Time-Boxing Activities

Another important concept for managing within the structure of working groups is placing limits on the time spent on any given topic and assigning due dates to action items. This concept, known as time-boxing, can act as a significant accelerator for efforts, especially those with open-ended objectives. The best efforts possess a macro level time-box for the complete effort. Within that time-box, smaller segments of activity are also time-boxed to help ensure they are accomplished within the overall timeframe of the larger effort.

One area of time-boxing that sometimes limits its use is difficulty determining how much time is the ‘right’ amount of time for a given segment of activity or area of focus. Many efforts will begin by assessing the relative importance of each activity to the overall effort and then assigning more time to more important activities and less time to less critical ones.

Time-boxing also embeds a powerful concept into its very structure, the concept of diminishing returns. For many segments of efforts, the best ideas and most effective progress will come early on, and time-boxing represents a mechanism for moving on before specific efforts extend too far past their value. Even when time-boxing is used as a looser concept, it typically acts as a motivator for concluding activities closer to the timeframe originally envisioned and moving on to other areas of activity.

Time-boxing also acts as a mechanism to diffuse a real risk in any working group: the desire to get everything 'exactly right' before moving forward. The desire to define perfection before moving forward has derailed a significant number of otherwise well-meaning efforts. Many efforts begin with an over-arching objective to identify the 'best' outcome or end state. The problem is in most situations, there is no actual 'best'; the optimal outcome or end state is more likely the result of a series of trade-offs between concepts such as cost and benefit or risk and reward.

The concept of perfection is essentially a paradox. The usual result of trying to define the absolute ideal is a series of looping discussions that typically fail to arrive at a universally accepted conclusion - passionate discussion followed by little or no action. More importantly, sufficient information may not even be available to determine an ideal balance until some level of implementation occurs which provides better information or visibility into the problem or opportunity. Instead of spending cycles searching for nirvana, successful efforts typically start by identifying components of a better foundation, moving forward with implementation as rapidly as possible, and adjusting over time.

This, of course, is harder than it sounds. In rigid organizations with poor decision-making capabilities, establishing a baseline capability instead of studying a problem for an extended period and coming up with the perfect answer may be untenable. Few solutions, if any, may have been implemented on a temporary basis historically because change is so hard to accomplish in the first place, therefore resistance exists to doing anything without significant contemplation and getting it 'right' before execution. Time-boxing places a limit that helps force decision points with regard to objectives, recommendations, or solution structures, helping to keep efforts from falling into the perfection paradox.