Thursday 29 October 2009

A bad day's work

A bad day’s work is a lot better than no day’s work at all. Philip Pullman
There are many days when we are not at our best. A bad night’s sleep, a cold, or perhaps an extra glass of wine with dinner has taken the edge off our normal enthusiasm for doing a good job. It happens.

Philip Pullman is the best selling author of Northern Lights and The Golden Compass amongst many others. I found this quote recently and liked it a lot. It is gently encouraging to do the best we can even when our energies are not as well channelled as we would like. Get something done, he encourages. Move something forward. Don’t give in and do nothing.

As I quietly sniff with a cold I brought back from Paris, I have been thinking about this quotation, as I try to make sluggish days as useful as I can. And what do you know? It works! To some degree, at least ...

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Do one thing at a time

Only yesterday I was reading tips about how to make better use of standing in line at the supermarket by texting or phoning business contacts. As I read the article I felt rather ordinary. When I stand in line at the supermarket I don’t do anything much, I just queue. Yet another part of me wondered what sort of experience these business contacts might be getting from these calls or texts. I concluded it couldn’t be that good to have to share time with grocery shopping.

It seems as though doing one thing at a time is out of fashion. Harvard’s Management Tip for Today is to Prioritize Value over Volume. Research shows that multitasking produces mediocre results, however single-tasking is not recommended either. It’s too slow, argues the author, for today’s world.

I say bunkum to that, and here’s why.

  1. Thinking time is valuable. The times when we appear to be “doing nothing” like queuing in the supermarket or taking a shower are often the times when our brains come up with the best ideas. Valuing downtime, rather than trying to cram it full of more “doing” things is ultimately more successful. Allow the brain to worth through problems and find good solutions in a relaxed way.

  2. Most things have scope for error. Writing proposals, answering emails, figuring out systems, paying for groceries all can go wrong in small or large ways. Concentrating on the task in hand reduces the possibility of error. Doing things without error means you only do them once, which is a great deal faster than doing them twice.

  3. Many things are difficult. Finding the right words to convince someone of your point of view, ensuring your communications are not misinterpreted, or ensuring the numbers add up all require focus and double-checking.

My two favourite Swiss artists, Fischli and Weiss, produced a simple list entitled “How to Work Better.” It hangs on my wall close enough to my desk so I can glance up from time to time to read it. And I do. I often glance up and I do read it. The first item on the list is “Do one thing at a time”. More often than not I don’t get past that first item because it reminds me to focus and go back to the task in hand.

Single-tasking is surely the fastest way to accomplish anything, despite what management gurus would have us believe.

Email me if you would like a copy of Fischli and Weiss’s list, then you too can have one for your office wall.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Getting to know me

Being a good leader has many facets. The ability to set out a vision, create a strategy, and keep everyone on course throughout the inevitable difficulties are all components of leadership. One less commonly discussed aspect of leadership is the ability to know oneself.

We all have strengths and weaknesses, whatever our role or purpose in business or in life. The key is to understand oneself well enough to know when and what to delegate, and how to manage ourselves so that we can best facilitate the work that needs to be done. Whether you work in a micro business or a multi-national conglomerate, the better you understand yourself the better you will be able to work with others.

One interesting aspect of getting to know oneself is that of becoming a role model. It is all too easy to issue instructions to others for this or the other to be done, it is much more difficult to lead from the front – to show rather than tell. It is also a great deal more effective.

Working on being a role model has the great benefit of showing up our strengths and weaknesses, highlighting with horrible ease what needs to be worked on – both within the organisation and within ourselves. Because isn’t it always true that the most difficult work to be done is inevitably within ourselves?

Monday 26 October 2009

Two very different Parisian examples of customer service

And why customer service has to be built into the system

There are two big venues in Paris that attract millions of visitors every year. They are each very different, and from a customer service point of view make a fascinating contrast.

