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Entrepreneurs Leadership Productivity

Doing it faster, but poorly?

In today’s busy times, we’re always trying to create that little bit of extra time to get one more thing accomplished. Seldom is this item one more strategically critical task, mind you. In most cases, it’s simply one more thing because somehow we got the idea that we’re not doing enough things. No matter that we’re doing 100 things poorly – the focus is often on reaching 100.

Hearing or listening

Podcasts and audio books are a good example of this. We listen to podcasts at double speed so they don’t take as long. We listen at that speed under the illusion that we’re getting more done. This, despite the cartoonish voices and the almost certainly reduced comprehension. That way, we can listen to more of them. Or listen to them again because we didn’t really get anything out of them. We listen to more of them on the same topic because we’re struggling to absorb what we might get out of any one of them if we weren’t focused on how many we listen to and how fast.

Does it matter that you listened to 30 audio books last year if you didn’t get anything out of them? Or half of them? Obviously, audio isn’t the culprit, the same could be said for books, newspapers, blogs, or research papers. We sometimes forget that getting anything done well is better than getting that thing done faster and poorly. There is, of course, that “done is better than perfect” thing, but even “done” should have some context.

Years ago, a friend who owned several franchise locations of a fast food restaurant replied to some good natured ribbing from one of this friends who chided him that his restaurants made a lot of mistakes at the drive through window. He said “I don’t pay them to get every order right. I pay them to get the orders done quickly.” It’s a good example. Do you mind if you waited in line for five minutes if your order is right? Or would it be ok to wait in line for two minutes and frequently have your order wrong?

How is that different than whatever you’re rushing through today?

It takes an unbelievable amount of energy to resist reality.

Jim Dethmer

Advice from an old guy – and those around you

No, I wasn’t referring to me. Back in the ’60s, Earl Nightingale sold a ton of his book “The Strangest Secret” on albums. Yes, vinyl records. Some of the book revolved around his thought “Watch what everyone else does–do the opposite. The majority is always wrong.“, which I suspect rolled downhill from G. K. Chesterton’s “I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.

While advice like this can be less useful when lived as a hard and fast rule, it has plenty of value. The real root of it is to understand the benefit of taking the time to be observant of the behaviors of those who are, and aren’t successful. What you won’t likely see from the most successful people you know is that they’re cramming more and more into their life. It may seem like it because they are doing different things than you are – and that has the appearance that they’re simply capable of doing it all.

They aren’t.

The difference is that they make a deliberate decision to remove unimportant things from their lives (like “Big Brother” or “Survivor”) so that room is created for the things that are important to them. They subtract, rather than add. Subtracting unimportant things from their lives creates the space that they fill with the things you think you can’t possibly make time for.

Do be careful while observing these folks and selectively extracting lessons to improve your own life and business. Don’t compare your life to theirs. The difference doesn’t matter, and the difference is never what you think it is because you never know the whole story – just like those who have judged you don’t know your whole story.

Don’t compare your beginning with someone else’s middle.

Alison Beere

You’re unlikely to make your bucket of life more full by cramming more things into it. Be fiercely selective about what you let in.

Categories
Productivity

Pay your future first

Many of the company owners I know are “one person shows”. IE: The owner does it all. Sales, marketing, product development, customer service, finance, toilet cleaning, you name it. Having been there, I know “The Struggle”. Too many things to do, and they never stop coming. How do I automate and free up some time? How do I free up time to do more important work?

It feels to them as if every moment they spend trying to improve the business takes away from the work they need to get done on products, or from sales calls, or from the ever-present demands of customer service. Thing is, those things are infinite in nature.

An infinite agenda

Sales calls will always be on your agenda. Customer support will always demand someone’s time. There will always been a todo list or an agenda of self-replicating tasks like service and sales calls. It’s like swimming in all of the ocean or walking to the horizon… it’s not possible to do them all and never have more. Meanwhile, those things can easily consume a day, a week, or frankly, a lifetime.

Meanwhile, if you let this infinite agenda rule your business life, there are tasks you’ll never get done. That manual monthly task that must be done every third of the month that takes an afternoon still comes back. You have to do it. It pre-empts even sales calls and customer service. There’s probably a way to delegate, outsource, or maybe even automate it. Trouble is, it feels like you’re too busy to take an hour to do that – even though you might never have to do that work again.

