Advice from Strangers: When Resources Are Low

Necessity is the mother of invention. Necessity is also the mother of all-nighters. Here’s how to fill manpower gaps to get work done when resources are low.

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BFC Admin

burning the midnight oil

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

Advice from Strangers explores shared challenges in the industries of new music and technology. This column is sixth in the series.

Once upon a time, there was a princess. Resplendent in burgundy velour, this voluptuous leading lady—played by renowned cellist Joshua Roman—tossed stunning blond tresses and flitted around in falsetto to the antic-laden lines of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat.

You might ask what circumstances led Roman to don a wig and play the damsel in distress with Deviant Septet on that night. “The only woman in our group was busy playing something during that scene,” writes the ensemble on Twitter, and “he just seemed too natural a fit.”

Creative solutions often have their beginnings in resource scarcity, but that doesn’t make being short on manpower less of a challenge, especially in early-stage startups and music ensembles.

I can’t sugarcoat this: limited funding means everyone pulls extra weight as a matter of course. When that’s the baseline, it can be daunting to take on even more work ahead of a product launch or performance. Incredibly, we manage: we lose sleep, forget to eat, spend less time with friends and families. Everything else falls by the wayside while we get the job done. When it’s all over, we crash, recuperate, and start again.

If that’s a fact, are there ways of doing it better?

I asked 30 colleagues in new music and tech how they fill manpower gaps to get work done when resources are low. Here’s their advice.

Prioritize and focus

“You are just not going to get it all done,” says product and marketing executive Orlena Yeung. “Even with a lot of resources, there is always more to do. Understand what is necessary and what will have the greatest impact—and do few things well, rather than a lot of things poorly.”

Project manager Bill Manos agrees. “The one-two punch of getting things done with limited resources is figuring out the minimum needed to achieve your mission, and then combining that with a laser focus on prioritization. Sometimes it simply takes a little extra planning to save yourself a ton of rework down the line.”

We prioritize throughout the day without realizing it—deciding how to spend our time or money, deciding what to eat—and these same thought processes inform our decisions about what to create. The difference is that product development and music creation are more complex than dinner, so we need to break them down into smaller increments and evaluate each piece in the context of the whole.

“I ask myself, if this feature doesn’t exist, will the product work?” explains developer Jack Reichert. “Sometimes I’ll add some non-essentials, but they have to add significantly to the experience. I tell my team: Make it work, then make it work well.”

Minimum viable product(ion)

Technologists will be familiar with the concept of minimum viable product: implementing just the core features that allow a product to be deployed, and no more.

Gahlord Dewald runs an ad-hoc puppet opera company with an orchestra of mixed skill levels. He arranges the music to suit each musician’s abilities and personality, giving the melodies to those who are more skilled, or pairing less in-shape players with strong players.

Why structure an orchestra this way? Because it’s fun—and practical.

“The town where we perform [Burlington, Vermont] is full of musical people. But it’s just a town, maybe 60,000 or so in the area,” Dewald clarifies. “If we were to field a full-size professional or teaching orchestra, I’d have had to spend more time fundraising than making music. What we do is limit the scope so we can ‘ship’ something that is delightful and feels complete. If we abandon the concept of full orchestra or having some explicit educational component, and instead create an environment where that might be acceptable or even preferred by the audience, then we can ‘ship’ product faster and with fewer resources (material, temporal, and human).”

Is the experience of watching Dewald’s opera the same as seeing an opera at the Met? “No,” he says, “but everyone who came knew what they were getting, and many of them had never been to an opera or would [not] normally choose to see one anyway. We worked a different/new market for the content.”

Find a sustainable pace

“There is a human cost to overworking employees,” says Brandt Williams, a lifelong musician and serial entrepreneur who is currently responsible for strategy and development at the Zoo Labs music accelerator. “When you’re asked to do more with same resources, or the same with fewer people, employees become dissatisfied with their work and feel they’re being compromised. They either leave, or their work suffers and they get fired. The human cost is probably higher than anything else: you are tossing away employees who have institutional memory, really good memory, and knowledge about the business, and then you hire somebody new to replace them. The spinup process takes time, the new employees are frustrated and unhappy, and all they’re doing is the same thing the other employees were doing: reacting to organizational demands, just trying to keep up.”

This doesn’t mean you should never go into crunch mode. A crunch every few months can be exciting and motivating, but a permanent state of stress causes burnout—not just for those doing the work, but also for friends, family, and coworkers in supporting roles.

“The team has to feel responsible when there is an emergency and you need more people and more commitment,” says technology consultant Tamar Rosen. “But it’s very bad to be low on manpower for an extended period of time. People have a life outside of work. A healthily work-life balance must be encouraged if an organization wants to sustain itself for the long run.”

