Management Myth 29: I Can Concentrate on the Run


Janet tried to catch Bill, the CIO, on his way to his next meeting, "I need ten minutes of your time to discuss this client problem."

"Good, we'll do a standup later."

“No … wait … nuts, he left.” Janet grumbled to herself. I don't want a standup. I want a sit down, so we can think about and solve this problem. Standups are for status and micro commitments, not for problem solving.

A couple of days later, Janet poked her head into Bill’s office. He was standing at the whiteboard with a couple of senior developers.

“Bill, I have a question for you. I can come back later, though.”

“No, it’s OK.” He walked over to the door.

“Look, Bill, this is important. It’s an intricate problem, and I don’t feel comfortable discussing it in front of other people. I want some private time with you.” Janet frowned. “When do you have time to discuss this with me? I asked you about this problem a couple of days ago. It’s not just a technical problem. The client is making funny noises now; it’s a client make-nice issue.”

Bill shrugged. “OK, we can talk about it in fifteen minutes. I’ll be done then.”

Fifteen minutes later, Bill was still standing at the whiteboard with the developers.

“Bill, remember our discussion?”

“Oh, yes, now I remember. Give me another minute.”

Bill took another ten minutes to extricate himself from the other discussion. Once he and Janet started discussing the client issue, Bill asked, “Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier?”

“I tried to. You told me we would do a standup ‘later.’ I didn’t want a standup with you. I’ve been fighting to get time on your calendar. You’re always running from one meeting to another. You’re not responding to my emails. You just postponed me today, half an hour ago, remember?”

“OK, I get it. Let’s solve this problem and go forward.”

Later that week, Bill ran down the hall as Janet made her way to the women’s room. "Janet, I need to know if your teams can commit to this program."

"I'll tell you later, when I've looked at it and seen what it is. I'm on my way to the women’s room right now."

"I can't wait for an answer."

"Well, you're going to have to. I have to answer the call of nature."

"Janet?" Bill bellowed through the closed door. "What if I told you the specs now?"

Lauren, the sales VP, tapped Bill on the shoulder. "Excuse me, Bill, I need to get into the ladies’ room. Why are you yelling at Janet?"

"I need to know by 5 p.m. if these teams can commit to this program."

"It's 4:45 p.m. now. Why did you wait so long to ask?"

Bill growled, "I just discovered I needed to know."

“Well, that’s no good,” Lauren said. “That’s no way to run a business.”

“You’re telling me? I discover fifteen minutes before an Ops meeting—and why are we having an Ops meeting at 5 p.m. anyway?—that I have to know about this must-save-the-company program, and my program manager is in the bathroom! I need an estimate. They'll have my head if I go in there with no information.”

“If you just discovered this program, why can’t you explain that you’ll have the information tomorrow?”

“Because the Ops committee wants to make a decision today. They only do their standups at 5 p.m. on Tuesdays, and here it is, almost 5 p.m. on Tuesday.”

Lauren thought for a minute. “You know, standups aren’t for decision making.”

Janet emerged from the restroom. “That’s what I tried to tell you earlier this week, Bill. You’re allowed to sit down and have divergent discussions and then come to convergent decisions. Standups are for micro-commitments to each other. Not for decisions about projects and programs.

“I’m your program manager and this is a strategic issue. You need to devote time and energy to solving this problem with me. I can solve this problem without you, but the last time I did, you said, ‘You don’t have the authority to commit money on behalf of the organization.’

“Well, I’m waiting for you. I’ve been waiting for you for two days now. You can snark at me and tell me I don't have the authority.” Janet rolled her eyes. “Or, you can sit down with me and decide what to do about this customer and this problem. But you can’t run away or make good decisions standing up or on the run. You have to concentrate and think this problem through.”

“Oh boy,” Bill said. “I knew those words would come back to bite me. OK, let me have it. What do you suggest?”

“Let’s have a revolution and tell them how to make decisions!”