The result is the overwhelm and feeling of being trapped. You feel there’s no room for improvement because there’s no time to improve such things. What you’d find is that each small effort to improve these things is what creates room for the next small effort.

Time works a lot like profit

Time works a lot like profit, meaning that if you don’t set some aside at first, you may never have any.

Remember years ago when someone told you to pay yourself first. Even though it’s a simple idea, it may have seemed transformational at the time. Carve off an amount of your take home each month into a separate account before you pay your bills. Even if you start out at $10 a month, it’s only $10, you can figure out how to survive financially without it. Over time, it’ll grow, particularly if you manage to eventually carve out a little more and a little more before paying the bills. You get better at it.

It works just as well for businesses. Carve the profit out first – before you pay anyone else, including yourself. Even if the profit from your operations is tiny and is actually invented by this intentional act in the early days, take it out. You’ll find that your business will find a way to survive without that tiny amount one way or another. As your business improves, you’ll figure out a way to make that number larger.

Oddly enough, the time required to improve your business (working ON it, rather than FOR / IN it) can be carved out exactly the same way. You’ve probably noticed that if you start your day by digging into email, sometimes you’ll “wake up” from digging through and handling email only to find it’s suddenly early afternoon. Email has magically consumed a chunk of your day. You learned through such sessions never to start your day with email, but instead to “pay your todo list first” by doing the most important work first.

Pay the future first, time-wise

You already know this.

That’s why most days you probably try to get the most important item on today’s agenda done first, then you can deal with the rest. No matter how chaotic the rest of the day is, at least you got the single most important thing completed.

Even one day a month, make the most important task that day be an effort to improve the future. Like paying yourself first (or carving off even the tiniest bit of profit first), carve off an hour at the top of your day and do something that will pay dividends for months.

Even if only for an hour this month, pay your future productivity first.

Photo by Jesse Bowser on Unsplash

Categories
Management Productivity Time management

Delegation isn’t easy.

Several times over the last month or so, I’ve suggested refocusing on important work. I’ve suggested paying attention to long-procrastinated tasks. There’s high value in moving on to bigger things and relieving your mind of the self-persecution of procrastination. All of this tends to demand that you do four things: Prioritize. Delegate. Outsource. Focus. We’ve focused on prioritize and focus in recent weeks. Today, let’s talk about delegation.

“I can do it faster than I can delegate it”

The pervasive thought, *particularly for a founder/owner*, is that you can complete a task faster than you can describe it well enough for someone else to do it. That might be true the first time. It’s probably true the first few times. After that, you’ll know one of three things: Your instructions are ready, or they aren’t. You chose the right person. You chose the wrong person. Those are easy to fix.

Delegated tasks are usually needed more than once. They tend to happen repeatedly. The first few times, you’ll want to check their work. Who wouldn’t? They’ll want you to do so as well. You’ll probably need to refine the checklist / instructions you created. Soon, they (the person you delegated to) will be refining it. After the first few times, you’ll want to take a quick glance to make sure things are done right. But the 11th, 20th and 42nd time? You’re out of the loop. Intentionally.

That first few times, you aren’t going to gain any time through delegation. Just as you expected. Even if things go very well, you have to circle back. After those first few times, you’ll gain time every time this work needs to be done. Not only are you no longer having to prioritize and find the time to do the work, in many cases you won’t even have to think about it. Unless your company is very small and has no other managers, let someone else follow up and monitor quality / completion time, etc.

If you don’t have anyone else to do that oversight, give the person you delegated to a process to confirm the work’s completion to you without interrupting you. While you can use whatever job / process / project management system you use for this, don’t over complicate it. This can be as simple as an inbox, an email or a text. Prefer old school? Put an old Amazon box on a table outside your office so they can drop things into it without interrupting you. Hang a clipboard on a nail and let them check off the things you’ve delegated to them.

The keys to delegation

The stickiest thing about the delegation process is how you document the work. Yes, the very thing you don’t want to take time to do. That’s the thing you must do well. Several things are obviously critical. The complexity of the task could require covering things you normally take for granted. Things “built in” to you. This may make it even more tempting to avoid delegating the task, but don’t give in. If it can be delegated, do it.