The first, of course, is Disneyland. Disney is famed the world over for its customer service ethos.

Randy Pausch tells a lovely story, long before he ever worked for Disney, of when he visited Disneyland as a child. During a very happy day at Disneyland he and his sister decided to buy a present for their parents. They paid, what was for them a lot of money, for a lovely Disney teapot. The Disney china teapot was barely out of the shop before it slipped and was in thousands of pieces on the floor. Two very upset children stared down at their precious but broken gift. A Disney attendant had seen what had happened and suggested they take it back to the shop. But, howled the children, it was our fault, why would they replace the teapot when we have broken it? Just try, he suggested kindly. To their surprise the teapot was replaced with a smile and two happy children were able to present a Disney teapot to their delighted parents.

It’s a great story, and worthy of being passed on.

Now the second Paris venue is spectacular in a very different way. Versailles is a world away from Disneyland in so many ways, and yet also attracts visitors from around the world in vast numbers. The splendours of 18th Century France, the ambitions of the Sun King, and the sheer dazzling opulence of this gorgeous palace make it a feast for the eyes. However, the notion of customer service is lacking in just so many ways.

At a recent visit when I had cause to complain, which I did in my most reasonable French. I was met by argument, bureaucratic forms and a complete lack of will or ability to put anything right. I was told that no one had ever complained like this before (how dare I?). It felt like I was taking on the might of the whole French state instead of pointing out that I had been mislead when buying two tickets. Once I had been worn down by his complete unwillingness to do anything to improve the situation, the young French man seemed satisfied that these unreasonable English were leaving. The amount of money was tiny, and it would have been so easy to have put it right. But he was happier to see us leave whilst knowing his organisation was in the wrong, than to fix the situation.

From a business point of view, of course, it was not his fault. He had been trained to be unhelpful. He could see no benefit to either himself or to his organisation in putting things right. The systems at Versailles do not support him in making a good decision when faced with a complaint. It is shocking in today's world.

It is a stark reminder that customer service must be built into the system. You cannot expect people to work against the system and help customers; the system has to be there to show them what great customer service looks like.

Thursday 22 October 2009

An abuse of power

The UK is today without a postal service. Their 120,000 strong unionised workforce is angry at their management’s reforms of the business and so has gone on strike.

The head of the Communication Workers Union Billy Hayes believes he is in a stronger position than Arthur Scargill and the coalminers in the 1980’s. Hayes has sweetly pointed out that you cannot stockpile post. Hayes and his merry men have threatened more strikes as the festive period approaches. I'm guessing this is a man who never read How to Make Friends and Influence People.

Hayes might have forgotten that the miners’ strike did not end happily. I doubt this one will either.

The world is changing. Indeed the world has already changed. During the Great Strike of 1926, newspapers were not delivered, but there was enormous support for the miners.

Today the support is for the alternative suppliers who are prepared to deliver our mail, and outrage at the postal workers’ action. At the heart of the need for modernisation is the vast change that has swept across all forms of delivery services, namely the internet. Whilst I may not be getting any post today, my inbox is as full as ever and promotional paper mailings are simply being replaced by their electronic email equivalents.

Providing an excellent service that people want to use is the only way that this war will be won: an option the union doesn’t seem to have considered.

Holding the country to ransom, putting up prices and reducing service levels is a strategy that appears to have some serious flaws. Abusing power rarely, if ever, has a good outcome.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Putting the boot in: sustainability

As I stood in the shoe repair shop on Saturday I realised that my boots are not sustainable. They were not sustainable from the moment I bought them, even though I love them to bits. Their total lack of sustainability comes from them requiring heeling every three or four weeks. You would have thought after the years I have been taking them to be heeled it might have dawned on me how impractical the boots were, but it did not. I have been walking around in un-sustainable boots.

