PM Articles > Executive View > What matters - giving ourselves time to THINK

What matters - giving ourselves time to THINK

by Cinda Voegtli

We're all too busy - with long lists to accomplish every day, so many things that clamor for our attention. How do we KNOW we're getting results vs. just lots of effort? Do we ever step back from our to-do lists, our task lists, our action item lists, our tools, and ask ourselves: ARE we focusing on the things that will really matter to the success of this project?

I am feeling "crotchety" about this subject, and sometimes I like to make bold opinionated statements for effect - to wake myself and others up, shake ourselves out of blind acceptance of sub-optimal situations. So:

I maintain that we do not give ourselves enough time to think. About anything. Our days at work on our projects can be one uninterrupted flit from place to place, an unending skim of the surface. Oh, I guess we get lots done. But did we get it done well? Did we design a product that hangs together? Did we come up with a truly extensible architecture for that system? Did we really think through all the potential customers and meet their needs? Did we catch all the dependencies on the project? Did we catch all the cross-implications of the decisions someone just made on their particular deliverable? Overall - Did we allow enough time for true creative thought plus sufficient synthesizing, to take in every aspect of the challenge at hand and find subtle issues way before they have time to really bite us? I know we don't, from what I experience and the stories others tell about what unexpectedly goes wrong on their projects.

I met an exec at a conference who asked me what I liked about running a business. The first thing that came to mind is "it's creative in all kinds of unexpected ways". But he caught me on a good day, a day when I had time for creative thought, because I was off at a conference with my phone off. My most frustrating times are when so many things are flying around that I'm back in flit mode and creativity feels very far away. And along with the creativity, I also lose the focus I firmly believe we need for sound assessments, problem-solving, and planning.

Team members complain about lack of thinking time too. Developers need enough time to work on complex architectural issues. Instead they may hear "Oh, we can't spare x weeks for you to work on the new platform architecture." Support people can't get free from operational work long enough to contribute to design reviews in a thoughtful, thorough way. And on it goes.

I know directors and VPs who seem to recognize that they and their people don't have time to really think. Meeting after meeting, email after email... "We have to get everything done, coordinate, make sure we're communicating!" But they admit to a nagging feeling that something is being missed, a better solution might be a few hours of deep thought away, a new leverage point is just under that surface we never have time to break, a nasty dependency is hiding an hour or so of systematic examination away. They wistfully talk about how great it would be to sit down and really get to think through a strategy, a design, a problem, an upcoming review, development plans for their staff…

Wait a minute, you say... They're the executives; can't they decide to fix the problem? Yes, I think they can, but there's generally a business-driven mindset, plenty of pressure, a complex organization, and a bunch of good intentions at work every time. So fixing this problem is not simple. I believe it takes a combination of "impact awareness", honest acknowledgment of how much we aren't getting done when we take on lots in parallel, collaboration to identify workable solutions, and constant vigilance to stay on track.

So how do I deal with lack of thinking time and try to build in more for me and our business? I have some specific tactical approaches for handling our project portfolio and how people's time is used each week. I don't claim I've solved the problem - but I do see the techniques helping a great deal.

So, in the spirit of sharing, the rest of this article outlines ideas for giving people time to think, and applying them in your situation.

First, here's background on our particular environment and challenges:

  • Relatively small staff, especially for what we feel we need to get done!
  • Some large releases/projects, but lots of smaller projects. Many things we could do at any given time; crucial to map even the small projects to a coherent strategy and ensure that we spend our time on things that will truly help the bottom line.
  • Staff members wear multiple hats, handling daily ongoing site operations plus multiple functional roles on development projects. Our workload is a perfect setup for out-of- control task switching and opportunities to interrupt each other.
  • "Legacy" systems and processes requiring us to think about impacts of new stuff on what already exists and deal with the cross-project dependencies.
  • Over half the company works virtually in different places around the U.S., plus we have contributors in different parts of the world, so our teams have to work well remotely.

Nothing surprising there. We just have our own particular smaller-business flavor of all the usual problems. It all adds up to this: we need to make good decisions about where to spend our time (and not take on too much at once) and then fight vigilantly against productivity busters. If accomplish both of these, we WILL still have time for high quality thinking time, for strategy, reviews, decision-making...

Here are a few of the specific approaches we evolved:

  • Our weeks have a rhythm that governs our mix and flow of meetings and project time - and thus how much uninterrupted time people have to work and think.
    The key for us has been a focus on setting aside enough time for uninterrupted individual work, as well as taking into account people's working styles. We went beyond just naturally designating Monday as the weekly project meeting. We took into account that some of us, yours truly included, absolutely need Monday for deep dive work to get settled for the week and make strong progress right out of the gate. (I personally absolutely despise Monday meetings. Period.) Others of us like to be left alone on Fridays to make a big final push to meet whatever the week's project goals were. So we've gravitated to a rhythm that has team meetings on Tuesday mornings, collaborative project work mostly on Tues-Wed-Thurs, and Mondays and Fridays left alone as much as possible for focused work by each individual.

