Why Your Team is Always Too Busy

I recently completed another webinar for InfoComm entitled, “Wearing Too Many Hats? How to Solve Being Too Busy.” You can view the archive of that event here, but today I want to expand on a couple of the concepts covered in the session.

The signs of too busy are everywhere if you just look for them. Websites that are out of date, inactive, or one-dimensional indicate that this mission-critical tool is not on the top of anyone’s priority list. Teams that are always pointing to specific individuals or processes in general for delays and missed deadlines are a sure sign that something is amiss. When drilling down into a problem generally leads to the conclusion that the company needs more people, but the P&L says the money isn’t there – this definitely points to a too busy problem. Owners or top executives that can’t make time in their busy schedules for anything other than a potential revenue-generating event are usually the heart of the problem. In Consultant-speak we say these would-be leaders spend too much time working in their businesses and not enough time working on them. (Consultants love pithy phrases like that.)

The reason so many companies suffer from this disease is not from a lack of personnel or resources; being too busy stems from employees wearing too many of the wrong hats.

The list of too busy warning signs can get pretty sad: filthy offices, disorganized warehouses, and grumpy employees are easy to spot. But all I need to identify a culture where looking busy is more important than getting things done, is the profit and loss statement:

  • Revenue growth that lags behind the industry
  • Profits that decline as revenue grows

We can find more signs buried in the balance sheet such as a preponderance of idle inventory (see messy warehouse in paragraph one), inconsistent capitalization, and a line of credit that never sees a zero balance to name a few. Management creates this problem and they have a lot of excuses about why they can’t fix it. Mostly, they are too busy themselves from wearing too many of the wrong hats!

The Theory of Hats

Or perhaps more appropriately – the Tenets of Hat Prioritization. It starts with the idea that every employee can have only ONE primary hat at any time. A primary hat is the responsibility that he/she cannot say no to. It is the thing that other people depend upon you for the most. Asking someone to have more than one top priority is a formula for disappointing results. You can have more than one primary hat as long as they do not conflict. In other words, the hats must occur at distinct and predictably different times.

Secondary hats by definition have flexible execution schedules. These are responsibilities that can be set aside when the primary hat needs attention. For instance, a receptionist has two primary hats – answering the phone and greeting visitors. Granted, the phone always rings right as someone walks in the door, but the transition from hat to hat can be efficient and friendly. If the Receptionist is also responsible for posting accounts payable, then that is a secondary hat that should never interfere with the execution of the first hat(s).

The Culture of Too Busy

Changing the culture of companies that value being too busy is difficult. Busy has become a management shortcut to assessing whether an employee is performing well or not. A better measure of a person’s value is their output or contribution to the common goals. In my consulting practice, I have outed more than one super-busy slacker whose penchant for hoarding too many primary responsibilities was clearly holding the firm back. Most of these folks are not intentionally inefficient, but because they are so busy and because they are frequently praised for being so – the problem persists. I once encountered a trucking dispatcher that routinely assigned himself to make deliveries. He couldn’t see the problem; in his mind the delivery needed to be made. What he overlooked was the chaos created by being away from his post. Co-workers were held up in their work because a mission-critical supervisor chose to wear a conflicting hat. The result? Dysfunction without all the fun.

The problem starts at the top. Managers frequently take on roles that have major conflicts in time, geography, and importance. In effect, they start the chain of broken promises, so we need to examine what it is that Management should be doing instead of what most actually spend time on. My job description for managers is pretty simple: “Remove obstacles.” Top executives should be devoting as much as 50% of their time to seeing what is down the road that might become and obstacle for their direct reports. Managers should spend about 25% of their time doing this. This is a primary hat. If you neglect it, other people can’t get their jobs done in a timely and efficient manner.

The answer to the question of “Why is your team too busy” is simple: Because you are. And, if you are not clever or organized enough to design a job that you can be successful at, how can you do that for your employees? This is another area where independent, outside consultants can be valuable to your company. We can see things that you are too close to recognize and offer solutions that take the larger view into consideration. Ironically, the most powerful resource we have to solve your dilemma is time.

Tom Stimson, MBA, CTS, is president of Stimson Group LLC, a Dallas-based management consulting firm specializing in strategy, process improvement, and market research for the Audiovisual Industry. Tom is a Past-President of InfoComm International and a current member of InfoComm’s Adjunct Faculty.

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