As our intern team has expanded, it has become increasingly difficult for me to manage everyone. A friend finally suggested that I should try using a project management website. He uses Basecamp, which costs money. One of my board members looked around and found a free alternative, called Teamlab.

Teamlab allows you to create projects, break those projects down into specific tasks, then create deadlines for those tasks, and assign them to specific individuals.

Project management software is probably used really widely in business settings, but I haven't ever worked for a large company, and I've never heard of anyone I know (before my friend) using it for interns. It has really transformed the way we do work on our team:
  • It allows me to define very specifically what everyone should be working on. I still encourage interns to take the initiative to create their own projects and tasks if they see something that needs to be done, and it empowers those interns to lead projects by creating tasks for each other. I encourage them to manage upwards by creating tasks for me if they need something from me. (I have made every user an admin so anyone can create tasks and projects.)
  • Because Teamlab allows commenting on every task and milestone, it fosters communication between people working on the same project.
  • It lets me keep track of everything everyone is working on - especially since I get an email every time someone completes a task, leaves a comment, creates a new discussion, uploads a file, etc. (You can limit the types of emails you get if the idea of getting tons of new emails horrifies you.)
  • It gives everyone a better idea of the overall structure of a project, and what everyone else is working on, because everyone can see which tasks are assigned to which people.
  • It consolidates file storage and shared documents in one place.
What experiences have you had using project management software/websites? What issues have you had? For those of you considering using something like this, what questions do you have about how it would work for you?
I'm constantly struggling to strike the right balance between the value of my own time and the time of my subordinates. On the one hand, I can complete nearly any task more quickly than they can, because I have more experience. On the other hand, I'm in a position as a manager because I can accomplish more by supervising a large number of subordinates than I can by doing everything myself.

Sometimes it's obvious that I should do something myself. If it will take several times longer for a subordinate to complete something, I'll do it myself. (I don't have an exact multiple worked out in my head, but it has to be pretty high - probably above five times longer - before I'll do something myself for no reason other than that it will take a subordinate longer.)

Or if it will only take a little bit longer for a subordinate to do a job, and I trust my subs to do a good job, then I'll let them do it.

But I've been struggling recently when it comes to how to structure the working environment. I see a large part of my role as setting up a working environment in which it's easy for my subs to be productive. I've invested a lot of time in creating tutorials and instructions, for example, and I teach my more experienced subs to mentor the newer ones. Those are one-time investments that pay off handsomely in terms of saving me time.

It's not so easy to decide whether to spend time myself, though, when it comes to creating our list of things for subs to work on. I generate reports of new To Do items for my subs. Without going into excessive detail, they used to have to go three separate places to find (1) their previously-assigned items, (2) current tasks for them to work on, and (3) larger projects for them to work on when they finish their simple tasks.

It seems clear that this is unnecessarily complicated, but I allowed this situation to last for a while because it will take me more time to work all of those sources into our one main project management solution ( And this extra time won't be a one-time investment; I'll have to spend this extra time every single day. And I usually work very hard to get rid of things that cost me extra time every day.

So in this case, because my role is to make their working environment easy, I did decide to shift everything into Teamlab, even though it will take me more time. But I still face other similar decisions that are even tougher. How do you all decide the value of your time in comparison to the value of the time of your subs?
When my boss and I sat down with Marco* to talk to him about his performance, he didn’t meet our eyes. His shoulders drooped, and he slumped in his chair. After eight months on the job, we told him, he still required intensive hand-holding on simple tasks, even tasks he had been shown before. Steve, one of the most outstanding interns we have ever had, spent much of his time walking Marco through tasks. We felt that it was time for Marco to move on to other opportunities. We talked it over with him, and at the end of the meeting he slunk quietly out of the room.

Even though I was frustrated at the amount of attention Marco required, it was tough for me to fire him. I could see how dispirited he was. While being fired from a paid job has a bigger impact on your finances, being fired from a volunteer position carries a special kind of humiliation: it’s embarrassing to be told that your help isn’t wanted, even for free. Knowing how it makes the intern feel is what makes it so unpleasant for me.

