Filter, Focus, Forward: Tip #2 – Avoiding the Assumption Rut

By: Chris Lacinak
March 23, 2020

Filter, Focus, Forward is a new AVP blog series about filtering out distraction and negativity, focusing on positivity and priorities, and continuing to move forward with progress and momentum while working as part of a distributed team. 


Here’s the scenario: You are working at home alone and you need some help on a project from your colleague that you used to sit right next to before you started working as a distributed team. 

You look at Slack (or Microsoft Teams, or whatever you use) and you see her status light glowing green. You know she’s a busy person that always has a lot on her plate and you worry about bothering her. You think about pinging to ask if she has a minute but you know that she’ll say yes even if she doesn’t. If you were sitting next to her, you would know how busy she was because you could read body language, hear if she’s on a call, and just generally pick up on her vibe. Since you don’t know, you decide that you won’t be a distraction and instead you will put that portion of the project on hold and catch her another time.

This scenario isn’t all bad. The good part is that the colleague in need of someone’s attention has a moment of reflection before pinging someone on Slack just because they can. That awareness is good when there are support mechanisms in place. That will be the topic of my next post – Avoiding the Impulsive Glut.

In this post I want to focus on the problem that arises out of the scenario I’ve painted above. The problem is that this behavior easily becomes a pattern. Noone wants to interrupt anyone and the communication gap begins to widen into a giant communication rut. This seeps into every aspect of your organization including projects, administrative things, internal operations, water cooler talk, and more. This rut leads to a breakdown that can be disruptive and harmful if it’s allowed to persist. It also leads to feelings of extreme isolation, being disconnected, and being wary of using a critical communication mechanism out of fear of bothering people.

What we have found with our distributed team is that our ability to guess how busy someone is in a given day or week is really bad. To solve this problem we have come up with ways to be more explicit about how busy we are. Specifically we do two things:

  1. Our staff allocation meeting* gives everyone insight into the next two months of vacation, conferences, and project work at the individual level. We can see how much bandwidth people expect to have.
  2. The last agenda item for our weekly all-team meeting* (held on Mondays) is focused on telling each other just how busy we are and offering the salient details of what we have on our plates. I’ve offered an example below with sample dummy data. All individual and company names are entirely made up.

In addition to letting your colleagues know how busy you are, these points of communication also offer an opportunity for helping each other out. If one person is maxed out it gives them an opportunity to ask for help, or if someone has lots of bandwidth they can proactively offer to help out others.

* See previous post for rundown of routine AVP meetings.

Example of the last item on the weekly all-team meeting agenda:

Upcoming week: 1-5 along with salient events and points of focus (5 minutes): 

Availability by person: 1- 5, with 5 being the most available – and why.

1 – Would love to help out but I’m totally swamped in the coming week. Remind me if you’re waiting on something from me or if I promised something to you.

2 – If you really need something and it can be done in a short amount of time I’ll take care of it, but I’m otherwise booked up.

3 – I have some days that are pretty open and other days that are booked. If you have something you want me to do that is time sensitive let’s talk sooner rather than later.

4 – I have things going on but most things can be moved and/or are non-essential. I can put some serious time in on something if you need help.

5 – I would love to help out with anything you want help on!

  • Sienna: 3 – Mostly working on A-to-Z uploads & scripts, and devops documentation
  • Jeanne: 4 – I can help!! I don’t have a lot this week and no immediate deadlines.
  • Rashida: 2 – Generic, Inc. UXR documentation; prepping for Windsor user testing
  • Peter: 1 – CGN guidance, A-to-Z data migration, getting started with Ace Co. DAM Support, SPL Digi Pres Requirements
  • Rodrigo: 3 – XYZ conference, launch new ad campaign, marketing plan update
  • Sunny: 2 – Metadata SoW, ACME audit, ABC draft report

Stay tuned to learn how to deal with the inverse of the assumption rut: the impulsive glut.

Catch up on other posts on the series home page. 

Filter, Focus, Forward –