Professional Services Organisations borrow staff from one team to use on another’s project. How should that be managed?

Efficient deployment of professional staff in a diverse PSO often means one company, business stream, department, or team borrowing from another if utilisation is to be kept high, and if clients are to be satisfied. Each team will inevitably staff a project from its own resources by preference, but if skills are in short supply, they must look elsewhere. This is one reason why visibility of availability, skills and experience across the entire organisation is important.

Conversely, a team with time on its hands will want to promote its professional staff and ‘sell’ them to others.

However, these issues create challenges in terms of revenue sharing, costing, and motivation. These need analysis.


A perennial issue in the management of PSOs is that of responsibility. There is the ‘line management’ responsibility of team leaders which includes:

  • Responsibility for the day-to-day deployment of a team of professional staff
  • Responsibility for the personal career development of the team
  • Responsibility for the profitability of the team

And there is ‘project’ responsibility:

  • Responsibility for the staffing of a project
  • Responsibility for the profitability of a project
  • Responsibility for all commercial decisions (invoicing, etc.) associated with a project

In most organisations, these responsibilities overlap, but they can also be in conflict unless there are clear rules for the resolution of issues with respect to inter-team charging. As PSOs become more commercially driven and team leaders and managers are rewarded according to the profitability of their team these conflicts can become serious.

Let’s look at an example:

Let’s suppose there are two teams, led by A and B. Each team leader employs a number of staff as follows:

  • A employs AA, AB and AC
  • B employs BA, BB and BC

In a simple world, each team executes and invoices projects using its own staff. Budgeting and forecasting are relatively simple, and there are no cross charges.

But what if B sells a project that requires the skills of AC?

In this case, he or she must borrow AC from A.

But how is this to work in terms of gross margin (on which the bonuses of A and B may partially depend)?

  • Should some of the revenue that belongs to B be passed back to A?
  • Alternatively, should some of the cost that belongs to A be passed on to B?

There are no entirely right answers here, but my own preference is for the second option, for several reasons:

  • In a commercial organisation it is the obtaining of revenue (or rather gross margin) that should be rewarded most clearly
  • In a commercial organisation it is the incurring of loss that should be penalised most clearly
  • People should not generally be rewarded or penalised for circumstances that lie outside their control

Let’s consider what would happen if our cross charging rule were that A should receive 85% of the revenue earned in respect of AC’s work on the project.

When B comes to A to tell him about the project, which hasn’t yet started, he’s optimistic:

‘You’re going to get good money for AC. I’ve negotiated a rate that’s higher than the usual. So you’ll probably end up getting more than you would if you’d sold him yourself. Sadly, I’ll only see a small part of that revenue myself, but, sadly, those are the rules.’

Of course, as in all cautionary tales, things don’t work out well. What B didn’t really tell A was that this is a fixed price project, and B has made some dodgy assumptions about the number of days the project will require. When it comes down to it, the revenue is spread more thinly than planned across the days that AC has given. When A receives his share of the revenue, it doesn’t even cover AC’s standard project cost.

‘I could have sold AC on some other projects and made more money,’ he complains.

However, this is just one of the problems. When A complains to B that he was expecting more revenue, he points out that the project has gone wrong through poor project management, and poor estimating. Why should he be penalised for that, since it was B’s team who were responsible?

B has to admit that some of this may be true, but he counters with a complaint that AC wasn’t actually as experienced and suitable as A had suggested, and so some of the problems were AC’s fault, not his team’s.

And so on.

Not all of these problems are resolved by looking at it another way, but some are. If A charged a fixed price for AC’s work, regardless of the revenue associated with the project, then at least the first kind of problem is averted. But what should that price be?

Full fee rate (B’s notional or actual fee rate for his project) would seem too high, since it would remove any incentive for B.On the other hand, standard project cost would seem too low (let’s suppose that AC has a standard project cost of 450), since it doesn’t provide much of an incentive for A, and provides him with no reward for the ‘risk’ of employing staff (and incurring overheads to do so).

