Chaos, frenetic activity and burning buildings

Years ago when the photo software company first started, it was not all butterflies and rainbows. Quite the opposite. Day one was full-on chaos. On Friday, the check was delivered and a jointly-written email (and written letter) from the old owner and I went out to every client. On Saturday, the code assets arrived. On Monday, reality arrived with a vengeance, along with a few hundred new-to-me (and annoyed) clients.

Instead of day one of a software company being a blank page full of “OK, what do we want to do and where do we start?”, day one was about the phone ringing off the hook. Most of the people calling eventually told me they were glad that someone took it over, but that was well after an awful lot of rescuing people (and their businesses) from the software equivalent of a burning building. While I didn’t create the situation, that didn’t matter. My purchase of that software meant that I also bought the chaos and inherited the responsibility (if not the blame) for it.

Without question, this is the worst kind of multi-tasking (as if there is a good kind). As a whole, my newly acquired clients looked more or less like this: Everyone panicking. Everyone worried about being able to take care of their clients. Everyone wanting a solution as soon as possible. Immediately would be OK too, of course, but most of them were surprisingly reasonable and patient (thankfully). I “inherited” it all via the purchase, so I clearly asked for it. Over the next few months, it took daily (or multiple daily) releases of software to bring all of that chaos to a halt. Back then, one (or five) releases a day seemed like such a big deal. Today, web-based software that runs companies like Uber and Etsy deploy thousands of changes per day.

That isn’t why I bring up this story. The chaos is.

Chaos management

If you’ve ever been in a situation like this, you know that it’s easy to panic. To this day, I am not sure why I didn’t – other than having been in the software business for 15+ years at that point. Despite having been responsible for plenty of high value, high pressure systems prior to that, I always had others to help out if I needed them. This time, I didn’t. Sometimes you want something bad enough that you might even forget to panic. Maybe that’s what it was. I don’t say this to humblebrag. I mention it because I’ve taken part in numerous situations where other people were involved and I want you to think about the impact of this sort of chaos on your customer-facing staff members.

Business owners might find it easy to shrug off the panic and take the chaos in stride. You may have dealt with experiences that allow you to juggle all of this and handle it without freaking out. Where you have to be careful: your staff. If they’ve never been in this kind of situation, it’s on you to make sure they get the support they need and the guidance that helps them deal with the customer service equivalent of Black Friday at Wal-Mart.

If you haven’t dealt with this before, there’s a simple strategy that’s easy to forget when the overwhelm hits: One at a time. That’s it. While it’s simple and obvious, if your team doesn’t get a calming influence and “one at a time” (or something) from their leadership (whether it’s you or one of your managers), they could panic. They could shutdown. They could unintentionally say or do something damaging to your relationship with the client.

Responsibility for handling and communicating all of this is on you (and your managers). Your team needs your backing and guidance – and preferably know this in advance. They need to know that they can escalate to you or a manager if things get bad. Obvious (again), but it’s easy to forget these things if you’ve been out of the trenches for a while.

As for clients, I suggest this as a starting point to reduce panic on the other end of the phone:

  • Communicate early and often.
  • Make sure clients know you understand the situation’s urgency and severity.
  • Deliver incremental progress. Don’t wait for perfect.
  • How your team handles recovery from a mistake is often more important than the mistake itself.

Inauguration Week, a time to stay focused

I have written on this topic several times over the last 12 years: Inauguration Week. More specifically, what happens to the business world after Inauguration Day. When Bush 43 took over in 2001, there was hand wringing. Before Obama took over in 2009, there was hand wringing. And now, with Trump’s takeover days away, the sound of hands (w)ringing, toll yet again.

The problem? That new President-elect. “He / his policies / his party’s policies will ruin my business.” . Doesn’t matter which President-elect, even though it’s hard to imagine that the last three or four president-elects could be more different from one another. Even so, I hear the same refrain I’ve heard every four to eight years.

I can’t start a business with so-and-so / whichever party coming into power.

My business is in trouble with so-and-so / whichever party coming into power.