Lauren laughed, “Well, I like the revolution part, but maybe we won’t tell them. Maybe we can sell them.”

Janet and Bill both laughed at that.

“OK,” Bill said. “Let’s explain what standups are for and why they aren’t for major decisions. Then, let’s discuss other solutions for this problem.”

Are You Allowing Yourself to Concentrate?
I see many managers trying to make decisions while they run from one meeting to another. I also see managers make decisions when they stand up. Now, there is nothing wrong with standing or walking. I’m a fan of walking to clear your head or walking with a colleague to discuss a problem.

The problem I see is when people throw problems at you—often several problems simultaneously—and you try to solve them without being able to concentrate on any of them.

If you aren’t able to separate the problems from one another—or even properly learn about each problem—you can’t solve them.

Managers provide the most value to the organization when they use their position to remove obstacles for other people. That means solving problems. It also means that you have to pay attention to what problems you solve and how you solve them.

When Are You Deciding?
If you’ve worked anywhere for any length of time, I bet you’ve seen managers try to make decisions while standing up. You can certainly make some decisions while standing up: where to have lunch is one of those decisions; especially, if it’s just before lunch!

But, if you are trying to decide on the value of projects or interview candidates or provide feedback to people—unless you are walking with someone, consider creating an environment that allows you to concentrate.

You can concentrate when you focus on the problem at hand, which means you create an agenda. You have an environment that fosters discussion. You have the people you need. I’ve seen these environments be: meeting rooms with whiteboards, on a walk if it’s just two people, and across a visitor’s table in someone’s office. You need to be able to see the problem statement and the related data. As long as you can do that, you’re OK.

How Do You Concentrate?
Everyone concentrates differently. Maybe you pace while you concentrate. You are standing up, walking. In that case, have an agenda of the problem on the whiteboard.

Maybe you lean back in a chair and put your feet up. Maybe you lean forward and make notes. Maybe you doodle.

Here’s what I do know about concentrating: You are not concentrating if you’re looking at your cell phone—unless, of course, you have the data about the problem on your phone.

You need to focus on the problem at hand. I suspect that some management teams adopted the standup so they would stop looking at their cell phones. That might have worked to solve that problem, but it doesn’t work for a serious, in-depth discussion. Is there another way?

Create an Agenda with Timeboxes
You can create a meeting that is limited to one hour or less. On the agenda, create segments that are timeboxes, each not longer than ten minutes. If you are discussing a thorny issue, you might have something like this:

  • Problem explanation (5 minutes); Share the data in a way that everyone can see it
  • Problem brainstorming (7 minutes)
  • Solution selection (12 minutes)
  • Action item discussion and next steps (5 minutes)

This is a template and might not fit for you. However, you can try something similar, varying the timing to suit your specific circumstance. The nice thing about timeboxing everything is that people can maintain their focus for the almost thirty minutes this takes. When they realize they are not spending their entire day in a meeting, they are more likely to focus on the problem you want them to solve.

Sitting Is Not Always the Answer
I agree that sitting in seats is not always the answer. People need to move. Some managers I know are so sleep deprived that if they sat for more than ten minutes, they would fall asleep. That’s a symptom of yet another problem!

Working together and using your entire body to solve problems is useful. You can do this and still concentrate. Some people like to work at the whiteboard together. That’s a form of management problem solving. Some people like to brainstorm while writing, instead of speaking. Since many technical managers are not from the extroverted side of the house, this might work for you. If you have many candidate solutions, form several teams and have the teams evaluate the solutions in parallel, timeboxing their evaluation. Ask them to return at the same time, to discuss next steps.

Managers solve problems, just as technical teams do. Their problems are different, but the process is similar. Since managers are so accustomed to running from one meeting to another, they might not realize when they need to move into problem-solving mode.

Solve one problem at a time, by concentrating on it, and making sure you have actually solved it. Then you can move on to the next one.

If you have a problem, think through solutions, make a decision, and then continue with the rest of your day. You can’t solve problems if you are running around, never thinking.

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