Preparing to Succeed: Six Ways Front End Work Assures Productive Success

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by Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States.

While a journey of a thousand miles really does begin with a single step (whether you’re hiking, driving, or flying), what you do before taking that step is crucial. There are always at least a few things you’ll need to prepare before you head out. For example: you wouldn’t go camping without packing a tent, sleeping bags, food, and a lighter, would you? So why go off half-cocked on a work project?

When starting a new project or task, few things are as crucial as the “front-end” work. Often, this is the sort of thing where you can adapt existing methodologies or create new ones before moving forward. Begin with the following steps:

  1. Select the right tools. Yes, you can use a flat-head screwdriver to loosen a Phillips screw, but it’s extremely inefficient, time-consuming, and frustrating. So, pick the proper tools to accomplish your job most easily. In most offices, this will consist entirely of the right programs, apps, and documentation. Determining what program and what format to create it in (word processor, spreadsheet, or presentation) is often half the battle.
  2. Pick the right people. You might consider this an extension of #1. The experience, skills, knowledge, and abilities of your teammates are critical tools. Match them with the individual aspects of a project, so you all enjoy the most efficient, problem-free project flow possible. Selecting the right human resources for you project requires careful thought; at times, it can be like assembling a complex puzzle. So, give it the time it needs.
  3. Share the planning. Once you have the above items in place, meet with everyone on the team and decide how to complete the project or task most effectively and efficiently. (I call this doing the right things right.) Your meetings may be physical or virtual but generally hybrid. This is the time for brainstorming, freewheeling, and hammering out the framework. This is true whether your team consists of ten people or just you. Lay out what you want to do and the drop-dead deadline. The team can help you break the project down into chunks and responsibilities. For your piece, determine each step, set milestones, and calculate how much you must do daily to accomplish them.
  4. Minimalize where possible. Here’s where you refine your preparations. Tighten up the planning. Trim any fat in the project’s procedure, timetable, and even the budget, assuming you have the authority. While “lean” concepts aren’t the best for every situation (as we learned from the scarcity of items like face-masks, toilet paper, cleaners, and hand sanitizers at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic), it does suffice for most projects and tasks. This is especially true when the knowledge, skills, and the abilities of the team make up most of the resources needed (aside from time).
  1. Build routines. Although over-reliance on routines can become a crutch that just gets you through the day on autopilot, routines often simplifies projects by reducing them to the least amount of work and resources necessary. They especially save time, once internalized, and don’t deplete your decision-making energy, because they require no decisions.
  2. Maintain mindfulness. Even when developing and performing time-saving routines, remain as aware as possible during the preparation phase of a project, and continue that on into the performance. Autopilot may be fine for minor things like making coffee, but constantly and consistently maintaining what the military calls “situational awareness” will make it easier to spot when something minor goes amiss before it magnifies into something devastating. You may not see it while on autopilot.

Ready to Rock

All of the above will get you off to a good start but take care not to fall into the pit of perfectionism. If you hunger to get everything just right and plan for every possible contingency, then you’ll likely run out of time or never get started. But you do need to get most of your ducks in a row; this is essential. And while you’ll never be able to plan for everything (consider the recent COVID-19 shutdowns), at least you’ll be able to cover all reasonable threats, and deal with most unexpected details on the fly.

© 2020 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.