my team member has too many ideas and can’t prioritize

A reader writes:

One of my team members is responsible for figuring out how we can manufacture new designs and making sure our old designs are still durable. And he’s great at it — he’s super-smart and keeps on top of the latest technology. He’s so great at this, in fact, that every month or so he’ll come up with a complex project to improve our old designs that will take multiple months to implement. He’ll insist it’s something we need. But my job is to balance the new work with the old, and he chafes at these limits. He gets visibly frustrated that the team can’t just take on these improvements as he comes up with them while also continuing with the old ones and completing new projects, and he hates that we have a list of his ideas that might never get worked on. In his mind, every improvement is equally valuable. If I ask for the top 10 out of 25, after much prodding he’ll say maybe we can drop one or two, but all the others are absolutely necessary.

However, I’m not his direct manager. If I were, I would’ve sat down with him and said, “Prioritization is a job requirement, we can work on it together, but the bottom line is you need to get better at prioritizing or else.” But I don’t have an “or else.” The team plans our workflow quarterly and weekly, which helps, but doesn’t put much of a dent in his long list of ideas. Do you have any tips for how I can push this team member to prioritize?

I answer this question — and two others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • My current employee asked me to be a reference in their job search
  • My employee married a coworker

{ 65 comments… read them below }

  1. 123*

    Man LW2 sounds like a manager I wouldn’t want to work for. Giving a mediocre reference for a good employee because you don’t want to lose them is horrible and really should make them reflect on how to do better. That could potentially mess with the person’s career. Yikes.

    1. olddog*

      In that manager’s shoes I might feel it is my ethical obligation to phone back, own that I felt taken aback and give a more positive reference (if that is the reference that person deserved). Also agree that the timeframe conversation could have had an impact on the staffer’s candidacy and was out of line.

      1. pally*

        Me too. Though I might wonder if doing so would only compound things -in a negative way.
        I sure would not want to be one who messes up other folks’ career aspirations -especially unintentionally.

      2. Medusa*

        The initial reaction is somewhat understandable, since it seems they were caught off guard. But I agree that the right thing to do would be to rectify the situation.

    2. Sloanicota*

      It was super weird for the opportunity to request speaking with her current supervisor, IMO, and the employee shouldn’t have suggested or encouraged it. I bet they realized that when the start date question came up, because they’re basically dealing with a conflict of interest at that point. Hopefully they had the good sense to take the manager’s comments with a grain of salt.

      1. Margaret Cavendish*

        I don’t imagine the employee suggested or encouraged it – very likely this is a requirement of her new employer. It’s a terrible requirement for all kinds of reasons, but it does happen.

        1. AnotherOne*

          yeah, I’ve heard of places that do this. I think in healthy offices, they understand that you either need to move up or you are going to move on. And I have friends who are managers who are always happy to give references to people, even if means losing them. (Part of that might be because she’s in an industry where people often change employers every few years.)

      2. Fluffy Fish*

        I have yet to apply for a job that doesn’t require a reference from your current employer and former employers.

        There’s many reasons it’s a problem, but my point is this isn’t something the employee advocated for – it’s the potential employers requirement and likely nothing the employee could have done.

        1. MigraineMonth*

          I don’t think I’ve ever applied to a job that required a reference from my current employer. Maybe they call to check employment dates, but I certainly wouldn’t want someone talking directly to my manager before I’d accepted an offer.

          1. londonedit*

            It’s fairly usual in the UK (in my industry, anyway) but the way it works is that references aren’t contacted until you’ve accepted the offer. It’s slightly pointless really, as it means that 99% of the time it’s just a formality, but you’ll get an offer ‘subject to references’ and at that point you hand in your notice and let your new employer know that they can contact your current boss for a reference.

    3. Peanut Hamper*

      True, but in all fairness to LW, it sounds like this was dropped on her in a relatively short time frame. She wasn’t even aware that her employee was looking to jump ship.

      The fact that she found out on the same day that she is expected to do a reference call probably threw her off quite a bit. I know that it would me.

