Thursday, February 17, 2011

Top 5 Project Management Time Suckers & How To Manage Them

Running out of time? Need to multitask? Cannot prioritize? Too many deliverables? As projects continue to grow, a project manager is often found caught in the above situations and as a result they often fall back to time management and productivity strategies, however that is like going for the cure without actually paying attention to the cause – the time suckers. The time available at hand is always finite and its is extremely important that a PM focuses his time on the most important things that influence the project outcome most. The project manager however cannot succeed on this unless he or she is able to identity these time suckers and can develop a plan to manage them.

Let’s take a look at the top 5 time suckers that we face and how we can try to manage them

Email

Email is perhaps one technology innovation where more time and investment is spent on how to mange it, than actually “using” it. We have all heard of concepts like email overload and inbox zero. While there is no definition or matrix around how much is too much email, an untamed inbox is often I feel a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself. The problem is email. Don’t get me wrong, email is a significant technological innovation that aims at bridging communication gaps in a cost efficient and an effective manner. But email is also subject to abuse and manipulation. An untamed inbox can eat up a significant amount of your time.

Instead

  • Take a walk – Have a question? Need more information? Sometimes it is better to take a walk to the cubical or office and avoiding the email. You will probably accomplish what you seek faster and will also feel good with the physical exercise. However this might not be always possible, specially if the person you need to reach out to is located half way across the country or globe. But whenever possible junk that email for a walk across office. Remember I am not proposing that you be intrusive and do not respect privacy, but the fact of the matter is, you would most likely get more done if you had probably just walked up and talked compared to a string of emails.
  • Pick up the phone – In my personal experience on an average you could probably avoid around 5 to 8 emails by just picking up the phone. Now that is huge time savings no matter how quick you type or fast you get response on your emails. A phone conversation is live and you can address any questions that may come up immediately. It also allows you to overcome physical boundaries and get the job done quickly. Again as I mentioned above I am not proposing you to be intrusive here.
  • Be Precise – If you have exhausted all your options and must absolutely send out the email, be precise and clear. Make sure you are calling out the information you want to convey and the action you expect from the recipient of the mail. Avoid any ambiguity in your email and remember to address it to the correct audience. Don’t be tempted to abuse the CC or even worst the BCC features.

Meetings

Meetings would probably share the top spot along with emails. These meetings are often scheduled without any impunity or sometimes even without proper agenda or audience. If it were to be made mandatory to fill up a diligence questionnaire before setting up a meeting, 80% of the meetings would never make it through. No matter how much you hate them you most probably might not be able to avoid them entirely, however what is important is to to recognize that these are one of the top time suckers of modern day corporate culture.

Instead

  • Skip It - I have written about meetings earlier and how to optimize and getting the most out of your meetings if you absolutely have to, but my first choice would be to avoid it altogether. Identify tasks that can be completed working offline, information that can be collected offline and exclude them from your meetings. A little diligence before scheduling a meeting can be a huge time saver.
  • Respect Time – Have a meeting agenda that has been agreed before you schedule a meeting and be sure to stick to that. Respect time, that applies to both yours as well as the participants of your meeting.
  • Use Technology – Collaboration tools like Wiki and enterprise document management systems are great tools that allow you to work offline at the same time in a collaborative fashion. Consider using these before setting up a meeting.

Conflicts

Conflict management is one of the traits of a project manager. As a PM you will find your self in situations that will demand this skill from you. But manging conflicts is time consuming. In our perfect world or projects we will not have any conflicts to manage, but this is seldom the case. There will be conflicts and you “will” spend time managing them.

Instead

  • Avoid It – Check back on the perfect project definition – No conflicts just execution. Irrespective of the benefits of conflicts, managing conflicts take up a significant portion of a project manager’s time and energy. The best option sometimes is to avoid the conflict and move on. Next time you face a potential conflict, hold back and think if it is worth engaging in the conflict. If you can, avoid it.
  • Address It – Once you have recognized a conflict and the choice to avoid it no longer exists, you must address it. The longer you do not do this the more time you will keep spending on it. 
  • Think Win – Win – Remember the conflict management techniques, among all the “win-win” solution is arguably the best option. Any other compromise would leave room for the conflict to creep back in and turn into a time sucker.

Administrative Tasks

A significant portion of the project time is spent of standard, administrative and repetitive tasks. These are tasks that cannot be avoided. Examples could include status reporting, project documentation and other project communications. While these may not always require the same level of strategic involvement and may be repetitive, they can potentially turn out to be time consuming if not optimized.

Instead

  • Templates & Reusable Check lists – A cool thing, that will help out a lot is to create a checklist of tasks that are needed to get a particular activity completed. You can also modify this checklist to include external references like URLs. For example at one of my client, while starting a a new project we had to get the project setup in the EPM. Common and repetitive, but yet time consuming. Once this checklist was setup we were able to reduce close to 80% of the time taken to do that setup.
  • Automate – Leverage technology and automate as much as you can for these tasks. However automation will not always be the correct choice. Validate to be sure to check the ROI of automating versus doing the task manually.

Small Talk

Project Managers need to build relationships. This actually helps getting the project goals accomplished quickly and saves time. However there is a common misconception that small talk helps build relationships and lays the platform for the ‘Big Talk’. On the contrary small talk can often turn into gossip, which in turn is just another time sucker. So avoid it.

Instead

  • Get to the point – Be honest and candid and get to the point. Don’t play around the bush. It may be hard to start off in the first place, but you are able to overcome the initial ‘hesitation’ you will appreciate the benefits. Also since the time at hand is limited for everyone, the other party will appreciate it as well. Net result – will save time for everyone.
  • Bridge the trust deficit – Bridge any trust deficit that may be present. Once you can identify these and address them proactively, you will no longer need to depend on small talk. A trust deficit is also a source of conflicts – another time sucker.

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