The Effective WIP

The value of a WIP is to discuss and monitor results. Unpacking how the outcomes of work relate to the organisation's strategic goals.

Work in Progress (WIP) meetings are — problematic. Being either a vital tool in the management and development of an organisation or a complete waste of time. The former, a vital tool, sees effective management of the WIP process driving value for the organisation, improving team cohesion, and enhancing levels of employee trust. The latter, a waste of time, bears witness to managers and teams playing another round of capture the flag, in the game of being busy but not productive.

WIPs can create resentment in teams — an inevitable result of organisations loading employees with ever more work and then blocking them from doing said work by ensuring days are meeting heavy. WIPs can be seen as selfish — a manager asking, ‘what have you done for me?’, seldom querying ‘what can I do for you?’ WIPs can even be outright awkward — as social conventions clash and two or more people stumble around and pray for the meeting to end soon. A situation that is unlikely to improve the relationship between manager and employee.

The good news is we can successfully navigate this minefield by following a few simple practices.

Establishment of Trust

The first step, and this cuts both ways for manager and employee, is to create an environment of trust. For the manager, this involves ensuring the WIP does not seem like a process for checking up or micro-managing. For an employee, it is an opportunity to show your boss you are a ‘safe pair of hands’ and that they can leave objectives with you — confident the desired results will be achieved.

It is usually most efficacious when the trust relationship is initiated by the manager. This is done via the approach to process, layout of the WIP template, and the guidance on what the WIP is trying to achieve.

As an employee, if your manager has not seized the initiative, you can always use that time honoured tradition of managing up. There is, I should hasten to add, a line between successful managing up and trying to tell your boss how to do their job and run the team yourself. The former, will generally result in a benign smile, as you are taking on responsibility and making their day easier. The latter, ‘telling your boss’, is pretty much guaranteed to get your name on a watch list. Marked as someone who is not a ‘team player’. Lack of promotion and a PIP (Personal Improvement Plan) often follows closely.

If you have avoided being ‘that guy’, who seems to be telling everyone what to do despite not being CEO, then you have the chance to shape not only your own WIP, but the experience of your colleagues. Because with any luck — read competence — your boss will roll out your initiative across the team. Something which will mark you as someone with leadership potential and generally improve your standing in the organisation. It also, on a purely selfish front, means you spend less time dealing with ‘bullshit managers’ and more time getting on with delivering value to the business. Enabling you to get out of the team, or perhaps take over the team, and let your abilities echo benefit around the organisation.

Friction is in the Detail

There is a wonderful scene in Yes Minister in which the embattled Jim Hacker comes to a realisation. Either the civil service give him so much information he is buried in details, else they give him so little information he doesn’t even know a decision needs to be made. WIPs often fall into these two categories.

The only way out of this mire is to build on the trust relationship already mentioned, encourage team members to think about what will empower, and abandon any notion of bogging down the process with unnecessary detail. In this context, I always avoid WIP templates which see the engagement as one of listing the details of jobs done. Instead, use the WIP as a spaces to outline objectives and key results.

As an employee, you are in that wonderful position of thinking about what in your day to day is making a difference to the organisation and what might turn into a problem down the road. In calling out both elements you not only build on the trust relationship but hone your capacity to recognise strategic opportunities and threats. A capacity which will prove invaluable as your career progresses.

Journal Your Work

While it is inadvisable to load up WIP documents with too much detail, it is hard to write them without a pool of details from which to draw insights. This makes journaling your work a vital part of the process.

It is helpful to go beyond dot points of tasks and instead get into the habit of tracking not only the work, but also the interactions, cultural attitudes, politics, and even emotions in play. While initially laborious, in time these journaling habits from a rich tapestry from which other documents and thoughts can be drawn. One such example is a stakeholder matrix, which is a wonderful tool for understanding what motivates key stakeholders at work and which can only be created by understanding work interactions at a psychological level – instead of merely a task completion one.

Understand Your Audience

The key to great writing is an understanding of audience. While often much more dry than what usually passes for great literature, a WIP report is a piece of writing with a specific audience in mind., and thinking about communication style can make or break the report. Is your boss a no frills kind of person who just wants a few dot points, or are they interested in what made the work and people involved tick? Perhaps they even enjoy some gossipy asides?

Sussing out their communication preference can fundamentally alter the reception of your report and may even make the difference between a smooth professional relationship and one in which you always seem to be on the end of a pointed ‘there are issues with your work’.

While trial and error can eventually ascertain what the receiving manager prefers, a shortcut can often be found in simply asking about their preferred approach. Of course, you might luck out and find you are reporting to a manager who is simply irritated by this line of questioning. In which case, there are myriad other companies and leaders out there, thankfully the world is a big place and we can always find a happier watering hole.

Keep it Brief

Depending on the cadence — weekly, fortnightly, monthly — brevity will matter more or less. But even if you only meet once a month, it is seldom advisable to provide pages and pages of notes.

