Disorganized work creates dysfunctional teams


Think about times when you're trying to solve a problem, but your boss is pressuring you to complete a task. Or when your team is reinventing the wheel on a project that the company has done dozens of times before. Or when a sales team is supposed to build trust with their client, but ends up sounding like scripted sellers.

These are all signs of teams not organizing work effectively.

Organizing work

Imagine a master woodworker's shop. Many masters keep their shops neat. There's a place for all their tools and their most common workflows are easy to do.

You'd probably imagine something similar for a surgeon's operating room, a Michelin-starred chef's kitchen, or a Formula 1 racing team's machine shop.

There are a few critical reasons why teams invest in organizing their work well:

  1. When work is disorganized, it is hard for multiple people to share the same tools and space.
  2. Organized work makes it easier, faster, and safer to execute workflows.
  3. Time is expensive. If people spend excessive time looking for tools, or completing common work steps, they would waste a lot of money.
  4. It is better to focus people on more valuable activities than finding their tools or reinventing the wheel.
  5. Work is much more fun when you're not spending a considerable amount of your time dealing with chaos.

Yet, despite the benefits, many teams remain disorganized. In one tech company that uses Factor Health Checks to measure and manage their culture, about 50% of employees felt their teams were disorganized.

To solve this widespread problem, it is important that leaders all learn the four main archetypes of work organization.

The four types of work

When organizing work, you have to figure out the type of work you're doing. The easiest way is by answering two questions:

First, would improving the work steps drive significant growth?

The question isn't about whether or not there are work steps. There almost always are. The question is asking if it really matters to continuously improve those steps. For example, I make weekend waffles for my kids. The process is really easy, and at this point, I see little benefit in optimizing those steps. Therefore, it isn't process-based work. (As you'll see later, what matters most is coming up with new ideas to keep my kids engaged. This is idea-based work.)

Second, is the work ongoing (as opposed to episodic)?

"Episodic" means work that happens rarely. For example, organizing our company offsite is episodic, as it happens about once per year. Working on an assembly line at a car company, on the other hand, is continuous.

This question is also not as easy as it sounds. For example, in one tech company, their software development process is managed as "episodic" but really should be thought of as continuous.

By answering these two yes/no questions, you are selecting one of the four types of work:

Process-based work

Process-based work is like a chef following a set of processes to make a dish every time it was ordered. Or it is like a service operations associate following a procedure to handle a customer request. The key in process-based work is that the work steps are specific and important.

In process-based work, productivity growth is mostly focused on the improvement of the process steps. For example, Toyota has set up a significant competitive advantage with their system of continuous improvement (i.e., Kaizen) in factories. Annually, Toyota receives over 1 million process improvement ideas per year from employees, and implements 90% of them!

Project-based work

When work is neither continuously ongoing nor is it important to improve the work steps themselves, you have project-based work. Think about your traditional Gantt chart project plan.

For example, when we launched our book Primed to Perform, we made a project plan. We were not launching multiple books, (unlike our publisher, Harper Collins), and we didn't intend to reuse the work steps, so there wasn't much value in continuous improvement. Organizations similarly have a lot of one-off projects like this - for example, building a new corporate headquarters.

Optimal performance in project-based work is usually not about "task completion". It is usually about the effectiveness of problem-solving that had to occur while completing each task.

Playbook-based work

More often than companies realize, they have work that is not continuous, but where it is important to continuously improve the work steps. For example, imagine your organization opens retail stores every few months. Ideally, your plan to open those stores improves each time you open one. Or imagine you're a B2B SaaS team implementing technology. To maximize growth, every implementation should build on the previous one.

This kind of work is playbook-based. Put simply, playbooks are for work where the plan is built to be easily reused and improved.

Personally, we find playbook-based work one of the most challenging to create performance growth, often because it is difficult to get one team to build on the work of another team. 

Idea-based work

With idea-based work, it isn't the work steps that are important. The steps themselves are unlikely to be a "secret sauce." Instead, the quality of ideas going into the deliverables is most important.

For example, product managers who continuously improve a product are likely to engage in idea-based work. Consultative sales teams who seek to help clients solve their problems are also likely to engage in idea-based work.

With idea-based work, the most important driver of growth is the quality of the ideas.

The perils of getting this wrong

Organizations often choose the wrong type of work given their goals and objectives.

