On Professionalism in 2020

First, I’d like to note the state of some things:

  • I’m starting to write this in mid-June 2020.
  • Spikes in COVID-19 cases are happening as expected as the country reopens more. People are not social distancing, not using masks, and still actively protesting both of those as fake news.
  • The amount of societal unease feels like it is at an all-time high with the Black Lives Matter movement, anti-racism, and anti-police brutality. Protests are still going on.
  • Unemployment rates are high while layoffs and furloughs continue.
  • News cycles transition and overshadow each other between crisis to tragedy and back.

Among many others, and also including events and webinars, I’ve been reading articles and watching things things like:

That being said, there are a few things that I have not stopped repeating to myself and my team:

  • Empathy and emotional intelligence are more important than ever.
  • Never stop learning about how to handle these situations. Read, listen, and observe.
  • This is not “remote working” or “working from home.” This is forced isolation during a global pandemic.
  • Many people’s home situations may not be conducive to working from home, and that’s 100% ok. A few examples, but not limited to are:
    • Having to work while taking care of dependents: children, elderly, people with disabilities or illness, etc.
    • Homeschooling children.
    • Disruptive roommates, pets, or family.
    • Messy backgrounds or poor lighting.
    • Lack of safe-to-use laundry facilities.
    • Lack of private, quiet space to work.
    • Lack of proper ergonomic workspace.
    • Lack of air conditioning, heat, or a fast/reliable internet connection.
    • Loneliness.
  • Everyone handles stress differently.
    • Extroverts may turn into introverts, and vise-versa.
    • You don’t know who is more at risk or more prone to stress for anything, including health risk-wise or living situation-wise.
    • Laws are getting passed that revoke rights, while laws that protect rights are repealed.
    • Some people’s access to their affordable healthcare is at risk.
    • You don’t know who hasn’t seen their family members in months, who might not have been able to attend a funeral for loved one, who hasn’t been able to see their new niece or grandchild, etc.
    • People’s existing physical or mental health issues might be getting amplified.
  • Meetings that are given labels like “Company Update” or “All Staff Checkin” should have agendas. This increases in importance as the meeting is more short-notice. The fear of companies going out of business, furloughs, and layoffs is incredible. Do your staff a favor and save them the stress and anxiety by outlining what the meeting is about in an agenda.
  • Formal workplace attire, hairstyles, or anything else focused on appearance. If you’re doing your job, I don’t care if you’re still in yesterday’s pajamas!
  • The need for process and consistency is at an all-time high as well.
  • Culture, transparency, and preventing burnout & ensuring a healthy work-life ratio should be prioritized.

While I stress positivity, patience, and kindness for my team, I also expect everyone else to do the same, especially managers and leadership. You don’t know what’s going on in anyone else’s life, and you shouldn’t have to in order to treat them with positivity, patience, and kindness. On the flip side of that, you may not notice in yourself that you may be stressed and possibly more sensitive than “usual.” So– and I stress this stronglywithin reason:

  • Give people the benefit of the doubt.
  • Don’t get offended if someone snaps at you.
  • Don’t take it personally if someone “disrespects” you.
  • Offer an empathetic ear. Offer resources.
  • Suggest the use of personal days / vacation time.
  • Reiterate that “mental health days” are just as important as “physically sick days.”
  • People will have to turn their cameras off, mute their microphones, or step away from video calls unexpectedly.
  • If you feel comfortable, talk to them on the side, or ask their manager/HR to check in on them. Make sure to approach it with empathy, not retribution, or expectations of apology.

The Power of Keeping Lists

Muscle by Dávid Gladiš from the Noun Project
lists by allex from the Noun Project

Hindsight is 20/20 right? I’m coming up on my 10 year anniversary of being a post-college, professional adult, and what a ride it’s been. I’ve had some downtime lately that has given me a chance to do some healthy retrospecting. The single major tangible thing that I wish I had thought to start years and years ago is keeping lists.

I usually like to use a spreadsheet. Spreadsheets help keep my brain organized and also come with great features like sorting and filtering. It doesn’t have to be spreadsheets. Use whatever works for your brain: text files, kanban boards, your to-do app, etc. I definitely would suggest at least something that has filtering / sorting. Side note: if you don’t use cloud software, at least make sure you back it up in some form at least daily.