There are several questions to consider. What raw materials and tools are required? Where are they? Are instructions required? Other team members? Are interim approvals or reviews necessary? When should the work be started? When must the work be done? What milestones exist between the start of work and completion? Do we need lead time before delivery for oversight, review, rework? If so, how much? Does the job require outside resources? (contractors, services, materials not already in-house)

Completion and delivery: What specifically indicates that the work is complete? What specifically defines completed delivery? Paperwork in a specific folder? Files in a specific Dropbox folder? A pallet in a certain rack? A delivery to a customer? Is a customer sign off required?

These things are always on an owner’s mind, but might not be on the delegated person’s mind until you share them. Even though the person doing the work isn’t an owner, they’re still important. They include: Why is this work being done? How does it tie into the big picture? What are the stakes of failure? Is a customer depending on this work? Is this work critical to keeping a customer?

The first few times, this process won’t be enjoyable. As you refine your delegation process – you’ll end up with a form, or an email template, or something to make it easier. Give it time to work – because you need it to work.

Categories
Habits Improvement Productivity

Finish important work this year

With the start of the new year, many will be looking for ways to reboot lives, businesses, and whatever else they’re disappointed about the state or progress of. We’ve all been there. The cure for many of these disappointments is to finish procrastinated, meaningful work as we discussed a few weeks ago. With the new year starting, it’s tempting to put that unfinished work aside and try to start something fresh and exciting to ring in the new year. You might even create (yet another) ginormous list of items to knock off because everything magically changed on January 1st. Or did it?

Important work makes big changes

Everything will not magically change the week of January 1st. It didn’t last year, remember? The only way to make “magical” change happen is to do more important work. Making things happen changes you and your circumstances. That doesn’t mean you have to work 14, 17 or 19 hour days. It’s not complicated. Focus, execute, repeat. Consider this: If, during each month this year, you could identify and complete the most important work on your to do list, would that make this year better than last?

Of all the unfinished things on your to do list, identify the ones that absolutely must be finished. Some of them are busy work. Do you really need to finish them? Can they be cancelled or delegated? Either way, take them off your unfinished list if they aren’t important enough for you to spend time on them instead of doing ANYTHING else you should be doing. Unfinished doesn’t mean important. Important means whatever it means to you and your business. Your time is likely the most valuable time in the business – why waste it on tasks that can be done by someone else? That doesn’t mean that work isn’t valuable. It simply means you don’t have to be the one to do it.

Complete more of the important work no one else can do if you want to make big changes.

Eliminate the unimportant

With all that busy, cancelled, delegated work removed from your unfinished to do list, what’s left? Which of these started, but unfinished important work items is the most important thing that you can finish in January? This shouldn’t be hard. If it is, then you may need to decide if your to do list contains anything important. I mean, come on – it’s early January. I’ve only asked once, so this should be the easiest choice of them all.

Repeat the process. When you’re out of meaningful, unfinished tasks, start the most important new task on your list. Don’t start five or 12. Start one. Now finish it. Maybe this takes you all month, but if this is the most important thing on your plate – it’ll be worth it.

On the other hand, if out of all the not-yet-started and not-yet-finished things you need to do, you can’t identify an important piece of work, two things come to mind. One, all that unfinished work can be delegated. Two, why isn’t there important, business-critical work that no one else can do on your to do list? Are you extricating yourself from the business? If so, great. If not, have you let yourself stop taking on important, business-changing projects because you weren’t getting them done? This process should have freed up a lot of time for that work – including the time needed to conceive it.

What about new tasks?

What about all the new tasks that come up this month? Don’t let them distract you. If something comes up that is super important – more so than your in-progress most important task, then you’ll have to decide whether you’ll hit pause and get that super important item done. Typically these are urgent tasks, not important ones. Know the difference.

For anything else, add them to your list, but only if they are important. Give the rest to someone else, or put them off. If they aren’t important, it’s unlikely that status will change. Put them on a list called “To delegate” and do it during your weekly planning.