    I know this must not sound like rocket science. It's not, but it does take a conscious decision to schedule this way and enforce it until it becomes habit. And it makes a huge difference to our thinking time. Everyone is guaranteed to have real blocks of quality time, rather than popping in and out of meetings randomly or being interrupted by others who are on a different rhythm. It's understood that Mondays and Fridays are protected. No one internally even goes there unless it's urgent. And we've schooled ourselves to avoid saying Yes to a Monday or Friday meeting requested by someone external, if there's really a viable alternative.

    Yes, we're smaller, so it's easier to pull this off organization wide. But I firmly believe this kind of thing can be achieved in larger groups as well. It might be some variation, such as groups I know who have agreed on a no-interrupt rule for a certain morning of the week. I think productivity and thought time are worth taking a stand for, and coming up with time-and-interruption management approaches that help people get their jobs done!

  • We do projects in 1 to 3 week chunks wherever possible.
    Yes, we have longer, larger ones but we can often set up a number of identifiable mini-projects to reach a larger goal. Chunking things up helps us stay focused and productive, because of course people task switch less... but also because it psychologically gives us permission to do one thing at a time. What can happen when you are facing 5 big long projects? "Oh, we have to work on all of these at once, they're all going to take so long, we have to start making progress everywhere!" And then, nothing gets finished in any kind of reasonable time because people are all split across too many things at once. If each item is 1 or 2 weeks, it seems easier to say, "Oh, OK, it's fine if we just focus there for a while, we'll get to that other stuff soon too."

    So though we're not strictly doing a bunch of Scrum or Agile techniques, we've adopted this philosophy of dedicating ourselves to one or two "big" efforts at a time, for chunks of a week or so. Everyone knows, each week, what the 'major project focus' is, and what the week's goals for the project(s) are. Those projects are also scheduled with everyone's operational duties in mind. If there's time left after those buckets of work, everyone knows what their next most important projects are, and can work on them in the background. We stay better coordinated despite our big virtual team because we're focused on the same thing at any given time. (Lest you say that this should be no big deal for us, let me assure you that even a small company can get disjointed and out of touch with each other when people are bouncing around between too many different things at once.)

    Does our focus approach work perfectly? Of course not, the world is too messy for that! But we don't have to be perfect to reap lots of benefits from this shared idea of "focus is paramount." Very importantly, we've gotten it into our culture and lingo as well. Remember that our executives truly are just trying to meet what they feel are pressing business goals. (In our case, that's me, concered with those goals and apt to put too many things on the list.) So I've gotten this into our collective value system. When we're looking at the project list each week, if we've ended up with too many things in parallel, anyone around the table might call me on it.

  • We leave breathing room after major releases to recharge and think.
    No, that doesn't mean we kick back and do nothing! We just don't jam major release efforts up against each other. We generally follow a larger release with a set of smaller projects to let things settle, see results, and inform what we do next.

    Sometimes these post-release chunks of time get dedicated to an "investigation and mockup" project to think through possible new products and directions. That is, we haven't decided for sure on a new offering, so we're not planning a big development release yet, but we're treating some investigation time as worthy of being a focused project. The benefit of this is that we get that concentrated '"thinking time" I keep harping about. We get more relaxed time to muse, discuss, experiment, synthesize as the main focus - even if it's just for 2 or 3 weeks. Everyone gets to keep their heads in the same game, and we have time to think deeply and loosely and circuitously and play around - which can lead to interesting ideas and connections. (And it's fun!)

  • We keep everyone involved in the "Whys" not just the "Whats"
    Another negative impact of splitting people across too many things at once is that their to-do lists look like a wild smattering of unrelated tasks. You can end up relying on tools to try to tell everyone what they should be doing at every moment across multiple projects, and team members are reduced to thinking in terms of little pieces of work that may have lost all context! Yet I firmly believe that team members must keep sight of the business goals to make good decisions about their time and their work.

    So we focus everyone on one or two projects at time, PLUS we focus up front on making sure everyone understands the business drivers behind the project, the level of urgency, and what's most important. Then we watch meaningful deadlines and judge business results together, rather than tracking lots of tasks.

    People perform - and they enjoy it more, because they're not being hand held and micro-managed. They understand why they're doing what they're doing; they can make more decisions on the fly, they can raise an issue when they need to, and they often contribute unexpected ideas about how to meet the customer goals!

