Ponderances of Steve

November 28, 2009

Time Management Economics

Filed under: gtd — Steve LeBlanc @ 5:40 pm

Sometimes a coach is wrong.  I recently coached a managing law partner on time management.  He was losing 1-2 hours a day to interruptions from staff, each of whom sought his particular expertise.  The trouble was the time it took him to get back on track with what he was doing before the interruption.  (Few people are as good at getting back on task as they think.)  His open-door policy was burying him in problem solving which he admitted could only be answered by him.

When I asked how many of those requests were time critical to cases, he said, “All of them.”  On closer inspection, we sorted the types of requests that required answers into response times of 10 minutes, two hours and 8 hours.  I asked him to have a talk with his staff and partners, explaining the problem and asking them to begin to sort their own requests into those time groups.

As reasonable as that all sounded to him, it later turned out that he could not do it.  It was too confrontational for him.  Instead he chose a simpler route, a solution so elegant I had to smile.

He continued to allow them to come into his office.  He would even invite them in to sit down.  All that changed was his timing of engagement.  Rather than stop what he was doing, he would take as long as he needed to get to a good stopping point.  Sometimes this would take ten minutes or more, leaving his guest nothing to do but wait.  Often the person would get up and leave, saying, “I’ll get back to you.”  When my client got caught up, he’d go find the staff member and ask how he could help.

Eventually people completely stopped walking into his office.  Waiting in there was not an effective use of their own time.  Instead, they’d stand at the door and wait.  My client would then offer one of three comments (or gestures, if he was on the phone).  He’d wave them in if he was almost caught up.  He’d hold up fingers showing how long he’d be.  Or he’d just shake his head, suggesting, “Not now.  Don’t know how long I’ll be.”  He did tell his staff to always interrupt on real emergencies.

As a result of this simple change, he had recovered an average of one hour a day.  That made his job far easier and less stressful, which resulted in a happier secretary and more peaceful office.  No critical tasks were dropped as a result of the new system.  More importantly to my client, no ugly confrontation was required.  No meeting, no discussion, nothing.  The change occurred organically from within, as each person adapted to what would best serve them in the new system.

Levitt and Dubner, authors of Freakonomics, might suggest that he had changed the economics of the office, making it less profitable to interrupt.  Change the economics and the behaviors will change organically (naturally, from the inside, without force).   I am reminded of a remarkable story in Harvard Business Review (HBR vol 84, Num 11), How to Manage Urban School Districts.  In a major change of tradition, Long Beach superintendent, Carl Cohn, began to rotate principals every year.  “The knowledge that the middle-school principal’s problems might become yours is a powerful motivator to lend a helping hand — for instance, by sharing approaches that have worked for you.  As a result of their rotating assignments, principals in Long Beach now see the problems in one school as everyone’s to solve.  Informal sharing of ideas across schools is common.”   Until he changed the economics, Cohn could not motivate the principals to support each other.

My client did not need to confront his staff.  He just needed to change the economics of the office.  On the other hand, he still credits me for the change.  I had helped him to more highly value his own time and to be more discerning of gravity of the requests.  Years ago I realized that a coach did not always have to be right.  He just has to be able to guide his client in the direction of right.

Blog at WordPress.com.