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How to Keep Employees Focused on the Right Work

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Biggest Challenge at Work Commentary are Tim’s thoughts on real-life challenges submitted by readers like you. Want to send us your challenge? Take the Biggest Challenge at Work Survey

“Overburden with operational/transitional and not able to focus on transformational/strategic”
Learning and Development Manager

Sometimes it takes a Learning and Development Manager to point out that there’s no learning or development.

This is interesting, because not every company has a Learning and Development Manager. This company clearly cares enough to put one in place. But she is not very optimistic: “Sorry, folks! If you keep it business as usual, I’ve got nothing to manage.”

This manager appears to be in a tough spot. Her job title goes against the company culture—not unlike a newly minted Employee Engagement Manager working for a not-so-employee-friendly company.

So, what does a Learning and Development Manager do in a company that is stuck in a rut?

The easy answer is look for another job.

However, if the people who hired her meant what they said, then maybe she could give learning and development another shot.

The first thing to learn is the reason for the chronic “overburden.”

In a small company, like Axero, even if one employee is overburdened, the management immediately feels the pain. When this happens, we don’t hire a learning manager (although we like the idea!), we un-overburden ourselves.

We do this, in part, because we are selfish bastards. But also because we recognize chronic overburden for the death knell to our business that it really is. Many people and companies equate work with livelihood. But it’s only the right kind of work that brings results. The rest is the opposite of livelihood—and the first sign of things going off-track.

At Axero, we are always busy. And, given the stats on the social intranet software market, we will stay busy for the foreseeable future. That said, we are careful that our work is the right mix of the first and second quadrant (urgent-and-important and not-urgent-but-important.) As for the third and forth quadrants (urgent-but-not-important and neither-urgent-nor-important), our mission is to search and destroy those tasks. And it’s largely due to this fact that we’re still around as a company.

Chronic overburden is a symptom. The problem is usually inefficient process, lack of strategy, or work that people don’t like to do.

Inefficient process

Process improvement should be built into your company’s DNA. Big companies have internal consulting groups that do nothing but process-improve all day. But smaller guys can do just as well, if not better, by making it a standard feature of any job.

Like small companies, teams can look after their own process improvement. The only difference is the degree of freedom the manager feels to help out his staff. Make sure you find that freedom! Read Chapter 13 of my book, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?Help—for inspiration, if you like. Then empower yourself and your people to take your overburden apart.

Stuff that makes the most work can usually be automated. I recently wrote about automating our sales process. (See The Value of Processes and Procedures in the Workplace.) By cutting out an inefficient task—responding to unqualified leads—we were able to close more deals with fewer hands. We don’t have a full-time salesperson at the moment. But we’re doing better than when we did.

When you take a close look at your process, it’s not so unusual to eliminate both workers and work. Still, there are times when you need more help, not less. Companies can be stingy with full-time positions, but you can always ask for temporary help from inside or outside. Don’t burn out your people. Get temps, interns, freelancers, someone else’s new hires, or anyone willing to help you get through the backlog and start fresh.

Lack of strategy

Process improvement works best when it serves a clear goal. Goals help you separate the important tasks from the unimportant. They also help you set clear metrics, so you can tell whether any improvement has actually taken place.

Know why you’re doing the work, and why it’s the best way to achieve your goals. It’s easy to get used to the grind and lose sight of the why. Maybe it’s time our Learning and Development Manager asked a few of those strategic and transformative questions.

Work that people don’t like to do

Some of the “operational/transitional” may fall into this category. I have briefly dealt with this problem in an early post called How to Eliminate Shitwork? Some of it goes back to process automation. A good example is Matt, our customer support guy. On top of solving problems for customers, Matt used to manage software upgrades. With new customers joining at a rapid clip, Matt’s workload was crossing into overburden. We saw it and built software to do upgrades with a push of a button. No more shitwork for Matt!

You could argue that efficient doesn’t always mean interesting and exciting. And that by improving and automating our process, we could be creating shitwork, rather than eliminating it. I have two ways to respond when and if this situation arises at Axero.

One, I noticed that people don’t mind extreme efficiency when they are responsible for the results. I am handling the sales now, and it gets a bit repetitive, but I get my adrenaline high from signing contracts and welcoming new customers on board. When I hand this job off to a new salesperson, it will be his responsibility to close deals, but also his right to keep improving the sales process. I don’t think it will be a boring job, because it hasn’t been for me.

Two, sometimes people do need a change of pace. Before we hired Matt, Bryce was doing our customer support. Bryce treated customers like royalty and was willing to learn anything to help them. After five years, he knew the job like the back of his hand. He told us he was sick of it, and wanted something else to do. Now he is a developer. He writes code full-time. And he has become excellent at it. No more shitwork for Bryce!

Today’s lesson is to listen to your Learning and Development Manager, if you have one. Always focus on the transformational and the strategic. Know your strategy and don’t do anything that doesn’t move you forward. Make it your strategy to protect your people from mind-numbing work. Look for new ways of doing things. Keep your top performers challenged and excited about work. If we can do it, so can you.


If you like learning, you might like my book, because it will change the way you think.

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Tim Eisenhauer
About Tim Eisenhauer
Tim is the author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement. He's also a co-founder and president of Axero, a technology company that makes intranet software for businesses. He's spilt insightful ink on the pages of Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, and other top publications.

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