Meetings vs Making
How to use design thinking to manage your time
As manager of multiple design teams at IBM, designers often ask for my advice on how to spend less time in meetings so that they can have more time to design. At IBM, our designers typically work with large project teams in complex organizational structures, which is how they end up having so many meetings on their schedule, either with managers or product teams. While communication and collaboration are important to delivering high quality user experiences, sometimes there isn’t much time left for the designer after all these scheduled meetings.
For example, I had one design lead who was spending 80% of their time in meetings, and the 20% that remained for actual design work was not contiguous, with no more than 30 minutes of free time at any point in their schedule to create innovative designs.
Although this example may be atypical, you may find yourself frustrated that you are spending too much of your time in meetings and not enough time doing design. In this article, I will share my tips on how to manage your time and make time for design, applying IBM Design principles to manage your schedule. Our approach to design thinking is a continuous loop of Observation, Reflection, and Making, and I will show you how to apply these to managing your time.
The first stage of the IBM Design Thinking loop is Observation, where you can take the time to truly understand what is the current state of the situation that you’re approaching, what is working in this situation, and what is not.
How much time are you spending in meetings?
Without exception, I have found that when designers tell me they are spending too much time in meetings, they actually are. However, this is based on intuition, rather than a quantifiable understanding of how they spend their time. A quick glance at their weekly calendar can visually illustrate the lack of white free space for creativity and making. To get to a more reasonable balance though, it is important to go beyond that visual though, and take the time to really break down where your time is spent specifically. What percentage of your time do you spend in meetings? What percentage of your time do you spend creating? How much time should you be spending on creating designs? To get a more accurate breakdown of your schedule, sit down and ask yourself the following questions of how your day really goes.
- Are you present?
How many of the meetings that you attend are you truly present for? Are you multi-tasking during the entire meeting? What percentage of the meeting are you actively listening or contributing?
2. Why are you attending?
For each meeting, it is important to ask yourself a set of questions about why you are attending. Are you a contributor? Are you a reviewer? Are you gathering info? Is there a clear outcome expected? Is there a clear agenda?
3. How many people will be participating and what is your relationship to them?
For each meeting, how many people will be attending and what is your relationship to the the other people attending? Although each meeting may seem important in isolation, it is important that you understand how much of your meeting allocation is spent in meetings for large audiences.
4. Are you really required to attend?
Did the chair of the meeting put thought into who are required attendees and who are optional attendees? Who requires you to attend? The answer may not always be obvious, and is worth exploring to understand your role in the meeting.
5. What is the priority of the meeting?
What if you did not attend? What would be the impact? When answering the question of the impact if you did not attend, you must be certain to answer from multiple perspectives. You should be able to indicate how it impacts your ability to deliver outcomes, as well as how your colleagues and stakeholders will be impacted in their ability to deliver their outcomes.
The next stage of the Design Loop is about stepping back and reflecting on what you’ve seen, before taking any action.
Set a goal
Once you have answered the questions to understand how you are spending your time, it is important to set a measurable goal. For example, If you currently are spending 80% of your time in meetings, perhaps you should consider setting your goal to 50%.
You should also set more granular goals, based on the types of meetings that you attend. You could consider what percentage of your meetings are allocated for reviews, for info gathering, for status, etc. Determining the right balance truly depends on the position you are in, and If you discover you are spending a significant proportion of your time in meetings during which you are multi-tasking at least 50% of the meeting, set a goal to reduce or eliminate those that you attend regularly. You can also consider setting goals for how much of your time is spent in status meetings, information gathering, customer meetings, etc to ensure that your meeting time is distributed deliberately.
For example, I discovered that I was clearing out my inbox or doing other work in 50% of the meetings that I was attending. I made a goal to reduce the amount of time spend in meetings where I was not paying attention to no more than 3 hours a week. I also discovered that I was only spending 5% of my meeting time in design reviews/critiques, but 30% in status discussions. I set a goal to increase the time spent on design reviews to 20%, and decrease the amount of time in status discussions to 5%.
Setting these goals truly helped me focus on what outcome I wanted to achieve, and provided a measure that I could assess when I tried different approaches to re-balance where I spent my time.
The last part of the IBM Design Loop is making, where you get to apply your ideas and strategies to the problem space, and start seeings any fruits of your labor.
Now that you’ve put enough time into considering how you want to change your schedule and optimize your time as a designer, there’s several possible solutions you can use to implement these changes:
- Block “think” time
Blocking time on your calendar is not a new suggestion, and you have probably tried this approach one or more times. This approach typically fails because we do not reschedule the block when we accommodate an urgent meeting request, and our colleagues discover that this time is flexible once you accommodate their meeting requests. One of the keys to successfully keeping that time blocked is to communicate it broadly, and often, so that your colleagues become accustomed to scheduling around your blocked time. It is important that you take into consideration your collaboration needs when you block your calendar. For example, I have teams in Europe that I need to work with from Austin, therefore, it makes more sense to block time in the afternoons.
However, it also is important that you block a reasonable amount of time. I once had a designer who blocked every afternoon for “Think” time, making it difficult to schedule any meetings with them. Your schedule needs to allow time for communication and collaboration with your colleagues and stakeholders. If you are consistently having to accommodate meetings during your blocked time, your boundaries will no longer be clear to your colleagues, and they will diminish over time.
2. Suggest alternatives
If you think there’s an alternative to the meetings you are having, suggest that to your peers who are setting them. One possible alternative is to reduce the cadence which you attend certain meetings. For example, if there is a daily call, perhaps you suggest that you only need to attend twice a week. Or for weekly call, attend once a month. You may find that it is important to increase the cadence when establishing new teams or during certain phases of the life-cycle.
You can also work with the chair to determine if there are alternative means of communication that do not require you to be present. Depending on the number of participants, it may also make sense to suggest alternate times to ensure that you allow yourself blocks of time.
Another opportunity for consolidation is if you are seeing redundancies across your meeting distribution. If you find that you are sharing the same information in multiple forums, perhaps suggest a regular playback to bring together the various audiences.
By suggesting alternatives, I was able to get to my goal of reducing the amount of time spent in status meetings down to my goal of 5% . Rather than drop these off my calendar altogether, I changed the cadence that I would attend, and suggested that we use slack to communicate offline in the interim.
3. Give yourself permission to challenge the status quo
Finally, you must give yourself permission to question whether changes need to be made to the status quo. Where you see inefficiencies, you have permission to suggest alternatives. Wear your designer hat when you suggest alternatives, and listen to the needs of your colleagues and stakeholders. Your first suggestion may not be the final solution, and communication is the key to finding a solution that works for you and your colleagues.
Above all, I suggest that you apply the design thinking approach to your schedule. Observe how you spend your day, Reflect on how well you are achieving your desired outcomes to make innovative new designs, and Make new changes to your schedule to ensure that you are effectively collaborating and communicating with your stakeholders and making design artifacts that will delight your end users!
(Note, this blog was written while attending a meeting that I am seriously dropping off my calendar!)
Sandra Tipton (@sandratipton) is Design Program Manager at IBM based in Austin, Texas. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.