Sustainability is being able to keep something in balance for the long term. When something is out of balance, sooner or later something will happen to attempt to regain the balance: just as we have seen with inflated consumer spending, the recent financial crisis and subsequent recession. As we are increasingly recognising the importance of climate change, the fragility of our environment, and how to generate clean energy, sustainability is a word we need to take more notice of.

My boots made me think of my other practices that are not particularly sustainable: using the printer a little more often than I should, trying the replicate the British Library in my office, etc. etc. There are more, but I will spare my (and your) blushes.

I doubt that I am the only person who is recognising that sustainability and balance are more important to us than ever before. I think sustainability is an idea whose time has come, not only in taking control of the planet’s future, but in taking control of our own personal and business future.

As consumers we have drastically cut our spending and reassessed priorities. As businesses we are digging in, cutting back and working hard to survive during difficult times. As societies we have become more aware of cause and effect, and thanks to the state of the economy we are being given long enough to reflect on sustainability for lasting changes to be made.

Sustainability is not always a simple concept – there is plenty of opportunity to push problems around. But it is a concept that is worthy of a great deal more thought than we have given it in the past, whatever the economy is doing.

Monday 19 October 2009

6 more reasons why being tidy and organised encourages high performance

I was sent a quote recently:
Disorganization wins! (Love the mess!) - Tom Peters
Now I’m all for free speech (even opinionated free speech), but I have to say my opinion differs here. Whilst there may be some brilliant folk who work in a disorganized mess, I suspect they are few and far between. For the rest of us who want to excel in our chosen field, there are compelling reasons to be tidy and organised:
  1. You can find things. So basic, but so important! Whether it is in your filing system (or lack of it), hard disk, or the bottom of your briefcase, inability to find things is uncomfortable, annoying, inconvenient and can sometimes royally mess things up. Having a place for everything, and putting most things in their place, spreads calm and organisation. And sooner or later you will think of looking for it in your filing system.
  2. Work on current priorities. Mess and disorganisation hides out of date priorities we are unwilling to let go. My paper filing cabinet is small; holding only 15 or so files. If it doesn’t fit, I have to go through and figure out what can be thrown out. It’s a great way of ensuring I don’t have too many projects on the go at the same time, and that out of date stuff gets thrown away. If only my hard disk were that limited!
  3. Make better decisions. The late Randy Pausch was adamant that his students’ email inbox was not their To Do list. Organising, reorganising, prioritising and planning may sound like more work but it produces better results because you work on what’s important and not just what’s in front of you at this moment.
  4. Improved focus. It’s easier to focus if you have everything you need all together, without stuff pulling at your attention. I have a VERY small desk which is designed to be super ergonomic for computer users, but a BIG benefit is that I can’t have much on my desk at a time.
  5. Where there is mastery, there is no mystery. This came from the tag on my spicy tea bag, and it made me smile because it’s true. To master something you have to understand it, and you can’t understand it if it is scattered all around your office. Or am I missing something Mr Peters?
  6. It gives a sense of control. Whether it is a real or imagined sense of control, I suggest doesn’t really matter. What matters is the frame of mind in which we do our work. Clutter and disorganisation are not great reminders of the importance of turning out high quality work.
There are probably many other benefits besides the ones I have listed, and I’d love to hear of others – either for or against.

Friday 16 October 2009

Eat and sleep routines

Seth Godin wrote a short blog post the other day entitled “Make A Decision.” He suggested that imperfect decisions are better than no decision at all: quite right too.

He went on to say that we should make more decisions, and that making more decisions will make more of a difference, even if the decisions turned out to be the wrong ones. It made a neat little blog post, but I’m not at all sure he is right.

I would go as far as to say that we should work to be making fewer decisions, so that the big decisions have more room to be well thought through.

There are many things in day to day work that should be done, but are not always. These could and perhaps should be made into habits, because when they go onto autopilot they get done regardless of what else is happening. They get done faster and more efficiently. So the more things you can decide in advance must be done every day, or every week, or whatever, the less thinking is required and the more gets done.