Sure, there is some impact

I don’t mean to say there won’t be some impact. This time around, like every time, there is likely to be some impact on the energy business, on taxes, on healthcare, etc. Thing is, they’re impacted seemingly all the time by legislation from both parties, by world events (war, finance, technology changes, OPEC) and more. Is the price of gas / diesel different than it was before Obama? Before Bush 43? Sure. And it will be pretty much every week for years until some point way off in the future when technology matures past the use of those fuels.

However, when it comes to most businesses, the impact is usually trivial and the concern overblown. How you serve your customers and how effectively you sell and market to them has a much bigger impact in most cases than anything some randomly chosen President can do.

Sure, there is a lot of change in Washington. There will be, as always, a lot of pieces moving around on the chess board, and there will be plenty of drama in the news. As there always is.

Little, if any, of this has anything to do with the success of your coffee shop, sandwich store, plumbing business, clothing store, software consultancy, etc.

Don’t let Inauguration Week and a new President distract you and your team. Stay focused on your plan and your goals.

Step away from the drama

There is plenty to look at in the news that can make you take your eye off the ball. Don’t let it win. There is plenty to distract and worry your employees and contractors. YOU have to maintain momentum and leadership. not the TV news. It’s your job to make sure your team doesn’t get distracted and lose confidence over whatever’s going on in the news.

Use all the change as a reason to refocus and stay focused. Use it to rally your team. Remind them that no President has ever had a dramatic effect on your business. Be sure they know that you believe that the group of people working there now will not be the one to allow this (or any) President to be the first to negatively impact your business.

I know this might seem silly to some, but the thought processes are out there. People are always worried about their future when these kinds of changes occur. It’s easy and the news doesn’t help.

You have a plan for the year, right?

I’m sure you have a plan for the year. We’re already halfway through January. Remind your team of where you are toward your January and 1st quarter targets. Given the lack of likely impact by the changes in DC, it’s an opportunity to show your team what early trends look like.

Your team and your market has had over two months since the election to settle down. If your business is down since that time, I hope you know why. It might be normal for this time of year. If it isn’t, determine the cause and share it with your team. The last thing they need is to let the belief that four or eight years of that is inevitable.

For the same reason, if your business is up over the last two months, be sure to explain why. Your team needs to know why and how their work is affecting results and not that something completely out of their control (like political change) is driving your business’s performance.

Keep them up to date on the plan, its progress and course corrections you’re making. Keep your eye (and theirs) on the ball.

Who on your team is wired for tough situations?

In every sport, a team’s best players want the ball when the game is on the line and nothing but an amazing performance will help their team win the game. Regardless of the potential cost to them personally, the risk of failure and the pressure of the moment, they take charge during tough situations.

In your business, you likely have staff members built the same way. These are typically the folks on your team who step up in tough situations, probably for the same reason. It’s how they’re wired.

How’d they get wired that way?

I haven’t ever explicitly asked someone what makes them “want the ball late in the 4th quarter” but I suspect they would answer one of two ways:

1) In the early / formative years of their career, they had responsibility thrust upon them by virtue of the work laid in front of them. As a result, they’re become accustomed to tough situations.

In this case, it’s a matter of training and familiarity. Once these situations become normal, their confidence in handling them grows over time to the point where stepping up is simply part of what they do. They don’t see it as a big deal because being the one who deals with these situations is just part of who they are. One of the things that gives them this confidence is time spent in tough situations in the past. Be sure to include your up-and-comers to participate and observe so that they also gain this experience.

2) Leaders and peers have always shown confidence in their ability to perform under pressure, under deadline and in other tough situations.

This demonstration of confidence comes in several forms. It shows in team members asking not simply how they can help, but by taking on specific tasks that they’re confident your “crisis players” can trust them to handle. It shows in leadership asking if they can help (and if so, how) rather than yielding to the temptation to check for progress so frequently that it becomes an interruption. It shows in everyone asking questions that provoke the team to think a little differently about the problem, and to question and discuss every assumption.

