Put a Box Around It

Over the last few months, I have shifted my approach at work, added a little more formality. This came out of a period of burnout, where I felt I was giving my all and it still wasn’t enough. In desperation, I decided that the time had come to put the responsibility back on my colleagues. Last year, our watch-word was transparency. This year it is accountability.

What does that look like?

I started by drawing a box around what my team would become involved with and what we wouldn’t. In the past, we had been asked to provide organization and structure for other teams. I started saying No to those teams, and asking them to take their work back. We are a project management office: projects have defined starts and end dates; they don’t go on indefinitely, that’s operations (or BAU – business as usual – as they call it at this organization), which falls outside our scope of work. If you want us to help organize your operations, frame it as a short-term project, and we’ll see if we have the bandwidth for that.

I also drew a box around the circumstances in which my team would work on projects. We will only take on projects where we are given the circumstances to be successful. If you are starting your project at the last minute, with a ballooning scope, we will just get in your way. Happy to advise from a distance but not joining the fun.

And I drew a box around the kinds of support my team would provide: there are certain types of meetings that we would own; scheduling and taking notes in other meetings are on someone else. We drew up a matrix of what we would do during each phase of the project; and what they were expected to do. We began educating executive sponsors on their roles; and holding them accountable to those roles. It’s not our job to get your direct reports to make your project a priority – that’s your job. (And often, the reason they’re not making it a priority is because you’re distracting them with other priorities.)

To support all of this, I’ve started re-chartering the projects, re-negotiating with the executive sponsors, re-educating my team. I’ve stopped inviting feedback from blame-shifters who throw my people under the bus at the slightest provocation.

I was a little afraid at first that it would be too much for people, that our team would be unsuccessful. But over the last few weeks, several leaders have said they like where this is going and have asked for more of the same.

It seems, by setting boundaries, I have gained respect for my work, myself, and my team.

As I reflect on this, I think about my sister, who sets firm boundaries at work. But neglects them at home and then complains sincerely that she feels like her family and my mom don’t respect her. I’ve suggested before that she should set boundaries with her kids, with my mother’s caregivers. It is so hard, when you are a caring person, to set boundaries.

And so necessary to survival.

What boxes do you need to draw in your life?

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