In fact, assuming that appropriately skilled staff can generally be found in one team or another, a clever team leader wouldn’t bother to employ anyone at all. He would simply buy the time of his colleagues at standard project cost.

Of course, there are reasons why this would be a foolish policy. If you ‘own’ your own staff you may make your own decisions about how to deploy them, how to reward them, and you have a much greater chance of running successful projects if you have at least some influence over, and have earned the loyalty of the staff you deploy.Risk must bring rewards, and so the risk of running a team must be reflected in a margin to be charged to other teams when they need to borrow your staff. You should be rewarded for having recruited them, trained them and obtained their loyalty and for the risk that you face that they may be idle and unprofitable.

In the next post, I’ll address the question that arises from this: how should cross charges be calculated?

Form and Function

The modernist maxim that form should follow function is fine if you can agree as to function. What, for example, is the Sydney Opera House?

As an opera house it is not well served by its fabulously soaring shells. The auditorium is like a shoebox stuffed into a narrow but high arched vault. But you might plausibly propose that its function isn’t operatic at all, that it was always intended, not as an arena for Dame Joan Sutherland and her like, but rather to serve as a symbol of Sydney, of Australia, of difference, and as a celebration of the notion that in the New World anything is possible. The building welcomes you to Sydney just as the Statue of Liberty welcomes you to New York. In this sense its form follows its function well. It is sculpture, or beacon, not building.

Of course, it has also, at Ascot, been a hat.

sydney hat

Construction of the Opera House was a sorry story. Danish architect, Jorn Utzon, submitted sketches to the selection panel in 1957 and the immense problems of actual construction were only resolved much later through close collaboration with Ove Arup, using, for the first time, computers to calculate stress. The final form comprises surface sections of a sphere.

The project ran 14 times over budget, and Jorn Utzon’s interior spaces, initially only sketchily conceived, were completed by another architect after Utzon’s resignation, which was provoked by the philistine bureaucrats who controlled the money (how dangerous would it be if they were not philistine?).

opera house

It is one of the great architectural wonders of the world and one of few modern buildings to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site (2007).

Motivating Professional Staff – 3. Business Unit and Company Managers

In previous posts I’ve written about how you might reward Team Members (see Team Members),, Team Leaders and Project Managers (see Team Leaders and Project Managers) in a Professional Services Organisation (PSO).

Recognising, first, that everyone is motivated in different ways and that motivation is rarely a matter only of material reward, these are my recommendations:

  • Motivate team members 40% by utilisation (not chargeable utilisation), 40% by team gross margin variance from plan, and 20% on qualitative measures
  • Motivate team leaders 40% by utilisation (not chargeable utilisatiion), 40% by team gross margin variance from plan, and 20% on qualitative measures
  • Motivate project managers 40% by project realisation, 40% by project gross margin and 20% on qualitative measures. Ensure that project managers and more senior staff are involved in estimating, scoping, and agreeing between themselves a reasonable project plan irrespective of the commercial decisions made by commercial and sales staff

In this last post, I’m concerned with the bigger bosses: Business Unit Managers and Company Managers:


Bonuses for Business Unit Managers

We can assume that Business Unit Managers have many of the same responsibilities as Team Leaders but with the added responsibility of commercial negotiation, employment terms and conditions, WIP management and debt collection. However, we can also assume that they do not have control over company overhead costs, though in their particular business unit we can expect that they will have control over sales and marketing costs associated with their unit.

So, since Business Unit Managers control all conditions for utilisation, realisation, standard fee variance, standard cost variance, WIP Days and Debtor Days, they should be judged and rewarded based on gross margin, with sales and marketing costs included too, if they control these, and WIP Days and Debtor Days. Qualitative measures should play a smaller part in the overall calculation.

