Have you ever worked for a company where you’re constantly putting out fires, rushing from project, to disaster, to project, to meeting, to the next disaster? You probably felt like there wasn’t enough time to work on growing the business itself. Perhaps it was that a department or employee always had too much on their plate, or no one really knew when the next deadline was coming, or never had the time and resources to figure out a better process. Soon it starts to become the norm, and employees are expected to fight fires more than complete their actual assigned tasks.
Here are a few reasons why that might be happening:
1. “Everything is the #1 priority!”
When I hear this, it immediately tells me a few things. This person probably has their very own way of organizing everything, and while they might think it’s working well for them, it only works for them and is stressing everyone else out. You’ll know the person because in their home or office there’s a huge mess of papers and documents with no distinguishable order to an outside observer, but they claim they know where everything is. They are most likely unaware that they’re putting undue stress on themselves and others.
The problem with telling yourself, coworkers, and employees “everything is at the top of the list!” is that the organization and planning stage is not being allowed to happen. The planning stage is the most important stage because it sets the scene for the rest of the project. If it isn’t allowed time to happen properly with all timelines, objectives, goals and priorities in place, the project will be a jumbled mess from beginning to end. That type of unstructured project will inevitably undergo last minute and post-launch revisions that will end up costing more time than the planning process itself would have taken.
Listen to your team. When do they seem the most stressed? Which deadlines are they finding difficult to keep? Keep your ears open to their suggestions, because if they can come up with the idea and implement it themselves, studies show that they’ll be more content with the results.
Decide early on what the priorities are. Put them in buckets of similar tasks and deliverables, and order them within the buckets. Break everything down into their smallest components and tasks, then complete tasks based on importance and delivery date.
2. Fear of pivoting
Pivoting a business or project idea is powerful, because it means staying true to the original vision but being flexible with the means of getting there. Even a solid project roadmap needs some flexibility planned in for inevitable changes down the road. However, some companies lack the introspection and openness to change pivoting requires, or are so deep in the weeds of the day to day fire-fighting that they can’t waste time on looking for new routes to pursue. Pivoting also sometimes means putting aside work you’ve already accomplished and having to learn new processes, which many teams don’t have the time or resources for.
There is another problem of pivoting too much. This is very frustrating for employees because it may mean throwing out existing work, or not feeling confident in the direction of the company. In more extreme examples, employees may stop putting their best effort into projects because in their mind, “why should I work on this at all? It’s just going to change soon anyway.”
Continuous process improvement. This isn’t one huge fix to save the entire company — it’s a million little fixes, all the time. Take frequent looks back at your project roadmap to make sure you’re staying true to the course and still staying within the deadline.
Larger pivots, say ones that change the main product or direction of the entire company, may need outside consultants and taking more time to unpack your company’s needs and reasons for changing.
For employees that have become ambivalent about work changing so often, find ways to keep it all in perspective. Look at how far you’ve come as a company occasionally. Anyone can get burnt out if all they see is an unending ocean of work and problems ahead of them and don’t take the time to look back to see how well they’ve done. This also helps highlight both individual achievements to highlight the best people on your team, or to show how well everyone has worked together over time.
3. Not understanding the full scope and size of the problems
Running from disaster to disaster means that the issues are not fully understood. Some business may start with a great idea and lofty goals that at first seem totally reachable with a little elbow grease and initial research, but putting those ideas into action starts to reveal unforeseen barriers.
Not understanding the size of a project or issue causes unqualified teams or teams that are too small to take them on, and it causes businesses to burn through their resources faster than expected.
Are all your processes dependent on everyone having all hands-on deck, all the time? What happens if you or a team member gets sick, or quits? — which is likely being under all that stress all the time. You may need to hire a few extra people.
If you’re saying, “I’d love to hire some more employees, but we don’t have the money!” Try out freelancers or a few part-time people. You could even use interns in exchange for college credit — but please, follow the legal guidelines to make sure they’re benefitting it as well. If you find that you still can’t afford the help, it might be time to scale back.
Scale back. For most people, this is a last resort option. After all, scaling back production means less output and therefore less income. You may need to do this before you can move on to better processes.