The actual problem: No one really knows how long things take at work

How Long Do Things Take At Work?

I was thinking about this a little yesterday as I drove home (in sheeting rain), so I wanted to write something about it. It’s not very scientific or anything — it’s more anecdotal — but I still find it interesting. Let’s start with the basics:

Alright … so, where does this leave us?

Here’s an example from a job I previously had (ESPN) that might illustrate my idea here.

I ran the ESPN Insider homepage for about 12-18 months. Frequently, this meant I had to change a bunch of photos at once on the homepage. The standard ESPN.com way to do this is to put in a photo request to a team in Bristol, and they get around to your photos when they can. Over time, that got tedious, so when I needed to do things quickly, I cropped them myself. This took maybe 2-3 minutes as opposed to 2-3 hours of putting in a request and waiting for the photos to be sent to you. I got in trouble maybe once or twice for subverting the system, but ultimately business mantra won out — people like things being done quickly. I did that. None of my bosses at the time really understood the system — they were off managing their own projects, I’m sure — and that’s where the story takes a turn.

When my co-workers (peers) had to run that homepage, they would always request the photos from the correct process. Then if a boss asked them what was going on, what was up, why wasn’t stuff on the site, why wasn’t stuff getting done, etc. — and they’d say “Well, there’s this process and it takes about 2-3 hours…” and the boss would then say, “Oh, OK.”

I’ve seen various iterations of this at pretty much every job I’ve ever had, right up to the current one.

So basically, it’s like this:

  • Silos exist: Hence, people work in teams/processes unique to those teams. They know how long things should take and who’s working on what (give or take) within their unit.
  • But managers emphasize cross-team communication: When a team suddenly has to work with another team or another department, that’s a new set of processes and people. Rather than actively learn/research how those work, most people kind of cling to their original team.
  • Now things are happening and no one knows exactly how long they should be taking: And therein lies a problem.

If you’re not buying any of the above, think about this: have you ever worked with a person who basically gets away with doing nothing all day, but their supervisor thinks they’re working for eight hours on something that actually takes 30 minutes?

I bet you have.

And that’s the flaw in the system — because people aren’t naturally that curious about learning new things at work, other people can get away with “Oh, this takes up so much of my time” (when, in reality, it didn’t).

Props to you if you can exploit it, for sure — but when we talk about wanting to make workplaces more effective/efficient (which is often code for “make more money”), there are literally hundreds of pockets of a given organization where effectiveness is terribly flawed. People not really knowing how long things take is just one of them.

Jim Harter, who worked with Gallup on that semi-famous “Very few people are engaged at work anymore” study, has basically said that managers don’t often pay attention to what their employees are doing, and that simple change could foster more engagement. I’d say this idea — not knowing how long things should take, especially across departments — rolls up with that.

Ted Bauer


  1. I would also suggest that most managers aren’t interested in challenging the system and are willing to just accept the terrible inefficiencies because “that’s just the way it is.” Until both employees and their leaders are willing to look into these sorts of messes (and I’m convinced that is why my job exists right now, is to be the guy who navigates all the arcane and ineffective processes that exist in our company and with our customer) and are willing to support their team when they say there is a problem that needs to be fixed, its just going to stay the same.

    I don’t think its that people aren’t curious to learn new things, and I don’t think its that they aren’t willing to grow – I think most people just aren’t willing to do the frustrating work of taking on organizational change especially when the organization is structured to fight against evolution.

    • I like the line about the organization being structured to fight against evolution. Hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s true.

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