Mismanaging Team and Client Time: How Not to Manage Projects, Part 3

Posted on July 7, 2020

This is the third article in a series about mismanaging projects, or throwing away the bad stuff to leave only the good – or at least better – stuff.

There are five aspects you have to manage to move projects forward effectively:

  1. The project itself, discussed in the January column.
  2. Time, which we covered in part in March. We’ll get to the rest here.
  3. Money
  4. The client.
  5. The team.

The Matrix of Project Times

The table below flags time-related issues on three different scales for various aspects of a project or team, the first of which is the project itself.

Last time around, we did an overview of each of these, then delved into (mis)managing project time and your time.

Your Team’s Time

Running Interference (Time Horizon of Minutes and Hours): Interruptions are productivity killers. I dug into that in the previous article. In case you need something to read in the time you’re not commuting, I just happen to be able to suggest my book on time management, The Off Switch. (I’d love it if you read it, but seriously – go spend the added time with your loved ones, either in person or on video.)

Interruptions kill team productivity, not just your own. As a project leader, you own the task of protecting your team from interruptions wherever possible.

Your own interruptions: Stop interrupting your team! Just… stop. They’re working on your behalf, to make your project successful. Do you really, really need it this minute? Most of the time, in my observations, the manager interrupts because the moment is convenient for her.

Send an email. As noted elsewhere, establish a time frame for responding to your emails. I recommend four hours, but I know that too many managers find that untenable. The technical term: they get antsy. Really. Thing is, it’s rarely as important right now as they think it is. “Important” and “urgent” are not synonyms.

If you can’t hack four hours, try two hours. Or ninety minutes. If it’s truly more urgent than that, pick up the phone, or send a text/use your internal messaging app.

Co-worker interruptions: Set a tone that everybody respects everybody else’s work and time, starting with you. Remind everyone – not that they need reminding as much as they need your acknowledgment of the fact – that the work they do is hard, and requires concentration.

Interruptions from your own manager or the client: These are tougher to deal with. If they’re rare, my advice is, don’t sweat them.

If they become commonplace, it’s worth having a discussion. Even if the manager involved here is the managing partner or GC, say, that person has the firm’s or department’s overall interest at heart. You can have a casual discussion about the value of uninterrupted time without being specific, and get them to think about time in a way that doesn’t make casual interruption seem cost-free.

When it comes to the client, you can usually have a conversation about responsiveness, noting that interruptions actually hurt the schedule – and increase the costs – for their own project. Suggest that they route time-critical requests through you, and that for everything else, give the team member some hours to respond.

There will always be clients who don’t get it, who think that part of the value a legal team provides is beck-and-call service. But as you know when it comes to clients, pick your battles. Just know that work for this client will be more costly because it will not be as efficient.

Interruptions from other lawyers: If someone is working for multiple lawyers on different projects, it’s always a good idea to get together to figure out how to make the arrangement effective for all of the lawyers and project managers. Take the lead here, even if you’re not the senior person. You can facilitate this conversation without being a “boss” about it.

Deadlines (Days and Weeks): Tasks without deadlines a) don’t exist and b) will be late.

Such tasks don’t truly exist because task-givers have mental deadlines, or expectations, whether expressed or not. Sure, there are some rare professional areas – pure research, for example – where deadlines are ephemeral. However, in legal, there are always deadlines.

The surest way to miss a deadline is to fail to clarify expectations. It’s hard to meet the deadlines your team isn’t aware of.

So set a deadline or target for every task, and get the task owner’s buy-in. “When do you think you can get this to me?” Or, “Can you deliver this by Tuesday afternoon?” (By the way, on that last, if you mean Tuesday at 5 p.m., say so.)

Deadlines do get missed, for both good and bad reasons. Mostly, they’re real reasons. Legal professionals don’t just blow off deadlines, but they do get swamped by other work, tasks turn out to be harder than expected, someone gets sick, etc.

Some deadlines – court dates, for example, or clients leaving for vacation – are less adjustable than others. Make clear that you want the task owner to come to you as soon as he suspects delivery will be delayed – that is, well before the deadline, instead of right at deadline. That way, you have a chance to adjust expectations, rearrange resourcing, and so on.

Growth (Months): You are responsible for the professional growth of your team. This task, too, requires planning and management.