What type of information should go into these? Similar to the way I process feedback, some of the different sheets I would recommend you keep include:

1. Personal Accomplishments

These are good to keep for things like performance evaluations or general 1:1’s with your boss. Need to discuss a raise or promotion? How about an occasional confidence boost? Open up your Personal Accomplishments spreadsheet and have a read-through. Use some sorting / filtering based on your tags so you can get a list of just the type you’re looking for.

Additionally, this can function as a sort of “brag book.” Keep screenshots of conversations, of emails that give you praise, thank-you cards, etc. In times of increased feelings of imposter syndrome orfeeling generally low/unsure, you can use this as a reference to assure yourself that you indeed are doing it right.

DateDescriptionOther DisciplineTag(s)Followup Needed?
9/10/2019On the Annual Report project, I completed the JavaScript in half of the allotted time. Told PM, got a jump-start on other tasks. Was eventually able to accomplish one of the client’s “nice-to-have”s. Time Management, JavascriptNo
10/01/2019I finished reading the “PHP for Dummies” book. I have a much clearer understanding, workflow, etc etc…Personal Development, PHP, Servers, CMSNo
11/05/2019Kelly and I re-thought the approach to the newsletter on the Big Soda project. We worked well together and the client loved it. PM, AE, and Clients were very happy. We are planning on giving a small case study brown-bag lunch style to show our approach.DesignProblem Solving, Newsletter, Case StudyYes
Etc…

2. Problems Encountered

Similarly, you should take notes on problems you encounter, friction, and areas to improve. Having a list like this will help make “tough” conversations easier by having historical data. For example, If you’re trying to have a conversation like “I felt like I’ve have had a lot of friction with project managers the past few months because they *constantly* try to whittle down my task estimations.”

By adding historical data to the conversation, your standpoint may be more concrete in the eyes of the person you’re talking to. For example, this may be your conversation instead: “I have had 4 similar problems with Project Managers in the past 2 months. One was on A, two on B, and finally one on C. They pushed me to whittle down my estimates, which wound up hurting the project. What can we do to prevent this from happening?” This statement is much less

DateDescriptionOther DisciplineTag(s)Followup Needed?
9/10/2019On the Annual Report project, I was asked to half my estimate. It wound up taking exactly as much time as I originally estimated. Luckily, that “extra” time fit well within our contingency hours.Project ManagementEstimation, ContingencyNo
10/01/2019The designer on the Cell Phone project requested a single change on the day before launch, but didn’t test it thoroughly enough. It launched, then was revealed to be broken. We were able to fix it and deploy a patch before the client noticed.DesignChanges, Bugs, HotfixNo
11/05/2019Another developer and I had a hard time finalizing a pull request / code review. We need a policy on balancing “perfect” code/approach versus timliness.DevelopmentProcess, Pull Requests, Code ReviewsYes
Etc…

3. Direct Reports

I recommend a hybrid approach for direct reports: keep line items for both positive, negative, and neutral interactions. I use a single spreadsheet for my direct reports, with one tab for each person. This will pay back in droves when giving feedback or performance evaluations. It will also help you remember your reportee’s side of the story should something negative come up. An example scenario may be:

Project Manager: “Got a minute? Your reportee, Billy, is constantly billing too much time to his projects.”
You: “Actually, Billy has approached me 5 times over the past 3 months about how he was being pressured into reducing his estimates, then having the task take almost exactly as much time as his original estimation. Let’s instead talk about how we can alleviate the need to ask folks to reduce their estimates.”

