I recently had the good fortune to listen to Bruce Breier, a time management and organization guru, give a presentation on “The Organized Executive” at my monthly Vistage group meeting. What follows are notes from his handouts and the discussion that I considered valuable. Bruce is a professional consultant and can be reached by e-mail. He’s located in La Jolla, CA.
“What’s your biggest time management challenge these days?”
The best place to start in improving one’s time management and organizational practices is to consider a simple needs assessment. Which of these are you missing or need help with?
- a methodology for building and managing your annual business plan
- an organized program for your direct-reports that define goals, metrics and strategy
- a master task list to track commitments and to-do items
- a consistent daily and weekly planning system
- scheduled private work time (PWT) each day to accomplish priorities
- reducing unjustified interruptions to your workflow throughout the week
- method for delegating tasks for on-time delivery through the efforts of others
- effective and efficient meetings within the business
- a system for organizing and managing the email environment
- an uncluttered office and work area
Try printing this list and seeing which items you are missing. Then observe your direct reports and do the same for them (or ask them to complete the needs assessment on their own and share the results with you). You will quickly identify the high priority items missing from your time and workflow management system. Start with the most critical item first, then work through the remainders in order.
Building the system
An effective time and workflow management system is a system. That seems redundant but it’s worth repeating– all the elements must work holistically. You task management system should work with your calendar system; your communication system (email, phone and live meetings) should work with your goals and annual plan process. The idea is to create consistency between all the elements to drive a focused effort in the direction of greatest personal and organizational priorities. As an executive, you can not afford to use a system that operates any other way.
After performing your needs assessment, you can consider the following recommendations as solutions to the gaps in your organizational process. Remember, these elements all work together so make sure you understand how, if you don’t have a gap in a particular area, maintaining your current system in that area will serve to complement these recommendations:
- use a sequential checklist to develop, finalize and regularly manage the business plan for the fiscal year
- establish “success descriptions” for each position on your staff, defining priority goals, metrics and the organizational strategy to achieve excellence for the fiscal year
- utilize a master task list system for your role and populate it with to-do items, attaching due dates or deadlines to all tasks
- establish a recurring appointment for weekly planning on your calendar, a day and time to get ready for the following workweek; utilize the “bookends” concept, allowing a 15-30 minute start up period each morning and a 15-30 minute wrap up period each afternoon
- schedule 5-10 hours per week of Private Work Time (PWT) to accomplish daily and weekly priorities; pre-determine how this time will be spent during your morning book end
- establish a written policy for diagnosing all interuptions for urgency prior to causing or accepting them and communicate it to all members of your team; lead by example by respecting other people’s time accordingly
- delegate through acutely clear language in terms of what the desired outcome looks like and when it must be accomplished by; proofread for clarity, accuracy and tone before sending electronically
- commit to a standard protocol for meetings (such as the structure outline in “Death by Meeting“) and establish a zero tolerance policy for meetings that do not comply
- purge inbox and sent items folders of all inactive messages and institute the “Active Only” or “Inbox Zero” method
- allocate time to completely purge and organize your physical workspace, establish a filing system for active and inactive documents
Putting It All Together
Now that you’ve performed a needs assessment and considered specific recommendations for improving your organizational practices, what follows are guidelines for implementing each recommendation successfully.
The Business Plan Model
The BPM begins with an executive summary of the the business in terms of where it has been and where it is going and what needs to be accomplished in the next year to get there. This is followed by the vision statement, which outlines the guiding principle of the organization’s actions (such as “To be the highest quality provider of fresh seafood groceries”). The business plan should include a strategic assessment (SWOT analysis) and an outline of the top 3-5 fiscal year priorities. Who will be in charge of these priorities and accomplishing them is the goal leader identification component, followed by the strategy for accomplishing each. Key Success Indicators provide agreed upon metrics for measuring progress toward the achievement of each prioritity. The team should also develop graphical scoreboards to aid in “at a glance” study of performance to help the team know if it is winning or losing and how much time is left to get the job done. Finally, the team divides the strategy into 90-day plans and meets monthly to review the effort to date.
The Success Description
This is a one page business plan for each position on the team (the executive needs this for the direct-reports on his staff, but they in turn should develop them for each position on their departmental teams). The idea is to make it clear what everyone’s responsibility is to help achieve the annual business plan outlined above, so these descriptions need to reference the items developed in the business plan to produce clarity of vision and harmony of effort. Each position should have three top priorities and an organizational strategy for success as well as unique KPIs. Like the annual business plan, 1-3 graphical scoreboards for each position help each “player” to tell if they’re winning or losing and how much time they have to turn the game around. Reviews should be conducted, utilizing the graphical scoreboards, monthly.
