Brett Chulu: From time administration to priority management

THE year is closing and we need to take stock of how we have used our time — priest, president, pauper alike.

Many well-meaning people are caught up in the thick of thin things. Reeling under the ruthless despot known as “urgency” they have become prisoners of the immediate. One reason, among a milieu of others, explaining the high levels ineffectiveness in organisations is time management. Ironically, time management as a vehicle for organising tasks is inherently defective. Seeing through the lens of time management cripples our efforts at scaling the heights of effectiveness. We need a paradigm shift when it comes to how we organise and manage our tasks regardless of the level we find ourselves operating from in an organisation.
Philosophically speaking, we cannot manage time since the only things we can manage are the things we can control. We cannot freeze time. In the light of this simple yet profound truth, we cannot escape the conclusion that time management as paradigm for effective task organisation and execution is flawed. Instead, we suggest an alternative worldview, which we call priority management. We should manage our priorities and not time. It is simple. We should fit time to our priorities and not the other way round.
Time management as a concept has evolved through three waves of improvement. The first generation can be summed up as the “to do list” wave. It remains popular today. Just look at the latest mobile phones. They almost, always have an accessory allowing us to pre-programme our “To do list”. The second time management generation focused on diaries, which provided comprehensive scope to fit all the tasks planned for the day. A more recent advance has been the inclusion of the ABC analysis to the tasks listed in the diary. This is an attempt to prioritising the tasks to be done, A being the highest priority and C the least priority. The third generation ABC analysis of time management fails to address the critical question of determining what constitutes a priority. This gap, the priority management stream seeks to address. Priority management is underpinned by basic reasoning which postulates that the trajectory to effectiveness is assured if and only if tasks are done because they are important and not urgent. The irony is that those tasks that we are likely to postpone owing to the fact that they are not urgent although in the recesses of our minds we regard them as important are the ones which give us the highest returns in the long-term. Priority management is a high leverage paradigm — geometric returns for a small investment.
Faced with a prioritisation dilemma many have fallen into one or more of the prioritisation traps memorably painted by John Maxwell. The first trap is to adopt a “fun things first” approach. Some are won over to the “hard things first” approach. One time, in the spring-time of my career I listened to a brilliant orator from Zambia delivering a presentation on time management. Quoting Mark Twain he advised us that the best way to order tasks could be summed up as “if you are asked to swallow a frog, swallow it quickly and if you are asked to swallow two frogs swallow the big one first”. Hilarious, it was, though it terribly missed the heart and soul of effectiveness as I have come to know. Principally, he was suggesting that for you to be effective you should devote your effort in doing the most unpleasant things and end with those which are pleasant. The thinking is to save the best for last, hardly, a sure way to executing for excellence.  Yet some order and execute around “Exciting things first”.
Some still are disciples of the “urgent things first”.  Many a manager can identify with the latter. Many managers deal with urgent but important things. In this category you will find frequent tasks such as phone calls, deadline-driven tasks or projects, emergency meetings, to name a few. Crisis management and fire-fighting are the main approaches.
There is a glaring lack of control of destiny. The criterion for executing is that these tasks are urgent not that they are important. You can see it in the recruitment policies, where an ideal candidate is one that is able to work under pressure and at times should be willing to work on holidays and weekends. Take a closer view of its personnel records. You are almost assured of high levels of absenteeism, sick leave, to mention a few. The costs of the tyranny of the urgent are, among others, broken relationships inside and outside work, high levels of quality costs due to increased human error, increased stress levels, compromising on the brand promise due to failed perceived or actual expectations, feeling of lack of control, short-term thinking at the expense of strategic focus and employee disempowerment.
Power-mongers understand the potency of “urgent things first” in neutralising rivals. They will promote their rivals and load them with tasks locking them into a permanent “urgent things first” mode, leaving them without time to think. This leaves shrewd strategists with plenty space to set the agenda forcing others to react. Reactors are not leaders. They are followers. That is why very effective leaders spend a lot of time teeing off at the golf course, doing some hard thinking and building strategic business relationships.
Priority management allows an individual to invest time (as opposed to spending time) in top-line tasks. It is the top-line that determines the bottom line. Instead, we are overly concerned with the bottom line and forget the need for looking at the top line. Top-line tasks include among others the building and maintenance of relationships, networking, capacity building, multiplying leaders (otherwise known as leadership farming), navigating through think-tanking, environmental scanning, to name a few. Very few people would deliberately prioritise setting aside time just to listen to fellow team members. Typically, this would be regarded as time-wasting in a bottom-line driven organisation. Yet any seasoned and experienced human resources professionals will tell you that these are the sort of activities that ensure an excellent future bottom line. The simple truth is that if you do not invest you do not harvest. Top-line activities are not the preserve of the top-tier management.
Jesus, the Christ of Christmas, the very reason for the season offers a radical upside-down mindset. He taught that to be the first you must be last; to be a leader you must be a servant; to live you must die. In other words we must always be selfless. Not only at Christmas.   
Artists will soon burst into song. Saints are in prayer. The hallelujahs are piercing the “Silent night, holy night”. Bridal parties are in step, ready to dazzle us with chachacha at weddings. Somewhere in rural Zimbabwe, the “road-runner’’ chicken is doing its last lap of honour. Hollywood is ready for a share of your wallet. The nation’s sweet tooth is about to peak. Scientists are still to find a vaccine for the “January disease”.
I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

 

Share your view at brettchulu@consultant.com.

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