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Project paralysis – the curse of the calendar

What’s driving your project development timeline? You – or your organisation’s calendar culture?

How much of the elapsed time in your project development schedule is driven by your organisation’s calendar culture, and by the apparent unavailability of key players and decision makers? How much does the electronic diary system play a part in this?
Here’s the scenario. Project Manager Jane needs to organise an important meeting. From her desk she sets up a meeting two days hence with four other invitees, including John, the key decision maker. Everyone except John responds, and John declines and adds a note that he won’t be available for another week. Jane starts the process again at a time to suit John, only this time one of the other key invitees, David, will be on leave in that week. And so on!

This set of transactions is characterised by fast electronic communication, but ultra-slow response time against the project’s critical path. In fact, if Jane has to keep doing this for each key meeting, the cumulative elapsed time for meetings will actually become the critical path! Quite bizarre!

To understand this phenomenon, you have to cast yourself back to the early 1990’s when two major events occurred to fundamentally change our work lives.

Firstly, electronic diaries were introduced as part of a suite of universally accepted office tools such as word processing and desktop databases. Secondly there was a growing trend to downsize the office assistant work group on the basis of the apparent self-servicing aspects of electronic office tools.

So mid-level managers found themselves without human support, and with the expectation that they would self-drive all of their office support requirements, including organising and scheduling meetings. Apart from some degree of increased connectivity, overall functionality hasn’t really changed since the early 2000’s.

That functionality has never really extended to some of the more subtle human skills such as anticipation, prioritisation and negotiation, that were previously available as part of the skill set of competent office assistants.

The third event that occurred was the advent of “quality management” that, if not managed carefully, encouraged the development of process as the sole priority ahead of a bias to action and outcomes, and team collaboration ahead of personal competency and accountability.

So, how can we reduce the potentially inordinate elapsed time between meetings, and thus ensure that calendar generated meetings don’t become the critical path for project development?

Calendar culture change

Culture change is not an easy undertaking, but even some relatively minor changes could have a strong positive impact. It involves instilling a greater corporate-wide sense of priorities, and/or layered program/project priorities, and an agreed “triage” system, including:

  • Agreed corporate/program priorities, based on the organization’s objectives and key risks
  • Invitees recognizing corporate and program priorities, and actively intervening to prioritize their own meeting attendance schedule
  • Organisers recognizing corporate and program priorities and negotiating timeslots accordingly – by phone or in person if necessary
  • Minimising the time demands created by functional support groups for attendance at meetings and workshops unrelated to priority programs
  • Redefining “busyness” against outcome performance and not by demonstration of a full calendar

“Busyness” culture change

In some organization cultures, a person’s “busyness” is demonstrated by a full calendar, irrespective of the nature and priority of the meetings. In addition to cultural reasons, occasionally this can be a personal behavior trait, involving the manager’s need to demonstrate their indispensability and importance. In some cases, it may also be used as a technique to avoid accountability.

Or again, a full calendar may often just be simply a symptom of that person’s lack of time management skills and inability to delegate.

Such behaviour needs to be gently challenged, and more time-worthy activities offered for consideration.

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Prioritisation and delegation

Typically for a manager, the higher up the food chain, the less accessible they are. Inaccessible managers can remedy this to some extent by practicing some basic personal disciplines:

  • Create some personal thinking time
  • Give personal priority to project set-up activities – objectives, organization framework, roles and responsibilities – where your interaction, advice, and direction is most needed
  • Publish your expectations and measures of success
  • Give clear, unambiguous delegation
  • Actively monitor roadblocks, and take early decisive action.

Clearing the decks

You can take action at a personal level to “clear the decks” within your calendar, give yourself some breathing space, and at the same time, be more accessible to others.

  • Set up your personal priority list
  • Clear out non-essential calendar invitations
  • Remove yourself from non-essential meeting mailing lists
  • Be more critical about accepting invited meeting dates and times
  • Leave some calendar space each day for:
    • urgent and unforeseen events
    • critical and creative thinking
    • personal priority time management
    • setting up delegation to others
  • Use the electronic calendar features to the max (such as subsequently declining or postponing a previously accepted meeting)

Perceived value

Key people are more likely to attend your meeting if they perceive there is personal value in doing so. So the meeting agenda, and the selection of invitees should be designed to appeal directly to the intended participants. Declining meeting attendance is an early sign that your project planning approach is losing relevance.

Corporate and project objectives and priorities can appear to be ambiguous, overlapping and sometimes mutually exclusive. Spend some time setting up your project’s objectives, relevance, benefits and development risks.

Alternatives to meetings

Most project business should be developed and managed on an interactive day-to-day basis, outside of meetings. You don’t always need to organize meetings to achieve your project objectives. Meetings should not be used to dilute or abrogate your accountability. Other alternatives include:

  • Early consideration and resolution of key objectives, risks, issues, and accountabilities, and agreement on fundamental directions
  • Negotiated and adopted individual accountability, delegation, and personal action
  • Achieving action, advice, and comments by “walking” the proposal around
  • Circulation of proposals for comment with a deadline, where silence is deemed acceptance
  • Just do it – be prepared to seek forgiveness instead of always asking permission!

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