The Most Important One Second

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.0November 2007

In the entirety of a project, there is one second that is often the determining factor. That is the second between an observation and a reaction [1].

Recall an interaction you had with a person who determined the success or failure of a project you were managing. The person said something, handed you something they wrote, made a gesture, or simply walked into your office. You observed that action, and in an instant interpreted your observation and were ready to react [2]. The person will observe your reaction, interpret it, react, and start a new cycle of interaction.

Do you want to react in an instant? I do; I usually react quickly, but I often regret it later. My instant reaction is misinterpreted by the other person, they react, I misinterpret, I react. This goes down hill and takes days to reverse. Sometimes the project dies.

Perhaps the above is a bit melodramatic; perhaps it isn't. Most of the people I have worked with on projects have a lot of energy and work hard to see the projects succeed. One quick sideways glance or curled expression from me - the supposed leader - drains the energy and best intentions from the other person. They fall into a funk and spend most of their time wondering what I meant by my reaction instead of working on the project.

These interactions matter to IT and other project managers. Our job is to bring projects to successful conclusions. This happens through the work of other people - people we interact with daily. People we can inspire or deflate.

The difference between inspiration and deflation can be a short second. During that second, I have an opportunity to think about my interpretation and reaction. That second is simple - merely pause before reacting. After years of practice, I can hold my tongue for a moment or two while I think. I haven't, however, learned to freeze my body and face. I show my reaction without saying anything. Harm done, project in trouble, and damage control is starting. What a waste of resources.

There are a couple of things I have learned to help pause the instant reaction and avoid most of my troubles. The first is to acquire a time-buying tool. This tool gives me something thoughtless to do while thinking.

The first time-buying tool I saw was from a chemistry professor when I was a freshman in college. When asked a question, his immediate reaction was to turn to the chalk board and erase a while. He did this even when nothing was on the board. He just rubbed the eraser around a moment while thinking.

Time-buying tools include phrases like

"I see"
"Excuse me" While placing my hand to my mouth,
and one of the best, "Interesting"

Actions that can buy time include

Changing your position in your chair.
Pressing the file save keys on your computer.
and my usual,
Turning down the volume on the music in my office.

The time-buying tool you use needs to be automatic and thoughtless. If you have to think about it, you won't be thinking about what you observed, the primary goal here.

That brings me to the second point, practice your time-buying tool. Rehearse it in situations that are less important. It may be difficult to find a person who is not so important in your life than a project member. It is probably debilitating to search for a person who is not important. One alternative is to rehearse while watching TV. You can't deflate the TV characters with your time-buying tool. As silly as this may sound, it is effective.

Resist the instant reaction. Instead, take a second to choose how you react. In addition, observe how the other person accepts your reaction. Check with them to ensure the two of you agree on what you both are trying to communicate. A second during the interaction can save days of effort later.


[1] The genesis of this is from a session with author and consultant Jerry Weinberg ( at the Amplifying Your Effectiveness Conference (

[2] Communication between people is more complicated than observe-interpret-react, but for this essay, let's use those broad steps.