“You can’t fire an intern.” Daniel, a friend of mine, told me. “They’re working for free!” He wasn’t joking. This is an attitude I’ve heard more than once, but I didn’t expect to hear it from Daniel, who manages employees in his job. It usually comes from people who don’t have experience managing, and who seem to view internships as a form of charity. I believe differently. The strength of our internship program is that we treat interns like employees. We give them real responsibility, allow them to work on real projects, and expect real work from them. We never ask them to make coffee or put quarters in parking meters. That means we need to fire interns who aren’t doing well in our office. But that doesn’t make it easy.

Steve and I spent hours training Marco. As a manager, my primary duty is to empower the interns to do meaningful, useful work for our office, and it’s hard for me to reverse direction on an intern. Up to the moment I fired Marco, I was trying to help him. Once I fire him, I’m shunting him out of our office. I don’t agree with my friend Daniel, but I completely understand the emotions that drive that belief.

I reason with myself that I can only do so much for an intern – Marco needs to reach a certain threshold of performance, or our internship program isn’t sustainable. I’m willing to invest time and effort in an intern, but the investment has to pay off at some point. With Marco, it didn’t.

* All names changed.

My mom and I kayaked recently from the charming little town of Clarksburg, and she related a frustrating exchange with a small business there.

Usually we'll drop off a car at the take-out point, then launch some ways up the river. But there is only one good put-in point in the area. You have to kayak upriver first, so when you tire out you have an easy ride back to the put-in point. If you start downriver, by the time you're ready to turn around you may have a much harder trip upstream than you had anticipated.

My mom, Camilla, had noticed a private lagoon on a previous trip. "I told them they should consider letting people pay for day usage of the lagoon as a put-in point," she told me as we paddled up the river. "The lagoon is right across from the town store, and people could buy lunch there. People would be happy to pay for day use!" My mom is an entrepreneur, and is always thinking of things like this.

"Let me guess," I told her. "They brushed you off?"

Yes, they had brushed her off. They told her that there was already a put-in point down the road. "But it's not anywhere near the store," she protested to me. It didn't make any sense to either of us that the lagoon wouldn't even be interested in considering a new way to make money, and potentially gain new long-term customers.

Actually, it did make sense to us - lots of people and organizations aren't good at considering new ways of doing things. I can understand that people sometimes have good reasons for not making what may appear to be an "obvious" improvement. But most frequently when people reject suggestions it seems to be because they're not really willing to even consider changing the way they do things.

Do you have ideas for getting organizations to consider suggestions that might improve the way they do business, or accomplish their mission? I'm thinking not only of informal suggestions like the lagoon suggestion, but also of the suggestions made by consultants organizations hire. Having spoken to a few friends who consult, I know that getting organizations to follow through on recommendations can be difficult - and if they don't take the recommendations, they're likely to feel that the consultant was a waste of their money.

So how do you prod, coax, or persuade organizations to make changes when the changes are in their own interest?
Everything is all my fault. At least, that's my attitude when it comes to management. If my subordinates aren't performing well, it's probably because I'm not managing them well enough.

How would you feel if every time you completed an assignment for your boss, your boss tore up your work after you finished it? Even if you got paid well, it's hard to imagine that you'd want to keep working at that job.

Well, it turns out that if you don't get recognition for your work, that's almost as demotivating, according to an experiment carried out by Dan Ariely. Experiment subjects are asked to complete a relatively meaningless task. They earn money each time they do the task, and the amount awarded decreases each time they do the task. The question is, when will they get tired of repeating the task?
  • With one group of subjects, the experimenter asks subjects to write their name on the top of each of their papers, and gives an approving nod upon completing each task.
  • With another group of subjects, the experimenter puts each assignment on a tall stack of papers without looking at the assignment.
  • With the final group of subjects, the experimenter takes each assignment as it's completed and shreds it in front of the subjects' eyes.
It turns out that the second group (the "ignored" group) barely completes more work than the third ("shredded") group. So as a boss, ignoring your subordinates' work is almost as bad as actively destroying it, at least in terms of motivation and productivity!