      I’m not saying I’m okay with how she handled it, because she didn’t. But there are some extenuating circumstances here.

      1. Fluffy Fish*

        Most employers are not aware an employee is looking and aren’t until they get a call or a resignation letter. Those really aren’t extenuating circumstances but rather regular parts of doing business. I understand the impulse to be thrown off, but any manager should be aware that an employee can and will leave at any point in time.

        1. Lilo*

          You should never ambush a reference. Never list someone as a reference without asking them first.

          1. Fluffy Fish*

            Yes but we don’t know that’s what happened. It sounds like the employer was the one making the request to speak to the current manager. Unfortunately it’s something that some employers do.

        2. Peanut Hamper*

          Yes, but it is a little more complicated that just “employees leave all the time”. Nuance is required.

          1. Fluffy Fish*

            I’m not clear what you mean by nuance?

            Employers ever have the right to know an employee is looking/leaving so there’s really nothing to do but operate under the assumption you can lose an employee – whether due to an illness or because they accepted a new job.

      2. MCMonkeyBean*

        Yeah, they definitely acted in a way that is not okay but I actually also think it’s kind of not okay for the other employer to 1) ask for the call to be THAT DAY and 2) ask for a start date 2 weeks from the call, which was before an offer was even extended let alone accepted so the actual notice period would probably end up being much less than 2 weeks.

    4. Erin*

      Totally. How inappropriate & controlling to sabotage someone else’s career progress, just because they don’t want to lose a good employee. SMH.

    5. Seashell*

      I wouldn’t want to work for the new employer if they insist on speaking to the current employer. If that wasn’t the case, then LW’s employee was odd to list LW2 as a reference and, if they had to, at least not discuss it well ahead of time.

    6. Reluctant Mezzo*

      There used to be a school district in Arkansas who did this–if you worked there for more than two years, you were doomed to be stuck there (unless you left teaching, probably for a huge raise. Though other districts in the state were aware of this practice and soon learned to discount the rating unless accompanied by police reports).

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      That update was really boring. Which is actually a good thing. It’s nice when problems get solved without any drama.

      1. Sloanicota*

        That’s so often (but not always) the case, which I think is actually very revealing. Most office dramas aren’t that important a year later, because people move on to other things. Something I try to remind myself of when I am embroiled in an office drama.

    2. Toxic Workplace Survivor*

      These sorts of replies are among my fave Alison posts. As a new manager and especially in the years before that as an “unofficial leader”, I struggled with not knowing how to have a hard conversation because I didn’t understand what I could do or say if the other person pushed back! Without the power of an “or else” I felt I had no ability to get what I needed.

      It really is about preparing to explain the consequences (not all the work can get done and we have to prioritize, you aren’t the only person suggesting projects, whatever) and knowing what deliverables are within your set of responsibilities. Examples of what that looks like in practice are so valuable.

  2. Random Dice*

    LW3 assuming that marriage between people in different departments would of course create issues is pretty out of line.

    1. RaginMiner*

      +1 on this- it seems like OP is concerned about how working together will impact their marriage/relationship which is not really their place.

    2. Peanut Hamper*

      I think it’s an attempt to be proactive when there really isn’t anything to be proactive about. This is work, not high school. You need to trust people to act professionally until they give you a reason to not trust them.

      1. Andy*

        I think you might be right and that’s a very generous lens to view the Q thru. I assumed that LW was a busy body, but stepping over the line between ‘looking out for trouble’ and ‘trouble’ can be scarily easy if you are well meaning but have busy body tendancies.

    3. MCMonkeyBean*

      Yeah, I was confused about that one because it didn’t sounds like there was any concern about their actual jobs just… their office locations? Was OP worried they just couldn’t keep their hands off each other at the office? Also–if they just got married then presumably they were in a relationship for a while *before* that so I’m not sure why there would be any reason to think they would suddenly become less professional.

