I’m Busy, They’ll Figure It Out

Sixth in a series about communication and change management

We can’t manage time.

We can’t manage five minutes and turn it into six. We can’t manage information overload – if we tried our heads would explode every time we walked into a library. We don’t manage priorities, we have them.

We can decide what to focus on and how we spend our time.

Alice's White Rabbit
We can’t manage time, but we can manager our focus

Those things we choose to spend our time and attention on are more likely to be successful than those we don’t. Yet some of us seem determined to try to do everything that comes along, whether or not it aligns with our work and our lives. There may be many reasons for this behaviour. The result is often stress, failure, and shame.

You can’t create more time. You have to budget the time you we do have. Decide what you must, should, and want to do with your time. More importantly decide what you’re NOT going to do.

If your objective is to make a program or initiative fail, then you don’t need to make the sometimes difficult decisions about what other things you’re not going to spend your time and attention on. Just let it happen by default. Because you’re too busy.

Here’s the paradox. As managers we get things done through other people. Managing people take a lot of time and effort. Maybe even more than managing ourselves. Which can be a pain. If people did what they were supposed to, being a leader would be a lot easier.

One of things that can’t get ignored by default are the human relationship aspects of your job. I think it should be near the top, in fact. You can’t ignore the people part, building trust, and then get mad when the projects executed by those people fail.

There’s no point in being so busy that you don’t check in on a project, program, or initiative only to find out in the last two weeks of a three month effort that you’re two months away from finishing it. Now you’re going to be spending the next two weeks pulling that particular set of chestnuts out of the fire. While you ignore your other work. Tell me again why we’re so busy?

Fix #6 Have a Rhythm

Clear responsibilities, hysterical transparency, and regular reviews drive accountability. Getting things done doesn’t mean doing everything yourself. Getting things done means planning and delegating the work, keeping track of progress on a regular basis, and reporting on that progress.

Consider maintaining a”relationship” with the projects you’re accountable for, as well as the people you work with. Regular, habitual check-ins, meetings, or status updates are the best means of keeping a project on track.

Establish a rhythm lets you stay up-to-speed on what’s happening with all the work and your team. Ideally once a week. Once a day if that’s appropriate for a critical, complex, or large project.

If your check-ins are once a week, and the work is more than two weeks in duration, then break the work into two week chunks. With tangible, deliverable results at the end of each. This could be a report, a presentation, a manufactured good, a software release, a construction milestone, a signed contract, etc. Something real.

Two weeks is a nice way to break up the time. In the first week something should be started, and in the second they should have finished. Now you can verify progress. There is a report, a presentation, or other work product the shows progress. Not started? Okay – what’s the hold up? Finished now? Good – where’s the deliverable?

This is one example of how to design a project to provide the clear responsibilities and transparency.

You can deliberately build in the rhythm that allows you to manage, direct, and oversee the work. Or you can spend more time later cleaning up the mess. Your choice.

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What Do Rituals Have To Do With Business?

I had a boss once who had three levels of acknowledgement. When he was being briefed on a project or program and he agreed he would say just that: “Agreed”. It meant you had his approval. If he said “Understood”, he got what you were saying but didn’t necessary like what you were doing. If he said “Noted”, you had failed. It got to the point were we were anticipating his response, cheering when somebody got the coveted “Agreed”, and moaning when somebody failed and got the dreaded “Noted”. It gave us a sense of shared community and took some of the sting out the rebuke. It spurred us on to do better next time.

Every organization has its own language, rituals, and rhythm. Military and para-militaries are an obvious example, as are religious groups. But also businesses volunteer and community groups, sports teams, and families all have their accepted ways of communicating and making decisions. Some are more functional than others.

Discipline or Regret

Communications need a structure. “You can run your business with discipline, or you can run you business with regret.”* I would add that you also need to run you business with intent. Every meeting, celebration, and contact inside and outside a business need to support the purpose and vision of that company. Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings each need their own purpose. They need to follow a simple format with some structure. And when things are busy, that doesn’t mean fewer meetings.

Focused, clear communications are even more important when we’re under the gun. An army unit can give us a great example of this. When an infantry company is in garrison, training, or otherwise in a relaxed state weekly briefings are probably sufficient. Would this be acceptable in theatre, or in combat operations? Absolutely not. So why is it acceptable for businesses to complain that they don’t have time for meetings? They’re right, in a way. They don’t have time for unfocused, un-informative, un-productive meetings.

If people hate meetings in your company, it’s probably because you run them badly, and your leadership doesn’t know how or doesn’t have the fortitude to run them correctly. It’s a basic management skill that every leader needs to learn and practise.

Your Meeting Checklist

Here are a couple of items you can check the meetings you run. They’re not rocket science, but like the skating and puck-handling in hockey, if you don’t have mastery of the basics then you can’t move to the next level.

Give yourself a passing grade only if you can say yes to all of the following:

1. It starts on time
2. Only the people who need to be there are invited and show up
3. It has an agenda that is distributed ahead of time
4. It sticks to the agenda
5. Everybody is physically, mentally, and emotionally present and contributes to the conversation, debate, or decision without fear of retribution or punishment for speaking honestly
6. It ends on time
7. Who is going to what by when has been decided, written down, and distributed to all attendees

If It’s Not Your Meeting

Even if it’s not your meeting to run, there are still some things you can do to make meetings in your organization more effective:

1. Sit up and pay attention. Face whoever is speaking. It’s a great opportunity to build relationships by supporting your fellow dwellers of whatever particular level of hell you’re trapped in together.

2. Put away your laptop and smart-phone. This is a variation of the previous point. You’re not fooling anybody with your “Blackberry Prayer”, and it’s insulting that you think they are How about turning off the laptop and actually being present instead of just doing your e-mail in the same room as a bunch of other people who are ignoring each other?

If You’re Still Not Convinced

If you’re still not convinced that ritual and structure have a place in business consider this. When Scouting was established in 1907, it got started with a set of rituals. Ceremonies for opening a meeting, closing a meeting, inducting new members, passing graduating members out. The Scouts learn ceremonies for deciding discipline for their peers, planning camping activities, and running campfires.

First they learn the “ritual”, and within that they make all the decisions and execute their work (going to camp, cooking their own food, earning merit badges). The structure of the patrols and troop give the youth the process they need to make and carry out their decisions. The same rituals work if it’s just a local Scout troop meeting with a dozen kids, or a World Jamboree with 10,000.

So how would it feel if a troop of fifteen-year-old boys and girls ran and executed meetings better than your company does? Who provides the “adult” supervision in your company?

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What’s the worst meeting you’ve been in? The best? Does your company have standard agendas for daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual meetings?