I'm in the middle of introducing a series of new ways to give interns more recognition for their good work. And what fun would a bunch of carrots be without a little bit of the stick? How should I put it? There will be some mild disincentives to unproductivity. There, that sounds suitably benign.

(I'll document all my carrots and sticks on my Work page, along with commentary on how they've worked out so far.)

Carrots and Sticks

I'm recognizing interns' work by doing the following:
  • When they write response letters to constituents, sometimes the constituents reply appreciatively. I'm beginning to forward those responses to the interns who wrote the letter.
  • I'm asking interns to prepare reports for our weekly staff meeting, even if the interns' schedules don't match with the meeting, so they'll know their work is being reported to my boss, and to my boss' boss.
  • I'm preparing a whiteboard with every intern's name, and some major accomplishment from the past week. This is also a mild stick - interns won't want their name to have a big blank space next to it.
  • I'll make a public list of interns interns who consistently do their work in a timely manner, and will keep a separate list for interns who have fallen behind significantly.
  • We'll post to our Davis Dollars Facebook page about interns' major accomplishments, and tag them in the post, so it will show up in their news feeds.
  • Soon I hope to ask interns to prepare a "portfolio" of their concrete accomplishments, which they can list on their resumes, and which I'll talk about when future potential employers contact me about interns' performance.
I'm also making it easier for interns to see how they're doing on old tasks by giving them access to my master list of intern tasks. Up until now, they've been responsible for keeping track of their tasks, and they often let some assignments slip through the cracks. I had to do a lot of reminding to get them to follow up on old tasks. Now the responsibility is in their hands to check up on their old tasks, and they'll be rewarded for doing so!

What are some ways you encourage your peers or subordinates to do well, or discourage them from doing poorly?
After our bumper crop of summer interns, I'm having trouble adjusting to the quieter office. The biggest thing I'm missing, though, is the energy of the intern team.

I think the energy came not only from how full the office was, but also from one intern in particular, Dao, who brought a lot of excitement to everything she did. Now that she's gone, I'm forced to think hard about how to create that level of energy for other interns, without the gift of an unusually buoyant intern around the office every day.

And I'm finding that I also need to focus some on professionalism, for two reasons: (1) In the absence of energy and excitement, some interns don't engage with the work (translation: they don't work as hard); and (2) in the absence of a sense of professionalism and hard work here in the office, it's hard to get the interns excited about the work. If they see others slacking off, they (justifiably) get the idea that it isn't important to work hard here.

So here's what I'm starting to do, as of tomorrow:
  1. Ask interns to be on time. Because they're unpaid, I have been lenient about when interns arrive, but I'm going to start asking interns to be on time. I'll talk to interns gently about adjusting their schedules if they're not able to make it in by the time they have committed to.
  2. Start work earlier myself. I get to work before we start, and I want to make sure I set the right example.
  3. Wander around the office more and talk to interns about what they're working. I do this already, but I should do it more, so interns know I care what they're up to.
  4. Put interns in teams more often. Some interns already work together on projects, but I need to make more of an effort to ask them to work together.
  5. Encourage interns to work on team activities in our main office. We have several rooms in our office, and most of the interns work in the main office with me. Centralizing more of the activity here will allow other all the interns to benefit from each other's energy on projects.
  6. Suggest that interns get lunch together. Some interns already get lunch together, but others are shy or haven't connected much with others in the office. Lunch is an important morale-builder!

Do you have any other suggestions for encouraging interns to be or
An interesting article I read some time back identified several types of procrastination. To the best of my memory, the types were:
  • Laziness: I put off evaluating my (terrific) interns because I'd just rather read an interesting article about the management style of W. L. Gore and Associates.
  • Strategic procrastination: I put off producing a presentation because I work best under pressure, and I would rather focus on more urgent matters right now.
  • Indecision: I put off designing a new intern retention program because I'm just not sure how to start.
This article helped me by identifying why I procrastinate. I suffer from a bit of procrastination from laziness, and I often choose to put something off because it doesn't need to be finished right away. But by far the greatest source of the procrastination I regret is due to indecision. I'm just not sure what action I should take next, so instead I work on something I do know how to tackle.

