Monday, October 31, 2011

Making Time

What would you do with an extra hour? It's an opportunity that we have every year when the clocks turn back.

It’s not necessarily an ‘extra hour’ as we have to give it back in the spring, but it is worth considering how we might build in an extra hour of quality time in our day, particularly as most managers complain that they just don’t have enough hours in the day.

Some years ago an HBR article written by Ronald Ashkenas and Robert Schaffer looked at why managers waste time. In the article, a question had been posed to dozens of managers: Imagine if the CEO of your company personally asked you to take on an important assignment — working directly for her. The project would take one day per week but you would have to continue your regular role in the remaining time. Would you take the assignment? Almost all the managers asked said they would take the assignment on.

The reality is that we all have "extra" hours available, without having to turn back the clock. They are buried in unnecessary meetings, inefficient work processes, interruptions, false starts, PowerPoint perfection, misplaced files, and a host of other time-wasters.

We may assume that these patterns are part of the normal rhythm of imperfect organizational life — but unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) we know that these inefficiencies give us a cushion in case we have to suddenly step up the pace or respond to the CEO’s assignment.

So if you need to find an extra hour each day here are some ideas for identifying and capturing a few additional hours:
  1. Do a quick calendar analysis. Go back through the last few months of your Outlook calendar or handwritten diary. Highlight all of the activities or meetings that — in retrospect — truly added value. Then look at the remaining items. Which ones had no impact? If you had not spent the time, would it have made a difference? See if you can find a pattern. Finally, look forward at your next couple of months and see if there are meetings or activities that you could avoid or eliminate without any consequence.
  2. Schedule 20 minute meetings instead of the usual 30 minutes. Most of us fall into the pattern or habit of scheduling half hour meetings without questioning the value of the meeting or whether we actually need that amount of time. If you cut the length of your meetings down your time immediately becomes 50% more productive.
  3. Never attend a meeting without an objective. This is two fold. Firstly, never attend a meeting without an agenda circulated well before the meeting. Secondly, just because someone else calls a meeting doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look for opportunities to meet your agenda – even if it’s only building your network and establishing your reputation.
  4. Finally, ask for feedback. Our time-wasting patterns are often invisible to us — but apparent to those around us. Ask colleagues if they could identify some activities that you could do less often, in less time, or stop doing altogether. For example, one manager who did this was told that he didn't need to attend a weekly operations meeting that was run by one of his people — a meeting that he habitually sat in on as a way of "lending support."
None of us have the ability to find more time by simply turning back the clock — except when Summer Time ends. For the rest of the year, we need to find other ways.

How do you find extra time?

Green Leadership

Many companies and organisations actively seek to ensure they have a sound environmental policy. But how often do companies think “Green” about their most important resource and source of energy – the people that work for them. Are there ways of thinking emerging from environmental considerations that could also be applied to the usage of human time and energy in the workplace?

Let’s consider a few:

Energy efficiency

Are the processes and communications in your organisation or team optimally efficient in the usage of time and energy? How much energy is wasted in unnecessary emails, excessive reporting and ineffective meetings for example? Is the organisation encumbered by any outmoded processes or systems for getting things done? It’s a big question but the way to tackle it is to start incrementally. Ask your team what single improvement would make the most difference towards more effective use of their time and energy – and start there.

Alternative approaches and technologies

Organisations and teams often get lost in the processes they use and the way they do things – often simply because that’s always how they’ve done things. Yet the ability to “challenge the process” is an important leadership competence.  It means stepping back from “how” things are done, focusing clearly on the end goal and asking yourself “Is there an alternative approach to achieving the intended result?” – one that is more innovative, competitive and effective - even if radically different.


Energy and motivation within a team or organisation needs to be renewed regularly – otherwise depletion occurs. Regularly involving people in the vision, strategy and direction of a team harnesses the creativity and inspiration within the team, makes people feel more valued and renews the sense of purpose and motivation.


Is the workload demand within the team or organisation sustainable? Is the drive to achieve more with less realistic and achievable? Or is the organisation so lean that excessive working hours and stress levels will simply lead to higher employee attrition rates, loss of morale and impaired work-life balance?

CO2 emissions

What are the toxins in the working atmosphere and what can you do to reduce them? One essential leadership competence, and often the hardest one to learn, is to be open to feedback. If people have concerns or issues do they readily feel they can approach you as a leader? If people feel able to express their concerns and that they are actively listened too, it helps reduce the build-up of frustration, resentment and unresolved relationship difficulties. 

It isn't fair

I have watched with interest the aftermath to the death of Muammar Gaddafi with the different responses of people in Libya and around the world. We see the obvious mix of inevitable euphoria as well as the disappointment that the world will not have the opportunity to see him tried and sentenced in a legal system. This is not the place to discuss his regime, but it raises an interesting question around peoples’ senses of what is just and right.

We do need to recognise that expressions of justice differ in every culture as cultures are usually dependent on a shared history, mythology or religion. Each culture’s ethics therefore creates values which influences the notion of justice. However, most civilised human beings have a subconscious sense of right and wrong and will feel knocked if that sense is challenged in some way. I remember feeling utterly compromised in a job I (briefly) held where, on divesting part of the business, the senior executives were negotiating stock option deals when all around them others were losing their jobs.

So what can you do if your ethics are compromised in some way?

Understand your reaction – the first thing is to acknowledge your immediate response as this is the truth for you. For instance, if you find out about an infidelity in a relationship, is it an absolute showstopper for you? Recognise those initial feelings, as they will always be there, no matter what your ultimate decision is – whether you stay in the relationship or not.