  3. Michelle Smith*

    I would have recommended introducing the idea of the impact/effort matrix to LW1. Maybe it wouldn’t have changed the team member’s frustration, but it would have at least opened the door to a conversation about prioritization and the distinction between things that are quick wins vs. wasted efforts.

    1. Sloanicota*

      The ones on Inc, Slate and NYMag are posted elsewhere and re-posted here; only the Inc ones are old letters being re-answered, I think. There’s plenty of first-run questions here every day though.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        That’s correct — Inc. columns are always reposts of letters from the archives here (and the number of those hasn’t changed in years). Everything else is new content, generally four posts a day (unless I’m on vacation, in which case it’s clearly labeled as a reprint).

  4. Sharon*

    LW1: Whose role is it to sort through Idea Man’s ideas and decide which ones to implement? Is it your role, Idea Man’s, or Idea Man’s manager?

    You said “My job is to balance the new work with the old” so can you make the problem more concrete and say “we have X hours of staff time to devote to new initiatives, how shall we spend them this quarter?” to whoever is the person in charge of making those decisions? If it’s Idea Man’s job to make the decisions, and he can’t, can you go to his manager and tell them you need either a decision or an increase in resources?

    1. MCMonkeyBean*

      Yes, it seems like Idea Man should have *some* opinions on which of his ideas are more important than others and he definitely needs to work on being able to deal with the fact that they can’t all be acted on, but I would think ultimately the prioritization would fall on someone more senior than him.

  5. ecnaseener*

    I don’t know if I agree with the answer to this one (just using LW’s script minus “or else”). The whole script feels like something that should really only come from your manager – “X is a job requirement” would probably get my hackles up coming from someone not in charge of evaluating whether I’m meeting my job requirements. I think it could be reframed as “our team needs to set priorities and make sure the day-to-day work isn’t disrupted by process improvements, I need you to stop pushing when I’ve decided an idea can’t start right away,” etc.

  6. Rick Tq*

    It sounds like your visionary needs to be educated or reminded about resource constraints and cost/benefit analysis. He has a LOT of great ideas but he doesn’t seem to care how much effort is required for each one. Does he do some kind of cost vs payback analysis for each improvement? If not, that is something he needs to be doing along with estimating the effort required to make the changes.

    With cost/benefit and effort required for every suggestion he should have a much better understanding on what improvements should be done (low effort, high benefit) and what ideas sound good but aren’t worth pursuing.

  7. sunny days are better*

    I would never give my current manager as a reference for a job that I was applying to. I just can’t imagine how that could ever end well.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      I think it depends. If you know that lay-offs are coming, or possibly coming, or if you know that you have an otherwise good employee who is in a dead-end position, as a manager you should do what you can to help them out. And if you’re a good manager, they should be able to trust you and not give you a lukewarm reference.

      But yeah, right not I’m looking for something new just to make more money and bring me up to market value, and I’m not sharing that information with my manager until I absolutely have to.

    2. Ash*

      Same. Even if you like your manager I can’t imagine asking them to be a reference while I’m still employed there AND asking them to do it the same day! The rug was pulled out from under the manager & I can’t blame them for their reaction.

    3. JanetM*

      My university absolutely requires the hiring manager to have a one-to-one conversation with the candidate’s current manager before an offer can be made.

      My manager and I both think this is a horrible idea, but policy is policy.

      1. pally*

        It is horrible. What will the university do if I comply, don’t get hired and my current manager decides to fire me? I’ll tell you what the university will do: absolutely nothing.

        Why should I have to take that risk?

        I’ve had to withdraw from more than one job for this very reason. Can’t risk it. Never know what some managers will do when they learn a report is job searching.

