Manage interruptions or they'll manage you

In my early days of being a School Business Manager, I lost count of the number of times a member of staff would appear at the office door and ask me ‘are you busy? Can I have a word/ask you something?’

On a good day my reply would be ‘yes, I am always busy; but how may I be of assistance?’ spoken through gritted teeth. I can’t put into print what my response was on a bad day!

After a couple of years in the SBM role I realised that the constant stream of interruptions meant that my effectiveness was dramatically reduced, my well-being was suffering and ultimately the school and the children we were all there to serve was not getting the best from me.

When we have constant interruptions it means that we can never reach what performance coaches call a state of ‘flow state’ or ‘being in the zone’. This is a mental state of complete focus and full involvement in the task at hand. The phrase coined originally by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975.

Despite the received wisdom it is not possible to multi task, as neuro science tells us that the brain isn’t wired to give complete and full attention to more than one thing at a time!

So as I settled into the role I started to make a few changes…

Don’t become everyone’s Wikipedia

As SBMs we tend to be collectors of information and good at research. In fact some of us might enjoy this a bit too much! The downside of this is that we can became a walking human Wikipedia. Just ask Andrew he will know, he knows everything! If we are honest this can appeal to our pride/ego as being the source and fount of all human knowledge can bring a bit of kudos with it. But when I look at this objectively it can tend to deskill others and doesn’t encourage others to develop research and problem solving skills. Our answer to this at my last school was to develop our own Wikipedia! A staff intranet with calendar which was designed by staff and contained all the information people would need to do their job. My first response to the interruption would then be ‘have you looked on the intranet?’.

Schedule undivided attention (plan your interruptions)

When I asked my predecessor how he managed his working relationships with people in school he said that he just let people contact him whenever they wanted and just dealt with things as they came up. After 2 years of trying to make this work I had had enough. I started to schedule 2 weekly meetings with my direct reports. These were focused meetings with a set agenda and because I made these a priority staff stopped interrupting and saved it (the question/request/comment) for the meeting.

Rank doesn’t give you the right

All good working relationships are built upon mutual trust and respect. Regardless of rank and seniority there are some common courtesies and protocols we should all expect or even demand I believe. So why is it then that we allow someone to interrupt and make themselves our number one priority without any regard to our needs? There can be a mind-set that determines the urgency of a task or interruption by the seniority of the messenger! If we truly are child focussed the real determinant of whether we need to drop everything and focus on the interruption is the impact upon pupils of not doing so and not the adult!

Having said that the first time I said ‘no’ to my head teacher I was a nervous wreck. In reality I didn’t use that word anyway, more like ‘later’!

‘A failure to plan on your part should not constitute an emergency on my part’.

Nip it off at the source

In a smaller school the SBM is very much part of the customer facing team! Even if you have office staff working with you, there are still times when you have to answer the door/phone or administer first aid. This can be made easier by anticipating the need. I bet that if I took a survey of schools on the most frequently asked question by parents (face to face, email, phone) it would be about dates! The question starts with ‘when is…the school holidays/training day/parents evening?’ So why isn’t the school calendar the first thing that people see when they visit your website? Why isn’t it on your recorded message on your phone? On every email that is sent out? Attached to every letter that goes out!

I would encourage everyone to find some time if possible to reflect upon your interruptions. What is the subject matter? Where do they come from? Are there any common themes you can detect?

When I first arrived at my school everything was done via paper forms! There was constant stream of people coming into the office asking for a timesheet, application form or printed leaflet. Why is it that the person who takes the last copy never lets anyone know? Over a 12 month period we migrated every form to the intranet or school website, which made a huge difference.

Use of technology

I know that some SBMs hate email with a passion I see them as a great allay in managing my time. An email can still be an interruption but it does put us in the driving seat. We decide when, how and if we reply. That’s not as easy to do with someone standing in front of us.

Of course there are some interruptions that we welcome. Like when the parent comes into school and says can anyone give me a receipt for this £500 donation to school funds!


Written by Andrew Blench - @SchBusinessPrtn

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