Archive for November, 2010

The value of monotonous rituals

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Scott Belsky penned a terrific article at The 99% on how the ritual of writing out a to-do list helps some people stay productive. Here’s how he describes the ritual of Bob Greenberg, the CEO of the digital agency R/GA:

Despite his digital interests, Greenberg’s productivity tools are entirely analog. He uses a paper agenda with a series of lists written at the top that he writes every single day. In the morning, Greenberg will manually bump uncompleted tasks from the previous day to the current day. He also re-writes the names of key clients and other areas of focus; often transcribing the same names again and again, daily, for weeks if not months or years. . . . By manually bumping a certain task every day, he feels that it is incomplete. He is faced with the reality and forced to either complete the task, delegate it, or bump it again.

I see a clear parallel between this ritual and the process of 5S in a manufacturing environment. You can’t engage in a thorough 5S program without looking at every physical item and determining its purpose and value. The same is true with the information you manage.

You need to sift through the accumulated flotsam and jetsam of your day — the scribbled notes, the emails, phone calls, and hallway conversations, the random thoughts that occur to you while getting your coffee — and identify what has value and what doesn’t. Applying 5S to the information you handle (or, in Greenberg’s world, re-writing his daily lists) means making decisions about what to do with it. Whether you choose to act upon it now, defer action for a later date, or finally give up on it, you’re actively assessing your work and analyzing your needs. It’s this analysis that will give you greater clarity about what’s required on a daily basis to move forward with your responsibilities.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of writing and re-writing the same tasks. I think it’s far better to put a stake in the ground and set a target date for action or completion. But I do respect Greenberg’s focus on creating visibility for his work and forcing himself to make mindful decisions about what he’s going to do. Too often we act unthinkingly, reacting in a Pavlovian fashion to the latest stimulus. And that’s a recipe for failure.

Choice kills.

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Choice kills.

Okay, that’s a bit dramatic. But as Bob Pozen (chairman emeritus of MFS Investment Management, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, and board member of Medtronics and Nielsen) demonstrates, eliminating complexity and making choices simpler can go a long way towards keeping you focused on your strategic goals.

In a recent HBR blog piece, Pozen explains how he makes he reduces the number of choices he has to make.

On a daily basis, I try to keep the material aspects of life as simple as possible. I get up every morning around 7 a.m., shave, shower and dress by 7:15 a.m. Then I read two newspapers while having breakfast and leave around 7:30 a.m. The night before I set out what I’m going to wear. I have five winter outfits and five summer outfits to simplify my life. I get up, take a shower the same way, and sit in the same place to tie my shoes. I basically eat the same thing for breakfast every morning in the same place at our kitchen table. I’m very boring in the morning.

This is a common theme among prolific people. I’ve written before about the way Stephen King gets himself ready for work:

There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places.

Sheena Iyengar, Columbia University professor and author of The Art of Choosing, designed a famous study in which she demonstrated that too much choice is paralyzing: after we hit about seven items, it’s too difficult for our brains to sift through the competing options. As a result, we default to the easiest choice: doing nothing. And since doing nothing at the office is usually frowned upon by your boss, the default choice usually ends up being email, instead of real work. (Incidentally, this is another reason why I’m not a big fan of the infinite to-do list: too many options makes it difficult to settle upon the things you really need to do.)

Mark Graban once wrote that

I’ve heard Toyota people say you want to eliminate the hundreds of LITTLE repetitive decisions so that the person involved can focus on the FEW major decisions with a fresh mind that’s not fatigued from constant decision making.

You may not want to go to Pozen’s extremes — you may want to have more options in the morning than Cheerios or Life cereal — but it’s worth thinking about what you can do to reduce choice, routinize what can be routinized, and free yourself up to make complex decisions.

Hacking Work

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Stop doing stupid stuff because that’s the way it’s always been done. Stop using crappy tools because that’s what the company offers. Stop following inane rules because that’s the policy.

Over at AMEX Open Forum, Matt May brought the concept of “hacking work” to my attention. He interviewed Bill Jensen (author of Hacking Work) about this idea — because let’s face it: in a lousy economy where people feel lucky just to have a paycheck, breaking corporate rules doesn’t seem like the smartest thing to do.

Jensen explains that

overall, the design of work sucks, and a lot of stupid rules persist. The tools we use in life have leapfrogged over the ones we use at work. What available for people to do their work is out of sync with what they really need to do their best. . . . People are being asked to do their work with a massive anchor wrapped around their leg. In today’s economy, that anchor—the corporate-centered design of work—is making it really hard for everyone to keep their jobs, let alone do their best work.

Jensen provides two examples of hacking that illustrate his idea:

we know of one manager couldn’t get her customer-focused project approved, even though the senior team declared customer focus as a strategic priority. So she secretly videotaped customer complaints (that her project would address) and posted them on YouTube. The public outcry was so huge that the senior team quickly reversed their decision, not only approving her project, but they actually increased her budget.

