Categories
Employees Entrepreneurs Ideas Improvement

Feeling stuck?

Without a plan and a strategy to implement that plan, we’ll always be slaves to economic factors beyond our control. – Anonymous

I don’t know where I originally found that quote. I keep a list of quotes in Evernote and this one was dated 10 years ago. Regardless, it makes a good point, particularly if your job and financial situation have you feeling like you have no control over what happens next.

You do have some control, though it may seem so small at the moment that you might discount it as meaningless. Don’t.

Most people feel stuck at some level, but you may feel like you’d prefer someone else’s “brand” of stuck to yours. Most likely, there’s someone who would prefer your current situation to theirs. In both cases, we’d prefer to extract ourselves from the current level of stuck, whatever that might be.

Why “stuck”?

While the idea of “being a slave to economic factors” seems like a fairly clear message, I prefer to be a bit more precise with my words. The “being a slave” simply isn’t accurate, and it ignores rather vast differences between actually being a slave and the pressure, inconvenience, and discomfort of feeling subject to the whims of the economy.

An obvious difference: Your boss isn’t going to shoot you if you quit working for their company, even if you can’t financially afford to quit. While you and your family will probably suffer substantial inconvenience and discomfort until a few months after things get back to whatever normal is, it’s not the same as being a slave.

“Feeling stuck” is a more accurate description, isn’t comparable to slavery, and is relatable. If someone comments about their job, their boss, a downturn in their industry, their pay, the impact of a new tariff, etc – they feel like they have no choice. They’ll almost certainly answer “Yes” if you ask them if they feel stuck.

Figure out what’s next

One of the mistakes we make when we’re stuck is that we look at the ultimate destination as the place we want to be and declare that our goal without considering all the destinations we’ll pass through on our journey to that goal.

There’s nothing wrong with that. We’re really good at adapting. When we take a punch, we usually change our behavior. While we may not avoid taking another punch, we prefer not to take the same one repeatedly.

We’re going to have to tolerate milestones along the way. It’s not much different from earning a new skill. A year from now, we’ll laugh or shake our heads at how naive / uninformed our original grandiose thoughts were. It’s much the same as when we look back on our abilities of a few years ago and realize how much we’ve learned.

We may decide somewhere along the journey that we want something a little bit different. The industry might change, we might select a slightly more interesting, appreciative, or better-funded customer segment. We may find something else that attracts us and makes our direction veer a bit to the left or right.

I don’t know the first step!

When I said figure out what’s next, I don’t mean the ultimate goal. Just get started and take the first step. Until you do, you’re still stuck.

That’s how journeys work.

Even if you don’t know what the first step of your journey should be, you can’t let that stop you from taking it.

Start by reverse engineering a path from where you want to end up back to where you are now. What’s the last milestone before you get to your ultimate goal? What has to happen before you get to the next to that milestone? Repeat that process until it leads all the way back to where you are now.

Now you have a first milestone and for now, a set of directions. It’s possible this set of directions and milestones won’t change. It’s critical that you expect change along the way. Your needs, wants, and motivations may change. That’s OK.

Being stuck is hard

There are many unknowns. There will be time spent outside your comfort zone. You’ll feel pressure from family, parents, peers, etc. Most of them aren’t the ones who are stuck. You are. It’s your goal, not theirs.

Getting unstuck is hard work. So is being stuck. Which would you prefer?

Photo by Tomas Tuma on Unsplash

Categories
Improvement Management Manufacturing

The benefits of speed

For years, Dan Kennedy has said “Money loves speed.” He’s usually referring to making decisions and implementing things quickly, rather than falling prey to “Good is the enemy of perfect” (among other things). This is not speed for the sake of speed, however. The benefits of speed in the right circumstances, under the right conditions, are worth examining. You may find that you can’t increase speed without negatively impacting quality or safety. In those situations, I’d pull back on efforts to increase speed. Below, I discuss a few situations and opportunities that I hope will spur some ideas that will help you find places to increase the speed of your business activities.

