Tag Archives: Productivity

The what-who-when of getting things accomplished

I’ve been working in organizations for close to a decade now, and one of the things that has continually intrigued me is failure, specifically, how certain things just fail to get done. It’s not that I’ve ever been any place where this is pervasive — I’m certain that it happens at every organization,  no matter the size, no matter how effective or efficient the organization is, no matter how great everyone who works there is.

Sometimes things don’t get done because people make a conscious decision not to do them. That’s not what I’m talking about here. (Those decisions are actually really good ones to make – they help us keep focused on what is most important!) I’m talking about the things that require completion but for some reason get lost in the shuffle.

Why does this happen? Most of the time, failed completion of a task comes down to one of four things:

  • Failing to define what task or next step will be completed
  • Failing to define who is responsible
  • Failing to define when it will be done
  • Failing to follow up

Failing to define what task will be completed

This is probably one of the least common failures of the four I list. Most of the time we’re pretty good about saying what needs to be done. The failure that I’ve most frequently noticed, however, is a failure of specificity.  If the next step is poorly defined, there are a few possible problems, most notably:

  • The person responsible may not correctly and fully understand what they’re supposed to accomplish.
  • If we are not specific about what needs to be done, how do we know when it is complete?

For example, if the next step on a documentation project is “Work on text about prospect management documentation,” it’s not clear what exactly would be accomplished. And if a person were being really literal, after “working on it” for five minutes, they could technically say they were done! Instead, a better step might be “Draft definitions for key prospect management terms.”  It’s obvious what needs to be done, and it will be pretty clear when it’s complete!

Failing to define who is responsible

This is also a relatively uncommon failure of the four, but still, it seems to happen. It can come from a statement like “We should really do X.” And everyone around the table nods and says something like “Yeah, that’s a great idea! Let’s do it!”

Great! We have decided that we are going to do that thing!

Of course the problem is, WE do not do things. Individuals do things. If the discussion about a task stops at the “we” level and no individual is assigned to it, it’s entirely possible that everyone at the table will assume that it’s the other guy’s responsibility.

In a well-organized department/division/unit/organization, areas of responsibility are usually clearly defined and universally understood, so the “who” part of the equation is implied. (e.g., Steve is in charge of managing the student workers, so when “we” agree that the student workers should be told to come in early on Friday, everyone understands that Steve is responsible.)

Of course areas of responsibility are NOT always clearly defined and universally understood, which is where things start to deteriorate. And even if roles are crystal clear, a next step can (and often does) fit into multiple areas. For these reasons, it’s always smart to explicitly define the “who” part of a next step.

Failing to define when it will be done

This is where things start to get interesting. (And, in fact, this particular issue is what prompted me to start thinking about this topic in the first place.) Some people, when talking about a task to be completed, very consistently provide a deadline. I’m not certain that those people are in the majority. Plenty of project discussions in which I’ve participated have been devoid of deadlines. We know who is doing what, but it’s not necessarily clear when they’re going to do it! If we’re lucky, the responsible party will pipe up and ask, “when does this need to be done?”

If nobody asks that question you can easily end up with a mixed bag of assumptions about when the task will be complete. One person might think it should be done by the end of the week, while the other might think they’ve got a month to take care of it. When that discrepancy is between a manager and her direct report, the conditions are just right for a potentially frustrating situation: if the manager expects the earlier deadline and it is missed, she is upset because things aren’t progressing according to (what she thought was) the plan; the direct report is upset because the “missed” deadline isn’t necessarily his fault!

So between the manager and her direct, whose responsibility is it to be clear about the deadline? Ultimately, deadlines are the manager’s responsibility. However, the direct always does himself a favor by asking when the deadline is. (If the direct is smart, instead of asking what the deadline should be, he’ll propose something that is optimal for him, and negotiate from there if need be. And if he’s really sharp, he’ll aim to end up with a due date that is far later than he really needs, so he can complete his task way ahead of schedule, and look good as a result!)

