running out the clock at work

You can learn a lot from watching the NBA playoffs. And not just about basketball. There are many real-life situations where the lessons of playoff basketball can be valuable. For example, seeing how the Phoenix Suns played in the fourth quarter has helped me to develop a strategy for "running out the clock" at the end of the day, at my unnamed non-profit law firm.

Play keep-away: People are going to keep calling until we turn the phones off at 5. As we approach 5:00, more and more procrastinating lawyers will call, with more and more desperate questions. The worst possible outcome is fielding a call at 4:58 and getting trapped in a fifteen-minute conversation with a frantic rookie lawyer facing a court deadline. Nobody wants overtime.

The key is to distribute the calls, just like Steve Nash moves the ball around for the Suns. He knows they can't sit on the ball, and we can't just sit on the phone calls. The key is transferring. Transfer calls to support staff out on the perimeter. Find the open mailbox and send the caller to voice mail. Don't be afraid to hit the hold button, huddle up, and regroup. Be aware of your officemates. Don't let them get trapped.

Move without the ball: More perilous than the late-afternoon phone call is the late-afternoon attorney request. The request could be anything - copying documents, locating a lost file, carrying a series of heavy objects from one place to another. There's no telling how long that project might last.

One element of Phoenix's success late in games is their tremendous movement away from the action. In every game you see Boris Diaw or Shawn Marion cutting to the hoop for easy dunks, as the defense simply loses track of them. It's the same in the office. Zigzag away from the computer. Cut to the water cooler. Then the bathroom. Then go outside and move your car. If you don't have a car, move someone else's. Keep moving. You will appear to be busy, and the attorneys won't be able to find you.

Hack-a-Temp: Sometimes it's impossible to avoid work assignments late in the day. That's when it's time to delegate work to the temp. More crucial than passing off the work is the break in the attorney's rhythmn. Everything stops, as the temp steps to the copier, struggling to collate and velobind legal documents. A few paper jams and off-centered copies later, the attorney has been completely taken out of their game, often deciding to give up and go to Whole Foods for organic vegetables instead.

Don't forget the lazy guy: Last Tuesday, as the day grew short, there were briefs to be copied and transcripts to mail out. The attorneys had the workday in hand. It seemed inevitable that the support staff would have to actually do work. Then the lazy guy came in, arms laden with cookies and pretzels, and suddenly all the attorneys were eating in the break room. At the workday's most pivotal moment, the lazy guy had stepped in to save us.

The Suns have a lazy guy of their own, Tim Thomas. Even though Thomas stands 6'10", he has averaged only four rebounds per game for his career. The Bulls sent Thomas home earlier this year, preferring to pay him $14 million rather than have him stay with the team. However, Thomas hit a last-second three-pointer to vanquish the Lakers, and remained a huge asset for the team, until the Suns finally ran out of gas against Dallas. It is not clear whether Thomas provides post-game snacks.


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This page contains a single entry by Sean Keane published on June 6, 2006 10:02 PM.

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