Why are we doing this? Because getting more of the important (to you) things done is the most impactful change you can make have a better year than last. Consistently getting important work done builds your confidence and capability. As those two grow, so will you and your work.

A similar view: https://getpocket.com/explore/item/smarter-not-harder-how-to-succeed-at-work

Categories
Employees planning Productivity

Finish more. Then start.

Seems that everyone has a book in them. How many of these books actually escape the mind of their author? I’ve had several percolating in different stages for years. Outline. Concept. Key points. I wrote a very rough draft (isn’t that what drafts are?) years ago – for one of them. I need to get back to them, but other things are (or seem) more important. The same goes for that project you need to get done. Or that new product you want to develop. Maybe even that new company you’ve considered starting. There’s a key to all of this: finish the task. Simple, right?

Start, then finish. Then start another something. You could get tangled up in “finish the already started stuff first“. Maybe, but that might ignore the priorities you’ve already been ignoring. Decide what’s important. Do that. If you happen to wander back into some unfinished task that’s become important, great. If you don’t, and that project languishes for years – it probably wasn’t important anyway. 

We prioritize what we can finish

Prioritization is a lot of this. Trouble is, prioritization is tainted by ego and courage and all those touchy-feely things we claim to be irrelevant. We start things we know we can finish by the end of the day, week, or month. We don’t like to fail. Leaving things unfinished feels like failure, even though it isn’t.

Not all work fits conveniently into a day, week or month. We know this. Still, we use that to prioritize work. If there’s no chance of finishing a task by Friday EOD, it’s likely that task will be put off. It’s easy to skip that task in lieu of one we can finish. It’s a built-in confidence builder that our brain uses to “protect” us. 

The irony is that this “protection” system is exactly what causes us to fail at important things.

Remember that Federal law that says you have to have tasks completely finished by the end of this week? Neither do I.

Procrastination as leverage

In the last few months I’ve incorporated procrastination into how I schedule tasks. It’s painfully easy, and the rewards are addictive.

Here’s how it works: When you schedule your tomorrow or next week, identify at least one thing you’ve been putting off. Make sure it’s part of your agenda for the day / week. It doesn’t matter why you’re procrastinating on the chosen task. Just choose one. Pick an easy one, if you wish. Make that thing happen. Repeat. Maybe add two of those items next week. Do what works.

You might be thinking “I’m not procrastinating on anything.” Uh, yeah. Sure.

Stop anyone on the street and ask them “What are you putting off that you know you should get done?” and they’ll have an answer instantly. They don’t have to think about it, or look at their phone, or pull out their planner. They know. 

So do you. Really. 

If the “lizard brain” in your amygdala is hiding these things from you, ask a peer, friend or significant other. They’re bound to have a suggestion. 

You may not be able to schedule your entire day / week like this. That’s OK. You decide how much time you can allocate to those procrastinated items. The key is to keep making progress. Finish them. Finish another. Repeat.

“Finish him!!!”

Our brains love to finish things. Have you ever put an item on a checklist simply so you could check it off? While it seems silly, checking off completed tasks is a cheap way to release dopamine.  Finishing stuff “takes weight off our shoulders”. Mental weight. Cognitive load. “Stressed out” or overwhelmed. Call it whatever you like – it’s there. 

Ever been on a diet? There’s a constant food-related cognitive load on your mind. Do you encounter more food-related ads when you’re on a diet than when you aren’t? Probably not, but it feels like they’re everywhere.

Cognitive load is a weight your mind bears every moment. Sometimes you notice it, sometimes you don’t – but it’s always there. A five pound bag of flour doesn’t seem heavy unless you already have two armloads of heavy groceries. 

Unfinished, procrastinated tasks have the same effect as that bag of flour. Finish something today. Check that box. 

Categories
Employees Productivity

Focus time & cruising altitude

Earlier this week, I quoted a software developer who posted this comment on Twitter:
Surgeon: This procedure will take three hours. Manager: Ok, I can give you from 9:00 to 10:00, 11:00 to 12:00 and 2:00 to 3:00. The rest of the day you’ll be in meetings. Ridiculous, right? Now, imagine the surgeon is a software developer.” 