How do you find more people like that?

Ask.

Prepare interview questions that provide your candidates with the opportunity to explain their experiences during crisis situations. When your team nominates someone for an opening at your company, discuss your “interview crisis” questions with the nominating employee. Your goal: to gather their viewpoint of candidate’s ability to handle crisis situations, and their observations of the candidate’s behavior under pressure.

Here are a few generic examples that will help you create better, more specific questions that are more appropriate for your business: Would you want to work with this person when trying to solve a problem that threatens the life of the company? Why? What about this person’s behavior under pressure impresses or concerns you? How do the peers of this person react to this person’s crisis behavior?

How do you help in tough situations?

Ask any crisis player you know what kind of help they need most when dealing with these situations. It may take them a while to mentally step back through the process. This should encourage you to plan on a discussion after the crisis abates. It’s not unusual to have these meetings so that we can, as we are famous for, make sure this never happens again.

Reacting to what happened so that it doesn’t reoccur is important, but what’s desperately needed is getting a lot better at prevention. Ask your crisis players what would have averted this situation. Ask them if they saw this coming. Ask them who else saw the oncoming problem. Ask them who listened to those who raised the alarm and who didn’t. For that matter, did ANYONE listen?

You’re not asking for names so you can have a witch hunt, but so that you can identify those who see things before others do. Some people have a sense about these things and ask questions or notice issues long before others. These folks need to know that management has their back when they think they see something.

One way you help your existing crisis players is by identifying players in the making and by giving all of them the resources and ear they need.

Look beyond today, ourselves, our businesses

Recently, I read an article that provoked the reader to pay more attention to the big picture and look beyond the immediate meaning of day to day events. The premise of the piece was that “little”, seemingly unrelated events have repeatedly lead to regional or global events throughout history – such as the “minor assassination” of an Austrian prince ultimately led to World War I. It struck me that this premise also had business implications.

One of the core discussions in this piece was that we (as a species) often fail to see events coming, and that the path from point A to B seems obvious when historians examine them decades or centuries later.

While historians have the benefit of having the puzzle laid out before them, they claim that we (again, as a species) have been pretty consistent about three things contribute to our inability to detect these situations before (or as) they happen:

  • People tend to look at their present for answers, rather than considering the past or future.
  • People tend to look immediately around them, rather than analyzing how events connect regionally or globally.
  • People tend not to push themselves intellectually. Specifically, we don’t read enough, spend enough time thinking beyond the prior two points, challenge ourselves enough, and often tune out opposing views.

These are not accusations unique to today’s world, but observations noted repeatedly by historians dating back to Plato.

Look beyond the present

Let’s take that template of observations and use it to overlay our careers as owners, managers and employees.

When we look back, will we see some obvious signals that we missed over during our business career to date? For the things that stick out, would you do the same thing knowing what you know today? Do you feel you missed a signal or a piece of information that would have prompted you to do something else? Did you learn a lesson at the time that served you well? Months or years later, did a lesson hit you about those events?

Maybe there’s something to this, maybe not. Regardless of how your track record holds up under re-examination, the premise is worthy of consideration. How do the things that happened in the past impact current challenges? Do the methods being used to deal with these things hold up over time? Would your decision-making process or the execution seem naive, ill-advised, or not observant a year (or five) from now? If so, why?

Should that impact your execution and decision making processes? History says (in so many words) “yes, over all people and all times”, but everyone’s history varies.

Look beyond your immediate reach

Beyond your immediate reach, what is going on in your market? What’s going on in the markets that affect your suppliers (and their suppliers) and your clients (and their clients)? What events going on right now could affect you, your clients, their clients or your suppliers, even though they might be a layer or two removed from their day to day collective concerns?

For example, if you have a small party store, there are a number of things in the international community that affect you and your clients. Currency. International logistics. Regional conflicts. Tariffs. Trade agreements. A strike on the Long Beach docks.

Can you do anything about these events that are out of your reach? Probably not. However, you can use your knowledge of them to take action to protect your business and your clients’ businesses. Like it or not, you’re in their line of work as well, so paying close attention to what impacts them is important, even when it has nothing to do with what you do or sell.

