Thinking Projects: A Tip for Keeping Teams Engaged & Productive during Downtime [VIDEO] - Bill Munn Management Coaching





Thinking Projects: A Tip for Keeping Teams Engaged & Productive during Downtime [VIDEO]

Thinking Projects: A Tip for Keeping Teams Engaged & Productive during Downtime [VIDEO]

Paid downtime is a fact of work life that can leave business owners and company leaders feeling frustrated, conflicted, guilty, or all of the above.

By “downtime,” I’m referring to those necessary interludes when employees must, in effect, get paid to work at less than their expected and normal level of output—sometimes far less.

For many organizations, the Coronavirus pandemic has brought this issue beyond the status of “interlude.” But with or without the social-distancing measures necessitated by COVID-19, downtime is a fact of business.

A few examples:

  • The team members who stand at your trade booth for the better part of a week, clocking hours of free time between conversations
  • The retail staff members whose side work doesn’t fill the slowest of days
  • The service professional who is required to wait 20 minutes before leaving a customer’s property due to a missed appointment

I could go on, but you get the concept.

The fact is, you need these folks to be doing exactly what they’re doing during these “down” moments. You’re thankful for it! And you value their time.

In fact, you value their time so much that you pay them for it. Which is exactly why that downtime can rub leaders the wrong way.

Recently, on a group Zoom call, I fielded a very honest and valid question on this topic. So I found myself discussing “thinking projects,” a tool that not only keeps employees engaged and productive, but also helps them feel validated and more invested in the company’s future.

After the conversation, I realized that this was something I should share here right away, because it’s

  • Highly actionable
  • Easy to implement immediately

Two of my favorite traits in a leadership tool!

The folks on this call very graciously welcomed me to share my answer publicly, but out of respect for their privacy, I have paraphrased the original question at the outset and shared only my voice and video.

I hope it’s helpful to you. If you jump in and use this—or plan to—please share your thoughts and insights in the comments below.



I had a Zoom call last week with a group of business owners—all in a similar type of business. A few of the questions struck me as particularly timely. So I thought I’d share my response to one of those questions here.

I’ll begin by re-stating the question, and then I’ll share the actual recording of my response.

The question:

This business owner was feeling somewhat frustrated with payments to some of his salaried managers during this unique time of the COVID-19 shutdown. He didn’t consider it the managers’ fault, but the nature of their roles means that they are currently doing little to no work, but continuing to get paid as usual.

This leader wanted to continue paying his people (and he also must continue paying them, per his Payroll Protection agreement), but he was very honest in that he still felt frustrated that they weren’t doing any work.

So he asked me, “What can I do to help feel less frustrated and also recognize and use each of my manager’s power-alley attributes during this time?”

A great question.

So here’s what I suggested:

The Answer:

That’s a very task focused approach that you’re taking. What I would encourage you to do is this:

Take the viewpoint, your people—while they right now don’t have tasks to do (“work”)—still, most of them…95% of human beings…want very badly to be productive, creative, innovative. They want to use their brain. They want to be engaged. They want to care.

So give them thinking projects.

They may not have a spreadsheet to fill out or a bunch of invoices to send out or a work room to fix or a bunch of Kabodas to repair. They might not have their normal tasks.

But what you could do is take 3 of them and say, “Hey, Pete, John, and Sarah, would you two guys get together this week by phone or however you want to do it, and by Friday at 4 o’clock—” (give them an assignment) “—by Friday at 4 o’clock, I would love to hear your thoughts on how we blank blank, blank, blank.”

How do we do better at this or that long-term?

How do we organize our maintenance system better?

How do we—you guys know the issues…I won’t bother.

What should we start? What should we stop? What should we continue in this or that area?

Go to your accounting/financial people and ask them the question related to the reports: What reports should we not issue anymore around here?

This is a time when you can get people’s brains engaged, when they don’t have a bunch of tasks to do. And you might be amazed at some of the creativity you get back.

Wow, okay.

I have a client—by the way, who, years ago…I’m giving the client the credit. I gave the client that idea related to something entirely differently that was going on in his business, and he’s come back and complimented me, but he’s the one that made it work—he got such great results from that, he now, when he has a person headed for a business trip, 2 or 3 people going to a show somewhere, he sends the 3 of them with a list from himself of what he wants them to think about when they’re on the trip together.

And his philosophy is—and he tells them this—he says, I know you guys are all going to be talking about your jobs and talking about me and talking about the company, cause that’s your common denominator, so I thought I’d direct your thinking. So I want this report from you when you get back.

And it turns out, his people have loved it, because they sit around at the show, they’ll have dinner with each other or lunch with each other, and they talk about the list because it’s an assignment.

So, I would say you’d probably—you will be pleasantly surprised at what you get back from your people by turning thinking into a task.

They want to be used that way—the vast majority of them.

How might you use the tool of thinking projects? Let me know in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Thinking Projects: A Tip for Keeping Teams Engaged & Productive during Downtime [VIDEO]

  1. Sue Fuller - May 5, 2020 at 2:45 am

    “Thinking projects” is such a positive idea, and I believe it can be used in many arenas. I am in education, and in this new, virtual teaching world that we are currently experiencing, it would be an excellent tool to engage student problem-solving and interaction. It is difficult to turn the learning to the student, and this tool would be beneficial. Appreciate the idea to be used in many areas where we interact virtually.

    • Bill Munn - May 5, 2020 at 2:49 pm

      Great point! Thanks for this perspective.


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