Friday 27 August 2010

Raise energy levels by doing things differently

Habits are important – I would be the first person to admit that – but they can also limit us. As a good friend is fond of reminding me:

“If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”

Breaking out of entrenched thinking, and re-evaluating entrenched habits can have an invigorating effect. And so I have found this week. I’ve not been doing what I’ve always done; I’ve been doing things a bit differently. It’s August and I’ve been letting my hair down. Green tea is back fuelling my days (oh, so good). A glass of wine has been allowed with dinner (don’t tell the neighbours). And a little more energy has been going into my work.

It may simply be enthusiasm for what I’m doing: SharePoint is an exciting new technology and I have some interesting projects bubbling away. Or it may be that occasionally things need shaking up. Rearranging the furniture in my mind, so to speak.

This has all been fuelled by a radical suggestion from Leo Babauta that great habits are formed when we enjoy what we are doing. It doesn’t sound radical – in fact it sounds stupidly obvious. But I think it has more depth than first appears.

So I continue to go with the flow and re-examine long held views about “what I do” and “who I am”. On a number of levels this has been enormous fun, and energising.

Friday 20 August 2010

A little bit of what you fancy does you good

My Grandmother was fond of pointing out that “a little bit of what you fancy does you good.” Sadly, the world I live in has so much of what I fancy, what really does me good is having a little bit less of just about everything. My Grandmother’s world was very different.

I suppose I have got used to the idea that in order to improve I need to be disciplined, and cut out harmful things. Moderation has never really been my style. My 100-day caffeine challenge was a prime example. It took three attempts to live without caffeine, but after a recent upset in my schedule caffeine is now back in my routine. Life throws all sorts of unexpectedly wobblies, and being disciplined doesn’t always work if you need to stay awake.

But then this week I read a blog post that kind of shattered my view of the world. The talented and highly readable Leo Babauta of Zen Habits suggested that the best habits are the ones we enjoy. On first reading this I scoffed: Of course! It’s easy to keep to habits we enjoy. That takes no effort at all! What a silly idea.

But then I let it sink in a little more. By finding the pleasure in what we do, and what we need to do, we are more likely to do what needs to be done. Simple. But effective? Maybe ...

He is not the only writer to have suggested this type of approach. The scarily prolific Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project has all sorts of good advice such as “enjoy the process” and “spend out”.

Is there benefit in working on pleasurable habits? Or in making stuff-that-needs-to-be-done more fun? Common sense tells me “Yes”, but it seems so radical.

So I’m enjoying a few cups of green tea each day, and not feeling bad about it. The occasional glass of wine with dinner has also been known this week. My yogic self doesn’t approve, but for the moment I’m going with the flow and letting the idea grow roots.

Habits are so important, but habitually get too little thought. Aristotle advised “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit”. Health, wealth and sanity depend on what we do day in and day out. Finding a way to enjoy what we eat, how we work, and how we relate to one another seems like a basic building block.

Maybe the wise words in my Grandmother’s advice were “a little bit” rather than “what you fancy”. Enjoying life and work through moderation? A radical idea!

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Improve your chances of success

Performance management on a large and small scale is of constant fascination to me. So whenever I come across an article or example of someone else’s struggle, it is invariably of interest.

I came across a treat this morning, courtesy of Twitter. Charlie Brooker has written the most delicious piece in the Guardian about the art of writing, and more specifically, the benefits of having a deadline. It is so worth a read, even if you have no interest in the art of stringing sentences together.

Brooker sees great benefit in deadlines. He doesn’t say whether he actively likes or dislikes them, but he acknowledges their ability to focus the mind and Get Things Done; in particular his 800 word article.

Assuming that all of us have a basic ability to do whatever job it is that we have been putting off, deadlines/goals/objectives are of tremendous help. They narrow down the range of options we have with what to do with our time. When the deadline is still many months, weeks or days away, our options are wide open. We can clear down our email, work on interesting projects, or whatever. As the deadline approaches, we realise time is pressing and we need to get started. The closer the deadline, the harder we work.

I cannot run unless I have a race to aim for. The only thing that gets me out of the house is the prospect of humiliation in not going the distance. Posting blog articles is no different. I have a goal of posting three times a week. I don’t always manage it, but I rarely post less than twice a week.

Of course there are counter arguments to goals and deadlines - the quality versus quantity argument being the most obvious. Yes, I can blog three times a week, but during a busy week would I produce better quality by only writing two posts? Maybe …. it often occurs to me.

But what goals and deadlines do, is to get something delivered. As Woody Allen says, 80% of success is showing up. I’m fond of that quotation, it gives me half a chance.

Thursday 12 August 2010


After admitting that crowdsourcing was a new concept for me, I now have my head firmly stuck in the book of the same name by Jeff Howe.

It doesn’t take much reading to recognise a phenomenon that has been growing for some time. Development of the Linux operating system is perhaps the best known of the many-hands-make-light-work idea, but there are many more. Software development. Logo design. Computer time. It seems there is a vast underworld of worker bees doing stuff outside of the normal business model, just for the sheer joy of being involved.

What comes across most compellingly when you check out each of the examples is that these people are all doing something they love. Programming. Designing. Writing. Whatever. They don’t see it as work, but as a privilege to be involved in.

It seems to me that there are two really important ideas that come out of this “oh, my goodness, what a brilliant idea crowdsourcing is” thing:

1. When people do something they love, and are good at, they produce excellent results
2. When like-minded people get together to do something they love, and are good at, they produce amazingly excellent results

Unsurprisingly, others have read the book and are clambering onto the crowdsourcing bandwagon. Large companies (Dell, Google, and I’m sure many others) are taking advantage of something that clearly has benefit to their bottom line if they can get it right.

