#44 - Everyone wants to have a focus, but no one wants to stop doing things
Plus: Focus and communications; saying no; grow a boring strategy
I wrote a few weeks ago that, post-pandemic, we managers are going to have to work to make our value clear to our bosses, stakeholders, and team members.
A lot of the link roundup items I’ve pointed to over the past year have focussed on our team members, which is crucial - we can’t have any impact at all without an excellent, motivated, aligned team doing the work. But there’s a lot less material out coming out on communicating our teams’ value to bosses and stakeholders - what are we for, why should this team in particular continue to be here, why are we the right team to take on this new, strategically important, project?
These issues have been on my mind a lot lately. I need to do better on this for the work of our own team - our area is getting competitive for the first time in ages, and we need to better communicate our successes! But I’ve also been working with a decision maker for a different organization with a team that just went through a leadership change. The decision maker wants some pretty clear medium-term goals and indicators to help the team get back on track.
Listing the right things to do is easy, but actually doing them is hard. We all pretty much know the answer. Successful teams have to
And yet generally we don’t.
Focus is the by far the hardest of the two, because it means making difficult choices. Prioritizing something necessarily means deprioritizing something else.
It makes everything easier. When you have a clear goal and near-term strategy, a theme for what you’re aiming for, you have a very clear story to tell, and a very compelling reason why your team should be the one to get that particular project, an obvious-seeming reason why your team exists. The downside?
Everyone wants to have a focus, but no one wants to stop doing things.
Research teaches us to be, well, entrepreneurial when it comes to ferreting out new research opportunities and new projects. Those of us who trained in teams cobbled precariously together by a patchwork of grants tend to develop a sense that every funding opportunity should be chased down.
But even within research, successful faculty members knew better. They quickly develop a good sense of where their efforts are the most valued, and pursue opportunities to make contributions there with laser focus, making occasional, considered, detours or pivots as the field evolves.
We may not have developed that knack. There’s a lot of work we could be doing, and we’d like to demonstrate our value by doing it all. But we can’t. We can’t have five top priorities, and single teams can’t have five strategies. We have to chose, and that means not doing things. Passing up opportunities - letting another team take that cool project - is scary, and it’s the only way we can develop a focus on the areas we’re best at and most needed.
Communication is a lot easier and more successful with a tight focus. And the communication you perform is vastly more effective. If you’re regularly posting a specific area’s success stories - or contributions or even just helpful tips - on your communication channels, that looks vastly more compelling to others who need that kind of work done done, than the same number of stories scattered over three or four specialties. And that’s assuming you could have the same number of success stories with three or four “focuses” as with one, which probably isn’t true.
I’ll write more about that shortly; for now, on to a focus- and communications-themed link roundup!
Managing Teams and your Own Career
How to say “No” right now - Lara Hogan, Wherewithall
The year end is approaching, and with it deadlines and final pushes. But other stuff comes up.
The solution to dealing with too much work isn’t “time management” - managing time isn’t a power granted to us. There’s only task management, and the number one task management skill is declining them.
This is a good time of year to practice saying no or deferring a yes - everyone’s in the same boat and so understands. In her latest newsletter issue, Hogan walks through three steps to say no for the next month:
Identify the #1 thing you are optimizing for through the end of the year.
Run any decision past that #1 thing.
Say “yes” or “no” in a way that works for you.
Blogging your research: Tips for getting started - Alice Fleerackers, ScholCommBlog
Fleerackers’ post is aimed at researchers, but the arguments made should be familiar to us, and it works equally well for the work we do now. It starts off with an important point - not every blog post needs to be a 1500 word feature. It could be a summary of a piece of work, something our team member learned, a Q&A/interview post; anything that makes the audience more informed about your team’s work than it was before.
The decision for where to blog may or may not be easy for our teams - we could have some internal page or something with external visibility. Then we set some kind of reasonable schedule. The most important thing about the schedule (IMHO) is that it’s realistic - routine posts, even spaced apart by a couple months, is better than a flurry of over-ambitious posting followed by exhaustion and abandonment.
Focus enable strategy - not only what you’ll be doing, but how you’ll be doing it.
Developing a strategy for a team allows you to focus on the important parts of each project rather than bikeshedding the same decisions again and again. You can’t develop such a strategy for executing projects if each project is completely different.
Larson’s article is an argument in favour of grounding such a strategy in the pragmatic (e.g. boring) and avoiding the siren call of “innovation” by doing it from the ground up - writing multiple decision documents for individual projects or components, and discovering the underlying strategy by synthesizing them.