Coaching Harvard Business Review Leadership

Choose your Time

It’s better to spend a few hours a day doing important work than filling ten or a dozen with activities that don’t move you towards achieving your goals.

Kick it off by making sure you know what’s actually important to you. Do the work to understand your values, and then frame your goals.

Then, take stock of the current situation. Where does your effort go? Track your time to understand it. You’ll learn something for sure!

How much effort goes towards wasteful activities that are low value to you? Can you delegate away, or maybe just not do them at all? Recurring meetings are an area worth particular focus. Review your calendar, and try to cancel, short or spread out as many as possible.

Next up, where are your high value activities? There are probably not enough yet. Look at where you are doing good work. Can you extend these slots with the time you’ve just saved?

Big spans of time are better for doing activities that lead to real change, so extending an hour to two is powerful option.

If you can’t do this yet, then go back to that calendar and look at those gaps. If it’s anything like mine was, you’ll have a patchwork of meetings, with small gaps between them. You’ve cleared out the cruft now, so there’s not much left to get rid of.

Instead, start shuffling. Meetings you own are easiest, but any small group session is up for grabs. Two things help here. Knowing your own high performance times, so you can keep them clear for focused work. Then knowing your organisations culture. Start of week for team syncs? Planning mid-week? Retrospectives and demos on Fridays? There’s a cadence there. If it’s a big org, then understanding this is key, you’ll struggle to shift this culture quickly. If it’s small or just getting started, then it’s not fixed yet, so don’t be afraid to grab it and shape it a bit.

Now you’ve made the space, you have to keep it. Hold the time with calendar bookings that highlight the great work you are doing. Stay strong when people inevitably try to overbook and just say “No” (or at least offer a time outside your focus space).

Choose how you spend your time, and you’ll spend more of it contributing towards your goals and achieving the successes you deserve.

Harvard Business Review Leadership

Strength of No

There are lots of articles online teaching you about how and when to say “No” to a request. It’s a common problem, especially for those of us who want to be seen as a team player or go-to person.

However, getting your “No” right is a super powerful way of building up this perception. It’s really bad if you say “Yes” to every single request, and end up delivering badly on most of them. The reputation for being flaky or unreliable is definitely not where you want to be.

Recently I had a classic opportunity to say “No” in a constructive way. One of my teams were racing to finish a high profile project with a fixed deadline. In the tech world, that equates to a big “Do Not Disturb” sign flashing over their heads. Another department had an idea for a short term initiative, with a desired start date that would impact the team and risk the high profile project.

First up, I did some fact finding. Pulling in some domain experts to confirm my understanding of the new initiative, and the impact it would have. Then I looked at options. Were there other people available with the skills to help out? What was the actual impact of the current work, and who cared about it being successful. If we left the team alone, when could they pick-up the fresh initiative, and what date could it launch by?

All this came together to present a strong “No” to the other department, backed up by the reasons for that answer. “We cannot support the new initiative by date X, as the required team are fully committed to Project Y in support of one of our major company objectives. They will be available in two weeks time, meaning we could launch the new initiative before the end of the year if that would still provide value.”

Even with the strength of the answer, I was able to present options for the other department, giving them an expectation of when we’d be able to support them, even though it didn’t meet their initially desired dates. This slight softening helps to maintain the long term relationship with the rest of the business.

If the project had been lower profile, there had been more lead time or the team was less committed, then I could have used a different approach. I’d use these for times where I’d prefer not to distract the team, but to keep the conversation open.

The lighter forms are statements like “Yes we can do that if …” or “Yes, but it’ll need …”. These are particularly useful approaches if the person requesting work is also the stakeholder for the existing work. You give them options on what to pursue, whilst being very clear that not everything will keep happening at the same pace.

Saying “No” effectively is a vital skill, so find opportunities to practice it whilst leaving a positive impression as a result.

Harvard Business Review Leadership

Innovation is Tough

Building a culture of innovation is tough. It’s pretty easy to learn the ‘fail fast’ or ‘build-measure-learn’ mantras, but to really pull it together requires a deep understanding of these paradigms. You have to recognise a good failure as opposed to a bad. You need to be strong in defining experiments and how you react if you don’t get hoped for results. You really must have strong leadership at all levels.

The benefits of innovation are immense. You solve the right problems, you do it effectively and efficiently and you empower people to bring about massive positive change.

HBR’s recent article, The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures, really drills down into the detail of this. It shows you what good and bad is, and how to recognise them. It’s an excellent read, well worth your time and the time of anyone attempting to embed this culture in their organisation.

Harvard Business Review Leadership

Time is precious

Time is the one thing we all have the same amount of, the only thing we cannot get more of and our most precious resource.

As such, we should all be mindful of how we spend it, how much it’s worth to everyone we interact with, and how valuable it is when someone uses their own time to help you out.

The first and most important thing we can do is understand how we use it. HBR recently published an excellent and insightful article on how top CEOs spend their time. The Leader’s Calendar is an eye opening view on many aspects of the daily lives of top execs, and certainly worth the read.

One piece that stands out is that even for these already time conscious people, the difference between how they think they spend their time and how they actually use it is stark. As true today as it was when first coined, Know Thyself is advice that resonates down the years.

Understand why you are doing something, what value it brings to your life and the lives of those around you. Ruthlessly cut out anything that isn’t great or moving you in the right direction. Do this and you’ll do more of the right things, which is the most worthy of aspirations.