What is Your Team's Most Important Work?

Why does your team exist?  Or, to put it a bit more concretely, how specifically does your team contribute to your organization's success?  This may seem like a silly question, especially if you manage a support team such as a help desk or payroll department, but being able to answer it could help you and your team to be far more productive.  

There are so many things we can spend our time on - e-mail, meetings, special committees, projects, etc. - that feeling "busy" is never a problem.  What's missing is a sense of purpose, that our work actually matters.  The catch-22 is that we're too busy to find the time to figure out what we should and shouldn't be being busy with, so the problem just continues.  I recently read a framework that could be helpful in solving this dilemma, though, and it should only take 20 to 30 minutes to work through.  

In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport introduces a framework for how to determine whether or not a particular tool (primarily social media) adds or subtracts from your key purpose:

"The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life.  Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts."  - Cal Newport, Deep Work

This is a good process to go through for social media tools, but the framework is relevant to far more than that.  The vast majority of things you give your time and attention to should  add to your key purpose, too.  What's great about this model is that it makes (almost too-obvious) sense once you think about it, and it's relatively simple to implement.  There are only two components to the framework, which I've adapted slightly to fit a manager's purposes:

  1. Define your team's key purpose.  This shouldn't be too vague "support the organization's success" or too specific "implement upgrades for XYZ system," but more in the middle.  Think about how your team's work matters to the organization.  For example, if you manage an internal IT help desk, your team's key purpose could be "ensure that Company A's employees have the technical support and tools they need to do their work as effectively and productively as possible."  
  2. Identify the two to three main activities that best help your team reach that goal.  To continue with our help desk example from step 1, key activities to support the team's purpose could be "anticipate and address potential impacts to employee's productivity" and "stay informed about best practices and tools for enterprise technology."  Notice how the focus on employee productivity (rather than, say, customer satisfaction) in step 1 means that a key activity couldn't just be something like "resolve help desk tickets within 48 hours on average," because that anticipating problems would be even more helpful.  

Your team's purpose and key activities will vary, but the point is that by identifying these things and making them explicit, you help your team to focus its time and efforts more productively.  You also may inspire some of your employees to think more broadly about their role.  "Resolve help desk tickets within 48 hours on average" isn't very inspiring, but "stay informed about best practices and tools for enterprise technology" could drive all kinds of ideas and suggestions from your employees.  

Warning: By clearly defining your team's real purpose and narrowing down the activities that support that purpose, you will inevitably identify tasks that your team currently does that don't fit the new model.  Your employees will also probably identify additional new things they need to support the purpose, such as continuing education or time to address systemic problems.  

This is a good thing, but in the short term it will just add to the chaos and busy-ness you're currently dealing with.  You can use an effort-impact grid as a quick way to determine what actions to take (or stop) first, and which ones to deal with later.  If convincing your boss to get rid of the unhelpful and non-mission-supporting weekly all-staff meeting will be a really difficult conversation, start with something that will demonstrate what your team can accomplish in an hour so that you can make a compelling business case for getting rid of the meeting. The idea isn't to change everything all at once based on your newly defined purpose.  It's to start being more alert to which activities and projects support that purpose and which don't (or worse, detract from it).

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