Bonuses for Company Managers

In the case of Company Managers, we can assume that they control everything, ultimately, except demand in the market. But since they are responsible for the company’s response to that demand, as well as quality, project execution, sales, marketing, salary levels, fee levels and all other overheads, their bonus should be based almost entirely on profit in relation to profit targets, unless other goals such a growth, are of balancing importance.

It’s just not worth it sometimes!

I don’t want to encourage criminality, but sometimes it’s worth breaking the law, or, certainly, convention. I don’t mean laws that protect us from seriously harming each other or ourselves. Rather, I mean the little laws, such as those about when you can cross the road, or, in this (admittedly slightly dull) case, how you do your debits and credits. Where no harm is done it’s always worth asking, does the penalty exceed the cost of compliance?


I’m not thinking of anything particularly alarming, unless you think that the way you present debits and credits is an issue of morality.

Don’t read on if you’re not remotely interested in accounting.

In a number of Eastern European countries accounting rules require that you make a distinction between a credit and a negative debit, and a debit and a negative credit. This would sound weird to most of the world’s accountants. In most of the world, the opposite of a credit is a debit and the opposite of a debit is a credit and that is the end of the matter. There are debits and credits and no other kind of transaction.

Not so in parts of Eastern Europe. If you make a mistake in your accounting system, you do not ‘correct’ a debit with a credit but with a ‘negative debit’. This enables the reporting of both credit and debit ‘turnover’ on an account, ‘turnover’ consisting of debits and their correcting negative debits, and credits and their correcting negative credits. ‘Turnover’ is something that the tax inspectors look at with quite remarkable enthusiasm, but I am not sure why.

Most Western accounting software packages don’t handle this well. They are built to handle just debits and credits, but convention, if not law, requires that when the tax inspector comes knocking on your door in Budapest, or Sofia, or Bucharest, or when they bash your door down in Moscow, you must serve up reports that show ‘turnover’.  Never mind that your business obtains no benefit at all from this.

But what happens if you can’t?

I remember doing some consulting in Bucharest, many years ago. During a system design workshop (we were putting in SunSystems) the chief accountant went on at length about negative debits and credits.

‘We have to have them,’ she said.

Her boss, the British Finance Director began to look concerned, so I tried to demonstrate some workarounds. But the chief accountant was adamant. I suggested some more expensive workarounds, maybe five days of work. Finally it occurred to me to ask:

‘What happens if you can’t show these negative and debits when the tax inspector comes?’ I asked.

‘Well, you may be fined.’

‘How much?’

‘About 50 dollars.’

Not much. Indeed, immensely less that the cost of working around the constraints of the software to make the right reports possible.

The Finance Director looked relieved and we quickly moved on.

The moral of this story is this always work out if it’s really worth doing something that brings you no benefit, even if it seems wrong.

Someone may tell you you’ve got to do it, but always ask, ‘What happens if I don’t?’

Motivating Professional Staff – 2. Team Leaders and Project Managers

Following on from my post on how team members might be rewarded (see Team Members), how should a professional services organisation reward:

  • Team Leaders
  • Project Managers


Bonuses for Team Leaders

‘Team Leader’ may mean any number of things in a PSO, but here we assume that:

    • A Team Leader is responsible for deploying his or her staff and for maximising their utilisation at fee rates that maximise profitability
    • A Team Leader is responsible for hiring and firing members of his or her team
    • A Team Leader is responsible for ‘selling’ his or her staff internally to increase utilisation
    • A Team Leader is responsible for the career development and ‘pastoral care’ of his or her staff
    • A Team Leader is usually responsible for authorising the timesheets of his or her team members


    • A Team Leader may not be directly responsible for setting salary costs, since these may be determined organisation-wide.
    • A Team Leader may not necessarily be responsible for projects and their profitability if some or all projects are managed by members of other teams.