Military time… and yours

A tank that can be refueled in one hour is more effective against an enemy than a tank that can be refueled in two hours. The same can be said for equipment not used in battle, like your lawn service’s mowers, or a delivery truck – even though defeating an “enemy” is not your goal. Similar effectiveness can be gained from a mower that can run twice as long, either because it consumes less fuel per hour, or because it has twice the fuel capacity of a similar mower.

During World War II’s Battle of Britain, British pilots who survived being shot down in morning were frequently back in another plane and in the air defending England that afternoon. German recovery crews had to travel much longer distances to recover a pilot and get them back in action. In addition, they had to have long range fighters so that pilots could fly to England, attack, and return back to Germany. These speed, distance, and equipment requirements thankfully had them at a disadvantage.

Is there anyone who hasn’t been parked at a point of sale counter, hotel front desk, or similar as an employee waited on a computer to perform some task necessary to allow us to check in, complete a purchase, etc? Some companies seem to be on a never-ending quest to improve these experiences. They know that customers want the shorter wait times in line. They’ve seen customers get frustrated and leave a store due to long lines. Meanwhile, other companies seem to ignore these counterproductive point of sale speed and usability problems, much less the long lines they can cause.

Sometimes, you have to temporarily slow down in order to speed up. A wobbly wheel will shake a car (and its passengers) to pieces, make the car less safe to drive, and prevent the car from reaching higher speeds. Taking a few minutes to stop and tighten or change the wheel costs a few minutes, but pays off in safer, faster driving. A simple example, but it begs the question: What’s wobbly, sketchy, or less than dependable at your business?

Downtime

Downtime is a speed issue as well, since you can’t get much slower than zero. Every time you eliminate or reduce downtime, there’s a corresponding increase in speed. The great thing about downtime is that much of it is preventable, whether it relates to computers, processes, or boat trailers.

Downtime hides in places you might not expect. Electricity. Disk space. Oil. Anti-freeze. Drive belts. Spare drive belts. Tools in vehicles. Flashlights in vehicles. Better warehouse lighting. Better training. Prevention has a solid ROI. Ask your team about processes, situations, and equipment that fails. Remember – injuries count too. Your people know where the dangerous places in your business are. Ask them, not only for where these things are, but also for ideas on how to address them.

Supply chain problems have a way of creating downtime as well. When you run out of raw materials due to order errors, delays, mistakes, or really – any reason, production grinds to a halt. Zero speed, particularly in a production environment, has a high cost. If you send people home because you’re out of raw materials, you not only miss out on the work getting produced, you also risk losing skilled people who probably weren’t easy to find. Most supply chain errors are preventable. Your team can help identify ways to deal with these problems, so be sure to ask if they’ve seen these issues before and have been involved in resolving them. Either way, take advantage of their experience and insight.

There is one place where speed isn’t recommended: Hiring.

Photo by toine G on Unsplash

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
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
Customer service Improvement Management Software business

When customer service consumes a business

Recently a software business came to me looking for some help with sales emails. During the initial discussion, they hinted at being a bit overloaded on support. While explaining the big picture situation that provoked their request about the emails, they revealed some details about support tying up development. This was also keeping them from attending to sales. Thus, the emails needed to improve so that sales can improve without needing quite so many phone calls to people wearing a sales hat right that minute, when they needed to be wearing a different hat.

When the phone rings, it’s important

You might wonder why the same people are doing sales and support. If so, you probably don’t have a small company anymore. Think back to how things were when your company had four or five people juggling business development / sales, customer service and whatever else you have to do.

Three calls come in at about the same moment. All three get answered by the four or five people you have. This is standard operating procedure in a small business. We do what has to be done with what we’ve got at that moment. When the phone rings at a company that maybe doesn’t know with absolute certainty where next month’s revenue is coming from – every ring sounds like “ka-ching”, either whether the money is heading in or out. The phone gets priority.

