Dear Elizabeth: I run a product team that responds to seasonal demands, and our output fluctuates. We have times when we’re very busy and then a couple of weeks where it’s slow. There’s always work to be done, but when demand ebbs, people’s productivity and engagement does as well. How do I keep my team engaged and motivated during these slow periods? – Riding the Productivity Rollercoaster
Dear Riding: Let me be a little bit controversial here. How much does it matter if your team has a slow period? If demand is down, and that’s affecting their engagement and motivation, unless they are being downright unprofessional, perhaps you could cut them some slack. It’s hard to remain 100 percent motivated every day of every year, and engagement wanes too.
Not having an interesting piece of work to do is naturally a bit demotivating but that doesn’t stop them switching to “motivated mode” as soon as the next big assignment comes in. As long as they aren’t using your resources to print out copies of their resume then maybe you want to let them off. Think of it as time that they are using to recharge their batteries until the next busy period.
Having said that, I know why you want to keep the team engaged and motivated, so let’s get back to your question. The first thing to look for is whether there is a pattern. Can you predict when the slower times will be? If so, think ahead and start looking for activities to fill the gaps. These activities might not be what you might call true work but you could organize a staff conference, a team building event, or schedule some professional training for the team. It’s also a time for cross-skilling, where team members can teach each other their particular expertise so you have more cover for vacation and sickness, as well as a broader skill base in the team.
It’s hard to give a blanket recommendation for how to motivate people because everyone is motivated by different things. Some may appreciate the ability to take some extra time off in lieu of hours worked during the busy times. Others may find motivation in being asked to step up and take on more responsibility, such as helping to plan the next big push. Tasks that might take longer if someone less experienced did them would be good to schedule in the slow periods too, as a way of building confidence and leadership in the team.
Dear Elizabeth: I work on a product team with a very efficient manager—too efficient! In her efforts to make deadlines, she often has us start early on work—before we have all the requirements. It feels productive at first, but then as requirements change, we end up going back and redoing or fixing work and start to fall behind. And we look bad. I’ve tried talking to my manager but she still has us do these early project starts. She doesn’t understand that waiting for full requirements actually saves time. Advice? – Frustrated
Dear Frustrated: That’s a hard one. The issue isn’t the early starts but the fact that she doesn’t listen to you. It’s great that she’s efficient but her method doesn’t work and you’ve offered constructive advice which she has ignored. So let’s think about some ways to get her to take your advice seriously.
First, would it be more effective coming from someone else? Please don’t take this personally but it’s often the case that individuals are influenced more by their peers or managers than their subordinates. While it’s grating to think that if she heard the same thing from a peer she’d act on it, when you’ve been telling her and getting ignored, the end result is the same and it’s a win for you. So if you can take your own ego out of the situation and work on ways to influence her through the people she listens to, that could work.
It might be hard to approach her boss, but if you have relationships with other managers who could take your side, then that’s a route to try.
Another option would be to ask your customers to provide feedback. Maybe she’d listen if she heard it directly from them? You don’t have to be blunt about it: do a client survey and ask what went well and what didn’t, and try to get some commentary around how they felt about the delays and what they felt could have been done differently to avoid those.
Finally, (and this can be a risky approach!), just say no. “Thanks for the suggestion that we start work now but I’m going to wait until we’ve got the full requirements. That will be at the end of the month so what I can work on before then is X, Y and Z to be totally ready.”
This approach is one that I wouldn’t advise in all cases. Also, I don’t know enough about your workplace culture and your boss to know if it is going to be suitable for you – but you’ll know if you or a more senior colleague have enough confidence and credibility to pull it off. Directly challenging your boss in a nice way might get the result you’re after.
As a general comment on saying No to your manager, I speak to a lot of people who would never dare challenge their boss. But they are just human, like you and me. Be empowered and take responsibility for your own success, and be excellent in the work that you do. If your manager challenges you back, go with it and put your objections in writing (nicely) so you’ve got some kind of comeback if they then blame you for the late finish later.
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