Look beyond your norms

This one is complicated: read more, challenge yourself more, think more and review things contrary to your opinion. Yet it’s also simple and can be summed up in one word: Grow.

The single most important thing we can do for our business over the long term is to make ourselves better. A better read, better trained, better prepared, better developed business owner is more likely to make better decisions. That business owner sets the example for their team’s growth. When we have a deeper understanding of all sides of the challenges we face, and a deeper knowledge of the issues that affect our businesses and our clients’ businesses, we’re prepared to make better decisions.

Accountability and tapdancing

You may have seen a recent video of a Senate Finance Committee hearing with the Chairman of the Board of a large bank. He was being questioned about his accountability for his company’s behavior regarding opening new accounts on behalf of their clients.

Form your own opinion about the hearing. We’re here to discuss why it was handled as it was by the Chairman and why you can’t do that.

What you can’t do

The infuriating things about the video:

  • The Chairman makes a few comments that give the impression that his company did no wrong.
  • He shows no sign of accountability for the whole thing (and nor do his managers).
  • He indicates that he can’t provide guidance to the board about the nature of the company’s future actions.
  • He asserts that the whole thing was about one percent of his employees, with a tone that implies it’s really not a problem at all.

What makes it even more aggravating is that the value of the Chairman’s stock rose about $200 million during the period discussed. This means that the value of the company’s stock was misrepresented during that time.

Bottom line, while the camera was running, he washed his hands of the whole thing and of his possible future role in taking corrective action, much less punitive action against the senior managers involved.

Yet, he had a decent enough reason.

The reason for his position is that anything he said during that questioning was likely to be used against him and the company. Whether he is a slimy cretin or not, he is an officer in the company and has a fiduciary obligation to protect the company. One might theorize that lying (if that’s what he was doing) isn’t a good way to do that, but I suspect he was advised well in advance about what he could and couldn’t say to avoid making things worse.

Unless you’re the CEO / Chair of the Board / officer of a publicly traded company, you can’t do that.

What you have to do

If something bad like this happens, the worst things you can do are exactly what he did:

  • Dodge questions.
  • Give vague answers or non-answers.
  • State that you have no responsibility, despite being the Chairman of the Board (or in your case, the owner)
  • State that you have no obligation to lead your board to a decision about making management accountable.
  • State that you cannot lead your board to a decision about making yourself accountable
  • Decline to comment about your level of accountability.

This guy’s customers have a choice. They can get over it in some form, or they can eliminate this company from their lives by closing all of their accounts and banking elsewhere. Moving bank accounts is not easy. Between the regulations that require a bunch of paperwork (in most cases) and a visit to a local bank branch, and changing any electronic bill payments (or similar), it isn’t fun.

Your customers will likely have a much easier time moving to a competitor – if that is their choice. Your comments to any questions about whatever you’re dealing with are going to set the tone for their response and reaction.

When you do these things, you likely won’t be scrutinized by the Senate. In your case, your clients will likely be judge, jury and (hopefully not) executioner.

It was only one percent of our employees

One part of this hearing stuck out to me. The Chair said (paraphrased) “it was only one percent of our employees“. His tone implied that they were bad apples and he had no control or oversight over them. He said that despite the fact that there was a senior manager responsible for implementing the program that created this mess. That senior manager worked for him. Management laid out the program these people worked under, created a bonus schedule for it, oversaw the program and made it expectations clear.

Whether one percent of your employees is 5000 people or five (or it’s just you), you don’t have the choice this guy made. You have to take accountability straight up and dole it out to your team as well. When and if something like this happens, the responsibility to all yours. Own up to it, take your licks, hand out a few as needed and make changes to prevent future occurrences. The rest of your business’ life depends on it.

Are you battling complacency?

One of the most serious challenges that a company can face is complacency. Whether it takes root among the leadership, the team or even their clientele, it can create permanent damage.