The idea seemed to be that better emails might reduce the demands on the folks trying to juggle sales and support. While that might be true, it’s the wrong problem, even though I totally understand why it’s the focus. Sales feeds the bulldog, folks.

The trouble with priorities

Jim Rohn once said that every time you say yes, you’re saying no to something else. Customer service calls can consume every moment of your day… week… life. Yes, they can literally consume the rest of your life.

Why? Because your priorities need to be adjusted.

Look, I’ve been there. I know those service calls have to be handled. I know you base your reputation on the quality of your support. But you’re missing the big picture, and I’m that guy who in this very spot has written many times about lame service and differentiating service and so on. I’m not waffling on that, but when support becomes all consuming, it means your priorities need to be adjusted.

It’s time to sit down with the sales, support, development and management teams. You might not do software, so you may have a manufacturing, installation, customization, and/or deployment team. Whatever. Point is, this is not solely a software business issue.

Customer service eats the world

Like a fire consumes all the oxygen it can, that’s also how service loads can work. Certainly you’ve heard “Your call is important to us, please hold for the next available agent, blah blah blah“. Normally, this means that a large company has understaffed their customer service department and simply won’t admit it, so they tell you they’re experiencing “unusually high call volumes”. Yep, sure they are.

Sometimes it means something else is going on, such as the entire internet is down, or Metallica announced an extra show, or similar.

The point is that this is the nature of customer service. It can and will eat the world unless you make an intentional effort to eliminate the need for it.

Eliminate customer service?

Yes. Eliminate it. Not the department. The need.

When ELIMINATING the need for service is the goal, everything changes.

Imagine if you told the people who write your user manual that you were giving them a new goal: Eliminate the need for a user manual.

Next, tell your folks in shipping (or on the dock) that all shipping customer service calls will go to whoever packed the box.

Finally, tell your product development / install / deploy / customization team that  all customer service product questions will go directly to whoever made it.

After they finished howling at you, they’d ask why, how and so on.

Try something like this: “Let’s build something that people can use without asking for help.”

It completely changes how they think about what they do, much less how they do it. What about new users? What about experienced users? What about power users? Which one of those users does the dev team focus on now? Probably none of them.

It also completely changes how & what you manage.

 

Photo by Kay Kim(김기웅)

Categories
Improvement Management

Ever asked WHY you’ve always done it that way?

In the programming world, there’s a term called “technical debt”. Technical debt is refers to work created by existing systems, processes and methods. You might call it maintenance, upkeep, re-work, refactoring, re-design, etc.

The term “technical debt” is typically used when discussing programming, but as a friend reminded me a week or so ago – programming doesn’t own it. It’s about any process, whether it’s new or has been around a while.

For legacy processes and methods (and yes, programs), the key phrase is “we’ve always done it this way”. For new techniques, processes, infrastructure and programming, a critical concern is planning, design and creation that intentionally minimizes the creation of more technical debt.

Technical debt appears, like it or not

Think about the handwringing that decision makers face when they find that a road, bridge, or other infrastructure requires substantial maintenance to continue to allow it to remain in public use. This tends to happen years after repeatedly putting off regular maintenance that used to be performed routinely.

Often times this situation is created because the work was set aside because of a shortfall, and sometimes because the funds were re-directed to another project in the same department. When this happens for a decade (or several), the costs of “catching up” are immense. They’re a form of technical debt – a particularly ugly form that can overwhelm an agency budget. The same can happen to a company that fails to maintain and update their processes, systems, and methods.

While it’s easy to say “Don’t create anything you can’t afford to maintain”, you often have no choice in the matter when “the thing” was created several generations ago (such as public infrastructure), or at a time preceding your arrival at the company with looming technical debt.

So what do you do?

