How You Can Get Valuable Time Back: Part 1

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Recently, I’ve been swamped with meetings.  I’m not talking Portfolio Planning, Release Planning, or even Sprint Planning meetings. I’m talking a lot of in-the-weeds type meetings.  After I walk out of some, I realize I could have been informed of the outcomes and action items and that would have been good enough. I didn’t need to sit through the whole damn thing.  There are times everyone walks out an hour later, are looking around, and are asking how to get that valuable time back.  It got me thinking, I need to write about this!  Then, as I started writing, I realized that this was either going to be a seriously long long-form blog post or I was going to have to write a few parts to it.  Being the bloggy-blog type, I vote for short form and write a series.

The Scenario

You arrive to the office at 8am on a Monday, only to realize you are late for a meeting someone on Friday after 5pm scheduled.  You’re not in the office 5 minutes and you’re already behind schedule.  What the hell!?  How does this happen?  You look at your calendar. You have back-to-back-to-back meetings all day Monday and Tuesday.  When are you supposed to actually do your work?  Given the current conditions, you’re going to need to catch up on things before or after work. This sucks!

The Problem

You have become a meeting hoarder.  That’s right.  At any moment, A&E is going to show up at the office and start filming an episode about you.  In this episode, they follow you around the office.  They confront you and the addiction of accepting too many meeting invites.  Of course this is ridiculous but you really do need some practical strategies to deal with this problem and get back on the track.

Meetings are supposed to be about the exchange of information.  Unfortunately, they are wildly inefficient and offer limited value.  For the most part, they are waste of our time.  Nobody wants to listen to you go on and on about how many meetings you have, now that you’re becoming a bottleneck in getting things done.

To start, I’m going to bucket meetings into 3 categories.

  1. Non value added but it is necessary.
  2. Non value added but it is NOT necessary.
  3. Value added.

I see very view meetings offer direct value to the customer.  Most meetings a non value added but we don’t have a sufficient method to exchange the information so we settle for the meeting.  It’s necessary.

Going forward, assume most meetings don’t add value and you should make them prove their worth to you.

The Solutions

In this post, I’m going to give you a strategy to begin controlling the volume of meeting invitations coming into your calendar. First, stop accepting meeting invites for meetings that are less than a full day away.  If someone invites you to a meeting at 5pm on Monday for a meeting at 9am Tuesday, they are being disrespectful of your time.

Set Limits

You may have a standard eight hour work day but the reality is that only half of that day is likely to be productive.  With that assumption, you should guarantee you have 4 hours of productivity. If you don’t, your day will be taken up with meetings, responding to email, browsing the Internet and related activities.  Block out 4 hours a day on your calendar for actual work. Make the events private.

Tip: Schedule your most important, high value tasks in the morning, before you get worn out from your current meetings

Turn On Your Email Auto-Responder

Until you can get your meeting addition under control, I recommend you begin using your email autoresponder.  I actually did this several years back, after reading The 4-Hour Work Week with very good results. When someone sends you an email or meeting invite, they automatically get an email from you (with the assumption that you have NOT read their invite).  This will buy you time to focus on real work and not just respond impulsively to the request.

Let’s look at a basic template

Greetings,

Due to high workload and too many meeting invites, I am currently checking and responding twice daily at 12:00 P.M. and 4:00 P.M.

If you require urgent assistance (please ensure it is urgent) that cannot wait until either 12:00 P.M. or 4:00 P.M., please contact me via phone at 555-876-5309. All meeting invites will require 24 hour notice. Though I appreciate the invitation, sending me a meeting invite does not mean I will be accepting your invitation.

Thank you for understanding this move to more efficiency and effectiveness. It helps me accomplish more to serve you better.

Sincerely, [Your name]

Conclusion

I can guarantee this is going to help, at least a little.  The more we can slow down the influx of meetings, the more we can assess the value of them and decide if we really need to accept them or not.  The autoresponder will put people on notice and inform them that your time is valuable but that you’re not being unreasonable.  If this gets you out of 1 meeting, won’t it be worth it?  I know it will do better than that.  Try it and let me know your results.


