Tuesday 31 January 2012

Weekly Meetings

Meetings get a lot of bad press: too many, badly run, no preparation and of negligible value.  Yet meetings can be tremendously valuable.  A weekly meeting is an opportunity to plan and review, and to set the tone for the upcoming week’s work. 

Steve Jobs had a meeting each Monday with his executives to review all the products in development.  “Eighty per cent is the same as it was the last week, and we just walk down it every single week,” Jobs said in an interview with Fortune in 2008.  “We don't have a lot of process at Apple, but that's one of the few things we do just to all stay on the same page."

I know if I were an executive at Apple I’d make sure I was up to speed by the end of Friday on what progress had been made, and what the plan was for next week because if I didn’t know, I’d be getting a roasting on Monday morning.  So not only did Jobs create accountability and visibility with these meetings, but he also made sure that all his executives had reviewed the past week and planned the upcoming week.  Sure, this was something they should have been doing anyway, but that Monday morning meeting made sure of it.  Not bad for 60 minutes of everyone’s time. 

Steve Jobs: An Unconventional Leader, The Sunday Morning Herald, Australia: http://www.smh.com.au/executive-style/management/steve-jobs-an-unconventional-leader-20111007-1lcmo.html#ixzz1l2AZC5il 

Friday 27 January 2012

Eat and Sleep Routines

“You wouldn’t forget to eat or sleep, would you?”  I can still remember the piercing gaze staring at me across the table.  “So why did you forget to write your monthly report?”  The message was crystal clear, if not completely logical. 

My boss was telling me in no uncertain terms to make my monthly report as habitual as eating and sleeping; if I wanted to carry on working for her, of course.
It’s a lesson I have never forgotten, even though it was many years ago.  When something is as habitual as eating and sleeping, it doesn’t get forgotten.  Ever.  I know other people who also treat their monthly reports with the same reverence; they don’t forget either.  You don’t need to add it to your “to do” list, you don’t need to worry about it, you just do it.  As easily as you eat and sleep. 

The difficulty, of course, is that some pretty powerful mechanisms were designed into us to make sure we don’t forget to eat or sleep.  The same cannot be said of monthly reports. 

But if you can make something into an “eat and sleep” routine you have found a pretty powerful way of increasing your effectiveness. 

Benjamin Franklin recognised the benefits of cultivating positive habits.  He called them his 13 virtues and he spent many years of his life trying to live by them.  He wrote about them in his autobiography and it is an early glimpse we have of how difficult it is to change behaviour. 

There is a lot of guff out there on the magical World Wide Web about how it takes 30 days to form a habit.  I can muster quite a lot of evidence to say this is codswallop.  It takes much longer, particularly if the habits are difficult.  So we need reminders and rewards.  We need persistence and perseverance.  And we need to keep our new habit visible, so we don’t forget what we are trying to do.  Even after many months or years, we still have to be vigilant in not letting it slip.  Benjamin Franklin used a little paper notebook for most of his life to try to make his 13 virtues as natural as eating or sleeping. 

If all this sounds like a lot of effort, I’m afraid it is.  But the payoff is enormous.  Good exercise habits are not easy to cultivate, but they keep us out of hospital; as do good eating habits.  Good working habits are every bit as difficult, but lead to a more productive and effective career.  It may take more effort, but the rewards are there for the taking. 

So what sorts of habits improve effectiveness?  Strangely, the monthly report is one of them, or at least it has the same effect.  Reviewing and evaluating our work on a regular basis leads to better decision making.  It’s not rocket science, but also not easy to do.  It is, however, very effective.  As is good planning; equally difficult to do on a regular basis, but invaluable if you want to be effective and successful.

My old boss is now a millionaire several times over and looks younger now than when I was working for her.  So her advice is perhaps worth listening to. She also had the uncanny knack of putting the fear of God into the people who worked for her, but that’s a completely different story …

Wednesday 25 January 2012

How to concentrate for longer

It seems the modern world is designed to de-focus and distract us from whatever we are trying to do.  E-mail pops into our inbox every few minutes, or the phone rings.  Thoughtful people don’t call, but text, so the phone is never far away.  Of course a text is far too interesting not to read, even if it’s only the bank or when the shopping will be delivered.  So we are distracted anyway.

I see mothers walking their children and talking on the phone.  We can’t get out for a refreshing walk without staying in contact. 
We are now so used to constant interruptions and distractions that if there are no emails, no texts, or no phone calls, we double check our email, or go online for diversion.

