Category Archives: Project Management

You Are Fully Booked, Whether You Realize It Or Not

“I think I just sold every available waking hour that I have, for the foreseeable future,” said the Consultant, sighing wearily at having his prayer answered perhaps a bit too well.

What he didn’t realize was that, on a certain level, there was nothing new or different about this state of affairs for him, or anyone else.

As the fiscal year end fast approaches, I hear more and more people talking about how jammed their schedules are.  They say things like, “I’ve got such-and-such to do before end of <insert applicable fiscal year end date>.”  As a person with clients who use May or June as their budget year end date, I feel their pain/pleasure.  This is a good-problem-to-have for professional service providers:  Getting fully booked, well into the after-hours, for your time.

It’s good because it means a steady stream of (hopefully) rewarding work.

It’s a problem because there’s more to life than work.

Also, even if you’re the kind of person whose whose life and work are heavily blended together, in order to maintain your productive edge (and health… and soul), you need a non-productive, creative space to explore, reflect, grow, “sharpen your saw,” and make room for unexpected opportunities.

Here’s the thing:  In a way we are all caught in the above-described Consultant’s condition, no matter what job title we give ourselves, and no matter how “busy” our “work” is. Our future hours have already been “sold.” Those hours are going to take place at their normal pace no matter what we do,* so the thing to do is figure out how happy we are with the current pricing and cancellation terms that we’ve tacitly agreed to.

(* NOTE: This statement assumes the subject continues to live within the confines of a single space-time continuum, with a margin of error allowing for creative hacking of the International Dateline and caffeine-induced time dilation effects.)

  • How much are you getting paid for your time, and in what forms of currency?
  • What is the scope of work and quality criteria that you are committing to?
  • What are the likelihoods and consequences for any changes, deviations or cancellations to the current version of the plan?

Depending on how you’re feeling about the terms of your contract, you can start re-negotiating with the Client… and yes, you probably figured it out already:  In this sales agreement, you’re not only the Client, but the Consultant President.  

Thought du Jour, Constructivist Edition

If, as a facilitator, all you do is manage their state and nudge them towards what they already have the capacity to do, then they will win.

That’s why they call it facilitation.

Time sheets: It’s Not About a Salary, It’s All About Reality

There are people who dislike doing time sheets — filling out little grids of numbers which quantify the amount of time one has spent on given tasks, projects, activity types, client accounts, etc.    I am one of those people who dislikes doing time sheets — intensely —  though I have been known to use them very exactingly when (a) starting on a new job / type of project, as a way to calibrate my own sense of how long things take to do; or (b) when absolutely required by contract.

The act of completing a time sheet can feel tedious, especially if one is not  set up with a convenient real-time tracker such as a mobile app, a paper (yes, paper!) notepad, or even a set of Lego bricks.  Using your Sent Mail box in Outlook as an audit trail for how long you worked on a series of documents?   Yeah, been there, done that.  It’s both wearisome and worrying to be in a position of needing to reconstruct and quantify fleeting memories of hours spent working… or not really working… all the while having to discern the distorted temporal effects of hours spent with intense, productive Flow versus those dilated hours of torpid, lackadaisical sloth.

..and that’s a big part of the problem with time sheets:  Some time (and some efforts) are better spent than others!  Simply “logging your hours” doesn’t say anything about performance or results.

On the one hand, there’s a good reason many organizations use a system of salary-and-minimum-required-hours (paycheck and punch clock).  It simplifies planning, scales well, and is (sometimes, even) effective. The trouble is, an organization’s time sheet is often not as simple to use as a punch clock, and so that time sheet process creates friction and inefficiency.

My proposition:  If your organization uses time sheets as a way of measuring productivity, either get rid of them completely, or up the ante and do them really, really well:

  1. Make the time sheet process incredibly easy to use, with a state of the art user interface
  2. Set the system up so that people receive automated/instant feedback on their own productivity metrics

In other words, if the person is going to make the effort of both quantifying and qualifying how they spend their time, don’t add insult to injury of making the process feel unproductive and pointless.

On the second point, above:  By analyzing and synthesizing their input into a relevant statistics (E.g., % hours spent client facing,  # hours spent on average to move a project from stage A to stage B, etc.) — these can be done for the person themselves and/or with a a group benchmark to compare against… although be careful with the latter as it may lead to dysfunctional hyper competitive team dynamics if done without the right level of nuance and foresight.  Ultimately, this needs to be about instilling a sense of continuous improvement for the individual — people are deeply motivated by a sense of growth and mastery in their work —  as opposed to merely “scoring” or “grading” them.

There are literally thousands of time tracking systems out there….  and here’s my idea for a next generation user interface:

LifeFitness-Mountain-Mode-Visualization

Imagine if something like that was your time sheet software.  You wouldn’t just be logging hours… you’d be seeing your progress as you logged them and have a sense of both purpose and accomplishment. 

(Yup, that’s right, it’s just a snapshot of the screen from a piece of gym equipment.  I’ve got a future blog post planned which will analyze the motivational differences between various visualization graphics used on LifeFitness™ cardio equipment… but for now, let’s just roll with this, okay?)

