My diary today is blank. Of course, the fact that I’ve nothing scheduled to do doesn’t mean that I’ve nothing to do. In the life of a consultant an empty day in the diary can be a Godsend allowing for the all important admin to be done, leading to a day filled with expense claim submission, outstanding paperwork being filed, laptops getting some much needed systems administration attention, personal projects being followed up on (like the in-house test servers I manage), and clients who haven’t been in touch for a while getting a courtesy call to ensure that everything is OK with them. These days are much needed and welcome. But not too often.
An IT Consultant with “nothing in the diary for today”
It can be easy as a consultant, who lives and dies by the contents of the diary, to look at their full calendar for the next few weeks and despair at how busy they’re going to be, overwhelmed by the volume of work coming their way and longing for empty days like today. I like to take a different, more entrepreneurial view of the diary and try not to think of it as merely a calendar of upcoming activities but rather as my order book, as a promise of future work, and that puts the whole thing into a more favourable light.
Regardless of how you look at your busy schedule, the fact is that managing the diaries of multiple people can be a complex task and should be handled with some care as mismanaging it can lead to disaster. With this in mind, here are some of my considerations for managing the diaries and therefore the time of consultants.
1. People Not Resources
The single most important consideration when managing the time of other people is to remember that being in the position where you can assign people to work and schedule them to do that work is a place of great power and as such it must not be abused. The easiest (and almost certainly the least deliberate) way to abuse that power is to forget that you are dealing with people and not simply project resources being moved about a Gantt chart.
People are always more engaged with decisions that effect them if they’ve been involved in the decision making process. In the case of consultancy that may not always be possible but a high level of communication goes a long way to engaging people with the schedules they work to. People have lives outside of work and everyone strives for some level of balance or integration between their work and home lives. When you’re in the consulting business and work can take people away from home for extended periods, it’s doubly important that those being scheduled are part of the process as much as possible and don’t just receive an impersonal (often automated) email or calendar update telling them where to go to next.
Excessive travel or excessive time away from home can destroy morale and in some instances may be a genuine health and safety concern, so simply picking up the phone and talking to the person you are scheduling can make all the difference, though the best approach is to schedule with care, which leads to…
2. Look Backward As Well As Forward
Events don’t happen in a vacuum, something always leads up to an event occurring. When looking to assign someone to a task it’s a wise move to consider that persons schedule leading up to the event you are planning. It’s possible that a more efficient schedule can be created if you were aware, for example, that a consultant with the relevant skills was in the same geographic area as the client you are planning for at roughly the right time. It’s even possible that you’re scheduling a visit to a client that is being visited in the preceding week or month and that your job could get successfully bundled along with other planned work.
There is also that important human element that can be better considered when looking at a person’s schedule leading up to a task you are planning. Perhaps the consultant you have in mind has been out on the road for a long time and could use some time in the office or at least nearer to home? Maybe the person you have in mind is heavily involved with another project and the task you are planning constitutes too dramatic an interruption to the flow of their work? Getting a better view of a consultant’s calendar during the planning and scheduling process simply provides the planner with more information that leads to better decision making.
3. Everything Is Connected
Events don’t happen in a vacuum and consultants don’t operate in one either; we work with Project Managers, Developers, Technical Support teams, Customer Services teams, Account Managers, Sales teams, other Consultants, internal support teams like Finance & HR, and of course our Clients. Just within our own organisations we are connected to everyone and as such the systems used to schedule and manage consultants time should reflect this interconnectivity.
Projects require people so an obvious starting point is to link the diary system to the project planning system, so that when plans are being drawn up the time of the people required to execute the plan can be scheduled with ease and well in advance. Such a link also ensures that the project plan accommodates the availability of the people you need and can work around scheduling conflicts long before the plan is finalised. With a picture worth a thousand words, a strong connection to a project management tool provides for graphical views of the upcoming calendar for those people assigned to different tasks making it easier to grasp the nature of those schedules.
