Serving Multiple Masters

by Krishna on March 30, 2006

Are you overwhelmed? Having difficulty prioritizing your tasks? Every task on your plate seems urgent? Many people on your back asking you to do stuff? Your experience may be due to serving multiple masters or systems. Let us see how this works.

When different persons give you tasks, they have no idea about your current workload or what other tasks have been given to you by other people. For them, their task is paramount, and probably rightly so from their perspective, because they may be responsible for its completion.

So now you have a bunch of tasks, all with high priority and required immediately, but you only have so much time to accommodate everything. Inevitably, stress and failure result. When you start skipping deadlines, the others gets aggravated and you are put in more pressure.

There are a few ways around this situation. One method is to create a priority list for the persons who are giving you tasks. You may have a Vice President, your direct managers and persons from other departments giving you tasks. Arrange them in a descending order of importance. When you receive a task from a person who is lower in the hierarchy, inform him or her that you are working on a task by the superior and then you can take up their task. The advantage is that the junior will not ask you to do something that would affect the superior. And if they insist, you can ask them to talk to the superior directly and get their approval. 99% of the time, they will opt to wait.

Now, suppose the superior asks you to do something when you are busy with other tasks. The simplest way is to inform everyone, through a mail to them CC’ed to the superior, that the superior has given you a very important task and their task may be delayed. Again, you have put the onus on the junior persons to get permission from the superior if they want their task to gain approval.

The above is a political solution which is entirely governed by who has the most power or clout in the office. A better solution is to create an automated queuing system. Such an application is a first-come, first-served system: Those who come later have to wait. The key point is “automated”, which means that you should not be on the line to give estimates about wait or delivery times. Let us explore the mechanics of such a system.

Anyone wishing to give you a task logs into the automated system and adds a task. If the system finds other tasks for you, it will estimated the last completion time for those tasks and informs the person that, say, their task is No. 15 on the list and it will be taken up 5 days later. The system will send you an email informing you of the new task. You will log in and fill in the estimated time — the system will prevent you from creating time conflicts or scheduling outside your working hours. Once you finish, the person is informed of the estimated completion date.

Many individuals are very eager to please. When someone, especially a superior or a commanding person, is giving them a task, it is very difficult for them to inform them directly that they are already overwhelmed with other tasks. An automated system reduces the personality factor in these interactions to some extent.

The biggest disadvantage of such a system is the level of discipline within your organization. Some persons, especially those higher-ups who are not used to automated systems, may wish to avoid putting tasks in the system and side-step it by informing you directly. You are back to the same problem.

A final solution I can think of is to designate one person as your master and tell him that you want all tasks on your plate to be prioritized. This is usually your direct reporting manager, which is generally a good idea, because he or she will be doing your review too. If anyone informs you about any task, ask them to talk to your manager.

Keep repeating the sentence “Talk to my manager” and memorize it. By doing that, you are now absolved of having to track your priorities. When you are having problems keeping things straight, talk to your manager and re-shuffle tasks as needed. But remember: now the manager’s job is on the line based on your performance. Never under-estimate or deliver with low quality. Put a reasonable buffer in your estimates and ensure that you meet your deadlines.

Managing the prioritization of your tasks is a great step in keeping stress out of your job. Usually people are good in handling one task at a time. It is those unplanned tasks that disrupt schedules and play havoc with timelines. Using a mechanism for prioritization — a single manager, an automated system or prioritizing the seniority of the taskmasters — will help you to manage the system better.

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