Career Opportunities

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A weekly ComputorEdge Column and Podcast by Douglas E. Welch

Making a list

August 18, 2004

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No matter the focus of your high-tech career, there is always too much to be done. This computer is broken, the network is down, several pieces of software are already out of date. When there is so much pressing business, though, you can easily lose sight of exactly what needs to be done. You spend your time racing from crisis to crisis and never get a sense of the big wave that is about to crash over you.

The Master List

It may sound odd to ask you to develop a “master list” of every known problem or issue when you feel like the world is crumbling around you, but that is exactly what I am asking you to do. You need to take 10 minutes, an hour, a day, even a complete weekend to get a grip on everything that is clamoring for your time.
Without a comprehensive list of everything, you have no good idea what problems need the most attention. Like medical triage, you need to take the most urgent cases first, without neglecting those problems that need care eventually. You can’t triage effectively unless you have a clear idea of all problems and their individual needs. Your attempt to solve a large, long-term problem will always be thwarted if you don’t put out (or, at least, slow down) the smaller fires, first.

This is especially true if you are responsible for leading a team of workers. There is no way to effectively manage a team if you don’t know what needs to be done. Without a master list, your team will be pulling in 100 different directions because, just like you, they have no concept of the big picture. It is your job to create the big picture and then match your people to the effort where they can have the most effect. Sure your hardware guy can troubleshoot some software problems, but your software expert could probably do it in a fraction of the time. The master list allows you to not just throw a person at a problem, but actually throw the right person at the right problem.

Write it down

So, what goes into a good master list? Simple. Everything. Everyone on you team, from intern to Director/VP should take a set amount of time and dump all their concerns into their word processor. I think this is best done separately, allowing each person to focus on his or her major concerns, before getting the team together. Hopefully, in this way, they won’t censor themselves as much and truthfully relate what needs to be done. Creating these lists electronically, even as a simple document, will speed the next step – consolidation and triage.

Gather up all the individual lists and start scanning them for “Critical” items. These are problems that could directly affect productivity, financial stability or the very stability of your job. These items should jump out at you. Don’t be surprised, though, if you come across a few problems you have never noticed. Your staff can often keep the worst problems to themselves, hoping to figure out a solution before they have to come to you.

As you go through the list, start establishing some priorities. These don’t have to be perfect, they are only to give you a starting point. Move the text around in the document and float the critical problems to the top and the less critical ones toward the bottom. As you perform this triage problems will start to sort themselves out very quickly. When you have done one or two passes through the list, it’s time to get everyone together.

Focus, Focus, Focus

Get everyone involved a copy of the master list, not matter how long it may be. Get it to them a few days ahead of any meeting you might schedule, and give them the task of adjusting or annotating any of your priorities. Should #130 be above # 50? Should the accounting project be given lower priority? This process will take some time, but once you establish the top 10 problems, you are ready for the next step.

Take these top 10, or top 5, pick one and get to work. Don’t worry about the others until you feel that you have some handle on this “most important” problem. It may sound impossible to focus on one issue so relentlessly when people are clamoring for your time, but I guarantee you that the progress you make will be worth it. Once you feel like that issue is working towards some sort of solution, then you can move to #2 and so on.

Solve the big ones to solve the small ones

As you work through this process, you will start to see a trend. As you start to handle some of the larger issues facing you and/or your department, the smaller issues will start to take care of themselves. Too often, the small issues are merely symptoms of the larger ones. Focusing on one major problem solves more than that problem, it clears up the symptoms that that problem was causing.

In the never-ending race of day-to-day crisis management you can easily lose sight of the big picture. Taking the time to survey exactly what you need to do will let you be more productive and focus on the issues that really should be holding you attention. Don’t let distractions and crisis limit your effectiveness and the direction of your high-tech career.


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