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Feb 16, 2023 by Aron Korenblit

Are Managers To Blame For Bad Workflows? Yes And No.

As the in-house workflow expert, I’ll often get pings at the beginning of the quarter for my help on broken workflows. It makes sense: it’s the beginning of the quarter, everyone has good intentions. Ask any manager if they want more visibility into what their team is working on and how their team is performing and they’ll unanimously say “yes, absolutely I want that”.

So managers come to me to accomplish their goal of working better this quarter.

However, after a few weeks of improvements, the desire seems to peter out and the engagement will often end with “We’ve decided to focus on something else this quarter.”

Managers don’t lose interest in visibility and improving their team’s operation mid-way through a quarter — it’s that they don’t understand the trade-off they make when prioritizing better work.

Improving how you work is work

Let’s look at this from a manager’s perspective. The team you manage generated X widgets (blog posts, videos, engagements) last quarter. However, your team has highlighted issues in the way you work that they’d like fixed. So naturally you add fixing those issues to your objectives for next quarter.

But you also have a manager. And that manager sees that you generated X widgets so they want more widgets this quarter.

And this is where rubber hits the road: your team can’t generate more widgets than last quarter while also dedicating time to improve the way they work. The time involved in understanding your workflow, identifying improvements and implementing them isn’t dedicated to producing more widgets.

You’re caught in what I call the “valley of good intentions.” Cross that valley and you’re golden. But too often, teams never get to the other side.

Graph with two lines. An improvement line that dips initially and then go up and to the right representing output if the team focuses on improving workflows. The second, a status quo line that is linear and increasing. The improvements line dips below the status quo line but then overcomes it. The area between the two lines is called the "valley of good intentions".
Valley of good intentions

So, as a manager, you have to pick between two options:

1/ Produce less widgets in the short-term to improve your workflow and catch it up in the long-term

2/ Produce more widgets with your current broken workflow

Too often, managers perpetually pick #2!

What you can do (as a manager)

What is a manager to do in this pickle? The most important is recognizing that improving your work is work and making that trade-off clear to everyone involved. That could be saying you’ll produce less widgets:

We’re going to produce less widgets next quarter, but I expect these improvements to pay off in the following quarter.

That also means recognizing that the people responsible for improving workflows can’t maintain the same output and making clear to them as well.

I expect you to produce 10% less widgets in the next month as you implement improvements. Those lost widgets should be made up in 3 months as those improvements bare fruit.

It can be difficult to get folks to agree to such long-term improvements out of fear that you’re simply punting the problem forward. If you can’t secure that type of buy in, scope down the workflow improvements to simply understand what’s going on.

We’re going to produce a similar amount of widgets next quarter, but we’ll have our workflow diagrammed.

You’re not promising any improvements and your team isn’t on the hook for a huge revamp. This is clearly work, but it keeps expectations in check for everyone. It’s the difference between “I’m going to lose weight this year” and “I’m going to keep a journal of what I eat so I can eventually present it to a nutritionist.” One of those feels doable even while keeping everything else in your life constant.

As a manager, it can feel that you’re between a rock and a hard place. Remember, that the worst you can do is get the team excited about finally getting the time for improvements only to pull the rug on them a few weeks in. So I encourage to work hard to get buy in on improvements and commit. Or, if you can’t do, drastically scope down what you expect from your team and live with another quarter of complaints from your team!

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