Category Archives: Task Completion

Every Day

I read an article about Jerry Seinfeld the other day. In it he was discussing some of the secrets to his success. Now obviously they can’t be secrets if he is openly discussing them, so maybe we should refer to them as some of the tenets he adhered to in the pursuit of his goals. Perhaps tenets would be considered too strong a word for describing his approach to applying himself to his comedy craft. However you would like to describe what he did along his road to success, he boiled it down to a simple phrase. He did something every day.

The example he used related to his writing. Whether he was writing for his stand up routines or the ubiquitous “Seinfeld” show, he wrote every day. That was his goal. He didn’t set the goal to write a joke, or even a good joke. He didn’t need to pound out a chapter in his book, or a scene for the show. He didn’t even need to make sure that what he wrote was good or used in any of his multiplicity of ventures. He just needed to write.

He knew that by getting started his ability and talent would take over. Some days would be better than others and the output of a higher quality. He knew that by the continued application of his effort he would continue to improve across the board. Eventually the output from his bad days would be better than the output of his earlier good days. The objective was the activity, not some specific amount of output. He knew the output would come if he achieved his goal of doing something.

I thought this was an interesting approach to doing ones work.

I, like many others am something of a goal oriented worker. I like to set the bar at a specific and acknowledged height and then either leap over it, or find an equally impressive way to limbo under it. One day it might be a graceful hurdle that takes me to the other side of the bar and the next might be a skidding face-plant that takes me sliding under it. Others are more process oriented where they can look to a prescribed set of steps that they can embark on that should result in them getting to the other side of the bar. The Seinfeld approach did not seem to fit into either of these categories. To extend this example it would almost be described as “start moving in the direction of the bar” and eventually you will be on the other side of it.

I think I like this approach because of the daily activity goal. It seems that we spend more and more of our time on conference calls and in meetings and in other activities that might be considered to have questionable value-add in the conduct of our business responsibilities. We seem to have reached a point where we have to consider the output of these conference calls and meetings as part of our business responsibilities, even though we seem to achieve very little in the way of definable progress in them.

It would be at times like these where I would start to apply the “Every Day” business scenario. The idea here would be that leaders in the various disciplines that they are responsible for, would need to set a goal of doing some work in their discipline that is additive in moving that discipline forward.

For example, research and development leaders would need to make sure that every day they do something that furthers the research and development of the business. That does not mean reporting on their team’s progress, nor does it mean explaining to management what the latest development release is looking like. It means doing something directly associated with furthering an aspect of a products research or development. Sales leaders would need to spend time each day actually selling, not reporting or tracking, etc. Operations leaders would need to set time every day to work on how to improve their business’ efficiency.

This is obviously pretty simple stuff, but business in its proper form in not necessarily complex. After all, how many times have we heard people say that they are so busy that they don’t seem to be able to get their real work done? What Seinfeld seemed to have found was that the focus should not be on getting the real work done, but rather getting started on the real work. He realized that the getting done part of it would actually take care of itself.

On the surface this seems a little counter-intuitive to me, but the more I think about it, the more comfortable I get with it.

It seems that leadership roles have a tendency to attract a significant number of non-productive and “office-trappings” types of responsibilities. These functions usually take the form of making and presenting status reports, attending peer team meetings and calls to assure coordination, reviewing, approving or denying requests, and other similar such activities. I am hard pressed to find a way to associate these responsibilities with leadership, other than in how fast one can discharge and complete them and get back to the real functionality and responsibility of the business at hand.

Unfortunately it seems that as leaders matriculate up the corporate chain they may be judged more on how well they perform these attracted functions, and less on how well they actually perform their Research and Development, Sales or Operational responsibilities, to extend the previous example.

This is where “Every Day” would come in to play.

We should all look to find a way to make sure we perform some of the specific activities that are required to further the goals of the business, every day. This does not mean that we should be happy with making progress on the charts for the next business review. It does mean that we should work on something that would eventually need to be reported on in your business review.

Put simply “Every Day” means to me that we don’t need to report on something every day. Every day we need to do something that may need to be reported.