DateReporteeAlignmentDescriptionOther Discipline / PersonTag(s)Followup Needed?
9/10/2019BillyPositiveLorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Summum ením bonum exposuit vacuitatem dolorisDesign / GinaProcess, Problem Solving
No
10/01/2019ConstanceNeutralIta similis erit ei finis boni, atque antea fuerat, neque idem tamenProject Management / TedProcess, EstimatesYes
11/05/2019BillyNegativeDuo Reges: constructio interrete. Duo enim genera quae erant, fecit tria. MeFeedback, Meeting Follow-upYes
Etc…

Successful Meetings

Some meetings do really well with no structure, but I find the most successful meetings have the following qualities:

  1. A clear meeting organizer / person in charge
  2. An agenda
    • Agenda should be read by attendees in advance via the meting invite
    • Stick to the agenda
    • Organizer tables / parking-lots off-topic items
  3. Call in / video sharing / screen sharing available
  4. Someone with taking notes
    • Collaboratively, if necessary
    • Posts the notes to project resources
    • Creates action items from the notes
    • Follows up with an email, if necessary
  5. A clear and easy way out
    • Either before or during a meeting, any team member should be empowered to say something like “I don’t think I’m going to be useful here– do you mind if I duck out?”
      or “I’m not at all vested in the process here, just the result, so I’d prefer to duck out and just filled in afterwards.”

The Benefits of Downtime & Team Building

It’s the current trend to hate on screen time, saying that screens are killing people’s ability to be social & creative, and increases anxiety and depression. More studies are coming out that propose that screens aren’t the issue– it is a plain lack of time to zone out, be bored, and let your brain have a break & refresh. Screen time, news events, and FOMO all contribute in both obvious and subtle ways.

The tech industry has had a similar model for a few years. We’ve known about the obvious effects of burnout. How many times have you given or received the advice of:

“It’s 7pm, you’re not going to solve this tonight. Get a good night’s rest and you’ll tackle it with a fresh brain in the morning.”

There’s something magical about letting your mind wander: daydreaming, random contemplation, taking in your surroundings and not thinking about solving the problem. How many times have you had an aha moment in the shower, walking the dog, painting, during the commute, or while watching your favorite show? Your brain figures it out while you’re not.

How can you as a leader apply that to your team?

  • Set up your resourcing expectations so your team doesn’t have 100% of their day accounted for
  • Encourage team members to step away from their desks for a walk around the floor / building / block to clear their heads.
  • Encourage team members to get in some “water cooler” time for morning/afternoon coffee, tea, or to fill their water bottle. This is micro team building.
  • Arrange some sort of full team outings. This is large-scale team building. What does your budget allow for? Lunch down the street, a retreat, a conference, catered food in the office, other. Pick something that will help you show the team that the culture of the office is a priority.
  • Set up some team building time block (I call it Friday Team Time). This is medium-sized team building.

Team Time?

A happy team that can laugh together will work better together. Set up a recurring weekly or bi-weekly opt-in (if you want to and if you have time) team time block. Mid week, end of week, it doesn’t matter.

Utilize card games, board games, or party computer games. I lean towards the last option, as you can generally initiate the game on a laptop (connect it to a TV or projector), and then let your team use their phones or laptops as controllers– this means no one gets left out

If you can, set up a small snacks and beverage budget. If not, another option is to nominate a team member to be the snack monarch. Have them buy some snacks and beverages and have the other team members pay them back by using a mobile/micro payment/money transfer service like Cash.me or Venmo. $2 for a bowl of snacks. $2 for a beverage.

Feedback & Input

So you run a group or lead some people. You hear lots and lots of feedback and input: some good, some bad. How are you supposed to know which feedback to listen to, which to take action on, and which to discard immediately?

First, let’s start with the…

Types of input that you “shouldn’t” listen to:

