Five Ways to Capitalize on The Effects of Time Constraints on Your Project
I’ve written some on project constraints over the last year and my last blog was about keeping project constraints from dooming your project. In it, I primarily focused on the unique constraints of the specific project you are working on. In this blog I want to focus specifically on time constraints, which many projects have. It can be the time constraint associated with a particular activity or a deadline on the completed project. Even when time is less important than scope or costs, it’s probably not irrelevant. You will have some deadlines that you need to meet. So how can you capitalize on the effects of time constraints on your project?
First, let me explain what I mean by the effects of time constraints. When a project is under time pressures, there can be domino effects. People can make poor decisions. The client or project sponsor can cut scope, sometimes for good and sometimes in a way that weakens the overall outcome. Teams can work longer hours, short-changing personal and family needs. Or, the project team or manager simply decides, either consciously, or not, to relax the need to finish on schedule.
Sometimes, there are benefits to time constraints that we can capitalize on — and improve outcomes. It’s a balancing act — an art if you will — to understand where the line is between work efforts that improve outcomes and efforts that jeopardize results. Here are five ideas that might help you.
1 — Understand the value of time constraints
Have you ever noticed how much more excited a happy bride and groom get once the wedding date is set? It gives the event certainty. A deadline can rally a team around the final outcome. Without that wedding date, the engagement can feel a bit abstract. It can be hard to know how to plan some activities when there is no final deadline.
Even on projects without a major event at the end, knowing the date at which a project is going to be finished and understanding what finished looks like, can help a team decide what scope is realistic. There are a finite number of hours in a day, a week, and a year. And the longer the project length, the more uncertainty your project will have.
I have often recommended that teams break longer projects into pieces. Whether you call them phases, or separate projects is up to you. We live in a rapidly changing world, particularly in the realm of technology. What may have made sense three or six months ago can become questionable when a competitor announces a major change, or when a new technology is introduced that makes your idea obsolete.
2 — Talk more with colleagues but focus on achieving outcomes from talking
I’m reading Cal Newport’s book on eliminating email and he’s clearly beating a drum that I’ve been beating for a long time. Don’t get me wrong. Email has its place. But poorly written emails cause confusion and delay results. Email is not the place for synchronous conversations, project planning, or problem resolution. Talk to your colleagues.
In this book, Newport tells a story that was recounted to him by Gloria Mark, a research professor in the field of computer-supported collaborative work. She tells the story of a scientist who would spend two hours every day setting up his lab for the day’s work. He was often interrupted by emails, especially from his boss. When email went down for five days, he found that his productivity shot up. His boss was in an office two doors away, but he rarely came to find that scientist during that week. When the easy option of email was available the boss would use it, but when that easy option was unavailable, the boss left the scientist alone, so he could work uninterrupted. (p. 55)
Let me be clear. I’m not advocating endless conversation that serves no function. Some people like to talk, or maybe I should say they like to hear themselves talk. What I’m suggesting is that when you have a problem to solve, or an activity that needs more clarity, talk to your colleagues. Face-to-face talking is my preference. The research is clear that when it comes to creative conversations, face-to-face talking produces better results, as I discussed in a blog on when to co-locate teams. Outline the objective for the planned conversation and give yourself a limited amount of time for best results.
3 — Time block to improve productivity and minimize negative effects of time constraints
I’m increasingly a fan of time blocking. It improves focus. And focus improves productivity. It might be working in two-day or two-week sprints with very defined deliverables delivered at the end. It might mean declaring that a specific section of the day is blocked off for focused work without interruptions. Or it might be a way of organizing your personal calendar, so that certain tasks for the day are assigned to blocks of time on your calendar. It makes your tasks more tangible when you put them on your calendar, just like setting the date for an event makes it tangible.
With improved productivity and focus on your project, you might just finish it ahead of schedule or under budget.
4 — Allow time for the inevitable
We all need breaks. We all periodically need to recharge our internal batteries. And, we all run into technology problems, or personal demands that take us away from our work. If you plan to deliver eight hours of actual work results, don’t assume you can do it in eight hours. Allow time for the inevitable.
Allow time for casual conversations with colleagues that build bonds of familiarity. I’m not suggesting that everything you do has to be about delivering results. You’ll have to find your rhythm. Balance the need for personal and family care against the need to steadily produce results for your organization.
Another story that Newport told was about a German entrepreneur, Lasse Rheingans, who completely changed the work expectations in his start-up to a five-hour workday — that was strictly about accomplishing work deliverables. (Reported in fall, 2019) Rheingans banned all social media, personal distractions, and email checking during work hours and the team went home after five hours — with no expectations that more work would be done after hours.
According to Newport: “Rheingans’s goal was for everyone to slow down; to approach their work more deliberately and with less frantic action; to realize that they were “running all the time without getting anywhere.” With these changes in place, five hours suddenly proved to be more than enough to accomplish the work that used to require a much longer day.” (p. 102)
5 — Use deadlines effectively
I’ve written before about the importance of using deadlines effectively. Too many deadlines on a project can overwhelm a team and make them less effective. It’s the same for us as individuals. Some deadlines are helpful. And some people need deadlines more than others. If you use deadlines effectively you can make them your friend, instead of your enemy.
If you want to capitalize on the effects of time constraints on your projects, you may need to reimagine your project workflow. To explore how to do that, without a great reliance on email or texting, check out my 8 Lesson Crash Course Text on project management.