“No one likes change, but everyone likes improvement.”
Chris Hogan

Deal with “Always done it that way”

Do you still do it “that way” because:

  • It’s so much cheaper this way?
  • It’s far more efficient?
  • You regularly review alternatives and those reviews have (so far) shown that the current process still works best.

As you might expect, the third answer is still a reason why your process hasn’t changed.

Even if your processes are reviewed regularly and are up to par, it’s important that your existing systems, methods are not only solid for existing uses, but ready to meet the challenges of systems and processes now under development – much less those being considered. A review of systems that fails to review readiness for the next three to five years of operation isn’t doing you any favors.

There will be investment to bring existing systems up to the standards needed to work with your next big thing. It’ll be expensive and time-consuming, perhaps seeming insurmountable. That’s no reason to let it sit unaddressed. even more important to minimize creation of new technical debt.

Triage and chip away

People get defensive about technical debt, so you have to be careful how it’s discussed. As with so many things, it isn’t about blame. It’s about improvement. The way it was done “back then” was very likely the best way at the time. Most of us (hopefully almost all of us) are smarter than we were five or ten years ago. When we look back at work we did years ago, does anyone think it’s as good as it should be when viewed through today’s eyes? Rarely. We all make the best decisions we can at that time with the info and resources we have. 20 years later, we may seem much smarter, but we have the benefit of the passage of time.

Prioritize / triage the technical debt in the context of your future. If improved and readied for your projected needs three to five years from now, what existing systems, processes and/or methods will have the greatest impact on the work you’ll do during that period? Chip away at that.

There will be people who need to be convinced. There will be some who see the challenges as insurmountable. There will be some in the middle of the road, waiting to see. Choose a small but important project, involve your influencers, and start getting some small wins. Use them to create momentum. Give your people and the work time to rise to expectations. Photo by ustung

Categories
Improvement Management quality

When problem solving, look for simple solutions

Problem solving discussions on news broadcasts, in newspaper op-eds, on social media, and in political speeches have a consistent thread: “We can fix it by changing (one thing).

Most problems are not particularly simple. Societal and economic problems are incredibly complex, even in a small community. Winning a game of chess against Bobby Fischer or IBM’s Watson might be easier.

As a result, problems usually require a multi-faceted approach. Unfortunately, that often tempts us to eliminate any “one thing” strategy under the presumption that it’s ineffective, naive, or “too simple”.

Problem solving cause & effect

Rotary has for decades funded and built simple hand pump water wells in villages where there’s no dependable, convenient source of clean water. Many other organizations do similar water projects.

Does convenient access to a dependable source of water (ie: eliminating a three hour round trip hike) solve 100% of a third-world village’s problems? No. However, gaining easy access to clean, disease-free water for a village’s people is comparable to the impact of U.S. rural electrification projects of the mid 1900s. Electrification didn’t solve every rural problem, but it had a huge positive impact on rural communities.

Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian engineer, sociologist and economist of the late 1800s and early 1900s. While he “invented” modern microeconomics, many recognize his last name thanks to his “Pareto principle” – what we call “the 80/20 rule”. The principle states that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes.

Is it accurate to six decimal places? Probably not. Does it describe cause & effect in 100% of situations? Probably not. Does it describe a large percentage of cause and effect in business and society? Pretty close, I’d say.

If a single, simple strategy or tactic solves 80% of a problem, I’d call that a pretty good start. You may not have implemented a perfect solution, but you’ve made a boatload of progress.

Expectations matter

Managed expectations go a long way when solving problems.

Name the last time you solved a problem with a single solution and that solution performed perfectly 100% of the time, in every possible scenario so far – and can reasonably be expected to continue solving the problem in the foreseeable future.

A simple solution is often dismissed because it doesn’t solve the problem 100% of the time, or in 100% of scenarios where the problem can occur.

The “Do Not Call” system is a good example. Elected officials seem to agree that robocalls, cloaked and spoofed calls need to stop. Yet they’ve done nothing about it and continue to exempt themselves from existing robocall legislation.

