Shifting Goalposts and Re-prioritising Tasks in Times of Crisis

Written by CMI Insights Friday 20 March 2020
Suddenly, Some Tasks Are Critical, and Deadlines Move Closer or Further Away to Accommodate This. How Do You Communicate How to Juggle This All While Working Remotely?
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Rule three in Murphy’s Ten Laws of Time Management goes like this: “Whatever you want to do, there is always something else you have to do first.”

All around the world, there are managers and leaders who’ve got that feeling right now. Priorities have been turned upside down as Covid-19 spreads. How on earth do you prioritise between finance, HR, operations when each one is critical?

One senior operations director in the entertainment industry – himself juggling urgent cash-flow forecasting, moving a team of 70 to homeworking, organising two young children at home – this week told us: “your first priority is to stabilise the base.” Only then can you move onto the new challenges facing the business and how you’re going to adapt.

A lot of time you’ll just have a feeling for the true priorities. Good managers will help you see them, too, and should communicate them with clarity and simplicity. A lot of the time the important thing is to keep things moving. Yes, look at the data, give yourself time to reflect and get other perspectives, but try to maintain momentum. Priorities will shift, some issues that feel critically important right now may slip down the list later in the day. But your positive energy will help others to find their own way through.

These are difficult days and difficult issues, and we’ll keep returning to them in the coming days and weeks. For now, we dived into CMI’s ManagementDirect resource and spoke to some expert managers to help you plot a path.

Be the Leader You Need to Be at That Moment

Understandably, in the initial adjustment period, you may need to take a more directive style of management and take the lead on decision-making. This can help to show your team that you’re there to provide support and guidance. As the team gets used to the new working environment and processes, though, it’s important to give your team the autonomy they enjoyed when working in their office. Making your team feel in control of their own workload will reiterate a message of trust. On ManagementDirect, our ‘048 Empowerment’ checklist takes you through practical ways you can give autonomy to your team, such as ways to monitor development, communication tips, and setting clear boundaries. The benefits of an autonomous team are numerous – they are more productive, have more job satisfaction, and are more confident when the team is problem-solving.

You may want to gen up on the ‘situational leadership’ model pioneered by Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey. You can see the model and more on the four different fundamental leadership styles – directing, coaching, supporting and delegating – on ManagementDirect.

In our Quality of Working Life report, we found that “effective scheduling and prioritisation of responsibilities are likely to enhance feelings of control.” Let your team use their own agency – at this point in time, your priority at first should be identifying any problems that remote working causes to your team and coming up with solutions. Once the initial kinks have been ironed out, you can focus on productivity.

Dial-up Your Skills

To set priorities from afar, “managers need to be self-aware,” says Russell Harlow, executive coach and master facilitator at TMA World. “Because of the remote nature, one very important and fragile element is trust. For me, it's a part of everything.”

He recommends checking with your assumptions that someone isn’t doing work just because you can’t see them doing it. In order to build this mutual trust, you need to set clear objectives and timeframes; in doing so, your team will feel motivated, and when the deadline is met you’ll know that they’re still working hard. Make conscious efforts to “over-communicate.”

Let Go of the Unimportant Things

In her book on time management (available on CMI’s ManagementDirect), author Polly Bird dedicates a section to “How to let go of the unimportant things”. Here’s her guidance:

“You know that it is important to let go of the unimportant things, but how can you do that when faced with a list? Many people are reluctant to let go of even the most unimportant tasks because they are afraid that they will miss something. You need three techniques to help you overcome the need to keep unimportant tasks on hold – delegation, holding and destruction. Between them these techniques will help you overcome your fear of letting go.

“First, decide if any tasks that are unimportant and non-urgent for you are in fact important and/or urgent for other people. If so, pass these tasks on to the relevant people immediately. Cross them off your list. Once these tasks are delegated they are no longer your problem. If they cannot sensibly be delegated you can use the holding plan.

“Write down any unimportant and non-urgent tasks that you cannot bring yourself to let go of into a separate notebook. Keep it somewhere out of sight. You will find that you rarely think about the tasks in it. By the time you do look at it most things will be irrelevant or no longer necessary. This is a good way to wean yourself off retaining unnecessary work.

“Finally, the best way of freeing yourself from these unimportant and non-urgent tasks is simply to cross them off your list whenever you recognise them. As you should be looking at your list of goals and objectives and tasks every day it should become easier to spot the things that will simply be a waste of time. Be firm, cross them off now. Once you have trained yourself to spot them and remove them you will free up a lot of time for more important things.”

Set Clear Goals

In a Manager’s Voice Survey in December 2018, the top three structured management practices were:

  • Regular meetings with their team and appraising their performance (84%)
  • Having targets for their team with delivery timescale (76%)
  • Dealing with underperformance quickly (67%)

All of these regular working practices are more than achievable from home - but the key difference is communication. You’ll need to be crystal clear in how you set expectations and objectives - leave no room for misunderstanding. What makes this a challenge in a virtual team is that you can’t walk over to them for a quick chat, or they can’t show you a problem they’re having on their screen - so you need to consciously simplify your language. We suggest setting SMART objectives as such:

  • Outline the expectations of a task, i.e. which parameters the employee is working inside
  • Immediately send over supporting documents or written briefs for their reference
  • Specify the time and date the task must be completed, leaving any room for your checks and approvals
  • Specify a catch-up chat halfway through the timeline, so you can ask or answer any queries

Finally...Take Each Task as It Comes

We all know that we’re in an unprecedented time – so while business continuity is an important part of ensuring your business’s survival during this time, we should all try and avoid the doom-and-gloom mindset.

Murphy’s 10 laws of time management are a fantastic way to inject a little bit of humour into these unsettling days:

  1. Anything can go wrong, it will do so
  2. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems
  3. If you mess with something for long enough, it will break
  4. If you try to please everybody, somebody won’t like it
  5. Nothing ever works out exactly as you expect
  6. Whatever you want to do, there is always something else you have to do first
  7. If you explain something so that no one could possibly misunderstood, someone will
  8. Nothing is ever certain until it has happened (and then you should check it more than once)
  9. If everything goes according to plan, then it is a sure sign that something is about to go wrong
  10. The only predictable thing about your day is that something totally unexpected will happen

The key takeaway here is that while we always have the best intentions with time management, sometimes life gets in the way. In situations like we find ourselves in, there will be many speed bumps on the road to success.

CMI Members can sign into ManagementDirect for more guidance on setting goals, reevaluating priority tasks, and managing an entirely virtual team.

Not a member? See all of the ways we can help you during this time of crisis and beyond here.