How do top technology leaders stay organized and disciplined when constantly juggling priorities?

Ravi Bhim
Ravi Bhim
August 27, 2019

How do top technology leaders stay organized and disciplined when constantly juggling priorities?

Being an engineering leader is a stressful job. You have to keep your technology platform reliable, maintain 100% SLA, handle hiring and retention, ensure high quality execution to deliver products on time, oversee collaboration with other stakeholders, and more. There seems to be an unending list of priorities that pop up, especially in a fast-growing company.

Engineering leaders can deal with all of these competing priorities and still stay on top of things. Here's how.

Focusing on Good Organization Strategies and Priorities

Top leaders keep their priorities straight.

"As I took on larger teams to manage, I found myself constantly juggling conflicting priorities," Aditya Agarwal, Dropbox's VP of Engineering, has said. "I figured this would ultimately impact my career, so I decided to find out how successful technology and business leaders deal with such challenges. Ultimately, I decided that staying organized and disciplined would help me overcome those challenges."

Investing time in organization skills and strategies results in higher productivity. Keeping everything in the right place, making and following lists, and developing positive daily habits can save time. Good habits also help employees understand clearly where their leader's priorities and interests lie.

Basic organization strategies include decluttering your stuff, compartmentalizing your time, and creating a plan of action for each day. Some leaders swear by the Two Minute Rule, a maxim that says, "If you can complete a task in two minutes or less, do it now." Writing it down or putting it off until later hurts your productivity.

For leaders, organization involves all these strategies for tasks and resources, but there is a more important area for them to focus on—organizing their minds.

Many leaders use The Eisenhower Matrix for this purpose. This proven time management technique uses four quadrants to help leaders determine the varying urgency and importance of each task. Some leaders use a similar program called Priority Matrix as a project management tool.

Engineering managers can access industry-specific organizing software such as Asana or CMiC Field which combine project controls with project management for collaboration and integrated project delivery.

Prioritizing Tasks for Engineering Leaders

Leaders of cross-discipline product organization need to invest the time to think seriously about prioritization. Productivity depends on it.

One seemingly obvious fact is that there can only be one priority at a time. In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown says, “The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years.”

In other words, there were no "priorities" in the plural. There was only "the priority"—a singular focus for both the leader and the team.

But how can engineering leaders determine their priority when there are so many competing needs, activities, and ideas? Defining a single priority requires a process.

First, stop thinking an effective leader should multitask. Only a small percentage of the world's population possesses the temperament to multitask, and no leader should assume that his or her organization needs it.

While the human brain can direct the body to do two things at once, it cannot direct itself to concentrate on two things at once. The brain toggles back and forth between activities, but in each toggle, focus gets lost. Consequently, multitasking produces low-quality work for the time invested. In other words, the leader looks busy but accomplishes little.

Make a list of the tasks to be done for the defined time period. Effective leaders don't just store those tasks in the brain. They actually write them down on paper or on a screen and to help identify the most important ones. This is where The Eisenhower Matrix can come in handy to help identify urgent tasks.

Develop a Focus on One Goal

"Juggling priorities. We all use this phrase to describe our lives when things get busy. Juggling requires skill. Things are thrown at you, and you add them to an ever-increasing swarming mass, surreally floating with only two hands to keep it suspended. This is how leaders need to think about prioritization," as Chad Fowler, General Manager of Startups at Microsoft, puts it.

"Effective leaders don't juggle priorities," he continues. "As in real life juggling, every new "priority" we add does in fact make the juggling act more difficult. But it's not your job as a leader to make the act more difficult.

“It’s your job to focus yourself and focus your team. Don’t be proud of how many balls you can keep in the air. Put them down until later, and focus on the essential task at hand."

 Communicate Engineering Priorities to the Team

A great leader consistently communicates priority levels and defends a team's focus against conflicts. Leaders have to stay organized in order to prioritize their own tasks, but they also must use organization to categorize and prioritize the tasks of the entire team.

The idea that a team is only as strong as its weakest member is true—especially when everyone has his or her own responsibility. If one task doesn’t get done, the entire project may fail and disappoint a customer. All aspects of the team must be well-oiled and running smoothly.

Communication is key for getting the job done to the best of a team’s ability. The engineering team leader is charged with communicating his or her priorities clearly.

Daily updates can be given, outlining the daily, weekly, or monthly goals for that team. Updates can come in the form of a brief in-person meeting, an email, or another communication tool. Team members appreciate being kept in the loop and reminded of the goals.

Draw the big picture goals for the team and provide updates on the most efficient way to achieve those goals so that your team can stay focused on the most important tasks at hand before moving on to the lower-list items.

Delegating Work

The most effective leaders know how to delegate and do so on a daily basis.

Ultimately, you can’t accomplish everything that needs to be done on your own. Otherwise, there would be no need for a team or even a whole company.

Make sure you are delegating work to appropriate engineers, engineering managers so that your focus can be on the priority you have already identified.

Delegation is an organizational tool in that it helps assign responsibility, ensuring work gets done in an efficient and timely manner. Mind Tools takes a look at why this process is crucial and offers a Successful Delegation guide for leaders in any industry.

Dealing with Unexpected Problems

In every project, there are always some unexpected issues that you have to face head-on. Problems arise when things aren’t communicated clearly, the work volume is higher than expected, projects take longer than you were anticipating, or a plethora of other issues occur.

The way you deal with unexpected issues can have a big impact on organization, sometimes throwing a wrench into your plans and requiring you to restructure your entire day.

Well-organized leaders don't lose focus on the goal at hand. They simply reframe the situation—how have the problems changed the overall path toward achieving the goal?

Stay focused on finding a practical solution to the problem instead of getting frustrated, but keep the big picture in mind. Getting bogged down in the details of a situation is a surefire way to find yourself in chaos. A singular focus can help you rebound from any setback.

Tying Up Loose Ends

Top leaders don't leave business unfinished at the end of the day.

It's true that when the pressure is on and deadlines are drawing close, many leaders find themselves working 24/7. No matter how busy things are, it's essential to set aside at least 20 minutes at the end of each work day to clean up, regroup, and bring anything left undone to a logical stopping point.

To get everything wrapped up sufficiently, try to minimize distractions during this time. Close your door and set your phone to silent. The more distractions you have, the more likely it is you'll miss a to-do item. At the end of the day, those missed items are liable to be forgotten entirely, causing an urgent situation down the line.

When everything is settled, go through your list of tasks one by one. Make assignments, check your schedule for the next day, and touch base with team members to make sure they have the information they need to proceed with their work.

This is also an excellent time to manage clutter. Being proactive about clutter by scheduling time each day to throw things out and put things back keeps disorder at bay.

Moving Forward

Engineering management, like many other trades, applies the same principles across different tasks in your workflow in order to get things accomplished. In K.J. McCorry's book Organize Your Work Day… in No Time, the author introduces techniques and strategies to keep your work life organized and streamlined.

“For most of us, the perfect day is being able to accomplish our top priorities,” she explains, “and having time to build relationships with colleagues and clients, and to deal with unexpected emergencies and crises. Finally, most of us want to go home at a reasonable hour, leaving all work behind and feeling happy, satisfied, organized, and motivated for the next day.” She says that without a vision of what you want your day to be like, you’ll never progress to making it happen.

Keeping organized and staying on top of all of the tasks involved in leadership is a task of its own, but with the proper tools, you can accomplish what you want on your terms. Using the skills mentioned here, you’ll be able to organize your work, focus on your priorities, and stay on task to get ahead.