      2. Grogu's Mom*

        Requiring a current manager reference is very common in higher ed. In fact, having spent the majority of my career in higher ed, I had no idea it wasn’t common generally until reading AAM. I think I’ve only had maybe two higher ed jobs (in a 16-year career) that didn’t call my current manager, and for both of those the application required that I provide a list of references including my current manager, and they just opted not to call them (or if policy required, they “forgot”). What typically happens in my experience is that it is the very last step (or concurrent last step with a background check) and is only done with 1 final candidate, so basically you know you are very likely to be offered the job pending the call with the manager. In some cases, I’ve gotten an offer letter that includes the current manager contingency; most jobs it was verbal only. From what I’ve seen even a lukewarm reference would be fine at that point, and it’s assumed that the current manager is not going to be too happy about it/won’t be overly gushing It’s also not unusual for the current manager to ask for extra time like this LW did (this happened with my current job), but most of the time the new manager just says no, we need them right away. The other references are contacted much earlier in the process and have real weight in distinguishing between candidates. The current manager thing is definitely not great, but it is normal for the field unfortunately.

        1. GammaGirl1908*

          Yikes. This makes it even worse that it doesn’t even have much weight in the process. There’s still always the possibility that something could go wrong.

      3. AskACoworker*

        I’ve never worked anywhere where it would be considered okay to tell your current manager you were actively looking for work, let alone have them give a reference while you still work for them. I can pretty much guarantee you’d be pushed out at the first possible opportunity.

        Asking a coworker you trust to act as a reference is the correct answer. I have old jobs where I do that too because they’re more tied into what I did or the manager was a jerk or for some other reason, but for a current job it is the only viable option.

    4. Alex*

      I work in higher ed and they required THREE MANAGERS as references (plus other references as well). Unless you switch jobs frequently, it’s near impossible to do without your current manager. If you stay at a job, say 5 years, that’s….15 years of job history they wanted me to go back! They also only gave me 24 hours to respond to the request (and I had no idea that these were the requirements before the 24 hour period).

      I kind of fudged the definition of “manager” for mine and luckily they accepted it but it was a huge struggle and 24 hours of panic.

    5. House On The Rock*

      When I left my previous job for my current one, that’s in the same large institution, my old boss was offended that I hadn’t asked him for a reference. He was the sort to think he was buddy buddy with everyone, especially higher ups, and clearly wanted to have some “in” with others and be able to say he did something for me (dysfunctional doesn’t begin to describe this guy).

      When I gave my notice, he actually blurted out “why didn’t you tell me, I could have helped you get the job, I’m friends with people there!” to which I responded “well I didn’t need help, since I got it!”.

      Even after that he reached out to my new boss to say some weird, backhanded compliment stuff about me (along the lines of “she’s booksmart”). I can only imagine the “reference” he would have given!

  8. Edward Williams*

    Manager #2 is being wildly unethical (downplaying the virtues of an employee needing a reference). Dear Manager #2: If you don’t want to have to replace employees, resign your manager role. Replacing employees is part of your job. If you don’t want good employees to leave, stand in front of a mirror and ask the person you see there how to be a more competent manager.

    1. Carol the happy elf*

      I wasn’t ever really in charge of hiring, but have been asked to sit in when they called the current manager. Current Boss very sternly said, “Well, I’m sorry, but you can’t have him.”

      “I know this is fairly sudden, so would you need us to push back his start date here by four weeks? That would line up with our fiscal new—-”

      “Maybe you weren’t listening. I need him, and you can’t have him!” This current boss was sounding incredibly petulant and Most Put Out.

      Personnel learned two important truths. 1) This new hire needed to get out of Old Company for his own mental well-being, and 2) We now REALLY WANTED THIS DUDE IN OUR COMPANY!
      I guess there’s a third: Snatching a toy from another kid is POWER. We paid him a much higher starting salary. He was worth it.

  9. TPS reporter*

    doesn’t it seem odd for the hiring manager in 2 to require a current manager reference, especially since they very recently worked with the employee? it’s almost like hiring manager wanted a face saving opportunity. it’s not a good position to be in for the employee. hiring managers please do not require this. my company would also not allow me to give a reference.

    1. MigraineMonth*

      My first professional job was for a company that didn’t allow any managers to give references. Applying to other jobs after they fired me was awful.

