August 19, 2016
If there’s one thing you can count on at work, it’s that goals change. Early in my career, I worked in IT, building servers, designing networks, and doing all kinds of things in the technology world. At one point, I was working for a company that was building a piece of hardware for the telecom industry. One of the engineering directors called me into his office and asked if I could quote some equipment for him. He wanted a server, an attached storage array, and a fiber module to connect it to other elements of the system.
“No problem,” I said, and off I went to build quotes, call vendors, and put together a solution. I came back a few hours later with the information and popped it on a desk with a cheerful “here ya go!”
That should have been the end of it, but 20 minutes later, I was back in his office.
“It needs to have a DC power supply.”
So I updated the specifications for DC power and sent it back to him.
“It also has to run Linux.”
Still no problem, I updated the quote again and sent it over.
“Oh, one more thing I forgot to mention, the whole system has to fit in 3U of a rack.”
At this point, I lost my cool. I stomped into his office and demanded an answer: Was there was anything else I needed to know about this configuration before I spent another hour researching and quoting?
There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to do your best work when expectations keep changing, and it’s even more of a problem when it happens to you and your team. As a manager, you do your utmost to steer the ship towards the goals and targets set by the organization. In the best of circumstances, those goals and targets are clear, and they don’t suddenly shift underneath you. But, we don’t always get to work in the best of circumstances.
What can you do as a leader when the finish line keeps moving, and goals change?
Anticipate – In my example above, I was so focused on putting a check mark next to the task on my list that I didn’t take the time to really inquire about the needs of the project. I should have sat down with him and asked questions about how and where this system was going to be used. As a manager, the more context you have about the goals and requirements, the better you will be able to anticipate some of the pivots that may be needed.
The 80% Rule – When you and your team are planning out your time allocations, don’t set yourself up for failure. I see a lot of teams setting expectations based on working at 100%. Then when something comes up (as it inevitably does) and goals change, they are stuck because everyone’s schedule is full. Plan for 80% and give yourself and your team some slack. If you don’t run into problems, you can always deliver early.
Stay in the loop – Many of you probably wear more than one hat. You might be a team leader, but you are probably also responsible for building some deliverables, doing sales work, or completing some other tasks alongside your management responsibilities. It’s easy to get head down in those other responsibilities and then be surprised by a change. But, one of a manager’s most important roles is to be a conduit for information. You need to keep your ear to the ground in leadership meetings, and keep the lines of communication open with your colleagues so you can hear about changes that may impact your team’s schedule.
We’d all like to work in a perfect world where expectations are clear, deadlines never change, and nothing disrupts the flow of productivity. Unfortunately, we don’t, but we can take steps to manage through unexpected changes, and help keep the team on track even when goals change.