Deadlines also help impose a sense of urgency on a project. If no due dates are defined for each of the steps along the way, things can suddenly grind to a halt.

Failing to follow up

The success or failure of a project can hinge on whether or the right people are paying attention to each of the steps.

For one thing, follow-up – checking in to ensure that the right person is doing the right thing at the right time – keeps everyone accountable. If I know my boss is going to ask me about the task I promised to do by tomorrow, I am far more likely to ensure that it gets done. On the other hand, if I’m the only person who will notice that a step isn’t completed on time, I may not be as motivated to take care of it.  (Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying I’m incapable of self-motivation. There’s just more at stake when others might take notice of your failure to complete a task!)

Following up can also help fill in the gaps if the who, what, or when was not defined well enough in the first place. When I check in with my direct and say, “so you’re going to complete X by the end of the day Friday, right?” I reaffirm the who, what, and when of the task, and if any of those things is unclear, we have an opportunity to straighten that out. (And of course this check-in is a hint that I’m paying attention and will probably be bugging him again at the end of the day Friday if he hasn’t completed the task!)


The simplicity of these components is kind of stunning, so much so that I feel a little silly even writing this post. How hard is it to define who is responsible, for what specific step, by when? How hard is it to circle back and ensure that the task was completed when promised? Apparently it’s all just hard enough, because it’s not uncommon to see these small failures, even when working with excellent people at excellent organizations.

Can we get anything done when we fail in any of the areas described above? Sure. People still accomplish a LOT when the who, what, when, or follow-up is missing. But I suspect we can do EVEN MORE if we are more disciplined about our clarity in all these areas.


How do you know when to stop researching?

One of my favorite questions to ask candidates applying for open prospect research positions is “How do you know when to stop researching?” It seems like a pretty simple question, but for some reason many people – some of whom have more than a few years of research experience under their belts ­– don’t know how to answer it very well. A poor response to that question isn’t always a dealbreaker for me, but it’s close. Why? Because it tells me how efficient that person will be as a researcher.

Prospect researchers are often known for their willingness to hunt and hunt and hunt for information. This kind of dogged determination can be really beneficial – don’t give up until you find what you need! But the downside to this kind of behavior is that if a person isn’t focused in their efforts, they could spend a long, long time just wandering around the vast expanses of the internet, particularly late in the research process, when they have already gathered most of the easy-to-find information.

This type of aimless wandering can have a huge cost to the organization, as the return on time spent is rapidly diminished, and researchers miss an opportunity to turn their attention to more productive and impactful work. The only way to avoid ending up in this dead-zone of productivity is to know when to stop researching.

When I’ve asked people how they know when to stop, the poorer responses I’ve received have been along these kinds of lines:

  • “I’ll usually wrap it up when I’m about five or six pages in on my google search results.”
  • “When the search results are providing information on the wrong people, I know I’m about at the end of what I’m going to find.”
  • “I stop at about the two-hour point.”

Now imagine if I asked people a similar question, but instead of talking about research, we were talking about taking a trip in a car, and the question is “How do you know when to stop driving?” In this context, the responses I’ve heard would sound completely ludicrous!


  • “I’ll wrap it up after about five or six hundred miles.”
  • “When my car runs out of gas, that’s about as far as I’m going to go.”
  • “I stop driving after two hours.”

Obviously, if I ask you when someone should stop driving, the response is going to be “when they get to their destination.”

The same holds true for research. You stop researching when you’ve found the information you need. This means that a good researcher must define the research “destination” up front, so that he knows exactly when he has “arrived” and can wrap things up.

