In Vienna, April 2004, Ken Schwaber, co-founder of Scrum said to his class:
“Don’t procrastinate, do something, no matter how small…something that moves the project forward”
I’ve kept that quote close to hand ever since. In fact, I even use it in my Scrum presentations (more here – registration required)
The crux behind “Focus on the project” is this:
We all suffer from an uncanny ability to be sidetracked or to be distracted. This is not good for the project.
Distractions, as Clarke might say, are evil. I certainly agree, distractions are the work of the Devil.
I find myself distracted by a number of things (apologies if these sound like rants…they are sort of!):
- Passers by. I’ve been travelling a lot over the last 18 months, so when I get back to my desk I’m invariably greeting with the response “oh, you’re back…”. And being an IT guy, the next question, after the usual exhchange of pleasantries is “…I have an Excel problem…have you got a minute?” (Of course, sometimes it’s Word!) As noted earlier, “a minute” usual means five. Getting back to what I was doing after a five minute gap can be a chore.
- The telephone. The telephone’s great for getting quick decisions and I favour it over a series of e-mails (this is the subject of a future posting). However, just because I have chosen to answer the telephone, typically out of politeness, it doesn’t mean that I’m at your disposal. Please ask me: “is now a good time to talk?” or “do you have time to talk?” Better still, if you’re call isn’t that important, send me a single e-mail asking me to call you when I’m ready. Telephone interruptions tend to be continous, once a caller realises that you are already on the the ‘phone, they’ll tend to keep trying until they get through. Apart from the obvious waste of time and resource, it means you suddenly end up with two (or more) ‘phone calls back-to-back. This is really frustrating as it feels like you’re destined not to get on with the task in hand, i.e. focus on the project.
- Folks who don’t realise the importance of what’s being done. I’m sat here in my study typing this post, to all extents and purposes in the eyes other folks, it’s something that can be done later…because all I’m doing is staring at the monitor. Creativity doesn’t work 9-5, it doesn’t always manifest itself in swish graphics on the screen or reams of fancy looking text. Similarly, it’s the weekend…my deadlines have been published for long enough now, but still I’m just perceived as sitting in the study twiddling my thumbs…my to-do list isn’t at all important!
- Doing something for doing something’s sake. It’s nice to get ticks in boxes, little jobs complete, but ask yourself: “how important was that tick in the box activity?” It might have been important to somebody else who needed the tick in the box, but did it really help the project? There comes a time in a project when a particular avenue is closed off and another route has to be examined. Some folks will expect the original avenue’s work to be completed such that proper closure can be achieved. Invariably, you’ll find yourself creating documentation or doing work that will not be used and merely gets the requestor a tick in the box – this kind of distraction does not help the project and serves to slow to you down.
- Poor use of e-mail. A future posting will cover appropriate use of e-mail…as a distraction, “e-mail ping pong” is a real pain. E-mail is a great tool, but some folks treat it as “work postponement device”. This scenario typically occurs when you pass work on to somebody, you may spend some time crafting a very succinct e-mail making sure that you pass the request/work over neatly. Imagine your surprise when the reply comes back very quickly with a question that essentially passes the work content back to you? I’ve seen this trick referred to in other postings as “sloping shoulders” – the uncanny knack of not accepting a work package! I’ve also seen this scenario referred to as “answering questions with questions.” The distraction element occurs as you have to read the question and then re-plan the distribution of that particular work package.
- Too much work. Yes, I agree, this is a strange one. I find myself, and see others, being distracted because they’ve got too much work to do. In this distraction scenario we find ourselves flitting between tasks/activities, not really focusing on any task for too long. We essentially fall into the “multi-tasking is evil” camp, but that’s another blog post (#7, in draft format, coming soon).
- Too much travel.
Travel takes its toll; downtime in airport departure lounges can be harnessed, however invariably, I find myself fidgetting and wanting to get on with some work, i.e. move the project forward. However, I usually end up reading a technical book, or a novel (this is sometimes better as it frees the mind, allowing the subconcious to “do what it has to do”) I’m a great believer in conference calls and LiveMeetings for bringing folks together “face to face”.
Do what you have to in order to reduce the number of distractions that are plaguing you. Make large chunks of uninteruppted time available to you and your project – it’s the only way you can make significant and productive progress.
Even if you publish your deadlines and to-do list, sometimes you will find that you need to reinforce the importance of it to others.
Alway ask youself, “is what I’m currently doing helping the project?” If it’s not, then it’s periphery and you should re-prioritise your work basket.
It’s not just about “you” focusing on the project, it’s also about getting the project team to buy-in to a similar focus otherwise you’ll find yourself threading water (if you’re lucky). I know it’s difficult, but if you have folks on your project who have interests other than the project in hand, it’s important to have them drop that interest such that they can focus on the current project.
In this series:
PM#11 – Management By Shouting Loudest (MSBL)
PM#10 – The truth is best…admit it…
PM#9 – Avoid duplication of effort
PM#8 – Multi-tasking is evil
PM#7 – High workload means lower productivity…
PM#6 – You were right and I was wrong
PM#5 – Whose schedule is it anyway?
PM#4 – Start it…finish it
PM#3 – Use e-mail properly
PM#2 – Focus on the project
PM#1 – decision making