Or take the trainer that told all her trainees that she knew her mandatory courses “sucked” due to circumstances beyond her control—several years of zero funding—so she sent everyone to free online courses outside of the company, tested them on what they learned, and validated their certificates in courses they never attended.

Jensen is passionate about hacking. He believes that it’s practically a moral imperative for the engaged employee to try to improve his or her work. Doing stupid stuff and following pointless rules is a soul-sucking waste of time and energy.

A few months ago, I started an online “community A3” project to figure out how to eliminate the waste of crappy meetings. One of the participants figured out that their team (like groups in most companies) had their meetings on a “push” basis: they scheduled meetings with a certain frequency and followed that schedule regardless of need. They shifted to a “pull” mode — meetings were only held when needed to solve customer problems — and reduced their collective meeting burden by 1/3. It wasn’t the “way things are done here,” but they freed up 56 hours per month to actually solve problems.

Matt points out that the hacker spirit is really another way to describe the mindset at Toyota, where people are constantly trying to find ways to banish waste and unnecessary work. So whether you call it “hacking work,” or “A3 thinking,” or “kaizen,” the point is to stop doing stupid stuff so that you can do great work.

“A wealth of information creates a paucity of attention.”

Monday, November 8th, 2010

Tachi Yamada, the president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program, mentioned last year how important it is to be 100% present when you’re with someone:

I don’t have a mobile phone turned on because I’m talking to you. I don’t want the outside world to impinge on the conversation we’re having. I don’t carry a BlackBerry. I do my e-mails regularly, but I do it when I have the time on a computer. I don’t want to be sitting here thinking that I’ve got an e-mail message coming here and I’d better look at that while I’m talking to you. Every moment counts, and that moment is lost if you’re not in that moment 100 percent.

Recently I gave a presentation to the MBAs at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I was amazed by the pressure the students felt to be constantly connected and to respond instantly to email messages. And remember, these were students, not heart surgeons.

Why is it so difficult for us to simply be in the moment, wherever we are? (Incidentally, I’m not setting myself above the rest of humanity here, by the way — I fight the same urge to continually play with my iPhone and check email as everyone else.) But as Marty Neumeir, author of The Designful Company says,

A wealth of information creates a paucity of attention.

Dr. Yamada’s point about every moment counts reminds me of my friend Paul’s comment that there are no rollover minutes in life. When that moment is gone, it’s gone. With so much information around us, it’s terribly easy to stop paying attention to what’s in front of us.

What would happen if you played with Barbies?

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

I’m working with a company whose managers regularly put in 12 or 14 hour days. They stay at the office till late or bring home a big pile of work. No choice about it, they say — there’s just too much to do.

That made me think (again) about Terry Gross’s interview with Jon Stewart. Stewart not only explained how he and his team use a seriously structured process to plow through the vast quantities of media and write all those jokes each day, he also talked about how he places a hard stop at the end of each day when he goes home.

Terry Gross: You work so hard on the show. It’s so obvious how much work you put into writing and performing it and how long your day must be and how it probably never ends, particularly doing an event like this rally [the Rally to Restore Sanity].

Jon Stewart: You’d be surprised how easily I turn it off when I go home.  I’ve gotten really good at when I go home, the kids and I watch “Wizards of Waverly Place,” and I don’t think about it again.

TG: Have you changed the amount of time you’re willing to devote to the show and to work now that you’re the father of two?

JS: What I have decided is when I’m home, I’m home. And to me, that’s the difference. You know, I can’t not be at work but the real challenge is when I’m at work, I’m at work. I’m locked in, I’m ready to go, I’m focused. When I’m at home, I’m locked in and I’m ready to go and I’m focused on home. And we don’t watch the show. We don’t watch the news. We don’t do any of that stuff. I sit down, I play Barbies, and then sometimes the kids will come home and play with me and then….

So here’s Stewart — a comedian — with both a rigorous process to write jokes and a total focus on the job at hand. “Locked in, ready to go.” And that combination allows him to go home and play with Barbie dolls (with or without his kids).

How about your day? My guess is that you don’t have such a structured process for your work, nor do you have such single-minded focus on your job. (I know that I don’t.) And as a result, when you go home, you bring your work with you. At the very least, you check email at night — and you probably do a whole lot more.

Okay, I know that your job is so different from Stewart’s, that you get urgent emails that have to be answered at once, that the company will very likely collapse without a steady stream of your trenchant business insights.

And yet.

Isn’t it possible that the very reason you need to handle email at 11:30pm is because you’re not totally focused during the day? Or conversely, isn’t is possible that your willingness (even if it’s somewhat reluctant) to answer email at 11:30pm is part of the reason that you don’t have that focus?

I’ve written before (here and here) about what Toyota calls “lowering the water level” — reducing the inventory/resources in a system to expose the problems. What would happen if you lowered the water level by reducing the time you spent at work, and instead committed to getting locked in, ready to go, and totally focused on being home?

Isn’t worth an experiment?