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Using Focus Blocks To Boost Your Team's Capacity
If you've been overwhelmed by trying to figure out how much capacity your team has, and whether they're focused on what matters most, here’s my take: looking at project lists or time sheets is not really going to help the situation.
This conversation came up recently with one of my clients managing an M&A. It revolved around the difference between capacity vs. utilization. Visionary/expansive execs tend to think that increasing capacity automatically increases utilization, but, if you've run an operation, you know that's not true.
He was getting bogged down with wanting improved visibility on what his team had been working on. He thought if he could get a full Asana setup up and running, that would ensure or provide that line of sight.
But that wasn't what he really cared about. What he cared about was the team's capacity and utilization for doing the important strategic work.
That, friends, is an entirely different conversation and need — than whether your team’s Asana ought to be built out more extensively.
Instead of spending months building and tweaking Asana, I suggested something simpler and more relevant: Put the focus on how many focus blocks your team has available.
Understand that most strategic projects require at least three focus blocks per project, per week, to get any real traction on them.
The concept of focus blocks and the principle of three focus blocks per week, per project, comes straight from Start Finishing. A focus block is 90 to 120 minutes of time dedicated to a single project. You can also think of these as deep work blocks, if that phrasing resonates with you.
If a teammate has six focus blocks open per week, the team may have a need for those blocks to be devoted to a single project to get it done faster — or other times there’s a need to spread that teammate’s focus between two different projects for a balanced portfolio.
(Again, for those in the back, at least three blocks per week are needed to find momentum.)
When in doubt, choose to focus on getting one project to the finish line. The real goal is project throughput - or the the amount of material or items passing through a system or process - not project load.
In a team setting, project load amounts to a lot of status/update conversations, shuffling, and emotional labor that makes work suck more.
Putting the spotlight on focus blocks does the real work of showing what your team's true capacity and utilization is. That’s much better than looking at how projects are laid out in any tool.
It'll help you see that most likely up to 50-80% of your team's time is filled up with meetings, routines, admin, and comms.
Seeing this allows y'all to make different choices. Do you just accept that you have, at best, 20% of your team’s time available to do deep/important/strategic work — and use that information to prioritize what deep/important/strategic work can be done?
Or do you work on your team habits in order to create more space in your team’s schedule for the important/strategic work?
But Can't We Just Hire People to Increase Capacity?
Another takeaway: Avoid the "we can just hire someone to do that other stuff" trap.
(Spoiler alert.) Hiring doesn’t necessarily save team time, or free up capacity for the higher level work. Someone has to hire, integrate, and train the new person—in other words, it becomes a project that cuts into the focus blocks you were already short on.
The new person won't immediately be able to do the work, so you won't feel the increase in capacity and utilization for a few months.
And if your team - including the managers and leaders who coordinate and allocate resources - is already at 100% utilization and can't keep up, additional capacity amounts to waste, unmet expectations, and, typically, debt that then sucks away at resources you could use to increase utilization.
My typical approach when it comes to engagements is actually to cut or punt the non-critical "strategic priorities and projects" first.
Most clients don't want to make cuts on ongoing projects until we walk through the cost of the status quo and how adding capacity (if you take the hiring route) is going to decrease utilization for a quarter or two. In 80% of the cases, we can keep all the people we have and deploy them more effectively and sanely, so it's not the layoff/fire conversation leaders fear.
With the state of global burnout we're in, leaders are far more likely to lose teammates as a result of burnout and disengagement — simply because they're not cutting back to a level of work that normal humans can actually do.
I share more on using focus blocks in a team setting in my forthcoming book, Team Habits. Try using the concept I’ve shared today, but in the meantime sign up to receive more updates about Team Habits, coming this August and now available for pre-order at your favorite bookseller.