  1. The One Who Cries Wolf
    • Quotes: “I see the XYZ problem, it’s right there!”
    • Realistically: By the time you get around to helping, the problem appears to never had existed.
  2. The Constant Complainer
    • Quotes: Today: “Problem XYZ is here.”
      Tomorrow morning: “Problem ABC happened again.”
      Tomorrow afternoon: “Problem DEF appears to be going on.”
    • Realistically: These people just can’t handle pressure, adversity, or problem solve for themselves.
  3. The Gossip Slinger
    • Quotes: “Person A told me they said the client is unhappy.”
      “Persons B, R and G are all slackers.”
    • Realistically: These people just need to mind their own business.
  4. The Excuse Maker
    • Quotes: “Problem XYZ is happening, but I understand it’s because of [insert excuse], so it’s ok.
      “Person Q quit last week, they loved their job but it was an offer they couldn’t refuse.”
    • Realistically: They’re right! I agree with their reasoning. No blame to be had.
  5. The Finger Pointer
    • Quotes: “Problem XYZ is happening, and it’s all Person B’s fault.
      “Person Q quit last week, and it’s because of their manager.”
    • Realistically: They’re just trying to deflect blame from themselves, and ultimately are troublemakers. Ignore them.
  6. The Oracle
    • Quotes: “If we don’t do that thing, then we’re going to have turnover.”
      “Client will not like our proposal.”
      “Person T seems uneasy lately.”
    • Realistically: They’re just trying to deflect blame from themselves, and ultimately are troublemakers. Ignore them.
  7. The Optimist
    • Quotes: “I’m sure if we tell Person K how important this is, they’ll pull it off.”
      “That problem is super specific to this project. We won’t have to worry about it again.”
    • Realistically: They’re probably right about most of these. If one person feels these things, I’m sure others do, too!
  8. The Perfectionist
    • Quotes: “Anything less than an A+ is a failure.”
      “We have to constantly press ourselves to do better.”
      “I’m not letting the product get out until it’s completely done. I’ll work all night if I have to.”
    • Realistically: They’re right. Strive to meet their expectations.
  9. The Nostalgic One
    • Quotes: “At my last job, we did XYZ.”
      Our last director always did PQR, and that worked well.”
    • Realistically: Get with the times! If you don’t like it here, go back to your old company.
  10. The Know-It-All
    • Quotes: “I read how XYZ Company does this.”
      “Expert G’s blog says that the right way is to do X.”
      “Industry standards are clearly to do JKL.”
    • Realistically: We’ll just stick to the way we’ve always done it. Besides, we don’t have the time or resources to do those things.
  11. The Quiet One
    • Quotes: Prefers to correspond via email or chat. Could also be described as non-confrontational or shy.
    • Realistically: If whatever they have to say isn’t important enough to say to my face or during a meeting, it doesn’t matter.
  12. The Manager Who Knows Better
    • Quotes: “Really? I didn’t hear that.”
      “There’s no way that can be true.”
      “I know they’re wrong.”
      “Person Q doesn’t have the whole story.”
    • Realistically: Managers have better perspective than the average worker, so their opinion should have much more weight.
  13. The Out-of-Left-Field’er
    • Something totally unexpected or out of character is brought to your attention.
    • Realistically: That observation simply cannot be true. Not in a million years. Discard this information.
  14. Yourself
    • Quotes: “I’m not sure.”
      “What do you think?”
      “Let’s ask the team.”
    • Realistically: Your instincts are usually wrong.

Actually, you should listen to all of them.

All of these are valuable input sources, and you should take them all into consideration. Get to know your team individually, their styles, and the types of things that may be pain points for different folks/roles/perspectives.

  1. The One Who Cries Wolf…
    • may be your best early-warning system
    • may identify surprises that could snowball
  2. The Constant Complainer…
    • may be a good representation of more people’s feelings, just be the most vocal about it
    • may be a flight risk (would that hurt the project, or snowball into a mass team exodus?)
  3. The Gossip Slinger…
    • may be the voice for people who don’t feel comfortable speaking up
    • may be giving you a nicely compiled list of common things they’ve heard
  4. The Excuse Maker…
    • may be trying to express themselves, but not want to be seen as a finger pointer
    • should those excuses be recorded to verify if they’re a more common problem?
  5. The Finger Pointer…
    • may actually help identify deficiencies in personnel or process
    • may feel that they have to constantly pick up others’ slack
  6. The Oracle…
    • may have great instincts that could prevent some problems
  7. The Optimist…
    • may be the best person to help boost team morale
    • could help refine some communication guidelines
  8. The Perfectionist…
    • may be the best person to help train others
    • be great at quality assurance testing, and help to identify future bugs
  9. The Nostalgic One…
    • may have extremely valuable past expertise
  10. The Know It All…
    • may be the best person to help you stay current, and not fall behind the curve
  11. The Quiet One…
    1. has feedback that is no less valuable than the others
    2. delivery method of feedback does not diminish its relevance
  12. The Manager Who “Knows Better”
    • there’s value to seasoned / historical perspectives, but you have to take into consideration what their perspective / agenda might be
    • Also, if someone in leadership or another management position is jumping to disprove or discredit someone else’s feedback– or defaulting to a defensive stance, that’s indicative of a different kind of problem.
  13. The Out-of-Left-Field’er
    • may be talking about something that IS unexpected and previously thought improbable.
    • Remember: your team members’ perceptions are their reality, so whether it happened or not, the event or perception should be acknowledged and followed-up on.
  14. Yourself…
    • might be the only one able to piece together the feedback from everyone above and distill it into meaningful change.
    • Trust yourself.

