The Need to be Needed

January 10, 2014

“A bee is never as busy as it seems; it’s just that it can’t buzz any slower.” – Kin Hubbard

A while back I was coaching a project that was to a large extent staffed by people being experts in narrow fields of expertise that also had other commitments outside of the project preventing them from having any slack time what-so-ever. This constituted quite a big challenge because they all took turns to act as bottlenecks in the process so I decided to run a retrospective focused entirely on how we could free up more of their time in order to improve the flow of work.

The initial reaction I got was almost enough to give up on the idea entirely. Almost everyone started moaning about management and the organization being the problem.
“Tell them to not dump all this work on us.”
“As long as we have to do projects as well as maintenance this will always be a problem.”
“I have to support so many projects that I’ll never be able to set aside any slack time.”

With the support of the project manager though, I decided to run the retrospective despite the chorus of geese shaking off the water. The setup was quite simple; we divided into groups of three and I asked each group to work according to the Iroquois “Rule of Six” to come up with at least six plausible reasons for why key people in the project were constantly overloaded with work. I asked them to specifically look for reasons that were in our reach to act upon. The result was amazing. All groups managed to present at least a handful of reasons showing how we all were responsible of creating this problem.
“I say yes to almost anything.”
“I don’t trust other people to do a good job.”
“I ask other people to help me with stuff without checking if it’s prioritized.”
“I don’t prioritize the work that comes in.”
“I create work that has not been asked for.”
etc.

I was overwhelmed with the candidness and maturity in the answers. This was great; we had found so many things that we would be able to act on in order to ease up on our own as well as our peer’s workloads. With this smörgåsbord of possible actions I didn’t want to do a prioritization to select one or two to implement during the upcoming sprint. Instead I asked if we could take as homework to do a daily act of kindness to ourselves and someone else. Could we at least once a day stop to think if we were about to act according to one of the patterns that we had found and instead take another road?

This is where things started to get interesting again. Amidst the nods and yesses I detected some hesitation as well. The hesitation wasn’t spoken out loud in any way but it was in the air so I asked for a fist of five. Could everyone on the count of three please raise a hand showing their commitment to this homework by showing any number of fingers between one and five?

  • Five fingers being “YES! I’m really committed to this, count on me.”
  • One finger might as well be the middle one; “There’s no way in hell that I’m doing this.”

All people raised four or five fingers except the three persons being the most overburdened, they only held up one or two fingers.

When I asked what made them hesitant about doing this daily act of saying no to another task or not handing unprioritized work over to a fellow project member, they all fell back to the initial reaction of pointing outside their own sphere of control: “It’s not possible to say no.”
“If there’s a production problem it has to be done.”
“We have to do this even if it’s not prioritized.”
“Quality will suffer if we don’t do this.”

I’m not entirely sure if the conclusion I came to after this meeting was correct or not but I suspect that these people thrive on being busy. It could be external factors such as explicit or implicit rewards and/or threats that make people act in ways that puts them in the center of everything but having seen the same people end up in these situations time after time in different positions at different companies make me think that the problem often is self constructed. Some internal belief system or internal reward system make some people act in ways that is hazardous to not only their own health but also the productivity of the team that they work with. I don’t have a turnkey solution for this problem but I would ask everyone to consider this possibility before going about redesigning the organization or taking any other measures on the system.

The problem might not be that we force people to work too much, it could very well be that we allow them to work too much.

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3 Responses to “The Need to be Needed”

  1. Seb Rose Says:

    Yes! But do you have any suggestions about how to prevent people to working too much, without the negative effects of being over-controlling?

    • morgsterious Says:

      As I wrote in above; I don’t have a turnkey solution but one thing I suggest is working with visualizing the work. Make sure that everyone can see what the team is working on and that this work is prioritized. Kanban is a great tool for keeping people focused and on track but it also need everyone to be committed to this way of working. Talk to people around the team about acceptable ways of communicating work to the team.

      It might not solve the problem of people making themselves needed but it will hopefully make it easier to discuss the problem.

  2. Seyit Abbasoglu Says:

    Even though we don’t force them, most times we encourage them to “be busy” by how we evaluate their performance. I wouldn’t be surprised if those 3 individuals, reluctant to change their behavior, are actually praised by the rest of the organization being the “most productive individuals”, getting recognitions, raises, promotions etc..


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