Monday, 18 May 2020

The Language of Time

Stop and think. When were you last free from the worry of time passing? If you spend an hour daydreaming, you are wasting time. If your order takes too long in a restaurant, they are wasting your time. Did you sleep in? You have wasted the day! 
We also have a concept of who owns time, such as “do that in your own time!” Or doing things in “free time”.  
Even the idea that we have to stop in order to think gives us a clue. We are trying to live our lives at a speed which is too fast to even think.
The pressure of time is all around us. From an early age we have to be on time – nursery, school, lectures, and then work. Our language, and our culture, reinforces those beliefs all the time. 
What if we lived in a world without that pressure? What if our language did not reinforce the belief that time is well spent, or badly spent? What if ….
It turns out that there is a language that does express life as if everything is done to the beat of a drum. The Amondawa language[i], spoken by tribes in the Amazonian forest in Brazil, does not slice time into units, like hours or minutes, but into events. Instead of noon, there is the time to eat the mid-day meal. There is also something similar in the Chinese language – the time it takes to drink a cup of tea. 
I once read about ancient Aztecs using the cooking time of a potato[ii] as a unit of time measurement. They certainly ate potatoes, but their potatoes, in common with ours, would have varied in size. And the time they take to cook will vary with altitude. But maybe the time period was accurate enough for their needs. Or maybe the story is plain wrong. I don’t know but using time periods that are “accurate enough” is an interesting philosophical idea.
This argument does not just apply to ancient civilisations. Consider the time period used to measure sales in business. Measure sales monthly, and you shorten the sales cycle because salespeople are trying to close sales and get the credit before month end. Measure sales quarterly and the sales cycle is lengthened, for the same reason.
But how much influence does a salesperson have over the customer? Do they make their minds up at the speed that suits their business, not the seller’s? If you increase the pressure with a shorter sales cycle, you might risk more people cancelling after they have agreed. At the very least it is worth measuring.
What if you want a sales period that is not a month and is not a quarter? That is, we have no ready-made language for it, and no ready-made time unit, but it suits your business. This is not an esoteric point. Managing the sales cycle, giving enough time for each stage, and booking only solid business is beneficial to buyer and seller. 
The language of time has more influence over our actions than we are necessarily conscious of. Making our lives, and our businesses, fit within constructs that do not necessarily work for us may be more detrimental than we realise. 
We are living through strange times. Many notions that seemed immovable have moved. Like going into the office every day. Like putting up with the daily commute. Questioning our actions and questioning our language, could result in some interesting answers.

[i] Da Silva Sinha, Vera – Event-based Time in Three Indigenous Amazonian and Xinguan Cultures and Languages – 18 March 2019

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Give Us Back Our Eleven Days!

Although we are not conscious of it, our world view is built around time; being late for meetings, early for a first date. The time the concert starts, the day of a new term.

In business we are driven by time. Sales are compared to this time last year or last month. We forecast by month or quarter, and year. Dates, times, and time periods are a fundamental building block to how we understand the world. And it is how we measure our businesses.

Yet when you think about it, time is a slippery concept. The idea that events, like sales or profit, occur within a concept we call time, is philosophically tricky. When we talk about time, what do we mean? And what would a world look like that did not include time? If it sounds far-fetched, think again.

A tribe, deep in the Amazonian forest, was found by researchers to have no language for time. Their  language does not have time as a separate entity. There is the time when it is dry, and the time when it is wet. The time when it is dark, or the time when it is light. They do not map events backwards or analyse forwards. Their events are all in the present. Think about it – what if being late was not even a thing? What if planning your career was not a thing? What if you could not miss someone's birthday?

What if you just did what you needed to do, and when you had finished you all relaxed or played sport. Our mental health might be a world away from what it is now.

There are some similarities, however, from a non-time-based culture, to a time-based culture. Day and night are universal, as is getting old. Whether we meet to play sport once work has finished, or at 7pm, the concept is similar. For most of the world, and through most of history, the need to co-ordinate activities with a common and agreed language has been important. It became even more important with the railways. Over centuries our understanding developed, and we developed time zones, and today we measure time very precisely and can be late for anything, anywhere. It is quite an achievement. But it did not come without a cost.

The Julian calendar developed by Julius Caesar was not accurate. Not to the degree of accuracy we enjoy today. In the year 45 BC 80 days was added to the year to bring it back into line with the “real year” of the sun and moon. It was, not surprisingly, dubbed “the year of confusion”.  It also became a political issue, with Emperor Augustus renaming a month after himself (August) and moving a day from February for good measure. It was typical, however, of the difficulty of aligning the calendar, or any calendar, with the reality of the world. The answer turned out to be the Gregorian calendar that we use today, named after Pope Gregory. The only problem was how to move from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar? Just as in the Year of Confusion, it was going to cause, well, confusion ….

