[Podcast] Increase Team Productivity by Decreasing Task Saturation


Too Much to Do and Not Enough Time to Do It

Duration 23.34

Task saturation is defined as the perception or the reality of having too much to do and not having enough time, tools or resources to get them accomplished. In order to stay productive, you must figure out what’s most important, stay focused on what matters and create time to be creative.

There are three techniques used by fighter pilots to reduce the stress of task saturation:

  1. Cross-check for success
  2. Strategic planning
  3. A common mental model

This episode discusses how you can implement these techniques to achieve success.

[Below is a transcript of the episode.]

Joel Neeb: Today we’re gonna talk about a common challenge in the marketplace, Task Saturation. What is task saturation? Well, I’m betting that you’re feeling a little task saturated right now. You got that big report due next week. You’re leading your team to a project that’s not going very well. The dog is sick. The kids need to be picked up from soccer practice. You didn’t get very good sleep last night. You’re feeling task saturated. Well, guess what? If you feel that way, your teams are experiencing the same thing. How do you ensure that your team can stay focused on what really matters? How do you determine what really matters? And how do you create time to be creative? In today’s episode, we’ll talk about task saturation and how you can use our techniques as fighter pilots, Navy Seals and Army Rangers to mitigate that challenge.

JN: Picture this, ladies and gentlemen. I am 27 and a half years old. I’m flying through the canyons in Idaho. I’m going faster than the speed of sound. I’ve got three wingmen that are about 23 years old, that have only been doing this flying thing for the past year and a half. They’re young wingmen. I’m trying to keep them from running into each other. I’m trying to keep them from running into that mountain that’s inside of the cloud and meanwhile, I’ve got 350 instruments and dials inside of my cockpit. Add that to the fact that we’re flying against some simulated bandits. We’re flying against other aircraft that are trying to simulate shooting us down and that is a recipe for what we like to call in the flying community, task saturation. Task Saturation is the perception or the reality of having too much to do without enough time, tools or resources to get the mission at hand accomplished. But guess what? I know that you also work in a task saturated environment.

JN: I know that even though you’re probably not keeping wingmen safe flying through the canyons of Idaho, you are responsible for too many things, it feels like, at one time. It feels like you don’t have enough resources to stay focused and if you’re able to stay focused, I’m sure it feels like your team is not able to stay focused. In this world where things are becoming more complex, the stakes are higher, changes are happening faster than ever before, where we watch the business model go from seven years to three years. Meaning, we used to be able to get about seven years of profit out of our products before the competition could step up and start chipping away at our profitability. Now, that’s down to three years. If you don’t have that other product already halfway through development a year and a half after you released the last one, you’re late, right? That’s task saturation. In a world where we have members of the S&P 500, the top 500 companies in the world that are leaving the S&P 500 faster than ever before, it used to be that you get into that coveted list and you’d stay there for an average 34 years. You become what we call the Blue Chip Stock. Now we know that many of these companies are in there for less than a decade. They’re in and they’re very quickly replaced with the next big thing. All around the world in every marketplace, things are changing faster than ever before.

JN: Like me flying hundreds of miles an hour in an F-15, you find yourself in a situation that is ripe to create task saturation. What do you do? Do you just throw your hands up in the air and quit and say, well, it looks like everybody is under this task saturation challenge so what can we do to combat it? Or do you find a way to navigate this task saturation? Create a sustainable execution rhythm for your team. Be the ones that figure out the critical few things to pursue, instead of doing everything at once and help your team to navigate these challenges.

JN: Today, I’m gonna tell you three ways that we approach task saturation as fighter pilots and more importantly, three ways that we’ve helped hundreds of companies to navigate that same challenge with their strategic business priorities. The first one I’m gonna tell you about is our cross-check for success. When I was flying in my aircraft, I told you that we had 350 switches and dials right? And I spent about seven years of my flying career training other pilots, and that means that I would go up in the air with them and I’d teach them how to fly new aircraft and very often, these are pilots who a couple of months ago were only driving cars and now they’re flying hundreds of miles an hour, they’re in and out of the clouds and they’re responsible for keeping the aircraft safe.

Cross-Check for Success

JN: Well, when you got 350 switches and dials in front of you, of course, you don’t have 350 sets of eyes, so you gotta figure out in each phase of flight what your cross-check should look like. What are the key instruments to succeed? If you are in a cloud, if you can’t see outside, if you can’t see the horizon, then one of the most important things you can do for yourself at that time is look at the instruments that are gonna allow you to see the artificial horizon. It’s called an altitude indicator inside your cockpit. It literally just tells you which end is up and which end is down. And you’re saying, “Yeah, but Thor, don’t you know which end is up? I mean, look up and that’s up, right? How do you not know that?” Well, it can be very tricky. Your body can tell you the wrong things. You can be in a turn and think you’re flying straight and level. That’s actually what happened to John F Kennedy Junior and his family. They got into what we call “The graveyard spiral” where they were in bad weather, they didn’t have a horizon. He thought he was flying straight and level, but he was in about 45 degrees of turn and kept turning right until they hit the water and everybody on board the aircraft, tragically died.

