How To Break Down Big Jobs into Bite-Sized, Achievable Tasks

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Team Workiro

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A to-do list is not a wish-list

It’s worth remembering this when you set out to tackle any job in the workplace, from the largest project to the most straightforward of tasks. The advice holds whether you’re managing a team or working within one.

Too often, a wish-list is overly ambitious in terms of timings, quality or costs, or ignores the old principle that you can pick two of the following, but not all three:

Good. Cheap. Fast.

  • Cheap and fast: won’t be good
  • Good and cheap: won’t be fast
  • Fast and good: won’t be cheap

Wish-lists often falter at these first principles.

To-do lists, on the other hand, make for certain, manageable and accountable progress. Why? Because they look beyond the wider goals to tackle the issues by breaking down larger – and sometimes seemingly insurmountable – tasks, into practical, achievable steps.

Of course, what an achievable step looks like will depend on the particular task. However, most workplace-based projects can still be broken down into manageable chunks with reference to three broad categories:

  • Parts 
    Can each member of the team be allocated a section of the single, larger job, and all work simultaneously?
  • Phases
    What needs to happen first and what can wait – or needs to wait – until later?
  • Categories 
    Can the overall project be divided by, for example, customer type or skill set, to help allocate resources?

If such broad-based divisions of labour still remain daunting, that’s because while they describe the scope of individual elements of the project, they don’t offer practical steps to tackling them.

To do this, try breaking down each section further, setting out clear routes towards achieving a good outcome. Often, this follows three simple steps:

  1. Identify the tasks
  2. Consider what needs to be done to complete those tasks
  3. Set milestones

Make sure your project goals, resources and timings are all integrated within this three-step breakdown.

Developing a work breakdown structure with tasks

Creating efficient structures for breaking down work into achievable tasks is a perennial concern for team leaders. In fact, there’s even an unofficial bible for it.

The Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge is a globally recognised set of guidelines for project management. It’s now in its sixth edition and what it advises evolves over time.

The Guide provides detailed analysis of how a work breakdown structure (WBS) can be created and maintained, and looks at how good practice can be developed so that colleagues’ knowledge, skills, workplace tools and management techniques, can enhance the chance of success.

It, too, looks at how the different phases of a project are key to breaking it down into manageable chunks, and identifies a timeline of five distinct parts of work, which it calls ‘process groups’. These are typical of most projects, most of the time, and contain a specific type of task.

One more phase should be added to these five. After the project is complete, the team should review each of the phases or ‘process groups’, assessing where pain points occurred, how they were overcome, and what could be done differently next time.

How to work quickly using tasks

When you break down a job into manageable chunks, there is only ever one aim and that is completion.

If any part of the overall task slows down through over-complexity or inattention, the moment when you can say ‘job done’ recedes into the future. A key measure of any job’s progress, therefore, is time. When businesses evangelise ‘agile’ or ‘nimble’ ways of working, it’s not just about being able to react to changing circumstances, it’s about removing time as an obstacle.

Agile methodologies are wide-ranging in their scope, but they can be traced to the start of this century and The Agile Manifesto, which was created in 2001 as a tool for software development.

The Manifesto stands as a resetting of the agenda, a recalibration of working practices, and a a reassessment of how projects can be completed speedily and efficiently. What can we take from it today? Plenty.

Agile working means that instead of deliberating over processes and tools, you think about the individuals in your team and the interactions you have with them. It prioritises useful tech tools over lengthy documentation. It underlines the importance of collaboration with customers, rather than lengthy contract negotiation. Finally, it requires the ability to respond to change, more than simply being able to follow a plan.

Is your team aligned with these principles? Could it be? If time isn’t to become an obstacle, it needs to be. As a team leader, ask yourself these questions:

  • How credible and productive are the working methods you follow?
  • Does planning help or hinder getting the job done?
  • How quickly can you respond to changing circumstances?
  • Is the way you work truly aligned with the needs of your customers?
  • How can you reduce the friction that slows down a job’s completion?

How to work towards objectives with task management

he principles of agility help to bring workplace culture into alignment with business and customer needs. But even if your business or team hasn’t directly focused on developing an agile culture, it’s still likely that it has become an inherent foundation of best practice. Consider the following buzzwords and phrases:

  • Adaptable
  • Always on
  • Iterative
  • Accessible
  • Responsive
  • Proactive
  • Opportunistic
  • In the moment

Each of these describes an aspect of agility, and no business or team wants to say that they are not adaptable, responsive, proactive, and so on. But these qualities can’t be achieved if the task in hand appears insurmountable. When goals are too far off and too large, teams lose motivation.

Instead, approach jobs and projects in a mode of continuous development, where targets are met regularly and with confidence.

  1. Set objectives so that they can be reached at regular intervals
  2. Accommodate change throughout the process – don’t fear requests for new requirements or adaptations
  3. Consider working in sprints. Deliver then iterate, rather than delaying delivery until you achieve perfection
  4. Encourage collaboration between key stakeholders throughout the project 
  5. Keep communications channels open to build support, trust, and motivation
  6. Build consistency by establishing workflows that are maintainable and repeatable
  7. Aim for simplicity and focus on getting the right job done for now
  8. Promote self-organisation, and allow individuals to be accountable and take ownership of tasks
  9. Create regular space and time for reflection, and opportunities to consider improvements

How to get jobs done with task management

What is the definition of ‘done’?

‘Done’ is the past tense of ‘do’. When something is ‘done’, the ‘doing’ of something has stopped. Whatever it was that needed doing has been completed, finished.

Phew. A nice feeling. A motivating feeling. It’s good to get things done.

Of course, if our work was really ‘done’, we wouldn’t return to the office again, or fire up our laptops, check our messages, or put in a call. In reality, we all hope our work isn’t done.

So, what does it really mean to get something ‘done’?

It means to have passed a marker on a longer journey, to have completed a stage, to have achieved a certain standard, to have met a particular objective, to have progressed by a particular degree towards a particular destination.

And if life, as the old maxim has it, is about the journey not the destination, then it’s no different in the workplace.

Ultimately, all but the most generalised of business objectives will change over time – the market sees to that. Getting the job done, is less about reaching that final destination, and more about what achievements can be made along the way.

Whatever the size of the job, this same thinking applies. The ability to identify and complete tasks underpins most workplace achievements.

In many ways, getting things done is also about setting boundaries. The tasks you undertake are only part of a chain of processes that link you with your supply chain and your customers. Getting things done demonstrates that you understand your place in the chain, and completing your task allows someone else to start theirs.

This is how business is done – not with a wish-list but with a to-do list.

Team Workiro
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