Consultative sales

For example, a common struggle in many B2B companies is shifting from rote, process-based sales to consultative sales. Over the past 15 years, driven in large part by the pace of technology, buying behavior and selling behavior has changed:

  • Buyers are more easily able to do their own shopping research online.
  • Meanwhile, sellers often have more products that are changing at a faster pace, especially as more and more companies have software-based solutions.

So companies want to cross-sell more, and buyers want to speak to salespeople less. Faced with these changes, many sales organizations have tried to evolve from "scripted" or "catalog" sellers to account executives who are expected to collaboratively solve problems and bring solutions to clients.

Of the organizations who have tried to transform their sales teams, many have struggled, for two main reasons. The first is that the skills of this new approach are different and can only be learned through apprenticeship, not training. But the second reason is that this new approach requires shifts in the types of work these teams do.

In the prior world, sales teams were mostly managed in process-based work. Their operating models focused them on driving and sticking to specific steps, typically measured in their CRM platform. Did they make enough calls today? Did they have enough meetings this week?

In consultative sales, the ideal work types are the other three:

  • Idea-based - generating quality ideas for each client.
  • Project-based - developing fast proofs of concept based on client needs.
  • Playbook-based - running implementations that continually get better each time.

To successfully change work types at scale often requires changes to the rest of the company's operating model.

Software teams

Software development teams often have their own quasi-religious battles on how to best organize work. As we've written in other pieces, making wrong choices can easily make software teams dysfunctional. But the reality is that depending on the nature of the work, any of the types of work could have been viable:


For example, a software team that builds custom integrations for clients, where the work to do is mostly the same from implementation to implementation. 


In this case, we had a hard time coming up with a viable example of software development that is best managed in a process-based approach as defined above. Can you think of any?


For example, a software team on a highly complex, interconnected system with life-or-death stakes. 


For example, most SaaS product development software teams who drive an idea-based flow of continuous improvement.

These choices have profound consequences. We're currently working with a few tech companies whose approach to building software is project-based but should be idea-based to maximize performance. However, their operating model's many pieces have carved a deep rut that makes it difficult to escape.

Managing what matters most

When managing these work types as a senior leader, we see two common mistakes:

  1. Not understanding the work type
  2. Managing only compliance (i.e., tactical performance), not growth (i.e., adaptive performance)

When an organization is focused on only managing compliance, they are typically only managing whether every task got done on time. When an organization also focuses on managing growth, they also manage how fast they are improving.

Work type Compliance drivers (tactical performance) Growth driver (adaptive performance)
Process-based Throughput / SLAs Compliance measures The pace of continuous improvement and idea generation. Toyota, for example, measures the number of employee ideas through "cord pulls".
Playbook-based Project ended on time The degree to which the playbook improves during each use.
Project-based Project ended on time The quality and speed of problem-solving at each step in the project plan.
Idea-based Tasks achieved on time The quantity and velocity (e.g., forward progress) of ideas.

Each of these work types can be set up to make it easy for senior leaders to manage the growth drivers.


Imagine you lead a customer service team for an education technology company. Every day, users submit support requests requiring varying degrees of attention. A customer service team with a clear, transparent process will be able to attend to these needs efficiently. What's more, if the steps are well defined and constantly visible, then it will be easier for the team to improve them.

For example, using a tool like Factor, the team might organize tickets using stages of escalation, with process steps within each level of escalation, e.g.:

Levels of escalation:

  1. Inbound support requests
  2. Support requests requiring investigation
  3. Support requests requiring help from IT

Process steps:

  1. Evaluate
  2. Review
  3. Resolve/escalate
  4. Resolved

With a fully transparent process that makes bottlenecks obvious, colleagues are set up to both execute (tactical/compliance) and improve continuously (adaptive/growth).


Imagine you lead marketing at a Software-as-a-Service company that is launching a new product next quarter. After conferring with Strategy, Product, and Sales leaders, you have determined three challenges that you must solve for a successful launch:

  1. How might we use email marketing to re-engage our audience?
  2. How might we maximize awareness for our new product launch?
  3. How might we make our website's homepage more visually engaging?

To keep the project organized, you set up a Kanban board (using a tool like Factor) where each challenge is a priority, and where action items can be generated inclusively and executed both tactically and adaptively in a flow of work.

