How to keep your team focused on results

Here are tips for ensuring that your team members stay focused on their tasks amid myriad distractions.

Let’s face it: Some IT development work simply isn't compelling or captivating. That fact makes it difficult at times to keep your team focused, a key factor for getting the job done. Without paying attention to details, production quality will inevitably start to falter.

But how do you respond as a manager when things are basically under control, but you can see your team is having trouble concentrating on mundane tasks? In a 10-person development team, you may have thousands of IQ points at your disposal. While those sharp minds need stimulation and challenges, you can also encourage your team to use that intellect to help find creative solutions when following the routine threatens the task at hand.

Determine the routine tasks
I asked fellow project team members what tasks usually result in wandering thoughts. I also surveyed them about the tricks they use to circumvent such problems. After eliminating the inevitable negative comments about project managers, here are the routine tasks that seem to make concerted attention most difficult:
  • Debugging another developer's code
  • Devising elaborate workarounds because you don't have access to the source code (especially if it’s the operating system)
  • Editing and updating documentation
  • Attending (and staying alert in) Monday morning meetings
  • Conducting any form of trial-and-error processes
  • Populating a bespoke database manually because of trivial formatting incompatibilities
  • Reimplementing code you built six months ago
  • Undertaking a painfully familiar procedure again as part of a "methodology," although you feel it’s inappropriate

All of the aforementioned situations may be necessary sometimes (although I’d question whether Monday morning meetings are ever really a good idea).

Why concentration can be difficult
Perhaps the task itself isn't challenging, or it requires the use of underdeveloped skills (e.g., asking computer science graduates to write in coherent English). It may involve a comparatively low payoff, i.e., nothing special or exciting is expected to emerge in the final outcome. Even if the end result is technically interesting, your team member may have done something almost identical just last week.

It can also be difficult to concentrate if, deep down, you know that someone else would do this particular job better, or you feel that it’s a genuine waste of your time. If the work is already overdue or is part of a long list of pending tasks, the fear of blame can cause additional attention deficits.

How to cope when your project is mired in minutiae
Before your team members grit their teeth and begin some huge thankless task, remind them to ask for specialist input; there may be a better way than brute force or legwork. Although it often isn't possible, team members may want to consider writing a script to automate the task in question. (Be careful that this doesn’t become a sizable metaproject in its own right.)

I find it’s valuable to simply acknowledge that some of this work isn't fun and to disperse the “donkeywork” among the group, interspersing it with more interesting tasks. It's also a good practice to ask your team members how they would propose to deal with humdrum work. Also, maintain a local "tick sheet" to record when these mundane tasks are completed, and congratulate team members when they deal with their fair share of tedium.

I often encourage team members to set up informal interim deadlines (e.g., "Finish this task before lunch at 1:00 P.M."). Even creating a small competition within your team can add interest and diligence to a trench of less-than-captivating work. I don’t, however, recommend telling your team that they have less time to finish than they thought. (Project managers who cry wolf tend to get bitten later.)

It goes without saying that sources of distraction (such as the Send/Receive button) can easily be used to avoid getting on with things. Similarly, make sure that other background issues aren't to blame for a team member's failure to concentrate (e.g., domestic arguments or lack of sleep).

Don't expect everyone to be perpetually razor sharp; it may even be a good tactic for members to stay somewhat relaxed. For example, during the Cold War, radar operators were often allowed to play cards on the side of the console because it was discovered that they were more sensitive to blips on the screen if they didn’t try to maintain heightened concentration for long periods of time.

The opposite of a failure to attention is, of course, total absorption in the task. (I’m sure you’ve had that feeling when you’ve been sitting in an exam that you actually found yourself enjoying or immersed in a computer game in which you felt physically involved.) This is known as being "in flow," and it usually arises when you really care about the specific task and not just the paycheck or end result.

To sustain quality, even the tedious, workaday IT project tasks need to be completed. Adopt strategies that will help your team get through everyday tasks with ease; that way, they'll have more vigor to devote to more challenging tasks when they arise.