First, You Need a Direction: Allison Rimm on Joy, Productivity, and Task Maps
Author and strategic planning expert Allison Rimm worked at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) for 16 years. While there, she took on a variety of roles, including a stint as the senior vice president of strategic planning and information management. But job titles can only account for Rimm’s official responsibilities at MGH. Informally, Rimm found herself serving as a career counselor, mentor, and coach to a lot of people who (rightfully, it turns out) sought her help.
“I, as a strategist — and, I’d like to think, as a nice person in this industry — really like to help people succeed in their careers, in their businesses, and in their lives,” Rimm says.
Perhaps people came to Rimm because they trusted her strategic knowledge. Perhaps they saw in her — a working mother who earned herself a spot in the upper echelons of the company — a sort of role model. Perhaps they were drawn in by Rimm’s genuine demeanor and generous heart. Most likely, it was a combination of all three. But, whatever the case, employees flocked to her for help with every issue imaginable.
“Folks would come in with all sorts of questions about their careers, how to manage a project, anything,” Rimm says. “The thing that seemed to be the common thread among all of them, regardless of what their issue was, was that they lacked a plan of attack. They didn’t have a strategy.”
Rimm describes a typical conversation between herself and someone in need of advice:
Somebody would say to me, “I have this opportunity to take this job or serve on this committee. Should I take it?”
And I’d say, “Well, what are your goals? Where do you want your career to go? How does this fit in?”
They’d say, “Yeah, I don’t know, but this sounds like a good opportunity. Should I do it?”
And I would say to them, “I can’t tell you if this is a step in the right direction if you don’t have a direction.”
Finding Joy at Work
After spending some time as MGH’s resident informal career coach, Rimm realized that the same strategic planning materials she used to manage a $3 billion organization were equally effective when it came to helping people manage their own careers. Running with this idea, Rimm created and taught a course about strategic planning for people’s lives and careers. She found herself so inspired by the “amazing things” people were doing with the knowledge and skills they acquired from her class that she “felt called to write [her] book.” Thus, “The Joy of Strategy: A Business Plan for Life” was born.
While most people may not associate “joy” with “strategy,” Rimm believes that a careful plan can help lead employees to happiness. “I’m really interested in engaging the workforce and helping them to be productive but also joyful at work,” she says.
Some people may see joy as sort of frivolous in the office. Why should employers care if their employees are joyful? Don’t employees care more about outward signs of career success, like raises and promotions?
While Rimm does not believe that an intrinsic motivator like happiness is necessarily at odds with extrinsic motivators like bigger paychecks and better titles, she does believe that joy is a particularly crucial ingredient for building a successful company: “As somebody who was a senior executive for a very long time, I see [joy] as actually very essential to having a highly engaged, productive, and empowering team of people working [at a company],” she says.
Rimm points out that a joyfully engaged person is much more productive and less likely to leave, leading to lower turnover rates. Forbes quotes Dr. Noelle Nelson, author of “Make More Money by Making Your Employees Happy,” as writing that companies that appreciate their employees “enjoy a return on equity and assets more than triple that experienced by firms that don’t.” Similarly, the Wall Street Journal agrees that “awards, recognition and praise might just be the single most cost-effective way to maintain a happy, productive work force” with lower turnover — good news, given that the Center for American Progress found that employee turnover costs companies 21 percent of the employee’s salary on average.
“I think there’s real business reasons for looking into how you can engage people and keep them really satisfied and happy,” Rimm says.
The only question is: how do you help your employees find joy in their work?
The Task Map
Throughout her time as a strategist and consultant, Rimm has encountered a significant number of “miscast” employees — that is, employees who are clearly in the wrong roles, performing duties for which they do not have the skills and letting the talents they do have go to waste. “I would go in and hear people talk about what they loved to do, and I’d see that they were in a job that had nothing to do with their real skills or passions,” Rimm says.
Rimm says that employee miscasting happens in a lot of different ways. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of shoehorning people into jobs that don’t fit them. But there are bigger forces at work, too: “The world and the work changes. There’s so much disruptive technology, some of the fields are just changing very rapidly, so often times the work changes, but the people don’t.”
Rimm has also seen miscasting occur “organically”: “I’ve often seen it happen when somebody might leave an organization, and they don’t want to hire a new person, so they just reapportion that person’s responsibilities to a bunch of different people, mostly based on their capacities to take on more work, rather than their ability to do the task at hand.”
Rimm recalls one example of miscasting that turned out to be the catalyst for the invention of one of her signature tools:
I was talking to somebody who was clearly a very extroverted people person, who was a really good conceptual thinker and was really great at spotting talent and putting teams of people together who were really good at what they did. And yet, the bulk of her job was sitting at the computer making spreadsheets, and she wasn’t particularly mathematically gifted or very organized and analytical.