Another obvious link is for the diary system is into expenses and billing, either through a timesheet and associated sign-off system, or directly into the Finance suite. Timely billing coupled with timely handling of claims for expenses makes everyone happy from the consultants waiting to get reimbursed to the Financial Controller concerned with managing cash flow. Along with facilitating billing and expenses a link from the diary into Finance allows for easier analysis of consultant utilisation (the consultant’s KPI) and from there the profitability of their time.
A perhaps more tenuous link would be from the diary in to the HR system to facilitate Health & Safety requirements (like managing the amount of mileage, or time on the road away from home) or for gathering data on the projects worked on for Performance Review and career development purposes. A HR link would definitely be useful for managing holidays.
The diary system should have a link to the support management or helpdesk system so that support teams can be aware of who is available to help if and when they need. The support team knowing when a consultant is on-site with a client can be really beneficial if that client has a support requirement at the time, though there needs to be a way to let the support team know if the consultant isn’t to be disturbed.
When support is needed after a consultant visit the support staff should be able to get access to the information they need in order to be effective – that means capturing important details as quickly as possible and updating support systems. The reverse of this is also true (consultants in the field need to be able to access the information they need) but is a topic for another day, however information for support staff is relevant to diary management as:
4. Inflexibility Leads To Trouble
When times are good, and therefore busy, it’s common to find a consultant going from one client to the next with no time in between. On the surface this may make good business sense as a busy consultant should be a profitable consultant, but the nature of the work needs to be considered before tight schedules are created. After a major implementation or upgrade it would be wise to ensure that the consultant(s) involved are available to help out in the immediate aftermath so that any client issues can be dealt with quickly and effectively by those people most familiar with the situation. This Continuity of Care approach can prove invaluable in the chaos that can ensure after a major system goes live for example and gives the client the high level of service they should expect.
Taking a consultant off the road in order to do this can seem counter-intuitive but it actually fits into the utilisation model of consultant time management. If you accept that a consultant will have a utilisation of <100% (let’s take an example of a busy consultant’s utilisation at 80%) then the after-care days can simply fit into the other un-utilised 20%. A really clever approach would be to include the after-care time in the plan from the start and therefore include it in the cost of the project, thus keeping the utilisation figure healthy and accurate.
Inflexibility in schedules also leads to problems when emergencies arise or when people are out sick. During a recent outbreak of the winter vomiting bug I heard of firms with >15% of their staff out sick at any one time and while it’s next to impossible to accurately plan for these situations you can schedule with care, like ensuring that not every consultant is out on a major project for several different clients at the same time for example so that if something does go wrong you might be able to deal with it.
5. Confirm Before Committing
Diaries reflect what people are doing or will be doing and are influenced by a wide variety of factors but ultimately they are managed by people and may not always be completely accurate or up to date. With this in mind, whenever scheduling someone to a task, check with them first to be sure that they have the availability and that there are no factors you may not be aware of like personal plans or unconfirmed work from other sources that are likely to hit the diary. Confirming with the person that they really are available to do the job before committing to anything with the client can save a lot of headaches and saves you from looking embarrassingly unprofessional in front of a customer, and once again it humanises the whole process.
2013 Diaries Now Available
When thinking about how best to manage the time of others through a diary system it becomes apparent that the diary itself is only one aspect of the management system for consultants albeit a major one. Linking the diary with other systems is an essential integration step that leads to a more holistic approach to leading consultants to do their best work, but it is really only the first step of many, with an integrated consultancy management system needing connections to Project Management and other systems in order for real value to be obtained.
As the current batch of 2013 diaries are handed out just in time for the holidays (and just in time to get thrown into a drawer until someone is really stuck for a notebook) and a couple of empty days have made their way onto the calendar ahead of the break, now would be a great time for those of us in the consultancy game to take a look at how people are assigned to work and to look for ways to utilise our time a little better by practising the type of systems integration we’re always preaching.