Welcome to the digital age – designed to make our lives easy.   Now three screens is the norm, and our attention span is short and getting shorter. 
Concentrating on what we are doing is hard work.  Focusing requires discipline.  The brain wanders easily and often.  Thoughts and ideas pop into our heads all the time.  Try sitting still for 5 minutes and thinking about just one thing; a candle, a diamond or a flower.  Notice how many times your mind wanders.  Each time it wanders bring it back to the thing you are focusing on.  Notice how it wanders off again.  And again.  You will lose count how many times you have to bring it back to the task in hand, in just 5 minutes.

Focusing may be difficult, but it is also very necessary to produce anything worthwhile.
20 minutes seems to be the generally accepted length of time that a healthy adult can focus on something, although it will be longer if you are comfortable and proficient in the work.  So difficult things, problem solving, things you are learning for the first time or trying to master are more difficult to focus on for long periods of time.

So if you are unfocussed and distracted, you are not alone.  But crucially you are not as productive as you could be, which means you won’t achieve as much as you would like. 
So what’s to be done?  How can distractions be cut down and concentration improved?  Here are 7 ideas:
  1. Turn off email (yes, I know, but do it anyway)
  2. Take time to get become more proficient in your field
  3. Put your phone in a drawer for a couple of hours (you can pick up messages later)
  4. Be clear about the purpose of your task (this takes a bit of pre-planning, but increases your productivity)
  5. Use a stop watch.  Start the timer when you start work, and stop it when you get distracted.  Note how long you spent concentrating, and then little by little try to increase your concentration time.
  6. Get out of the office and work in the library, park or zoo
  7. Reward yourself for 1,000 words written, half the job done, or the phone call made.  Your reward could be a 10 minute break in the fresh air, or picking up flowers on the way home depending on how difficult the task was, and how long it’s been on your “to do” list.
One final thought on this vexing matter of improving concentration.  If we accept that good quality, focused work is difficult, we may want to be a little pickier about what we tackle.  Saying “no” to some, not doing others, or simply checking out how useful they are could save time for something more important.  And when you are sure you should be doing something, you will find concentrating a great deal easier anyway. 

Tuesday 24 January 2012

What’s the Big Idea?

We are all working for something; whether it’s to pay for our children’s education, buy a house near the sea, or build a worthwhile business.  Everyone’s big ideas are different, but we all have them. 

Yet although these big ideas are important, often we don’t give them much attention.   It’s rare for them to be written down, or looked at from month to month.   Often they stay in the back of our minds as “someday-maybe” ideas; perhaps because we’re not sure we can achieve them we don’t dare hope.
Yet one of the biggest differences between successful people and others is that high achievers write down their goals, and make plans to progress them. 

Jim Collins called them BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals.  Stephen Covey referred to it as “Begin with the End in Mind”.  Many writers and successful people have, over many years, stressed the importance of knowing what you want to achieve.  So figuring out what is most important to you is a good first step in making them happen.  Then you need to commit them to paper or hard disk.
Of course there are many different types of people.  Whilst some people will recognise this reluctance to commit big, important ideas to paper, other people have lots of big ideas and write them down all the time.  They have so many ideas and dreams and plans, they can barely keep track of them all.  Their list of “Big Things To Do” is long, and gets longer by the day.

The Chinese wryly point out that “The man who chases two rabbits, catches none”.    So whilst it’s great to be creative and generate ideas, it’s vital not to get lost amongst the noise of what could, should or might be done.  Decide what's most important, even if it takes some thinking, reworking and crossings out. 
This list may have about half a dozen items on it, maybe a few more or perhaps a couple less - certainly no more than nine.  Why?  Because we can only focus on a couple of things at a time, so the more that goes onto the list, the less likely it is you will achieve them.  It’s better to have fewer, big ideas and get them done, than to have a shopping list as long as your elbow that gets ignored.

Monday 9 January 2012

Working with calmness and composure

By knowing how long things take

It is stressful and unpleasant being late for an important deadline. 
There is nothing elegant or enjoyable about running, red faced and flustered to catch a train.  And it is traumatic and disruptive burning the midnight oil to finish a key report that was started too late.  Creative juices do not flow and it’s not good a good way to work, or to live.  Of course what I’m describing here is different from being in “flow mode” where you are so lost in your work that you don’t notice the time. 