It did not just cause confusion, it caused riots. “Popery” was stealing days, rent, and asking for taxes in return. There was a flat refusal to pay taxes for days that did not exist - which is why the UK’s tax year ends of the 5th April. Even more confusingly, Wednesday 2nd September would be followed by Thursday 14th September. I don’t know about you, but the clocks changing twice a year causes a philosophical battle in my head about the meaning of space and time. Imagine the September the 2nd being followed by September 14th, without the days of the week missing a beat. The mathematics and science were awe inspiring, but the practical implementation baffling.

Happily, that is all behind us. Science has turned to more pressing matters like saving humanity. But there are reminders of the time that politicians had to navigate the delicate waters of messing with the people’s calendar. Microsoft SQL Server, which stores data for banks, multi-national businesses, charities, and more besides, includes a data type called datetime. Datetime stores dates from 1-1-1753. 1753 might seem like an arbitrary year, until the stolen days are remembered. Then it is far from arbitrary.

Only historians need to capture data as far back as 1753, or before the Gregorian calendar. But for those who do look backwards, those days are missing as clearly as if it were yesterday. For the rest of us, analysing data by time is normally a more recent exercise. Microsoft Power BI and Excel, for example, have date types that store dates from 1-1-1900.

The story of the calendar, and how some very clever people figured it out is told in a little book called The Calendar by David Duncan. It has more twists than a Dan Brown novel, and in my view a lot more interesting. But that is just me.

Over at the day job blog, I have been writing about analysing data over time using Microsoft Power BI. If you have recently started using this magic bit of software, go have a look. It is complete with all the days, months, quarters and years. From 1900 onwards. Obviously.

Friday, 9 December 2016

She's back!

Inspired by a quote from Seth Godin, Getting to Excellent is back. My intention was always to think and blog about how people create extraordinary businesses; cathedrals in their field. Seth Godin, who thinks deeply about such things said “You’re either remarkable or invisible.” He is not far off. Huge numbers visit Notre Dame when they are in Paris, relatively few see La Madeleine despite its fascinating history and Parthenon-like fa├žade.

It’s almost eight years since Getting to Excellent first appeared, and over a year since I last posted. Despite my absence (or perhaps because of it) hundreds of people read Getting to Excellent posts.

So in spite of the risk of reducing readership, I'm back ....

Friday, 4 September 2015

Super-charge Your Day - Six Steps to a Better To Do List

The To Do list must be the most popular productivity tool on the planet.  And it’s effective – ticking off jobs that have been done is as satisfying as a chip butty.  You may think there is no room for improvement, but here are six steps to super-charging your To Do list, and your day! 
  1. Review your goals and plans before writing your To Do list.  No goals or plans?  Well that’s your first job.  If you don’t know where you are going, you can’t know how to get there. So anything on your To Do list will be just spinning wheels.  You might feel busy, but you are not systematically moving towards your goals.  Get an outline plan written, with measureable milestones.
  2. Phrase tasks as questions.  Most people love solving problems and finding out if they can do things better.  If you phrase tasks as a question, you immediately challenge yourself.  Instead of writing “Write email to Henry” rephrase it to “How can I help Henry understand Tuesday's  presentation?”  You will write a better email, and be more engaged with your work.
  3. Define when something is done.  Defining what we mean by “done” is often more complex than we think.  Is the task to write the email, or is it to get Henry to add the necessary resources to do the project?  By repeatedly asking what you mean by "done", you will have meaningful tasks, and jobs that actually get finished. 
  4. Never carry a task forward more than 3 days.  If it’s been on your To Do list longer than 3 days, there's a problem.  Perhaps it is too big to be done right now, and needs more planning.  Break it down into smaller tasks that can be done.  Or it might not need doing at all, in which case stop cluttering up your To Do list.  If neither apply, then for the love of God, just do it.  Now. 
  5. Review your To Do list at the end of the day.  Ask yourself how effective your To Do list really was.  Did it encourage you to think harder about your work?  What got done and what didn’t get done, and why?  Then write the following days To Do list before you finish up for the day. 
  6. Stretch yourself, but don’t make your To Do list impossible.  Stretch targets are fun and motivating. Impossibly long To Do list just don’t get taken seriously.  If your To Do list could not possibly get done by three of you, you are either carrying over too many of yesterday’s tasks, or not planning your work properly.  See step one! 
What’s your top tip for a motivating and effective writing effective To Do list?  Do tell!

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The Power in Now

How many jobs on your to do list are truly today’s tasks?  And how many are yesterdays or last week’s or even last year’s jobs?  Having a pile of jobs that haven’t been done is demotivating and distracting.

