A message from Thanh: this is a special guest post from Peter Roy, a freelance project manager, productivity consultant and fellow AE reader. It takes a lot to impress us when it comes to productivity ideas and systems thinking, and Peter’s post most definitely delivers. It’s a different way of looking at time management and how we do things at a high level. Enjoy!
There is a fundamental problem with traditional time-management: Most traditional time-management books have been written by people who are, by definition, writers; and what writers value most is large, unbroken stretches of concentrated time. Brian Tracy, in his best-selling book Eat That Frog, espouses, “Most of the really important work you do requires large chunks of unbroken time to complete. Your ability to create and carve out these blocks of high-value, highly productive time is central to your ability to make a significant contribution to your work and to your life.”
I am a huge fan of Eat That Frog but there is a fallacy here: Not every person or, indeed, every job requires large chunks of unbroken time to become more productive. As a freelance project manager, less than a tenth of my time needs to be devoted to what would be traditionally classed as ‘really important work’ (e.g. writing documents, ‘big picture’ thinking, preparing and giving presentations, et cetera). The biggest chunk of my time is spent simply keeping things moving by following the mantra laid down by Edwin C. Bliss in the original and lesser-known 1976 book Getting Things Done. “Be a squeaking wheel. Remind, hint, beg, cajole, plead […] Stop muttering to yourself and take some action. Keep in mind that to get anything done in this world you must be willing to make a nuisance of yourself if that’s what it takes.” That is the essential nature of what I would term ‘lightweight project management’ which is arguably the most common form of project management in business and entrepreneurial environments; and it requires a radically different approach in order to be successful which is based on a fundamental understanding of the nature of micro-actions, fragmentation, and influence.
What is a Micro-Action?
I have appropriated the phrase micro-action in this article to denote those quick, discrete tasks (e.g. writing a short e-mail, making a quick phone call, speaking to a colleague, updating a spreadsheet) that occur naturally as part of the larger well-understood actions that appear on your to-do list each day (e.g. book accommodation for business trip, put together figures for 1st quarter budget, organise project meeting).
Micro-actions are often too small and too contingent to schedule in advance e.g. I might have a higher-level action to ‘Call Richard to get his sign-off on the design requirements’ but if I call Richard and get his voicemail, that could potentially spawn half a dozen or more micro-actions such as ‘leave Richard a voicemail’, ‘set myself a reminder to call Richard again in an hour’, ‘call Richard’s colleague to find out whether he is out of the office’, ‘e-mail Richard to say that I am trying to reach him’, ‘ask Neil whether he can sign off the requirements instead of Richard’, et cetera. Micro-actions, like bacteria, can be healthy (efficient and timely) or unhealthy (inefficient and untimely) and they can multiply unchecked in some working environments. If you have ever despairingly asked yourself the question, “Why is it so difficult to get anything done around here?” then, if you stop and look, you will probably find micro-actions merrily multiplying around you.
What is Fragmentation?
Fragmentation is a measure of the number of micro-actions required to complete a higher level action, and the average density of those micro-actions over time i.e. whether they tend to be sparsely separated or clustered together.
If you have ever tried to organise a group of colleagues to do something without having everybody present at the same time, then you will have undoubtedly experienced the negative effects of high fragmentation. Let me illustrate this with two variations on a theme using same the higher-level action, ‘organise project meeting’.
Scenario #1 Organise (a small) project meeting
You need to organise a project meeting with a colleague for the next day. You issue a calendar invitation but you do not receive a response within 4 hours so you chase with a call which goes to voicemail. You leave a message, and receive a response within 1 hour.
In this example, ‘organise project meeting’ is a low fragmentation task i.e. a small number of actions (send e-mail, check for response, leave voicemail, acknowledge response) spread over a relatively short period of time (4-5 hours)
Scenario #2 Organise (a large) project meeting
You need to organise a project meeting for 8 people for the following week. You issue calendar invitations and receive 3 responses within 1 hour. You allow 24 hours for people to respond before starting to chase and receive a further 2 responses the following morning. You call the remaining 3 people, and they are all engaged so you leave voicemail. You wait for a further 4 hours and receive 2 more responses. You wait again for 24 hours, and finally receive a response from the last person.