It may end up that it does not need to be reported. It may not provide the expected or desired impact. On the other hand, it might eventually turn out to be a game changing improvement to the business. The point is that none of those things will happen unless you are applying yourself to the objective.

Seinfeld knew that not everything that he wrote was going to be used, or maybe even good. He did however recognize that he would never have anything much less know what was good or not unless he wrote. He saw that the goal should not have been to only write good content, because he could not clearly discern the good from the not so good unless he had them both available to compare. Hence his objective was simply to write.

The analog to this approach that I would choose for leaders in business would be to focus some time every day on the non-administrative work that you and your team are responsible for accomplishing. I know this sounds silly to the point of almost being inane, but
having been through the days where it seemed that the administrivia and process ruled over work and performance, I think it bears repeating: It is easy to get lost in the busy of busy-work and forget to try and accomplish some real work. And it is the real work that needs to get accomplished, every day.

White Boards

There have been a lot of great inventions that I have tried to take advantage over time. A great example of invention progression is the evolution from cassette tapes to audio CDs to MP3 players. It used to be an effort to take your music with you on a trip. Now without a second thought I can bring it along in my smart phone, stick in my ear buds and try to ignore the large guy next to me who is staking claim to take half of my seat in addition to his on the plane while he snores and drools on my shoulder. In business the advent of voicemail, email and PCs has had the beneficial effect of removing both time and distance from the business environment. While I have had cause in the past to point out how these advancements may have been abused or used in ways that they were not intended, they have by and large been beneficial to business. What I want to discuss now is an invention that in my opinion has far outstripped any of them in its importance to business, at least for me – the whiteboard.

The whiteboard is the product of its own technological evolution. It appears to have started out in the open air conference areas of Egypt a few thousand years ago as a granite slab, a hammer and a chisel. During the meeting when you wanted to write something down you chiseled it into the granite. This worked great until you filled up the slab. Erasing was problematic, so you just went and got another slab. This had a tendency to slow ancient Egyptian business meetings down.

Millennia passed and the granite slab was eventually replaced by a sheet of black slate. The writing substrate was still rock based; but it was much more easily erasable and you were much more efficient in that you didn’t need as much of it. The hammer and chisel were likewise replaced by white chalk. This new technology worked so well that blackboards and chalk were placed in almost every school room in the world. These blackboards were heavy, expensive and caused students to try and suck up to teachers by offering to rid the erasers of excess chalk dust outside during recess. Then came colored chalk. While this improved artistic license it did not improve the bottom line.

Black slate boards then gave way to pressed particle boards and chipboards with some sort of sprayed on green, semi-erasable covering. The green boards did not seem to erase quite as cleanly as slate boards, and they still used chalk but the boards were not nearly as heavy and expensive. The expensive, heavy slate chalkboards were then recycled into heavy expensive slate roof shingles which were then used for the roofs of expensive houses. There may be some moral to that story but I can’t quite figure it out. Green boards not only appeared in schools they also started appearing in conference rooms.

Business executives were still not happy in that most of them had a difficult time translating the ideas and information that were expressed with light colored chalk on a dark colored board into ideas and information that they would write as dark colored ink on a white sheet of paper. This light to dark thing seemed to cause a great deal of consternation in the management ranks. The solution to this problem was either to change all business over to using dark paper and pens that wrote in white ink so that the ideas and information would not have to suffer through this color inversion conversion, or create a white surface board for people to write on in the first place. I still believe that we would all be writing on black or green paper with white ink if they had been able to figure out how to mimeograph and photocopy on to dark paper.

The first whiteboards were actually sheets of steel with a white porcelain coating. It was found that the porcelain was so non-porous that it would not absorb any of the ink used to write on it. This allowed it to be erased perfectly clean. Because steel and porcelain were again found to be too heavy and too expensive and probably too efficient, new old substrates such as particleboard and chip board were quickly substituted for the steel sheet and other white, more porous coatings were substituted for porcelain. The fact that these new coatings would partially absorb permanent ink which in time would eventually render them useless seems to have been lost on everyone. These are the ubiquitous whiteboards that we have today.