  10. Mill Miker*

    I’ve been the employee in the first letter before, although on projects that had been pretty neglected. So many things were “this should have been dealt with a year ago when it was first noticed, and now it’s gotten so much worse.” And it really was a case of “All of these are critically important and need to be done ASAP” which I know drove my boss crazy.

    She wanted to be able to sort by “highest priority first” and by “smallest time estimate first” and they were all equal priority, and whatever one we tackled first would take the most time (because each fixed problem made the others easier to fix). Someone with the authority to assign work just needed to pick one and assign it (I did not have this authority).

    When I left, most of the problems were still there, and still getting worse, because no-one could objectively prioritize them.

    1. MigraineMonth*

      There’s a type of project that’s critical but not urgent, and it never seems to get prioritized correctly. Maintaining that bridge isn’t critical until the bridge falls down, at which point it’s extremely urgent and takes a lot more effort to fix.

      1. Mill Miker*

        “Which pillar of the bridge should we fix first? Or are some of these requests for replacement cables more important?” and then after the bridge collapses, “Which pieces of rubble need to be cleared first? Should we start drafting the new bridge before or after clearing the rubble?”

    2. bamcheeks*

      My first thought was whether LW or the employee’s manager had provided the employee with any criteria for deciding what the priorities ought to be! Cheapest? Easiest? Best return? Quickest to implement? Quickest return? There are so many ways to decide what to prioritise, and it’s not clear whether the employee is supposed to have that information or supposed to be the one making those decisions or what.

    3. Warrior Princess Xena*

      At that point, either the boss needs to say “A. A is the most urgent” or the employee should pick a relatively meaninglessness item that they *can* be sorted by and use that for priority. Without that you run into a case of analysis paralysis and that universally ends badly.

  11. bamcheeks*

    I’m kind of really amused by no. 3 because— does LW think that getting married was the *beginning* of the relationship? Of course it’s possible they’re from a culture where they wouldn’t have spent much time together before marriage, but it’s much more likely that the relationship predates the marriage by several months if not years, and if there hasn’t been a problem up to now, why would getting married create one?

  12. LawBee*

    “Get better at prioritizing or else”
    Man, if it were only that straightforward and easy. Prioritizing is super hard for my ADHD brain, everything is Very Important and Urgent because I can see how if this small thing doesn’t get done now, I will suffer for it later.

  13. FattyMPH*

    It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me. I’m very much a “too many ideas can’t prioritize” person and it has been a problem for me consistently throughout my career. It’s not that I don’t want to; it’s that I don’t know how, or my brain won’t do it by myself. It may not be a matter of “push” as much as “teach,” “support,” or “build into processes.” Maybe you and this person could work together to develop a rubric for assessing these kinds of ideas, and/or a system for saving/indexing them for the future in case priorities change. That might also help this person start thinking in a way that is more aligned with yours so that their ideas become more strategic and feasible over time, or help them game out some of these conversations with you on their own and develop their proposals further so you don’t always feel like you’re saying no for the same exact reasons.

    1. Carol the happy elf*

      My old boss had a poem on his wall about priorities, something about a choice between a “Fence at the top of the cliff- or an ambulance down in the valley”

      He could always hack away at the underbrush and find the trail.

  14. Multi-armed bandit*

    Is there any possibility that the employee from LW1 has outgrown their job role? They are called super-smart, seem to have time to research the latest technology outside of their regular workload, and can regularly come up with a list of twice as many design improvements as is required.

    When I was starting out in my career, I was a lot faster and more technically savvy than the person previously doing the job, so I was able to cut the workload down significantly. I was able to craft multiple long-standing projects outside my job role for a few years, but wasn’t able to add any other resources. It wasn’t until I asked for a raise and that I was told that the job I was in was meant to be a ‘support’ role, and my manager informed me they didn’t want me driving any more projects.

    If I had been told that a couple years earlier when I started driving my own initiatives, it would have been a kindness. I stressed out really badly about being bored at my job and coming up with new things to do, when it would have been great for a mentor or manager to be like, “Hey, the role you’re in won’t allow for that, but you’ve got enough skills to look at applying and moving to X type of positions.”

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