Tuesday, May 05, 2009

transparency: your calendar

If I were to magically gain access to your work calendar would it tell me anything about your priorities?  Or would I just see "meetings"?

Product managers and product marketers live in an intensely networked world - our jobs require us to spend a disproportionate amount of time in meetings with others in order to accomplish our goals.  Take a look at any of our calendars and you'll see a patchwork of weekly/monthly/quarterly/yearly recurring meetings.  During release seasons, you may see that we're completely booked.

It will be immediately clear what's "urgent".  But will it be equally clear what's "important"?

I ask because one of the quality-of-life problems for practitioners of our craft is - wait for it - not having enough time to dedicate to the long-cycle problems.  And one reason we don't have enough time is that we're too free with it.

Have you ever heard the following statement: "I looked at your calendar and saw you were free, so I scheduled a meeting with you"?

Conversely, have you ever heard the following statement: "I looked at your calendar and decided what I needed you to do was more urgent than what you had scheduled at the time, so I scheduled a meeting with you"?

My bet is you've heard both - the former from peers and subordinates, and the latter from the folks you work for.

In both situations you ask yourself- do you want to be the one who DECLINES the meeting and upsets the cart?  Or do you just accept, secretly resentful that you've been pulled away from a task that you need to accomplish?  Are the first words out of your mouth at the meeting "where is the agenda" and "I have a hard stop at. . ."? 

Or: do you schedule time to advance your non-urgent (or "long-cycle") agendas, and if you do, do you label them in a manner that would make sense to a third party?   Beyond the title, do you include any details in the meeting notes that could help the viewer understand what you were doing and why?

I ask for two reasons - one external to you and one internal - with a bonus outcome you may not have anticipated.

Externally, booking your own time for activities that make sense to an external viewer raises the bar for someone looking to take that time away from you.  It also forces you to "reschedule" those activities to remove the conflict from your calendar (if you accept the meeting), which means they'll still get done.  Marking a time for "projects" is OK, but it's not going to stand up to much external scrutiny.

The bonus outcome is you become more transparent.  Your process for advancing your personal agendas is visible to everyone, especially those whose contributions are required for you to accomplish them.  For the members of your team, imagine seeing an item on your calendar that reads "update team MBO progress" every month.

And this helps to make time for the activities that can get "lost" - how many of you PMs wish you had more time to spend with telesales?  Get it on your calendar.  Tell them that you've got time dedicated to them each month, and that they can book you for time to sit at their desks with a pair of headphones on, listening to actual prospects.

It also serves as a helpful tool for justifying an investment in additional staff - when you run out of time to advance the agendas you've been assigned you have three choices: find more time, eliminate some existing agendas from your list, get more resources.  Option number one is only an option if you're not managing your time well, and option number two is only an option if you're not managing your priorities well.  Once those are both as tight as you can get them, you can make a good argument to add staff.

I'm sure there are other benefits that you, my dear reader, will remind me of.  But I've run out of time today to write you and must move on to my next activity.

"7:00am: make coffee for Julie"

No way am I rescheduling that.


Jim Holland said...

Bob - I agree that creating transparency begins with you and extends to planning the long cycle activities in advance. If you can plan the normal day-to-day, do it. Block out time for important reading, research and conversations.

A word of caution, don't get trapped in the urgent "pre-meeting" meetings. You know, the ones where you hold a short meeting to plan for the real "important" one later on.

David Locke said...

Would proactivity reduce the number of meetings you have to attend?

We are told to hold stand up meetings, because they are shorter. We are told to only have a meeting to make a decision. We are told to hold a meeting to generate consensus.

If those are the things we need to do, then we don't need a meeting to do them.

Is it faster to have a conversation with the person involved, or hold five meetings with the whole team present? Do those meeting eliminate conversations?

And, what do those conversations do for you that meetings don't? Conversations are personal. Meeting impersonal. Meetings are like mass marketing talking to. Where conversations are talking with. It's the traditional marketing vs. social marketing split. Conversations lead to leadership.

bob said...

David - you've struck at the heart of the challenge: how do you need to structure your time to achieve your goals, and what is the best way to engage the time of others in the process? Is it one-on-one, small groups or large groups? Can you do it in an ad-hoc manner or do you need more structure? Do you have a separate process for kicking things off vs. keeping them going?

Every company is different. Finding your way, I'll argue, is easier when folks know how you do it and your processes are transparent. And one element of that transparency is your calendar - it's an elegantly simple way to expose what you're up to.

I will offer that I run very personal meetings because everyone knows why they are there, that they need to be there of their own choice, they know the agenda, we get all the opinions out on the table at once in front of everyone, they have a call to action, and we respect the clock. For organizations run in a more collegial way in which consensus (or at least understanding) is important, meetings build culture, and running a good meeting is a sign of good leadership.

As always, YMMV.