Someone on LinkedIn suggested that this was OK since the three hours needed (in the software context) were still available that day. I wasn’t sure if their assertion was serious or not, so I offered the following analogy to clarify why these two schedules are so different.

Not all three hour lengths of time are the same. If it takes three hours to fly from NYC to Chicago, you can fly non-stop. However, you can also get there if you fly from NYC to Buffalo, then from Buffalo to Cincinnati, then from Cincinnati to Chicago. You still spend roughly the same three hours in the air, but it’s far less efficient. Getting into the work (not the same as starting it), then stopping to change focus for the meeting,  then switching back to the focus work and getting into it again (twice) is much like the three sets of climb out, cruise, descend.

Three hours in a single block is a bit different than three hours scattered across a single day. However, there are a few other considerations for anyone doing work that requires focus.

Non-stop is better for focus

If you flew for three hours from NYC to Chicago, you might have two hours at cruising altitude to get some work done or watch The Office.

If you flew from NYC to Buffalo, then to Cincinnati, then to Chicago, each of those three short flights are going to consist mostly of climb out and descent. You’re going to have very little focus time thanks to the short flight length and the hectic nature of a rushed in-cabin service. It’s likely that you’re going to find that time useful for reading, light analysis and little else.

In addition, you have to spend time boarding, getting off the plane, changing gates, and waiting for the next boarding window. If things go well, you won’t have a delay caused by a mechanical issue, weather, or the lack of a crew (it happens). Even then, you still have to “prep” for the flight: get on the plane, wait, fly, wait a bit more, then get off the plane.

It’s a lot like going to a meeting. Exit current task, meeting prep, meeting,  debrief / summarize, move to next task / meeting. 

Focus killers only need a toehold

The other thing about these breaks between those precious one hour segments is that they open the door to chaos. In other words, someone pulls you into a meeting, or you get distracted by someone who needs help with a problem, etc. 

Got a minute?” never takes a minute – and there are plenty of opportunities for got-a-minutes on the way to/from a meeting. Even if you work remotely,  the fractured time between your focus sessions are subject to this. 

One way to avoid this during your focus work sessions (even the short ones) is to put yourself in do-not-disturb (DND) mode on your phone, email, etc. Not everyone can do that, but if you can, do so. Despite that, there will be occasions where something serious could require your involvement. The big ones are tough to avoid. The little ones that wait… those are the ones you want to defer / delay during focus time. 


Meetings aren’t bad, but…

Meetings are often essential to make sure everyone is well informed, “on the same page”, and / or coordinated for the next effort. Yet meetings are often looked upon by the attendees as unproductive, expensive, & wasteful of employee time. 

Effective meetings have these characteristics:

  • Have an agenda.
  • Have one person keeping the meeting on agenda.
  • Include only those folks who need to be there.
  • Begin on time.
  • End on time.
  • Allow a few minutes to transition to the next meeting if attendees have back-to-back meetings.
  • Are summarized at the end to make sure there are no misunderstandings, misreads, or “I missed that”s. 

If the meetings you call don’t fit this profile, see if you can improve them one characteristic at a time. Meanwhile, do what you can to help your team get blocks of focus time. 

Categories
Productivity

Procrastination is free, right?

If you’re like me, you have a list of tasks that need to get done – and some of those, you’ve put off. But then, the T-Rex of efficiency, git-r-done and productivity steps into your mindset and tears the place up. For many of us, procrastination is on par with an Olympic sport, even if we get a ton of work done. 

Mental friction

It isn’t that procrastination means you’re lazy, good for nothing, or less likely to win “Most likely to succeed”. It’s N-O-R-M-A-L. That doesn’t mean you should revel in it. Procrastination is mental friction. We have so many reasons for doing it. For example, it’s SO easy when the thing you want to do is something you hate doing. I mean really – who wants to do something they hate doing? It’s easy to let that puppy slide to next week.

Alternatively, you might not be very good at the things you procrastinate over – and that’s OK. Your superpower might be x or y, but doing z makes you feel incompetent. This doesn’t make you Looney Tune. It’s normal not to be a superhero at every single thing that it takes to run your business. It’s also normal to think you’re supposed to be that superhero.