I am a huge fan of the whiteboard. I have not one, but two of them in my office. I would have more if I could but the corporate facilities drones have told me that would be showy, presumptuous and far above what they consider my current station in the organization. I have thought about scavenging another white board from some other empty office or conference room but my “To Do” list has not yet exceeded its current two whiteboard limit, and I am not that desperate.

I keep an ongoing list and record of the issues, topics, ideas, customers, etc. that I must address on my white boards. This way whenever I have the opportunity to look up I can reassure myself that I have prioritized what needs to get done, and which topic is next to be addressed. As issues are solved they are erased, sort of, since today’s whiteboard coating are now semi-absorbent, and as new items come up I can add them in.

To the casual observer coming into my office, my white boards are impressive. They are covered with cryptic topics and diagrams, all of which are color coded in association with whichever of my multitude of dry erase pens was functional enough to leave a legible image on the whiteboard at the last eureka moment in time where I identified a topic or requirement that I would need to note in order for it to be prioritized and addressed. Some of the topics have been there for a while, meaning they are either immutable / unsolvable issues, or are of such a low priority that I never seem to be able to get around to fixing them. Some are as recent as my last ad-hoc discussion on issues facing the business this week.

I have commented in the past that it is well documented that work expands to fill available time (Parkinson’s Law, C. Northcote Parkinson). Likewise I have had people comment that it appears the number of issues and the size of the writing on my whiteboard seems to increase in proportion to the available room for topics on the whiteboard. The more I think about this the more I am inclined to review it. If this is indeed an accurate white board corollary to Parkinson’s Law, I have an empirical test that I think I will try.

Instead of adding another white board to the brace of them that I currently have, I may actually remove one of them. If the whiteboard corollary to Parkinson’s Law is correct and issues expand to fill available space on a white board, then by removing a whiteboard I should reduce the number of issues I have to deal with. If I take this to the logical extreme and remove both white boards, I should hit the point of optimal performance. Since I will have no white board space where I can write down and capture the issues that I need to deal with, I should therefore have no issues deal with.

Maybe I won’t try that one after all.

What I have found is that I do some of my best work when I am animated. I think many others do too. It is difficult to be animated and to continuously produce quality work when you are sedentarily sitting at a desk and staring at a screen. When I work and even as I write this article, I periodically feel the urge to get up and move around if for no other reason than to become active. Having a whiteboard around allows me to capture topics and ideas during these active times.

Several millennia from now when the future equivalent of today’s Egyptologists are excavating the ruins of my office they too will be trying to decipher the hieroglyphic remnants of the messages that remain on the whiteboards. The difference will be that where we had only one layer of carvings on granite to try and understand the topics and priorities of the ancient Egypt
ians, they will have innumerable partially erased layers of permanent ink on semi-porous whiteboards to try and piece through with us. These future archeologists may also wonder why we created these multistory mausoleums that we inhabit today, where the crypts on each floor were so densely packed. They may also wonder why the walls in each crypt didn’t extend all the way up to the ceiling and we put the whiteboards on the inside of each crypt; when the ancient Egyptians only created the pyramids with walls of stone for their hieroglyphics.

Some might say that we have come a long way.

Preparation


It appears to me that preparation is becoming a lost art. It seems that we always have something better to do than to prepare for what we need to do. Whether it is studying for an upcoming exam, gathering our materials for a pending presentation, coordinating speakers and logistics for a customer visit or familiarizing ourselves with the business specifics for that crucial job interview, it is preparation that lays the groundwork for success. So if preparation is a key ingredient to the success of almost any endeavor, why aren’t more people prepared?



I have noted in the past that business seems to be more enamored with the people I have dubbed “fire fighters”, those people who are called on in times of crisis, than it is with those who quietly go about doing their jobs, being prepared, and avoiding the crises that others are always so willing to deal with. I guess this extends to our entertainment complexes as well. When was the last time that you saw a commercial let alone a television show about fire prevention or crime prevention? I can’t remember one. There are however several shows on about fire fighters and crime fighters.




I am not here to critique a bunch of television shows that I do not bother to watch anyway. I only bring it up as an illustration of what seems to be our preference for drama. Fighting fires is more dramatic than preventing them. This penchant seems to have filtered over into business. In business, as I would assume elsewhere, fighting fires is not more cost effective than preventing them. It might be more dramatic, but it usually takes more time, money and people to fight the fire than it would have to just get prepared and avoid the issue.




