How to Manage Work and Never Miss Deadlines
Ensuring that deadlines are met and nothing falls through the cracks is a key element in great customer service. And, success is in the details! Consider the following tips and tricks to help ensure that every email, project or task has an owner and a deadline, is actively tracked and is completed on schedule.
Keep Task Descriptions Granular
Many of us can be too vague when describing upcoming tasks: e.g., “Return Jan’s call.” Key information is missing, such as the reason you’re calling Jan. What is the objective? What should be accomplished?
When the goal is to get a task done in one go, be more detailed: “Phone Jan at [phone number] and discuss [specific topic].” This way, when the time comes, you know exactly what’s required and can track the task to completion.
Being as granular as possible can also make your bigger tasks easier to accomplish. Bigger tasks are often difficult to complete in one go and end up lingering on your to-do list. Break these tasks up into smaller particulars to get them done in less time with less angst. For example, “Negotiate with Jan to complete her engagement” is a task that could take days or weeks to accomplish. As a task on a to-do list, it’s fairly useless. However, if you break the task up into smaller to-do items, it becomes manageable and progress can be more easily tracked:
- Get Jan’s paperwork together.
- Write down Jan’s business needs.
- Prep the proposal for sending to Jan.
Finish One Task and Create the Next
Some tasks are one-offs, but most are related to larger processes or jobs. So, when you complete one, make sure that you immediately address the next by creating another to-do item. (Better yet, create all following tasks when you’re looking at the project as a whole.) This keeps you from having to remember the next task in the sequence and keeps the process moving.
Set automated reminders for when specific tasks need to be done, including things such as sending particular emails in the coming days or weeks. Don’t rely on memory alone! For even the most sharp-minded practitioners, reminders prevent things from being forgotten and deadlines from being missed.
Reprioritize Each Morning and Prep for the Next Day
To complete everything you want done each day, carefully prioritize what you’re going to do, when you’re going to do it and how you’re going to get it done. Each morning over coffee, when you’re going through your unread emails, prioritize your work for the day. Even if you aim to get more than 10 things done on a given day, you may want to list the three to five things you really must accomplish that day.
On the flip side, at the end of each day, look over what you’ve accomplished. Did you complete all that you set out to? If not, unaddressed tasks become tomorrow’s priorities, along with other things you identify in the morning.
Task Visibility is Today, Tomorrow, This Week and Next Week
When mapping smaller tasks, don’t look too far into the future. Tasks can become less important the further away they are on the schedule. Start by organizing what tasks need to be done this week, next week and beyond next week. Once you’ve determined this week’s tasks, pull them into today and tomorrow, and ladder them as the needs of the business and clients change.
The remainder of this week’s tasks will be tackled later in the week. See the pattern?
One Owner for Eerything
It’s a simple formula: Each task has one owner. Each checklist item, each project, each client – anything and everything – has only one owner. This does not mean that they all need to have the same owner, or that no one besides you is involved. You can have multiple team members across tasks, projects and clients, but each task should have one owner who’s responsible for completing it on time and in full. Without such accountability, the possibility of tasks slipping through the cracks becomes very real.
The Checklist: 80/20 Client Fit
When creating your checklists (or any workflow, for that matter), avoid being overly rigorous about how a client project is going to get done. Each client is unique, and you need flexibility to fulfill his or her particular needs. Establish a process that is 80% consistent across the board and has 20% flexibility for the project’s owner to tailor and fine-tune, according to client needs.
Keep a Detailed Process in a Knowledge System (and link to it)
Put all your processes in a single living repository. Why? Processes need regular status updates (e.g., in progress, completed or deferred), meaning it’s far more efficient to update a single document (and have every related checklist link to it) than to update in a hundred places.
Checklists should be made of single, one line, action-oriented statements. (For examples, see the Task Management tip above.) Everything that describes the task, and how it should be done, should link to the corresponding detailed process in the living document (or system, if your firm uses a task management software). Things often fall through the cracks when processes change. Organizing checklists this way helps ensure that everyone has the most up-to-date information at their fingertips.
Think of it as a Relay Race
There’s often more than one person involved in a given process; work gets handed back and forth until its completion. It helps to think of this handing off as a relay race: the baton isn’t carelessly tossed at the next runner; it’s securely handed over before the first runner lets go.
When passing along work, the recipient must both understand the current stage in the process and take ownership of the task. The new task owner should communicate that they are moving forward with it to the next step. Ideally, this is coordinated by the overall project owner, but don’t rely on that. It’s best to over-communicate here.
Due Dates and to-do Dates are not the Same
There are always two dates for every task: the date it’s required to be completed (due date) and the date when it actually should be done (to-do date). For example, if a task is due Friday but you have a number of things scheduled for completion on Friday, you may actually need to get it done by Wednesday to ensure delivery on Friday.
Therefore, track these dates independently, and you’ll be much less likely to scramble at the last minute.
Keep Steady Operating Mechanisms (per day, week, month or quarter)
Everyone should know what they’re doing every single day and be comfortable communicating what that is. Each individual should know what he or she is responsible for, and be aware of their priorities. This can be communicated as part of a daily stand-up meeting, or posted in simple terms to a message board.
Recaps should occur once a week. People can report what they’ve completed so that everything can be aggregated from a manager’s perspective to track the fluidity of work against the promise dates. This is an opportunity for managers to monitor bigger issues before they blow up with possible firm-wide repercussions. It’s also a good way for doers to communicate to managers, and for managers to relay information to partners and make adjustments so that everything stays on track.
On a monthly basis, partners should issue firm-wide communications to keep everyone apprised of how the collective is doing. Summaries of business performance and progression toward goals should be shared quarterly, ideally at a live meeting.
Nurture the Mindset That Everyone Must Track Everything
The continuous tracking mindset is a challenge and will require technology tools. If you capture information at a meeting – even if you don’t own the meeting, project or client – you need to keep track of your actions so that the owner is aware. This should become second nature. Similarly, all finished tasks should be marked as completed, and all promises made during conversations should be flagged as new tasks. Conversations of substance should be tracked with the client contact so that the history is known. This sort of habitual tracking will help ensure nothing is forgotten or lost.
Continuously Locate and Eliminate Bottlenecks
If you want a super smooth system that eliminates chaos at the 11th hour, find and eliminate your bottlenecks wherever they are. Bottlenecks dictate and limit the amount of work that can be done over time.
Foster a Culture of Sharing and Asking for Help
When a project isn’t going according to plan, people frequently attempt a correction so that no one else notices. The result can be a problem that snowballs until it’s completely out of control. When people aren’t comfortable asking for help, it can have ramifications far beyond their work and domain. In this same vein, a culture of sharing is key to making sure that everyone is heading in the right direction. Here, the operating mechanisms help, but so does leading by example.
Maintain 85% Capacity
If your practice always operates at or near 100% capacity, a couple of things are likely to occur. First, you may be unable to absorb any shocks to the system when things go wrong. Second, you won’t be able to take on any new clients, no matter how perfect they may be. By operating at 85%, you give yourself room for flexibility. When this flexibility isn’t being used to manage things that go awry, it should be used to better your practice. The extra capacity can be devoted to process improvement or elimination of bottlenecks, for instance. This way, you can do more in less time and grow your firm organically over time.
No matter how complex your organization, these tips and tricks will help keep your work in order and minimize confusion. When it comes to tasks, prioritize for today and tomorrow. Kick up the next task after you finish anything to stay ahead and make sure the details aren’t forgotten. At the project level, ensure that every task has a single owner to help avoid situations where the ball gets dropped. Finally, foster a culture of trust and use consistent operating mechanisms to stay on top of what’s happening across the firm.