Ramp Metering, Call Waiting, and Legal Projects

What do call waiting and ramp metering have in common with legal projects?

(Ramp metering refers to stoplights on highway entrance ramps that space out merging traffic during busy periods.)

No, it’s not that some people want to sue over them.

Rather, they require a balancing of competing interests to function most effectively. They also hark back to the urgent-v.-important equation.

Call Waiting and Individual Choice

Call waiting involves three parties but leaves the choice in the hands of one.

Personally, I detest call waiting. In effect, the person at the center says, “I don’t know who’s calling, but they’re more important than you” when she puts you on hold to see who’s on the other line. It’s no different, really, than sitting in someone’s office when her phone rings and she answers it. Even when she knows who’s calling, being shunted aside makes you feel you’re with someone who’s mistaking urgent for important.

Too often, the person at the center of the triad, the person receiving the (second) call, makes an instantaneous rather than considered judgment as to the balance of competing interests. 

What’s that look like in a legal project?

First, any project manager who doesn’t turn off call waiting on his cell phone can send an I-don’t-care-about-your-problem message at an inopportune time – not that there’s often an opportune time for such a message.

However annoying the reality may be, it’s the metaphor that really bears examining. People leading projects, whether project managers or team leaders, are continually faced with competing calls on their time and resources. To be effective, leaders must not only recognize – in advance – that they will be pulled in multiple directions, they must lay plans to evaluate these pulls in a consistent manner.

The project leader cannot work solely in reactive mode, responding to whatever interruption has happened most recently. Nor can she plan her entire day and work only to plan, because she’ll create bottlenecks for those who do have immediate needs.

She must be prepared for interruptions, while handling them in a non-disruptive manner. That takes a level of maturity and forethought, the balancing of immediate hue-and-cry with longer-term planning.

Ramp Metering and System-Wide Cost/Benefit Analysis

While ramp metering isn’t perfect – in particular, it can back up local streets at some entrance ramps – studies show that overall it works. Controlling the spacing of merging cars smooths and speeds up the flow of traffic on the highway.

However, it may take a bit longer if you’re in a car trying to enter the highway.

Consider this example: There are 10 cars each delayed an average of 60 seconds by the ramp meter. At the same time, 90 cars each gain 30 seconds back on their commute because of less slowing at the merge point. The system as a whole gains (90 x .5) – (10 x 1) minutes, 35 minutes. An average, each car gains 21 seconds. 

That’s good… unless you’re the one stuck behind the ramp’s red light.

Some attorneys – and non-attorneys – take a “me”-focused view of the world around them. Thus if the somehow see some project practice as blocking what they want to do, or when they want to do it, they may assume that the project leader is incompetent, the whole idea of project management is broken, or both. They’re fuming behind the ramp meter.

But they’re not looking at the system as a whole. If one attorney is delayed for 5 minutes while nine people on the project team each gain 2 minutes of effective work time, the project team as a whole has gained 13 minutes, or 1 minute 18 seconds apiece, on average. Even if that attorney’s time is in some way – billing rate, salary, etc. – twice as valuable as that of others on the team, there is still a net gain to the project team. (“Average” has its own issues, as discussed in my book Legal Project Management, but it’s a good-enough approach here.)

Here’s where project management becomes project leadership, in helping the attorney understand the impact to the project as a whole – and dealing with the additional disruption (the technical term is tsuris) caused by the visibly unhappy attorney.

It’s not just attorneys who can overrate the “me” factor. We’re all stars in our own play.

“I, Me, Mine”

The late George Harrison wrote “All through the day, I-me-mine, I-me-mine, I-me-mine.” The effective project leader hears that, and responds. She doesn’t ignore it, and she doesn’t add her own I-me-mine to the conversation. But she understands the costs and benefits to the project as a whole from competing interests, narrow focus, interruptions, and more.

It’s quite a mess to sort out – leadership needed, not just management. It’s another reason why good project leaders are both rare and highly valuable.


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