Overburden with operational/transitional and not able to focus on transformational/strategic.
— Learning and Development Manager
Sometimes it takes a Learning and Development Manager to point out that there’s no learning or development.
What makes this question so interesting is that not every company has a Learning and Development Manager. This company cares enough to put one in place. But she is not very optimistic: “Sorry, folks! If you keep it business as usual, I’ve got nothing to manage.”
This manager is in a tough spot. Her job goes against the company culture—not unlike a newly minted Employee Engagement Manager working for a not-so-employee-friendly company.
So, what does a Learning and Development Manager do at a company that is stuck in a rut?
The easy answer is: look for another job.
However, if the people who hired her really do care about learning and development, then maybe she could give her job another shot.
The first thing to learn is the reason for the chronic “overburden.”
In a small company, like Axero, even if one employee is overburdened, management feels the pain. When this happens, we don’t hire a learning manager (although we like the idea!), we un-overburden ourselves.
At Axero, we are always busy. And, given the stats on the intranet software market, we will stay busy for the foreseeable future. That said, we avoid overburdening ourselves by thinking ahead about the tasks we do and where they might fit in the graph below.
We are careful that our work is the right mix of the first and second quadrant (urgent-and-important and not-urgent-but-important.) As for the third and fourth quadrants (urgent-but-not-important and neither-urgent-nor-important), our mission is to search and destroy those tasks. And it’s due to this fact that we’re still around as a company.
Chronic overburden is a symptom. The problem is inefficient process, lack of strategy, or work that people don’t like to do.
Process improvement should be built into your company’s DNA. Big companies have internal consulting groups that do nothing but process-improve all day. But smaller guys can do as well, if not better, by making it a standard feature of any job.
Like small companies, teams can look after their own process improvement. It all comes down to the freedom and motivation the manager feels to unburden his staff. Make sure you find that freedom! Read Chapter 13, Help, of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? for inspiration, then empower yourself and your people to take your overburden apart.
Stuff that creates the most work can usually be automated. I wrote about automating our sales process. (See What is the Value of Processes and Procedures in the Workplace?) By cutting out an inefficient task—responding to unqualified leads—we closed more deals with fewer hands. We didn’t have a full-time salesperson at the moment, but we were doing better than when we did.
When you take a close look at your process, it’s not unusual to eliminate both workers and work. Still, sometimes you need more help, not less. Companies can be stingy with full-time positions, but you can always ask for temporary help from inside or outside. Don’t burn out your people. Get temps, interns, freelancers, someone else’s new hires, or anyone willing to help you get through the backlog and start fresh.
Lack of strategy
Process improvement works best when it serves a clear goal. Goals help you separate the essential tasks from the unimportant. They also help you set clear metrics, so you can tell whether any improvement has taken place.
Know why you’re doing the work, and why it’s the best way to achieve your goals. It’s easy to get used to the grind and lose sight of the why. Maybe it’s time our Learning and Development Manager asked a few of those strategic and transformative questions.
Work that people don’t like to do
Some “operational/transitional” work may fall into this category. I have dealt with this problem in an early post called “How to Eliminate Shitwork.” Much of it goes back to process automation.
A good example is Matt, our customer support guy. On top of solving problems for customers, Matt used to manage software upgrades. With new customers joining at a rapid clip, Matt’s workload was crossing into overburden. We saw it and built software to do upgrades with a push of a button. No more shitwork for Matt!
Perhaps efficient doesn’t always mean interesting and exciting. By improving and automating our process, we could create more shitwork, rather than eliminate it. I have two ways to respond when and if this situation arises at Axero.
One, I noticed that people don’t mind extreme efficiency when they are accountable for the results. In the past, I was handling sales, and the work was repetitive, but I got my adrenaline from signing contracts and welcoming new customers on board. When I handed that job off to the new salesperson, it became her responsibility to close deals, but also her right to keep improving the sales process so she doesn’t get bored.
Two, sometimes people need a change of pace. Before we hired Matt, Bryce was doing our customer support. Bryce treated customers like royalty and was willing to learn anything to help them. After five years, he knew the job like the back of his hand. He told us he was sick of it and wanted something else to do. Now he is a developer. He writes code full-time, has plenty of challenges and is good at solving them. No more shitwork for Bryce!
Today’s lesson is to always focus on the transformational and the strategic. Know your strategy and do nothing that doesn’t move you forward. Make it your strategy to protect your people from mind-numbing work. Look for new ways of doing things. Keep your top performers challenged and excited about work. If we can do it, so can you.
If you like learning, you might like my book, because it has facts and ideas that will change the way you work.