Every time I hear of someone who has “lost the entire contents of their hard disk” and that they don’t have a backup, I wonder about their daily habits. An ex-boss used to call them “eat and sleep routines”. You wouldn’t forget to sleep, she would argue, so why forget to backup your computer? There was very little wriggle room when put like that! The same principle applied to many things she considered to be part of our core work.

Decisions are needed, and many things can’t go onto autopilot, but the things that can should. Give some thought to what should be part of your eat and sleep routine, and get more done, more easily.

Thursday 15 October 2009

Nuclear fusion - energy source for our children

As 192 nations prepare to debate What Should Be Done About Climate Change in Copenhagen, the world carries on burning coal, oil and gas and discussing targets that will not be met. Wind, wave and solar dominate the debate on renewables, unsurprising as those are the technologies we are currently working with. The future will need a better mix of energy sources and more creative thinking than we have applied in the past. The future will, however, need other technologies in addition to these renewables in order to replace the vast amounts of hydro-carbon based energy the world currently consumes.

Climate change is a long term issue, as the difficulty of weaning ourselves off carbon-based fuels is proving. It therefore seems only right that replacing the coal, oil and gas (which currently produce most of our electricity) needs a solution commensurate with the problem. France, for example, has low carbon emissions because of their high dependence on nuclear fission reactors. Whilst traditional nuclear power does not pollute the atmosphere with carbon, it does pollute the ground and oceans with radioactive waste that stays radioactive for centuries.

The promising work that is being done in nuclear fusion in the UK and elsewhere promises carbon-free power without the long-lived nuclear waste. It could be an excellent solution to a tricky problem. The only difficulty is that we haven’t got it to work yet – despite successful proof of concept work. The research needed to find answers to a host of practical problems with this difficult technology are proving time consuming and expensive.

Despite all the difficulties, there is a big prize to be scooped by a generation that has done little but use up fossil fuels as fast as they can. And it is a prize that more of us should be fighting for. We owe it to future generations who may not be able to enjoy the cheap energy that we have benefited from all our lives.

So why isn’t nuclear fusion higher on the politicians’ agendas? Why are we not thinking longer term about such important issues? Politicians may be re-elected every 4 years or so, but this beautiful world will still be here in 40, 400 or 4,000 years time. The global nuclear fusion project at Cadarache in the south of France called ITER is in its initial stages and deserves more bullish backing than we are currently giving it.

All managers know that hitting targets requires taking actions that have sufficient chance of being successful to be worth implementing. Nuclear fusion is a strong contender and needs a higher profile, more public debate, and more money.

For those with an interest in all things climate, energy and fusion, the New Scientist is giving away a free poster all about ITER this week. Getting informed about energy and climate change is surely the least we can do for the children who won’t have the vast natural reserves we have used up with hardly a thought.

Today is Blog Action Day where bloggers of the world unite to discuss a single topic and spark debate about issues of global importance. This year’s topic is Climate Change.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Lessons from the dance floor

I saw two shining examples of deliberate practice last night – both in The Royal Ballet’s performance of Mayerling.

Mayerling was choreographed by the late Kenneth MacMillan who was originally a talented ballet dancer. When he first started learning ballet as a young boy his teacher insisted that he did an hour’s practice every day. That early practice, which he did religiously, laid the foundations for his later exceptional work as a ballet dancer and then a choreographer. The complex movements and artful way Mayerling's real-life drama from 1889 was illustrated shows real expertise. MacMillan was knighted in 1983. Whilst MacMillan was sadly missing last night (he died in 1992), he was omnipresent throughout the performance.

Dancing the lead role of Crown Prince Rudolph in Mayerling last night was Edward Watson, principal dancer with the Royal Ballet. He is a Royal Ballet dancer through and through, having come up through the ranks after his training at The Royal Ballet School. He has been a principal dancer since 2005 and is a self-confessed fan of MacMillan ballets. Watson is careful to get feedback on his performance from only a few trusted advisors. If they recommend changing his approach, he listens very carefully.

