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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.
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Rethinking To-Do Lists

Keeping a to-do list seems to be an almost universal business practice, particularly for managers who juggle multiple tasks. But many experts believe lists can be counterproductive, giving people a false sense of organization without the benefit of any real planning or prioritization. 

Daniel Markovitz, author of A Factory of One: Applying Lean Principles to Banish Waste and Improve Your Personal Performance (Productivity Press, December 2011), wrote that to-do lists set workers up for failure for five reasons. First, they provide too many options. The human brain can handle about seven choices before it becomes overwhelmed, Markovitz writes, so a 20-item to-do list is likely to be paralyzing rather than motivating. 

Second, to-do lists tend to include a range of tasks of varying complexity. The user is bound to tick off the small projects and let the most challenging ones languish. Third, to-do tasks tend to vary in importance, allowing people to take care of top priorities while letting lower priority tasks fall by the wayside until they become top priorities. 

Fourth, lists don’t provide context. To decide which task should be tackled, a manager should know the necessary steps for completion and whether or not the required time ...

Could Social Networking Kill Email in the Office?

Could social networking actually replace email and phone calls in the workplace? One agency thinks so. The National Nuclear Security Administration plans to roll out a social network next spring that will replace many of its traditional modes of communication.

The platform, called One Voice, is a pilot that other divisions of the Energy Department might adopt in the future, NNSA Chief Technology Officer Travis Howerton told a recent federal technology policy forum sponsored by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management, a government-industry partnership. The initial launch will include the agency’s roughly 45,000 employees and contractors spread across 10 locations. 

Howerton described the social networking program as similar to Facebook, with a broadly accessible layer that everyone in the system can look at, as well as numerous subcommunities for employees in particular divisions or with certain expertise. Accessing the site will require extensive authentication and additional security controls will apply to specific communities that discuss sensitive information. The social networking platform will include embedded systems for instant messaging, Web conferencing and other tools.

“The way I like to describe where we’re going is today we’re chartered to make weapons of mass destruction using a weapon ...

Ways to Improve Your Public Speaking

Many managers, especially those with only a few subordinates, don’t think of public speaking as part of their job description, at least not in the traditional sense. They rarely, if ever, have to walk upstairs, stand behind a podium with a microphone, and address a large crowd. If they did think of their communications with employees this way, then it likely would cause a lot more anxiety; many, many Americans list public speaking as a top fear. But a few pointers on how to address an audience large or small can help managers to be more effective.

Toastmasters, the nonprofit dedicated to teaching public speaking and leadership skills, offers 10 tips for public speaking, many of which managers can apply to daily interactions with their team. For example, know your material. Speak on a topic on which you are well-versed so you can talk knowledgeably without memorization. At the office, you similarly will be more successful briefing subordinates on an issue when you have a strong grasp of it yourself. Do you have to pass on performance expectations from the higher-ups? First make sure you fully understand what is expected and the metrics that will be used to gauge ...

The Power of Frequent Career-Building Chats

At many federal agencies, career development comes up in one of two situations: when it’s performance review time or when an employee announces plans to leave. In Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012), authors Beverly Kaye and Julie Winkle Giulioni say with only a few minutes of conversation a day, managers can dramatically improve employee engagement, retention and results. 

According to Kaye and Giulioni, career development tends to center on forms, checklists and annual processes. Feedback that should take place daily is compressed into one long annual meeting where nervous employees are told where they’ve fallen short, and they in turn promise to remedy shortcomings in the year to come. The more effective approach, Kaye and Giulioni write, is to engage in short, frequent conversations with employees. These 10-minute discussions offer a number of benefits. They fit easily with the cadence of the business day, communicate a genuine commitment to the employee, and act as an ongoing reminder of the agency’s dedication to learning, growth and progress. 

These conversations should reframe career development so that responsibility rests squarely with the employee, Kaye and Giulioni say. The manager’s role ...

Making IGs Part of the Solution

The internal government watchdogs known as inspectors general spend their days examining the federal bureaucracy for crooked contractors, wasteful spending and $16 muffins.

With an army of 12,000 workers and an aggregate budget of around $2 billion, their feared audits and investigations annually identify tens of billions of dollars in questionable costs and lead to thousands of successful criminal prosecutions, indictments, contractor debarments and firings.

Which makes the several dozen presidentially appointed inspectors general uniquely qualified to champion all that’s innovative, effective and excellent in the federal government. Congress should demand they do just that. 

This counterintuitive idea, which has been making the rounds in the Obama administration, is not as crazy as it sounds. After all, the people who work for inspectors general are experts in accounting, procurement and the arcane operations embedded deep in every agency. They’re politically independent, so even the media trust them to tell the truth.

If inspectors general devoted even a small fraction of their energies to identifying and exposing what works in government -- in addition to what’s rotten -- they could help Congress and the White House figure out how to best keep critical government services running as well as ...