Strategies for getting feedback:

So what are some ways to start getting feedback? Maybe you don’t hear much, or maybe you have only one or two of the above mentioned types of feedback-givers. Here are some things to keep an eye (or ear) out for:

  • Word of Mouth – Listen up and take the time to absorb general conversation from your team members and conversation about your team members.
  • 1:1 Meetings – If you don’t already, set up recurring meetings with your team members at whatever pace works for you both: weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, etc. Be prepared with topical questions and agendas when appropriate, but also have time for open agenda.
  • Team Meetings – Same as above: be prepared with topical questions and agendas when appropriate, but also have time for open agenda.
  • Topical Survey – Use this to get measured input from your team. As a bonus, let it be anonymous so that team members can feel more empowered to be truthful.
  • “Suggestion box” Survey – Create a generic survey to leave open permanently. Let folks submit suggestions and problems, but also positive things like compliments and success stories.
  • Project Postmortems/Retrospectives – Run these after projects: both smooth and rocky ones. Take notes to turn the rocky parts into action items, and to reinforce the smooth parts (turn them into solid policy or process).

Processing feedback:

What works best for you? You definitely don’t want these valuable points to get lost in a notebook full of other todo’s– or pushed to the back of your mind. Optimally, you might capture feedback in a notebook reserved just for feedback, or perhaps a spreadsheet (Google Sheets or Airtable) that you keep updated.

Why? There’s lots of input to collect, and by storing it in a digital place, you may be able to use reporting or filters to determine trends and draw conclusions. The types of data I’d start with include:

  • Date – so you can report on frequency
  • Source – who was it from?
  • Source’s Discipline – so you can report on what types of people have problems
  • Category – what is the general area of feedback / complaint?
  • Tags – what are a few more granular descriptors so you can search/report on those?
  • Target – was this feedback about another person or another discipline?
  • Surface Occasions – have you surfaced the feedback to your boss, their boss, others leaders?

Wrap up:

Go forth and put a plan into action. Keep your eyes and ears open to all forms of feedback and input, both good and bad. Take notes in an organized way. Turn it all into quantifiable reasoning that results in action for your team or organization.

Emotional Labor & “Soft” Skills

Types of emotional labor that everyone (but especially people in management/leadership positions) should participate in:

  • General office culture
    • Creation of special interest groups: both professional (Let’s Learn a New Language Club) and personal (Knitters Lunch)
  • Planning work parties/outings
    • Making sure individuals’ dietary restrictions are accounted for
  • Celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, work anniversaries, baby showers, etc.
  • Celebrating project launches
  • Knowledge sharing
  • Helping new employees feel welcomed and included
  • Asking folks to stop saying “guys”
  • Having extra tissues, painkillers, antacid tablets, or a snack bar in case of emergencies
  • Trying to help solve problems that don’t directly affect you
  • Encouraging the use of sick days for “mental health days”

Process & Consistency

Generally speaking, unless a project is a completely new type of project or purely investigative/experimental, some type of formal process can be applied to it. This can be rigid, fluid, or anywhere in between. As long as there is some process, written down (not in people’s heads) that is kept up to date,

What do I mean by “process”?

I like to define “process” loosely. Merriam-Webster defines process as “a series of actions or operations conducing to an end”.