So, what has all this discussion about fire fighters have to do with preparation? It’s pretty simple. The best way to avoid fires and other issues is through preparation. If this is the best way to avoid extraneous activities, maintain focus and save money, why don’t more people do it?




The answer is: I don’t know.




Why don’t more sales people take the extra steps in preparing for their customer presentations? Providing the corporate attendees with information on the sales opportunity, products and applications being considered and the status of the sales process enable everyone to understand the customer situation. Written agendas are always appreciated by both those presenting as well as those being presented to. Vetting the topics with the customer prior to the presentation assures that the presentations are on target. Making sure of locations, logistics and equipment availability means that the entire visit will go smooth. This may sound like minutia and detail but these are just the basics.




Providing information and individual profiles of the visiting customers to the corporate attendees and presenters assures that everyone will know who the decision makers and influencers are at the meeting. Providing the titles and responsibilities of the corporate attendees to the customer allows them to understand the responsibilities and qualifications of those that are presenting and talking to them. It also provides each attendee with a written record of who was at the meeting and the role they played. It also provides a location where notes and comments associated with each attendee can be captured. It’s not a lot more work. It is just a little more preparation, but it will make a difference.




How many times have you interviewed a candidate for a position, and had the feeling that they were not entirely prepared? Candidates should not only be versed on the company they are interviewing with in general (as most of them usually are), they should also understand the various and specific markets that the company is in and the primary competitors that the company must deal with. They need to know how the company is doing with respect to these competitors. They should be familiar with the primary senior executives of the firm, as well as any specific programs that have been announced and the progress if any against these goals. Knowledge of the company’s financial performance for the past quarter and past year, as well as the analysts’ expectation of the company’s performance for the next quarter and the next year should also be expected.




All of this type of information is easily available through a number of public sources. However there are always a number of people that want to talk about opportunities and positions, that haven’t taken the time or put in the effort to prepare them with it. If the position is truly desired, this type of preparation is crucial and will differentiate the candidates.




I suppose my point is that preparation takes time and it takes effort. It takes a willingness to do something now that may not be required until some point in time in the future. Good preparation is taking the time and effort to be ready for something that may never be required, but you are ready in the event that it is.




There are innumerable sayings associated with preparation. Most are along the lines of good things happen when preparation and opportunity intersect. Those are nice but I tend toward a little bit more substantial in this case. I think George Washington Carver said it best:




There is no short cut to achievement. Life requires thorough preparation – veneer isn’t worth anything.



I think if we spent a little more time preparing for whatever we deem important, as well as for possible alternatives, we would end up spending lot more time achieving and a lot less time fighting fires. That would probably best be described as progress.

The Impossible


There comes a time in everyone’s career where you are going to be asked to do something that just can’t be done. It’s impossible, and “ask” is a euphemism for “told”. Like the game show “Jeopardy” where the answer is usually put in the form of a question. That doesn’t change the fact that just because you were “asked” doesn’t mean that you have the option to decline the request. You don’t. Regardless of how the directive has been phrased, you have been given an objective. On the first blush it looks like you have been asked to do the impossible. It’s time to get out the blue tights and red cape and get to work.



The art of the impossible is an interesting study in business. When first presented with an impossible task most managers are at a loss as to how to proceed. And as with any major loss there are five stages of grief associated with impossible assignments:





  1. Denial and Isolation. When this initial stage hits, resist the desire to grab the impossible goal assigning manager by the lapels, shirt or throat and shake them while stating the goal is in fact impossible to achieve. This will get you both talked about and visited by HR.

  2. Anger. While the description of Denial and Isolation may sound like anger, it’s not. Anger is what will happen when you sit down and really think about what you have been asked to do. Resist the impulse to scream, throw things and generally trash your office. This too will get you talked about and visited by HR.

  3. Bargaining. Now we are starting to get somewhere. This is the first step in starting to regain control of the situation. Start to explore timeframes, staff and budgets associated with the assignment. What do you have to work with?

  4. Depression. Depression will set in once you understand that you will not have enough time, people or money to accomplish the impossible. You probably won’t even have enough resources to accomplish the difficult or unlikely, let alone the impossible.