But you don’t have to be Dell or Google to make use of this idea. The idea of managed collaboration was highlighted in a comment to a post just a few days ago. Whether the people you are collaborating with are in the next cubicle, the next town, or several routers away on another continent hardly matters. What matters is bringing people together to create something more extraordinary than anyone could produce on their own. Technology is as beautiful as nature sometimes.

As an aside, if you are reading this and have an opinion or two on anything you have read, leave a comment. Whilst my merry band of readers might not quite fit the definition of a crowd, they do massively enhance and expand the value to everyone by adding, challenging and commenting.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Progress and the Unreasonable Man

I was at Kew Gardens at the weekend enjoying a particularly sunny London day. When it came to lunchtime a debate broke out over whether the restaurant prices were reasonable. Some felt they were too high - far too high. I erred on the side of considering the special case for this particular venue.

Two quotes came to mind:

George Bernard Shaw suggested that “the reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Whilst Ella Wheeler Wilcox pleaded “Don’t look for the flaws as you go through life; and even when you find them, it is wise and kind to be somewhat blind, and look for the virtue behind them.”

Who is right? I don’t know. Both, I suspect.

I didn’t want my sunny day spoilt with carping over restaurant prices, yet if everyone felt the same way motorway service stations would still be horrific places to eat (which these days they are not always).

Maybe what is most important is doing something about it. If prices are genuinely unreasonable then having a moan over lunch will achieve little, whereas writing to the CEO of the catering company, telling the local newspaper, blogging about it and telling all your friends might. Or setting up a competitive eatery half a mile away.

So perhaps progress depends on the men of action, however reasonable or unreasonable they may be. However, when one discovers that Oliver Peyton has recently been awarded the catering contract for Kew, and that all the restaurants and self-service cafes will be refurbished within a year; prices seem a little more understandable. And the food a little more palatable.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Working through consensus

Collaboration is very much on my mind at the moment, so it’s perhaps not surprising that a new book caught my eye. "Smart Swarm" by Peter Miller suggests that the business world can learn from the behaviour of bees, ants and other animals. These groups communicate and make decisions by consensus, rather than follow-the-leader.

It isn’t the only book of its kind: Wikinomics by Don Tapscott considers mass collaboration across the internet.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was introduced to the concept of crowd sourcing – a concept which has appeared on my radar several times since – but was previously unknown to me.

All of these ideas highlight what we already know – that we work better together than we do alone.

The idea isn’t without its detractors: some believe that intelligent, trained specialists will always make better decisions than a large, generalist group. That may well be true, but there appears to be an ever increasing number of examples, from an increasing number of authors, suggesting that overall groups fare better than individuals at making good decisions.

All of which has big implications for the workplace. Wikis, discussion forums, team collaboration software are ways to facilitate communication, discussion and better work. Twitter is the latest in a long line of innovative ways of digitally getting people together. Ebay, Facebook and LinkedIn also spring to mind.

Of course great work doesn’t have to be the product of a sizeable group, evidence suggests that many successful endeavours are built on partnerships. Crick and Watson, of DNA fame, are a good example. Bill Hewlett and David Packard of Hewlett-Packard are another famous duo. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. I could go on, but you get the idea.

All of which flies in the face of the traditional CEO as leader and saviour of an organisation.

Are times a changing? Is software genuinely helping us work together more effectively? Could we prevent disasters such as the financial meltdown of 2008/09 by listening to the group, rather than the few? The little crowd of recently published books on the subject suggest there is something in this concept, but only time, and consensus, will tell.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Meetings, bloody meetings

I noticed the heading of blog post a few days ago: "10 Ways to Get out of Meetings". I didn’t read it, but suspect it was popular. Too many meetings are less productive than they should be.

Instead of trying to avoid meetings, though, how about figuring out how to make meetings more useful, and more effective? After all, two or three or four heads are always better than one. It’s just that it takes a little effort to get a meeting to work well. When creativity and problem solving start to work in a co-operative way, meetings are worth their weight in gold.

So, with reference to John Cleese’s excellent film “Meetings Bloody Meetings” here are 10 ways to get more out of meetings:
  1. Prepare in advance (Is the meeting necessary? Who should attend? What is already known? Are sensitive issues being discussed that merit face to face discussion, etc, etc)
  2. Set clear meeting objectives
  3. Have an agreed agenda
  4. Make sure everyone is invited who needs to be there, and that they have the opportunity to give their input during the meeting
  5. Give people time to prepare in advance (with sight of relevant information)
  6. Ensure everyone is working from the same documentation (up to date agenda, budgets, documents, etc)
  7. Keep to time (start, finish, take individual items off-line if they are taking too much time)
  8. Record decisions and key points in the minutes
  9. Follow-up after the meeting
  10. Use a collaboration tool to keep everything together rather than relying on email (it provides structure and reduces the risk of missing things): Dates, times, attendees, objectives, the agenda, additional documents, minutes

It isn’t rocket science, but it is almost always more work than we first reckon. If that means having fewer, but better, meetings that would likely suit everyone. Including whoever is trying to get things done.

My very old copy of John Cleese’s book “How to Run a Meeting” always brings a smile to my face. Cleese’s eyes are raised skywards in sympathy in frustration at yet another unnecessary, unproductive and unbelievably long meeting.

Collaboration and knowledge-sharing is much more of a framework than it was in the 1970’s where the emphasis was on controlling meetings. Yet the dangers of rambling, unfocused discussion is as great today as it was then. So Cleese’s 1976 book stays on my bookshelf, alongside my 2010 collaboration software.