The solution I've found? Make systems out of everything. Instead of viewing each case as an individual problem to be solved, I try to categorize that problem, and design a policy to address similar problems in the future. I record my policy so I can refer back to it in the future.

The principle here is to reduce the number of times I have to make a decision. I'm so often juggling lots of balls at once that I rarely get time to sit down and concentrate hard on anything conceptually difficult. So I focus those times on designing policies I can apply to lots of situations.

Specifically, I use lots of checklists and form emails. The checklists allow me to break complex tasks into easy-to-digest steps. For example, here are some steps I go through when training a new Davis Dollars intern:
  1. Confirm the topic she's interested in working on (e.g. community outreach, business outreach, marketing, etc.)
  2. Make her an admin on our website (
  3. Remind her to upload her bio, with a picture, to our About Us page
  4. Give her an orientation on our Google Docs
  5. Set her up with a team; make sure she has specific action items to work on at the end of the meeting
And so on. This makes the orientation process much less intimidating for me, because I know exactly what I'm supposed to be doing.

Form emails also reduce the need to make decisions about what to write, and help me avoid forgetting important details. Some of the types of form emails I use:
  • A standard response to applicants
  • An email reminding intern applicants to read our About Us page, and come prepared to discuss ideas for how they would start off their internship
  • An intern orientation email with links to our various web resources
  • Information about how to get involved in Davis Dollars
  • How Davis Dollars benefits Davis businesses
What strategies do you use to avoid needing to make decisions too often?
Tomorrow, the beginning of our Crowd Wisdom program, will be another experiment in giving responsibility and power our Steinberg interns. We'll get together in the morning to share ideas on whatever topics the interns want to talk about.

The question I have needed an answer to for a long time is this: How can I help interns be productive and energetic at the beginning of the day? Our interns are great, and we already have a strong working environment, but the mornings usually seem to start off just a little bit slowly.

I keep a long mental list of problems, issues, and concerns, and I'm always on the lookout for solutions. (I suspect most managers and teachers do this.) I recently read a terrific article in The Atlantic entitled What Makes a Great Teacher?. The story is largely about Teach for America's efforts to discover what makes great teachers so great. They identify practices like walking around the classroom (instead of staying glued to the chalkboard) and having an established routine for each day, so students know exactly what they'll be doing next.

It immediately struck me that many of these insights are easily applicable to management. One of the practices that interested me was writing a Problem of the Day on the chalkboard every morning, and students who come in get right to work on the problem. Could I do something like this at work?

Interns often have great ideas that I'd like to flesh out some. Mark Averell, for example, suggested an internal website that would aggregate Sacramento- and Capitol-related news sources, tweets, legislative hearings, and district events. After he built it, he asked me for ideas of other resources he could add to the site to make it useful for interns. Other interns working on projects hit roadblocks, and come to me for ideas to get around the obstacle. I can make suggestions, but I would rather tap into the creativity and intelligence of all the interns in the office.

So, Crowd Wisdom! Each morning we'll get together to solve problems and share ideas for doing things. I've created with a list of things to discuss, and each intern can vote for the things they want to talk about most. Each intern has 5 votes, which they can allocate however they like between topics. Interns can add topics that they think other interns would like to talk about.

What will prevent this from becoming a traditional, energy-sapping meeting, or an artificial "motivational" pep-talk? Well, meetings in our office have never been the soul-numbing affairs they seem to be in other offices. We all seem to enjoy our meetings as opportunities to share what we've all been working on. This probably has something to do with the fact that my boss doesn't use meetings as an opportunity to lecture the rest of us - our meetings are used for sharing information and ideas. We'll use Crowd Wisdom get-togethers the same way.

