United Virtualities’ Morgan Friedman, sits down with Production Director and surfer-in-chief Dan Hymson, to ride the waves of flow state, productivity and production management.
(… If videos are not for you, and you prefer the written word, we’ve got you covered. Check out the transcript of the interview below. Enjoy!)
Morgan Friedman: Hi everyone i’m Morgan! This is Dan one of our favorite Production Directors at UV. So Dan let’s go!
Dan Hymson: So I was going to start telling you about something that has been really interesting to me which is in the realm of project management. Is the idea of time boxing. If you are a project manager coordinator or whatever level of project management you are…maybe you used to be a developer or a designer or a ux person and what you were used to doing was working on one project for a vast majority of your day. So your train of thought was very much in the zone of that particular task or that particular project. Let’s say you’re working on a mobile app for sports: all day you’re thinking and your brain is thinking about this one app and you’re designing you’re doing different screens eight or nine hours a day. Maybe there’s something internal that you have to do, that kind of stuff, and you’re shifting a little bit but for the most part you’re zoned in. And as a project manager most of the time you are split between four or five projects. I think a fairly standard percentage of allocation for a PM is around 20% per project. So what that means is that on a normal basis a day-to-day project manager is probably working on four or five projects at a time. And that creates a lot of focal issues when it comes to your mindset and being able to complete tasks because, let’s say you’re sitting there and you’re writing a scope or trying to figure out the features for this project. Somewhere on Slack or on email or your phone you’re getting pinged about all the other projects that are happening and you’re constantly doing the “squirrel effect”, right? You’re like trying to focus here but you’re like squirrel-squirrel-squirrel because all of these people are trying to get you to pay attention to what they need you to. Whether it’s a client calling and saying “I need to chat about the status”. You’re breaking your flow for the purpose of being able to keep up with everything and also the demand. There’s a lot of demand on the project management team to log information. So I’ve been trying to consider a lot of different ways on which, how can we get better throughput from a project management standpoint because what we find is because of this “squirrel effect” or this break of flow at the end of the day you sort of say to yourself like “Wait a minute, I just spent my entire day on meetings and phone calls and answering Slack messages. I didn’t even get to do the actual work that I, as a PM need to do”. And that happens quite often and usually what we find is that project managers or directors whatever level you are…you sort of gets it at 4 pm or 5 pm mark where your meetings are done, maybe you still have one but most most of them are done, and you’re now just getting to the point where you’re going through your to-do list. You’re trying to figure out like: “Okay well now I’ve got to write this contract, I’ve got to do this feature set, I’ve got to put together this project plan” . And I keep coming back to this idea of Time Boxing and, I don’t remember where I heard it. It might have been an Elon Musk kind of thing who I think is an absolute genius. And I had a previous CEO of mine at one of the other agencies I worked at years and years ago who was very into flow, and not breaking your flow. The scientific matter of your mindset is that for if I spend 30 minutes and it’s going to take me an hour to do this task every time somebody pings me, I’m removing my mindset to focus on something else and it’ll take me another 10 minutes when I get back in to then reset and remember where I am to get back into it. And therefore this one hour task now becomes three hours because I continue to have to reset myself. And what we want to do is we want to try to avoid this. So that previous company was very into like: “Only do meetings in the morning so that your afternoon was this”, “Don’t send Slack messages that are task related only send emails that are task related” “Your slack should be like a messenger you know, like where you’re it’s conversation you’re asking questions“. So I come back to this idea of Time Boxing: what is that and how do we actually achieve that. This is where we get into the idea that clients may not want to hear this, but project managers, production directors, anybody who is part of this ecosystem of leadership on a project or multiple projects, may be interested in this. So the idea of time boxing. What is it? You determine how much time you need across all of these projects on a daily basis. Sort of like an allocation gig. And what it is is saying “Okay I’m on five projects. Now this one project I need to be focused on for two hours a day. This other project I need a little bit less and is more like 30 minutes a day. This other one is three hours a day”, and all of that starts to add up, so we come back and we say okay now we have a framework for how