Time management – an effective tool for management development

The Situation

Most of the work was undertaken at the headquarters site of a large multinational company. The organisation faces intense competitive pressure, which demands a con­tinuing drive to improve productivity. The results of this pressure, together with the assumption that “everything we do has to he done well”, are that everybody is too busy, short-term work tends to drive out long-term work, and the urgent takes precedence over the important.

The above is perhaps a caricature but it would represent the world of most of the management staff in the organisation in question. It was hardly the best climate in which to initiate some major organisation development activity; this can always be put off until tomorrow! The question we asked was “How can we help the managers and the organisation develop under these conditions?” Perhaps some developmental activity could be linked to excessive busyness?

The First Ideas

The Training Manager had first identified “Time Management” as a problem that needed action. He got to­gether with two other managers and they decided to analyse the way they spent their time over a one-week period from a detailed diary. The information from these exercises was then analysed by an outsider. However, in practice it proved very difficult for the managers to ac­cept the feedback they received. The managers involved felt that the observers had not really understood their jobs fully.

The next approach was based on some ideas of Reg Revans who had demonstrated that managers tend to learn more effectively from each other than they do from trainers. With this principle in mind, a one-day event was run in which four managers shared their con­cerns about time management and how they dealt with them. The participants felt this had been a useful way to spend a day and everybody had got two or three ideas he wanted to try out. Looking at it as a trainer. I was concerned that the amount of cross fertilisation was a bit low and I felt somewhat bereft of good ideas myself. It seemed like a purely inductive approach was less likely to be successful than one that had both inductive learning and direct input. I saw the film The Time of Your Life, showed it to some friends who liked it. We decided to incorporate this film in the design of a “Time Management Course”.

The Final Design

The main objectives of the workshop were to help those attending manage their own time more effectively, to increase organisational effectiveness by doing so, and to increase the managers’ control over and satisfaction with their jobs. In order to do this the design would need to be down to earth and to consider the reality of working in this organisation at this time. It would also need to be structured around the needs of the particular group of managers who were at present at each workshop: it wouldn’t work if it were a “package” with such busy people. Time used at the workshop would need to be managed very effectively, so that the trainer was prac­tising what he preached. The outcome would need to be practically applicable now. People would need to feel fully involved. These design principles led to the detailed design outlined below.

Participants were asked to bring with them a diary of four days preceding the course. This diary would consist of four columns, a time, what was done, why it was done and how worthwhile people felt the activity had been. The purpose of this diary was to help people become more aware of how they were spending their time and to start them thinking in terms of the outcome of their time use. They were not expected to share the details of their diary with anyone and this was made clear in the joining instructions.

The workshop itself lasted half a day and started with a brief outline of the objectives of the day. These ob­jectives particularly emphasised the idea that this would be a positive experience in which people shared their problems and learned from each other and that I would discourage looking backwards or excessive rationalising. In practice having set this rule, most of the discussions did concentrate on what the members themselves could do in practice. The key, I believe, to the success of these workshops was in the agenda setting process, which is described next.

I asked the group what were their concerns about time management and recorded what they said on a flip chart, preceding each item with the phrase “How to”. When this process was complete, which would normally take 15 minutes, and produce up to 20 items. I would then ask people “If you could only cover three of these items, which three would they be for you?” I would then score each chosen item and thus have a very good picture of what that particular groups’ concerns were. It was thus possible lo focus attention on the areas which were of particular concern for the particular group of staff that was involved in the particular workshop. The question “How to” would almost force a positive approach.