JN: We need to use a cross check. These are people who hadn’t flown airplanes for more than just a few months and we need to teach them ways to keep them safe, when they go up in the air. We’d tell them, “Look at nothing else, except for these specific instruments. I want you to look at your altitude indicator and then I want you to look over at your airspeed and see how fast you’re flying. ‘Cause I don’t want you to get so slow that you fall out of the sky and stall. And I don’t you to get so low that you’re gonna run into that hill or mountain inside the clouds. So I want you to look at your altitude.” And I’m establishing a critical few set of instruments that I want them to pay attention to.

JN: And what do you think their response is when I tell them this? The students say, “Yeah, but I really like this instrument over here. I’m a real big fan of the radar. The radar always tells me where the other aircraft are.” And I said, “No, I don’t care. Stop looking at that. Look at these instruments only.” And your teams will say to you, “Yeah, but I don’t really wanna start looking at the new products. I really liked this old product that was selling. I’m much more comfortable selling that. I wanna look at that instead.” And you say, “I don’t care. We are going in this direction and right now, the instruments we need to focus on as a team, are developing out the new product solution. That’s the way the markets moving, that’s the way we have to move as a team.”

JN: As leaders, we have to establish what that cross-check is going to look like. Whether it’s me in the cockpit, telling a student specifically what instruments to look at or you creating the dials within Salesforce or your sales automation tool or teaching your R&D team what direction they need to pursue for development, you are giving them the guard rails, the constraints and showing them the instruments that they should be focused on as a group. Remember, what gets measured gets managed. The things that we deem as important and say they should focus on, will be the ones that get affected.

JN: Here’s the most important part of this conversation now. When I’m telling that student that these are the five instruments that he or she should look at for their cross-check, what else am I implicitly saying? I’m telling them that there are 345 other instruments that I don’t want them to pay attention to. And they’re gonna have a hard time with that, ’cause they’re gonna say, “This is another instrument I really like. This is another project I’m really excited about. I have some cost associated with this thing.” And the hardest thing that we can do as leaders, is tell them to stop focusing on those other things and to only focus on the critical few.

JN: The toughest thing we do as leaders, is tell them what not to do but it could be the absolute most valuable thing that you do. And trust me, once you provide that clarity for your team, once you provide that focus, they’re begging for it. And there’s gonna be people who get hurt feelings, there’s gonna be people who wish that you had included another instrument because it’s one that they been working on, or one that they feel particularly strongly about. That’s okay. That’s what leaders are for. We’re paid to make the tough decisions. You have to focus your team on the critical few. Don’t spread them thin. Don’t try to boil the ocean. Don’t try to focus on a hundred things at once. We need to figure out, what are the critical instruments within the cockpit. That’s step number one to mitigating task saturation.

Build a Strategic Plan

JN: The second thing I would challenge you to do, is to build out a strategic plan. And if you paid attention during step number one, I bet the next question out of your mouth was, “Alright, I get it. I’m supposed to pick out the instruments that they should look at. But how do I pick the instruments? I mean, it’s not as easy as your example, Thor. You’re flying through a cloud, of course, you know exactly which instruments to look at.” How do I know what’s important for my team right now? I don’t even have 350 instruments. I have infinite instruments around me. I have infinite things that my team could pay attention to. And you know what? There’s probably a good reason that they should do a hundred things. Who am I to say to say stop doing those 95 things and only focus on these last five?

JN: That’s the value of a strategic plan. If we just have a conversation about what we could do in the short term, what should we do this quarter? That conversation can go anywhere. There’s a hundred things we could do, and you’re gonna keep us focused in our silos if you start the conversation that way. If you ask a group of salespeople and a team from marketing and a group from legal, what should we do this quarter? They’re all gonna talk from their own perspective. The sales teams gonna say, “We need to build pipeline. That’s the most important thing we gotta focus on.” The marketing teams gonna say, “We need to create a better narrative for the clients. Create a better customer experience. We need to capture that and tell it better.” And then the legal teams gonna say, “We need to make sure we stay ahead of our legal challenges and that we’re getting our data out for that publicly traded company on time at the end of the quarter.”

