Program Management – eating the information overload wave bit by bit

In recent Program Manager (PM) posts I eluded to the key responsibilities, such as building bridges amongst stakeholders, leading by example, shipping solutions, orchestrating agendas and skills, leveraging resources, ensuring business value – good experience and technically OK solutions and eventually integrating with the other environments and solutions.

If you happen to be a technical PM, you also need to set aside time to roll-up-sleeves and getting involved in the development, testing and debugging of solutions, as well as “trying” to keep abreast of all the technology evolutions happening all around you.

Oh, and you need to realise you are human, you will never know everything and you can probably not sustain a 24x7 marathon for too long, without having your family or health pulling the emergency brake while you are flying with afterburners and juggling multiple deliverables.

Willy’s new (normal) day

In Program Management – Thinking about PM != PM and Visual Studio ALM Rangers (Part 2) I introduced a proposed time plan for a normal day, which included no less than 12 cups (mugs) of coffee and a vision of load-balancing and dealing with multiple projects and associated responsibilities.

To maintain a healthy work – home balance, ensure the blood pressure unit at the local drug store does not scream and run away every time it sees me and most importantly deliver quality at all times, I have evolved the dog fooding plan slightly and am now aiming for a zero message inbox, zero Parktown Prawns by the afternoon and razor sharp focus at all times. I will elaborate on all three Smileimage

The illustration above shows how I have subdivided my 24h working day. 00:00-06:00 is time to sleep and recharge batteries, 6:00-8:00 is family time to ensure everyone is ready for school, work and gets at least 3 seconds of warm water, 8:00-17:00 is ALM Rangers time, 17:00-22:00 is family time (soccer, …) and 10:00-24:00 is emergency time to read, or action that last crucial deliverable. As with all perfect plans, the time slots are merely guidelines and typically vary daily … but work-home balance and rest is important. The day you realise you know nothing and cannot get it all done, is the day you find a sense of calm … after a flurry of panic attacks Smile

Zero message (empty) inbox is not an anomaly

I have joined the inbox zero movement, using flags, categories, flags and rules to highlight the important and actionable emails, and filing the rest away for future reference (not necessarily action) or even nudging them into the deleted folder.  For example email address to me (TO list) appears as bold, red and typically stays in the inbox.

My objective is to reach a near-zero inbox in the morning and a zero inbox by the time I call it a day using the following continuously “evolving” process:


NOTE: CV = Controlled Vocab. See for details.

At all times consider converting a manual decision (as above) to an email rule, automating the process with time. There are occasions where an email is missed, incorrectly filed (especially when working with the tiny mobile phone real estate) or worse deleted, typically when returning from a long-weekend or vacation and staring at an inbox with a few hundred/thousand emails queued. The good news is that these anomalies are very rare and if they do happen, the sender usually “pings” me to follow-up if urgent.

Eat Your Frogs Parktown Prawn

Time management tips mention that we should eat a metaphorical live frog (the most challenging task) in the morning. Challenging tasks require focus and time … or “razor sharp focus”.

I have tweaked this tip slightly in two ways:

  1. Instead of a frog, I prefer to use the metaphorical Parktown Prawn.
    My colleagues from Johannesburg, South-Africa will understand and the rest may see my point once seeing the beauty below and perusing And yes, they can be eaten … I clearly remember one of our sons walking towards us chewing, with half of a Parktown Prawn in his hand … he just started walking and was therefore unable to confirm what had happened to the other half Disappointed smile
  2. I defer the most challenging tasks to after the collaboration phase. More on this below.

