How to beat the clock

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 February, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 February, 1996, 12:00am

FOR years I've been urging our company's executives to 'meet five new people a year'. It's become something of a corporate mantra that I take very seriously. I even insist that executives report on their 'five new people' at senior-level meetings.

As a company grows, many of its top executives inevitably become so burdened with administrative activities or servicing their existing group of customers that they forget to burst out of their routines and creatively seek new contacts. At least, that's the excuse that I was hearing from some of our people.

I don't think the concept actually kicked into our people's consciousness until I wrote a memo a few years ago listing the 26 'new people' I had met the previous year. The majority of these 26 names were busy chief executive officers whose lives would continue quite smoothly whether or not they ever met me.

My point, I concluded in the memo, was not to impress our people with the new additions to my contact diary but to remind them that, with all the other things I was doing (including managing them!), I had made time to see these people.

I've always thought that if you want to understand people's priorities, don't ask them to write them down. Look at how they behave. Look at the activities for which they make time.

I've known people who would drop everything to take care of a minor emergency for their number one client. They might not be willing to give up five minutes to return a stranger's phone call, but they'll devote five hours to clearing up a niggling detail for their top priority.

Likewise, I've known people whose top priority is spending time with their family. Regardless of their responsibilities at work, they manage to end their business day at a normal hour. They try to get everything done by 5.30 or 6 o'clock so they can go home. If they don't, they go home anyway.

Unfortunately, most people make time for one thing by taking time away from other things. To them, time is a fixed, implacable figure, whether it is eight or 12 or 24 hours. If they need to send five unscheduled hours helping a client, that somehow means they no longer have five minutes to return a stranger's phone call.

The truly successful people in business find a way to compress time so they can help the client and return that phone call.

The last two minutes of a close football game is a good example of making time.

A skilled quarterback marching his team up the field for a score can make those final 120 seconds seem like an eternity for the opposing side. The quarterback does this by eliminating any activity that fails to conserve time. No more huddles to call the next play (which eat up precious seconds). No more running the ball up the middle (which keeps the clock running). Instead, the quarterback passes the ball, usually to receivers near the sidelines. An incomplete pass stops the clock. A completion advances the ball and gives the receiver a chance to run out of bounds (which also stops the clock). If the receiver can't get out of bounds, the quarterback uses one of his allotted time-outs (which he has saved precisely for this situation).

In football you see this sort of intense time management only in the waning seconds of each half. If football teams controlled the clock this carefully from start to finish, a 60-minute game would probably take six hours to complete. The players would be exhausted. The fans would be bored or comatose.

It is different in business. The net effect of such intense clock management at work isn't exhausting or boring. On the contrary, it energises you and gives you an irresistible momentum throughout the day. It's why people say if you want to get something done, give it to a busy person. He or she will make time to make it happen.

If making time resembles the quarterback's two-minute drill, here are two of my favourite plays.

1. Eliminate one or two time-wasters.

None of us can eliminate all the little inefficiencies and time-wasters in our life. No one has that much control over his or her affairs. But each of us can eliminate one or two activities that eat up the clock.

This varies tremendously from person to person. Some people skip lunch to make time, whereas others regard dining out with customers over a two-hour lunch as an integral part of their business day. Some people hate commuting, whereas others regard travelling to and from the office as the best time to collect their thoughts.

In my case, I decided some years ago to try to minimise the small talk in my business meetings. It's not that my meetings with people are totally cold and devoid of the human touch. But I'm keenly aware of how one digression can steer a meeting off track. If you have several such meetings a day, these chatty digressions begin to add up. They can cost you an hour or more a day.

2. It's all right to the less than perfect.

A music aficionado showed me his $100,000 stereo system not long ago. It sounded great but I wondered if he needed to spend all that money. Could he tell the difference from a carefully selected system that cost much less? 'Everybody asks that,' he said. 'A $10,000 system would sound about 90 per cent as good and very few people could tell the difference. Striving for perfection drives up the cost. Each percentage point improvement costs about $10,000.' There's a direct parallel in business. Striving for perfection on the job can cost you hours if not days of time.

For example, I realised years ago that I could accomplish most of my routine professional tasks very quickly if I were willing to do them about 90 per cent as well as they could possibly be done. At 90 per cent I could dash off a memo or write a thank-you note in a matter of seconds or minutes. But trying to write the perfect memo or thank-you note took time - much more time than it was worth because very few people noticed the 10 per cent difference or cared.

People who know that many (though certainly not all) of their routine tasks don't require perfection will always have more time than people who haven't learned this yet.




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