See the bigger picture – ask if it is worth a compromise. Try and step back and look into the situation, rather than embroil yourself within it. This is naturally difficult if it is an emotional situation, which it is likely to be if our values are challenged, however stepping outside will allow us to see alternative perspectives more easily.

Ask for help – the old adage, seek first to understand before being understood holds true here. Take a neutral stand and ask the other party to give their point of view. A bit like being on a jury in a trial – suspend your judgment.

Give feedback – only by offering feedback will the other party have a chance of understanding your perspective and maybe, just maybe making a decision to do something about it.

Make a stand – have the courage to stick by your principles as they are what guide you through life. I would never expect a vegetarian to eat a roast beef dinner just because I have cooked it.

Walk away and start again – sometimes this is the best way, to take yourself away from a situation that, if allowed to continue, would eat away at your very core. Just make sure, in doing so, that you recognise what you are doing and what you may be giving up.

As Mohandas Gandhi says “There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.”

Monday, October 03, 2011

Planning For the Unexpected

If you ever watch the programme Grand Designs you’ll know regardless of how different the various building projects are, one aspect of all the projects is always the same – the people concerned  never allow enough contingency in their plans and virtually always exceed their budget and schedule.

This tendency to be unrealistic in planning is a trap that many people fall into when managing their workload. Busy people are especially prone to over committing their time, ending up with little breathing space and spending vast amounts of stressful energy rescheduling and juggling priorities.

So here are three tips from a professional project manager:

First - Recognise that optimism is a natural human trait that brings with it many positives, but it also results in us being naturally prone to underestimating how long things will take and how much things will really cost.  By recognising this this is not a failure in any one person, but a trait natural to us all, we can accept it and put plans in place to compensate.

Second - Avoid fragmentation. Important tasks require concentration – if you keep picking them up and putting them down you’ll lose momentum and they will take much longer to complete.

Third - Plan for the unknown. You simply cannot predict the future, so add contingency so that you have some capacity for dealing with the unknown.  Remember, a schedule with no contingency in it is unrealistic from the start and that most professional project managers would add 20% on to any timescales to allow for the unexpected.   

Allowing for contingency gives you flexibility – and applying it even in your weekly schedule has real advantages. The simplest way to do this is to always leave half a day a week unscheduled. It will give you the capacity to handle urgent things that come up or to step back from your busy schedule and plan for the future.  And on those rare occasions when your spare half a day is not needed, you can take a well-earned break!

Will You Get a Seat in The Boat?

Imagine postponing your own wedding because it was “impractical to fit it in”. That’s just what Dan Ritchie, a member of the GB Rowing Team and world silver medallist, has done in order to train for the London Olympics. He won’t find out until April if he has a seat in the boat, but he is focused on his dream of Olympic success.

Hearing of Dan Ritchie’s commitment made me reflect on the parallels between elite athletes preparing for the Olympics and business planning.

Athletes across the world are entering the final stages of preparation for the games: training hard, working with their teams and coaches and honing their plans. Success in business also requires good planning and execution. Even with the forward thinking and goal setting you did in 2010, it’s possible that some of your dreams are not coming true in 2011.

So what can you do now to give yourself the best chance of success in 2012?

Reviewing the process itself is a great place to start. Does your planning involve enough of the right people?  Do you think enough about external trends and their impact? Maybe your planning needs to be looser, or tighter, or more specific. Are you focused enough on the things that really matter? Are you setting goals that really ignite your own and others’ energy and commitment?

Think about the process you used last time – what could you do to make it more effective, more efficient or more engaging?

A strong process is needed to get your own “seat in the boat”. Good forward thinking and preparation allows you to leverage trends and take advantage of the opportunities that arise, whether business or personal. It may not bring you an Olympic medal but it will give you the best chance of realising your own dreams.  

Kicking the Email Habit (Part 2)

Last week I wrote about how we experimented with kicking the email habit. We did this by not checking our emails before noon every day for one whole month (and this included our Blackberries).

Months ago I would have suggested that before trying this out you should get buy-in from some key people who might be affected: clients, colleagues etc. Now I say “forget the buy-in; your sanity is more valuable.” Just do it… you can tell them later.

An important exception is perhaps to encourage those you work with to do the same.

We realised we would never have kept up the discipline if we had not made the public commitment to each other.

Practical issues….

If you are thinking of weaning yourself off email or at least trying to manage it better, here are some of the practical issues you are likely to have to deal with, and some relevant questions to ask.

1.    "I'm afraid that a vital and urgent email will be missed". What is this fear costing you? How many emails never get delivered anyway? If it's a real emergency, they will probably call. If you had been on a morning training-course, you would not have been at your desk. How real is this?

2.    "Email is vital for completion of a task in hand". OK, go into the inbox, shield everything but the name of the person you are looking for, move the relevant email out to another folder ... and get out of the inbox asap!

3.    "Seeing the inbox filling up makes it very hard not to deal with it". True. So don't look at it. Set Outlook default to "Outlook Today" or similar.

4.    "Quick turnaround is vital to our customers". So is quality. Which is more important? Furthermore, our experience suggests that the more we focus our attention, the quicker we get things done and with better quality output.

5.    "I want to be connected all of the time". Why? Is this a psychological need, and if so how is this serving your clients? What are you not doing when dipping into the inbox for a look?

6.    "I might lose a customer". The biggest risk we all run is losing the A-customers we already have by not giving them enough attention. Much of this attention is sabotaged by the C's and D's who are often the source of the last-minute emails, marked "Urgent"

Have fun with this and remember – if you had a trip to the dentist this morning, that vital email would not have been opened until the afternoon anyway!