Time Crunch: What to Do When You’re Drowning in Work Initiatives

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May 5, 2014

Business writing, mine included, is usually a new slant on a common theme.

It’s cool to find content that is both logical and innovative, and think, dang it – I wish I’d thought of that.

The current issue of the Harvard Business Review is packed with good stuff but one stands out. The topic, Your Scarcest Resource, sounded a little ho-hum compared to Blue Ocean Leadership, but I started reading and was hooked.

What a simple premise: we are running out of time in any given work day to do the work we need to do. Something has to give. The authors have a suggestion — treat “time” as a resource of your organization.

When you’re drowning in work initiatives

I recently asked an audience of HR practitioners how many of their organizations were drowning in work initiatives and got a bunch of vigorous head nods. I’ve been there, and what is always interesting to me is that executive leadership expects me to pull the plug on “non-value-added work” generally as a cost cutting exercise. The organization is struggling, and the mandate comes down from on high — cut expenses.

Oh sure, like I’m going to recommend one of my pet programs to be cut because of the cash crunch. More likely I’ll put even more effort into justifying why my pet program must continue, as will my peers.

So nothing of any import actually goes away except staff, and we all just get a little busier. Been there, done that.

What always left me scratching my head was the fact that executive leadership didn’t catch on to the fact that all of their subordinate leaders go into protection mode rather than thinking collectively about the right decisions to make. So over and over, the word goes out to cut expenses, and executives play ostrich thinking that everyone is doing their part, and the very foundation of the organization begins to crumble, and the workload grows exponentially.

Enter the HBR article which offers an amazingly proactive option to the madness of cutting expenses. Manage expenses proactively. What expenses, you ask? Why, time, of course.

Two concepts from the article that blew my mind, but are so very smart.

1. Take on new initiatives carefully

The authors suggest that any new work be presented first as a business case, with executive sign off on the cost and benefit of the project prior to any work actually being done.

What a great idea – figure out what a project will cost and deliver before getting started.

A large health care system with whom I am familiar decided to apply for Magnet status. This is a recognition of nursing excellence and according to the Chief Nursing Officer, was absolutely necessary for the organization to be competitive in hiring nurses.

Three years and several hundred thousand dollars later, only one of the seven hospitals in the systems succeeded in achieving the award, right at the time when a new hospital came to town. While this organization was busy following the guide that the Magnet program published for aspiring hospitals, the new hospital went in a different direction – they got a patient council to help them decide what was best for the patients. Nurses loved it, and those who were competitive enough to get hired – e.g., top talent – left.

Pet projects happen in organizations. They may be agreed to in order to attract a new, highly successful executive. They may be just plain obvious – we need to retain top talent so we need a talent management program.

The problem with pet projects is that there is little accountability for the time invested, and the results obtained. Enter the authors’ premise that organizations must begin treating time as one of their most valuable resources, track it, monitor it, and allocate it as the precious resource it is.

 2. Get meetings under control

One of the targets of the authors’ article is meeting time, and they are pretty brutal about the value of time spent in meetings. When you put together the time executives spend in meeting with the time that they spend reading and answering electronic communication, time’s up.

One of their concepts to address this issue of wasted time is zero based time budgets. Before you can add a meeting, you need to take one away so that the total time doesn’t creep past what’s really available.

These are amazing concepts, and worth pondering. The problem here is that the expectations have to be established, modeled and monitored by executive leadership. Executive leadership has the opportunity to set the example. In order to do that, they have to be knowledgeable about the work being done in the organization.

It’s got to come from the executive team

A disciplined system of understanding the work that is being done in the organization is a must. Trust that everyone is working for the greater good of the organization may be misplaced, and must be verified.

This mandate can only come from one place – executive leadership. And they have to really know what’s going on and ask the right questions.

The authors project the hours for one executive leadership teams’ meetings over the course of a year at about 300,000. Given the hourly rate of most executives, that seems like something worth tackling, doesn’t it?

This originally appeared on the ….@ the intersection of learning & performance blog.