For a lot of companies, time sheets are here to stay… so let’s at least make those time sheets less annoying and more meaningful.

Reticular Activating System

When your subconscious mind becomes focused on something, you start to notice it — or things very similar to it — wherever you go. This happens because of your reticular activating system (or “RAS”), complex and highly integrated networks of cells within the brainstem that help regulate your sleep-wake cycle and help you ignore/pay attention things that matter/don’t matter to you.

It’s thanks to the RAS that you can walk down a street on autopilot, barely noticing anything until suddenly, you become highly alert (or as brain scientists prefer to call it, aroused) to something that interests, attracts or threatens you.

Beyond its survival value, how else can you use the RAS to your advantage?

"Please don't deface my facade."Apart from the types of stimuli that seem to be almost pre-loaded for instant recognition into your RAS — human universals such as seeing blood, noticing the movement of a snake, perceiving a configuration of objects that resemble a face, hearing your own name called out, catching the first three notes of Sweet Child of Mine by Guns and Roses — – there are also all kinds of stimuli that you can train your RAS to pay attention to… and in doing so, become smarter.

Time Management, Problem Solving & Creative Thinking

Have you ever banged your head against an intractable problem, only to have it solved much later, usually in unrelated circumstances? Have you ever experienced l’esprit de l’escalier? This is your RAS at work… and it’s about time that you paid it a better salary and gave it some working conditions where it can work even more productively.

Your RAS is a powerful parallel processor, a relatively slow computer that can solve complex problems and arrive at novel insights, seemingly out of nowhere. The trick is to program it correctly and then give it the time and context that it needs to do that work… all while you get other stuff done.

Once your train your RAS to pay attention to something, you’ve effectively outsourced the task of thinking to your subconscious, which can work in parallel to your day-to-day (and night-to-night) activity (and dreaming).

Here’s how it works:

  1. Decide on it. Choose the idea you want to embed into your subconscious– it could be a concept, a theme, a person, a narrative, a process, a problem, an entire project or relationship — so that your RAS can go to work on it, looking for solutions and insights.
  2. Immerse in it. Consciously immerse yourself into the idea — mentally and emotionally. Start thinking about it a lot… vividly… attach strong feelings to it… do this for a while… repeatedly. The required number of hours and days of focus and repetition will vary by the quality and salience of the idea, as well as the quality of your brain and self-training efforts. You can even try a mini-immersion exercise: write or blog about something for a couple of hours, and then…
  3. Sleep on it. Consolidate the memories. The deeper layers of your brain need time for it to soak in.
  4. Walk away from it. Put yourself in a different, atypical environment — new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings — new stimuli that (a) distract your conscious mind, and (b) give your RAS a new context to begin actively scanning for the presence of your idea.
  5. Let the brain magic happen. This is usually where the lateral thinking process kicks in — at seemingly random moments, you’ll become aware of all sorts of comparisons and analogies between the thing you programmed your RAS to look for and the new things that are appearing in your changed environment. Every time you get one of these lateral connections, make sure to reward your RAS’s efforts by giving yourself a mental smile and pat on the back. Good RAS doggie.
  6. If you’ve done this for a while you’re still not getting anywhere, repeat step 1.
A idea simmering in my subconscious is like this delicious rare entrecote which I ate the other day. Its edges were briefly stewed in a rich wine-gravy reduction... the inside melted in my mouth like butter.

An idea simmering in my subconscious is like this delicious rare entrecôte which I ate the other day. Its edges were briefly stewed in a rich wine-gravy reduction… the inside melted in my mouth like butter.

In many ways, the key to using your RAS productively is to be a little less productive in how you use your time — less focused on rushing through things, doing things once without reflection — and more strategic / synergistic in the different things you focus on and cycle between.

What I mean by that is… oh wait, I wrote about those things already, here and here… sort of… but not nearly as succinctly as stated in this post. Thank you, RAS.

Now to go back out there and see, hear, touch, smell and taste some new stuff.

Changing course is how we maintain it, of course

Thomas Jefferson’s serpentine walls at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville teach us that the shortest distance between two points is not always straight line… especially if you’re on a tight budget for bricks.

Jefferson’s design, based on old English garden crinkle crankle walls, could cross a long distance using a single course of bricks without tipping over, thanks to its sinuous, zigzagging geometry.

Have you ever tried to stand up a flat piece of paper on its side?    You can’t… unless you fold it.

Sometimes you are told, “This is our plan.  We’re going to start at point A… and then we’re going to go to point B…”

So you start on your marching orders, but then you are told, “Hold on, we’re getting close to the end of quarter, and we need to boost results!  Stop what you’re doing and work on this short-term project.”

Zig. Zag.

The thing to do is to remember that this too is part of the journey, the twist that keeps everything standing up.  Take the detour, and don’t get derailed.

The value of a plan lays in its allowance for things to proceed otherwise than planned.

cf. Getting To/Away From A/B

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