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Workload management: The snowball and the meteor

One of the consequences of the modern world’s shift from industrial work to knowledge work is the slow death of predictable workload management.

It’s not to say by any means that all production line working conditions throughout history have been reasonable, just that they have been fair from a purely contractual perspective in that each day’s work is finite. You know what will be asked of you today, tomorrow, and the day after — and you know what your compensation will be in return for such labor.

But for many of us, office and remote work doesn’t work that way. Throughout recent history, as the simplistic business model of production line work with rigid organizational hierarchies morphed into flatter, salary-based orgs with more nebulous definitions of “productivity,” the accountability to workload management began falling on individual workers rather than the employer.

In other words, a knowledge worker’s plate is guaranteed to overflow because the organization no longer knows how much work it’s feeding employees, nor how much they can handle. Work gets sent downhill, and the further it goes, the harder it gets to tie the impact at the bottom to the decision at the top

Yet, some workers and teams possess a seemingly magical ability to keep their workloads (and even others’) in check. How do they do this? It’s all about using processes and platforms to apply backpressure. To dig in, let’s first consider a metaphor about backpressure.

Is it a snowball, or a meteor?

In assembly line work, backpressure is the natural resistance that keeps management honest; an executive can’t bark out, “build 50% more of these widgets,” because doing so would break machines and processes in the production line. In knowledge work, that natural resistance doesn’t exist — and two significant issues can fester as a result:

  1. Work conceived by leadership will appear innocent, even invited, at its inception. If new work is never met with initial resistance, then new work becomes easy to create.
  2. New work, sent downhill without resistance, builds a snowball effect. And as previously mentioned, the irony here is that the snowball gets harder to deal with as it rolls further downhill, yet it also becomes harder to recognize who caused the snowball to get so big. As a result, it’s often just easier to blame someone who got hit with a snowball.

Disciplined personnel take a much more accountable approach, manifested through backpressure. They treat frontline workers like precious resources, and new work like meteors:

  1. Newly-conceived work is not innocent or invited. Its inception requires justification, classification, and prioritization to understand its impact on the currently managed workload.
  2. As this meteor of new work first appears, management layers act as the atmosphere applying resistance. This resistance doesn’t reduce work but instead distributes it correctly to frontline workers.  >

Divergent as these two approaches may appear, a surprising number of team leaders have trouble identifying which one they represent. So, let’s talk tactics on workload management and see what the top performers look like.

Transparency and work hubs

A tell-tale sign of a meteor manager is that their team’s work is transparent. They want everyone to know what’s being worked on and how it’s prioritized (we’ll talk about why in a moment). To that end:

  • Documents are openly shared. View or comment access is available to all relevant personnel, to ensure inclusive thinking in approaching the problem. 
  • Communication platforms can easily deliver and transform the optimal knowledge transfer format. It’s no sweat to move a group chat to a phone call, or a video conference to a knowledge base thread, etc.
  • Collaboration tools and workflows are asynchronous by design. If work can only exist in the moment, it’s difficult to properly disseminate or account for.

What’s clear from reading the above is that such massive amounts of communicating and collaborating are bound to become burdensome — that’s why high performers also employ work hubs.

Whether a team rolls its own work hub or taps into a turnkey solution, the centralization of priorities and comms keep day-to-day interactions running lean, and operationalizes transparency.

Saying no, productively

Why does transparency keep popping up here? Because transparency is power. The process of applying backpressure to manage workflow is rooted in the power to say no, and left to the traditional power dynamic of boss-to-subordinate, saying no is often an uncomfortable or counterintuitive act left up to the boldest of employees. Instead, having transparency in your platforms empowers a wider array of coworkers to say no, productively. What does that mean?

  • Any work request cutting into current priorities should be justified with a business case, which needs to be pitched to any stakeholder whose current priorities would be impacted. With transparent project sprints, documents and roadmaps, saying “no” here simply means bringing in a broader group of leadership to vet the work before proceeding.
  • When meetings are requested, it should be understood that the meeting itself is a work request. Good time management necessitates best practices in using your platforms for meetings and comms, which means that fields get filled out for agenda, documentation, optional attendance, etc. Respect for the platform yields an appreciation of everyone’s time, especially those who lack the authority to decline mysterious meetings.
  • Matters claimed to be “urgent” are openly challenged to better understand the impetus for the urgency, which deadlines (if any) are hard, and why no one saw it coming.

There is an astounding amount of work that fails to meet even the most basic requirements for prioritization once backpressure is applied. Too many teams drink the kool-aid of working in a “fast-paced” organization when they are in fact working at a frantic pace. These are not the same environments, by any stretch. Fast teams have the tools and confidence to confront new work from the perspective of the frontline worker’s bandwidth; thanks to transparency, this power goes beyond any individual’s pay grade, no matter how imposing the demand may be. Acceleration happens when the business has bandwidth; not when an executive says so.

Putting the right platforms and processes in place initially protects resources from devastating workload impacts, but the long-term win comes when transparency becomes the language of the organization so that everyone — not just a few brave team leads — is empowered to apply proper backpressure to manage any work heading their way.

Mitch addresses the technological convergence of skillsets and behaviors across myriad industries; typically doing so from the comfort of his van. Occasionally he can be found conducting social experiments in remote work, or hosting the Telekinetic podcast. Named one of 2021's Top 75 Minds In Remote Work.
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