After all, you started the business by yourself umpteen years ago and got it to where it is today (or close) with not much (or any) help. Naturally that means you have to keep being the superhero in all areas as your business grows 10X over a decade, right?

Sure it does. Not really. One of the biggest challenges to owners growing a business is having the mindset that they have the ability to do it all at $1MM or $2MM or $5MM in sales simply because they were able to do it all between zero and $300K in sales. How many plates do you think you can keep spinning at one time? 

I hate, so I procrastinate

We “hate” some work tasks for different reasons. Maybe you really do despise a certain type of work. But that isn’t all that makes you dislike doing it. It might be that you’re not confident about the work you do in that area, even if you are capable of doing it. 

If you hate doing a particular task or type of work – see if there’s a way to delegate or outsource it. This seems like an obvious thing, but I find this happening frequently out there in Procrastinationlandia. Seriously, if you hate certain work, we’re going to have this conversation again and again. Worse yet, YOU are going to have that conversation again and again. It sounds something like this: “Well, I really need to do some bookkeeping, but …” and then the voice in your head interrupts to belt out “Let’s get ready to procrastinaaaaaaaaate!” (Apologies to Michael Buffer)

Maybe you love bookkeeping, but your procrastination sweet spot is paperwork, preparing for presentations (even though you love the presentations), testing, ordering – whatever. It doesn’t matter what the most often procrastinated tasks area. It matters that you deal with them, somehow.  

Procrastination as a tool

A tool? I discovered this tactic recently via a podcast that I stumbled across while procrastinating between sets at the gym. Yes, that was ironic.

The idea is that your todo list for the day should (or must) include the number one thing (or things) that you’re procrastinating about. If you leverage the list of procrastinated items as your todo list, you’ll either run out of procrastinated work, or procrastinate a lot less. Get those things done and the pain shrinks, disappears or both. *That’s* the payoff. 

You see, procrastination has a mental price. It increases cognitive load, which comes at a price. The more you put off a piece of work, the easier it is to procrastinate over that item one more time. It’s been on the pile for 11 months, so what’s one more day?

Thing is, your brain doesn’t need more things to juggle. All of these little things add up and limit your ability to focus, to do good work (the stuff you haven’t put off) and in general, feel better. Think about how you feel when you get a long-procrastinated item done. 

Oh and that “like me” thing? It’s OK to admit it, but it can wait until tomorrow. 

Categories
Education Improvement Productivity The Slight Edge

What’s your secret?

Has anyone ever asked you what your secret is? It’s kind of like being asked about your superpower. It goes something like this: “Wow. That’s really something. I could never do that. (pause while they work up to asking….) What’s your secret?” 

I’m guessing this happens to you right after you’ve done something that you’ve done so many times and for so long that you could do it seconds after I woke you from a deep sleep at two in the morning (after you yell at me for waking you, of course).

Why do they want your secret?

While they don’t realize it, asking this question is usually about them looking for a shortcut. Sometimes “I could never do that” translates to “that isn’t important enough for me to practice for years (like you have) so that they can be as good as you.” Mostly it’s wishful thinking that there’s a secret to your skill and expertise. 

Can you imagine the answer you’d get if you asked your favorite musician about the secret to being an unbelievable musician? 

I’m guessing they’d tell you that they’ve played their instrument since the seventh grade, if not longer. They might even tell you that they hated it at first and perhaps even hated it a little later. Those days are gone now. They know that it’s become a part of them and that they’ll do it as long as they can – even if no one listens to them anymore. Possibly the worst thing you could do to them these days would be to take their instrument away for the rest of their life.

Shortcuts exist, but …

There’s nothing wrong with asking for help or seeking a shortcut, but expertise isn’t developed through shortcuts. It might help you get there, but developing expertise is about one thing. Practice. It might not be hard work, but you need the experience to gain the expertise. 

You can show someone a shortcut, but you can’t give them expertise. Expertise is learned.

Shortcuts can accelerate your learning process. They’ll probably help you avoid a few mistakes or skip a few things in the learning process – but they can’t make you the expert. Only doing the thing creates that level of skill. You can watch YouTube videos of Bob the curly haired guy painting happy little trees for weeks, but until you pick up a brush and start painting, you’re not getting anywhere. 

