The Problem with Time Management

Does it seem like none of the time management ideas you try work for very long? Sure, they look good on paper and you probably even agree with them, but they just don’t play out that well in real life. Find out the real problem with time management in this article from the author of the new book Ignited.

If you’ve been living in the corporate world for some time, you’ve probably attended a training session where one of the exercises was to conduct a “time spent” analysis in order to increase your efficiency. You cracked open your calendar, reviewed how you spent your time for the past week, and identified black holes that were wasting your energy. Maybe you even went so far as to break your activities into categories, separating the “urgent” things from the “important” things and both of these from the “insignificant” things.

Time management studies like these can be interesting, but the findings are almost always the same. Virtually every manager who works through the exercises discovers that he or she is spending too much time on “putting out fires” — dealing with the daily dramas and emergencies around the office — and not enough time thinking and planning for long-term projects that really matter. E-mails, instant messages, phone calls, and that guy from Purchasing who drops in “just for a second” and chews the fat for 45 minutes undo our best-laid plans — not to mention the endless, interminable, usually pointless meetings.

We know all this. Why doesn’t it ever change?

The problem lies in our approach. Time management programs usually focus on your personal productivity, analyzing how you choose to spend your time. This is all fine and dandy, but it misses one essential truth: In an organization that’s devoted to banging pots, you better bang pots or have a damn good reason for not banging them.

That’s why, after the PowerPoint presentation had ended and the trainer went home, you fell back into your old, unproductive rhythms — not because you didn’t agree with the time management expert’s analysis, but because you returned to normal life in the world of The Middle . . . which means doing what you think your boss wants you to do. Bang! Bang! Bang!

Managing Your Managers

In order to take back your time, your life, and your career, you need to make a new kind of change in your approach to self-management. You must step into the realm of managing your managers and thereby altering their expectations related to your time. The goal is to achieve complete alignment between what your bosses want (and perhaps need) you to do and what you believe you really should do.

In the same way that you coordinate the schedule in your PDA and your laptop with the one in your desktop computer, you need to continually coordinate with your bosses to ensure that you are clear, on track, and working from the same plan.

All of this starts with having a happy and supportive boss. And that means a successful boss. Your boss has to be successful. For if he is not, his failure may cast a negative light on everyone on his team. Many potentially great careers have been stalled, not because of the effort of the individual, but because of a boss who failed to make an impact, who failed to demonstrate his own value and the value of those on his team.

The first step in managing your manager is to move beyond your own needs to examine your bosses’ needs. Sounds reasonable — but understanding those needs and figuring out what to do to meet them isn’t usually straightforward. In fact, it’s a challenge in itself, requiring a whole new set of skills most people have never thought about.

Needs Explicit and Needs Implicit

Let’s start by dispelling a common misunderstanding. Lots of people in business assume that “meeting the boss’s needs” means doing exactly what the boss wants them to do — accepting the boss’s vision and direction wholesale. Wrong! This assumption is simple-minded and inaccurate. It leads to managers in The Middle focusing on aligning their lips with their boss’s backsides rather than meeting anyone’s actual needs.

Real “managing upward” demands a more serious and subtle analysis of human needs, which starts with the realization that needs come in two forms — explicit needs and implicit needs.

Explicit needs are easier to understand. They may be stated in the strategic plan promulgated by the company or the division, or they may be announced by your boss whenever the team gets together for the usual pep talk/torture session. They may sound something like this:

  • “We need to expand our business internationally!”
  • “We need to create a shipping policy that will save us some money and keep the administrative assistants from running around the office like decapitated chickens every afternoon at 4 p.m. when the FedEx guy makes his last pickup.”
  • “We need to commerce-enable our Web site before decides to start selling the same kinds of widgets we sell and drives us out of business.”
  • “We need to hire two more designers, fast, so we’ll have a prayer of getting the fall product line into the stores sometime this year.”

Explicit needs are the kinds of things that make it into the lists of goals you write every year at objective-setting time. They’re the things you tell people you’re working on when they ask. They tend to be the things you are proud of accomplishing (if and when you happen to accomplish one of them).

Implicit needs are more subtle. People don’t talk about them. Sometimes they’re not even aware of them. Most of the time they are things that people would deny if confronted with them. They sound like this:

  • “Make me look good in front of my boss so that when he gets kicked upstairs he’ll recommend me for his job.”
  • “Help me demonstrate my creativity by coming up with some ideas for next year’s marketing campaign that I can tweak a little and show off at the next divisional conference as if they were mine.
  • “Help me feel more like a leader and less like the kid who was always picked last in the schoolyard basketball games.”
  • “Figure out some way to keep the department running when I’m not around so I can go on vacation for ten days in a row without having to call the office every two hours to make sure the damned place isn’t on fire.”

While explicit needs tend to run a linear path, implicit needs tend be random, triggered by emotion and circumstance. But don’t think of them as flighty and certainly not as insignificant. They are ever-present, tenacious, and can overrule the explicit needs with a swiftness and power that can be awe-inspiring.

It’s a fun exercise to sit down with a sheet of paper and try listing your boss’s implicit needs. It’s also deadly serious. From the first day you meet your new boss through the last day you work together, you need to devote a portion of your time and energy to scoping out his or her implicit needs and defining them with as much precision as possible. Then measure whatever you do against those needs. (Your boss certainly will.)

One implicit need that virtually every boss has (and therefore belongs on the to-do list of every ignited manager) is the need for confidence. Your boss must have confidence that you are working in his best interest and that you are capable of delivering what he needs (both explicitly and implicitly). Fail to maintain this confidence and your boss will most likely drive you crazy — and will often drive you out.

We’ve all been there. The boss who last week simply set a goal and gave us the freedom to carry it out suddenly wants to micromanage every phone call we make this week. Sometimes it’s because they’ve lost confidence in us; other times it’s because their bosses have lost confidence in them, producing a sort of trickle-down anxiety that may end up with you being hypercritical of the dinosaur diorama your nine-year-old makes for science class. Giving your boss a sense of confidence in you is perhaps the most fundamental of all the implicit needs and the one without which no managerial relationship can succeed.

Understanding the implicit and explicit needs of your boss and his bosses sets a course by which you can align your own efforts. When that alignment is clear and accurate, you’re on track to creating an environment in which traction is possible.

Management Value Added

The concept of Management Value Added (MVA) is based on a simple question that you should ask whenever you’re making a decision about how to invest your time and energy: “What value does management add?” And how can your actions “add value” to any situation in business? That’s right — by helping to meet your bosses’ needs.

One way to start using the concept of MVA is by sitting down with your boss to discuss his or her explicit needs (the ones written down as part of the company’s strategy or the division’s official mandate). It shouldn’t take long for the two of you to agree on what they are and to prioritize them appropriately. Then ask your boss, “How do you feel I can add the most value?” If your boss responds, “Huh?” you can flesh out the question with additional questions like these:

  • “What are the activities I am engaged in when I am contributing the most?”
  • “What are the activities that you and the company most need me to do?”
  • “What do you consider to be the best and most productive use of my time?”
  • “What do you think is the special contribution that I am best positioned to offer to you and the company?”
  • “Of all the things that I’m engaged in on behalf of this company, what are the three areas where you believe that I can contribute the most?”

Listen carefully to your boss’s answers. Using them as a guide, you can begin to understand exactly how your boss views your contributions. It’s quite likely that the way he or she measures your MVA is different from the way you might measure it.

Here’s what one of my bosses had to say when I asked him to define my most important areas for MVA:

1. “Hiring, nurturing, and guiding talent; putting the right people in the right jobs with the right goals.”

2. “Building capability; teaching my team members and creating an environment conducive to challenging thought and growth:”

3. “Staying close to the customers — understanding what’s important to them, what their challenges are, and how our company can provide them with solutions.”

Of course, this exercise will relate only to your boss’s explicit needs. (Don’t try to engage him in a discussion of his implicit needs. There’s a good reason why they’re implicit.) Having these priorities clearly defined is an enormous step forward and an advantage that surprisingly few managers enjoy. It provides you with a framework you can share with others on your team and allows you to use the test of MVA in your quest to get past pot banging.

You can use MVA to help you determine how to spend your time, which projects to support, and which meetings to attend. In my case, before committing energy to any new activity, I ask myself: “Will this activity help me achieve my priorities? Will it help me put the right people in the right jobs? Will it help me build capability? Will it help me know and connect with our customers?” If the answer is no, I avoid the activity — even if it sounds otherwise interesting, appealing, or fun.

MVA helps you maintain a focus on the things that matter while earning the support of those you serve. When your boss or someone else in the organization asks you to commit time or energy to an area that falls outside of the MVA priorities you’ve established, you can talk about how new commitment may affect your main goals and reach a joint decision as to whether a shift in priorities is warranted.

Copyright © 2007 Vince Thompson from the book Ignited Published by FT Press; March 2007;$25.99US/$32.99CAN; 978-0-13-249248-6

Vince Thompson, principal at Middleshift Consulting, works with Internet companies to design world-class online marketing solutions and build sales organizations empowering those in the middle. His clients include Napster, and Thompson holds an undergraduate degree in Communications from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications, and an MBA from Pepperdine University. To learn more about Vince Thompson and the community of Ignited managers visit

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