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I started a new position several weeks ago. I've onboarded well and started working productively and delivering almost immediately.

I've started introducing changes directly after starting (which I know can be a risky strategy, given the necessity to build networks, understand the rationale of processes, etc.). I've had some successes already, but...

There's a lot of potential for improvement in the team I'm managing. It just wasn't managed well before I started. The team has a huge potential but it will take us some time to get where I want it to be, obviously. I can't make up for 2-3 years of work in 6 weeks.

At the same time management writes me constantly (even at 2 am) why this or that hasn't been done yet and that they need it immediately. "This or that" is normally something that is really needed (i.e. it's a reasonable objective). But it's mostly something that requires several weeks of intensive work. Mind you, my team is horribly understaffed. So I end up doing it myself instead of sleeping.

I like delivering results, but in this case the expectations are simply unrealistic.

I'm currently working much, much more than the time I'm expected to per day. I enjoy the company and my tasks are super interesting, but the situation is getting unbearable. I currently don't have any private life and I know that if I got sick and unable to work for a week or two, about 10 projects would need to get awfully delayed and I feel the management would kill me. (No, nobody else can take it over - as I mentioned, we are horribly understaffed).

Before you ask: Yes, I've asked my superiors to prioritize. Without much success. Everything is super important according to them. I do register requests and prioritise them. But this doesn't help much since most things are considered high priority by my higher-ups.

And: yes, I tried proactively setting the agenda directly after starting ("First, I would like to fix A, we need this to work efficiently afterward. Then I will go on to do B. Then C. Is that ok?". It brought nothing.

  • 1
    Maybe things are the way they are because the previous guy never had any bandwidth to enact the very things you think needs to happen. (Just a thought) – Gregory Currie Mar 17 at 14:36
  • Are you in charge of staffing for your team or is this doen by the same management that tells you everything is important? – Sefe Mar 18 at 8:18
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You have a serious but small issue, and a serious but large issue. Both come down to a need to train your manager in prioritizing, by carefully explaining how not doing so is defeating the achievement of their goals even more than how it is ruining your life.

Early AM Email

With specific regard to the early am email, because email is asynchronous people tend to send it in a response to their thoughts, but if it is routinely disrupting your thoughts and your sleep, you'll need to explain this and work out a more productive arrangement. There are basically two choices:

  1. Ask your manager to use delayed email send, either as a software feature or a personal habit. If their requests hit your inbox as your are waking up, then you can either read them when you get in, or read them before your commute and have that time to think productively about them - rather than lose a night's sleep over your manager's latest "we should ..." brainstorm.

  2. Or you can stop reading email late at night. The downside for this to gently make clear is that it means that you are harder to reach in a true emergency. Perhaps you can work out something with a magic priority keyword and a filter, or a second email address that does go to your phone while the primary goes only to a computer. If routine things still end up being sent via the emergency channel, then that has to be treated as a routine channel as well, and there cannot be a priority one.

Some might say that you should train yourself to mentally filter these requests - and perhaps to some degree you can and should. But that is effectively a form of strategic disengagement, already contrary to the kind of fully engaged thinking that leads to doing one's best technical work, and thus if taken very far potentially already the beginning of the end of your tenure in this role. Instead, you really want to be in the situation where if your manager asks you for something, you can give it serious consideration - and that is only possible if they also exercise some care with regard to what they ask, with what tone of expectation, and when.

Task Priorities for the Team

It sounds like your manager keeps making new requests which supersede their in-progress ones, and this is of course the much larger issue. In large part, this is the problem that current project management schemes and tools seek to solve by formalized process. Some variation of such a process may or may not fit your organization - but what is fundamentally key to them is communication of status, needs, and their cost.

Ideally, you'd start each day with a brief meeting, with both your manager and your team, either together or separately in whatever order best fits your situation.

Your agenda would be something like:

  1. What is being worked on, and how it is going

  2. What new concerns have arisen (cover first if sufficiently urgent)

  3. What would be the cost of switching task

  4. Decisions

  5. Resume work

Once that has set the sense of an ordinary day's work, if there are extraordinary things to consider, you can periodically or when necessary break that out into a more in-depth discussion of strategy and planning.