I just thought it so odd that she was really miscast. I happened to know somebody else on her team who had more of the analytical skills but was doing a job that was a better fit for her. So I sat down with them. We looked at the work of that particular unit, and we listed out all of the tasks that needed to be done by that group, and we looked at who was on that team and what they were really good at. I asked them what they enjoyed doing, and it looked like two or three people were completely in the wrong job, and a couple of other people on the job needed things tweaked and reorganized a little bit. As soon as we were able to move their responsibilities around, productivity went way up. They had had a lot of customer service complaints, and those pretty much went away. Everyone was much more productive and much happier.
This analysis of how the skills each team member possesses fit the tasks the team needs to complete is the basis for Rimm’s Task Mapping Assessment. The Task Map is a highly visual tool, so it’s best to take a look at some examples to get a feel for how task mapping works. Still, a brief summary may help: along one side of the map, you list the people on your team; along the other side, you list the skills their positions require. You then draw color-coded lines from each person to each skill that person has. At the end, you should be able to see if each given employee has the skills for their current job or is actually better suited for another role.
By using Task Maps, Rimm says organizations can realign and redeploy talent so that each team member is working in the role that is best for them — a role that makes use of their skills and about which they are passionate. After mapping the HR department, for example, you may find that the person who oversees onboarding and the person in charge of recruiting should actually swap places, based on their skill sets and passions.
Rimm says that restructuring teams according to what the team members love to do and what they are great at doing helps foster joy at work by providing employees with intrinsic motivation. She believes that this redeployment of talent helps people reach self-actualization, à la Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
“There’s nothing that’s going to motivate people more than feeling a connection to the mission of their work and being able to use the skills that are special to them to make a meaningful contribution,” Rimm says. “In this economy, everybody is working harder and harder than they were and taking on more and more responsibility, and if the work that they’re doing isn’t meaningful or isn’t well-aligned with their skill set, then it becomes a real struggle sometimes.”
Rimm is right to focus on the power of intrinsic motivation: researchers have found that intrinsic motivation is a much stronger day-to-day motivator than extrinsic motivation — not to mention, much cheaper. Some even suggest that extrinsic motivators make actually weaken the power of intrinsic ones, thereby harming employee engagement.
So, What Can You Do With a Task Map?
While Rimm initially created the Task Map as a way to assess team skills and optimally deploy talent, she also identifies a number of other applications for the tool:
- Get to Know Your Employees: Rimm believes that periodic reassessment and realignment of company talent should “absolutely” become part of organizational DNA. But fostering a productive workforce takes more than just identifying skills – remember, joy plays a crucial role as well. In order to for employees to be joyful, they have to be following their passions in the workplace. Rimm suggests that managers use Task Maps in their efforts to get to know their employees better, which they’ll need to do if they want to give people meaningful work. “I say this to people over and over again — and sometimes it’s more astonishing to me that I have to even mention it — but leaders really need to take the time it requires to get to know the people who work for them,” Rimm says. “It does take time and a little bit of extra effort … but the payoff is so great.”
- Delegating Tasks: Once managers have identified their employees skill sets, they can make better decisions about delegating tasks. “[The Task Map] helps [managers] figure out that they can outsource certain tasks that they do themselves,” says Rimm.
- Succession Planning: Tasks Maps can give managers an opportunity to identify employees who have some high potential, so that the organization can start grooming those employees for other roles.
Similarly, Tasks Maps may help organizations realize that they don’t have any talent capable of taking over for an outbound executive, in which case they’ll need to start recruiting outside the organization.
“I think it’s a really terrific tool to help folks think about, ‘What’s the next line? Do we have internal people who are going to be able to step up?’” Rimm says.
- Recruiting New Talent: When using Task Maps to assess their employees’ skills, organizations may find gaps between the talent they have on hand and the talent they need to complete certain tasks. In such cases, Task Maps can help companies identify the specific skills they need to recruit for. Rimm notes that companies that know exactly what they need will have an easier time writing clear, precise job descriptions that accurately portray the skills they’re looking for.
When it comes to hiring, Rimm often sees managers who “are really focused on the vacancy that’s in front of them and the need they have to fill, rather than taking the time to look at everybody who is on the team and maybe shifting things around.”
When managers use Task Maps to identify the skills their employees need, they may find they don’t need to hire a new employee to get those skills. Or they may find that they have an employee who can be shifted to fill a different role, leaving behind a new vacancy. Whatever the case, Rimm sees these changes as opportunities for creating more productive workplaces.
“This is a wonderful time to do a gap analysis between the skills that you have and the work that needs to get done and fill those gaps,” says Rimm.
Aside from these specific applications of the Task Map, Rimm also notes that the assessment may be useful for general organizational planning. “My biggest message to managers is: be really strategic and keep your eye open, not only for getting alignment in right now,” she says. “Where is your business going? What kind of challenges are you going to meet over the next few years to get that in place? What can you do right now to develop the people that you have or to bring new talent in so that when the need hits, you’re really well-positioned to hit the ground running?”