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Management Buzz 05/02

The effectiveness of interim deadlines and the current state of the military's "chain of command"

Done Yet?

Too much employee freedom can grind productivity to a halt, according to a recent study of procrastination by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Dan Ariely. He conducted time and productivity experiments on students, including undergraduates and well-organized, type A personalities from the university's executive education program. The results show that imposing interim deadlines on projects yields the best results.

Ariely found that groups with imposed deadlines do the best job, followed by those who set their own interim deadlines. "If we delay tasks, we clump them poorly," Ariely says. "We need help setting [deadlines] to do it properly."

That squares with other recent studies on goal-setting, says Steven E. Abraham, associate professor of business at the State University of New York, Oswego. "People need a sense of accomplishment," he says.

Next time you hand out a big assignment, set up interim deadlines so you can keep an eye on progress. Your employees may grouse about micromanaging, but you'll reap better work from their time--especially if you let them know how they're progressing at each step.

Break the Chain

War is a favorite metaphor for business. (You carpet-bomb the market with ads; you battle for customers.) So is it any wonder that following the chain of command is as hallowed a tradition for many companies as it is for the military?

Maybe you should look at what's going on in today's Department of Defense. Chain of command isn't what it used to be. "The military is changing," says Tom Casey, principal with Buck Consultants and former member of the armed forces. "It is balancing discipline with encouragement to be innovative." Some businesses are following the DOD's lead--encouraging employees to go outside the chain of command when issues or projects necessitate talking to you or another senior manager.

The importance of communication, the speed of business and the need to retain employees are all driving this change, says Casey. More than ever, information needs to flow through your organization, not stop with managers who may have their own agendas.

The change could threaten your managers. Ease their comfort by following the military's approach. Grade the manager on two criteria, says Casey: the performance of his or her direct reports and the unit's overall effectiveness based on its goals. Those goals are crucial, says Lynn Summers, founder of Performaworks Inc.: "Without the structured way to build in accountability, you've got chaos."


Business writer Chris Sandlund works out of Cold Spring, New York.

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This article was originally published in the May 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Management Buzz 05/02.

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