JN: They’re all gonna focus on their functional silos. You’re not gonna get any alignment in that team for what the critical instruments need to be for that group. But if you start the conversation about what needs to take place, not this quarter but three years from now. What does success look like in the long term? That’s when you can build out a strategic plan that allows you to start aligning the team members, aligning the different functional groups. And when you say to those three different groups, what does success look like in the long term for this team? And sales, don’t just tell me about the sales number you’re hitting and marketing, don’t just tell me about the story that you’re telling with marketing. I wanna know, what does success look like for us as an organization?

JN: And we could do an entire set of podcasts just on building strategic plans. It’s actually the toughest thing that we facilitate for our customers. And it’s the most heavy lifting but it’s the single most valuable thing you can do. You can go back to our website at afterburner.com and check out some previous webinars that we built. We have a series to help you get started on your strategic planning. Suffice it to say I’m not gonna go into a lot of detail with how we conduct that but I am gonna give you some of the highlights.

JN: When you do your strategic planning or sitting in front of the same group, the sales team, the marketing team and the legal team, we’re gonna say to them, what does success look like in the long term? Tell us financially what we look like ’cause that’s gonna be the constraints, right? If we’re building a dream home, then the financial future would be the lot size. That’s gonna define everything else about what our mansion is gonna look like and then this blueprint that we’re about to build so, I gotta know the lot size first before I ever start having a conversation about what the house is gonna look like. Pick out what your financial metrics are gonna be right now and not just the revenue. Tell me about your combined annual growth rate, tell me about your profitability, anything else that you think makes sense from a financial perspective.

JN: And then I want you to describe your team’s culture. And then I want you to think three years ahead and describe your team’s market and their brand, the presence that you’ve got at that point. What are the differences between today and three years from now that you want to make within the marketplace? Then I want you to describe what your structure of your organization looks like. And you’re gonna have a team that’s excited to talk about this ’cause this is so far off in the future, it’s gonna be aspirational and all of a sudden, you’re gonna see alignment from the groups. And sales won’t just talk about sales, and marketing won’t just talk about marketing. All of a sudden, they’re talking about alignment and things that they all can get excited about and it’s gonna be working with the different functional groups together. You get them aligned to this picture, you get them excited about what could be, and then and only then, do you start backing into what does that imply that we need to do today. And what I typically do is, after we build out that three-year picture, I’ll say, “Okay, that sounds great. Yeah, what a great destination. I’m excited about that. You guys taking over the market. Everybody has a new job within the company, they’re doing wonderful things. What needs to happen this year?”

JN: And you’re gonna see them get a little uncomfortable and they say, “If we’re gonna do that this year, if we’re really gonna get a third of the way there, towards this three-year destination, then here are the five things that need to happen.” You say, “Okay, that sounds great, that’s what needs to happen this year. What needs happen this quarter then?” And that’s where you see the rubber hit the road. Because now all of a sudden, instead of talking about the 100 different things that we could do and why my silo is the most important and we all need to talk about why the sales team should get pipeline or the marketing team should get the narrative, now, we are aligned to a consistent vision for success in the long term and we’ve backed into not the 100 things we could do or should do, but into the three things we must do this quarter. And this is where you start to build alignment and those three to five things you must do, guess what, that’s your cross check. That’s what your team is focused on. Those are your instruments for the next quarter that you want them all to have their eyes on. Once again, you’re gonna have team members that say “Yeah, but what about this other project, this other thing I got going on?” And it’s up to you as the leader to keep the focus at this point.

JN: We just got done helping out a team in the tech world. They had merged two different cultures and it hadn’t gone very well. They started this merger in 2016 in January and though they said, “Hey, this is gonna be fantastic. We’re merging these two different cultures but we’re gonna have an enhanced portfolio of products for our customers. It’s gonna be like putting together peanut butter and chocolate. It’s gonna be fantastic.” Well, what happened when they put them together, is they didn’t have a really good plan to manage the cultures and to train the people to articulate this new value with the combined culture. And so, very predictably, instead of one plus one equaling five and getting synergy out of this, is they diluted the group, so one plus one equaled like one and a half. And they had for the first time, missed their sales numbers in Q2 of 2016. That’s where we entered the picture and in July of last year, a year ago, we were able to help them to build out that long-term picture for success. The reason I say that is because they identified their three critical leverage points.

JN: Within a few weeks of identifying those, their leader, who’s in charge of about 500 people, to the $2 Billion sales vertical, has people coming into his office and saying, “Hey, I love those three critical leverage points that you picked. Those are perfect. Those are fantastic. But I just wanna let you know there’s one more that’s really important that I think we should do.” And this leader had the courage to say no in those conversations. This leader had the courage to say, “These are the critical few. This is what we’re gonna focus on. I don’t care that we’re five months into this seven-month project, that’s some cost. It doesn’t affect the critical few and that’s what we need to pay attention to.” And because he was able to stick to those things, his strategic plan, they were able to not only succeed, they more than beat their forecast in Q4 of last year, then Q1 and Q2 and continue to beat their forecast and they’re just crushing it. The stock price itself has doubled in the past year. Incredible things attributed to this company. In Gartner’s words, ’cause they just finished their analysis, they said, “It’s due to the clarity of vision and the ability to execute.”