A project’s process can be anything that is a documented in order to get a project completed. Often, a process may be one of the below elements, or bits and pieces of each:

  • Step-by-step workflow
  • “Choose your own adventure” guidelines
  • Onboarding documents
  • Pre-launch / post-launch checklists
  • Github Git-Flow

Why is process important?

Three reasons: consistency, autonomy, and responsibility.

#1: Consistency

I had a draft of this page for several months, but didn’t have a good way to summarize all of my thoughts using a single word or phrase. During WP Engine’s DE{CODE} conference, Lisa Sabin-Wilson, talked about the importance of consistency. Find the video labelled Key Strategies for Growing Your Agency Business and find Lisa’s talk around the 15:00 ~ 33:00 minute marks. Consistency is exactly the unifying word that I needed to tie all of my thoughts together on why process is important. That being said, this section combines many of my ideas with her quotes/ideas from the her talk because Lisa says it way better than I ever could. Where a close direct quote or paraphrase exists, I have cited the time in the video that it appears in.

Consistency drives trust in leadership, builds confidence, and contributes to a sense of job security. Consistency gives you the ability to measure outcomes and helps you hold your team accountable. Consistency not only gives the impression of stability but provides it. Consistency establishes your business’s/leadership’s reputation and makes you relevant.

So what are the pitfalls from a lack of consistency? Mistrust, confusion, frustration, all hands on deck, stepping on toes, and burnout. Lack of consistency will limit your capabilities and what you are able to accomplish. Boundaries can only be safely pushed when there is a consistent base to push from.

Without a standard process, individuals will come up with their own, often conflicting, processes. When the atmosphere is all hands on deck, people can wind up wearing too many hats. Eventually, someone will feel that their toes got stepped on, or step on another’s toes. The downhill slide continues into a game of “not my job,” breeds resentment, and eventually burnout and employee turnover.

How do we maximize consistency?

  • Standardize methods & procedures
  • Standardize tools & templates
  • Standardize training & education

How to create a process: a starting point and living document

“Most people work predictably. You will be able to use what already exists as your starting point. Once you have a list of those key processes, gather any documentation your team members already have & steps that they’ve already taken. That can be the starting point to modifying it into a standard process.” ~23:55

I’ve explained this previously as:
“We have a known project kickoff and project launch. Those are two points in the process. Continue by having a conversation about how you normally fill what’s in between those two points. Do that until you can’t think of any other points to add, and behold: a rough process.”

It should be well advertised that standard processes are living documents. They should be updated continuously. Baby steps should be taken. Caveats should be noted.

Finally, the process must be shared and enforced. “All of the standardization in the world will not do your business any good if it’s not shared with your team.” ~26:48

Most are paraphrased:

  • “Learning as you go is a hard road… especially in a period of growth.” ~18:50
  • “You will run out of water to put out fires if you don’t have fire-prevention measures in place.” ~19:25
  • “Doing something a different every single time causes inefficiencies.” ~19:41
  • “If it takes 20 minutes to do something that would take 5 using a few standard steps, that’s 15 minutes of money you’ll never get back.” ~19: 55
  • “Recognize recurring fires as they happen– and over time. Look at them as opportunities to create a standard process to save yourself time and headache.” ~20:10
  • “These processes will also help you train employees when it is time to offload those responsibilities.” ~21:10
  • “People trust the process more than they trust people.” ~21:55
  • “Flying by the seat of your pants when you have a dozen projects per year– you’ll get through it, you’ll be ok. But what about when you have a dozen projects per month or two dozen per month?” ~30:30

#2: Autonomy

With a process, an employee can trust that their manager’s direction is correct in the given scenario. A manager can trust that the employee will follow the standard process and arrive at the expected outcome.

I’ve always explained it as “making a burger.” Given that the criteria include items like “it must be edible” and the toppings are known– how many different ways are there to make a burger? A lot of preparation methods, cooking methods, seasonings, budgets, time frames, and a pile of other factors could lead to wildly different outcomes.

It may be silly to think about, but we can take that a few steps simpler: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There’s a fantastic YouTube video called The Exact Instructions Challenge where a father tasks his children with writing the exact instructions for him to follow in order to make a simple PB&J.