The next steps were straightforward. To show the film The Time of Your Life and then lead a discussion of the film relating the ideas in the film to the agenda items previously identified. It proved very important not to be trapped into defending the ideas in the film but to explore their relevance to the situation of the individual or group. The next stage was to work through the actual agenda items in order. I would pick one of the ones that had had the most interest and start a discussion about the nature of that problem and draw from the group any successful practices they have discovered for dealing with it. When this process was complete I would add some ideas of my own that I had picked up from other courses or read about. This format usually worked very well because the participants were interested in each other’s successful practices and were happy to contribute their own. Finally, I would ask the members of the group to split into pairs and spend a few minutes talking to each other about what they have decided to try out as a result of the workshop. The format legitimises the dis­cussion for almost any issues which affect the way people work. The range of agenda items has been truly amazing, ranging from “how to handle the telephone effectively?” to “how to create a more effective culture?” It tends to be a very exciting workshop to run because it is never the same twice.

The Results

Follow up interviews with individuals have shown that the workshop is effective and that six months afterwards almost all participants are doing two or three things differently which they are finding useful. These items include—making a daily “To Do” list and setting daily priorities, questioning and clarifying requests for infor­mation, eliminating unimportant work, and thinking more carefully about the implications of the work they give other people. The benefits to the organisation have largely accrued from the work that has been done in work groups which is described in the following section. The benefits to myself have been considerable in that it has enabled me to have access to most of the key people in the organisation and following up some of the issues raised has been a lead in to further development work.

Later Developments

Initially, a one-day “course” was offered to 170 senior staff on the HQ site. Such was the interest aroused that in a week we had 85 acceptances. In the first year of the work all but one of that group had attended a workshop on a voluntary basis. Some managers expressed an in­terest in doing similar training with their own work groups and this was done in something like 15-20 groups.

The sections involved were the whole range of the organ­isations’ activities, research, technical service, marketing, management services, publicity and production. In almost all cases I used a similar design to the one outlined earlier. In many, it was the first time that the group had sat down and talked to each other about how they did their jobs and what the constraints were in an open way. Many of the people said that that was a major benefit and if they had learned nothing at all about time management the morning would have been worthwhile.

In practice, the outcomes were more significant than that in that most groups developed a new language to discuss priorities that now became a legitimate and useful item for discussion. It became more OK to say “No” or to question requests for work. There was more concern to eliminate unnecessary work or work which had minimal benefit to the organisation. In some cases particular procedures were refined or eliminated. The managers tended to have a better view than they had had before of what the concerns of their staff were. Sometimes the members would produce ideas that were more far reaching or more daring than the manager thought he would be able to get away with at that par­ticular moment.

At an organisational level, where several groups in a larger system had had this training experience they started to think about and act on the questions “How can we avoid making work for each other?” and “How can we create a culture in which more effective work is done?”

In one case these ideas have gone from the bot­tom of the organisation to the top and a top manager asked, “What can I do to create a more effective problem solving culture in my part of the organisation even if the rest of the organisation behaves in a somewhat different way?” In addition, I ran a workshop for the top management of a subsidiary company and by build­ing on this over a period of & few months that group and myself have now spent three days looking at where that subsidiary is going and how the management group can improve the way it operates to help it get there. This would not have happened if it hadn’t been for the initial contact. “Time Management” is a very safe way of starting to work with a group on real issues.

Finally, after the experience of running this course for 70 managers I was persuaded to summarise the things that the managers had said about the way time was man­aged in the organisation and sent a summary of these views to the Chairman and the Board. Nothing much happened initially, but then I found some feedback that this letter had been valuable to several Board members and had considerable impact on them in how they man­age their time. Specifically they are very much more aware and concerned that the requests that they make for information are fulfilled with the minimum of dis­ruption and that questioning of the purpose of such re­quests actually happens.


I am very enthusiastic about this work because it is very simple, it is readily acceptable and it works. In an org­anisation in which organisation development is not really an accepted concept, and even the words are viewed with some suspicion, it has made it possible and legiti­mate to people to look at the way in which things are done and question and improve it.

The principle lessons for me about the execution of a successful change programme are old saws, but worth repeating.

“Start where the client is.”

“Design your events around his or her needs.”

“Build a supportive and positive climate in the events”

“Build mutual support for change which continues afterwards.”

“Keep it simple and explicable.”

“Pick an issue with near universal interest and need for change.”

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick