As a knowledge worker, you live in a world where a continuous stream of commitments are made and accepted ’round the clock. To succeed in this world, you must learn to make commitments and keep commitments. Since commitments that rest on a plan are more likely to be kept, you must learn to make plans quickly for your work and then carry out those plans effectively.
Maybe you have encountered the following situations: your client has to remind you that you haven’t provided the white paper that you promised over two weeks ago; you seem to be the last person to finish your work for the release and the rest of your team starts to notice it; or your presentation for the team meeting is not done until late into the evening the night before the presentation. If you have been part of the business world for a while then you know that commitments will be made–one way or another–so not making commitments is not a viable option.
The situations mentioned earlier often happen because you make commitments without thinking through and planning out that commitment. Sometimes you make commitments under pressure, direct or indirect, that influences you in ways that later come back to haunt. Or it could also be that you, like many people, probably feel that planning is arduous and unrewarding. It doesn’t have to be that way. With a little practice you can learn to make plans for yourself quickly enough to productively participate in the commitment making process. Armed with a bit of self-knowledge and a few handy practices you will be on your way to make planning fun and make commitments that you can keep.
Effective planning demands of you–and knowledge workers in general–to think through the information do you owe to the people that you work with. Specifically:
- To whom do you owe information?
- In what form do you owe that information?
- Under what timeframe do you owe that information?
You must make a plan to deliver that information successfully to the people that need it from you. This information represents your commitment and it might be in the form of written pages, diagrams, presentations, software code, or any other piece of work product. This is what you make, this is the output of your work. As a knowledge worker, your widgets are processed information: you take in one kind of information, think through it, analyze it, synthesize it, and produce a different kind of information ready for the next person to consume.
For you to do your job well, you must plan the processing of information into work products that your consumers need. Successful planning involves performing the following activities:
1. Identify Tasks. Identify and list out each piece of finished work that you are expected to complete. If the piece of work is bigger than what you can picture in front of you, then you have to figure out how to take it apart. You proceed on taking it apart until you can picture each new part in front of you. This easily can be the hardest part of the planning work in particular, and knowledge work in general.
2. Order Tasks. Arrange the work in the order in which you need to get it completed. The beauty of doing a plan for yourself is that there are no complicated dependencies. You simply list the work items in the order in which they can be done. If at any time you find that you got the order wrong, just reorder the list.
3. Estimate Size. For each piece of work that you identified, figure out the size of that work. The size can take many forms: How many problems do you have to solve? How many features and sub-features do you have to build? How many customers do you have to call? How many pages do you have to write? How many slides do you have to create? Remember that you will have to keep dividing things up until the pieces of work become small enough that you can wrap your mind around them.
4. Estimate Productivity. For each kind of work that you have identified, decide on a productivity metric that you can apply to doing that work. Search your past experience for anything similar. If you have never had a similar experience, then envision what would it take to do this and use your best judgement to establish a productivity measure for the work standing in front of you. Here you might consider the following: the number of pages that you can write per hour, the number of drawings that you can produce per hour, the number of defects that you can fix per hour, the number of problems that you can identify per hour, and so on.
If you estimate that you cannot get one item done per hour, then use the reverse measure and identify how many hours does it take to create one, for example how many hours would it take to draw a diagram.
5. Calculate Durations. For each piece of work apply the productivity measure to the size of the work that you estimated in the previous step, and compute how long will it take complete that part of work. This should be simple math: if you identified that your white paper is going be 6 pages, and you expect to write the paper at a rate of 2 pages per hour, then you are estimating that completing the white paper will take 3 hours.
This is where you might also want to think of some other tasks pertaining to the part of the work that may have eluded you originally: Should you have somebody review the paper? What happens if they find something in the paper which will require of you to rewrite the introduction? If you feel that these are likely scenarios, then include tasks for these in your plan.
6. Estimate Available Time. Look at your calendar and consider how much time you have available to complete this work. This involves thinking through all other commitments that you have already made, since those will also take up your time. Make sure to account for any small and large things that take up your time: preparing for a board meeting and preparing for a surprise birthday party for your friend could be equally time consuming and thus leaving you precious little time left to spend on the new commitment that you are about to make.
7. Calculate Schedule. Fill in your available time found in step 5 with the tasks durations that you computed in step 4. This will give you a schedule that can serve as the basis of your commitment.
8. Track and Improve. Once you start working on the tasks, track your time spent, record every new task that you discover, and track your time on those, too. Track with a purpose. Your tracking must validate the basic assumptions that you have made during planning: Have you identified the list of tasks correctly? Have you estimated their size correctly? Have you estimated your productivity correctly? Have you estimated your available hours correctly? When your answer is ‘No,’ then immediately ask: Why not? What caused the discrepancy? Can you figure out the cause of the difference? Can you find a way to correct for this next time?
As you answer some of these questions, you will find that your planning is going to become more accurate over the course of a few planning cycles. The more you have a chance to make a plan, track the plan, and analyze your results, the better you will get at this. This is not magic, not mysticism, it is only simple logic.
If at any time you find something wrong with the plan, you correct it on the spot. Record what you did and why you did it. Your list of corrections also serves to improve your planning.
Practicing the above planning activities may not make you a project planner who can plan the design and implementation of the next air traffic control system that requires coordination across multiple companies and hundreds or thousands of people, but it will make you a competent planner who can plan one’s own work.
In conclusion, to successfully make and meet commitments, you must learn how to plan your own work, understand your performance at doing the kind of work that you need to make commitments about, and continually observe how well are you doing. Your goal is to keep improving both your work and the planning of that work. Becoming proficient at planning and executing your work will enable you to become a much valued member of any team.
Enjoy the journey!
- Watts Humphrey formulated these ideas relative to software development in his book A Discipline for Software Engineering.
- Peter Drucker talked about concepts related to knowledge workers in many of his writings.