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Danielle Strait 5 min read

WHAT “DEEP WORK” MEANS FOR YOUR TEAM, AND HOW TO ENABLE IT AS A PROJECT MANAGER.

When serving as experts for our clients, whether it’s technology, transformation strategy, design, or content, it’s crucial we stay fresh in terms of approach, collaboration, and process. The world is changing before our eyes, and if we don’t consistently aim to stay far ahead we’ll just as quickly fall behind. This means something different for everyone, but I choose to read at least one book my someone I admire each month – I’m of the mindset that there are few original ideas and prefer to comb through the greats of our world to compile what I think will best work for my organization. I recently re-read Deep Work, by Cal Newport. The book touts providing guidelines for focused success in a distracted world, and after making his case he provides a set of rules for transforming your habits to support a focused team.

The book discusses many relevant topics such as how to notice and avoid your own “shallow work”, namely logistical tasks you tackle while distracted, but the biggest takeaway for me was how to create an environment that fosters deep work – meaning the quality work produced when you’re in a highly disciplined and focused mindset. When a core role of a Project Manager is to provide day-to-day communication and be on call for our clients, it’s hard to turn off our e-mail and stay heads down on outputs. But what if what we can’t do for ourselves, we can do for our teams? Of the many recommendations he provides, here are two I find are most easily implementable to produce efficient and effective teams:

1. Dedicated timeboxing. Particularly in today’s environment when so many of us are working from home, it’s easy to let personal time and work time blend. This creates a culture of wasting time reminding yourself where you left off, brushing off the cobwebs, and finding your zone again. We can help our teams avoid this swirl by providing a dedicated block to work on a more bitesize task, and giving them a reasonable handover time later that day (instead of creating larger tasks that are done over multiple days, with a deadline the following week). This forces a sense of urgency that pushes people to disciplined focus that produces greater output. During this time, commit to letting your team turn their chat off, close their e-mail, and go dark. It should be short enough that the company’s globe will keep spinning without them, but long enough to accomplish something productive.

2. Cadence setting. If we expect our teams to produce deliverables within a period of a few hours, we need to create a routine that fosters both collaboration and independent focus. What if all meetings happened each day between 2-5pm, ensuring the morning was open for your team to work? This could be considered using the daily hours scale, or trying different days for different tasks (such as no meetings on Wednesdays), depending on expectations of your team and clients. Get creative, try something for two weeks before deeming it impossible, you might be surprised.

As a project manager, the key to implementing these is that they only work when done together, all or nothing. Timeboxing your team but still forcing them to complete shallow work during that time, such as responding to e-mails, will only create stress, swirl, and frustration.

A great leader I once worked with said a small sandbox stifles, a large sandbox lacks focus. It’s the project manager’s job to create the right size sandbox, watch the trajectory, and adjust as necessary. One of my favorite quotes came from this book and has served as a north star for me professionally… Cal Newport quotes David Brooks who bluntly states, “Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants.” Countless minds have used structured deep work to produce something beautiful, Maya Angelou was known for arising by 5:30 every morning and writing in a dedicated hotel room used only for her art. So instead of living up to my least favorite project manager stereotype by overwhelming our team with inconveniently timed meetings, show the value of structure.

Danielle Strait

Danielle leads program management at BRINK. She has managed complex programs across multiple markets. She's also one of the best humans on this planet.

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