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Don’t mix strategic tasks with operational tasks

Anshu Sharma
A lesson learnt
It must’ve been early 2015 and I was a young manager leading a consulting engagement where we were trying to optimize cost to serve for a leading alcohol-beverage client. This is when I learnt one of my most memorable and useful lessons in management. A lesson which no b-school education could teach. A lesson so simple, yet so high in impact that I believe all managers should keep it very close to their heart, and a lesson which I believe will never lose its relevance as long as we continue to have humans in our workforce.
The story begins
It was an exciting time and we had just got a fresh lot of summer interns who had joined our team for their internship. I was running a tight ship with a team of 2 and arrival of an additional intern gave me a sense of relief. Now I would be able to offload a few operational things to him which we as a team were finding hard to manage in terms of workload. The weekly MIS dashboard was the first thing that came to my mind. The client top management were the consumers of this dashboard, hence it was always mission critical to make sure it is accurate and is published as per schedule. The MIS dashboard had kind of become a pain for us as it involved a huge volume of mundane operational tasks which consumed almost full two workdays for us on a weekly basis. Hence, as soon as Amit reported for his internship I very conveniently allocated the task of weekly MIS Dashboard to him. After all he was just a young and inexperienced intern, so the work kind of suited his profile, and this freed my experienced team of consultants with the much needed bandwidth for the ‘more important’ stuff.
I was all happy with this arrangement and with the dashboard finally off my headspace. However, my boss had other ideas. He was kind of not happy with Amit’s work allocation and advised me to also give him something additional as a project, something which required some strategic thinking. It actually made sense if you look at it. Amit after all will need utmost of three days for the dashboard and will be left with two days mostly idle. After some deliberation, I asked Amit to utilize his balance workhours in identifying cost reduction levers for packaging material as a category. I was quite happy with the mix of operational and strategic tasks I had given Amit. His time allocation was also well defined – 50% on dashboard and 50% on packaging material project. His two deliverables were also very clear – one, make sure the MIS dashboard is published every week on time and two, identify some cost reduction levers for packaging material by the end of his two month internship. I had kept a fortnightly progress review with him to check on his overall progress.
Chinks begin to appear
Amit was quite a smart and hardworking chap. He got on to the task quite swiftly. However, since he was new it took him a little extra effort to get the dashboard published on time. Also, since we were still in the process of fine tuning the smooth inflow of data from various stakeholders, publishing the dashboard frequently involved a lot of firefighting. Within the constraints of all these complexities, Amit was doing a great job at it. What was lagging in all of this was the focus on his packaging material project.
The dashboard always had a timeline, which meant that it always took priority. On the other hand, the packaging material project did not have an imminent timeline, which meant that it was always a candidate for postponement whenever an urgent requirement came relating to the dashboard. I realized this during my first two fortnightly reviews with Amit. While he was doing quite well on his dashboard deliverable, his deliverable on packaging material was found lagging significantly. With only a month to go for his internship, I decided to take him off the dashboard and asked him to give full focus on the packaging material project. As a sustainability measure we got a client resource to own the dashboard publication with Amit providing need based guidance. I was curious how this will pan out in terms of Amit’s deliverables.
Transformational switch
The transformation was quick and quite phenomenal. Amit was now more relaxed and his creativity and strategic thinking started to come to the fore. Within a short span of one month, Amit was able to come up with some very smart cost reduction measures which could impact the client’s packaging material cost base by as much as 11% over a period of three years. This by any yardstick was an astounding output, especially when we look at it from the perspective of a summer intern who was yet to complete his business education.
The learning, summarized
This phenomenon proved to be a great learning for me personally. I realized that I made a mistake by giving Amit a mix of tasks in which one was very operational and short term in nature, while the other was very strategic and long term in nature. It is evident that in such scenarios, the burning issue will always assume priority while the not so burning strategic issue in all likelihood will be put on the back burner. I believe there lies an important message for all managers to keep in mind while allocating responsibilities to their team. Ideal means in my view will be to define roles as ‘operational’ or ‘strategic’ depending on which side you want those to lean more towards. Always keep the ‘operational’ roles prominently operational in role definition and the ‘strategic’ roles predominantly strategic in role definition. I have personally tried to stick to this during my stint as a manager, and with positive results! Try it, and do share how it goes for you.
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