The Master Task List
The MTL is simple to employ. First, select a method for managing the MTL, such as a notebook and pen, online software like Evernote or even an Excel spreadsheet. Next, fully populate the list with ALL tasks and to-dos. Every document sitting on your desk or in your email or residing on other assorted task lists should be translated into an actionable activity and placed on the MTL. The most critical step is to assign a due date or deadline for every task, ie, “Deliver inventory analysis report to inventory manager by Tues, July 1st”. A task without a due date can not be prioritized and is unlikely to be accomplished. Once each task has a due date, sort the list by priority, earliest due dates first. Scan the list periodically to make sure you are aware of intermediate steps necessary to accomplish long-dated items– you can also consider creating intermediate, sort-term tasks and due dates for such items to make sure you don’t miss a deadline far in the future because you forgot to prepare essential steps ahead of time. Items which come due repeatedly should be on a calendar and set up as an “appointment” rather than as part of the MTL; they can be added to a daily priority task list during morning planning as necessary.
New tasks should be “downloaded” from sources (email, notepads/meeting logs, conversations with others, etc.) daily, deadlined and re-sorted. Another good practice is to have a “parking lot” on your MTL that tasks can be added to ad hoc throughout the day, then re-sorted at the end of the day for future work. As an executive, request MTLs for ALL managers and check-in on their MTLs occasionally for organizational awareness.
Private Work Time (PWT) is essential for every organized, effective executive. This is time in which the individual is inaccessible to anyone else and can focus resolutely on their own work and priorities. Select the day of the week and the time of that day and then make it a recurring appointment on your calendar. Develop a realistic task list to get accomplished during each PWT period during that day’s morning start-up. To allow availability for PWT, confirm meetings for the following week by Friday afternoon and then do not schedule new meetings and activities during the week that weren’t confirmed the week previous, otherwise you can quickly overschedule all “available” gaps on your calendar and leave no time for PWT. Utilize acutely clear delegation to keep yourself uninterrupted and your organization moving while you are in the zone.
Workday bookends are the way to synchronize activity between the MTL and actual daily workflow. Begin with the Morning Start-up: scan email for urgent messages, define today’s priority tasks (3-5) and prepare notes and research for scheduled meetings. Time permitting conduct email correspondence as necessary. At the end of the day, leave scheduled time for the Daily Wrap-up: download new tasks to the MTL, file/toss new paper documents, preview tomorrow’s schedule, engage in acutely clear delegation as needed and finish with clean-up email correspondence. Establishing this “spool up/spool down” rhythm to your day is critical to getting control over your time and workflow. The time spent in preparing and debriefing will save much more time lost to interruptions, lack of focus, confusion of priority, etc.
Private Work Time (PWT)
One of the most powerful and most overlooked concepts in every organized executive’s arsenal. Key considerations are how much time per day to devote to PWT? All at once or split it up? What specific time(s)? When will you begin using PWT and when will you schedule it? The concept is pretty self-explanatory. Think of it as a “meeting with yourself”, put it on your calendar and don’t allow interruptions just as you wouldn’t allow interruptions in a meeting with staff, vendors or customers.
Interruptions confuse prioritize, ruin focus and create a culture of crisis and anxiety for everyone. It’s critical that everyone in the organization be offered the opportunity to work without interruption as much as possible during the day. An interruptions management system is the solution. First, develop a policy about interruptions in terms of urgency and importance– what kind of interruptions, if any, are acceptable to make (ie, “The building is burning down” or “A key customer is on the line and threatening to end his contract”). Every interruption must be able to be classified as important according to a pre-determined standard, and urgent in terms of not being able to be handled any other time than NOW. Develop a procedure for communicating interruptions and issue a directive to all team members instructing them on how to handle interruptions going forward. There may be different policies based on departmental versus organizational needs (ie, “You may interrupt the sales manager with a customer pricing request; you may not interrupt the CEO with a customer pricing request.”) Request compliance from all team members and monitor for effectiveness monthly.
Acutely Clear Delegation
Acutely Clear Delegation means delegating with instructions that leave no ambiguity or room for creativity in terms of the quality of output or the return time necessary. ACD must explain, specifically WHAT is to be accomplished by WHEN. Attention should be given to the receiver of the instruction in terms of their level of sophistication and communication preferences (ie, don’t send an email to someone who is known for failing to check it). If being sent electronically, proofread. The most important part of ACD is the timing component– if the person receiving the delegated task does not think it can be accomplished in that time frame, they need to immediately communicate with the delegator and explain the obstacles to completing the task on time and requesting a new deadline that is realistic. Finally, the person delegating must “Delegate and Trust”– they have to have faith that the person responsible will take ownership and see it through. Failure to do so should result in a coaching session on commitment to accountability. Repeat failure may be grounds for reviewing the employment agreement. An organized executive does not have time to micro-manage delegated tasks.
