Granular Work: How to See the Trees the Forest is Made of
Most of us are familiar with the saying “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” We all know that it’s supposed to tell us something about how we can get so hung up on the details that we forget the scope of a project or a goal.
This can be a problem, to be sure, but I think the opposite problem is more common. We get so focused on the scope of our goal that we forget the details. This leads to dreams of grandeur, poor planning, badly measured progress, and ultimately an overwhelming sense that goals will never be met.
Project managers face a complex problem when it comes to instituting granular workloads. While breaking big goals down into small tasks can make things concrete, more approachable, more measurable, and less frightening, it can also lead to over-planning.
In other words, too much granularity risks the possibility of getting specific about things you have no real knowledge about. It invites surprises and breakdowns that you can’t plan for, and it can often lead to poorly allocated resources.
How can you offer workers a more granular task load without creating too much rigidity?
The Sliding Scale of Detail
The key to creating granular tasks with enough flexibility for the real world is to adjust detail as time goes by.
Start with big, quarterly goals. Break those down into monthly goals, and those down into weekly goals, and so on. But rather than planning things down to the day from the beginning, adjust detail as projects get nearer. Start with nebulous goals, and add detail as you collect more knowledge from the project itself, how it is progressing, and how things are likely to go.
Put simply, the closer a project goal gets, the more knowledge you have of what must be accomplished in order to meet the goal. At the same time, the closer goals get, the more your team needs to know about granular tasks. This makes a sliding scale of detail the obvious choice from both a planning and an implementation standpoint.
This approach allows your workforce to focus most of their attention on the task at hand, while being aware of the larger tasks ahead, but without being overwhelmed.
Getting Worker Buy-In
While employees and freelancers are sometimes thought of worker bees that simply have to adapt to whatever management style you throw their way, the reality is that workers must be persuaded and must buy in to your approach as much as any stakeholder. Workers can and will defy management in overt and passive ways if you fail to get buy-in.
Creating a functional granular management approach goes much deeper than just adapting the sliding scale of detail and sending emails implementing this plan. Workers must be involved in the process for it to work effectively, at least in any of the knowledge work industries.
Explain the value – Make sure your workforce understands the value of granular workflows, and why they work on a sliding scale of detail. While it’s true that this is, in part, about measuring the progress of projects in more detail, so that problems can be spotted sooner, it is also about breaking down big goals into actionable steps that will prevent anxiety about big goals. It’s also not about making things more rigid and harder to change.
Lead by example – Demonstrating your own creation and completion of granular tasks helps to send the message that this is in fact making your job easier and more enjoyable, and that it makes sense to do things this way.
Start with a core team – It can be taxing to switch your entire workforce over to a granular approach, and it might make more sense to start with a small group of productivity-oriented workers who are least likely to object to the change. Once you get that running smoothly, you can gradually shift the rest of your team over to the new approach, or let the culture spill over naturally over time.
Leverage existing habits – If most of your workers are still most comfortable using email, you can use a cloud-based PM software like WorkZone that supports email alerts. This helps people transition over more naturally than simply forcing a new interface on them.
Finally, it’s important to involve your team in the process as well. Your workers might see the switch over to granular workflows as a way for management to interfere with their processes and limit autonomy over their own projects. If workers are given a role in planning granular workflows, they will more freely accept it, and may even feel more empowered than before.