If you are the reporting manager for this person, you already know you own this task. Think about when you were the junior person. You wanted mentoring and support, right? Provide the same now that you’re in a position to offer it. The stronger the players on your team, the better you do overall.

If you’re “only” managing the project and not the person, you can still help team members grow in terms of their ability to manage their subprojects. Share what you’ve learned. Again, the more that person understands the process of Legal Project Management, the more they’ll be positioned to work with you toward project success.

Your Client’s Time

You are not responsible for your client’s time, but you are responsible for making the best use of that time when it is spent on your project.

Status Reports (Minutes and Hours): There are four positions a client can hold with regard to status updates, and if your approach is not the client’s preferred method, you’ll introduce unnecessary friction.

  1. Tell me everything as it happens. Why’d they hire you, right? Still, some clients do this, and occasionally it’s even justified, as in high-profile cases playing out in the media. Early on, figure out who needs to hear what, what level of detail they want, and how they want the information delivered, both medium (email, phone call, etc.) and format (bullet points, narrative, and so on.)
  2. Give me regular/scheduled updates: This is the traditional status report, a weekly (or perhaps fortnightly) description of progress… or the lack of same. The “3×3” is by far the most effective format for the material, as described below. I recommend you use it unless the customer requests something else.
  3. Tell me when something happens: Some clients want to know when you’ve met deadlines or encountered obstacles, or when the situation has changed in some way. They often request a brief call or email. When I’m the client, I’m a big fan of this approach, as long as I have trust in the project team. “I know you’re working, so please don’t waste time putting together some sort of report I really don’t have time to read. Just let me know about progress when it happens.”
  4. Tell me when you’re done. This is fine for small projects, but for anything major, this level of client withdrawal from the process can lead to misunderstandings unless you have a very clear set of goals and processes. A few areas – patent prosecution, for example – work well under this approach, but in general, you don’t want to go too far without checking in with the client and confirming you’re both still on the same page.

The 3×3 Status Report is a simple bullet list with a header describing the time period covered.

First, list no more than three things you accomplished in the time period. (Four is okay. Ten is not, except in a summary report at the end of a project phase or when accompanied by an invoice.) Focus on work that “delivered the pizza.” The client doesn’t care that the oven’s reached the right temperature and that you’ve proofed the dough. Focus on project tasks that reached completion during the period. As noted in March, tasks shouldn’t be so long that they slop over more than a few weekly reports in any case.

Second, list no more than three tasks you expect to complete in the next period. Here, it’s okay to use work in progress (we’ll add toppings, put the pizza in the oven) if need be. There is a hidden purpose to these reports in showing you’re working diligently on the client’s behalf.

A 3×3 should take no more than a few minutes to put together and no more the sixty seconds to read and analyze. That’s all a status report is worth, in any case. Don’t mistake status reports for actual progress.

Responsiveness (Days and Weeks): How often does the client want you to check in? Does she want regular meetings? If so, how? Phone, video, in person (when face-to-face is once again an option)?

These touch-base sessions are an excellent time to discuss any client “task-bombing,” where they drop unanticipated project-related tasks on you and the legal team. Make sure the client understands the triple cost of task-bombing:

  1. The cost of doing the work, if you’re invoicing or charging back. (If you’re not, and the client thus assumes your internal services are sort of free, there are excellent sites explaining the tragedy of the common.)
  2. Interruptions have costs. We’ve covered that elsewhere, but task-switching makes each of the in-play tasks less efficient that it should be.
  3. Opportunity cost. What else could you be doing – for the client or the company – if you weren’t being task-bombed? Some clients don’t care, but many try to be effective team players for their companies. You have to gauge your client’s responsiveness to this issue.

Objectives (Months): Most corporate clients have a series of review objectives for a fiscal year, three to five major goals they need to achieve to get promoted/get a good review/receive a large bonus. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I’ve never met a client unwilling to share their departmental goals.

Once you know what your client is being measured on, you can figure out how you can best help him achieve the desired results. Understanding client objectives is also a way to figure out how important your project is to him, which also helps you scale your response, level of effort, and costs. If a client has, say, a million dollar legal budget, he probably doesn’t want to spend $200,000 on a project that doesn’t help him meet his goals.

Coming Attractions

Next time, I’ll try to blast through the last three what-you-can-manage items: money, the client, and the team. All of these, of course, are interrelated, and I’ve already covered most of this key information in various examples and digressions in these first three articles.

Stay safe, and keep those projects moving forward.