A ‘Project Manager’ has a narrower field of interest. He or she wants to maximise the profitability of a project, regardless of the utilisation of the staff who work on his or her project. Clearly a project manager has an obligation (under the terms of his or her employment of staff from the team he belongs to or from other teams) to deploy staff with some regard for optimising the use of their time but that is not a primary concern

In summary, a team leader works at a management level where there is limited control over absolute profit and loss or gross margin, but considerable control over utilisation (even chargeable utilisation). Bonuses should therefore be formed around utilisation or related to variance from forecast gross margin. A successful team leader is one who keeps his team busy at external or internal rates.

Bonuses for Project Managers

  • A Project Manager is responsible for estimating the number of days required for a project, the skills needed and the timing of the project, assuming access to the staff he or she needs.
  • A Project Manager will advise on when and how a project can be invoiced.
  • A Project Manager is responsible for the realisation of a project (assuming he or she is also involved in project estimates and scoping at the time of sale and agreement with the customer)
  • A Project Manager is responsible for invoicing, or, at the very least, taking action to minimise Work in Progress
  • A Project Manager, together with an Account Manager, is usually involved in commercial negotiations as to what can be invoiced and when
  • A Project Manager will be involved , together with an Account Manager, in resolving issues of overdue debt


  • A Project Manager may not be responsible for setting the fee rates or the costs of the staff he or she deploys

Bonuses for Project Managers should be based on variances, on realisation and gross margin, from the realisation and gross margin implied by the project forecasts he or she agrees to be reasonable. He or she should be protected from the consequences of a sales decision to sell a project at a dangerously low value.

A Project Manager should be involved in estimating a Project and a Project should not be sold to a customer until sales staff, account managers and senior managers have reviewed the estimates that an experienced Project Manager has put forward. Whilst sales and commercial staff should be measured against the contracts they make with customers (and rewarded on the project’s actual gross margin), Project Managers should be measured against the contracts they make with their own ‘company’, against the plan and the implied gross margin they believe is real.

What connects the philospher Ludwig Wittgenstein to the Sydney Harbour Bridge?

His mother (nominally).

I’m grateful to my colleague and business partner Jiri, who saw my reference to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein last week in a post on Science and the Mind. Ludwig, at various times an engineer, philosopher, clarinettist, soldier, architect, and, during the Second World War, medical orderly, was the son of one of the richest steel magnates of Central and Eastern Europe.

Karl Wittgenstein’s  Vienna-based empire extended even to Kladno, just outside Prague, where, in 1889, he set up a world-famous steel mill, naming it the Poldi Works after his wife, Leopoldine.

It was at this mill that crucial components were manufactured in the late 1920s for the Sydney Harbour Bridge (which I can see from where I am writing this).

Ludwig inherited billions, but gave all of it away to his sister Margaret (who was painted by Klimt) and to his brother Paul (who lost a hand in the First World War and for whom Ravel wrote a piano concerto just for one hand), preferring a solitary, thoughtful, existence in a cottage in Ireland and a hut in Norway. He was famously difficult company.

Never mind, he was the greatest philosopher of them all.

Sydney Harbour Bridge


The Poldi Steelworks in Kladno, near Prague.


Poldi Steelworks logo


Ludwig Wittgenstein


Singapore: City of Admonitions

Everything is permitted in the fictional city of Mahagonny, at least during the last Act of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny., which I saw in London last week. The lesson, and it certainly feels like one, is that moral and spiritual emptiness are the consequences of greed and unfettered materialism. It’s a Marxist anti-opera (or nearly, for Brecht was moving towards Marxism and the ‘epic’ didactic style when he wrote the libretto) but, sadly, it doesn’t offer any clue as to how a better kind of city might be built.

Even so, we can be pretty sure that he wouldn’t have recommended Singapore. He might have approved of its communal consciousness, but the underlying materialist engine would have appalled him.

In Mahagonny, everything is permitted. In Singapore, very little is permitted. Whether it is law, morality or merely etiquette, guidance on what you may or not do assails you wherever you may be. The images below I gathered in just five minutes on the metro. I love ‘Bag Down for a Better Ride.’ It could be set to music.