Complacency in leadership

You may have heard comments like these if your company’s leaders have become complacent:

  • We’re doing ok. I don’t see any need to change anything.
  • Our competition will never catch us.
  • We don’t need to invest in new tooling.
  • That new startup in our market is doomed. I’m not worried about them.
  • Our staff doesn’t need training.

Complacent leadership can produce fear, a lack of confidence and complacency among the staff. Fixing your company’s leadership, including their complacency, is part of your job as a business owner – and that includes your own leadership.

Complacency among the staff

There are at least two kinds of complacency that can creep in here: career complacency and job complacency. They’re often interconnected since someone complacent about the job may also all but given up on career growth. Not everyone has big plans for their career, so don’t assume that someone who isn’t pushing, pushing, pushing isn’t doing a good job – they may simply lack the drive, ambition or need to be your next senior leader.

If someone used to have that drive and ambition and no longer seems to, it’s possible that they’ve checked out and have succumbed to job complacency, which has more context with performance, much less with going the extra mile.

Job complacency, as noted previously, may relate back to leadership, but it may also be the person’s day to day mindset and overall quality of life will affect these things. The conditions of their life and lifestyle affect how they view life, how they work and the nature of their career aspirations. Your staff don’t become new people when they walk in the door.

Anything you can do to help them restore confidence in themselves will impact their job performance. Likewise, fixing things related to their job duties, environment, accountability and responsibility is likely to raise their self-worth outside your walls, not just inside them.

Many people take their jobs quite personally. When they’re in a situation where they don’t have the authority to do their job, or the environment works against them, it can infect their entire lives – enough to make them feel the need to move on, even though the thing you can fix seems trivial.

Complacent service

We’ve all seen it. Someone waiting on you, helping you in a store, helping you over the phone, or even on Twitter. They’re going through the motions. “Your call is important to us“, right?

What creates the complacency that gets a customer support team to that point? Their leadership, certainly. What’s the focus of the customer support manager? What metrics are important? What tools and authority to “make things right” does the team have? These are the things that make a support team vested in the solutions they provide.

A lack of these things can create a seed of cynicism, doubt or negativity that complacency can grab onto. In your service department, you simply can’t afford that.

Complacent products

It’s impossible for a product to be complacent – it doesn’t have a soul of its own.

That said, if those who design and build your products are infected with complacency, your products are quite likely to have it designed and/or built in.

This can happen whether they are “knowledge workers” or the folks in your wood or metal shop. What they design and create isn’t the point – that they have a customer-centric, long-term viability mindset when designing and building things is the key.

Leadership can affect this as well, since products might be designed and built with a strategic goal as well as a revenue goal. Cash flow and sales are important, but does that new product target a new market, a new lead source or does it increase your conversion rate? Does it serve a new tier of customers? Does it encourage the sale of services or increase the lifetime investment of the client?

Products that are not conceived, designed and built with a strategic purpose can create complacency if those who design and build them wonder “Why are we doing this?

As a leader, your job is to root out complacency at all levels.

Teamwork means… what?

Teamwork has been on my mind a bit lately, so I thought I’d organize a few thoughts along those lines.

Trust is leadership is influence

Every day of your life, people are doing a credit check on you…your trust
– Rick Warren

People learn to trust you when you are predictable. When they can predict how you will handle a situation, how you will care for a client, how you will advise or comfort an employee, how you will discipline an employee – as well as when or where, and how you will call out an employee for a solid or above the call effort.

Think about that not only regarding your service to clients, but your service to your team. What example do you set for other employees? How do you talk about clients when clients aren’t around? How do you talk about other employees when they aren’t around?

People trust those who are loyal to them. Loyalty demonstrated in others is often assumed to be the same loyalty one thinks they’re getting when they aren’t around. Loyalty doesn’t mean being soft. It means being consistent, predictable and thinking of everyone – including but not solely the company and its owner(s) in every decision and action.

Life’s battery isn’t self-sustaining

Remember, the employee’s job is one of many things attached to their “life battery”. Work, home, kids, spouse and many other things compete for and/or charge/consume the energy in that battery.