In this example, ‘organise project meeting’ is a high fragmentation task i.e. a larger number of micro-actions (send e-mail, acknowledge first wave of responses, acknowledge second wave of responses, make calls, leave voicemails, acknowledge 3rd wave of responses, acknowledge final response) spread over a longer period of time (2-3 days).
In both cases, ‘organise project meeting’ is a well-understood higher-level action and the micro-actions are simple business tasks (issue calendar invitation, make phone call, et cetera) but the fragmentation of the large project meeting means that the orchestration is significantly more complicated and prone to delay.
The ability to identify, understand, and reduce sources of fragmentation will help to cultivate an appropriate level of micro-actions in your working environment.
Techniques for Reducing Fragmentation
There are a number of straightforward techniques that you can apply to reduce fragmentation.
Use search folders or a simple list to retain a record of all of the responses that are due from a particular colleague or an organisation. Whenever you speak to them, request a complete set of updates and eliminate the need for additional micro-actions such as chasing individual outstanding actions. (The only caveat is that this can sometimes leave the individual on the receiving end feeling overloaded, which is counter-productive; if that is the case, chase a maximum of 3 outstanding actions at any one time.)
Batching reduces the number of ‘chasing’ micro-actions required to achieve a higher level action.
Some people have a nasty habit of agreeing to a quick and simple action, and then immediately forgetting about it or ignoring it. If a task can be physically achieved while you are speaking to a person, then ‘camp on the call’ or ‘camp at their desk’ and politely insist that it gets done there and then.
Example: “I don’t mind waiting, honestly, it’s fine… I’d rather know that it was done and dusted. If it’s only going to take a couple of minutes, we might as well get it done now then I don’t need to keep hassling you about it.”
Camping reduces the risk of spawning follow-up micro-actions.
Dovetailing is similar to camping but aimed at group meetings. If you are organising a meeting and believe that a follow-up meeting may be required, ask people to bring their diaries and make the final agenda item to schedule the next meeting. If possible, distribute a placeholder meeting request electronically there and then and get responses before people leave the room. Some people wait for an agenda before they circulate a meeting request but this leaves time for people to accept other commitments. The agenda can always be added nearer the time, the important thing is to block out the time in the calendar as early as possible. Meetings with lots of people are difficult to set up and easy to cancel.
If, then, else if, then, end
The classic programmer’s construct popularised by Tim Ferris in The 4 Hour Work Week (review) for effective e-mail writing. If external input for your project is desirable but not essential, then avoid the temptation to introduce false dependencies and unnecessary chasing and delays waiting for feedback.
Example: “I would love to get your input on the attached designs for the website but I need to go live by next Tuesday at the latest so if I haven’t heard from you before this Friday, I’ll tell the developer that we’re happy with it.”
If, then, else if, then, end reduces the number of micro-actions required to achieve a higher level action.
Market research companies know that consumers are more or less responsive to some types of marketing e-mails and other communications at certain times during the day, and on specific days during the week; and this also applies to business communications to colleagues. Although performing this analysis without sophisticated software tools can be challenging, you can achieve a similar result by simply combining your existing knowledge about your colleagues’ habits e.g. Eleanor isn’t in the office on Monday, Paul tends to be an early bird et cetera, with scheduled e-mail sending or call reminder features to create a more effective and tailored approach to your communications.
Using intelligent timing will help to compress the gaps between micro-actions with particular colleagues or organisations, and reduce the overall number of micro-actions required to achieve a higher level action.
People are natural Magpies, and they have a common tendency to respond to the most recent e-mail in their inbox. If somebody responds quickly to an e-mail or a phone call, then a quick response will often keep you at the top of their inbox and produce a flurry of communication that will yield a result that would otherwise have taken hours or days to achieve. The age-old mantra of checking e-mail only once or twice a day only has value if you need to focus on a discrete concentrated task, and it is more likely to impede progress if you are trying to generate forward movement in a project. (The converse technique is useful if you are overloaded. Use ‘deferred sending’ e-mail features to artificially slow down your conversations to a manageable level.
Momentum-surfing compresses the gaps between micro-actions.
What is Influence?
I use the term influence to define whether you can perform an action yourself or not, or whether you can reliably persuade somebody else to perform an action or not.
