by Treb Gatte

Ending the ‘War on Work’: Improving team productivity and managing chaos

May 11, 20155 mins
IT LeadershipPersonal SoftwareProject Management Tools

Is your organization actively accommodating for chaos or are you simply working to get rid of it? Chaos comes in many forms, some external and some as unintended effects from other internal actions. Actively accommodating for chaos can reduce the war zone feeling in the work place and improve team productivity.

Are you working in a war zone?

It’s truly fascinating that we resort to war-based terminology when we feel crunched. We are under the gun. We meet in war rooms. We create battle cards and attack plans. Managers provide air cover for team members during status meetings. We use meetings like weapons of mass interruption. We act as if we are at war with our work.

In chaotic organizations, the waves of ad hoc tasks and unexpected fire drills make your employees feel like they are working in a war zone. Most chaotic events are handled as one off events without any regard to possible patterns. This constant churn of unrepeatable actions impacts team productivity as well.

Accommodating for chaos

Is your organization actively accommodating for chaos or are you simply working to get rid of it?  Planning your reactions to categories of chaotic events may be worth examining. Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” This is especially true in your organization.

Planning for ways to handle categories of chaotic events helps your organization cope better with the unexpected. Less time is wasted in determining what needs to be done. Analysis is applied to the situation to determine if the event is truly a one-time action or perhaps a side effect of a new emerging process. The tracking techniques previously discussed here might be a great place to start. When accommodations are well executed, chaotic events can provide new insights and ideas from which new services and products can spring. This process also has the benefit of potentially making the team more productive.

Cultures of interruption add to the chaos

Chaos comes in many forms, some external and some as unintended effects from other actions. We know from many studies that employees are most productive when they get flow time to work on tasks. However, we are also building cultures of interruption that encourage chaos under the guise of collaboration.

The rise of open floor plan offices has removed social cues, like the closed door, that we do not wish to be disturbed. It’s added a new layer of visual interruption as our primitive brain centers react automatically to any movement and draw our attention away from the task at hand. We also now have a plethora of collaboration tools, all seemingly screaming for attention. The net effect is that work is being interrupted on average every 10 minutes.

Collaboration is generally a good thing as long as it isn’t a detriment to getting work done. I had one person tell me that it felt like a vacation when they could get quiet, uninterrupted time to actually focus on their work. Unfortunately for them, this instance was during their vacation.

Technique to accommodate for chaos

I met with one local company who decided that actively accommodating for chaos could reduce the war zone feeling in the work place and improve team productivity. They did this using one simple workflow technique. They designate a daily on-call person to handle any random, chaotic request to the team. This allowed the rest of the team to use their ‘do not disturb’ statuses and uninterrupted work time to full effect as needed, yet allowed the team to be responsive to outside requests.

The Chaos Captain (my term) handles unplanned request tracking and communications, seeing the request through to completion. This ensures the team is reactive to the needs of other employees while keeping the team on track. At the end of their day, they spend a few minutes reviewing all requests received to ensure all requests are closed out and to look for recurring patterns. Recurring requests may mean a new process is needed.

The Chaos Captain is only on call for that day. This ensures that no one falls into the Cubicle Hero trap and tries to make a career out handling the chaos. It also benefits the person and the team in that each captain learns the overall workings of their own team and about the organization as a whole. By raising the organizational awareness of the team, they are able to leverage this knowledge to collectively suggest process improvements that benefit the team and organization as a whole.

Benefits of accommodating chaos

Many personal time management books discuss getting your top three tasks done per day to be productive. However, they never tell you how to carve out the time to do so. This is why organizational context is so important to productivity. If you focus only on personal productivity, it’s similar to walking across the deck of a cruise ship more efficiently. You’ll get to your spot on the rail quicker, but it won’t make the ship get to its destination any faster. Organizational context has the potential to raise the productivity of everyone. Working smarter within a time wasting organization will only take you so far.

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