It is curious, that, although perhaps hundreds of books, articles and Web sites are devoted to time management, most of us still struggle with this critical skill for financial advisors and business owners. A recent Google search, using the term "time management" produced 228 million listings. Certainly, there is an abundance of information on this subject; perhaps even too much. Yet poor time management represents the single most expensive aspect of running a financial advisory practice.
One reason might be that many solutions to time management involve linear approaches to solve the problem. As an example, if it is discovered that an advisor is spending an inordinately large amount of time answering and writing e-mails throughout the day, suggestions to solve this might include setting aside a specific time (or times) during the day in which e-mails might be handled. Yet is this always going to be the perfect solution? Not if the advisor should not be handling the e-mail in the first place or if certain e-mails should be filtered out or re-directed to another staff person in the firm.
Linear thinking involves cause and effect types of activities. If you do this, then that happens and so on. And, while this may be an effective approach in some areas, it may not be the most efficient way of dealing with time management issues. The problem stems from trying to standardize a process with an issue that often cannot be standardized. Each situation, when encountered, could call for different approaches.
And this strikes at the heart of the problem. Most advisors that began as one-person shops and were required to do it all for themselves may find that once the practice grows and employees enter the picture it becomes difficult to relinquish control or to effectively delegate (knowing when and how to delegate). When a firm owner tends to try to handle it all, it frequently degrades into crisis mode: handling the problems as they arise, especially when they present themselves as overwhelming in importance (at least insofar as the financial advisor may perceive it). Reactive time management versus proactive produces time management nightmares. It effectively loses the control of the advisor's schedule. And it is often so debilitating that the advisor could be paralyzed by it.
Not surprisingly, those advisory firms that struggle with time management also struggle with clutter. Clutter is a key symptom of poor time management. In those practices where clutter is prevalent, poor time management is very likely to exist as well. This is because those who tend to clutter do not have the methods in place to deal with paperwork efficiently and thus, the piles grow until it reaches the "crisis stage." At this point, the advisory practice may find it necessary to literally shut down the office for a day or two to clear out the piles and restore order.
Procrastination, especially with respect to running a financial advisory practice, can only lead to disorganization, stress and even chaos. Therefore, it is extremely important to overcome procrastination, particularly with respect to time management. But ultimately, how can a firm gain control of time and still operate at a high level of efficiency, productivity and profitability? One way is to move beyond linear approaches to solving such problems and embrace Adaptive Strategic Thinking as a logical alternative.
Adaptive Strategic Thinking (AST) involves a different decision dynamic with respect to issues such as time management. In AST, decisions might be made based on situational criteria, with multiple channels of support, avenues of solutions or choices to make. Any one of the choices made could potentially solve the problem at hand; the challenge is finding the most optimal approach or combination of approaches. Cause and effect still applies, but in a multidimensional decision hierarchy, the most optimal approach may involve situation-specific decision parameters that utilize multiple resources and/or techniques.
An example of the difference between linear thinking and adaptive strategic thinking can be found in the military. In Vietnam, soldiers were asked to fight an enemy they could not identify (because they often wore the same clothing as civilians) with weapons and techniques that were developed during World War II, when military campaigns were carried out on a traditional battlefield, versus jungle warfare and/or kids carrying bombs in flower baskets on the streets of Saigon. There were no lines of soldiers facing down each other (except in rare cases). Most fighting was with sniper fire, hidden bomb devices and an elusive enemy that traveled in tunnels. To properly confront such an enemy, the United States military had to adapt to a totally different style of fighting. This meant more than just training and uniforms. It meant employing different weapons, using technology and gaining the trust of locals. Much of this is still true with what the military has had to deal with in Iraq and Afghanistan. It short, it means addressing challenges with a willingness to change multiple variables to achieve optimal results. And it also means being willing to adjust those variables as situations present themselves.
Taking the concept into the financial advisor's office, one relevant example of how this might work is in the first example in this article regarding e-mails. The linear approach might be to set a specific time out of each day to read and answer e-mails. The adaptive strategic approach might be to look at the preponderance of e-mails over a given length of time, determine the statistics on how many of those might have been filtered out altogether, how many could have been handled by a staff person and how many had to be dealt with by the advisor. Then technology might be employed to sort the incoming e-mails according to their priority and handling. If using most CRM programs with e-mail capabilities or Outlook, there are Rules Wizards that can "catch" an e-mail upon receipt and move it into a specific folder. In an enterprise server environment, this could mean parsing out e-mails in the order of importance, who handles it, subject or category, priority or any number of those variables applied simultaneously.
You may also be able to automate the copying of e-mails into special folders for compliance and/or archival purposes. The result could be a much simpler, easier to navigate inbox for the advisor with only those e-mails he or she really needs to see.
What is important to recognize is that no technology can ever take the place of critical reasoning. Therefore, other staff must be trained to review their "folders" and react to those "one-off" type situations in which an e-mail was redirected into a folder but really did need the attention of the financial advisor. The adaptive thinking aspect of this is to account for and recognize the value of staff training to uncover and respond appropriately to those types of situations.
And while the handling of e-mails is only one aspect of time management (phone calls, file handling, paperwork disposition, compliance reporting and client appointment scheduling being just a few of the others), using Adaptive Strategic Thinking in all areas of time management offers the best chance to gain control of the financial advisor's time and optimize the efficiency of the financial practice.
David L. Lawrence, RFC, ChFE, AIF, is a practice efficiency consultant and is president of EfficientPractice.com, a practice consulting firm based in San Diego, Calif. (www.efficientpractice.com). The Efficient Practice offers an advisor network and a monthly newsletter.