Razor Sharp Focus

To summarise my “ideal” day looks as follows:


  1. Collaboration
    • The ALM Rangers are scattered around the globe. To accommodate most ALM Rangers and time zones we schedule most project collaboration activities, meetings and stand-ups in the early morning (Pacific Date Time) typically between 8-11 PDT, infrequently competing with the early birds between 6-8AM PDT.
    • During the collaboration phase I attempt to get as much of the PM responsibilities for the day addressed, ensuring that the following seven key PM responsibilities receive their fair slice of attention:
      1. Bridge between the customers/community/partners/PG
      2. Leadership
      3. Ship It!
      4. Orchestration
      5. Leverage Resources
      6. B-X-T perspective
      7. Integrated Solutions
  2. Razor Sharp Focus
    • From about 11-15:00 I “try” and encourage a zero-distraction and “razor-sharp-focus” period for myself, to work on the most challenging project deliverables, reviews, research and othertasks that cannot be done between a meeting, coffee break, phone call and other typical distractions.
    • The “Razor Sharp Focus” period is achieved by minimising Outlook, setting the Lync status to Do Not Disturb and remembering to mute the mobile or throw it deep into the bowels of the laptop bag.
    • We are left with an eerie, but liberating environment with no pop-ups, sounds or other distractions which typically nudge us into the dreaded world of multi-tasking.
  3. Planning | Support
    • Usually the 17:00 “gong” reminds me that I have missed this phase of the day, that tomorrow is another day and that we can probably do better in terms of day planning.
    • Otherwise I spend this part of the day processing new emails, dealing with support issues and planning the next day.
  4. Emergency
    • You may remember that I try and put aside 22:00-24:00 for emergencies, such as:
      • Dealing with critical issues that slipped through the cracks
      • Resuming the attempt to continue (and one day) finish reading the numerous books scattered around our home
      • Writing blog posts … such as this one
      • Doing last minute projects with my boys, which are due tomorrow and which they were unaware of until a few minutes ago … really?
    • If not, my emergency is watching TV and simply relaxing.

I am working with exceptional MS PMs who are mentoring me along the way, sharing their experiences, and perusing my dog fooding and PM related blog posts (such as this) and giving me candid feedback. I am interested to see what their feedback will be to this latest view of by (preferred) normal day and my realisation that I do not and will not know everything, that I cannot be aware of everything that is happening around the world, that I may lose (misfile) one or two emails with my process and that I will continue to try and balance work – home – quality – reality!

Thanks for listening.

Reference posts: 

Comments (2)
  1. Question  "How do you file emails when you are on the move and responding using a mobile device?"

    Great question and one that probably deserves a more detailed post at a later stage. I typically travel with my Surface or Windows Phone these days and worst case is probably me sitting on the bus or at the soccer field with my phone only. When that happens I am faced with an inbox that contains messages that were not processed by server rules and a keyboard that is either too small or my hands to big. Although I have access to all folders I typically file messages to Queue ASAP if I cannot process the message immediately and get back to them as soon as I get back to a more productive form factor/keyboard environment, i.e. my laptop at home or the Surface on the bus.

    I am careful to avoid Outlook rules that only run on the client, for example those that perform actions such as setting the message to read status, as these would otherwise appear in and clutter my inbox on the mobile device. I have also named my Queue folders in such a way and am using the favourites to ensure that I can avoid excessive scrolling on the mobile, which can be frustrating and more importantly can lead to messages being dropped in incorrect folders by mistake.

  2. Question “I would also be interested to know how you start clearing the mailbox after returning from a long vacation?”

    When you go on vacation you are faced with doing the right thing, “un-plugging” from the digital world when you go on vacation and we faced with an overwhelming wave of emails when you get back … or you take your mobile device with you and stay connected. I definitely recommend the latter, but forgetting the charger at home 

    But how do I deal with the seemingly insurmountable backlog? I typically use the “Cleanup Folder” feature to consolidate and reduce the sheer amount, with the knowledge that future search results on the content of the backlog will be impacted. Thereafter I use my process as documented in the post above, but much more aggressively when deciding whether something is urgent and actionable. If it is two weeks old it is probably not that urgent anymore. If colleagues have jumped onto the thread, it likely requires no further action … if my assumptions are wrong, the original sender typically IM’s or emails me to “ping” on status when they realise that I am back.

    With the more aggressive approach is literally took me ½ hour to process the email backlog of a week, when I returned recently from a trip with ZERO connectivity.

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