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By Tom Dennis –
President, Effective Engineering
an old saying I remember seeing on a poster in one of my managers offices a
long time ago that said, “Management is a series of interruptions
interrupted by interruptions”. Unfortunately, this has always been
a particularly apt saying. While it doesn’t apply just to management, it
seems to be a significantly more serious problem with managers of every
level. You can plan your work as best as possible, but interruptions will
always come unexpectedly, messing up your well-laid plans, and
unfortunately, the work of others both below and above you on the
Let’s take the opportunity to explore what interruptions can mean to you, to
those below you, and to those above you.
Interruptions may force you to stop what you were concentrating on and pay
attention to something else. This hurts especially if what you were
concentrating on is challenging work that needs careful attention,
particularly if you were in a groove in tackling this challenging effort and
now have to stop that work, sometimes for a significant time, switch gears
and your mind set to try to wrap your head around something entirely
different. Depending on the interruption, you may find it difficult to get
back into the groove you were previously in, thus significantly lengthening
the challenging work you were doing before the interruption.
Interruptions may force you to take your eye off the activities of those
below you (e.g. members of your group that need your attention and
guidance). Since they are the people actually carrying out the detailed
work of your group, these interruptions can derail important work and
schedules, preventing them from moving forward without your concurrence.
Interruptions may force you to turn your attention away from critical
assignments you’ve agreed to take responsibility for from your boss or boss’
boss. They are depending on you to deliver on your commitments so they can
deliver on theirs’.
Interruptions to those above or below you can significantly impact your
effectiveness and many others’ including your group and other groups you
If your boss gets an interruption while you are meeting with him/her, you
may have to leave the discussion with your boss in mid-discussion without
resolving what your were discussing, and attempt to come back at a later
time. This may delay critical work you and your people were doing that
cannot effectively continue without resolution of this critical issue. This
may, in turn, delay critical projects that many other people, groups, or
even customers are depending on.
If one of your people gets an interruption, they may have to stop what
they’re doing to handle the interruption, which may impact other activities
in your or other groups. Or, you may, in turn, have to interrupt yet someone
else in your group to have them take on this work, with a continuing ripple
effect within and outside your group.
The fact that a delay, job reassignment, or other changes are the result of
unexpected interruptions is often not appreciated or accepted by others.
What they see is that you committed to deliver on an assignment and have
failed to deliver on that commitment (see
Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, and Do What You Say You’ll Do!).
Excuses just won’t cut it!
So what can be done about interruptions?
Don’t blindly accept the interruption. You’ve got your own responsibilities
and you shouldn’t be seen as someone who takes on other people’s problems
without due consideration of the consequences (see
Managing “Monkeys”). It is critical to think through the
consequences and how they will impact your and others’ commitments. Before
accepting the interruption, run it by your boss along with your assessment
of the impact on other work underway and how you would attempt to work
around that impact. If appropriate, suggest others who may be better
positioned to handle this particular interruption. Make your recommendation
on whether to accept the interruption or not and get concurrence in one way
or another. Be prepared for pushback from the person or organization doing
Can you reject the interruption? This depends on what the interruption is
and where it came from. Is the interruption the result of some one else’s
emergency that they’re trying to pawn off on you (see
Your Problem Is Not My Emergency!)? If so, don’t blindly accept
the interruption; push back by pointing out what you already have on your
plate and reasons why you can’t take on this interruption.
Can you delay or otherwise minimize the impact of the interruption? What’s
the impact of a delay in handling the interruption? See if there are ways
schedule the interruption to reduce its impact or ways to quickly finish up
near-term work that others are depending on to minimize the overall impact,
yet still take on the interruption.
Can you hand off the interruption or other
aspects of your own committed work to another person or group that can
handle it with minimal impact to your project? There may well be someone
else who is more well suited to handle the specifics of the interruption
► Is the
interruption one which absolutely mandates an “all hands on deck”
response of which you’re a part? If so, determine how you can minimize the
impact while properly handling it. Determine what the impact will be on
other work you’re responsible for. Get agreement from your boss and others
involved that the impact will be acceptable or unavoidable.
These can be summed up with the 4 D’s: Delete, Delay,
Delete those things that don’t really
need to be done at all, and eliminate the interruption entirely.
those things that can be deferred to a later time, eliminating the
interruption for now and allowing you to plan more carefully.
Delegate those things that can be done more effectively by someone
Do the things you have to handle yourself (or
that can be done very quickly).
These 4D’s apply to management of
interruptions and to time management in general.
[Note: Per my
son-in-law, Dan, these are not to be confused with the 5 D’s (of Dodgeball) – Dodge, Duck, Dip, Dive, and … Dodge! Great movie!
Interruptions are a way of
life. Wishing they won’t happen to you or others is a pipe dream. When
planning your work you need, to the best of your ability, to account for
what you know will happen and on problems that will likely occur along the
way (including interruptions), though you won’t know specifically what these
problems will be. This includes attempting to consider the known knowns,
known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns
Plan Based On What You Do Know, and On What You Don’t!). Among
the unknown unknowns are interruptions. You can’t plan for unknown
interruptions, but you can plan that interruptions will occur by allowing
some time for them in you planning efforts. Experience is the best teacher
on how to best handle future instances of Management Interruptus!
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