Standard Meeting Protocol
A well-run meeting involves several elements. The first is to note at the beginning of the meeting the cost of the meeting in terms of the time value of money or the money value of a goal to be communicated and achieved after the meeting, or the strategic value to competition in failing to meet on this issue. This sets a meaningful context for meeting participants to appreciate the seriousness need for focus and attention. Any items requiring preparation in advance by meeting attendees should be made known by the meeting leader. The meeting must start on time and end on time so that everyone can plan their day around it and not develop resentment about meetings creating interruptions or unplanned challenges for their other activities that day. Meetings require active participation by all participants– if there is nothing for them to do, they shouldn’t be there. All participants should take notes so they have their own records and if there is an official secretary for the meeting, notes should be collected and distributed after the meeting is over. All meetings should end with an “Acutely Clear Ending”, ie, “Person X will accomplish Task Y by Time Z following the conclusion of this meeting” so everyone knows what must be done before the next meeting. For more meeting structure and concepts, consider the review of “Death by Meeting“.
The first task to get control of email is to decide on the Active Only or Inbox Zero method. Active Only means your inbox only contains items you’re actively addressing– all others are trashed, archived or added to a task list for future follow-up. Inbox Zero is a slightly more extreme version of this approach where all emails requiring follow-up are created as tasks on the MTL and everything else is archived when read or trashed if it is pure junk. In this situation, no items are left in the email inbox once the inbox has been scanned and sorted. Once a method is chosen, purge/file/task all inbox messages accordingly. If your email software is capable of it, sort your email inbox by oldest on top– it’s easy to get distracted by the “First In, First Out” email management method and ignore aging items received earlier. Always proofread emails before sending, particularly when delegating tasks that you expect follow-up on from others. Hold all emails that are not crucial right now. Finally, utilize the workday bookends concept to catch up on non-critical email correspondence.
Begin with a total office purge. Accumulate all items on desktops or work surfaces, filing drawers, etc. into one stack. Create a new filing system in filing drawers based on anticipated or most logical filing categories for your workflow or business needs. Then, go through your pile and choose to either File/Archive in your new filing system for later reference, Task for an item requiring follow-up (then trash once Tasked) or Trash for anything that does not require follow-up and is no longer relevant or valuable. For items requiring archiving, consider scanning a copy into your computer and maintaining your filing system electronically instead. On your desk, set up chronological desk trays for incoming media. To maintain your office organization system, institute a “File/Act on/Delegate/Shred” process at your Daily Wrap-up. You should come to and leave from a spotless office/desktop everyday.
Additional Resources and Further Reading
Here is a list of books for the “Organized Executive” recommended by Bruce Breier for further study:
Here are other notes I took during the discussion which help give further context and detail to Bruce’s system:
- Start your day with a daily plan numbering top 3 priorities for the day; do this in the first 15 mins after arrival
- Friday is the best day of the week to plan for the following week, 15-30 mins of uninterrupted time around 3/330pm
- “What gets scheduled, gets done.” Schedule “PWT” (Private Work Time), 1-2hrs, 1-2x per day on your calendar where you are unavailable, inaccessible and uninterruptable to focus on your primary tasks; this is your executive privilege and you should make full use of it
- A task, project or goal without a deadline or due date is a philosophical statement; use a master task list sorted by due date to keep yourself organized and productive
- “Good is the enemy of great”, we must be selective to be excellent
- Never let anyone sit down in your office until you know what they want
- 5 necessary characteristics of those who work for you: initiative, self-reliance, commitment, accountability and empowerment
- You need a written policy about how to handle disruptions: all disruptions must be prioritized for urgency and answer in the affirmative the question, “Does this need to be addressed RIGHT NOW?”
- Maslow, human beings are deficiency-motivated, ie, avoidance of fear or pain; hard to make change happen until a person experiences enough fear or pain without it
- Goal-setting approach for annual business plan: 1 goal each related to customer service, business development, financial performance, staff effectiveness and operational efficiency
- By Friday afternoon of the present week, next weeks meeting calendar should be finalized, all new requests can be made for the following week; this prevents you from filling your calendar with meetings in “open slots” and never having time to get work done; also ensures you can be prepared for all meetings with plenty of time
- Delegation depends on trust; trust requires your direct reports be “CMO”, Competent, Motivated and Organized; if your manager is not competent, you can train them; if they are not motivated, you can coach them; if they are not organized, you can help them build systems; if they are unresponsive, you may need to find someone else to get the job done
- Successful leadership entails continually accomplishing pre-determined priorities primarily through the efforts of others
- You don’t keep up with what you delegate to others, you delegate and trust. If you can’t trust, you have a problem and need to work on that
- Let your leadership team run your annual plan, and your annual plan run your business; run your daily plan, and let your daily plan run your day
- Schedule monthly reviews with your direct reports to see where tweaks need to be made