Taking shortcuts is useful when learning, but are seldom useful when it comes to developing a valuable skill that people will pay “your price” for, and without complaining.  

Do the thing. Over and over.

Do you know how to become a better hiker? By hiking. Does it help if you eat better, workout, etc? Those things will help you become healthier, stronger and better able to hike more, but they don’t make you a better hiker. Hiking does that.

The same goes for playing an instrument, drawing cartoons (something I’ve been thrashing away at for the almost a year), marketing, ice climbing, kayaking, cutting down trees, working metal, building web sites, or making a perfect sous vide steak.

Doing the thing that you want to become an expert at doing. Doing it again. Even when you’re horrible.

Educate yourself, practice the thing, repeat the process. Do the thing. Keep doing it until people start asking you what your secret is. Then keep doing it.

The other secret

There’s one more thing that grows your expertise: Teaching.

Teaching others what you know is a powerful way to refine your expertise and see it in a whole new way. Some say that you really don’t know a subject until you’ve taught it. Perhaps.

If nothing else, teaching the skill or subject that you’re an expert in will certainly remind you of the baseline skills you’ve taken for granted for years. Questions from those new to your expertise (ie: newbies, or “noobs”) will often shake you a bit. They tend to make you rethink that which you know so well. They’ll ask, horror of horrors, “Why do you do it that way?

Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes the answer to that question is the shortcut they never knew they were looking for. Sometimes, reflecting on and changing how someone looks at a problem or a challenge is the best shortcut of all.

Categories
Management Productivity Technology

The scary thing about artificial intelligence

The phrase “artificial intelligence” might bring politicians to your mind’s eye, but today, we’re talking about the real thing. Maybe you own an Alexa (or five of them), but I’m guessing many of you don’t have one. As with most “new” technologies, you’ve probably seen a number of articles that seem bent on inspiring fear about artificial intelligence (AI). Some of them forecast that AI is going to put everyone out of work, take over your life and eventually try to chase down John Connor’s mom.

Even Elon Musk has noted that our (society’s) failure to manage AI could have a bad outcome. Certainly, there’s quite a range of meanings for that phrase. I’m not so worried about Arnold’s metal, computerized alter-ego as some seem to be. My concern in the short term is more about taking advantage artificial intelligence in your business. As with any other technology, there’s the threat of wasting time and money by using it simply because it exists.

AI is already part of your business

Before we consider whether or not artificial intelligence has a place in your business, it might be worthwhile to accept the fact that it’s probably already there. Naturally, there are the obvious things like Siri, the directions providing parts of Google Maps, Waze and similar. They may not “feel” like AI, however.

For decades, software has assessed credit scores & determined risk for insurance underwriters. While that might seem boring to some, the folks in those lines of work still appreciate their value to the quality & accuracy of underwriting. They’re an important factor in insurance company profitability. To me, that’s like the feature of table saws that detect the touch of skin to the blade and stop it in milliseconds to avoid injuring the operator.  Cool, but not AI.

I remember seeing logs entering the then Plum Creek Columbia Falls mill a few years ago and being impressed at the laser-guided saws that assessed a log’s size and shape in an instant and then made initial cuts to maximize yield from that log. This sort of automation has been in place in large, highly-capital intensive manufacturing businesses for some time.

Small businesses have benefited from this sort of automation via CNC (computerized numerical control) driven routers and similar tools. While full-sized CNCs might be too expensive for smaller businesses, a Bozeman-based company makes reasonably-priced desktop-sized CNC.

Learning & problem solving

While all these things are cool, are they AI? The log sensing thing is the closest, but ultimately, the AI purist (there are always purists) might disagree.

Wikipedia describes artificial intelligence as:

when a machine mimics “cognitive” functions that humans associate with human minds, such as learning and problem solving.

Notice that “decision making” is not mentioned. All software makes decisions. A tool that can look at an apple and determine its variety (or its ripeness) based on a previously analyzed group of 10,000 apple images isn’t making decisions per se. It’s using AI based on the training it received by analyzing 10,000 apple photos. Every photo was associated with ripeness and species data.

When processing 10 million apples per year, production speed matters. If separating apples by ripeness and/or species is important to that process, then AI-enabled sorting equipment might be of use.