If everything is taking energy from the battery and no investment is made in recharging the battery, how long will it last?

I don’t have the right to be tired” – reality show producer Mark Burnett, meaning that he doesn’t have the right not to take care of himself.

You can probably identify things that drain your battery. Can you also point to the things done daily or weekly that recharge it? What helps your team recharge? Does your team know what saps your battery? Let them know. For me, drama and the inability to get focus time are major battery leaks.

Teamwork, motivation and ownership

Don’t expect every staff member to work at the same level all the time. Different work motivates at different levels. Energy levels swell and fade. You and other team members can impact the performance of others more easily than you think.

Don’t expect employees to care as much as you do, work as long as you do, work as hard as you do, or live and breathe your business like you do. Some will, but most won’t because they don’t own the place. For you, it’s an investment in your lifetime financial future. What is it for them? What have you done to make it more than a paycheck for them? Perhaps you have some sort of employee ownership program, but it has to be real or it may as well not exist. Employee owners have a skin in the game and they will view things differently as a result, just as you did before you were a business owner. Don’t expect people to act like an owner if they aren’t.

When team members show an interest in learning new things or deepening their expertise or skills, it’s not enough to get out of the way. Do what you can to help them get a running start. You can pay for the education, reimburse upon success, make time in their day for it, and find other ways to leverage their enthusiasm and interest. No matter what you do, don’t discourage it.

Affirmation and Appreciation

Management of mistakes is important. Perseverance, determination and endurance combine to create wins, but mistakes teach us what doesn’t work. How we recognize, debrief and analyze them to avoid repeat episodes is critical.

Make at least weekly contact with everyone. I don’t mean a wave or a smile in the shop, but a few moments or a pre-arranged chat, email or text conversation about the Weekly Four:

  1. I’ve made progress on …
  2. I’m having a problem with ….
  3. I need a decision from you about ….
  4. My goal(s) this week is ….

Keep in mind that presumption isn’t communication. Assuming that an employee knows that their long/late hours lately are appreciated isn’t appreciation. Be explicit to them and their family. A short handwritten note to the family to recognize their effort and the family’s sacrifice is more than a thank you.

What does teamwork look like to you?

Micromanagement… is there a cure?

What is micromanagement? I suspect everyone who experiences it has their own definition. Wikipedia describes it as “micromanagement is a management style whereby a manager closely observes or controls the work of subordinates or employees. Micromanagement generally has a negative connotation.

Closely observes or controls” could be good or bad, depending on the context. It’s a tricky thing but like some other creations, we tend to know it when we see it, or experience it. One person might say “closely observes” is good management and that “controls” is necessary when training new people or people in new roles, but experienced people might feel that controls is unnecessary. Is your waffle detection alarm going off yet? Good. Look, it’s clear that there will be differing opinions on this, particularly between managers and employees who naturally have different perspectives. I don’t expect that to change, but how we view these things can change, even if we aren’t able to “cure” it.

If we look at micromanagement like a cold or flu that we want to cure, we’ll naturally focus on the cause and on symptoms. We focus on symptoms to make life easier until a cure is found, and we focus on the cause because the origin can often tell us how to solve (or cure) the problem.

What causes micromanagement?

I don’t think there’s any one cause. Based on experience, research and discussions with a number of people, there are four things that I’ve heard as reasons why micromanagement is taking place (noting that managers rarely acknowledge it) :

  • Lack of data.
  • Lack of trust.
  • Lack of control.
  • Previous delivery failures.

If you look at that list, what you’ll probably read from it is that someone is frustrated. That someone is management. The things management does out of frustration with these things will almost certainly cause frustration among employees.

It’s important to understand the people we’re working with: entrepreneurs. One of the things that entrepreneurs seek when starting a business is control. Control over income, destiny, time, etc. With success comes an eventual realization that the entrepreneur can’t do it all. Success means that the entrepreneur’s business has to grow and hire people, or it has to stop growing – something that rarely pleases entrepreneurs.

