Thursday 30 June 2011

The Value in Neat and Tidy

Tidying up is a thoroughly therapeutic task. Organising something that was previously chaotic has so many benefits, quite apart from the calming effect on the soul. My kitchen cupboards recently unattached themselves from the wall thanks to an over-enthusiastic washing machine. Rather than have their precious contents become part of an insurance claim, I emptied the cupboards. This was not only hard work (who would have thought kitchen cupboard could hold so much?) but also revealing.

I found ingredients that had been bought twice (a surprising number), ingredients that should maybe be eaten up (nothing earlier than 2009, but even so …) and bottles that had never been opened (but will be now). In short, I had only a vague idea of what was in my cupboards. And I only moved three years ago!

Although kitchen structural defects are not to be recommended to anyone, I have found the act of clearing out, cleaning up, and re-organising to be extremely valuable. I have reassessed what I really need, what is only used occasionally or not at all. And I have resolved to simplify: which should save money, save space, and improve efficiency.

Transferring the same ideas to work is even more worthwhile. Although my hard-disk is unlikely to fall off its perch due to too much data, a spring clean and re-evaluation of what’s important yields similar benefits. Pruning projects has even more value than throwing out duplicate ingredients. The CRM database is next ….

So, it’s Summer Cleaning for me! It doesn’t have the same ring to it as Spring Cleaning, but it has all the lemon-scented benefits.

PS Getting to Excellent isn’t going into semi-retirement, despite appearances. I was away for two blissful weeks in Provence and surprisingly not motivated to blog. I wasn’t sure you would be interested in thyme-scented hills or how all food tastes better in France

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Searching words of wisdom

I’m currently working on a project that includes a lot of text as part of the data.

Traditionally computer systems and databases don’t like free text; they prefer values that can be added, evaluated and easily stored. Of course there is much to be said for that; assigning a value enables us to clarify our thoughts and opinions. But we can’t communicate everything with numbers and capturing free text provides a great deal of rich understanding. It also enables us to store information which may not be considered relevant right now, but could be valuable in the future or to other people.

Happily, searching text has become a great deal more sophisticated than when I first started working with business systems. Databases such as Microsoft’s SQL Server now have the ability to search for meaning as well as words, to rank search results in terms of likely relevance, and to filter out the “joining words” that don’t add anything to the search process.

When we search for things on the internet we use the same functionality. We expect to key in a search term and find relevant information from a variety of sources. We rarely stop to consider the software technology that is behind making it happen, even though it is hugely powerful and is the piece of the jigsaw that makes all the internet information useful.

Our electronic world has made it so quick and simple to send an email to anywhere in the world, so a huge amount of information is being conveyed in free text. Documents can easily be created and stored on the billions of PCs in businesses everywhere - the issue now is to make the information accessible to the people who need it.

Friday 17 June 2011

Listening - the quiet strength

A number of different incidents recently have made me aware of the importance of listening. Oddly enough, the brighter and more competent the person, the more likely they are to believe they are right and don’t need to listen to other views. Yet in so many cases, being right isn’t what gets results. What gets results is ensuring that everyone is in agreement with the plan: even if it’s not the very best possible plan.

The reason for this will be obvious to anyone who has ever worked on a team. If only one member of the team doesn’t believe in what’s being done, they can stop or slow the whole process. Yet a team where everyone is agreed is pretty much unbeatable: even if they are not as talented as the divided team.

Jim Collins’ influential book “Good to Great” has much to say on how seemingly quiet, experienced leaders are more effective than their showy, high profile counterparts. Collins lists a number of qualities of a great leader, and among them are “confronting the brutal facts” because unless you know the extent of the problem, and the reasons for why things are as they are, nothing can be changed. It is seemingly obvious, yet we can be strangely reluctant in wanting to know the truth. Humility is also listed by Collins as desirable in an effective leader.

Whilst Collins’ research was not statistically valid – I’m sure there are exceptions to every “rule” – his observations are interesting. Putting people first, being humble enough to know when you are wrong, and having the patience to listen what is actually going on, instead of what you think is going on, are foundation stones to making things happen.