Supervising staff is one of the most challenging tasks we have, isn’t it? Is it that the staff member doesn’t understand the task? Is it that they are overwhelmed? Is it a matter of a mis-match in communication styles? Are they unable or unwilling? Sometimes though, it’s not about ability or willingness, it’s more of an issue of systems and their capacity to handle everything needing to be done.
We each develop systems to manage all the things we need to do in a set time period. For many, especially early in our career, those systems are based in our ability to understand and then remember what we need to do. But sooner or later most of us hit the point where the number and complexity of what we need to track exceeds the capacity of our brains and we miss deadlines, forget tasks, and generally goof up.
In 1988, I was Assistant Dean for Student Judicial Services and the Dean of Students asked me to head up the newly created Service for Students with Disabilities. Suddenly my system of keeping a running to-do list on a legal pad was no longer sufficient. I created a database of tasks (I think I was still using my trusty MacPlus then and I was glad to have it!). I included a due date for each task so I could sort on that field which helped me keep track of changing priorities. So high tech! When I moved from Trinity (approx. 2,500 students and 30 Student Affair staff) to UTSA (approximately 30,000 students and 450 staff members) my systems for managing email and keeping track of the many topics I needed to discuss with my leadership group quickly failed. That’s when I discovered David Allen’s book Getting Things Done which I’ve referenced before.
I hadn’t suddenly become incompetent in either case, but I did need a new way of keeping track of all that was going on and the tasks and projects I needed to manage. I have learned that when something changes in our world and we’re having trouble managing all we are trying to do, one issue may be that we’ve exceeded the capacity of our management systems. Sometimes it’s our ability we’ve exceeded meaning we’re either in the wrong position or we need to learn something new. But sometimes it’s really that our old ways of doing things can’t keep up with the current need.
Moving most, in some cases, all of our services and programs out of the office pushed everyone’s task management capacity to the limit. Coming back to the office will do so again. Some of your staff may never have met their colleagues in person. Some have never seen their actual workspace. Many systems for managing tasks and details shifted over the past year. They may no longer work this fall. The systems we used a year and a half ago may not work either. Part of our ability, our capacity, to do the complex work we do, is based upon our capacity to keep track of it all. What’s your capacity right now? Are your systems meeting your current needs or do they need an upgrade? What about your colleagues? Over the next few weeks if people are struggling with returning to the office, how might you help them analyze their capacity for keeping track and the systems they are using? What changes might you suggest they make to help them meet deadlines and not feel so overwhelmed? Understanding the challenges we and our colleagues are experiencing as one of capacity rather than capability may help us find new ways to support each other through these changes and any others we will surely experience in the summer and fall.