The impact of Unplanned Work

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This might resonate with you if you’re a technical professional: how many times have you been asked to do a piece of work (often portrayed as a ‘small’ job) which disrupts planned activities and means one of both slip or are done with compromise? A study in 2002 found that IT departments can be spending 10% of their time on unplanned work, which is 10% of work that is unbudgeted and under-resourced. The costs are hidden and the strain on workers can be significant. If you take a standard 40 hour working week (assuming that those hours are allocated to work in advance) then workers are spending an extra 4 hours a week on unplanned work! Time that could be spent in the pub 🙂 No way Jose!
It seems that this is a common problem in technical departments. I’ve experienced this a lot in my career, and it seems to be as a result of a lack of respect or courtesy. Worse still it can be because the requestor doesn’t consider the role of the technical department as crucial or important to business. But wait, if someone asks you to do something unplanned, why are they doing it? The answer, more often than not, is because non-techies view techies as problem solvers and have a gift for dealing with obscure problems of an esoteric nature. So this is a compliment, right?
Whether its a compliment or sheer lack of respect, it happens. What does a committed and professional technician do in these circumstances?
It’s common for the requested activity to be absorbed into the work stack. It’s also common for it to be pushed back outright. But a coping mechanism I’ve found to be successful is to respond in a matter-of-fact way, which is helpful to both sides of the request. If a sales guy came to me and asked me to ‘do him a favour’, if I couldn’t absorb it with free time I would lay out the other work I had to do that day and ask him how these work items should be prioritised, plus ask him to help approach the recipient of work I had otherwise agreed, should I feel that appropriate (it’s a judgment call I can only make). It’s amazing how many times this has resulted in the request being withdrawn, plus an apology received. Although in most cases like this I have helped the would-be usurper by suggesting alternative colleagues who might have free time, or a potential alternative means of achieving the same outcome.
This isn’t rocket science. It’s a way of helping others understand that our work is important and part of the organizational machinery, but that we’re not unhelpful or beligerant.
Most importantly, technical professionals must realize that unplanned work can cost an organization significantly and that it should be practically avoided, but not aggressively!

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