10 2-hour blocks per week

Individual Contributors in an organization need time to get work done.

This feels axiomatic, yet it is often the case that any number of meetings can gather on an individual’s calendar such that there actually isn’t enough time to sit quietly and think the deep thoughts one needs to deliver business value. Today is not the day to wax nostalgic about how terrible meetings are and how we should have no meeting Wednesdays. Meetings are not intrinsically bad and neither is their absence.

However, as a leader it is my job to ensure my team has time to think. To do this, I ask them to look at their schedule at the start of the week and before standup every day and ensure there are at least 2 – 2 hour blocks every day and 10 – 2 hour blocks each week that are unallocated. This can seem like a pretty low bar in an eight hour day, but I would suggest that this is a place to start that is measurable and actionable.

So, on any given day that an IC doesn’t have these two free windows of time. That counts as a blocker in standup. This is really what standups are for; status updates are great but removing blockers is the real money maker. As the manager on the team you just had a person tell you they cannot get their work done. And perhaps even with enough time for you to act

Now it’s time for the manager to step in. Can some meetings be skipped or rescheduled? Or are we writing off this day as one lacking full productivity assigned to the in progress work. It will almost always be a hard decision, but if you don’t know about it. If there is no stake in the ground, you cannot hope to train your team to help them help you identify this concern.

Bonus points: This can be systematically measured. Outlook and Gmail both have APIs that can help you query your team members calendars so that a metric can be built around what percentage of your team has unblocked time. 

Lastly, not all Specialties in an engineering organization get the same amount of free time. As a team lead one might only get 4-6 free blocks a week depending on how much planning is happening. A manager or director could have 2-5. So, as you are digging into your directs and skip level calendars be cognizant of their particular role and how focused on coordination it is. (See High Output Management where Andy Grove talks specifically about how he is in meetings all day, because he is their to coordinate and scaffold decision making)

Take care,

Nathan

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