In my next post, I’ll write about how to triage your meeting requests, so you can begin spending more time doing real work and less going to meetings.


Categories: Agile, Project Management Tags: Tags: , , ,

Building on failure and action versus motion

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I just listened to the 37signals podcast.  It was a playback of some of the brainstorming sessions leading up to the release of the book REWORK.  For those who don’t know me, I’m a complete 37signals fanboy.  They just “get it”.  I don’t know if it’s their no BS approach to business or that they have great products.  But, I’ve found many of the things they created, do, and say helpful in multiple areas.  It doesn’t matter if you’re an entrepreneur or a project manager.  They have something for everyone.

There were two things from the book I wanted to note today.  First, they talked about building on failure versus building on success.  My takeaway is if you want to reach a goal (insert your project or product here), it is easier for you to build upon small successes than to fail and start over. Example: When you’re [creating] an [product] for a customer, wouldn’t you rather deliver small chucks and get acceptance from the customer along the way, rather than offer a big reveal at the end and risk delivering something they don’t want?  If you fail, you have to start all over.  Out of a million possibilities, you’ve narrowed it down by ONE.  I agree with the PDCA approach (Deming cycle). You should refine, deliver, refine, deliver.  Don’t forget to deliver.  If you get something 99% done, you still have nothing.  Deliver something (regardless how small), get acceptance, and repeat.

The Second thing I wanted to note from the podcast was the mention of an Ernest Hemingway quote

Never mistake motion for action

Things don’t have to be hard.  If your business [process] requires you to do wasteful (time or money) things, don’t do them!  You should be doing things because they provide value (save time/money or make money).  The rest is just fat and you need to trim the fat from every business [process].  Make your [processes or products] as lean as you can without hitting the bone.  Only then can you have a good baseline.  Only then can you build on top of something.  Anything beyond that and you may be wasting time and money compensating.

Do something because you need to do it.  Don’t do it because you feel obligated.  Do you need to go to that next meeting because there is valuable information being communicated?  Or rather, if you don’t go it will give the impression that you’re being antisocial?  Meetings are perfect examples of an crime perpetrated by people that don’t have enough actual work to do or those to feel obligated by people that don’t have enough real work to do.

You know why I don’t check my email every 5 minutes?  Because I have things I need to get done for the customer!  Sending me pictures of LOLcats is not going to help me get that work done.  Equally, expecting me to respond to that email within an hour of you sending it just reinforces the fact that you have more time on your hands than me.

Image courtesy Flikr: Travis S.

I won’t be staying late with you

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I have to again give credit to 37signals.  In their book Rework, they pointed out the 800 pound gorilla in the room, over and over again.  This video is a “gorilla” I’ve been dealing with for the last 15 years.

I usually arrive at the office around 06:30 or 07:00 (2 hours before anyone else).  Why?  I’ll probably get more done in those 2 first hours than I will the rest of the day.  Though I only check my email at the top of each hour, I still deal with meetings and people “dropping by” to ask me questions or to tell me about the newest restaurant in their neighborhood.  Interruptions mean you don’t get work done. I’m not saying you shouldn’t make your customer happy. I’m saying you should be able to get it done without working late.

Tell me if this sounds familiar.  Some of your co-workers show up at the office around 09:00 (closer to 09:30) and then take a 1.5 to 2 hour lunch break.  They then don’t understand why you turn down meeting requests scheduled for late in the afternoon or don’t respond to emails sent to you after business hours.  Just because someone is unable to manage his or her work, I am not going to feel guilty for not working late.  Before I had a family or understood work-life balance, I didn’t hesitate pulling an all-nighter at the office.  Now it just looks like poor time management.