  5. Acceptance. The die is cast. You have your orders. You understand your constraints. There is nothing else for you to do but to get to work on the problem. Good luck. The vice president of the business unit will disavow any knowledge of the assignment. This memo will self destruct in five seconds.

When given an impossible assignment it is good idea to remember a few things before you get started. The first is that managers are usually creatures of habit. Leaders are not. This means that impossible assignment managers are limited in their scope and approach when it comes to the types of goals they assign. They only think the assignment is impossible. That’s why they gave it to you instead of solving it themselves. When given the impossible assignment understand from where the assignment was generated, and then quickly dismiss any associated approaches or scope. Incrementing an existing process or method will not get you from existing status quo to new and impossible.



Remember that while most businesses are prone to prattling on about how they encourage and embrace change they are in fact significantly risk averse in nature and will only change when forced to, and then only after significant keening and gnashing of teeth. New ideas and approaches on how to conduct business are not usually rapidly accepted to say the least. There is always a desire to see the new proven out before the old will be changed. The accompanying desire is to usually see the new proven out somewhere else first.




A good example of this phenomenon can be seen in the way most companies select their Chief Executive Officers. It seems that in order to be a CEO, you must have first been a CEO somewhere else. I look at this as the business equivalent of “Catch – 22” in its circular logic. The idea here seems to be that you have to have done the job in the past in order to be able to do the job now. It doesn’t seem to matter if you were an unsuccessful or ineffective CEO. The fact that you were a CEO enables you to be a CEO somewhere else. I think the same “you have to have done it before you get to do it” approach applies to just about every executive level in an organization as well, not just the CEO.




I have digressed, but only a little.




Impossible assignments are usually impossible only from the standpoint of the existing way of thinking or the existing process. In reality the impossible is usually just something that has not yet been done in the current organization, and because it hasn’t been done before it is assumed to be impossible. Impossible assignments are the genesis and catalysts of change in the organization. When management hits the point where the existing methods of business conduct will no longer deliver the results that are needed, an impossible assignment will result.  Leaders should look for these opportunities. They are the opportunity to prove you can do it before you get to do it.




The impossible requires that you take a step back, before you start going forward. It is the desired end state of the impossible that is the key. Once the desired goal is established, it is the decomposition of the logical steps backwards from that goal that will enable you to breakdown what appears to be an impossible leap in the old process into a number of achievable smaller steps in the new method.




Decomposition in the business world is the breaking down of large and complex issues into smaller, more manageable and less complex issues. Once the impossible issue is broken down into its smaller component, possible and solvable issues, the solution can then start to come into focus. This process is similar to the solving of the complex problem of how do you eat an elephant? The solution is one bite at a time.




Now just because you may have solved the problem and put the plan in place that would appear to enable the impossible objective to be achieved, don’t expect it to be immediately or unanimously embraced. There will be those who either have a stake hold in the existing business structure now or those who were unable to solve the impossible assignment in the past that may be reticent to accept the new approach. They may actually want to fight you to the death before they will accept a change in what they are doing or agree with you.




This is the point where your tenacity and self belief will come into play. If you have done the work, solved the problem and believe in your solution to what was once believed to be but no longer is impossible, you will need to continue to push forward. It may take a sustained force of will to see it through. It will require you to risk your credibility on your belief in your own work. While achieving the impossible may in fact be possible, it is usually never easily implemented or rapidly adopted.




Look for a method to test your approach and solution on a smaller scale to prove it out. No one will have more riding on a successful outcome than you, so you will need to maintain personal oversight and involvement in the test implementation. Most importantly, do not take no for an answer. If you have just succeeded in doing the impossible, are you really going to stop short of success just because someone said no?



The impossible is assigned every day. Solutions to the impossible do not arrive every day. Of the solutions to the impossible that arrive, many do not get successfully implemented because their owner did not have what it took to translate the theory into reality. For those impossible solutions that do get successfully implemented, the owner has now proven that they are now qualified to do the impossible, and should expect more impossible assignments in the future, as a reward.