While technology, laws, and a few vendors make it very difficult for us to solve 100% of this, you can solve 80% of it by using a Google Phone number when you don’t expect or want that party to call you. This is particularly true when the data is somewhat publicly accessible, such as voter or website domain registrations.

Google Phone will take those calls / texts, letting you avoid numerous unwanted interruptions via your cell.

Refining problem solving

Most solutions won’t resolve 100% of a problem’s scenarios. If they do, they’re often incredibly expensive, difficult to implement, hard to use, or all three. Even so, edge cases still find their way in.

Despite that, 80% isn’t always enough. Instead of looking for perfect solutions, try iteration. If your first simple solution solved 75 to 80% of the situation, look at what’s left.

What additional simple change can you make to fix the majority of the remaining situations? If you have 100 problem situations, your first 80 / 20 solution leaves 20 situations to resolve. Solving 80% of the leftovers leaves only FOUR percent.

Look at that again: Two simple solutions take you from 100% to four percent.

If you need to, refine again. At some point, the ROI of the next solution will tell you it’s time to move on to other problems.

Imagine that a single tweak to your sales process results in closing 80% of the sales you weren’t closing. Or that a single change in your manufacturing process reduces costs, in-use failure, or warranty claims by 80%. Neither are 100% solutions, but I doubt too many would object to that level of improvement.

If your approach to problem solving starts by looking for simple solutions, testing, implementing and iterating, the number of problems you face and the time and expense invested in dealing with them is going to shrink significantly.

What would you do with that newfound time and money?

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
Employees Improvement Leadership Management Small Business

What halftime advice would you give your staff?

If you look back at recent comeback victories in sports, you have to wonder about the halftime advice those teams received. In Super Bowl 51, the Patriots were down 21-3, yet came back to win. The second half performance of both teams looked nothing like their performance in the first half. What did it take in the locker room to get the Patriots to turn that around? What was said in the Falcons locker room? After weeks of preparation, what can be said and done in 20 minutes that can radically turn around the performance of a team of professionals to such a degree that they overwhelm another team of professionals?

Halftime isn’t just about comebacks. It’s a chance to review and adjust, which we all should be doing after a positive or negative outcome to most business activities. For a football team ahead by a lot (as the Falcons were), what has to be said to prevent that sort of letdown? Teams come into halftimes needing to be reminded that they deserve to be there, that they can come back, that they are capable of doing what got them there, and that each individual is a piece of something bigger.

It’s no different in your business. The concept of a game’s halftime doesn’t necessarily align well with the events on the timeline of a company’s life, but that doesn’t matter. There are always turning points in projects, products, careers, marketing campaigns, etc. Projects and products both have natural “halftimes”. They look like points in time where it makes sense to stop, assess, adjust and re-engage.

Team and company are interchangeable concepts. Whether teams win or lose, the best ones get together afterward to review what happened, both positive and negative, and what can be learned. Military units review after action reports (AAR) for the same reason. They ask the question: “How can we improve upon what just happened?” regardless of whether it was good or bad.

Looking back to Lombardi

Every Vince Lombardi speech covers fundamentals. He knew he was dealing with professionals. Their performance occurs at a level most never reach. They see and understand parts of the game that amateurs and “mere TV viewers” cannot. For the very best, the game “slows down” as if everyone else moves in slow motion so they are able to arrive at a critical location on the field with perfect timing. Lombardi knew this, yet repeatedly returned to fundamentals.

Is there a lesson in that for your team? Do your best staffers remember and execute fundamental behaviors more frequently than everyone else?

What halftime advice do you give a team who had a great month?

Your team had a great month. Now what?

What changed month-over-month that made last month so great? What performances stood out as the keys to making that happen? What short list of behaviors or tactics can be identified that were essential to the month’s outcome? What should be focused on so that your team can reproduce that performance? Who learned something that they leveraged into a successful outcome? Who stopped doing something and noticed an improvement as a result? What systemic changes can we implement to make this month’s success more easily reproducible?