Watch that video. Keep in mind how easy it is and how few steps there are to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Following incomplete or ambiguous instructions leads to wildly different outcomes. Now apply that to your job: coding a website, designing an interface, building a project schedule, etc. Those are infinitely more complicated and require many more specialized skills than making a PB&J. How can anyone expected to do a similar task and wind up with the same result? Clear process is the answer.

#3: Responsibility

How do you assign praise, feedback, or criticism on a project with a lot of moving parts or with multiple team members– and without a process? Without the expectation of knowing who does what and how in any given scenarios, who is to blame?

The answer there is either “everyone” or “no one.” Without a process, it is the entire team’s responsibility to ensure the success of every aspect of a project. This is a slippery slope, as noted with the pitfalls of a lack of consistency above.

How do you measure your team’s success during retrospectives/post-mortems and times of performance review? Without a consistent process, these conversations are an extremely slippery slope.

Internal Initiatives

Internal initiatives are the grout that fills the
gaps between bricks (paying projects).

What do your team members do when they have downtime between major projects?

  • Check social media
  • Personal chat/text/email
  • Freelance work
  • Chat with (and potentially distract) teammates
  • Self-learning/research
  • Get ahead on other project tasks
  • Their own initiative that’s work-related
  • Ask for more work
  • Consults a pool of internal initiatives/tasks

This isn’t a plan to block everyone’s time from 9-5 so they have no time to think or breathe. In fact, there’s power in downtime and team building.

What are “internal initiatives”?

Anything that isn’t part of a paying project, but still integral to the department or company. These should be smaller tasks that can be checked-off in a few minutes, hours, or days– or depending on what your team’s average length of downtime is.

  • Onboarding improvements
  • Documentation updates
  • Training & self-learning
  • Pet projects or proof of concept projects

Keeping track and creating that pool:

How does a team keep track of initiatives? How does your team keep track of projects and project-related tasks? Ticketing software, Kanban board, to-do list app, or other. You’d probably want to use that same system. Create a new project called “Downtime”. List out all those tasks that your team could take on, what discipline it would require, and how many hours it should take.

Task: Update photo of building on website.
Description: Take a new photo of the building, but at sunset when the light is right behind the building. Photoshop to remove that streetlight. Upload to website.
Disciplines & Workflow: Designer to capture photo & photoshop. VP to approve. Anyone to update website.
Time: 3 hours.

Task: Conference room projection options.
Description: Everyone is confused about how to switch inputs for the projector. Disconnect the old VGA cable. Type and print a very simple how-to for the projector options: HDMI or casting.
Disciplines & Workflow: Anyone who knows how to do it. No approvals necessary.
Time: 1 hour.

Task: Update documentation for new workflow.
Description: In June, we had to switch to the XYZ workflow, but haven’t taken time to document it. Type out our general workflow, note the spots where it is flexible and where it should be strictly followed.
Disciplines & Workflow: Developer to write content. Consult with a designer to produce graphics, icons, or other visuals where appropriate. Get thumbs-up from development, design, and project management leads before releasing it to the team via intranet and email.
Time: 3 days.

Task: Self-Learning / Research
Description: We value your career path and recognize that staying up-to-date on changing technologies is time consuming. Take some time during your downtime to read blogs, take online classes, watch webinars/archived conference talks, or anything else that’s relevant to your job or career. If applicable, share what you’ve learned with the team.
Disciplines & Workflow: Anyone.
Time: 1 hour – 3 days.

When a resource becomes available, they themselves, their manager, or a project manager could take a look for any tasks applicable to their role and amount of available time vs estimated task time.

When to convert an initiative from grout into a brick:

Sometimes, initiatives are so integral to a team, or just plain needs to happen immediately. Let’s say that the workflow task from the examples above is one of those items. It is such a pain point, and there’s a new project kickoff in two weeks that really needs to get off on the right foot from the get-go– and we want to teach the entire team in an hour and a half meeting: 1 hour for the presentation and half an hour for Q&A, if need be.

  • Have a project manager run it as if it were a client project.
  • Incorporate due dates and approvals.
  • Set up the team meeting, clearing folks’ availability to accommodate it.
  • Publish the information on the intranet and via email.