How I know I’m focusing on the right things

… and what in the world do I do when I realize I’m not!?

I spend a fair amount of time, as a people manager, dealing with ‘fires’, everything from building a rush interview loop for a candidate with other offers, to escalating a show-stopping problem that appeared late in the working plan for a high-profile project, in the hopes that we finish something like on time (or, perhaps only kind of late…) You may have used the four quadrant model to identify a fire, in the past – fires are urgent tasks, which may or may not be important (refer to Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for more on the four quadrant model).

Fires represent one exciting part of my job, where I get an opportunity to act decisively, which appeals to me greatly; the high stakes that come with every fire keep me interested and stimulated, while letting me learn something new every day. (Learning motivates me more than most of the other verbs do.)

You may have already experienced one or more negative states in your work life, but when you have many urgent matters competing for your attention, you risk one or more of a state of overwhelm, making frequent errors and finding peer mistakes, or even your own and others’ burning out.

In order to ensure I stay on top of the ‘right things’ without simply working harder and thus overworking myself into a state of burnout, I create a rubric that helps me evaluate and prioritize among the many items jockeying for attention. For each project or deliverable, I ask myself:

  • Is this something that I / we may fix through some kind of preventative measure? If not, how do we generate a fix?
  • How do I / we measure success in this arena? We don’t want to work to produce an outcome we can’t perceive – and if we can’t measure it, we can’t perceive it.
  • What’s the expected lifespan and level of impact to deliver this control? (the ratio here should be favorable – if we work for 6 weeks to deliver a fix that will disappear in the next quarter, was it worth the effort?)
  • Number of owners or systems impacted? Who’s the customer, and how many of them are there? We generally prefer a greater impact over a lesser one, but sometimes (say in certain compliance cases) we may have to prioritize a fix for a smaller number of affected customers.
  • Number of resources impacted (e.g. groups, Teams)? There may be one owner or a single system, but there could be a much larger number of Teams, posix or ldap groups, etc. utilizing that system or reporting up through that owner. We should account for their numbers in our impact calculation, when relevant.
  • Is this a one-off or repeating request? Certain workflows repeat on a regular basis, e.g. quarterly or annually. If I know I will generate this report once a month, I am more likely to automate as much as I’m able vs. a one-off report that answers my manager’s singular inquiry.
  • Do I enjoy doing this myself (am I able to deliver on my own) or is this better delegated? You don’t want me writing your enterprise HTML or CSS, even though I’m theoretically able. However, if you want a 3 year plan or vision for our roadmap, I can whip that out no problem, and I enjoy learning about a team and our software ecosystem in order to draw a compelling vision that retains current employees and appeals to prospectives.

Once I have this data for each project or priority, I can play a kind of multi-dimensional Tetris that shuffles employees’ career goals, the business goals, and available projects and features so that we meet as many of these at a high-enough quality level, as close to on-time as we are able. For the items that I must deliver personally, I give a little extra thought and consideration to what I’m able to automate and what I’m not, and then craft a plan to deliver it – including blocking off what seems like an appropriate amount of time on my calendar to actually do the work. I monitor those stats, too, so that I can improve my estimations over time.

With the above, and with regular check-ins with stakeholders and leadership (including my direct manager) to improve my understanding of the business context & details of requirements, I know that I am pretty likely to be focusing on the right thing. I can’t always be 100% certain that I’m right, especially when I’m working mostly-autonomously. But I can be certain *enough* to get my work done, without blocking on outside input.

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