After thinking expansively about how to solve each challenge, the team builds out a weekly roadmap leading up to launch day. This transparency of planning and progress against deadlines makes it easy for leaders to see the project's status, as well as predict when the project is likely to go off course. They can then provide support and guidance whenever helpful - without relying on email or update meetings.


Imagine you lead a team that organizes conferences several times a year. Each conference follows more or less the same template: settle on a theme, create materials, book a venue, recruit speakers and attendees, etc. Every time, you would want to utilize whatever best practices you've used in the past while also experimenting to execute a bit better. Work like this calls for a playbook.

For example, consider the flow for landing conference vendors. Using a two-dimensional Kanban board tool, such as Factor, your team can manage each potential vendor through procurement stages, with statuses within each phase:


  1. Contact vendors
  2. Hold an intro call
  3. Finalize contract
  4. Signed contracts (debrief after conference)

Sub-steps within each phase:

  1. Waiting for us
  2. Waiting for them
  3. Waiting for meeting
  4. Fell out of process

Organizing the work like this will allow the team to:

  1. Keep the work "on rails" - i.e., following an orderly flow
  2. Save time; no need to "reinvent the wheel" for each conference
  3. Reduce the risk of avoiding past mistakes
  4. Track the overall progress of the work at a glance
  5. Identify bottlenecks or inefficiencies where the playbook can be improved

What's more, this work setup gives senior leaders seamless visibility into the state of the work, making it easy for them to advise and support as needed.


Imagine you are the floor manager for a warehouse whose efficient operations significantly influence the organization's bottom line and customer impact. Late shipments, short or extra inventory, errors, accidents - these are all critical risks that you face daily. Any idea that can potentially increase reliability is gold to you and your team.

A team that can generate, test, evaluate, and scale ideas rapidly will be most likely to outperform its competition. 

One organization we worked with set up a Kanban board on their warehouse floor - yes, a physical board, on wheels - where employees could post ideas using a structured template on paper (title, hypothesis, expected cost, expected impact). Every week the team inclusively picked two ideas to test with rapid experiments. They also reviewed the prior week's experiments and decided whether to abandon, iterate, or scale them. The focus was always on learning.

After several months of working this way, the warehouse was seeing higher productivity and better quality. What's more, employees were more motivated than ever, feeling intellectually included in a way they hadn't been before.

Any team - warehouse or otherwise - whose work will benefit from continuous improvement should set up an idea board (e.g., with Factor) to manage the flow of ideation and experimentation. With a digital idea board, senior leaders will be able to seamlessly see if the team is on track and can easily identify when to lean in with coaching and advice.

How to get started

First, train your leaders so that when they launch teams or new bodies of work, they are intentional in choosing and managing the work types. If you want support we can help you not just train your leaders, but also help them diagnose their current approaches to work organization.

Second, train your senior leaders how to manage performance for each of these work types. If their approach to management is inconsistent with the work type their teams have chosen, these groups will be dysfunctional.

Third, what you measure is the strongest signal of what you value. If you value growth, organization, and motivation, you must implement the measurement systems that make this possible.

Reach out to us if you want to talk through your organization's specific challenges, and we can help you get on the right path.

Originally published at:

Neel Doshi

Neel is the co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Previously, Neel was a Partner at McKinsey & Company, CTO and founding member of an award-winning tech startup, and employee of several mega-institutions. He studied engineering at MIT and received his MBA from Wharton. In his spare time, he’s an avid yet mediocre woodworker and photographer.

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Lindsay McGregor

Lindsay is the co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Previously, Lindsay led projects at McKinsey & Company, working with large fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, universities and school systems. She received her B.A. from Princeton and an MBA from Harvard. In her spare time she loves investigating and sharing great stories.

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Will Corbett

Will is Vega Factor's Head of Growth as well as the leader of Vega's Education practice, working with districts around the country to address inequities and infuse learning with play. With nearly a decade of experience in performance coaching, Will specializes in helping team leaders, directors, and executives unlock problem solving and inclusive collaboration. In addition to the Education space, he has coached hard-charging leaders in nonprofits, hospitals, healthtech, finance, real estate, and more. Outside of work, Will performs in New York's underground hip hop scene and builds user-facing products to solve common human challenges (e.g., how to build motivation and follow-through for exercise).

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