In Singapore, no one wants to stand out by infringing these or any other rules, even if the sanctions are mild (no caning, as far as I know, for not putting your bag down). Suitably cowed, it’s the only country I’ve visited recently where I wait for the green man to shine before I cross the road.

Often sanctions are severe. Two Australians recently got five years in jail and three swipes of the cane for spray-painting graffiti onto a tree. The law caught up with them in Kuala Lumpur, and they were extradited back to Singapore. Carry a gun or trade in drugs, and you hang.

It seems churlish to find fault with Singapore on the day that Lee Kuan Yew, its founding father, has died. Singapore celebrates 50 years of independence from Britain this year. It’s a rare case of a stable post-colonial nation, astonishingly successful in economic terms, its GDP per capita higher than that of its former colonial power. Ethnic and religious tension are absent, despite a mixed population. Its citizens are equal under the law and it is amongst the least corrupt of nations.

It’s also a comfortable, orderly stopover on the way to Sydney, and the prospect of tree-lined, litter-free, gum-free, graffiti-free streets is appealing, but nothing could persuade me to make this city my home. Litter, graffiti, even chewing-gum are a price worth paying for a little mischief, and freedom from convention.




admon8 admon9 admona


admon2 admon3 admon4

Motivating Professional Staff – 1. Team Members

I’ve blogged at some length about eight important measures for managing Professional Services Organisations (PSOs), and in some cases, I’ve looked at how the numbers might be improved. This post concentrates on how these measures can be made to work with the responsibility structures and motivational policies of a PSO. In every organisation you’ve got to reward what works.

team members

PSOs depend for their value on the professional staff they employ. A successful PSO must motivate its staff. But how?

In the notes that follow, you’ll see that I concentrate mainly on material bonuses. That’s not to say that other kinds of encouragement don’t work. Quite to the contrary, the most effective motivation derives from good leadership, from the encouragement, congratulations, and support you give your staff, as well as the understanding and help you give them when things go wrong.

However, this is not a book about business psychology. Rather, I am concerned with the material bonuses that also play a part in motivating staff. After all, with the best leadership in the world, you won’t get your staff to work for nothing, and material bonuses (in short, money) are taken as proof that you mean what you say when you show appreciation in other ways.

In the organisations I’ve managed I’ve tried a number of methods, most of them directly monetary:

  • Bonuses based on utilisation
  • Bonuses based on chargeable utilisation
  • Bonuses based on invoiced value
  • Team bonuses based on team utilisation
  • Team bonuses based on chargeable utilisation
  • Team bonuses based on invoiced value
  • Bonuses partially based on qualitative measures such as quality, client approval, communicativeness, team spirit, etc.
  • Non-financial rewards, such as additional training, promotion, opportunities for influence, etc.

None of these works comprehensively, and if you adopt one or another of these schemes, you’ll be frustrated to find that they don’t always work. Some of them work for some of your staff and some of them work for others. None works for all.

Is this surprising?

No, and for the obvious reason that your staff are human (presumably), and each one of them is different. Moreover, being highly qualified professional staff, they are probably more than usually intelligent, proud, ambitious, and imaginative. Each works for different reasons. That said, you need a number of different tools to apply appropriately and sensitively.

In this and later posts let’s look at motivation at four different levels in a PSO:

  • Professional Staff – Individually based motivation
  • Professional Staff – Team based motivation
  • Team Leaders
  • Project Managers
  • Business Unit Managers
  • Company Managers

At all levels, motivation schemes must follow the following broad principles:

  • Motivation must reward success that benefits the PSO as a whole. This is your requirement, not theirs.
  • Success must be based on clear measures
  • What is measured must be at least partially within the control of the staff you are trying to motivate
  • What is measured must also be within your control as a manager

Individual Bonuses for Professional Staff

Salesmen often earn as much income from bonuses and commissions as they earn in basic salary. Material reward is high on the list of a salesman’s goals, and human resource experts all over the world will usually advise you not to employ a prospective salesman unless he or she talks about money and reward early in the recruitment process.