What halftime advice do you give a team who had a bad month?

Your team had a terrible month. Now what?

What historically key success behaviors are still valid and were not achieved last month? What happened that threw us off our game? How do we correct those things? What systemic changes can be made to automatically prevent those problems from reoccurring? Who needs help meeting performance expectations? Who needs a mentor? Who needs coaching? What fundamental behaviors fell off last month and need to be improved? How can we remind each team member of fundamentals that we assume will be performed? What distracted us this month? Has everyone’s performance fallen off, or only certain groups?

Call a timeout

Halftime provides a natural break in the action to reflect, assess, adjust and re-engage. For a company, use them like a timeout. When things aren’t heading in the right direction, don’t wait. Call a timeout. Step in, discuss what’s going wrong (and well), share what you’ve learned, advise and re-engage. Are the staffers who are failing following the plan? Are the staffers who are succeeding following the plan? Is the plan failing?

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/usaghumphreys/

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Competition Improvement Small Business The Slight Edge

Let someone help

This past week seems to have been a perfect storm of paths crossing about getting help from coaches, mentors and teachers.

In the past, I have suggested a few times that you should seek out help from those who have been where you are, struggled with some of the same things – and let them help you overcome them. These stories are no different. The key is letting them in.

Three little things

In the elevator at a trade show, a guy tells me he got off the golf course that day – playing in a tournament at a trade show. He said he had a pretty good day on the links – was driving straight and long. Despite that, one of the guys playing with him was out-driving him by over 100 yards on every hole. They were on the same team, so the very long driver (who also happened to be a scratch golfer) suggested that the guy I shared the elevator with could improve his game by tweaking “three little things”.

Despite being a pretty good golfer, elevator guy said “Sure, I’ll give them a try.” Before that day on the course was over, these three little things made an almost-instant improvement in his accuracy, consistency and distance. His improvement before the round was substantial enough to mention it hours later in an elevator.

What three little things are awaiting your arrival at a place where you are ready to listen and learn?

Mister C

Recently in a local paper, the retirement of a long time English teacher was announced. A guy who was lauded for coaching oh so many state speech and debate championship teams, for making high school English the best class of the day, and for being far more than “just a teacher” to many students. When the story of his retirement hit Facebook, a number of students posted multiple paragraphs long thank yous about the impact this teacher had on them – in some cases, despite never having him as a teacher. One of the stories that went unmentioned was about a student who was struggling with a number of things – including some typical teenage angst with authority figures – and went out of his way to challenge the teacher via their work. Rather than handle this with more authority and repression as many of us might, this teacher created an environment that allowed the student to find their way, gain respect for the teacher and eventually recognize that teacher as their mentor – and a role model to guide them along with their parents. Eight to ten years later, the respect is still there. While Mister C is more than a coach to a generation of students, he’s very good at that too.

What would a serious coach with high expectations ask you to do to improve yourself? If you know these things need to be done – why haven’t you done them?

Sometimes you have to ask

People won’t always offer unsolicited advice – at least not the ones who you’d really like to get it from. Many of them are used to being asked for their help, only to see it go unused or ignored. Quite often, their help will come with terms. They might be living highly scheduled lives and will need a commitment from you to meet during the only time they have available. Consider it a gift that someone with this much going on is willing to let you into their sphere.

I’m doing ok, I don’t need a coach

Even if you’re the best in town, you might not be the best in the state. If you’re the best in the state, you might not be the best in your national market. No matter how good you are, there are always coaches, mentors and others to learn from. Most of them have a knack for observing things about your performance, methods and practices that you might not notice, or might not see the importance of. That’s what their insight is for – to help you see the things you can’t see on your own.

The things you pick up from someone who has gone beyond where you are will often be little, but transformative things. Prepare yourself mentally to let someone like this into your life so they can help you become an even better version of you.