Must. Have. Control.

The minute you hire people, there’s a loss of control. The entrepreneur is now a business owner, not just an entrepreneur doing and controlling it all. “Suddenly” they have to trust someone else to do what they do well. When your neighbor takes over your BBQ chef role at the quarterly neighborhood block party, letting go is difficult. This is no different.

Years later, it’s no different for the entrepreneur. The work of the business reflects upon the entrepreneur personally. The entrepreneur’s inability to know and control everything is a difficult beast to overcome, particularly if the business grows to a point where they no longer has the ability to “know” every employee personally. When the entrepreneur no longer hires every employee, another phase of this process takes place.

So what to do?

A prescription

How do we deal with the four causes?

Lack of data – A lack of information brings assumptions. Assumptions usually don’t go how you expect, so that leads to …

Lack of trust – Trust might seem like the wrong word here, but that’s likely what it feels like to the employee. Trust is built by publishing plans, milestones, deadlines and then HITTING THEM.

Lack of control
– Much of this comes down to treating the entrepreneur’s lack of control. It may be new to them or not, but feeding the other parts of this helps provide the opportunity to analyze how things are going at a high level, ask if any help is needed without having to drill down into the nitty gritty on every little thing for every project you have in progress – what most employees would view as micromanagement at a company of 20, 50, or 100 employees.

Previous delivery failures – When projects fail or are late, lack of data about the cause of failure leads to assumptions (and the cycle continues).

The big thing about this is freeing the entrepreneur to wear the CEO hat. No one else can do that work. If the entrepreneur can’t get to it because of time spent micromanaging, that’s not good. Help them escape the micromanagement trap by providing the data they need.

Complete the important work

What are you not getting done? Why aren’t you getting those things done?

Does important work often go undone? If so, is that work truly important?

Delegation

Why aren’t you getting those things done?

Is it because of other things that keep you “busy”?

Are you busy because you aren’t delegating enough?

Are you unable to delegate?

Are you unable to delegate because you have no one to delegate to?

Are you unable to delegate because you don’t have time to document the task to be delegated?

Are you unable to delegate because the task requires skills that no one on the team has?

Do you have a system to develop people on your team? Is the system producing people that you can delegate tasks to?

If not, what should be changed so that the system produces team members who can take over the parts of your work that can be delegated?

Is it because you aren’t developing the “former” you in your team so that you can spend more time being the current you?

Systems

Is it because you don’t have an organized manner (system) of keeping track of what needs to be done?

Is it because the system (whether it’s paper, phone or computer-based) doesn’t work?

Is it because the system doesn’t work like you do?

Is it because the system doesn’t remind you of work that is scheduled or that needs to be done?

Is it because you don’t use a system that you have?

If you don’t use a system you have, why don’t you use it?

Focus

Is it because you aren’t giving yourself enough focus time?

What mechanism do you have in place to create focus time for yourself?

Does the mechanism work? If it doesn’t work, why is that?

Do others ignore the things you place in the way to allow you to have focus time?

If others ignore your focus time barriers, what have you done to clarify the situation or “discipline” those who ignore the barriers you build to create focus time? Are others aware of these barriers?

Classification

What is the cost of not getting these things done?

Is the cost, benefit or other financial impact what you use to determine the importance of a particular piece of work?

Does not getting these things done imply that they weren’t important after all?

Is the mechanism you use to identify work as “important” performing effectively?

If you look back at the work you considered important last month, do you still think it was important?

If not, how will you fine tune the system you use to assign importance?

Is there a system you use to classify work as important, not important, etc? One such system identifies work in four quadrants: “important and urgent”, “important and not urgent”, “urgent but not important”, and “not urgent and not important”. This system is often credited to “Seven Habits” author Stephen Covey, but there are also documents dating back to President Eisenhower’s use of the so-called “quadrant of work” system to decide what to do, what to decide upon, what to delegate and what to delete from the todo list.

Costs

Do sales or project goals depend on whatever you aren’t finishing?

Is the important work you’re not getting done tactical or strategic?

