Monthly Archives: May 2011

Rules for Meeting on the Maker’s Schedule

Schedule your meetings in a way that is cognizant of the significant difference between the maker’s schedule and the manager’s schedule.

If you manage people who are building software or otherwise doing something that requires sustained, intensive concentration, then this is something you need to read:

The basic gist of the essay is that the “tax” of holding a meeting is many times worse for a maker (people who build things, and require sustained concentration to do so) than for a manager. The manager tends to view the day as a series of hour-long slots into which obligations, especially meetings, must be fit. The maker, however, tries to get large blocks of uninterrupted time, because of the effort required to get back into the creative “zone” after an interruption. For a maker, three contiguous hours are much more valuable than three isolated hours. A typical software developer will get twice as much coding done from 1:00 to 4:00 as she would from 9:00 to 10:00, 11:00 to 12:00, and 2:00 to 3:00, even though the total time spent seems to be the same in both scenarios.

After reading this article, I now try to schedule meetings using the following rules, which assume that I can see the daily calendars of the makers with whom I’d like to meet:

1) If a maker already has an uninterrupted morning or afternoon, don’t touch it. That’s golden time, and biting into it is like cutting open the golden goose. Find another time. (This rule decreases greatly in importance if the maker appears to have lots of unscheduled time, but most engineers / developers have a decent number of meetings that they need to attend.)

2) Try to schedule the meeting adjacent to existing meetings, preferably on the side that allows the block of time on the opposite side to be as large as possible.

3) If the above don’t work out, schedule the meeting immediately before or after lunch.

4) As a corollary consideration, schedule your meetings with other managers at times like 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM, so that you will be free to meet with makers (as needed) on a schedule that is more congenial to their interests.

I’ve been trying to follow these rules for a month or so, and my folks think they make a difference. They report a little more time to tackle hard problems, and they appreciate the fact that I am cognizant of their scheduling needs . Of course, there are times when I have to violate the rules, particularly when the meeting is large (making it much harder to find common free time) or when it involves somebody who is chronically over-scheduled. For example, my boss has an amazingly small amount of uncalendared time in any given week, and so if I need to get him in a meeting with my folks, I’m pretty much bound to pick whatever free time he might have.

My scheduling concerns are relatively complicated because I have a geographically distributed team, part of which is on eastern time (Philadelphia) and part of which is on mountain time (Denver). So, for team meetings, it’s harder to get a time that works for everybody. 11:00 AM eastern works pretty well because the Philly folks will go to lunch right after and the Denver folks (2 hours behind) are just starting their day. 1:00 PM eastern is also good for similar reasons (Philly folks have lunch before, and Denver folks go to lunch after).

The difference between maker’s time and manager’s time is pretty obvious in retrospect, but most managers are surprisingly oblivious to it until it is pointed out to them. (I was.) Accounting for the difference is relatively simple, and likely to pay big dividends. So, I’d recommend coming up with your own set of rules for meeting on the maker’s schedule, and sharing them with the other managers in your organization. You’ll make your makers happy if you do.

One-Page Project Plans

Because project management is a social, participative activity, the effectiveness of particular methods is inevitably bound up with the culture and aptitudes of the organization in which these methods will be employed. For an organization with little project management experience, earned value calculations don’t appear to be meaningfully different than the blithe “we’re 90 percent done” statuses that plague poorly run projects. Similarly, scope statements and change management plans are unlikely to find many admirers in organizations that rely heavily on oral communication and often fly by the seat of their pants.
In such organizations, trying to manage projects with the overt use of PMI-style techniques is probably futile and may even be counter-productive. Not every organization is ready for the PMI way of doing things, and if formal project management techniques are introduced clumsily, the organization is likely to recoil and dismiss these as a waste of time. Instead, it is often better to meet the organization where it is and begin with simple methods having broad, intuitive appeal. 

The above is an excerpt from a 2-part series I wrote for Gantthead under the title “When PMI is TMI.” In that series, I advocated using one-page project plans for organizations that have minimal project management culture in place, because more elaborate methods are likely to meet with insufficient support in such organizations. While a one-page plan is obviously pretty thin, in many cases it would be preferable to more ambitious approaches that can fall into rapid disuse and/or actually turn people against formal project management techniques.

The articles are linked below, and have generated some favorable comments among the members of the Gantthead community. Part II also includes a sample of a one-page project plan that I used a few years back. Unfortunately, Gantthead requires registration before you can read an article in full – sorry about that.

 When PMI is TMI, Part I

When PMI is TMI, Part II