Project tasks are the lowest priority work you have on any given day. Wait, what?

It’s true! Strategically, we know project work is the most important future investment for the company. When you break down what you do every day, you’ll see that you are fitting in project work around the other work you have to do. It’s frustrating. You know you could be doing more. It’s frustrating because someone thought you had the time to get this work done.

If you don’t believe the premise, imagine the following scenario. You are staying late at the office to get some project work completed. Your manager’s manager sees that you are in the office, comes over, and asks you to do a task for tomorrow morning. If your answer is “I’m sorry, but I can’t because I really need to get this project work completed.”, their response will determine the relative priority of project work in your environment. For some, rejecting the task would be a career-limiting move.

Perhaps then, we are asking the wrong question when it comes to resource capacity management. Instead of asking whether this resource has free capacity to do the work, shouldn’t we be asking if the resource has enough consolidated free time to work on project work? If they do not, what can we do to remedy this situation?

In my “Done in 40” webinar, we discussed recent research by time-tracking software companies that identified how the top 10% of productive employees work in an agile fashion. These employees typically work 52 minutes and take a 17 minute break away from the work.  This is coherent with ultradian body rhythms studies from the 90’s and 00’s that showed your focus naturally waxes and wanes on a 1.5-2 hour schedule. These work sprints can make you very productive and help reduce mistakes and rework.

I’ve personally tried the sprint approach and I can say, it works well for me. I use a timer app on my Pebble watch to monitor my sprints. Fifty minutes is roughly the time where the mind starts wandering to “Did Joe ever respond to my email?” or “Is there coffee?”. Three sprints enable the top three daily tasks to get done easily.

The catch is you need to have 69 uninterrupted minutes to complete a personal sprint. This leads us back to the question of does a resource have consolidated availability? Yes, they have 3 hours available that day but if it’s in 15 minute increments, that’s not usable.

When a client with project throughput issues engages my services, I find it’s usually not a project management issue. Many times, the lack of consolidated availability is preventing the project work from happening. If you are interrupted every 10 minutes, as are most office workers in the United States, it’s very hard to get work done. If you are having issues getting projects through the pipe, perhaps it’s time to look beyond your projects and to your operational work processes.

We spend the majority of our energy providing oversight and processes to projects, which are a minority of the work instead of doing the same for operational work. McKinsey released a white paper recently that showed most of the operational spend goes to keeping the company running. New projects are a small portion of the overall effort. Yet, we don’t monitor operational work holistically the way we do projects. Perhaps, its time we start.

Project management processes are very helpful and needed. We’ve worked out how to anticipate and reduce risk and how to deliver the reward. We need to apply these approaches to how we manage all work. It’s the operational work that provides the overall context within which we do our project work. If improperly managed, it also constricts our ability to get our project work done. Operational work management improvements could yield the biggest benefit by enabling the consolidation of availability, yielding more usable time for project work.

If you are interested in finding out more about the specific techniques and how to use Microsoft Project to support this need, sign up here and get the recording link to the full “Done In 40” webinar.