29 January 2013

The Magic of Chunking

Have you ever looked at a task, shaken your head and walked away feeling overwhelmed? And then you’ve beaten yourself up for procrastinating? Many times the sense of overwhelm is because you didn’t chunk the task out. The good news is – it’s easy to fix.

The Three Styles of Chunking

Chunking is a sorting process, and can be done three ways. You chunk up when you identify the bigger elements of a task, looking for the bigger picture. You chunk down by breaking a large block of information into smaller snippets. Sideways, or lateral chunking is when you clump like things together.

When Chunking Up Wasn’t Done

A salesperson in a well-known NZ meat processing company was asked by his Sales Manager to prepare figures of lamb sold to the Middle East. The General Manager wanted them. The salesman wondered how much detail was needed, but decided that since the big boss wanted the information he wouldn’t bother him, but just turn in a very detailed and elegant-looking report. So, he spent about four hours sourcing figures and creating lovely graphs and pie charts. A few days later he saw the boss in the lunchroom.

‘Thanks for the figures, Bill,’ the GM said, ‘but you didn’t need to go to that much trouble. Just a few numbers would have been fine.’

Do you suppose he was impressed at Bill’s unnecessary work? I doubt it! If Bill had chunked up by getting the big picture he would have taken fifteen minutes instead of four hours.

Downward Chunking

Here’s one example. Write down your top tasks for the day, in no particular order. Then identify the top five, number them 1 through to 5, and start at No. 1. Keep focused at all times on whatever is the current highest priority, which may include quick-winging interruptions. By breaking overwhelming amounts of work into small bite-sized pieces of achievable activity you can easily focus your mind on the priorities that give the best impact.

Lateral Chunking

Think of sorting a pack of cards into their suits and apply it to your mail. Sort it into categories such as: data entry; phone calls; Internet activities; writing; reading; or discussions with a team member. Each activity doesn’t necessarily have equal value, but by separating the categories into like with like it’s easier to see just what needs to be done. It’s also easier to stay focused on one task at a time.

Two Case Studies A School Example

Suppose you’ve just had a letter to say an ERO inspection is coming up. Hopefully, after this many years of the process, you’re comfortable with what’s needed. But maybe it’s your first year as a Principal and you haven’t had full responsibility before.

A small country school Principal, faced with this situation, took her whole team away for a weekend retreat. They brainstormed all the elements for consideration, developed their plan of action, and allocated tasks. They began with the key elements of the big picture (chunking up), and then identified the sub-sets within each major category (chunking down). The last stage of the planning was to link like with like – chunking sideways. By doing so there were some tasks they could streamline. The work done in one area could be used in another area. It helped eliminate unnecessary duplication. They became very clear as to their objectives, who was doing what, and how to go about it. (We’re just putting a different slant on a regular planning process you may well already use.)

The outcome for this school? They returned to work as a cohesive, clear-focused unit. The plan was easy to implement because everyone knew their tasks. The report? Stunning. They were delighted with the excellent result, and it gave the new principal a terrific boost and the confidence to move on in her career a year or two later.

A Business Example

A building company had a high level of customer complaints. They appointed a Customer Services Officer, but not much changed. The GM then brought me in to train the whole company (and he included himself in the training) in customer service, communication and team building (effective communication is one of the greatest time-savers we can find!). This was the first big chunk up. We needed to get everyone with a common starting point of standards and expectations.

The next stage was a 4-hour SWOT analysis (the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats were the four chunk-downs). For the first time ever all the staff were given a facilitated forum to have their say (instead of just moaning over their after-work Friday drinks). Drilling down into each area, and then sideways chunking (or clumping) like concerns and issues with each other, it suddenly became easy for me, the outsider, to get a clear overall picture what was going on. (We broke the company into groups of no more than 15 in a session, to make sure the quiet ones had the chance to speak out – it was very important to get everyone’s perspective).

The GM had previously ignored comments from the ranks. This time, however, he listened and acted on my report. I believe there were three reasons for that.

  1. What we get for free we often don’t appreciate. He’d invested a decent amount of money and everybody’s time with me, which created a very strong motivation to get a return on his dollar. Ever noticed that if we pay good money to get a result, or learn something, our ears listen harder!
  2. I was an outsider. I became the voice for everyone. How often do we respond to a suggestion from someone we don’t know very well, and those nearest to us say, ‘But I’ve been saying that for ages!’? It’s human nature, and very little any of us can do about it! I think it was Solomon who said: ‘A prophet is without honour in his own country’. A new voice, and a new perspective, allows us to hear in a different way.
  3. For the first time the concerns from everyone were chunked together. By doing so an unequivocally clear pattern emerged. Previously the GM, as busy as any senior manager, heard each complaint in isolation. He brushed almost all of them off, as sand flies at a picnic.

Pebbles dropped one by one into a pool create a very small ripple. A big tree falling into the pool creates a huge splash, and often leaves something sticking out!

Many issues arose and many solutions were aired. The biggest one, however, was a key manager who had taken on too much. This created a bottleneck in Production that translated into unhappy customers, disgruntled supervisors, disenchanted salespeople, and endless problems. The manager’s job was halved and very quickly the customer record dramatically improved.

The other major outcome was a lift in company morale, because the team felt they’d been listened to, and their opinions valued.

Have fun chunking!


Are your days too short, workload too large and work-life balance a pipe dream?

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