The ethos of consulting and the professions is somehow different, and when we are looking for a new job we usually pretend, at least at first, a lack of interest in financial reward, as if we are motivated in the main by intellectual concerns. Of course, this is generally snobbish nonsense, but even so, it is at least partly true that motivation for professional staff is complex and isn’t based solely on material reward.

But if not solely, then at least partly, and it is sensible to design your bonus schemes mainly around revenue and profit, as you do for salesmen, though in my experience it is unusual for bonuses to exceed 20% of professional staff salaries, at least at the more junior levels.

Bonuses are designed to increase revenue and profit and must therefore be related to these measures in some way – if not strongly, at least loosely. Such schemes are also designed to protect you from expense when times are lean. These are two essential sides of the same coin.

At the same time, the achievement of bonus payments must be within the scope of control of individual members of your professional staff, otherwise the incentives will not work. If profit is won or lost regardless, why work harder or better?

It might seem that the best incentive, one that is both sufficiently individual (based on analysis by employee), and comes closest to relating reward to profit, is employee gross margin, based on invoiced revenue (ignoring WIP) and the standard or actual direct cost of providing the services that are invoiced. (WIP is best ignored, on this view, because its conversion to revenue and cash is uncertain.)

But this measure is unsatisfactory, for a number of reasons:

  • Employees have no control over the timing of invoicing, and become easily frustrated if their work is not rapidly rewarded.
  • At junior levels, employees have little control over the rates at which they are invoiced. Nor do they have any say in the client’s contractual terms, these perhaps being based on fixed prices or discounted fees. They may be penalised because of underestimates or poor negotiation by staff that are more senior.
  • At junior levels, employees have little control over the work that they are assigned. They may be unfairly overlooked when there is lucrative work to be done, and too often assigned to internal non-revenue generating work.
  • Employees will be demotivated from doing important internal non-revenue generating work, such as sales support work, or account management.

Although a gross-margin based measure has a strong link with profit, and is attractive for senior management for this reason, it’s unlikely to work well. It is better that we retreat from this ‘strong’ link to profit and consider another option. Perhaps ‘chargeable utilisation’ could work more successfully.

‘Chargeable utilisation’ would link bonus payments to the amount of time (as a proportion of available time) spent on chargeable projects, regardless of the extent to which that time is converted into revenue. This solves the ‘timing’ problem since this measure is available as soon as timesheets are in. It also solves the ‘value’ problem, since we are rewarding utilisation, not realisation or low standard fee variance.

However, it doesn’t solve the second pair of problems that arise with the ‘gross margin’ based bonus. Employees don’t always control what they do, nor do we wish to demotivate essential non-chargeable work.

This leaves us with ‘utilisation’, a measure, as we have seen, of the proportion of time an employee spends on projects that ‘add value’, in some sense, to the company, whether by revenue, or know-how and asset building.

But there are two problems, even with this measure:

  • We are left with only a loose link to profit or gross margin
  • There is a risk that utilisation will rise without reward to the company, unless internal projects are controlled with the same rigour as external projects.

In short, none of these schemes is ideal. Each has shortcomings.

Of course, in some professions and in some circumstances, some of the issues I’ve listed don’t arise, but in designing a motivation scheme, it is crucial that you understand how behaviour changes as a consequence of subtle differences in measurement.

In practice, I have seen various bonus schemes succeed and fail, for both the employer and the employee. However, what is essential to any scheme that succeeds is clarity and openness of measurement.

In general, I believe a mix of measurements works best to motivate individuals:

  • Utilisation, with the proviso that internal projects are well controlled
  • Qualitative measures (teamwork, promptness with timesheets, quality of work, client approbation, etc.)
  • A share in a team based bonus, which is more strongly tied to revenue and gross margin.

Justifiable intrusion? Would you snoop on your staff?