Being on time, with a little time to spare has much to recommend it by, not least the higher quality of work that gets done.  Planning ahead, having time to think, and finishing things to a high quality causes less worry and is more enjoyable.  It encourages “flow mode” because the brain isn’t stuck in "panic mode".

Repeatedly hitting deadlines without compromising quality requires a number of things to get done:

1.     Creative thinking or brainstorming about how to give it the “wow factor” (less appropriate for catching the train, more appropriate for key reports).  Sometimes referred to as the “fuzzy front end” it can have dead-ends and wasted work, but is important nonetheless.

2.     Identifying tasks - figuring out what needs to be done (talking to certain people, reading around the subject, checking the train timetable, etc)

3.     Estimating how long things might take (easy for how long the train will take to get to Edinburgh, less easy for creating and agreeing an outline for a report)

4.     Planning what will be done when, and who will do what.

5.     Creating checklists for repeating tasks.

6.     Accounting for other things that need to be done – so you can be confident that you are working on the right thing, at the right time, without another problem cropping up elsewhere.

7.     Working the plan – trying to do what you said you were going to do, when you said you were going to do it.  And trying to get everyone else to do what they said they were going to do, when they said they would do it.

8.     Reviewing and adjusting – either for this project, or for the next one.

Reading through that list makes me, and probably you, realise just how much scope for error there is in the whole process.  Not least because things take longer than we think they will take, other people don’t do what they said they would do, etc. etc.  To such a degree that many people don’t believe it’s worthwhile to make a plan because “things change anyway”.
A particularly difficult (but crucial) step in this process is estimating.  Figuring out how long things might take is difficult for many reasons, but up at the top of the list is the belief that whatever it is we are doing is a “one-off”, with the second being optimism.  The “one-off” argument says that this project is different from the last one, and that the problems encountered on the last project won’t be encountered on this one, which inevitably leads to optimism.  Instead of thinking we will have different problems, we think we won’t have any, and therefore believe the new project will be quicker to do. 

How do I know, for example, how long it might take me to write this blog article?  I don’t know when I start how long it will be, or how complicated the subject matter might turn out to be.  The only way to know is to time myself when I write blog articles - long ones, short ones, difficult ones and easy ones.

Only then will I know whether I'm likely to finish one before I have to leave the office to catch a training in 45 minutes.  Otherwises I'm likely to start, get absorbed and then end up running for the train.

I appreciate that timing what we do is counter-intuitive, but much of what we depend on today were once considered alien.  Like the trains running (roughly) on time or knowing how long a policy document might take to write.

All the planning in the world is useless if everything takes twice as long as the plan says it should take to complete.  Or even longer.

Friday 6 January 2012

The value of knowing where time goes

Time and tide, as we all know, wait for no man.  There’s no better time of year to be reminded of that as we review the past year.  What projects did you complete?  Which ones weren’t even started?  What should have got done, but didn’t?  What was important to you?  What was your greatest success?  What was your greatest failure?  What would you do differently if you could replay the year again?

It’s an interesting exercise, and if you haven’t yet reviewed the year I’d urge you to do so.  I gained a number of insights from reviewing my 2011.
Certainly, the big things that I accomplished during 2011 were done with the aid of quite a bit of planning, focus and time.  Now that’s not to say that everything that gets planed, focus on and time to will have a successful outcome, unfortunately, but it does increase the chances.  And when I look back over my life at my major successes, I also recall the planning, focus and time that went into them. 

Which brings me to the value of knowing where time goes.  Because of the nature of my work, I analyse how my time is spent.  It provides an invaluable additional dimension to reviewing the year.  I can see how much time I spent on various different activities, and how much time I spent on my important projects.  It gives me another lever to make changes – whether I should be giving more or less time to certain activities or projects.
I don’t think many people do this, perhaps because it reminds us of “clocking in and clocking out” and “command and control” type management systems.  No one likes someone breathing down their necks to see what they are doing every minute of the day.  And sometimes we don’t want to see the unpalatable truth ourselves.  But, certainly for me, unless I know where my time goes, I’m in danger of not giving enough attention to the important-but-not-urgent things. 

Eisenhower apparently remarked that “what is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.”  Which may go some way to explain why important things don’t always get done.

So one of my New Year resolutions is to track my time more carefully, and analyse it side by side with the big things I’ve want to do this year.  As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a big fan of measuring things.  It will be interesting to see whether increased focus in this area brings about improvements.