How to Manage Unplanned Work so that it Doesn’t Ruin your Day

Children are great at reminding us about promises made. Have you ever promised your child that you would take them out for lunch and a swim after all of the chores were through? And then, your Mom called to talk about your Dad’s latest heart problems. Or you got sucked into listening to some news reporting on the latest tragedy? Or one of your children got injured and required attention. Lunch time arrives and you are still nowhere near finishing your chores. And your children are standing at the door in their bathing suits waiting. How can you manage unplanned work so that it doesn’t keep you from delivering on your promises?

Is your business letting unplanned work interfere with deadlines and value delivery?

It’s not that different in the business world. You are working away on that report that you promised your boss or the software feature for the project you are on, and the phone rings. Suddenly you are distracted by a request that was not on your task list for the day. And when this happens over and over all day, those little interruptions add up. The problem is likely to get worse over time, especially if you tend to be a helpful person, by nature. And as the helpful person develops more seniority, he or she can become that person who can solve problems that no one else seems to be able to solve.

And unplanned work doesn’t always start with a phone call. What about that 20 minutes that you spent trying to fix a hardware problem? Or the 15 minutes that you spent trying to figure out why Google isn’t letting you save your calendar appointments like you were yesterday? There’s the software deployment that caused several bugs that are going to take up the rest of your day. Or it might just be the 15 minutes looking through the supply cabinet when you cut your finger and needed a band-aid. The list continues.

There will always be unplanned “work” that keeps you from doing the important. We can reduce unplanned work, but we can’t eliminate it entirely. And unless you want to work 60-hour weeks or more, we have to understand how to manage unplanned work. Here are five suggestions.

There will always be unplanned “work” that keeps you from doing the important. Here are 5 tips to help you keep your promises.

Recognize the impact of unplanned work on your day.

This suggestion starts with each individual. Awareness is the first key to solving any problem. Depending on your position with the organization, it could include recognizing the impact of unplanned work on the project you are managing, the department you are running, or the company you own.

Is there unplanned work that you can just eliminate? Maybe. Can you just say no? You’ll have to be the judge of that. But there are phone silencers, message machines, and focus tools that you can try.

Keep your “why?” statement(s) front and center.

Everyone in your organization needs to know what is driving them. People often have more than one thing that drives them and here I think it helps to narrow the areas of interest as much as possible. You can’t possibly focus on everything at the same time.

I’ve written before on the importance of a motivational project why. But for the person who is working on five different projects, how does he or she balance those conflicting why’s? The first suggestion might be to ensure that the why statements are not in conflict at a larger level. This is what Patrick Lencioni talks about in Silos, Politics and Turf Wars: A Leadership Fable About Destroying the Barriers That Turn Colleagues into Competitors.

In this book, Lencioni talks about thematic goals, defining objectives, and operating objectives. A thematic goal is defined as a “single, qualitative focus that is shared by the entire leadership team — and ultimately, by the entire organization — and that applies for only a specified time period.” (Loc. 1876).

Supporting your thematic goal are defining objectives. Those are the actionable items (likely projects) that you need to complete in order to realize your thematic goal. When an organization takes on a thematic goal to accomplish something significant during the next 3 to 24 months, the operations of the business don’t go away. So, Lencioni recommends a set of standard operating objectives. These are not time-bound and relate to the operations of the business. So, no one in the organization should be working on projects or tasks that are in conflict.

Reduce the number of corporate goals or KPIs that impact you and understand them.

Here again, it’s a question of focus. We can only focus on a limited number of things at a time. Choose your goals and KPIs wisely. You want to deliver impactful results and not flounder around with no direction. These goals and KPIs can help you choose whether you simply say no to a request for help. But if you have too many KPIs or corporate goals, you aren’t likely to remember them or to be able to use them as effective guideposts.

Depending on your position in the organization, this suggestion may require some conversation with superiors.

Develop processes and controls that will shut out unplanned work initiated by HiPPOs.

Are you familiar with HiPPOs? The highest paid people in the organization are sometimes referred to as HiPPOs. They can wreak havoc with your organization when they try to circumvent processes and politely demand work that they think is important.

You need established processes for selecting projects and changing requirements. You need documented and fair ways to prioritize work requests. No one can do it all. What you say no to may be just as important as what you agree to do. But how will you decide what you are not going to do?

Use time blocking as a way to improve focus and drive success.

You can time block your day to focus on a particular project for a block of hours and protect that time with diligence. You can also use time blocking at the team level, or the organization level. Teams can work in sprints (typically two-weeks long) and promise to deliver certain results at the end of that time block. Organizations can develop a time-bound thematic goal that addresses a large problem that is facing the organization.

The key is to protect this time block from interruptions that will prevent you from delivering results. I don’t agree with some Scrum enthusiasts who promote the ever-increasing delivery rates; I think it just results in too much stress over the long-term.

Pick a group of activities that you can actually deliver by the end of the sprint and allow time for management activities, such as risk planning, issue management, communications, and the occasional call from a family member. Everyone needs a break periodically. Plan for that time.

As individuals, we can focus on delivering something valuable every day. But be gentle with yourself and others. Continuous improvement is a great idea but let’s not expect humans to perform like machines. Manage unplanned work so that it doesn’t keep you from succeeding.

Manage unplanned work so that it doesn’t keep you from succeeding.

Thank you for reading, and have a great holiday season! And, I’d love to see you sign up for my newsletter.

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Suzanne S. Davenport

Writes on project management, leadership, team building, and value delivery. Imagining work management in the future. Smartprojex.com