JN: And I’ll tell you that couldn’t be right and more right up our alley for what we try to provide for an organization. All right, so that’s step number two build out your strategic plan. Using your strategic plan, you’ll figure out what your critical few are, what the instruments are gonna be for your cross check.

A Common Mental Model

JN: The last thing I wanna tell you to avoid task saturation, to mitigate the challenge of having too much to do, is that I want you to start building that culture of using a common mental model. I want you to create time to be creative. What’s that mean? Well, as you build lessons learned from these conversations, and you will. You will get better. Once you get that focus, you’re gonna see your team improve. I want you to standardize those activities. Once they’re focused on the critical few… Don’t lose the momentum that you’ve captured. As you take on more people and you inevitably will, because you’re gonna grow as an organization, you need to hire new people and continue training them in these skill sets.

JN: Automate this process, create checklists. If you learned a better way to sell, create training around that and create standardized procedures that the entire team can benefit from. What you’re doing is you are creating a common mental model for the team to use to avoid task saturation. And the way to think about this, is you wanna standardize the minutiae, right? You don’t want a team that’s thinking about, how am I going to conduct this meeting and how are we going to conduct this sales call? That all needs to be standardized. Create time to be creative on the cool stuff. All the things that we wanted to do as leaders, lead by walking around, shaking the hands of your team members, asking about the next innovative project that we can work on, those are the things that we wanna have time for.

JN: And too often, we find ourselves engaged in the minutiae and having conversation after conversation about how we’re gonna conduct this meeting and how we are gonna approach this challenge and even though we’ve approached that same thing many times in the past, we never standardized or captured and used a common mental model to tackle that same problem in the future.

JN: Think about the time you were on a great team in the past. Think about that leader that was running the team. I bet that leader made it look easy. I bet that was somebody who just sat back and removed obstacles from the team and looked like this all was part of their plan the entire time. Most of the time, the way they were able to make that happen, is that they standardize the small stuff, so they didn’t have to worry about it. So that they could continue to walk around and with a cool smile on their face, shake your hand and ask you how your day was going, ask you how they could help, and do the things we all wanted to do when we became leaders. When we became leaders, none of us said, “I can’t wait to go tell people how to conduct their meetings or how to build that plan or how to lead that project.” We said, “I can’t wait to go help people and remove obstacles for them.” Standardize, use your lessons learned to build a common mental model to succeed.

JN: As a pilot that came in a form of checklist, every single thing that we did that could be automated, we automated, so it didn’t matter whether or not you’re conducting your flight brief, we had a checklist for that. You’re walking around your airplane doing the pre-flight, we had a checklist for that. You get in to the cockpit, we got a check list for that. You conduct anything in the air, we had a checklist for that. And you’re saying, “Yeah, but that’s all kind of repetitive work and how do you really create… We can’t create a checklist from my world because things change in my world so fast that there’s not really any automation I can put to, it is so unpredictable, Thor.” Really? Really? You’re gonna tell me that your world is more unpredictable than mine when I was engaged in a three-dimensional dog fight going hundreds of miles an hour, in every terrain imaginable, where there’s infinite different ways that you can react to any given situation.

JN: There’s always a way to identify patterns. There’s always a way to automate behaviors and to identify standardized approaches, rules of thumb to be effective as a team. The more often you can generate those checklists to help your team and to create that common mental model, the better your team is going to be at automating the minutiae, at identifying patterns and creating time to be creative where they wanna be, where you want them to be creative on the innovative things and the things that matter for your company.

JN: Ladies and Gentleman, task saturation was a killer when I was a pilot. Task saturation has literally taken friends of mine because they were paying attention to too many things and not the right things. And I have watched leaders struggle with the same thing in the corporate world. I was at a Silicon Valley tech company and this particular leader waved his hand over a crowd of cubicles and he and I were just talking he said, “I’ve got the best team in the world, half of these people went to Harvard business school, the other half went to Stanford.” And he said, “I know that they are sitting in their cubicles right now doing something and I know it’s probably a good thing whatever it is, I just don’t know that it’s the right thing. I don’t know that it’s gonna be the thing that collectively moves us forward and gets us to the next level. I don’t know that it’s the thing that’s gonna mitigate task saturation and actually help to strategically move our company.”

JN: Use these techniques. Build a cross-check with your team. Build that cross check from a strategic plan that you built. And then use a checklist, use a common mental model, standardize and automate wherever you can so that you can create time to be creative. Give time back to your team so they’re not caught in task saturation.