In some development shops, clearly defining what research is needed is one of the first challenges to overcome. People may make a research request by saying “Just give me everything you can find on Mr. Potentialdonor.” (Or to use the driving analogy, “Just drive really, really far going North.”) At that point, it is up to the researcher to ask good follow-up questions: What are you most interested in learning about Mr. Potentialdonor? Are you planning to solicit Mr. Potentialdonor, or are you just trying to decide whether or not he’s worth a visit? What are you hoping I’ll be able to find? These additional queries can help establish a clearer research destination, which means that the researcher will be able to provide what will be most helpful, and she will likely be able to do so on a much shorter timeline, without having to spend time looking for things nobody really cared about in the first place!

By knowing where we are “going” with our research, we will know when we can stop, without having to waste time dragging out the research process. This will ultimately pay great dividends by freeing us up to move on to other research “trips.”

Getting My Inbox to Zero (Almost…)

I got my inbox to just one message about a week back.  (See screenshot, below, for proof.)

Amazing, isn’t it?

No, I’m not trying to brag, in spite of the fact that this is a pretty big feat for me. When I returned to work from a 12-week parental leave in September, I had more than 3,000 messages in my inbox. MORE THAN THREE THOUSAND!!! This was the result of three and a half years of indecisiveness and the absence of a system for managing my messages.

So how did I find a way to beat back this electronic tidal wave? I set up a system, and I got more decisive. (Well, sort of.)

First, I needed places to put all these messages, so I established a “cabinet” of folders having to do with every topic for which I might want to save my emails. (I’d say there are about two dozen of them.) If I needed to save an email for future reference, it went into one of my cabinet folders.

I ALSO created a folder for emails that required action. If I needed to do something with/about an email, it went here.

And then there was the indecisiveness. “I don’t think I need this email later. But what if I really do?”

To manage this fickle beast, I created one more folder: Purgatory. Purgatory is where my messages go when I’m ready to send them to the great beyond, but I want to hold onto them for a bit longer, just in case. Folders stay in purgatory for two years. On the first of each month, I delete another month’s worth of two-year-old email.

Once my system was in place, all I had to do was chip away at the messages until they were all gone. It took about 7 months to get it done, spending about 5 minutes per day during my coffee break.

Now, I treat my inbox like an answering machine: a message in there is essentially like the blinking light on my phone. I read the message and move it: to my “Action Needed” folder, to a cabinet folder, to Purgatory, or to the trash. That’s it.

Google’s Chrome

Time magazine recently published an article extolling the virtues of Google’s web browser, Chrome. (See here.) One of their key points was that Chrome is substantially faster than its primary competitors, Internet Explorer and Firefox.

How could this be? I’d heard nothing about this, and Chrome seems to have been around for a while — long enough so that if it really were any good, there would have been some buzz. But there was none that I knew of. Far as I knew, Chrome was a dud (see also Land of the LostSnakes on a Plane, et al).

So the article came as something of a surprise to me, and it prompted me to try out Chrome. Turns out,  Google’s new browser is fast! Pretty much every page I visited loaded up much more quickly than Firefox (my first browser of choice). The setup was VERY easy and quick, and Chrome was smart enough to set itself up exactly how I had Firefox configured.

When I would use Firefox, I’d frequently run into problems with LexisNexis for Development Professionals — I’d initiate a search, and it would start thinking, and then it’d just stop. I’d have to hit reload or back (sometimes a couple of times) to get it to complete the search, and would typically take several seconds. (“Several seconds? Well, somebody call a ‘wah-mbulance…”) With Chrome, those seconds are pretty consistently reduced.

Being that I spend upwards of 75% of my day navigating the internet, every second counts. So this increased efficiency in a web browser was a welcome development. After just a day with Chrome, I’m pretty sure I’m a convert.

The only downside I’ve seen to this point is that Chrome seems to have a hard time working with Logmein.com, a program I use to work remotely. (Which was especially disappointing, considering that this seems to be one of the slower sites I access; I was hoping Chrome could come to the rescue here as well.) And, I suspect that there will be a few more inconveniences and downsides.

I have a hard time imagining what might persuade me to abandon Chrome — it’s fast, it’s easy, it’s slick, it’s free… Check it out!