  • We keep ourselves honest about how long things really take, especially when we slip up and take on too much at once.
    I believe executives push to take on lots of parallel projects because it truly seems important to the business to "get a lot of things done" - and pushing is a way to make sure the organization is moving forward aggressively. Of course we know that something, if not everything, will end up late because of the overload. The problem is, if we never get honest about how long each thing really did take to finish, we'll never break the "massively parallel project portfolio" problem with the executives. We need evidence to show that "doing less sooner" is a better business strategy. To do that, we need show vividly how much longer than expected a set of parallel projects really finished (and therefore started belatedly delivering business value).

    To do this in our environment, we keep a file of our simple weekly project charts and step back and look for things that have slipped or are threatening to, and ask why, especially with an eye to whether we've taken on too much. If we admit it soon enough, we can make some decent tradeoff decisions!

How to make more thinking time in your organization

I talked to a project manager at a conference about what we're doing to make thinking time, and he said, "It all sounds great, but you can do that, you're the boss. We don't get to make things like that happen in my company."

I understand the frustration - but COULD there be some things individuals can do? I believe so. In my view, it's just key to remember that any "bad organizational behavior" - project overload and productivity issues that are robbing us of thinking time - are generally born of good intentions and perceived business needs. In that context, we can do what we can within our sphere of influence, and look for ways to achieve "business impact awareness" higher up. For example:

  • Making more chunks of time: What could be done in your group as an individual, or a manager, to achieve more uninterrupted time chunks for your team? You may not be able to achieve meeting-free Mondays and Fridays, but what CAN you ask for or make happen? Talk to people about what helps them be most productive. If you're a team member, coordinate with your peers and reach some informal agreements on how you'll avoid interrupting each other. If you're a manager, take a stand with the people who are most apt to haul your people into unproductive meetings or email exchanges - it's your job to protect them. Look for ways to reclaim chunks of time!
  • Speaking up concretely on impacts: Where could people speak up in an impactful way about tangible impacts the lack of thinking time is having? An IT Director told me that a team had just realized, way past the design review, that they were going to have to change an equipment spec, with a price tag of $80,000. (!) They discussed it and realized that a connection has been missed in their "hurry" through the project coupled with operational distractions. Boy, does this Director NOT want this to happen again. So she is currently all ears - willing to consider some trade-offs on scope and dates - in her words, to "make some room for more thoughtful and planful reviews."

    What about making a proactive case for not taking on too much, before an unnecessary 5-figure unnecessary Oops? A great number to think about is "late cost per week". For every week a project is later than planned, what profit is the company losing or delaying - the profit or cost-savings that project will enable once complete? If people are working on 5 projects that may all experience some delay because of team overload or mistakes, what's the potential late-cost-per-week across those projects? Hmmm. Might it not be worth it to focus on a smaller number of projects and "do less sooner", getting some things out faster to customers to start making profit or saving money sooner?

    Truly, executives may not understand what's really happening due to too much to do and too little time to think -- until a five or six-figure or seven-figure impact number is expressed. Give them some!
  • Helping everyone be systematic: You can be the one on the team who helps everyone be "systematic." Sometimes deep thought isn't about swirling ephemeral creativity, but instead about dogged attention to detail. ARE your design reviews any good? Is anyone mapping detailed features back to customer requirements, design parameters back to performance numbers? Is anyone making sure the design of the marketing campaign has a chance to meet the aggressive goals in the project charter? In everyone's hurry, is each review truly a thoughtful, systematic examination by a bunch of well-prepared people, or just another so-so meeting?

Those are a few ideas to ponder. Overall, as I said earlier, I think what's needed to solve this "lack of thinking time" problem is a combination of impact awareness, honest acknowledgment of how much we aren't getting done when we take on lots in parallel, collaboration (and commitment!) to come up with workable solutions, and constant vigilance to stay on track.

One closing comment - one last important benefit of thinking time. It's not just about the "business success" and "better financial results". It's also about people getting ample satisfaction, enjoyment, and fulfillment from their daily work. Human beings' joy on the job comes from getting to create in an area of specialty, whether technical designs or written materials or marketing campaigns or test plans or whatever. When people flit and skim and feel pushed to do work-without-thought, they gain stress and overload, miss out on the joy of creating, and even lose pride in their work. That's a raw deal for them, and a recipe for burnout and lost value all around. I think we owe it our teams and ourselves to find ways to "do less sooner and make more time to think"!

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Thank you for some well-thought-out observations and suggestions.
Though the lack of time for thinking may be worse today, it is not new. My father-in-law retired ~1985 as a medical school professor and researcher, having published 150 papers. His greatest regret was not having spent more time THINKING about his work.

I think this article is very informative, and something that we all can benefit from. A former employer of mine instituted a "no meetings" policy for the three days preceding every month end, to allow time for staff to get everything done and caught up so they could start clean in the new month. As a PM, I think we definitely don't have time to think enough. Thanks for printing this and making us all think of it again!

Well stated! I know our organization has taken on more than it can chew due to not enough strategic thinking time. All the push to do, do, do - but what about planning and scheduling realistically too?

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