Software like Adobe Lightroom assesses & automatically “corrects” a photo’s color, contrast, color saturation, etc. Pro photographers who hit the “auto” button probably don’t accept the automated settings as their final choice, but the button still saves time.

Artificial intelligence & your business

Ask yourself this: “Does artificial intelligence have a place in my business and if so, where?

If you’re the apple processor, it probably depends on the price tag.

Is there (perhaps mundane / routine) work / analysis that must be learned to become productive at your company? It’s possible a system could be trained to perform some or all of it. Like the time savings associated with automation, it might eventually free your team’s time to focus on work that you’d never cede to AI. It’s still early, but it’s worth investigating for the right kind of processes. The scary thing is the number of unknowns when you get started, but you’ll get past them like you have with other new things.

This can help improve customer support, but don’t confuse that with customer service. Empathetic, knowledgeable people belong there, not AI.

Categories
Employees Management Productivity

Are you using comfortable tools?

Almost all work teams use tools. Sometimes these tools change over time, sometimes they don’t. Some tools have a long history and rarely change from their original form – other than perhaps the materials they’re made of. The pocket knife is a good example. While it was once wood, bone or stone, over centuries it evolved to steel and other metals. Today, you can buy a pocket knife in almost any form you want. If you have the right tools, you could make the knife yourself.

Comfortable tools, comfortable shoes

We can get so comfortable with a favorite tool that we don’t consider the use of alternatives. In some cases, we might be blind to alternatives or improvements. Either we don’t realize that everyone who generally does what we do has moved on to new, better, safer, or more productive tools, or we aren’t paying much attention to changes in our industry.

Tools become like comfortable shoes or a car that we’ve owned for a long time. They fit just right. They don’t give us blisters (real or mental). We become so adept at using them to perform our work that they become a part of us. We can use them to perform a task and find ourselves done with the task and realize that we performed the task without really thinking about it. At that point, work becomes much like muscle memory. We can do it inattentively or without focused thought.

While this sort of comfort and familiarity is a good thing, we need to be careful not to let ourselves be lulled into complacency.

Are your tools state of the art, or close?

When we don’t get outside of our comfort zone on tools – and this could be tools of any kind – things can happen to our work and our output that we never saw coming. If you still use a claw hammer for every nail you drive, the houses you build will be as sturdy as those built by someone with a modern tool like the pneumatic nail gun. The problem you might run into is your level of productivity would be the close to what it was 40 years ago. That might seem ok until your ability to complete a structure in a particular time frame is compared to builders who use nail guns.

The nail gun is an example and these issues aren’t limited to any single trade, skill, or career. Even if you love your industry’s equivalent of the claw hammer, it’s worth taking time to review the alternatives that have sprouted in the last year. Some industries experience tool changes quite frequently. In particular, software changes in many industries, but there are many other changes that occur frequently that you may not want to (or need to) switch to. Even so, stay aware of them.

Flavor of the month

Tools in some industries change so frequently that keeping up with them can put a serious dent in productivity. Thrashing around because you’re constantly changing to the “flavor of the month” tool-wise adds hidden burdens to your productivity and costs to the bottom line. This is one of those areas where you see software changes creating problems. This isn’t as much about the software industry as it is about the industry where the tools are used. The software business has plenty of challenges with flavor of the month technologies – but they aren’t alone.

If you feel like you are repeatedly tempted by the “bright, shiny object” tool-wise, stop to reflect a bit on what’s creating the desire to switch to another tool. Is it desire or need? Marketing tools frequently fall into this category, while proven, productive activities such as the manual labor of following up after a sales call are neglected.

Tool changes are often positioned as eliminating the need for a skilled craftsman (regardless of gender), or eliminating the need for a tool user with substantial training and experience. Safety is often a prime component in the introduction of newer tools. None of these things replace training, skill, and experience with a tool. Even with 3-D printing and similar technologies, there’s skill, experience and training at some point in the process.

Build a process with your team that evaluates new tools and gets people to stretch their comfort zone beyond the tools they’re familiar with. This tempers “random” tool changes & allows both experienced & novice staff to offer input & learn the business process for evaluating tools.

Photo by moonrat42