There are 3 broad categories of influence worth considering.
I use the concept of reliability to distinguish Type V-1 and Type V-2 actions here pragmatically with reference to the famous 1st law of cybernetics. Also known as the ‘law of requisite variety’, this states that “The unit within the system with the most behavioural responses available to it controls the system”; and the same is true of work place interactions. If you can not reliably extract desired responses from a particular colleague or organisation within a given time frame, then it means that they have more techniques for avoiding responding to you than you have techniques for persuading them to respond. In effect, they are influencing your productivity system and, regardless of how personally productive you are, your overall productivity will be degraded as a result.
The ability to differentiate between Type V-1 and V-2 actions will help you to decide whether you need to either increase your level of influence, or reduce or abandon your dependency on those actions that are outside of your influence.
Techniques for Increasing Influence
Increasing influence is generally more difficult than reducing fragmentation but the effects can be more powerful and offer greater returns over time.
Tim Ferris advocates e-mail as the communication tool of choice in The 4 Hour Work Week (review), and many would agree but, in business, the reality is that some people will always prefer phone calls or face-to-face conversations and, if you want something from those people, then you need to adapt to their preferred communication style. If you are not sure what your colleagues’ preferred communication style is, there are a couple of simple ways to check.
- Make a note of how your colleague tends to initiate communication with you. Is it e-mail, instant messaging, phone call, text, face to face, et cetera? We all have a natural tendency to communicate in our own preferred communication style so this is the most obvious indicator.
- Do a quick search and count how many e-mails you have sent to a particular colleague in the last 6 months; then do the reverse and search and count how many e-mails they have sent you. The results might surprise you: When I first tried this little exercise, I identified half a dozen colleagues with response rates well below 20% i.e. I was basically not receiving e-mail responses to approximately 4 out of every 5 e-mails that I was sending to these colleagues. It would be wonderful to live in a world where people always had the time and the courtesy to respond to an e-mail, but the reality is that it is more productive and less frustrating to switch to an alternative form of communication to see whether you get better results.
Using chameleon communication can increase your influence with colleagues who do not respond effectively to standard communication tools such as e-mail.
As any 7-year-old knows, if you ask for a lollipop enough times, you will eventually get a lollipop (or a clip around the ear, in my case). If a person or an organisation is outside of your control, then commit to doing something within your control that is likely to bring about a response and increase your influence. e.g. e-mailing and calling to chase for a response every day, et cetera. If people know that they will always have to face the dripping-tap of your constant pestering, they will tend to respond to you more quickly both now and in the future.
Although the dripping tap increases the number of micro-actions required in the short term, it should reduce the overall number of micro-actions required over the long term.
“I’d like to speak to your manager” is a common phrase that is often used in business if you are not getting the results that you need from a particular person, or a particular tier within an organisation. Escalating needs to be handled with care, and you should always give an individual or organisation adequate chance to satisfy your request, but it can be extremely effective at times.
Escalating is a blunt tool that has the potential to damage working relationships but can also be an extremely effective way to bring a person outside of your influence back within your influence using an indirect authority.
Sometimes certain people or organisations present a seemingly unending set of barriers to progress, either through lack of availability, lack of organisation, lack of motivation, or straightforward incompetence. Ask yourself whether those people or organisations are genuinely critical to what you need to do, and whether you could find another person, or a different company to do it, or even do it yourself. Remember that delegation and outsourcing have to ultimately save you more time and money than you would otherwise expend.
Re-routing can increase your influence by replacing people and organisations who are outside of your influence with people and organisations who are within your influence.
The Fragmentation-Influence Matrix
If you are experiencing difficulties with any sort of project that depends on other people or organisations for its success, then categorising your key issues into a fragmentation-influence matrix can help you to diagnose the root cause of the problem, and identify more effective approaches.
Traditional time management espouses the virtues of regular unbroken periods of quiet concentration but if you are involved in any type of management or project management then your productivity is a function of not just your own personal productivity but also the productivity that you can elicit from other people and organisations.
An increased awareness of the nature of micro-actions, fragmentation and influence combined with an appropriate application of the techniques that I have shared in this article can help to minimise the negative effects.
Peter Roy (LinkedIn) is a freelance project manager and productivity consultant.
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