Gwyn Thomas, CIO of the Welsh Assembly Government, says that experience has taught him that it’s more effective to move away from managing time in the traditional mechanical way, where you set objectives, work out what the tasks are, determine the priorities, and then plan your days and weeks.
Life’s such a complex business, he says, that the best way of dealing with it is to follow simple rules.
“How you decide where the time goes should be related to where you are in the business cycle,” says Thomas.
“Each of the four phases – startup, growth, stability, and decline – demands a different level of attention because you’re trying to achieve different results.”
Thomas is responsible for developing the Public Services ICT Strategy for Wales, and he and his team are in the early stages of the business cycle.
“We’re building networks. We’re seeking out opportunities. We’re looking outwards,” says Thomas.
“Superficially, this might seem quite an inefficient way of spending one’s time, because not every chance encounter delivers what you want. But what I look at is, statistically, out of all the chance encounters I’m allowing into my diary, how many are paying off? My rule of thumb is if it’s better than 50 per cent, then I’m doing okay. That’s an acceptable hit rate. If it’s 80 per cent that’s really, really good.”
This makes sense.
While in the growth phase, you need to make new contacts in circles where you might not have already established inroads.
Chance encounters will open new doors.
Thomas spends a lot of time in meetings, and sees the nature of meetings defined by their expected outcomes.
“If its purpose is to report progress, it’s short, it’s sharp, it’s focused. It’s not a long meeting. Whereas if it’s a strategy meeting, there’s much more free form allowed for thinking and shaping. The agenda is framed rather than structured and it takes longer. Everyone is encouraged to make contributions, and sometimes we don’t know quite where it’s going because we’re developing emerging strategies.
“On the other hand, if it’s a meeting about performance and coaching, then it’s much more interactive. There’s an exchange of feedback, and an exchange of views. It’s not appropriate for every meeting to be tightly managed with a timed agenda.”
When you’re growing you need more strategy meetings.
Those shouldn’t be run in the same way you’d run a project board where the focus is on reporting progress.
“If you say you’re going to do something, then do. This is critical because it has a leverage effect. It helps to create an effective and efficient team culture, which means we all spend less time chasing progress. And it helps to make delegation work much more effectively because it signals that we want to create a culture of accountability, ownership, and responsibility.”
As a leader you need to let others know they can count on you. You also need to communicate by example, and that personal reliability is a must.
Thomas evaluates the outputs, not the inputs.
“At the end of every week and every month, we assess whether we have achieved the outputs we wanted. If we have, it means I’ve chosen the right rules for that phase in the business cycle and we’re on the right track. If we haven’t, then we have to re-examine the rules.
“When assessing the appropriateness of the rules, for each one you ask whether it creates a behaviour that matches the current phase in the business cycle. Then you examine whether you are applying the rules effectively. For example, if we’re looking at chance encounters, I might ask if I’m trying to generate networks in the right sphere. Have I met the right people? Have I made the most of my contacts?
“When I open my diary to chance encounters, my predisposition is to say yes to meeting requests. In other phases of the business cycle, I would be much more reluctant to devote my time in this way unless there’s a specific reason to say yes.”
Thomas figures it’s important to maintain a feedback loop.
”If I find that meeting with a company has not been useful, then I tell that company objectively what I think and why. That stops them from pestering me every month with a salesman trying to get into my diary. This is an effective way of managing time for all because you have a feedback loop.”