Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Management Interruptus

There’s 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 organization chart.

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 work with.
  • 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 the interrupting.
  • 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 more quickly.
  • 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, Delegate, Do
  • Delete those things that don’t really need to be done at all, and eliminate the interruption entirely. 
  • Delay 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 else. 
  • Do the things you have to handle yourself (or that can be done very quickly). 
These 4 D’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 (see 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!


  1. Tom,
    Thanks for another good article. It reminded me of something I read years ago in the excellent book Peopleware, so I just looked it up. Chapter 10 is called “Brain time versus Body Time.” The authors describe the importance of sustained periods of uninterrupted concentration called “flow” and the time, perhaps 15 minutes, this takes to achieve. Therefore a 5 minute phone call that interrupts the flow of concentration really costs 20 minutes. They suggest calculating an “E-factor” as the ratio of uninterrupted hours in a day / total hours attended in a day. They say this is often near zero for typical office environments. I closed the door, worked at night, thought at home, or went to the library when I needed to concentrate.

    Lee Beaumont

  2. Lee,
    Thanks! Your comment makes great sense regarding the importance of sustained periods of uninterrupted concentration. Too many days are often interruption after interruption and consequently virtually none of the work you've committed to gets done. One thing that can be useful to to schedule some "you" time each day to work uninterrupted; make this interruptible time so you can have time to concentrate on what you need to do.

    Tom Dennis


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