If you notice teammates dropping like flies due to the workload, and don’t have the option of hiring additional support, “scale back to work within the means of the organization, with a priority on slow growth,” says composer J.M. Gerraughty. “You don’t want to overtax your most valuable resource.”

Expand existing roles with care

“Every tech startup I’ve heard of has people go outside their narrow job description,” says the head of an early-stage startup. “As CTO (chief technology officer), I handled many data collection and cleaning tasks, machine configurations, operations, and other tasks.”

I hear this from colleagues across the startup world:

“Learn!” says developer Yitzchak Schaffer. “In my experience, unless you have a whole person’s worth of resource gap, it is more efficient than trying to outsource or hire.”

“Encourage people to grow. Explain the benefits of getting new skills, and explain how it will help the team or company,” echoes programmer Michael Snoyman.

I’m picturing a water balloon about to burst. How far can you stretch a person? Does it always make sense to encourage colleagues and employees to expand their roles?

“Some people want to do their job and leave it at that, which is more than enough for certain roles,” says Lea Aharonovitch, VP of product management at Fiverr.com. “You shouldn’t try to add more on top of that: you’ll fail, cause frustration, and lose value on the human resource front. But there are roles where it makes sense—when there’s an existential need, for sure, and even when there isn’t—to maximize on the value of what an individual can contribute.”

When done right, role expansion can increase creativity and collaboration. Members of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) experienced a creative boost when they took on additional administrative responsibilities rather than hire new staff.

“At a critical moment a few years ago when we were faced with capacity challenges, we made a decisive move to not hire more outside administrative staff but rather to empower the musicians within our organization to take on responsibility for different aspects of the business,” says flutist Claire Chase, 2012 MacArthur Fellow and ICE CEO/co-artistic director. “It made us stronger and more creative in every way. Now we have a team of six artist partners who fulfill dual roles onstage and offstage, effectively running our production, education, and development departments. The artist partners work alongside and in close collaboration with our administrative staff and board. We don’t see these groups as part of any kind of hierarchy but rather as part of a collaborative and symbiotic ecosystem in which every decision is a creative decision.”

Ultimately, it comes down to using human resources in an efficient and respectful way, while also building on and maximizing their value.

“There has to be a good reason to ask someone to do something outside their job description or comfort zone,” says Aharonovitch. “I wouldn’t ask my product managers to make coffee, but I would ask them to spend a week with the support team, or the marketing team, because understanding the bigger picture would make them better product managers. If we do need more hands on deck, that is the most intuitive place for our team to get involved and help carry the load.”

Enrich volunteers’ lives for a lasting connection

Typically, you wouldn’t have a drummer who’s not a saxophone player play the saxophone; you also wouldn’t ask a database architect to design a user interface. Yet when a skilled volunteer arrives at the office of an arts organization, they do whatever’s next on the to-do list, whether it’s answering phones, tallying audience zip codes for a grant application, or loading up a truck with drum sets and music stands.

“We’ve been trained in the arts that if someone is willing to do the job, let’s get them to do it, and we don’t necessarily care if the task fits their skills. If we need somebody to answer the phone, well, that’s what’s happening on Tuesday, so no matter who shows up, that’s what they’re going to do,” says Williams. “When you have people who might be able to make a positive impact for the organization further down the line, that’s not the best use of time, energy, or effort.”

And in tech?

“In tech, we’re used to being able to hire the best fit, or at least trying to hire the best fit,” he says. “In tech, a good hire is a valued employee because of their knowledge.”

How might we shift our approach toward valuing volunteers for their knowledge, not just their time?

Williams suggests involving people in a way that is outside the traditional norm in which donors get VIP access, and everybody else collects tickets or stuffs envelopes. We should be asking: How do we want our volunteers to describe their relationship with our organization? How has their life been enriched because they’ve chosen to volunteer with us? The idea is to move from individual short-term volunteer contributions to a long-term relationship with an organization, which starts with making volunteer work more meaningful.

One way to do this is to match volunteers with tasks they are uniquely qualified for. Instead of saddling a web designer with the three-hour job of manually wrangling zip codes in a spreadsheet, try this: find an Excel expert who will use those same three hours to set up a process that can be run whenever needed. Then, use the designer’s time to handle tasks like website design or program layout.

Consider investing in volunteers while they invest in you. Train them to become experts in skilled tasks, and continue to call on them when needed.

“As a volunteer in a wooden boat project, I was asked to carve part of the bow from a piece of laminated wood,” Williams says. “It took three days, and I was an expert by the time I was done. I got really, really good at it. If someone came to me today and said, ‘I need this bow keel made,’ I’d say ‘Sure, give me the materials, I’ll see you in three days.’”

When properly matched with tasks that let them shine, volunteers get to hone skills and make a lasting contribution, and as a result, they’re more invested in their work and forge stronger bonds with the organization.

