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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.

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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
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
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

Categories
Employees Improvement Management Productivity

Raise productivity by lowering cognitive load

Are you trying to figure out how to help your team become more productive? Traditional efforts to raise productivity will help, but are they enough? At some point, you’ll find that the law of diminishing returns will take over. Rather than give up, you & your team need to reassess the team’s workload and how it’s handled.

It’s important! It’s mandatory.

Traditional attempts at workload assessment usually include a re-prioritization of tasks. Regular priority assessment is a good thing, but not often a great thing. Sometimes it resembles “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”. What takes a re-prioritization from good to great is leaving your team open to not assigning a priority to EVERYTHING – i.e.: giving permission to not do a task. It’s OK to identify work as “work we don’t need to do”, or “work we don’t want to do”. However, your team still has to do this work because “It’s important!” and/or “It’s mandatory”.

There’s “mandatory because the law requires it”, but there’s a second form of mandatory that’s rarely talked about: “mandatory because I said so”. Some tasks legitimately fit this criteria, but many shouldn’t. The quote “Mandatory is one of the crutches we use when we can’t lead people.” speaks to these tasks. I’ll bet we’ve all seen this type of mandatory task in the workplace.

Mandatory doesn’t mean a person has to do it

Mandatory workloads tend to be administrative and clerical work placed on non-admin / non-clerical team members. Sometimes, it even includes administrative and/or clerical work placed on admin / clerical folks. Some of this work is necessary and important, like timekeeping for employees whose time is billed out to a customer. The rest should be subject to re-prioritization.

Your team has to stop doing unimportant work so that they can focus on what IS important. I’m sure you’ve heard and thought that before. Even so, we continue to put more “administrivia” work on our people. Sometimes this work is important, but if you look a little harder at it, you’ll find that much of it can be delegated. My favorite team member to delegate this kind of work to is “systems”.

Why do you want to either stop doing this work or delegate it to someone other than an employee? Cognitive load.

Every task you give a person increases their cognitive load. Take a high-value employee who does focused work for you. If in addition to that work, they also have five or more daily administrative / clerical tasks on their plate, those things have to be remembered.

Why does cognitive load matter?

Ever notice how you suddenly remember things at two am, or when on a walk, or while on an airplane? At two am, you’re usually sleeping. On a walk, your mind is free of all the things at your desk. On an airplane, the restrictive environment means your phone is useless and often, so is your computer. Those environments have a lower cognitive load, and suddenly, your brain remembers things again.

Extra tasks competing for brain power create “rush hour traffic” for the brain. Driving a car full of kids in heavy, urban traffic is more mentally draining than driving them on the open road. The complexity of heavy traffic and urban roads make driving more challenging. Add a bunch of kids in the car and.. well, you’re probably all over what cognitive load means. Add darkness, rain, and fog. Each layer increases the cognitive load your brain must manage in order to drive.

New administrative and/or clerical work increase the total cognitive load for employees who do focus work, decreasing the importance of their “real work”. Are these admin tasks more important than the number one task any random team member is expected to complete that week? My guess is that they aren’t.

Lowering cognitive load via systems

Work that requires deep thought is sabotaged by interruptions. We “clump” meetings together in order to reduce interruptions and increase available focus time. We clean our office to reduce clutter – and thus visual “noise” / distractions. Unnecessary tasks, office clutter and interruptions all add to cognitive load.

People under high cognitive load don’t need darkness, fog, or rain (interruptions / clerical work) added to their “drive” (workload). While these tasks can’t always be eliminated, they can often be automated. If someone is making a phone call or checking a website multiple times per day to determine if an action should be taken, is there a way to automate that determination? If you have systems tracking various aspects of your business, is someone manually tabulating that info? Is there a way to automate that tabulation? What can you eliminate or reduce? What can you automate?

Photo of Atlas by Simon Cope

Categories
Employee Training Employees Leadership Management Productivity systems

A well-armed minutiae: Urgent, not important.

Yes, I said “minutiae”, not “militia”. The similarity and power of these two words struck me, so I thought I’d substitute one for the other. One of the most dangerous things in your (and your team’s) day to day productivity is the “crisis of the unimportant”. IE: tasks that seem important only because someone interrupted you with them. Minutiae are the little things that, left uncontrolled, will consume your day and leave it unfulfilling, perhaps annoying and almost certainly empty of substantive accomplishments. Stephen Covey spent his career preaching about preventing these tasks from consuming your day – categorizing them as “urgent, not important”.

Eliminate minutiae with systems

As the owner or a senior manager, it’s critical to get out of the “interrupt me early and often” mode as soon as you can – but that doesn’t mean you can ignore the needs of those who interrupt you. You simply need to find a way to deal with them and set boundaries for them. A system helps.

Back in the days of Photo One, photography studio owners asked me to solve this problem for them. To the studio shooter, the most valuable revenue-creation time was in the camera room – ie: behind the camera time with the client in a room full of props, lights and other tools of the studio photographer. When they’re in that room with a client, the value they’re creating can create revenue for years, so the last thing they want to happen once they have “warmed up” the subject is to have the rapport / groove interrupted by someone asking where the coffee filters are, or how to process a refund for a charge split across two cards, or similar.

One answer to this is a system that provides answers to “interruption questions”. A studio owner told me that they had an answer / procedures book to deal with this, but they didn’t like the maintenance headache that it caused. This book predated Google docs and wikis, so they edited everything in Microsoft Word (or similar) and then printed the answers / procedures and put them in a three-ring binder.

The process established in the studio was to consult the book if you didn’t know the answer, then ask your manager and only then could the shooter in the camera room be interrupted. That interruption was OK only if it couldn’t wait until the camera room appointment was over. Obviously, this becomes a training issue at first so that the proper habits are established. Beyond that point, the book should get updated with one-off requests quickly so that camera room interruptions fall off quickly.

Make sure your minutiae cure is scalable

The studio owner came to me because they had a big studio and one book wasn’t enough. They needed multiple copies, but managing all the changes was a chore. Since most of the users were lusing Photo One all day, it made perfect sense to include the equivalent of “the answer book” within our software. That allowed anyone to get to it, plus the answer book functionality in the software allowed them to print a copy of the book so there were always printed copies available.

Resources like this can provide answers to questions, as well as step by step checklists or processes that allow the owner and managers to get things done the way they want, even if they aren’t available. One memorable example was “How to arm the alarm at end of day”. Do this wrong and you have no security or incorrect security. Do it right and the owner / manager gets some slack and the employee builds confidence in their ability to close the shop for the day.

A wiki, a FAQ, anything

These days, a custom desktop software feature like that really isn’t necessary because it’s so easy to build something like this into the private side of your company’s website as an internal wiki or frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) page. These assets are valuable not only for managers and your subject matter experts (SME) who get interrupted by such questions, but also for new employees or temps who come into your shop and need a resource other than “Ask Jennifer” umpteen times per week.

The last time I started getting overwhelmed by these things, I started writing down the context of the interruptions. That allowed me to see trends, identify what needed to be documented and get out of interruptionville.