Given that one page is all that is needed to sum up a person’s entire CV, it should not take much more than a page or two to sum up a person’s recent work.

If you are one of those multi-page CV people I implore you to cull, cull, cull. Advice I gave to a recent applicant who submitted a 23-page resume. Very few potential employers, are interested in reading about your primary school award for excellence.

However, being too brief is no way to win a place in your employer’s heart. When I am faced with a single sentence such as ‘no problems, all good’ to the question ‘what challenges did you face this week?’, alarm bells start ringing. Bells which are often swiftly followed by the lift call sign as the employee trudges off to the nearest job seekers centre.

Avoid Management Bingo

Language is an awesome thing. It can lift the human spirit to ‘ascend the brightest heaven of invention’ or sink it to the depths of despair. Sadly, the need of certain managerial types, and a particular cast of academic, has seen the world of business often lurch for ever more imaginative ways to do harm to the English language.

Signs of this mangling of language are found in phrases such as ‘Looped in’, ‘I’m going to have to push back on that’, ‘Eight Days a Week’, ‘take this offline’, ‘100%’, ‘proactive’, ‘forward thinking’.

For the love of language, please try to avoid this sort of thing and make the workplace somewhere that great ideas can be expressed.

Comply with the Three Golden Rules

Steve Jobs had three golden rules when it came to meetings that can loosely be summarised as:

  1. Limit attendees.
  2. Keep the meeting brief.
  3. A short agenda wins.

Limit Attendees

Because a WIP may not always be a one-on-one meeting, the first rule is a challenge if you manage or are in a large team. The nature of an all hands is that it involves ‘all hands’ and that can see the meeting size swell. While there are exceptions to the rule, for example managing a restaurant in which you want to gather all staff to discuss any key elements before the first cover is served, it may be better to split the full team into smaller sub-groups.

A good rule of thumb to check if an attendee list is getting too long is to use Jeff Bezos’ 2 pizza rule — a meeting should not have more people than can be fed by 2 pizzas. I have born witness to WIPs in which upwards of 20 people were in attendance as the manager steadily made their way around the room over a 2-hour period. And this happened weekly. Except for the manger, no one else seemed to think this a good use of time as people were locked in the room for reports that had little or nothing to do with them. Much better to split things up and get people where they are providing value — somewhere else doing their work.

Keeping the Meeting Brief

As Bill Gates has often observed, more money can invariably be found. This makes time the greater risk to success. Many leaders, including the likes of Sheryl Sandberg, are acutely aware of this reality and are known for sending people out of meetings or cutting short the time allowed if everything is done.

In this regard, shorter, well organised meetings tend to always win over long rambling ones. There are exceptions to the brevity rule, and this tends to occur in top down vs bottom up approaches to staff management. In that senior leaders may prefer one long meeting in which people file past presenting decision points for their delectation. If this is your bag, only have people in that part of the meeting in which they are adding or receiving value. Keeping people in these marathons for the full measure is not a good use of their time.

A Short Agenda Wins

If the rule of keeping it brief is followed, or if a single long meeting is effectively divided into themes, the agenda for the meeting or section should remain short. Packed agendas tend to result in superficial treatment of topic or the meeting running over.

Of course any agenda is only as good as the participants ability to talk to the subject in quo. This makes preparation key, and adds something of a fourth rule — preparation.

Meeting Preparation

I have lost count of the number of meetings in which it is clear some participants see the time allotted as the space in their week to think about the items on the agenda. This is reminiscent of students who see lectures as their time to catch up on course work.

This approach not only costs business money, but costs that most valuable resource — time. It also comes close to guaranteeing that a meeting will not achieve its objectives, as attendees ‘take things offline’ to schedule follow ups and get the information or approvals they should have brought to the original meeting.

Good meeting preparation takes time, and at first it may seem that workloads have just doubled with meeting organisers and attendees circulating pre-reading and even holding pre-meetings so they can attend fully briefed. This is why time is arguably the true competitor in business. It is also what creates the boundaries of what is realistically achievable in a quarter or year.

When viewed in advance, this can be highly confronting because it may expose the goals set as unachievable. Such radical candour can help the organisation achieve more than it would by ensuring effective planning is taking place. But such candour is anathema in many organisations where it is preferable to instead ‘give it a shot’, and only find out after the fact if the goal is achievable. One could go as far as being able to judge the quality of a senior leadership team and board by their win / loss ration in this regard.

This is manifest in organisations where unrealistic targets are consistently set, with little to no appreciation of the logistics involved. Or in which senior leaders think that ‘the board has mandated’ is somehow a magic incantation that invents new facts when the old ones become inconvenient.

This brings us back to the WIP and its true value to an organisation as a place to discuss and monitor results. Results that are never measured by how busy people are — number of tasks undertaken, or meetings attended — but by the how the outcomes of work relate to the organisations strategic goals.

Good night, and good luck.

Photo by Mark König on Unsplash.

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