how to make your team’s operations less complex

Ask anyone who has ever worked on a team of people (i.e., most of us) whether they’ve ever felt that the team’s processes and operations were overly complex and you’re likely to hear a resounding “yes.” After all, if you’re doing work yourself, it’s generally pretty straightforward. But add more people to the mix, and it’s not long before you’ve got processes, procedures, decision-making protocols, and bureaucracy. And of course, even though “bureaucracy” is often used as a dirty word, the reality is that you need some of this when you’re managing a group of people, or you’ll end up with chaos: people working at odds with each other, work being duplicated or not done at all, and important details being missed.

But managers can use these four tactics to reduce complexity on their teams – and make their teams more effective as a result:

1. Be relentlessly committed to setting and meeting clear goals. It sounds simple, but far too often managers don’t lay out clear, targeted goals for their team to meet and instead simply tread water or get pulled in too many directions instead of figuring out what the most important things for them to achieve are and focusing there. Clear goals can cut through the noise and make it easier to see what matters most – what must be done in order to have a successful year (or quarter or whatever your goal period is).

2. Talk explicitly about what NOT to do. Clear goals only have power if you’re disciplined about working toward them – which in some cases will mean saying “no” to other activities. If you say yes to anything that sounds like a good idea – or if you let your staff do that – your focus will dissolve, your time will be spent less effectively, and you’ll find your team pulled in too many directions and trying to juggle too many projects. Instead, be rigorous about asking what the best uses of your team’s time are – and deliberately choosing not to do things that don’t fall in that category.

3. Be clear about roles and who is in charge of what. Getting multiple perspectives can be a good thing, but too often it devolves into confusion when people aren’t clear on their roles and projects languish for lack of a clear driver or decision-maker. In projects where multiple people are playing roles, be vigilant about articulating who should play what role throughout the work – who should own the project (with overall responsibility for its success), who should act as a helper to the owner, who should be consulted, and who must approve it.

4. Invite and welcome input from your team on how to streamline processes. Often your staff members will be better positioned than you are to spot inefficiencies and ways to streamline your systems. But you won’t hear about it unless you create an environment that welcomes and rewards that kind of input. For instance, try asking, “If we were to stop doing one thing this year, what should it be?” and “What’s one system we have that makes it harder for you to get things done?”

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase. 

{ 17 comments… read them below }

    1. Thomas*

      Project management software is a tool to accomplish the things that AAM set out. The software won’t do it for you, and unless the management sets the parameters, is not much use. Clear management along the lines of what AAM laid out will have an impact regardless of the tool used to communicate and monitor the roles, responsibilities, and tasks.

    2. A jane*

      A PPM tool won’t help an organization unless you have addressed the basics that AAM mentioned. If managers aren’t managing, the tool won’t magically make things better. If people weren’t following processes before, why would they do it on a fancy PM tool?

    1. Ruffingit*

      Amen. I worked at a place where a point person would be designated for things, but then people wouldn’t follow that designation and there were no consequences for not doing so. Therefore, parts of a project I was responsible for would end up being created by several different people, I would never get a copy, etc. I finally gave up bothering to try and manage it, it wasn’t worth it and I knew I would be leaving that place soon anyway. You can only beg for organization for so long before you have to realize that if the owner/manager doesn’t care, then you really can’t either. You do what you can and you move on.

    2. Bea W*

      #3 and #4 – I have spent the last couple months developing some cross-department processes, and these two apply 100x over to that. #4 means we have the final working process a bit later, but when you dictate what another department does without getting feedback on it from them about how it would work in their department, it’s like wishing it to fail. If I had someone a procedure that is pure crap to execute on their end, I’m going to end up with pure crap.

  1. Lizabeth*

    Great ideas…will be passing this one to my boss to see if it helps deal with a certain coworker. How about addressing the opposite problem (you may have already done this but I’m in a chocolate haze today!) where people overly complicate a simple process? We’ve got one of those that makes any type of meeting more like a tooth pulling with no drugs.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I would like to hear what others have done in situations like this too!
      “Well what will we do if it rains on Tuesday at 2 pm?”
      What do you do when you hear that collective groan and know that everyone in the group is just tired of fighting it. No one has the energy any more. The person honestly does not realize that they are throwing up so many hurdles they are killing the project.

      1. Chinook*

        If you have the person who is always worried about worst case scenarios, the team leader needs to express that they are confident in the teams abilities and expertise to know when to deviate from the plan. The reality is that, once you know what the “rules,” true skill comes from knowing how and when to break them. This holds true to everything in life from grammar to the laws of physics.

        1. Jessa*

          Exactly. You have to have the RULES in place first. The basic procedures that work for 98% of the time before you can talk about the 2% legitimate exceptions.

  2. Lora*

    Also? Too many cooks in the kitchen. I just took over a project where every single piece of paper has no less than 9 approvers. They all have vastly different ideas about whether a document should say “also” or “too,” the correct usage of “they’re,” “their” and “there,” and whether a summary of a document belongs first or last in the document. But definitely not both, because that would be redundant.

    Much easier if you pick three key people, announce that they have the final word and all their decisions are final, and stick those three people in a room until it’s done. Furthermore, those three people need to be in non-overlapping groups, and they have to be disciplined about sticking to only the part of the project that is in their scope. If they get over-eager, they need to be able to dial it back and let their colleagues contribute with their expertise.

    1. Chinook*

      I’m sorry but there is only one correct way to use”their, there and they’re” (unless they are choosing to break the rules for artistic reasons ). How is this a debate?

  3. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

    I love it when there is an AAM topic that’s in my wheelhouse.

    My direct report team manages an enormous amount of ever changing information, presented in different media, and are the hub of this for customers, customer facing employees, internal employees and vendors. There’s more detail that goes into teapots than one could imagine.

    #2 is SO important. My staff is so good that they handle 1, 3 and 4 virtually on their own, other than my managing large, mission statement type or year long goals. #2 is where I come in. I am constantly deflecting demands on their time that would keep them from being able to accomplish more important things.

    #2, saying no, used to happen a lot more internal to my team. Gladys would get a great idea that wasn’t practical or achievable or on point to mission critical. I hated telling her no but I did it anyway, explaining the reasons I was choosing to pass on that idea. After some time, this happens rarely now because I’ve taught my team how to make time cost/benefit choices. Now I’m mostly playing goalie on things external to my team, protecting them so they can focus on the good choice projects they’ve created.

    Here’s a rule that saves me: the 80% rule. (This works in our environment but not, say, in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals or bullet proof vests.) In our environment, working to 80% completion or 80% accuracy is best, most effective use of time. The last 20% takes up more time than all the rest, and produces the least benefit. Having this standard is a big part of #2 and allows us to be super productive to excellent, overall results.

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