We'll only meet for 10-15 minutes, and we'll focus on exercising creativity and taking action. Interns in our office are already excited about work (interns often ask if they can come in more often than they're currently scheduled), so I'm not worried about it becoming an artificial event. I think this sort of program wouldn't work if they weren't already motivated.

But I think the biggest reason I'm confident Crowd Wisdom will be a success is that it's another opportunity for interns to exercise their creativity and initiative. This event isn't about me; it's about the interns and their work. They'll choose what we talk about.

This will also solve another problem I've been having - I can't keep interns' to-do lists stocked, because they work too quickly! Mornings are especially dry, because it takes me a little while to pull together new tasks. Interns currently jump into working on their Ownership Initiatives, but this will give them the opportunity to work on something else in the morning in case their Initiative is on hold for some reason. Beyond this, it will also create a get-'em-started atmosphere in the morning as we convene around a shared problem to solve. This is as much about creating team spirit as it is about providing tasks for eager interns.

I'll post updates as Crowd Wisdom develops and evolves. Share in the comments if you have some regular form of morning check-in with your colleagues or subordinates to get things started in
This is part of an ongoing series of posts about creating and strengthening an internship program. The posts are compiled on the Internships page.

If you go about recruitment and interviewing well, you will make your management job considerably easier by choosing someone who does not need much hand-holding. This does not mean that you won’t need to manage at all, though. There are several important principles and techniques for managing effectively.

Prepare in advance: Create a list of projects and tasks your intern(s) can work on. Interns will quickly lose enthusiasm for an internship if they feel underutilized – even faster than if you give them nothing but grunt work. Make sure you can keep your interns busy and productive.

Create teams of interns: If you take on more than one intern at a time, form them into a team (or teams) to work together on projects. This increases morale significantly, encourages mentoring by the more experienced intern, and stimulates the interns’ creativity and problem-solving abilities. They will solve more problems on their own, and you will spend less time answering simple questions.

These teams can be cross-functional (e.g., including people with different skill sets, such as a designer and a business major), but they need not be if you have multiple interns from the same background.

Assign responsibilities, not just tasks: Interns want the opportunity to take responsibility for a project or goal, and will best be able to exercise their creativity and skill if you give them some freedom to decide how best to accomplish their goal. In one of our offices, we assign intern teams a project to accomplish. We consult with them initially about how best to accomplish the goal, then ask them to discuss it, and come back to us with ideas of their own. We often find that they have thought of things that hadn’t occurred to us. We expect them to report back to us frequently about their progress so we can make sure they are on track, but are often pleasantly surprised to find that they have made more progress than we expected them to make.

Assigning responsibilities requires some trust, and it is best to ease into this practice by first assigning projects that are a little bit forgiving of errors and missteps.
This is part of an ongoing series of posts about creating and strengthening an internship program. The posts are compiled on the Internships page.

There are ways to catch a new intern up to speed without killing your own productivity. If you don’t want to regret the whole intern experience, it’s important to take some of these steps to save yourself headaches.

Create training materials: Spend some time creating instructions for how to accomplish various tasks interns will have to complete on a regular basis. A shared set of Google Docs ( is probably the easiest way to share these sorts of resources. A set of word documents on a shared computer drive is also very easy to create and manage. Time invested up front creating instructions will pay off many times, especially since interns sometimes need to refer back to instructions multiple times as they get the hang of new tasks. (The alternative is being prepared to explain the same thing over and over again.)

If you have a microphone, it is extremely easy to record and narrate “screencasts” (videos of your computer screen) to show how to do certain things. There are many websites that allow you to create a screencast for free (such as, without requiring you to download software. If you can record these videos without revealing proprietary information, you can upload them to Youtube for easy reference, and link to them from your written instructions.

Rely on the expertise of veteran interns: If you take on more than one intern at a time, veteran interns can be an excellent training resource for greener interns. Interns generally enjoy sharing their expertise and knowledge with trainees, and they learn more through the teaching process than they otherwise would.