much time I need to dedicate every single day to each of these projects, okay? With that framework let’s do Time Boxing. So now let’s figure out how the flow of information happens on these projects or engagements. Okay this one client loves to have meetings in the morning, this other client loves to have meetings in the afternoon…figuring out all of the facts that cross across this and we can say “Okay you know what from 9:00 am to 10:30 a.m is my time box for project number one”. Anytime I have meetings, anytime I need to do communication, anytime I need to actually do work itself, whether it’s putting together a project plan which is usually a schedule, estimates for that specific project, I’m only going to work on this one project from 9:00 to 10:30 in the morning and I’m going to try to tune out everything else that happens around me for that time so i’m focused. And maybe I only have one meeting great, 30 minutes. That leaves me one hour to ask all the Slack messages I want, answer all the emails related to this project that I want, and actually get things done. So at 10: 30 then I say okay well from now on from 10:30 to 11:30, i’m gonna specifically focus on this one project. And so on and so on. I did an experiment of it a couple of weeks ago, and I specifically told everybody all the project managers that that we work with on a day-to-day perspective all the tech leads everybody, designers…and I specifically crafted my schedule around this Time Boxing approach. So I moved meetings around and I specifically made meetings for this here this here and we got everything done. The throughput was much much much more improved. I was able to completely get a to-do list for any project done, I was able to get to an inbox zero pretty close to the end of the day which is the idea of “don’t leave your day with tons of stuff still to do or tons of emails needing to be answered”. Chances are it might take an extra 30 minutes, you know. You’ll feel better not having to get slammed in the morning by trying to catch up. So what I did was I approached this Time Boxing thing for five days, five business days straight, and I was able to get a lot more work done, a lot more communication, I was more effective in meetings because I was already focused on that specific topic. I wasn’t moving from working on one project to then having a meeting for something completely different, then jumping back to it. For those two hours, I was only focused on that one project and it did work. The real trouble is, how do we adopt that largely as a company?
MF: You said you did this two weeks ago since you did it, have you been continuing doing it or was it an experiment for a few days and then you stopped?
DH: That’s pretty much the segway into how do we adopt it. Because what happens is, I was able to do it for one week but what I found was there were things happening on the project that I wasn’t finding out until the next day, and that’s because I was tuning out everything else like, in the morning that two hours or one hour how one and a half hours, I was spending on that one project, I wasn’t then paying attention to it for the rest of the day because I was Time Boxing on other projects. So what had happened was is I got to 6 p.m or 5 30 p.m and then I would shut down and then I would come back in the morning and I would see all of these responses to that one initial email that I had sent or all these Slack messages to the things that I had sent. So the Time Boxing wasn’t allowing me to keep current. I was constantly being set behind because things continued to unravel or progress throughout the day and I wasn’t able to pay attention because I was focused on this. So that leads to the idea of how do we adopt that at a larger scale from a company perspective so that everybody is focused on this one project for this time, everybody’s focused on this other one for this time, and that you don’t feel left behind after.
MF: That feels like it may be a kicksonic quest, because different people will have different
numbers of hours per day. You may only have an hour on this project, while John Smith might have four hours a day on a project. So naturally, even if there is some overlap, I think things are going to happen, so it may not be solvable. Brainstorming, to riff on your awesome idea of Time Boxing, which I had never thought about up until this conversation is, I practice a variation of that with the interesting difference of rather than time box by project i time box by type of task: So I use use Monday mornings to just plan what each of my reports and I will do the whole week, so I have my Calendly set up so I can only take meetings Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday afternoons. I leave Tuesday and Wednesday mornings for creation and writing, Friday retrospectives and while occasionally there’s exceptions: it’s a Monday and we’re having a meeting now. What I found is that sort of Time Boxing by task doesn’t slow me down because I can still respond to things other times, but it’s not like “oh my god I’ve been meeting every five minutes: Stop. Start. Stop. Start”. So it achieves a comparable effect, so it’s like a cousin of Time Boxing, not Time Boxing by client, but Time Boxing by work type.
