Working In Uncertainty

Controlling time on training courses and workshops

When I first started working as an independent consultant I had an opportunity to present a two day training course on how to comply with section 404 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act 2002 more efficiently. It was a great topic and a good course, though a bit ahead of its time. However, my approach to controlling time during the course was embarrassingly naive.

How not to do it

I carefully estimated the time it would take to work through every presentation slide and every exercise, and chose precise times for morning coffee, lunch, and afternoon tea. I even inserted slides at the appropriate places (or so I thought) with pictures of coffee, lunch, or tea and words like "Well deserved tea break" on them. I imagined that, if I fell behind or got ahead, I would be able to adjust and stay on track within each session of the course.

This fragile approach started to break down even before the course began when I got an email telling me when the venue would be serving lunch. Apparently I didn't have a choice because they had to stagger lunch for the various workshops and training courses taking place in the same building. Lunch was not going to be when I had planned. That also meant that the morning and afternoon breaks were not ideally timed either.

I hastily revised my slides and timing spreadsheet. I need not have bothered. During the course itself my estimates of time required proved hopelessly inaccurate, with exercises taking either much more or much less time than I expected, and slides going the same way. In fact timing was not a big problem but my "Well earned rest break" pictures kept appearing when people were still hard at work in the middle of sessions.

Working better in uncertainty

Over the years I have found that controlling time on workshops requires maximum flexibility. (It's not just the time that needs to be flexible, but that's another story.) Trying to do it by detailed time budgeting and control is confusing and ineffective.

Today I design flexible sessions with flexible timing. During the day I occasionally calculate a number I call 'time pressure' and use this as a guide to when to save time and when to fill it.

People in my courses have often commented that the time pressure calculation is a good idea, so here's how it works. The spreadsheet has a list of the elements of the course and when I want a time check I put a '1' against each element that has been completed and a fraction against the current element if it is only part completed. The spreadsheet recalculates as I do this, looking up the correct time and using it to work out how much time is left on the course. It compares this with the original estimate of the time needed for the remaining course elements and gives the estimate divided by the actual time left as its percentage time pressure. For example, if there is one hour remaining until the end of the course but the material left to get through was originally expected to take 1 hour and 30 minutes then the time pressure is 150%. From experience I now know that 110% time pressure is no problem but 130% time pressure is a mini-crisis.

Since I started using this technique course participants have been very helpful in recognizing the meaning of the time pressure percentage and letting me steer the course through to a prompt completion.

Working In Uncertainty observations

I learned a long time ago from personal experience that projects are better controlled using reforecasts to completion based on a model of work remaining than by trying to stick to an initial budget breakdown. The 'time pressure' spreadsheet isn't really a proper reforecast to completion but it takes next to no time to use during a course and gives useful guidance everyone understands.

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Company: The Ridgeway Expertise Company Ltd, registered in England, no. 04931400.

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Words © 2012 Matthew Leitch