While consulting with one of a client organization on leadership matters, I kept hearing from the high-level executive team that they were all averaging more than eighty hours a week. During the training with this group, the topic of the heavy work schedule kept surfacing.
I decided to put what we were doing on pause and take a closer look. Some questions needed answering: First, how could these executives keep up this schedule without destroying themselves, their families, and their teams? Second, with such demands on their time, how would they be able to change ingrained habits and actually start doing this “leadership thing” that they knew was important, but they never seemed able to focus on long enough to accomplish? Would our recommendations, if followed, now cause them to have to work ninety hours per week?
To get hard data on how these executives were allocating their time resources, we decided to use the Stephen Covey view of time management found in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey’s Time Management Matrix shows four categories of activities:
I asked the team to spend two weeks tracking their time and scrupulously recording what they were doing during these 80-hour marathons. I tallied the results and created a page on a flip chart for each person, cataloging that 8 of their 80 hours went to task A, 6 hours went to task B, and so on. All 160 hours were accounted for in this way.
The group assembled to hear the results. I wish there was a videotape of the assorted jaw-dropping responses I observed as I first revealed individual patterns and then moved on through a discussion process for the entire group. It was interesting and a bit entertaining when one person would identify an item as Quadrant III (urgent, but not important) and someone else would say, “Time out! If you don’t do that task for me, I can’t get my work done (Quadrant I)!” It took a great deal of negotiation to reach a team consensus on which activities belonged in which quadrants. However, through those negotiations, we discovered just exactly what each person needed.
In many cases one person or team was generating an entire report that took a great deal of time, while the person who needed the data might use only a single crucial piece of data from the entire report. Once we determined that the one piece of data could be generated easily and, in many cases, could be retrieved on demand by the recipient from a database, a gigantic amount of busywork was eliminated.
After completing the negotiations over quadrant assignments, we added up all the hours and determined that about 20 percent of the hours fell in Quadrants I and II (the categories that really matter if you want to focus the team), while 80 percent fell in the less important Quadrant III.
You can imagine the stunned silence that settled like a black cloud in the room. Finally one executive said, “You mean we accomplished all of our important work in sixteen hours and the other sixty-four hours each week were spent on busywork?” The answer was yes. More silence followed.
How had this bright, talented, and obviously hard working “band” gotten so out of tune, so unbalanced? For one thing, they had never sat down together for this kind of discussion and negotiation. The positive result was that they eliminated a tremendous amount of busywork right on the spot. As a team, they came to grips with the focus-destroying enemy called “the tyranny of the urgent.”
If I stopped by your place of business and did the same exercise, what might the results be? Have you and your team identified the important versus the urgent? Do you spend your time and energy on the important?