So little time, so much to do: the time constraint in leadership

“There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”

– Henry Kissinger

One of the assumptions of the standard leadership model is that a single decision-maker can and will be swift to make decisions. For those who have experienced organizational life, this is not a good assumption to make.

Specifically, many of us have worked on teams with leaders who are so busy or overburdened that they themselves have become a bottleneck. And, in some cases, they become the bottleneck that limits the rate at which the team can deliver the decisions that add up to a service or a product. This doesn’t just happen to us or around us. Many of us know what it’s like to be that leader, that bottleneck. This tends to happen more when we, as leaders, (1) have more work to do and (2) less available time to do it in.

Leaders tend to have more work when:  (a) they oversee more people, projects, products or processes, (b) they are still learning how to lead at a particular level or in a particular role, (c) they have not standardized the work of the team to segment what should be routine from what should require expert judgment or problem-solving, (d) they do not know the skill levels of team members, so more time is need to coach up-front and to review work after the fact, (e) they must attract, select and on-board new team members to backfill for attrition, (f) they are responsible not just for the short-term performance but the long-term health of the team, (g) they need to understand and adapt to rapid changes in the environment external to the team, and (h) they have not prepared successors who are willing and able to take up some of the slack.

All of that determines the hours of work to be done. The available time is the hours of work we have to give.

Available time is limited first and foremost by the hours in the day and the days in the week. Beyond that, leaders tend to have less available time when (a) they have other commitments (e.g. families) outside of work so that nights, weekends and vacations cannot be “repurposed” to do work, (b) there are a larger number of scheduled meetings during the work day, and many of these are beyond their control to change (whether to limit who must attend, to reduce the frequency, to clarify the agenda, or to improve the quality of the conversation), and (c) there is a greater need for travel to and from sites, within or across regions.

IF the hours of work to do in the week are greater than the hours available to do the work, THEN the queue will begin to back up, creating a bottleneck and – eventually – a backlog at the manager’s desk. The greater the backlog, the greater the difference between the time it takes to get a decision, and the time it takes to actually make that decision.

This is the counter-intuitive point. Even if the decision on any particular piece of work only takes seconds to process – after all, we have a single decisive leader at the helm – the time from when a decision was requested and when the decision is actually made, the so-called lead time*, may be days, weeks or months. This is not so swift.

One common response to these bottlenecks is to reduce the amount of work in the queue by shedding the investment in improving the process or building the capabilities of their team. Another common response is to try to pull more available time into the system, by eating into nights, weekends and vacations. Both of these allow short-term delivery at the expense of long-term sustainability, improvement or adaptation.

This leads to stress and burn-out not just on the job, but in family life. It also leads to disengagement and attrition of managers and their team members. And to rigidity and risk for the organization.

And this is only one of the challenges that constrains a leader’s effectiveness.

More to come.

*Lead time is a technical term for the time between the initiation and execution of any request for a service or product. The “lead” in lead time has nothing to do with leadership.

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