Most formalized systems have some sort of record keeping - stories, issue database, post-it notes on the whiteboard. Much of the purpose of this is concerned with keeping track of what is not being worked on, and thus a lot of its role in your situation would be the growing backlog of things which have fallen by the wayside as they are displaced by new requests. Talking through these with your manager periodically will be key to how you help them learn to balance priorities.

The above is a lot more general and discretionary than many project management schemes, which propose strict rules for planning, scheduling, and changing tasks. Essentially, rules exist for situations where a sense of sound judgement cannot be found - either between parities or even in the sense of one person's own long terms goals vs. momentary discipline. The more you can trust each other's common understanding the more flexible you can be, the more you cannot find common understanding, the more rigid your process needs to be.

Two Week Sprint

This is of course the classic example in today's thinking of a formalized planning tool.

On the plus side:

  • it tries to strike a balance between sticking with a task long enough to complete it, vs. diving so deeply into one concern that others are lost

  • it teaches the skill of breaking large problems up into approachable chunks

  • it provides a proper path for introducing new requests without undue interruption

  • it attempts to educate on organizing and prioritizing requests

  • a decision to depart from the plan becomes an explicit and explicitly recorded one

On the down side:

  • insufficient agility to respond to many rapidly evolving real world situations where what you've ended up needing to do looks nothing like what you though you would at the start

  • it poorly matches exploratory tasks of yet unknown scope

  • breaking large tasks with complex interdependency into small pieces (and especially doing so before beginning) may introduce arbitrary divisions leading to fractured thought and code

  • it discourages initiative to pursue newer, better ideas or fix longstanding problems under the powerful motivation of being fed up with the workaround that's been being used

But those are of course only a few of the pages and years of arguments that could be made for or against this or any other mechanism. Ultimately it is up to you and your manager to decide if a more formalized system may help your organization learn to better manage your team's work or if you can find your own more dynamic, flexible, and efficient understanding. The more you agree the more flexible you can be; the more you fail to reach a common understanding, the more you'll need a structured process to manage your differences.

  • Thanks Chris. I clarified the first point a bit better after your post - I had the impression I formulated it badly. On your second point: I do register requests and prioritise them. But this doesn't help much since most things are considered high priority. – user5357488 Mar 16 at 16:57
  • Essentially, when you are asked to do something new, you need to be clear about what efforts are now being halted as a result - ie, you sit there with the requester and physically or virtually move tickets out of the agenda and into the backlog. A lot of formality is about trying to make that kind of change feel painful as a proxy for the way that priority fibrillation means little useful work gets pumped out for the expended energy. – Chris Stratton Mar 16 at 17:44
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Now things get done, so there is no signal to management that you are too busy. Everyone thinks that they are busy until they taste what being busy is, such as losing personal life. This is not something that the management can observe and as such is not a valid indicator.

What we often do when there are too many tasks for our schedules is to schedule them further. This gives them feedback that their task will be taken care of but not maybe fast enough. If your manager tries to solve the problem, he can look for himself that your schedule is filled with tasks that have been given a reasonable durations. The other thing to do is do MVPs. Again, if the quality is not satisfactory, they may contact your manager who checks your schedule...

There is usually some way to flag that there is a serious problem. Such could be in HR or your own manager if you have one.

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It wouldn't Workplace StackExchange if we didn't suggest finding a new job. You should seriously consider finding a new job.

In the long run your options are:

  1. Ignore the issue
  2. Tackle the issue by overworking yourself (unsustainable and you are unlikely to be fairly compensated)
  3. Address the issue directly with senior management and agree a solution
  4. Quit

Option 3 is the ideal solution but it requires cooperation from senior management. It sounds like you have tried and failed to get this cooperation. By all means try again but this isn't a good sign. Chronic understaffing may well be a concious strategy employed by your management and could even be the reason the team was badly managed prior to your involvement.

Option 2 is awful and reduces the incentive for management to cooperate with you. Don't do it. You should only consider doing this kind of overtime if you are being compensated accordingly or if there is a clear end goal.

There is a chance that option 1 is the correct option. Maybe your team is understaffed because the company doesn't need you to produce a high level of quality output.

TLDR - do what you can but ultimately you might have to accept that you don't have the power to fix the problem.

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