Scarcity and support

I just finished an excellent book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much
by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, that made me think of many practical applications for support organizations.

The authors highlight how human beings, when they feel something is scarce, adopt a  special mindset that both boosts their productivity for the issue at hand while limiting their thinking outside of it. For instance, if someone is short on time (say, a deadline is imminent), productivity typically soars. No more dawdling or checking every email message that comes in: it’s pedal to the metal, and fast and focused performance follows. We are very familiar with this effect in support: when case load surges, more cases get worked and more cases get closed. But we also know the other side of the coin. Under time pressure, other tasks fall by the way side (I’m looking at you, knowledge management) and although cases may be worked, they may not be worked thoroughly or completely, leaving root causes un detected so that problems resurface, sometimes more severe than before.
So what can we do to exploit the positive aspects of the scarcity mindset but minimize the negatives?
  • Plan for slack. If there is no slack at all (everyone is scheduled to work 100% of the time), the slightest emergency will derail everything. Plan for a small amount of flexibility to handle emergencies. For instance, it may make sense to dedicate a team to work P1 cases, separate from the normal flow of work.
  • Encourage support engineers to plan their days rather than jumping into the fires. Jumping in will take care of urgent issues, but may cause neglect of the important ones, which will then become urgent and escalate.
  • Help support engineers structure their work. If all their cases have a very clear “next step” documented in the very last case notes, it takes a minute to scan through the list and see which ones need attention today. Too often the team will shy away from making time commitments during busy times, for fear that they won’t be met — but clear commitments are essential to plan in chaos.
  • Understand that scarcity creates a very short-time focus. In busy times, the support engineers may be looking to close the easiest cases, for instance, rather than delve into the harder ones. Stress the importance of considering mid-range and long-range goals.
  • Use short-term deadlines. For instance, asking support engineers to create three knowledge documents per quarter is likely to result in a big bulge at the end of the quarter. Measure output more frequently.
  • During pressure times, expect and ease issues in personal lives. Someone who is pressed for time may forget personal deadlines, need to rush to the DMV to renew an expired license, or have problems at home. Be attentive and kind.
  • Watch the clock. I’ve found (and the research reported in the book happily confirms) that sticking to reasonable work hours is more effective than imposing long hours for weeks on end (a few extra-long days are probably ok, however.)
  • And in the unlikely event that your team is not busy enough: be vigilant! People with too little to do get bored, lose skills, and may actually treat customers less well because it’s easy to get distracted.
What strategies have worked for you and your team when there’s not enough time is short?

 

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