Getting up to date and staying up to date is the holy grail of time management.  If you are only dealing with today’s issues, everything gets done faster.  The issue is fresh – you only have to think about it once, deal with it once, and then it’s gone.  So your to do list becomes shorter, and your mind is clear to deal with today’s issues.
But – there are some catches.  Before you rush off to do every job that’s crying out for attention ask yourself three simple questions:
  1. Does it need to be done at all?  I don’t mean leaving a problem for someone else to pick up, because that just passes work down the line, but is it a job that’s necessary?  Sorting playing cards into sequence (a real example – honestly) is a scary one, but there may be others if you look closely.
  2. Can it be automated?  Perhaps not instantly, but if the job gets done every day or every week by many people it could well be worth automating.
  3. Can it be delegated?  Empowering someone else to take responsibility for chunks of work spreads the load and increases job satisfaction all round.
If the answer is “no” to those three things, and the job will take no more than about 15 – 30 minutes, then you should go ahead and get it done.  Any job that takes less than 30 minutes doesn’t warrant being planned in and done later.  And the more you knock down, the fewer you will have to deal with tomorrow.
If it does take longer than 30 minutes, then it needs to be planned for some future time.  So jobs should only have two options – Do It Now or Plan it In.  Adding it to the ever growing pile of jobs to be done later shouldn't be an option!

Thursday, 27 August 2015

A quick checklist for performing at your best

  1. Eat a nutritious breakfast.  Fads come, fads go, but needing enough fuel to sustain your high-powered morning is a constant.  So eat a good breakfast.  Oats, porridge, scrambled egg, tofu, whole meal toast or whatever.  Go easy on the caffeine and focus on protein with slow releasing energy carbs.
  2. Cut the caffeine.  Caffeine is fake energy that’s powering you towards a big crash later in the day.  Either cut the caffeine or make a point of having several days a week with no caffeine.  Power yourself with inspiration and motivation instead.  Caffeine also interferes with sleep which isn’t going to help anyone’s performance.
  3. Stay hydrated.  Drink lots of water and herbal teas to stay hydrated through the day.  It’s good for the brain and the body. Dehydration is bad news when it comes to performing at your best.
  4. Get enough sleep.  Whilst many people sing the praises of being up before the birds, there’s no escaping the fact that to perform well you need sleep.  Not too much, but not sleep deprived either.  So know what’s right for you, and get enough sleep to be able to conquer the world when the alarm goes off.
  5. Take a break.  Working long hours, 7 days a week just leads to burnout.  Push when you need to by all means, but then take a break to recharge and refocus.  Socializing, seeing family and friends and taking holidays fit into the “important but not urgent” quadrant of the Eisenhower matrix.
  6. Don’t get hungry.  Even if you are watching your weight (and who isn’t?) having a small healthy snack to stave off hunger pangs helps performance.  It’s hard to concentrate when all you can think about is lunch, so have an apple or half a dozen almonds to keep you going.
  7. Get fit.  It’s counter-intuitive, but the more exercise you do, the more energy you will have.  But, you have to build up gradually, otherwise you will just fall asleep at your desk.

These are the foundation stones for week-on-week high performance.  Aim to perform for a solid “7” level performance each day, rather than expecting to perform at "10" day after day.  So when you need that bit extra of performance you have something in reserve and you can raise your game to an impressive “9” or “10”.

I'm lucky enough to be working with Nathan Douglas, a double Olympian and world-class performer by anyone's standards. This is his list for getting the basics right.  Do you agree or disagree with the list?   What would you add?  What's your top tip for staying on top of your game?

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Company Culture as a Competitive Advantage

Get more done and be happier at work

For a company to grow it needs firm foundations, and foundations in the business world are made of systems and culture.  Systems ensure things get done, and get done properly.  And culture ensures the company stays nimble in a competitive world.

Without a strong and positive culture, decisions are agonizingly slow, and disagreements are alarmingly frequent. 

Systems and culture are the two things that don’t get thought about as a company is struggling to survive and grow.  But at some point, both become very important.

But what is culture?  And does it really have an impact on the bottom line?  Culture is a combination of strategy and the choices that are made to implement that strategy.  For example, if strategy is to service a small number of high value clients, then culture is the choices that are made in implementing that strategy.  Culture is a corporate shorthand – “the way we do things here” – and when it works it means that everyone understands how to make good decisions.

Even something as seemingly vague as culture  must be measured.  Without measurement you don’t know whether you are actually creating the culture you want, or whether people are just paying lip service to the ideals.  Culture is only an asset to the business when it adds value day by day and customer by customer.

Once you can define what sort of culture you want in your business, lots of decisions start to get easier.  Building capabilities within the organisation is done in line with company culture.  Handling clients is done in line with company culture. 

Once good measurements are in place you can clearly see how things are progressing, and have an idea whether you are on target or not.