PM Clinic, Week 1: Prioritizing time

Compiled: 10/1/2004

The situation

Dear Project Manager Superstars,

One of my responsibilities as a project manager is to shield the developers on my team from constant interruption and to structure their work so they can have chunks of time to concentrate. My challenge is that I also need an arrangement that allows me to have dedicated time to concentrate. I find that in trying to keep things moving for my team and my clients, I often have to find my "concentration time" after hours or on the weekends.

I'd like advice from other project managers on how they balance all the hats so that they meet the needs/requests coming in from clients and team members while also knocking things off their to-do list.

Looking forward to your thoughts,
Scattered in Chicago

Points for teams

  • Make sure the team is clear each week on what the priorities are. If the team isn't clear, more of your time and attention will be wasted on low priority or pet issues.
  • If their priorities are clear, this empowers you and everyone one else to say "No. This is less important than the thing I'm currently working on" in the face of new requests or challenges.
  • Although it often seems that the most urgent issue deserves the most immediate attention, urgency isn't the only factor. Urgency implies time, not importance.
  • If you constantly yield time meant for important but mid/long term work to putting out tiny little fires, the entire project suffers much more than if those tiny little fires went on a few hours (or days) longer. (See the rough checklist below)

Points for individuals

  • Book time your own time. It's entirely sane to book meetings with yourself. Honor the value of your own time. Go offsite (coffee shop, conference room) if that's the only way to get time alone to do your own
    work. Defend your time in a similar fashion to how you'd defend your team's time.
  • Habitually frame work around priorities. "Is A more important than B? why?". Encourage others to compulsively ask the same questions.
  • Turn off the phone, turn off email, Instant Messenger, and close the door (if you have one). Whatever it is can wait. Really, it can. If you can never postpone something for something else, it means you don't have priorities.
  • Trust that your team is smart enough to get things done without your help. If they're not,
    your job should be helping them to grow in that direction.
  • Say No. Say it three times fast. Say it out loud. Practice in front of a mirror. Make it so natural that you can do it without thinking about it. The reason you never have time might just be that you never say No, even when there is good reason to.
  • Generally prioritize removing roadblocks for the team over your own personal tasks - assume that unblocking 3-5 people makes the team as a whole more productive than you making progress on individual work items (Just make sure 3-5 people will be unblocked, and not just one whiny lazy annoying person). However, do work with your manager to ensure that your workload is such that I can afford to make that tradeoff.

A rough checklist for deciding between two tasks

  1. What is most at risk?
  2. What is approaching the fastest?
  3. What requires the longest lead time?
  4. Are the risks mid/long term or short? How severe are the risks?
  5. How significant will the damage be if nothing is done?
  6. How many other people are there than can handle the issue?
  7. How many people are impacted or blocked by this issue?
  8. How important is the work that will be blocked to the project?
  9. Will the costs of resolving/fixing this go up over time or stay the same?

Other references

SD magazine had a recent article on PMs managing time (Subscription required).
Joel on Software's checklist for development teams

This week's contributors

John Wilger, Caterina Sanders, Scott Berkun, Stacia Scott, Dave Heller, Neil Enns, Myk O'Leary, Gareth Howell (Edited by Scott Berkun)


All content copyright 2005. Scott Berkun. RSS Feed