Time: Conserving the Precious Resource

Time is the dominant constraint on all projects. There is a constant race against the clock. Many projects have fixed completion dates determined by external forces. Projects that fall behind schedule, struggle to catch up. I have never met a project manager who said there was too much time.

Time is also a unique resource. One cannot rent, hire, buy, or otherwise obtain more time…Time is totally irreplaceable.” –Peter Drucker

Since we can’t buy or create time, here are five ways to conserve and reclaim this precious resource:

Manage Time Perceptions

There is an old joke about a priest, a reverend, and a rabbi discussing when life begins. All three had a different perspective based on their convictions. Similarly, marking the beginning of a project depends on who answers the question.

To the executive, the project begins at ideation. The governance organization tracks the approval date. The project manager may mark the event when the project is formally initiated. These dates may be months apart, creating a perception gap that can affect the project.

I knew a VP who lost his job because he failed to manage the perceived start of a major project. He committed to delivering a data warehouse within      9-months—an aggressive goal. It took a few months to set the scope and build the team. In short order, 6-months passed and no tangible progress was reported. The project was killed and the VP was gone.

To effectively manage the time perceptions, the project manager should:

  • Understand the delivery expectations and perceived start date of the stakeholders and executives.   Did the 9-month project really start 3-months ago?
  • Set or reset expectations. If perceptions are misaligned, either reset them or find ways to deliver something of value by the expected date; and
  • Regularly communicate time commitments and expectations. Resetting perceptions requires message discipline and reinforced communications.

Rush to the Starting Line

Many projects take too long getting to the “starting line”—where the work begins in earnest. Finalizing scope, budget, and duration is a drawn-out process. Building the team and achieving its operational stride requires time.

The project manager plays a critical role in shepherding the project through these start-up challenges and building momentum:

  • If the team is challenged setting scope and requirements, actively facilitate the process to bring closure. There are several options: prototyping, joint application design (JAD) sessions, or establishing a phased delivery strategy;
  • Move the project team quickly to the “performing” stage. Hold team activities. Group training and social events are great ways to quickly build cohesion;
  • Establish a regular cycle for project rituals and ceremonies, such as: daily stand-ups, weekly stakeholder meetings, planning sessions, and retrospective.

Make Decisions

Time is lost waiting for decisions to be made or revisiting prior ones. These delays directly and indirectly impede progress. The team may be waiting to move forward or wasting effort due to rework–sapping the project’s momentum.

The following can improve the decision making process:

  • Establish ground rules and processes to avoid decision lags;
  • Set the expectation that decisions are made quickly;
  • Hold daily standup meetings to clear blockers;
  • Facilitate focused working sessions to resolve complex issues; and
  • Insist that decision makers be engaged or delegate to a trusted subordinate.

For more recommendations, see my June 2016 article, Decision Making: 6 Ways to be More Effective.

Manage Time Wisely

There are countless ways that time is wasted. The project manager should protect the team from unproductive efforts. Here are some easy ways to reclaim time:

  • Avoid excessive and unproductive meetings: Assess the meetings. Cancel unnecessary ones. Employ Manager Tools© effective meeting management
  • Reduce governance and oversight activities: Many organizations have burdensome governance and oversight processes. Negotiate with these groups to right size the controls.
  • Minimize Rework: Rework has a multiplier drag on the project. Two common sources of rework are unclear or misunderstood requirements, and back-ended testing. Minimize these lags by embedding users in the project team and tightly integrating testing into the development cycle.

            “I have yet to see a knowledge worker…who could not consign something like a quarter of the demands on his time to the wastepaper basket without anybody’s noticing their disappearance.” –Peter Drucker

Dispense with the Trivial and Administrative

Trivial and administrative tasks are a way of life in the modern enterprise. They take the form of status reports, approvals, and fire drills. It is impossible to ignore them. But, we can control their impact on our work. People react to the trivial by:

  • Complaining about the tasks, putting them off, and maximizing the time and effort required; or
  • Recognizing the need to dispense with these items as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Quickly assessing and effectively dispatching administrative tasks is the best approach. Here are a few hints:

  • Start with the end in mind. Clearly understand the required outcome and structure the work to achieve these specific results;
  • Calibrate the level of effort and detail to the outcome. Spend the right level of effort on the task. For example, initial project estimates require much less effort than final ones; and
  • Complete the tasks quickly. Do not put them off. A mountain of  5-minute tasks becomes harder to complete than a single one.

Prepare for the Gotchas

There are certain tasks that seem to always slow or derail progress. Most project managers know where to expect these sticky spots. For example: deploying software to a new environment is often problematic.

Avoiding these gotchas is easy with preparation and planning:

  • Follow standard risk management techniques for these events. Identify the potential problems;
  • Rate the likelihood of their occurrence and impact;
  • Plan your mitigation or response strategy.

See Rain, Flight Delays, and Risk Management to avoid some common risk management traps.

Time is the most valuable and critical resource on most projects. Time cannot be created, but it can be reclaimed. By using these techniques we can expand our effective capacity bit by bit.

© 2016 Alan Zucker, Project Management Essentials, LLC, To Subscribe


Drucker, P. F. (2001). The essential Drucker: Selections from the management works of Peter F. Drucker.

Effective Meetings Part 1. (2005, July 31). Retrieved July 16, 2016, from https://www.manager-tools.com/2005/08/effective-meetings-get-out-of-jail

When Does Life Begin. Retrieved July 16, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUwY5bjdD6Y; Bob Hertzendorf, Standup Comedian

Zucker, A. (2016, July 30). Rain, Flight Delays, and Risk Management. Retrieved August 2, 2016, from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/rain-flight-delays-risk-management-alan-zucker?trk=mp-author-card

Zucker, A. (2016, April 30). Decision Making–6 Ways to be More Effective. Retrieved August 2, 2016, from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/decision-making6-ways-more-effective-alan-zucker?trk=mp-author-card

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