Task Execution Tip-Sheet


Knowledge workers understand, on at least some level, the importance of getting things done on time and in the right order.  And yet, this is consistently one of the biggest problems organizations face.  The aim of this article is not to give instructions on how to prioritize, plan, and execute tasks, but to help you start a dialog within your organization — a dialog that will generate the insights and passion you’ll all need to meet this challenge head on.

Part I

Is task execution a problem in your organization?

Of course it is.  For the execution of tasks, in almost every organization I’ve worked in, there has been a general feeling of malaise.  And the most common problem: meeting deadlines.  Someone is always late – and rarely is it the same person; that would be an easy problem to solve.

No one wants to be late with tasks, so why does it happen? — It’s usually due to a lack of one or more of the following:

  • accountability
  • commitment
  • confidence
  • empathy
  • overload/over-commitment — often traceable to an inability to say No
  • ability — specifically:
    • planning skills
    • tracking skills (different from planning skills)
    • execution skills
    • inability to deal with overload

Compounding the problem is the fact that most employees either 1) have no clear system or method, or 2) refuse to face squarely the flaws in the system they use. They also often lack the understanding of what to do if they’re going to be late and how to ask for help.

Being late is not fun for anyone
One thing is for sure: it’s unpleasant for everyone when someone is late with a task.  Those feelings of resentment or guilt, depending on whether you’re the assigner or the assignee, take quite some time to dissipate, which means that people are walking on eggshells in hallways filled with stale air.  Worse, it’s a silent and invisible menace.  Tardiness is usually nothing to get bent out of shape about, but over time, all the minuses add up, and it’s just a matter of time before trust dissipates and patience starts to wane.

Don’t make it worse

You can turn your teams into task executing ninjas, but before we discuss the first steps, let’s make certain you don’t exacerbate the problem by falling into a number of common traps:

  • The killer smile. Certain questions appear helpful but are in fact faintly disguised criticism:

How can I help you get this done?
Why do you think you are always late?
What can I do to show you how important this is?
Are you aware of the significance of being late on this?

None of these indirect criticisms will get you or your employees to the goal; they’re more likely to slow you down. The reason: The emotions they inspire in employees are mostly likely to be guilt or resentment. Rather than refocusing everyone’s efforts on the solution, they merely amplify the problem.

  • Baby talk. Don’t solve it or walk through the steps with them. At best they’ll feel coddled or belittled. At worst, they’ll wonder why you didn’t just do it yourself.
  • Fencing them in. Stay away from yes/no questions (close ended). You’ll run the risk of them feeling interrogated.  Instead, help them by asking questions that lead to dialog (open ended)

One last point: When your team members fail to deliver on time, it is only human to have feelings of resentment. Still, your frustrations should not get in the way of your being a good coach. Never coach someone if you can’t put your own feelings of frustration aside. I realize that this is difficult, but it’s vital to creating a team of talented task troopers.

If all of that sounds like the only way to solve this problem is through behavioral psychology, take heart.  There is a way to fast-track excellent task execution habits. You just need to be prepared.

Part II

Creating a shared vision

If your method isn’t documented, you don’t really have one. You can use the documentation process to generate an invaluable dialog among your employees — one in which they wrestle with this question:  What does perfect task execution look like?

At the end of this dialog, your team must commit to a set of WRITTEN guidelines that clearly articulate the perfect method, with nothing left to chance.

What follows is a list you can use to stimulate and steer both the dialog and the documentation process. A documented set of agreements regarding how your organization should:

  • Communicate the scope, level of detail, resource spend and other elements of a task.
  • Agree on milestones of tasks (breaking them down to smaller elements before delegating)
  • Delegate tasks
  • Decide on deadlines
  • Confirm the receipt of tasks
  • Confirm an understanding of exactly what you are supposed to do and by when
  • Show progress
  • Finish the task by the agreed upon deadline
  • Signal that you are having problems meeting the deadline
  • Ask for help
  • Negotiate a new deadline (deadlines have to be negotiated – nothing is for free!)
  • Make sure each team member understands how others are relying on them – for even the most mundane tasks
  • Offer help/training
  • Warn about consequences (Last resort)

The more you can agree upon, the less risk for confusion, misunderstandings or feelings of being taken for granted on the one hand, as well as the least amount of shame and misplaced anger on the other.  It’s a total win for everyone on the team.

Going through this list might take up an hour or more depending on the size of your group, but weigh the expense of that against all the time and aggravation that you will save in the months and years ahead and you’ll see that it’s an incredibly worthy investment.

Remember, everything must be written down and signed off by everyone on the team.  That is how you will ensure culpability and unity.  Even if some people don’t agree on every point, they must agree that in order to be part of the team they will have to abide by ALL the rules and not just the ones that they favor the most.

Putting a bullet-proof system into place

Once you have a commitment to written guidelines you will need a mechanism to coordinate, systemize, synchronize and sustain your method, which is the subject of Part III… (Coming soon)