Tandem Motion

When to Say No: Focusing on Valuable Work

For months the department director had been receiving complaints that people were overworked and understaffed. They felt like their time was spent continually putting out fires; this kept them from working on the most strategic activities to advance the organization. The firefighting dynamics were even starting to impact relationships with customers. Department resources were pulled in multiple directions at once, and regional leads found that much of their energy was spent endlessly reevaluating how best to allocate scarce resources. The department head knew the team needed to prioritize the way they were spending their time, but first, they had to understand the strategic value of their activities.

Too Much "Yes"

The strategic prioritization of work maximizes the effectiveness of the workforce by focusing people on the activities that matter most to the business. Everyone has a finite amount of time and energy on a given day. Typically, the longer a person is in an organization, the more responsibilities they are asked to take on. This person may eventually find that they are filling the equivalent of multiple full-time roles and struggling to keep up with the mounting workload. The quality of their work inevitably suffers as a result: deadlines are missed, morale and creativity plummet, and the stress of growing to-do lists keeps them up in the middle of the night. An organization's most capable people might be speeding toward burnout and losing the edge that earned them all those responsibilities in the first place.

Why Say "No"?

In an organization that has made its priorities clear, people are empowered to strategically focus their own time and energy where it will be most effective. They are able to decline activities that produce little or no value to the business to preserve their ability to invest in those that do. When the organization has a shared understanding of priorities, people can object to overextending themselves with non-strategic, low-value work by referencing the priorities common to the organization. The benefits of this approach aren't limited to individual sanity and well-being. The organization will gain the efficiency that comes from focusing on value and protect itself from unnecessarily growing the workforce to keep up with low-value work.

The company I described at the beginning of this article took the initiative in defining the activities with the most value to empower its people to focus on impact. To do this, they surveyed all employees to document activities, duration, and frequency. The results were compiled so that the leadership could identify and prioritize those that added the most value to the organization. Half of all activities were ultimately eliminated or transferred to a centralized support team to allow the workforce to focus on much more valuable client-facing activities. Not only did this end the fire drills and reduce the stress on the workforce, but it also benefitted the business directly by better leveraging the skills of its people to create more value for the company.

How to Identify Your Most Valuable Work

Even a small investment in strategic prioritization can yield significant improvements to your team's productivity. Here's a simple starting point to help your team identify its most valuable activities:

  1. Make a list. Brainstorm a list of all of your activities. Make the activities specific enough that you remember what they are, but not so specific that you lose the momentum that comes from brainstorming.

  2. Select. Select the activities from your brainstorm that reflect your typical week.

  3. Time and frequency. For each activity, list the average time it takes to perform the activity and the frequency (i.e., daily, weekly, etc.). Perform quick calculations to total the amount of time each activity takes per week.

  4. Prioritize. Prioritize the activities by value added to your work objectives.

  5. Reflect and decide. Reflect on how much time each activity is taking per week. Are there low-value activities that are taking a significant amount of your time? Are there activities you can eliminate? Are there activities you can't eliminate, but that can be moved off of your plate so you can focus on more valuable activities?

  6. Prepare for and have the necessary conversations. If there are activities you've identified that need to be removed from your plate, prepare to have a conversation with the appropriate party to ask for help. Position your request as beneficial to the business. Share with the other party the activities you think are the most valuable and where you should be spending your time. Ask for the person's insight and see if any adjustments need to be made given the new information shared. Work together to align on the most valuable activities and discuss the plan for the remaining activities on the list.

Focusing on the activities that add the most value to the organization enables people to say "no" to activities that don't add value. The business will soon see the benefits of a workforce focused on adding the most value possible.

Cara Griffith

Cara Griffith

Cara’s expertise spans the HR space in talent strategy, leadership alignment, governance, HR operation model development, and change management. Cara has collaborated with Fortune Global 500 companies in the consumer goods, financial services, medical devices, oil and gas, pharmaceutical, technology, and energy industries to transform how organizations think about accomplishing business strategy objectives by empowering their talent.