Privacy law is a difficult area, and it raises complex legal and moral questions. I was reminded of this by an article in the Independent about British Airways’ monitoring of staff communications (emails and phone calls) during their acrimonious dispute with cabin staff and their union, Unite, some years ago. British Airways listened in to conversations between their staff and the Union.

I’d always supposed such monitoring to be illegal, but it turns out that it isn’t, as long as the devices (computers and phones) are the property of the company, in this case British Airways’ property. Legal opinion, quoted in the article, was that as long as no adverse and unjustified discrimination of the monitored individuals can be shown to result from monitoring, then there is no case to be made against it.


But it’s wrong, surely, to intrude into personal communication unless there is reason to suspect a serious crime or breach of trust. Monitoring staff communications with union officials is unwarranted. It is sneaky, dishonourable, unfair, intrusive.

My own policy is that you must allow your staff privacy. Even if it’s possible I do not intercept the communications of employees in my company, nor do I track the websites they access. I might count how many emails they receive and send (I did this once to get a sense of who was working hardest!) but I would never monitor recipients and sources, nor look at content. I might track the total number of times that a website such as Facebook is accessed (sometimes this gets out of hand!), but I don’t track individual usage.

Ours is a consulting company and I take it for granted that everyone works hard, in good faith. I do not intrude. But this rule should be the same for all kinds of company. Just because it is legal to monitor emails and conversations doesn’t make it right.

I’m sorry, I’ve been too busy!

There are few things, in the ordinary course of life, that annoy me more than someone saying ‘I’m sorry, I’ve been too busy to reply.’

You hear this or read this when you’ve waited far longer than is reasonable for a reply to a letter, an email, a phone call or something similar. It’s usually untrue. It’s almost never the real reason for the delay. What it really means is ‘I had more important things to do.’ Nothing so terribly wrong if that really is the truth, but why not say so? Probably because the ‘more important thing’ is very often nothing at all.


We all know that it really doesn’t take long to return a call or to reply to an email or a letter. If we don’t reply, it’s because we don’t want to. But do it immediately and you won’t have to think about it again the next time you go through your emails, or the next time, or the next time. It’s almost always more efficient to deal with something straight away. (It’s risky, of course, if too much emotion takes control of you, but that’s another thing.) In any case, emails and calls take just a few minutes, and if you really are hard-pressed for time, you can simply say that you’ll reply later, but soon.

If, as in the minority of cases, saying ‘I’ve been too busy,’ is true, it actually means that there were more important things to do than replying to your friend or colleague, every minute of every day since you heard from them, and surely that’s actually a pretty offensive thing to say.

When I think about the way I go through my emails, I realise that whilst I try to respond almost immediately when I can, there are occasions when I don’t and the reason is usually one of these:

  • I need some more information before I can usefully reply
  • I’m just not interested in the person who sent me the email and I feel no obligation to be particularly polite
  • The subject is boring and I know I have to reply in tedious detail
  • I don’t yet know what I think
  • I’m going to disappoint, anger or hurt the person who sent me the email

These are some of the real reasons. It’s nothing to do with ‘I’m too busy’. I just don’t want to reply.

But there are better and less offensive ways of dealing with these cases, all of them involving a short and more honest  immediate reply:

  • I need some more information before I can usefully reply

My advice: Reply and say you need to do more research. Set a deadline.

  • I’m just not interested in the person who sent me the email and I feel no obligation to be particularly polite

My advice: Write a short and moderately polite reply immediately

  • The subject is boring and I know I have to reply in tedious detail

My advice: Say you’ll reply later, but better, actually, just to get it done. You’ll feel a lot better immediately.

  • I don’t yet know what I think

My advice: Say so immediately, and reply more decisively as soon as you can

  • I’m going to disappoint, anger or hurt the person who sent me the email

My advice: Just get on with it.

So, if I write to you, don’t say you’re too busy to reply! I’ll know it’s not really true.