A reader asks:
I'm a new manager who heads up a team of 12 employees, and I'm having an issue with the other groups that we work with.
The other groups have developed a habit of not including my team on work to be performed, then dropping it on us and demanding it be done ASAP.
I don't mind the occasional unexpected item coming up, but I've found a couple of recurring themes: Either the reported deadlines are several weeks short of when our part is actually needed, or the work they need from us is known several weeks in advance but we're not notified until the eleventh hour. Additionally, quite a bit of this work is announced informally (grabbing my employees in the hallway or calling them on their cellphones and telling them to go do things) rather than entered in the ticketing system so that it can be prioritized, scheduled, and documented for billing purposes. This has caused us to miss deadlines on important tasks because we're scrambling to complete work that won't be needed for a month out. The overtime to pull off some of these tasks on very short notice is killing my group's morale, and the next-day shipping on materials is killing my group's budget.
To get everything done correctly and on time, I need advance warning when possible, along with accurate deadlines so I can have the staffing and materials available to handle it. However, the more that I explain this, the more the other groups' managers seem to dig in their heels and try to circumvent our proper channels.
Am I being unreasonable? And would be out of line to explain to both my employees and the other managers that my employees report to me, they are no longer to take on any new tasks without my approval, and if those requests don't have a realistic deadline, then I can't promise that it will be done on time because my folks are already scheduled for other jobs?
Nope, you're not being unreasonable. Or rather, you're not being unreasonable if you're working in an environment that allows for more advance notice and you're not getting it. There are contexts where the type of advance notice you'd like isn't realistic (for example, political campaigns, where things change on a dime and part of the deal is being able to roll with that), but it doesn't sound like that's the case here.
The solution you're leaning toward -- "We'll start refusing work that doesn't follow our submission guidelines" -- is the solution that everyone in your position wants to use. And sometimes you can do that! But other times it's not going to fly, because it would mean refusing to take on work that's more important to the organization than systems compliance is. In theory, it sounds logical to say "We'll reject anything that doesn't go through proper channels and with advance notice," but in many workplaces, that would go very badly the first time you tried to turn away a high-priority project.
That doesn't mean that something like that isn't the solution -- it still might be. But first I'd do the following:
1. Talk to the managers whose groups are regularly causing this problem and find out what's going on from their perspective. You said that they've been digging in their heels when you've talked with them in the past. This time, come at it from a different angle. Don't make the meeting about getting them to comply; just make your goal to better understand what's going on on their side and why they're resistant to your requests. You might learn something that helps you adjust the processes on your side or present them differently. You might find there's a different solution altogether -- for example, maybe it would help to check in with them weekly to find out what's coming down the pike rather than waiting for them to tell you weeks later. Or maybe you can create template packages for the sorts of things they need regularly so it's easier to customize quickly when you get a last-minute request. Or, who knows -- maybe nothing. But talk to them and see.
2. Talk to your own staff. While you can't control what other departments do, you can make it clear to your own staff that if someone tries to give them work by grabbing them in the hallway or otherwise not going through you, they need to direct that person to you. Tell them they need to say, "You'd need to run that through Jane" and stick to it. Or, if they can't bring themselves to say that (which would be understandable if the person asking for the work is, say, the CEO), then they need to come straight to you afterwards and loop you in.
3. If No. 1 and No. 2 don't make a big dent in the problem, then it's time to talk to your own boss about what's going on and the impact it's having on your staff's work, budget, and ability to prioritize. Float the idea you've suggested here -- having a more rigid system and holding people to it -- and ask for her input on that. If she tells you it's fine, you need to make sure it's really going to be fine in practice, so say something like, "Just to make sure, that would mean that if Lucinda brought us a project like last week's last-minute mailing that she'd known about for weeks, we'd tell her we couldn't guarantee we'd meet her deadline -- and we might really end up missing it because I wouldn't ask people to work over the weekend to get it done. Is it really OK to do that?" The reason to test it like this is because sometimes using concrete examples will make your manager realize it's not realistic in practice -- and it's much better to find that out now than to get undermined later. Or, it might help tease out that it will be generally be OK to do that but not in situations X, Y, and Z, and it'll help to be on the same page about what those are.
Ultimately, though, to really solve this, the most helpful thing is to have someone high-up on your side. If you have a COO or other high-level manager (someone with authority over the managers who are doing this) who is willing to say "This is inefficient, costing extra money, messing up workflow in ways we care about, and shouldn't be happening," and she's willing to tell the culprits to cut it out, you're likely to be able to stop it altogether.
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