Whilst the concept of deliberate practice might initially appear to be more applicable to endeavours such as ballet or sport or other physical activities, it has been shown to be equally applicable to writing, writing software, playing music and many other disciplines.

When watching a wonderful performance such as The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling it is easy to think “oh these are very talented people who were always destined to be ballet dancers”. Maybe there is some truth in that, but the other side of the coin is that there is now a huge body of evidence to suggest that much hard work went into developing and improving their talent.

It is wonderful to watch anyone working at peak performance, and last night was no exception.

Monday 12 October 2009

How to get better at just about anything

Performance management is just a posh way of saying: “how do we get better at what we do?”

Assuming that what you do is important to you, your department or organisation, there is enormous benefit to be gained from improving your performance. It’s more fun to produce high quality work, rather than having work corrected or rejected. It’s also more profitable – whether you count profit in monetary or satisfaction terms.

It used to be assumed that our talents and innate capabilities determined how good we could become in a given field, but more recent research has challenged such views. It would be difficult to become exceptional at something for which you have no innate abilities, however. I would never make a world class navigator, for example: my ability to deal with shapes and spaces makes map reading a more exciting venture than was ever intended. But if you are well suited to your chosen pursuit, there is much that can be done to raise your performance above the ordinary:
  1. Practice over a long period of time. The old saying “practice makes perfect” has some truth, although it is not complete in itself. Importantly, there is no evidence that either a child or an adult can perform exceptionally well without experience and practice in their field. Myths about child prodigies conveniently leave out the practice and encouragement they were exposed to from a young age: Mozart’s music and the William sisters’ tennis prowess are good examples. Practice is important – you have to have enough experience in your field to be more than competent.
  2. Stretch yourself when you practice. Once you are competent, and have spent time practicing, just more practice is not enough – you then have to start deliberate, stretching and intensive practice. You have to move from being competent to being very good or exceptional – and that is where deliberate practice is needed. Practice changes from just doing the activity, to do doing the activity better each time. This requires thinking about what can be improved, trying new approaches and finding out what is successful and what is not. This is more tiring, more difficult and requires much more willpower than practising without thought and attention. It also requires breaking out of old habits learnt during the initial practising stage.
  3. Monitor feedback. Be systematic about monitoring your performance, and reflect on what works and what doesn’t. If you can’t or won’t measure it, you can’t improve.
  4. Work with someone better than you. Find someone who is better to make suggestions based on your performance. That is why a personal trainer works so well when you are trying to lose weight or get fit. They are able to stretch your practice, based on your performance, whilst monitoring how well you are doing. Working in a team or with a coach also has a positive correlation to improved performance for the same reasons.
  5. Benchmark your performance. Being able to compare how well (or badly) you are doing is important. This is why working in a team or with a coach works well. The competitive nature of benchmarking also has a positive correlation to high performance. League tables are a good example of this – for the motivated individual, team, department or organisation, league tables provide clear feedback on progress.

Research into expert performance has shown that improvement is slow but gradual for those that work on their performance in a determined way. Such work is not comfortable or easy, rather it pushes the individual to the edge of what they are capable of, thereby building up new experiences and new capabilities. Search and experimentation lie at the heart of expert performance; constantly pushing the limits on what is possible and what is excellent.

Friday 9 October 2009

Expertise and expert performance

One of the most fascinating concepts I have come across in a long while is that of Expert Performance. This is a body of work on how expertise is gained, and what sets experts apart from the rest. Studies have been done across a range of disciplines. Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful book Outliers referred to some of this work.

