As leaders, we want to get stuff done. Whether it’s reaching a goal, completing a task, or getting a win, we want to see some results from all our hard work. Along the way, for better or worse, life happens. Our plans go awry, and we’re left trying to figure out how to keep moving forward. The good news is that we can get back on track by following this simple secret to getting stuff done.

The Secret to Getting Stuff Done

When things do get off track, many leaders will try to keep pushing forward. They’ll crack the whip, offer incentives (or punishments), or take shortcuts. This just creates additional stress, and will usually result in poorer results with lower morale.

Instead, we can pause, reflect, and apply this simple diagnostic approach: balancing Task with Maintenance.

Let’s take a deeper look at how this approach works.

Task vs. Maintenance

Task simply means the actions we take to get stuff done. They could include writing, producing, tallying, designing, reporting, or presenting. In an organization, when tasks don’t get completed, the organization fails.

Maintenance is what supports the tasks being completed efficiently and effectively. It is the glue that holds everything together. Maintenance includes everything from having clear roles and responsibilities, resolving conflict, communicating effectively, collaborating, or making decisions. In an organization, maintenance is what ensures that tasks get completed.

When a task gets interrupted, quality drops, goals don’t get met, or things fall through the cracks, it’s always a sign to shift the focus to Maintenance. When we shift the focus to Maintenance, we can start to “glue” everything back together and return to Task.

Task: Running Through Tar

Let’s look at some examples of how Maintenance underlies Task:

  • People aren’t completing their work on time and are focusing on the wrong things in their day-to-day work. Upon reflection, their supervisor realizes that they have never provided clear standards and expectations. In fact, the supervisor never even developed them in the first place.
  • Teams in different departments are working on similar projects. They end up competing against each other and doing redundant work. A leader steps in and says they need to find a way to either collaborate, divide up the work, or hand it over to just one of the departments. The departments reluctantly agree but point out how company policies reward teams who produce more.
  • Two co-workers can’t stand each other and are constantly bickering and undermining one another. It impacts the team, but no one speaks up or does anything about it except make light jokes. Everyone, including leadership, is afraid to address the conflict for fear of it escalating or someone leaving.
  • A worker keeps trying to get their daily work completed but constantly gets interrupted. New priorities constantly arise and they find themselves frequently putting out fires. The person complains about this chaos but feels hopeless and helpless to do anything about it.

In each of the above examples, something interferes with tasks getting completed. Unfortunately, people will typically keep trying to move forward with Task, which is like running through tar. It becomes harder to make progress because the obstacles are still there. Typically, when we only focus on Task, we treat the symptoms instead of addressing the root cause. Eventually, things start to fall apart in ways like turnover, mistakes, medical issues, or failing to get results.

The Shift to Maintenance

In each of the above issues, there is a clear sign pointing to the need for Maintenance. The key is to notice the signs, stop, and take action to handle the issues.

  • For the supervisor, this means creating, sharing, and holding people accountable to their standards and expectations.
  • For the teams, it means creating some ground rules for how they’ll work together. For the leader, it’s restructuring the organization’s rewards system in a way that supports the kind of behavior they want to see.
  • For the co-workers, it’s people refusing to tolerate the behavior and insisting the co-workers resolve their issues. For leadership, it’s making a clear decision to handle the problem and implement a strategy for getting there.
  • For the worker, it’s setting boundaries, planning their workload, asking for help, and negotiating with their supervisor to clarify what’s expected of them.

With those obstacles addressed, work can resume full speed ahead. We can return to Task renewed, energized, and focused. Maintenance isn’t a bad thing – it’s a natural part of being human, and an opportunity to tend to both people and structure. When we can accept it as part of the natural cycle and equal to Task, we can learn to appreciate its value and give it its due.

Making Time for Maintenance

Making time for Maintenance is crucial to success. At the same time, maintenance skills are hard to master. Therefore, it’s important to continually work on skills like communication, decision-making, delegating, strategic planning, and organizational development. The more we flex these muscles, the easier it becomes to handle maintenance and return to getting stuff done.

In assessing your ability to address maintenance, reflect on the following questions:

  • How is your productivity impacted by not making time for Maintenance?
  • What are some things that keep you from making time for Maintenance?
  • What systems or plans can you implement to both ensure that you make time for Maintenance?
  • What are some signs in your life or organization to pause and shift to Maintenance?
  • How can you and others in your organization become more skilled at Maintenance?