“What is the most important thing you could be working on right now?”
“What’s keeping you from working on that?”
When you ask these questions of people on your team, there’s basically a 2×2 matrix of possible answers:
The green square is amazing. It’s where you assume the people on your team are working, all the time, because you’re such an awesome manager that you perfectly communicate all of your priorities all the time and help them clear the obstacles out of their way so they can breeze about their jobs.
But probably, if you actually ask, you’ll find that the people on your team are somewhere in the orange square. This is manageable, though not permanently, because at least they’re confident that they’re working on the right things. When you ask people, “What’s the most important thing you could be working on?” and you agree with their assessment, that’s a good sign.
But a lot of people won’t necessarily volunteer the next part — they won’t admit that they’re blocked. Or they may feel like it’s their responsibility to get UN-blocked, that asking their manager for help is a sign of weakness or lack of capability. So you have to ask this explicitly. Sometimes it’s money (i.e. for software, tools, contractors, etc.) — which is usually trivial compared to the cost of an-only-partially-utilized-employee. Sometimes it’s something where I can help them force a decision. Sometimes it is something they’ll need to work through on their own, but at least I can give them the acknowledgement that they’re headed in the right direction.
The red square is basically an F grade for you as a manager. You’ve got someone doing pointless things, poorly.
But the trickiest of all is the blue square, because people slide into this easily and often accidentally. And then, they may not really realize that they’re working on pointless tasks. Getting stuff done is usually rewarded. It has the intrinsic rewards of making us feel smart. And as managers, if the people on your team aren’t complaining, it’s easy to think “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
I can’t claim that everyone is in the green square right now, but asking these questions and listening and making changes, is helping us progress towards up and to the right.