Two fascinating ideas come out of the expert performance research:

  1. It takes an average of 10 years to become expert in something

  2. Practice means deliberate practice, not doing by rote
The 10 years figure is interesting, and provides a guideline for how much time is required to master something. However, it is the “deliberate practice” concept which is most useful to us in our day to day activities. That is practice which has its prime objective of improving performance. It may sound tautological – surely all practice is designed to improve performance? Not so. It is perfectly possible to spend 1 hour practicing French verbs with half a mind on what is for dinner, or whether it will rain. Alternatively, I hour can be spent in a structured way with reviews every 15 minutes so that learning is maximised. Of course the latter is more difficult and more tiring, which is why many of us prefer to keep half a mind on dinner.

Deliberate practice means pushing the boundaries of our practice – expanding our capabilities and working on new areas within our field. It also means getting feedback on how well (or badly) we are doing, and practicing afresh in light of that feedback. To build expertise it is necessary to reflect on the processes and methods used to perform well.

This is important in performance management. Whatever we are striving to do well requires both practice and feedback, both external and internal. It means keeping a record of our performance and improvements. All of which takes effort, but the months and years pass whether or not we are gaining new skills and pushing our professional capabilities forward.

And of course deliberate practice and monitoring progress is as applicable to a business or department as to an individual. The larger the group, though, the more structured the systems need to be for providing feedback.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

Caffeine-free for more energy, a clear head and better sleep

Giving up caffeine is proving more difficult than I thought. After a confession that I broke my 100-day challenge after 35 days, it’s happened again. Away from the world and with only the weather to worry me, peppermint tea wasn’t enough, so green tea filled the void (and flask). And how good it tasted! A rather long drive back also benefited from a little chemical help, and the joys of Red Bull were discovered. For anyone who is interested – that stuff really does work!

I must admit that after one embarrassing fall from grace I was all for quietly going back to my caffeine habit without another word. Except that, all the reasons I originally wanted to give it up are still there:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating after too many cuppas
After having got caffeine out of my system, my body isn’t too thrilled at it being back, with headaches being the most noticeable symptom. So I’m having another go.

Much has been written on how long it takes to form a habit, but most advice underestimates the length of time needed. Dr Maxwell Maltz published a book in 1960 where he observed that amputees took, on average, 21 days to adjust to the loss of their limb. From this he deduced that people could adjust to major life changes within the same time. Later research has found that much smaller changes, such as eating fruit or walking every day, take 66 days or longer for the habit to stick. With or without all your limbs.

As for the caffeine, the energy-filled Chris Fenn has reported that oil workers on offshore oil rigs benefited from better moods, higher energy levels, improved sleep and fewer headaches as a result of giving up caffeine.

So it’s in open and shut case: to the great dismay of everyone who has to work with me, I’m back on my caffeine-free challenge. And I promise not to utter another word about it until I have successfully completed 100 days!

Monday 5 October 2009

A Highland Helping Hand

Getting to Excellent has been a little quiet over the past week due to a marked change of scenery. The hustle and bustle of Reading was swapped for a couple of weeks away in the highlands of Scotland. The contrast was palpable.

Where my days are normally spent writing business plans and specifications, highland days are spent trying to figure out the best way to keep water out of, well, just about everything. Where busyness and productivity are normally the watch words, single track roads (traffic in both directions at the same time – yikes!) and activities planned around the weather meant a complete absence of rushing.

Watching the working day of a sea eagle or the common seal involves lots of standing around doing little else but watching. It is an absorbing activity that requires full concentration. It was also a massively refreshing activity that has helped lighten the load and gladden the soul before launching into a new quarter and a new season back at work.

E-mail follows wherever one travels, so it is perfectly possible to stay in touch, but somehow the urgency dies away the longer the highlands have to penetrate the soul. As a result I have come back with memories of stags standing on hillsides, inquisitive seals and a new energy for the months ahead.

Somehow I always manage to forget that holidays help rather than hinder, so today’s posting is a reminder: go smell the roses/heather/olive trees/cacti once in a while and come back with priorities realigned and purpose reinvigorated.