So, are you working late tonight? Do you really have work you need to do are are you just trying to make yourself feel better by creating work for yourself? I’ll make you a deal. Drink your preferred caffeinated beverage around 05:00 and get to the office no later than 07:00. You’ll probably have the most productive day you’ve had in months.

Categories: Project Management, Video Tags: Tags: , , , ,

My Merge of GTD and Kanban

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What is the next actionI’m not going sit here an boast of being some kind of expert on Kanban or guru of personal productivity.  I’m just a Project Manager/Leader who is always keeping his eyes and ears open for newer or better ways to manage time or work.  I believe you should always try to eliminate non-value-added processes, resulting in a positive impact of customer satisfaction, while reducing support costs.  How do you do that?  You get it done as effectively and efficiently as possible.

I recently completed Getting Things Done by David Allen.  It was an interesting book.  Though I use paperless processes to “get things done”, David offered one bit of advice that resonated with me.  To advance a task or activity to more of an actionable conclusion, he said to ask “What’s the next action?”

This parallels what I do with my Kanban (task) board.  I currently have 4 columns:  Backlog, Work In Progress (WIP), Blocked, Done.  When a prioritized task can not be worked, I put the task card (user story) in the “blocked” column.  I then ask myself the question.  What’s the next action? Without asking yourself that simple question, your task may be blocked longer than necessary.  You have to understand there may be 3 or 4 steps you need to complete before you can unblock your task and get it back to WIP.  So, ask the question.

As to not ignore the obvious, I recommend you write your tasks in a standard user story format. As a [perspective], I want to [activity], so I can [desired outcome]

It doesn’t matter if you use a physical or virtual Kanban (task) board.  I recommend following 3 simple rules:

  1. Keep your tasks visible
  2. Keep your tasks limited
  3. Keep your tasks actionable

2 of 100 Items Missing From the PMBoK

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Missing VAC FormulaVariance At Completion (VAC) is the difference between what the project was originally expected (baselined) to cost, versus what it is now expected to cost.

Every month, our vendor is required to report this total on the project as a whole and on key deliverables.  I’m used to seeing the numbers reported and how to calculate them.  I’m not asking for the Cost Performance Index (CPI).  I want to know how far over or under we’re going to be compared to the budget.

The formula I memorized for the PMP exam and the same formula I use to calculate VAC today is: Variance At Completion = Budget At Completion – Estimate At Completion
(VAC = BAC – EAC)

So, I ask myself, [1] why is there no VAC definition and [2] VAC formula in the PMBoK?

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The Best Kind Of Contract To Manage Is…(3 of 3)

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Unfortunately, there is no ONE best type of contract to manage. The risk the vendor and customer share is determined by the contract type. The best thing you can do is understand the risks and benefits of each. There are three categories of contracts: Fixed-Price, Cost-Reimbursable, and Time and Material (T&M). In this 3 part series, I defined the contracts in each category. Hopefully, it will help you on the PMP exam and out in the real world.

Time and Materials (T&M) is a hybrid type of contractual arrangement that contains aspects of both cost-reimbursable and fixed-price contacts.  They are often used for staff augmentation, acquisition of experts, and any outside support when a precise statement of work cannot be quickly prescribed.

These types of contracts resemble cost-reimbursable contracts in that they can be left open ended and may be subject to a cost increase for the buyer.  The full value of the agreement and the exact quantity of items to be delivered may not be defined by the buyer at the time of the contract award.  Thus, T&M contracts can increase in contract value as if they were cost-reimbursable contracts.  Many organizations require not-to-exceed values and time limits placed in all T&M contracts to prevent unlimited cost growth.  Conversely, T&M contracts can also resemble fixed unit price arrangements when certain parameters are specified in the contract.  Unit labor or materials rates can be preset by the buyer and seller, including seller profit, when both parties agree on the values for specific resource categories, such as senior software engineers at specified rates per hour, or categories of materials at specified rates per unit.

Image courtesy of Marc Lemmons via Flickr