vague terms. Provide specific details up front, to limit the possibility of misunderstanding.
Once you’ve told your dependency exactly what you require and when you need it, work on getting buy-in on both points. This commits the person to action and helps solidify the deadline in their mind, so it has more urgency. In addition, express your willingness to work with them if something comes up that might threaten the integrity of your deadline. In all your dealings, be polite but firm and try not to badger. Just get an estimated completion date to commit to action and move on to the next bottleneck.
If an individual blocks your progress repeatedly, for whatever reason, you have two choices for dealing with the person. If necessary, you can attempt to find a work-around that bypasses them altogether. If you go that route, try to avoid conflict; leave going over their head as a last resort. Otherwise, try the direct approach: simply ask, politely, “What can I do to help get this done?”
When confronted this way, most people respond in one of two ways: either with anger (a reflection of the attitude that caused the bottleneck in the first place) or with complaints about the factors actually causing the bottleneck. In the latter case, immediately offer to pitch in and help them clear the blockage. You may find that you only have to implement a minor procedural change or requisition a new piece of equipment to set things right. So don’t hesitate to take a helping hand, if doing so can eliminate further problems for you.
Realize that you can’t clear every dependency in your workflow process, especially if you lack direct control over the people involved. Just deal with those you can, accept the ones you can’t, and move on. While you don’t want to forget about them, you don’t want to worry, either.
A Tickle for Your Thoughts
In addition to streamlining your dependencies, you’ll need to set up a system to remind you when to follow up with them. You can approach this task in many different ways: for example, you might use a chalkboard or whiteboard to track your follow-ups and reminders, or create a simple Excel spreadsheet that you check periodically. It doesn’t matter what method you choose, as long as it keeps you on your toes and “tickles” your brain, providing timely, reliable reminders about specific tasks, goals, and other information you need to see to at specific times.
Many people favor the classic tickler file: a series of individual cards, files, or folders that rotate through a chronological paper filing system. Most paper ticklers use the simple “43 folders” approach. For instructions on how to create one, click here.
You can easily translate the tickler file concept into electronic formats. Spend a little time exploring your email client to discover how it handles reminders and notifications; this should take no more than a few minutes.
If your company uses scheduling or calendar software, you can create reminders very easily. Let’s take a look at how to do it in Microsoft Outlook 2010, the most commonly-used software of this type. You can handle the task in several ways, though I consider the following the two easiest methods. First: for appointments or meetings, go into the Appointment or Meeting tab, find the Reminder drop-down list in the Options group, and simply select how soon before the event you want the reminder to appear (e.g., an hour, two hours, a day, etc.). For tasks or emails, go to the Home tab, find the Tags group, and click Follow Up. A drop-down menu appears, offering a number of options, including Add Reminder. Just click it and follow the simple directions. In both cases, a notification pops up on your computer screen at the appropriate time.
You can also use something like Nudgemail, a “freemium” email service currently in beta testing. Nudgemail lets you set up your reminders using a list of simple, intuitive commands that you just type into the address header of your regular email client before hitting “Send.” You can tell Nudgemail to send you an email a set number of days, weeks, or months from now, or you can specify a precise amount of time before you want to see the reminder: say, exactly five hours and 23 minutes in the future. As I write this in mid-September 2011, you can still use the Nudgemail system for free; but the creators intend to charge a nominal monthly fee once they present the system to the general public.
Even the best reminder system is useless if you can’t track down the people you need to buttonhole. Therefore, your babysitting system also requires a second component: a detailed contact list. Collect every last bit of contact data you can for each of your co-workers and colleagues: office phone number, cell phone number(s), email address(es), office or cubical number, physical address, their assistant’s contact info (if they have an assistant), even their IM address. Link that to their office manager’s contact information, just in case you can’t find them in any other way.
Once you have all that contact info in hand, track it in some form of contact management list, whether paper or electronic. You don’t need anything fancy, as long you make it easy to search (alphabetical is best), update it regularly, and can condense it into a portable form. You can always invest in the latest contact management software and schedule calls from there (we use Sage ACT! in our office). Or maybe a paper contact list stored in your Productivity Pro Day-Timer works better for you. You can always upload everyone’s business cards into a capture service like Evernote, which includes OCR (optical character recognition) capabilities that make it easy to search for the info you need.
If poorly handled, your babysitting system can morph into a nagging system: an annoyance to your co-workers that generates resentment and actually slows down your workflow. If misused with subordinates, it can easily turn into a micromanagement system that quashes individuality and kills productivity.
So don’t overdo it. Schedule reminders for basic mileposts and important requirements, not minor details. Never set a reminder just to bug someone in the middle of the task. And when you do track down someone for a reminder or to ask a question, and they response less positively than you hoped or expected, don’t bother them incessantly without giving them time to get the work done or find out what you need to know. Just check back occasionally, trying to be politely persistent (within reason). If they refuse to respond, you may have to go around them or over their head to get what you need.
While you can’t avoid occasionally bumping heads with other people, treating them with politeness and dignity while implementing your babysitting system does make the inevitable clashes less common.
Adventures in Babysitting
However you arrange things, your babysitting system should not only remind you to track people down when you need to, but also ensure you can track them down, no matter what. Like it or not, you have no choice but to take responsibility not just for your own actions, but for the actions of the people you interact with professionally as well—at least to the extent that their actions affect your workflow process.
No matter how well-intentioned, most people soon lose track of you and your issues in the daily struggle to handle their own…unless you make a sincere effort to remind them otherwise. So if you value your productivity, keep an eye on your dependencies, and don’t let them forget about what they owe you.