More on Communications…Not More Communications

We have all been in the position where we have a great deal of information to disseminate to a significant number of people. What do we do? We write the “Mother of all Memos” – MoaM, (please pardon the allusion to a wayward military comment in the coining of a new communications phrase) and then put it to a distribution that rivals Santa’s Naughty / Nice list. We now have all the information communicated to all the people. Our job is done here, right? I don’t think so.




On the surface this may seem to be the best way for us to communicate, but it reality it isn’t. It may be efficient for the sender (one memo typed and sent) but is it efficient communications? 




Efficient communications is providing the appropriate information to the appropriate audience, at the right time. That means only the information that is needed then, not all the information you have. Does everyone on that massive distribution list need to know everything that is contained in the body of the MoaM? Better yet, will everyone on that distribution list even read the entire memo in an effort to glean the specific pieces of information that they need from it? We would all like to think that everything that we write (including this Blog article) is of such importance that everyone will read it in its entirety, print it out, high-light it, then annotate it and keep it close by where they can often refer to it.




Right.




Efficient communications would call for us to create several shorter memos, with significantly shorter distribution lists where the information in each memo is appropriate for the specific audience and does not contain information that is not needed by that audience. It may be a little more work on the sender’s part but it will more efficiently communicate the information…and it will probably also cut down on the enormous number of the dreaded one-line “reply all” message chains that invariably follow the use of the MoaM.




Effective communications is providing the right information in the right format for the appropriate audience. This means sending emails, right? In the past this has certainly been the case, but is really the most effective method?




As matrix organizations, teaming and collaboration have proliferated, specific communities of interest have been created. Communications capabilities have also been developed in this area. Where email is a One-to-Many, or a Many-to-Many form of communications, new capabilities such as SharePoint (my apologies to both my Mac and PC friends for using a Microsoft example) allows an accessible network location to be created where there is now a Many-to-One communications structure (many people accessing a single information location). This new(er) type of communications format might provide a more effective way to provide the right information to the right audience.




For me the only issue that arises with the creation of SharePoints for communication and information exchange is that it is not a “Push” form of communications. Email allows us the “Push” the information out to the desired recipients and participants. Once it is sent we are reasonbly sure that the desired recipients have it. SharePoint usually requires the desired participants to access the site and “Pull” the information down from it.




It’s a small difference, but in the hectic world in which we are all now working, it is just another activity that we must take the initiative on to accomplish. Emails come to us. They require an action. Even if you choose to do nothing, it was an active decision to do nothing based on the email. If we must go to a location to find out what we must / need to do, it might just be easier to not go, and as a result not have to make a decision regarding what does or doesn’t need to get done.




Now the decision to do / not do anything can be based upon whether or not we have decided to go get the information to act on, not what the information is itself may be.




It used to be just writing a big, long memo and sending it to everyone. Now we need to look at what is efficient (what information for which audience), and what is effective (what format “Push/Pull”, for which audience) will be the best to achieve the objectives.



On the other hand, it might not be such a bad idea to just pick up the phone and call……

Don’t Send an Email

Technology is a good thing. We have all come to depend on it to get our jobs done. It has helped remove both time and space from our work and has enabled us to do things in minutes that used to take days or longer. It can however become a crutch. It does not alleviate the responsibility you have for seeing to it that the job is completed.

 
There was a recent situation where an assignment was given to a staff member. He was the owner of the assignment and had the responsibility to get the assignment completed. Some time later the deadline came and went. When queried about the topic his response was the ever more common:

“I sent out emails requesting help, and I am still waiting for the responses…”

Sending out an email is not the same as completing the task. It does not transfer the responsibility for completing the task to the person you are sending the email to. In short, in today’s busy, high stress, under staffed business world, emails are easy to “miss”, especially when you are requesting time and effort that we all feel we have little enough available to do our own work.

 
A better solution, if help is needed, is to call. Make contact. Exchange information real time. If the person needed is local, get up and go see them. Once you have the required information, or achieved closure on a topic, then send an email confirming what was discussed, what the solution was and what the steps are moving forward. That email requires no active response from the recipient and enables everyone to get on with their respective jobs.

 
“Sending an email” does not get the job done. Make the call. Get up and make the visit. Take the initiative and get the job done.