You may have witnessed this situation: A smart, experienced, hard-working employee is saddled with junior-level, tedious, tactical work along with her usual strategic work, and all of her work suffers as a result. No surprise there. Tedious tactics require just as much focus and effort as high-level thinking and doing. But here’s the insidious part: It's much more immediately obvious when there's a failure of the detail-oriented work (a typo, a broken image link, a missed invite), and much easier for anyone to spot, and to pile on the red flag-waving. On the other hand, Lack of strategic thought is perhaps more devastating but more invisible; a simmering, silent killer. Instead of frantic daily demands, deep thinking is easier to put off, like that colonoscopy.
Depending on the culture of the organization, it can go further downhill from there: A manager’s overreaction to correct the "problem” to ensure “it never happens again.” This creates more busy work and stress for the encumbered worker, to generate a plan to address the errors, which were the natural, predictable result from work overload. The worker then has less time and thought space to really perform what he should be doing; so feels more rushed, forces shortcuts, and the spiral continues downward.
This process can repeat itself many times in small and large instances. And it's a great excuse for management to think, "Well, he can't even manage this little thing; how could he handle the big things?"
It might be easy to dismiss this as ignorant management in a rinky-dink operation. But it happens even at the venerable New York Times.
“Across the board, newsroom leaders told us they are so consumed with the demands of the daily report that they have trouble finding the time to step back.” (New York Times Innovation Report, 2014.) And “the mobile team, which should be one of our most forward-looking groups, spends so much time making fixes to ensure all our journalism appears in our apps that they say they have little left to think about how the mobile report should be distinctive or how to harness new technologies.”
Welcome to the Fallibility Spiral. For the sanity and productivity of everyone involved, it can and must be reversed. A few helpful points:
1. Escape the Comfort Rut
The routine of the daily troubleshoot (e.g., fixes to the mobile app at the New York Times) becomes a warm cup of cocoa in the cold chaos of the workday. You know small fires will always be there to put out, and it feels immediately useful to address them – and equally irksome to leave them festering in the background. Fight the urge to tackle all of the little “comfort” tasks just because they’re small and you want to check them off the list. Constantly ask yourself: Will this effort help the company accomplish its larger goals? Will it help me get to where I want to be in one, three, or five years? Or even one month? Upon reflection, many little fires may only feel like fires to you.
2. Water Your Decision Tree
To help efficiency, you rarely need more time to make many decisions about all those little issues that stack up – you just need to decide to decide. It boils down to “decision hygiene,” as Seth Godin puts it. Ask yourself if you really need more time to gather crucial information that will steer you, or will more time merely allow you to postpone the decision? And only make a decision once, unless you find compelling new data that forces a change of mind. Lastly, don’t confuse the urgent with the important. First try to add transparency and accountability to the process that currently creates an imbalance of time pressure. But if that doesn’t take hold, someone else’s lack of planning should not be your emergency. It can take guts to tell this to poorly-organized co-workers, but it will save your productivity and stress levels in the long run.
3. We’re All on the Spectrum
It’s helpful – no, critical – to realize that we all fall somewhere on the continuum of task maker, task delegator, and task doer. Take a moment to step back and honestly see where you fit. Do you find yourself continually slapping your forehead over annoying errors that you spot in your employee’s work output? Maybe you’re overloading the tedium without enough proofreading support, or assigning the wrong strategic thinker to the minutiae in the first place. Or do you find yourself struggling to even strategize about where to eat lunch because you feel like you’re juggling a hundred little trivial items that scream for attention? You’ll need the confidence to raise the issue with your manager, highlighting the impactful long-term accomplishments you have done or plan to do once you shed some of the tactical burden. It might not be easy, but neither is drowning in detail work while watching confidence in your big thinking sink right alongside you.