Five Jedi mind tricks for managers in the new year

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goodbye_michael_scottThere is no better time to tackle management tips and employee efficiency than the start of a new year. After the long stretches of time off around the holidays, the first quarter of every year can seem like a vacationless slog. Morale tends to dip, taking employee performance and efficiency with it.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. Here are five simple management hacks that can be used to stave off the New Year’s slump and jumpstart projects while keeping spirits high.

1. Make a map. It’s standard practice for managers to create team roadmaps at the start of every year: plans that set goals, break projects into steps, and diagram out important events, announcements and the like. That way they have something to show their own managers, so that — at least theoretically — everyone across divisions starts off on the same page. Unfortunately, the motivational potential of roadmaps is too often squandered. Many are created as an empty exercise, out of habit or as a vague jumping-off point. Few are implemented. Even fewer address what could be done rather than just what should be done.

Having a roadmap isn’t nearly as important as the process of making one. Managers have a real opportunity with this tool in particular to engage employees, freestyle brainstorm, promote autonomy and effectively prioritize. To take full advantage of map making, managers should combine big-group feedback with ideas gleaned from one-on-one sit downs. Processes associated with design thinking and innovation iteration capitalize on these methods to foster even more inspired ideas and strategies.

All team members should be invited to contribute ideas to the roadmap. Vibrant organizations all depend on healthy experimentation — and employees should be encouraged to put even their most outlandish ideas on the table. Once all of these needs, wants, concepts and goals are out there, the group can work together to determine which items are most important or require the most attention. From there it becomes easier to map out in more granular detail how much time and preparation should be devoted to projects, events, launches, etc. On top of that, the resulting plan is reflection of the team as a whole, allowing each employee to feel like he or she has a stake in things running like clockwork.

2. Ditch perfection. As the holiday fog clears, it can be difficult for people to pick up right where they left off. Projects are stale. Momentum is lost. A good manager needs to take this into account — not simply clap their hands and tell everyone to hit the ground running. When it comes to revving back up, there’s no greater buzzkill than needing everything to be outstanding or perfect the first time. Q1 is a time for drafts, for iterations, for collaborative thinking.

This slow start affects employees differently. For example, strong copy writers and content managers might have a hard time orienting themselves in everything that needs to be expressed. At the same time, engineers, product managers an executive team members might be stymied trying to find the right words for a blog post, product update or landing page. Now is a good time for crutches, for creatively matching skill sets, for overtly and vocally abandoning the notion that employees need to stick every single dismount to do a good job. Instead, a manager should survey who is grappling with what and group people accordingly. Instead of waiting for an engineer to hammer out the exact right language to describe what they are doing, it would be better to have her sketch out some bullet points just to get the thoughts on paper. Then one of the more skilled writers can smooth out the language.

People get intimidated by projects they think they have to nail perfectly. Breaking things down into more digestible pieces saves time and results in a higher-quality product most of the time.

3. Be the utility. Generally speaking, good managers don’t have big egos. But it’s important to take that one step further by not only working side by side with employees, but also picking up the slack and tasks that aren’t so desirable too. It’s one thing to also be working hard and burning the midnight oil, but it says more when a manager is willing to clean up a conference room before a meeting, or proofread a white paper, or review some basic code.

Being a utility — flexible and willing to pitch in wherever — not only motivates employees, it also fosters loyalty, which goes a much longer way than fear or pressure when it comes to getting things done. As a byproduct, managers who are utilities become more familiar with every tier of their team or project. They can speak knowledgeably and contribute meaningfully up and down the ladder, rather than occasionally micromanaging tasks or trying to oversee things they don’t necessarily understand.

4. Keep it simple. Project management and collaboration software seems to be everywhere these days. Startups have popped up to help usher projects involving dozens of people along a seemingly more streamlined path. But sometimes these systems can be more of a hindrance than a help, and protocol can get in the way of productivity.

Internal communication is always a good thing, but when people have to pay attention to recording even incremental progress on a project, or making sure they CC absolutely everyone who might tangentially be involved with something, time isn’t used effectively. Productivity applications and services used to be all the rage with the rise of the “Getting Things Done” philosophy, but recently there’s been a backlash — people saying they spend hours every day managing their productivity software.

A good manager implements sparing, low-maintenance tools to keep projects on track and doesn’t enforce strict guidelines on who or how to do simple tasks like send email.

5. Scatter milestones. The first quarter of every year is tough because there are few things to look forward to. There aren’t any major holidays approaching, few major events to prepare for, and sales tend to slow down. It’s easy to lose momentum when there’s nothing to pull together and work toward. It can take even longer to do the simplest of tasks.

To keep energy high and pacing quick, a good manager creates milestones for their teams to anticipate. This could be a company or team-wide event, a standing monthly meeting where people present their findings or creations, a trip relevant to the work at hand — anything that expedites the work that actually needs to be done and builds in a sufficient reward. If it’s something exciting, competitive or validating to look forward to, employees will stay engaged with what needs to be done in the present to achieve short-term success.