Prioritising effectively and getting work done as managers

@samueljabiodun · June 25, 2023

You’re overwhelmed. You have an endless list of different tasks. Your schedule is stuffed with meetings and you need more time for focused work. Each meeting you attend brings more to-do items to your unending list. You’re busy throughout the day but can hardly point to something concrete you have done yourself.

If this describes you, you’re likely in a lead role or managing teams. This post is for you.

If you recently transitioned to a lead or manager role, you may start to feel like you’re not doing your job. That feeling of achievement you once derived from shipping tangible stuff disappears. At this same junction, some leaders slip back to doing IC work, like churning out features while ignoring the more significant part of their role –leading.

There are two things you need to understand as a new lead. You need a new approach to frame what you do. And you need a new way to prioritise them effectively.

As a software lead or manager:

  • You will mostly be working through people (your team).

  • You will do small little tasks but many instead of a whole big chunk of work.

  • You will frequently context-switch throughout the day.

  • The impact of some of the work you will do will be long-term, which will make it hard to get that instant feeling of progress. The effect of that extra email you sent to finally close a strong talent will not materialise instantly.

All of the above run counter-parallel to what you did as an individual contributor. Hence you will need to change how you view your work. Rather than what you contribute single-handedly, you need to reframe the way you see the organisation and your contribution to its success.

Your role is no longer about your individual contribution and your individual impact.

Your role is about what the team does, about how the team contributes to the company’s success. Those little boring tasks you do to make your team better and improve their efficiency now matter more than the features you can code alone – that is your job.

But you’re still drowning in tasks. So, how do you stay on top of your not-ending to-do list and still get things done?

The answer is simple: know how to pick your battles. You need to understand tasks you should do and tasks that others should do. You need to know what should be done in the moment and what needs to wait a little bit longer.

One of the mistakes I made in the past was making every task that came my way a task I must do. While a leader may be responsible, it does not mean that the leader should do everything. I was clearly missing “What I should do vs. what others should do.” I was equating being responsible to being the one doing it.

Being responsible for a task does not mean you should do it. There will be hundreds of things demanding your attention because the scope of your work has increased. It’s important to constantly differentiate what you should actually be doing from what others should be doing.

Once you find out what you should do vs. what others should do, you can delegate what others should do and focus on what you should do.

How to know what you should do vs. what others should do

A delegation matrix is an effective tool you can use to decide which tasks to delegate and which to retain. When you use this tool effectively, you’ll be able to free up some time to chase bigger things. A delegation matrix is a 2×2 table measuring the competence of reports on the y-axis and the competence of a manager on the x-axis.

Let’s look at a case where a delegation matrix can be applied. You have just received a request to review a new design document from another product team to ensure approaches are aligned. There are a few options you have.

  • Spring into action to review and unblock the team while other things suffer.

  • Add it to your overflowing to-do list and block this team for a couple of days or a week until some time is freed up for the review.

Using a delegation matrix, you may assess that a report on your team possesses the skills to review the design doc. Clearly, both you and your report can do the review. This task goes into quadrant 3 in the image above. Everything in quadrants 1 and 3 should be delegated to your reports.

There will be times when you have a task neither you or your report can do. Such tasks should either be delegated to your manager or solicit assistance from your manager to do it.

Everything that falls into Quadrant 4 should be done by you.

Tasks in quadrants 1 and 3 are:

  1. Tasks that can be handled adequately by reports

  2. Tasks for which team members have all the information for decision-making.

  3. Tasks that don’t require skills unique to you or your position.

  4. Tasks for which an individual other than you can have direct control over the task.

  5. Tasks and/or projects that will contribute to the growth and development of the individual.

Tasks that fall in Quadrant 4

  • The delegation process itself: Any work to be delegated should be delegated and explained by you.

  • Performance evaluations and disciplinary actions: These are managerial responsibilities.

  • Coaching, and moral problems.

  • Planning and forecasting: Some of the detailed work can be done by engineers, such as breaking tasks down and estimations. However, you alone are in a position to decide team goals how they fit in with the overall company’s goals.

  • Confidential tasks.

Separate urgent, important tasks from non-urgent tasks

Have you categorised your tasks into what you should do vs. what others should do and delegated what others should do, and yet you still feel like you’re drowning in assignments? Then, the next step is to separate urgent and important tasks from non-urgent and important tasks.

Do urgent and important tasks now.

Urgent and important tasks have clear deadlines and consequences if immediate action is not taken. Urgent tasks include responding to incidents, onboarding a new engineer, resolving conflicts, and unblocking a report.

Schedule important tasks that are not urgent.

Important but not urgent tasks are tasks without a specific deadline but they bring you closer to your goals. These are tasks that are easy to procrastinate on. Examples are defining your team’s strategy and vision. Schedule these tasks for the future. Put a block in your calendar in the future to do them.

Delegate urgent but unimportant tasks.

You may still find a couple of urgent but unimportant tasks in your todo list. There are studies that show that we’re naturally biased towards picking urgent tasks even if they’re less important. Tasks that are urgent but are not important are best delegated.

To conclude, if you’re going to take one thing from this post it should be being responsible doesn’t mean doing it yourself. Understanding what you should do vs. what others should do is key to staying on top of your schedule.

Additional resources

Five valuable lessons for a new tech lead
Feeling productive

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