Innovation

Making the space and time for strategic thinking

I have found myself being pulled in about a thousand directions the last couple of weeks and the song, “That old familiar feeling” seems to be haunting me. I know where I need to be focused, but lately I find myself being dragged back into fighting fires—a management mode I usually try to avoid. This is a problem that many small IT shops face as well as overtaxed large ones. There never seems to be enough time in the day, and the work that falls off the list first is planning, strategizing, and documenting.

I find myself carrying around way too much information in my head, not sharing info until it is asked for, and feeling like I need to make the world stop in order to catch up. I am not as current as I would like to be on my technical reading, and my to-do list never seems to shrink. Who can I blame? While I would like to blame the world around me, the fact of the matter is, I am at fault and I need to take control again.

So where do I start? Well the first thing I need to do is to make sure I don’t beat myself up over having lost control—we all do it sometimes—and I am not going to feel sorry for myself either. Nor am I going to be Superman and swallow the stress associated with it and drop dead of a heart attack. I am going to pause and reflect.

How do I do that? First, I stop responding to all the stimuli that I am bombarded with and refocus on what is important. I can do this in several ways.

A famous management professional once said that the most successful executives worked outside of the office one day a week. This gives you a way to step back from the flames and work in an environment that is more conducive to thought.

Outside the office doesn't necessarily mean at "home" (especially for some people, who have just as many distractions there). It usually works for me because I have a nice office set up at home, I do not have children, and except for when the dog is barking, the house is totally silent other than the whir of my PCs.

Unfortunately, home is not an option for me at the moment. Plan B is to make a quiet space at the office. I have a door I can close and a new administrative assistant who can take my calls. So while I have a harder time getting into that Zen-like zone in a place that I often associate with being out of control—this is how it is going to have to be.

For those that are cube-bound and can’t work from home, you are forced to be more creative. Coming in early and staying late—when there are fewer distractions in the workplace—are common options, but many of you may already be doing that. So what then? Try to find a space at your workplace that is out of the way—an unused conference room or an empty office on a different floor. As a last resort, you may have to put up a "do not disturb" sign and get yourself a set of noise-canceling headphones to create a virtual quiet place for yourself. If you want to do it, you will find a way. Hey you are IT—you know how to work around obstacles!

Once you have found your space, make a meeting with yourself. Call it what you need to call it, but block the time out and use it. An hour will do as a minimum in my opinion; two is probably optimal. Now comes the hard part. Make this a sacred time that you do not want violated and communicate it to everyone— and here’s the hardest part—you also have to stick to it yourself. You know the difference between real emergencies and those that seem like emergencies. Respond only to the real if you absolutely have to and you are the only one who can fix it.

Now that you've created space and time for yourself, exactly what are you going to do in it? My advice is to first use your time to sort and prioritize. What’s important, what can wait, what do you NEED to do and what would you LIKE to do? Plan, read, write things down. Most importantly, use the time to think strategically. Stop and examine all those fires that you've been fighting and determine if there is a common theme behind them, and work on that solution.

Use the time to think outside the box. Are you taking total responsibility for problems that are a shared responsibility? Communicate. Close the loop. Follow up. Examine your tasks using different views—put on the different “thinking” hats championed by Edward de Bono (http://www.debonogroup.com/serious_creativity.htm).

The point is to take control, because the workplace actually pushes you in the opposite direction if you let it. The old phrase, "Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part,” dies a quick death in the workplace. People will try to make EVERY problem yours if you let them—and lack of planning is usually the reason it is an emergency in the first place (at least in their minds). So take the time to commit or re-commit to being a planner and try the steps above. It will make you work better and smarter in the long run and hopefully relieve some stress.

Lastly, don’t beat yourself up if you get a little bit out of control. It happens. Just remember that when you are feeling the most stressed and whacked out, that is probably the opportune time to take a time out to pause and reflect.

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