DH: Yeah and that’s where I’ve landed since, that’s been my adaptation. It’s very similar to this. So, going back to the first theme which was that idea of flow and putting yourself in the mindset to complete that, then I’ve landed on “okay time boxing by project may not actually work as a Project Manager”. It may work as a developer or a designer because usually what they do is they’re conceptually thinking about something and then sending it for review right where the rest of their day somebody’s looking at it, or a developer who is building this component and then saying “okay that’s good, I’m done for the day. Tomorrow I’m working on this component” but as a Project Manager, what I’ve started to do now is very similar to what you’re saying which is: if I am putting together a project plan for a specific project, a schedule or an estimate, whatever it is, what I will do is get rid of all the tabs on my computer. And we know that developers very typically have, you know 400 tabs because they’ve got Github, they’ve got Jira, they’ve got Codementor, all these other things whatever it is. We know that finance people have 200 different Excel spreadsheets or Google docs open. Production Directors such as myself is typically… If you look, I have three monitors. So if you look at one of my monitors it has a perfect grid: a four box grid of Slack, Email, to-do list and calendar. It pretty much is my sort of bible while I do other things on the other two . But what I try to do is now is focus on the one thing at hand, I close everything and I open up only the things that are relative to that specific task which is the project plan so I’ll open up the client brief, I’ll open up the ux stuff, I’ll open up development estimates. all of that stuff. And i will focus for an hour whatever i need to get that done and I won’t let anything sort of get in my way and I do that the day before: I’ll plan my calendar around the meetings and then what I do is I slot in 30 minutes here 30 minutes there that is like recess or free play, where you’re closing down all of your tasks and then you’re responding to all of the… sort of the “noise”. You’re responding and you’re getting the emails ou,t you’re getting the Slack messages out. And what I’ve now started to do is at a day-to-day basis is I attack my calendar and I say “okay one hour I’m going to complete this, nobody can bother me, another hour here, 30 minutes here and there for free play, and at some point in there is lunch, and a hug and kiss for the kids”.
MF: By the way, I do something similar to that. A minor tech tip that you may or may not use or know that I love is, I totally abuse the chrome personas feature.
DH: Yeah, I do that.
MF: So, I have a persona for each project or client when I was doing client work, so that you can easily have like I have, my 400 tabs just about this one project but nothing to do with the other set of 400 tabs on a completely different project.
DH: Yeah, and that’s a great way of looking at it so this way, you’re like “okay I’m going to work on this one project”, but still the same theoretical sort of construct of you’re focusing on that one thing by having the personas, you’re closing down other things and you’re completely shifting into a mindset of only that thing. And we need to start getting to it, we need to start figuring out a way to use these guidelines for better throughput because we all know that nowadays we’re spending more time at work. Where we used to spend 30 minutes getting to work, walking subways, trains, driving 30 minutes home or even an hour for some people, we’re actually using that time to work and it can be very normal to feel like at the end of the day you still haven’t gotten anything done because you’ve spent all day just answering emails and phone calls and all of these sort of one minute/five minute things coming and going. Another approach to it is actually getting something done on the meetings, so this is something that actually Erik had taught me a long time ago when I started at UV. I came from the agency world where it was very common to get five people in a meeting, you talk about what you’re going to do and then 45 minutes later or an hour later after talking about next steps and what everyone’s going to do, everybody goes into their offices and then does stuff for a few days, and then you come back together and you talk about what you did and then maybe there’s more stuff.
MF: It’s painful for me just hearing that.
DH: Exactly. And what he actually taught me to do was “Stop talking about the stuff. Just do it right there if you have all five people in one room for an hour, you can actually get a lot of what you wanted to do later on done right there”. So now it’s very typical in in my role of building solutions and figuring out features that I’ll get on the phone with our tech leads or our UX people and instead of just giving them concepts, no!, we’ll pull up a UX document and we’ll actually sketch out all of the features, all of the ideas, we’ll type it up on a google doc and in an hour we’ll have almost a project plan that they can then take and do the wireframes, do the technical estimate, but instead of just saying “okay now I’m going to go back to my desk and I’m going to write all this stuff up”…Why? You’re talking about it already. Write it up right there, do it all together and we’ve seen especially in our role, who needs to react to RFPs and pitches fairly quickly, because that’s part of “The UV mantra”, is that we we don’t go into a black hole and take three weeks to come back with an approach. We like to get things done, we believe in speed to market. We believe in this stuff so we need to live that. So what we do is find ways of getting things done faster and it’s usually: screen share, everybody does their part, everybody says their thing, some person is moving boxes around, and at the end, half of it’s already done. Now we just need to move into the making everything look nice and typing it up and making it look better.
MF: I like Erik’s approach more than the endless meeting approach. My personal approach is I kind of hate these meetings as well, so I just write up documents for everything and then when I have to do a meeting I usually write a document beforehand with everything. But that’s just me. Let’s wrap up, we actually went over the time, but this is how super interesting and exciting it was. And I’m sure everyone’s going to watch it to the end because it’s so engaging. Perhaps a way to start encouraging people to adopt the great idea of Time Boxing, is for everyone to watch this podcast
DH: That’s right! Set yourself 30 minutes for the podcast.
MF: Yeah. And even just hearing people talk about it and think through these ideas these ideas… like, you had never heard of time boxing until someone told you about it. So everyone has to start somewhere. Okay, this is great! So everyone, thank you for watching the latest edition of the UV podcast. Until next time.