If so, is that a consistent situation? If not, have you recently been fighting through a situation that required you to focus on tactical?

Of the work considered important, is the cost of doing the work more than the benefit of doing that work?

If the cost exceeds the benefit, what makes that work important?

If the cost exceeds the benefit, should the work be done at all?

Turning that toward the less important (busy work?) that is consuming time best spent on the important work – if the cost of the busy work exceeds the benefit, should this work be done at all?

Do the important work

Consistently being able to identify the important and completing it while delegating what isn’t important IS the important work. The work you delegate may not be as important for YOU to do, but the fact that it can be delegated is the critical difference.

What’s the important work for you this coming week? What’s in place to make sure you get it done?

If you don’t have your system fine tuned yet… Does your staff?

Project Management: Is it done yet?

When I was young and a bit green at project management, I somehow managed to have responsibility for a number of big projects. Some came in OK, some never seemed to get rolling properly, some were late, and some seemed to take on a life of their own. A latter group tended to include projects whose scope was a moving target or had many unknowns.

The worst of these have a way of being the unknowns you never see coming, often gestated from a family tree of assumptions and incorrect or changed information.

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld famously said that decisions are made while dealing with “known unknowns and unknown unknowns“. Anyone with large project experience knows exactly what he meant. Interestingly, Rumsfeld credits a NASA manager with the terminology.

Project management requires discovery

The software business has a sketchy reputation for delivering projects on time, despite a lot of internally-driven improvement over the last two decades. This reputation is sustained by the memory of failures of very large software projects.

Agile project management and related methodologies have helped a great deal. Many of these methodologies can trace their roots back to Lean manufacturing / management methods taught by Deming in Japan after World War II.

Success with these management strategies depends on early discovery of issues, challenges and changes in the information driving your decisions. This, along with our human tendencies, is why the MVP (minimum viable product) construct works. The earlier the customer sees your work, the earlier you’ll find out if you’re on track.

Usually, you get to decide how this discovery occurs: organically as the project work occurs, or in advance, thanks to discussions of expectations, requirements and manufacturing options during the design phase.

Poorly managed projects are often started without sufficient discovery and discussion. Even today, many projects are started and finished with very little advanced thought. No one would build an airliner as it rolls down the runway. While that sounds a bit ridiculous, this is exactly what happens.

The context of the design is critical as well. Work done in a vacuum, even with the best of intentions, often produces incorrect assumptions thanks to the aforementioned unknown unknowns.  The project’s scope is an known unknown and the unknown unknowns are often a simple matter of lack of experience with the environment where the completed project will be used. The gap between expectations and results matters whether you’re building a crescent wrench, a software program or a Mars rover.

When will it be done?

While you may not have an accurate answer to that question, better design will improve your ability to give an estimate that someone can actually trust.

Better design? How?

The most common problem I see is not breaking things down into small enough pieces of work. Granularity is critical to the design and estimation of highly detailed / technical work. The volume of dependencies and unknowns in this type of work compounds the miscalculations and omissions resulting from a lack of detailed analysis, resulting in inaccurate estimates and missed expectations.

An estimate of days, weeks or months without a detailed breakdown of subtasks is symptomatic of the problem. I find that estimates require subtasks no larger than two to four hours to create a design that’s thought out well-enough to meet expectations, discover obstacles in advance, while producing a reasonable estimate.

But it’s not perfect!

Human nature also creeps into the equation: We like completing tasks.

It’s such a part of our us that people tend to focus on less important tasks simply because we can complete them before the end of the work day. We feel accomplished despite leaving big projects untouched.

If you’ve ever written things on a checklist that you’ve already done so that you could check them off, then you know what I mean.

Rather than fight the fixation on small projects that we can “download” and complete in a work period, feed it with subtasks of your big, important projects that conform to the need to complete something the same day.

Life has a way of being incredibly creative when it comes to finding ways to delay a project’s completion. Build these project management tactics into your design, estimate and build workflow so that you can get better work done faster – even on big projects.