Delegate bite-sized tasks

Delegating doesn’t come easily to everyone. Even the most bogged-down humans don’t necessarily know how to ask for help, or what help to ask for. Who wants to place a huge responsibility on people who are themselves frantically trying to make ends meet? And practically speaking, how do you even turn a huge knot of work into something that can be done by people who aren’t deeply committed to your cause, or who have only recently joined your team or organization?

All but the simplest projects consist of multiple steps. “Understand the tasks that constitute the core work, and defer or delegate the rest,” says John Reale, director of solutions architecture at a healthcare startup.

Start by dividing your project into stages, and then break each stage into tasks. Evaluate each task: will the success of the project be jeopardized if this one thing doesn’t get done? Finally, consider which of the tasks must be done by core members of the organization because of their particular skills, knowledge, clearance, or other qualifications, and which could be outsourced to others.

Then make the tasks as tiny as possible, and start doling them out.

“I break everything down into very small tasks: pick up this drink donation, come at this time to set up,” says Nikki Lee, product manager at Microsoft and dean of the Seattle branch of the volunteer-run Awesome Foundation. “That’s a lot less daunting for people to sign up for, and it also gives everyone a really clear view of what needs to get done. We always end up with enough volunteers, and people often commit to more work than they initially think they’ll do.”

Streamline and automate

Automation is ubiquitous in tech, where tasks are often carried out repeatedly as part of communication, coding, or testing processes. Imagine clicking on every link on your web site to make sure it points to the correct page, and then doing that again every time you update the code.

Technology companies are in an enviable position when it comes to automating and streamlining work, because they have the resources to develop tools internally based on an intimate knowledge of their workflow needs. From Basecamp to Amazon Web Services to the internet itself, some of the software products we rely on now started out as internal tools.

The rest of us can be thankful that not all tools are kept behind closed doors.

Composer Mary Kouyoumdjian, who is also executive director of the contemporary music ensemble Hotel Elefant, says she started using Trello—a free project management tool—to streamline communications when a website redesign project rendered email ineffective.

Trello and software like it are game-changers for volunteer management, board reporting, event and project planning, operations, and even artistic discussion, because they offer transparency while also supporting as much collaboration and autonomy as is needed.

“There were hundreds of emails, files scattered and lost in the middle of threads, and our inboxes became consumed by this one project,” says Kouyoumdjian. “We started using Trello, and almost instantly our conversations were organized into boards, topics and checklists with activity assignment and monitoring, and file sharing – all away from our personal emails and living in a virtual space we could go to when we were ready to work on that specific project. We were able to communicate to each other about needs and progress in real time, without stacking up messages and threads.”

If you find yourself repeating the same task regularly and with little variation, there’s probably a way to automate it.

“When Exapno was starting up, every email I wrote was a personal email,” says Lainie Fefferman, a composer and performer who founded the Brooklyn coworking/performing space. “Now a lot of the emails that come in ask the same things and can have the same answer. When I reply, I usually start off with a template, and then I tailor it. At first I was uncomfortable with that—I thought it was too corporate—but then I realized there’s actually no difference on the end of the person reading the email.”

Lee uses Gmail Canned Responses templates to manage communications at the Awesome Foundation.

“They’re fantastic,” she says. “I create a canned response for anything that I have to say frequently: letting people know we’ve made a decision about a grant, reaching out to potential applicants, onboarding new trustees. I try to avoid sending only a stock template, because that feels too impersonal, but it’s really helpful for making sure that I don’t leave out anything important. For example, when we’re onboarding a new trustee, there are a lot of resources I want to make sure I give them. Instead of trying to list these off from memory, I pop in the canned response and then add content around it that’s relevant to the conversation I’m having with that person.”

Once you’ve identified which parts of your work could benefit from streamlining or automation, start shopping around for a tool that will help you do it. Keep in mind, though, they’re not one-size-fits-all. Test-drive a few options, get a feel for which is best suited to your needs, then dig in.

Not every decision is intellectual

We choose some projects rationally; others take flight from a less quantifiable place.

“I get a gut feeling,” says composer Fefferman. “I have to work on this project, or work with these people. It all feeds into one big unpredictable combination of artistic excitement, people-friendship excitement, and career-impact excitement. Sometimes I decide based on a single axis; often the axis is the character of the person who is doing the commissioning. I get excited about the months ahead working with that person. But in general, I get excited, pumped about life, then decide whether to do the work or not. It’s an ineffable stew of feeling.”

Necessity is the mother of invention. Necessity is also the mother of all-nighters.

Pre-launch, pre-performance, and even just in the day-to-day life of startups and arts organizations, we turn up the octane, press forward as a team, or carry the extra load on our own shoulders. When we’re lucky, others jump in and lighten the load.

There are never enough hours in the day, but there are usually a few trusted folks to depend on. Never hesitate to ask for help. Who knows? You just might be rescued by a princess.

Next: the end?