Next action: ask why?

Photo by blakeburris

In the last few weeks to different perspectives have mashed up into one coherent thought in my head. I guess it is s continuation of my latest focus on the issue of balance. On one side, I find the idea of outcome focus as discussed by Anita Woolley to be very compelling. Here is a quick reminder from one of my posts on this subject:

Put simply when a team, early in its life cycle, deliberately engages in thinking about outcomes (higher-level – “the what”) and not about process (lower lever – “the how”), it creates a norm of talking about the higher level. This in turn creates flexibility and an ability to adapt. These abilities allow for better performance on the team final task.

On the other hand, in the last few weeks I have been listening to Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen. One of the main concepts Allen introduces in his book is the question: “what is the next action?” Allen advocates for a focus on the concrete tangible doable action. Here is a short description of this concept:

… Next Actions concept says that if you have an abstract item on your to-do list (replace tires on car), you’ll never do it because every time you look at it, you’ll glaze the in-between steps. But you do have to think about what to do in order to do it. So why not think about it now? By thinking about it now and writing it down as a Next Action (the Next Action I can take to bring this project to completion), I can do that Next Action automatically the next time I see it instead of glazing over some nebulous far-in-the-future to-do. (Call tire shop for prices.) With a to-do list you have to make a decision on the next action for each item each time you look at it. With a Next Actions list, you have that decision made and you just have to choose which Next Action to do now.

While on a first glance these two concepts seem like opposites they are actually complementary. The relationship between them is quite fascinating when you think about it. You can’t actually properly think about how (or next action) until you understand that what (outcome focus). If what Woolley claims is correct, in teams, a preliminary focus on the process (the how) can be detrimental for future performance. At the same time, in order to be free to really contemplate the big whys in you projects, goals and life, you need to free your mind by focusing only on what you can do. What is great is that I actually found myself creating next actions that read: Think about why X…  at beginning of projects. A doable action that is focused on the desired outcome.

I love the balance between these two concepts and I try to incorporate habits based on them into my routine. So, when do you focus on next action and when do you focus on the desired outcome or purpose?


Who is your nudge?

Photo by lu_lu


Imagine you want to start working out. We’ve all been there, right? You set up a schedule, you set rewards and plan it in ways that will be comfortable for you (or not – whatever helps). You even pay an advance payment for six months in hope that the sunk costs will make you want to “make the most out of the money”. All valid methods. But there is one more method that might prove to be even more effective. Get somebody to call you weekly and check up on you:

After 12 months, participants receiving calls from a live person were exercising, as a mean, about 178 minutes a week, above government recommendations for 150 minutes a week. That represented a 78% jump from about 100 minutes a week at the start of the study. Exercise levels for the group receiving computerized calls doubled to 157 minutes a week. A control group of participants, who received no phone calls, exercised 118 minutes a week, up 28% from the study’s start. “When you knew you were going to have to report back on what you had done, it motivated you,” says Ms. Lowe.

Hat tip: Nudge blog and The Wall Street Journal

Now, lets assume that instead of working out, you decide that you want to have more, better, meaningful conversations with your employees or team. What can you do to make sure you will do that? Who do you report to?

Who is your nudge?


Re-visiting priorities

Photo by Jonas B


Yesterday I was reading a blog post on by Alexandra Samuel about the five unsolved problems of social media. Here is a quote describing one these problems:

Information overload: RSS started as a way to aggregate all the streams of content we found online, but today we’re more likely to be drowned in a river of feeds — not to mention e-mail, texts, updates, voicemail transcriptions….need I go on? We’ve got great tools for creating, finding, organizing and viewing content, but very little to help us thin out and manage the volume of information that now flows online. The challenge of information overload and attention management isn’t just a technical problem, but some better tools would sure help.

As far as I see it, there is no tool which will make priorities for you. We can have an endless amount of tools to help us organize, filter and present information, but I personally don’t see a tool that will replace human judgment and ability, but more importantly, need, to prioritize. One blog post after that, I read another blog post, this time by Ron Ashkenas called, The Problem with Priorities:

Despite the realization that they had too much on their plates (and too many cards on the wall), this leadership team still struggled with narrowing their focus. Many felt that everything was important and nothing could be dropped without serious consequences. But if everything is called a priority, then nothing is. In fact, what’s worse is that people at lower levels, faced with the impossible task of trying to respond to everything, end up deciding what is important based on their more limited sense of the company’s strategy and their ability to get things done. By not clarifying the few key priorities, leadership teams unintentionally delegate priority-setting to their people. And then they wonder why everyone isn’t on the same page.

Here is what I wrote a while back:

Every time I gave that workshop there was a least one person who would come up to me and tell me: “Look, I am swamped. I just have too many things to do and not enough time”. I always gave those people the same response: “You don’t have a time problem, you have a priorities problem”.

Because time-management is about choosing your priorities, being consistent with them over time and accepting that this process will inherently include some tradeoffs. There will be things you will not be able to do. But until you get your priorities straight you will face problems.

Yes, we have more information than we ever had. Yes, our workloads are bigger. Yes, due to the recession we are doing a job that two people did before. It does not matter. Time is limited. We can only spend it every day on certain things.  The question is, do we want to make an impact on a few things or create mediocrity in a lot of things.

Priorities are a risk. There is a chance that our choice will be the wrong one. We think that if we do a little of everything, we will mitigate that risk. But as the risk of a making a bad choice goes down, the risk of being unfocused goes up.  Guess which one is more important?

And if you are a manager of people I ask you – where are your people in your priorities? What are you trading off in order to be a great manager for them? Because you cannot be that great manager without putting time and effort into the process. No online digital tool will ever take away that piece of judgment from you.


Shorts: Cristóbal Conde on everything this blog is about


I was reading an interview with Cristóbal Conde, president and C.E.O. of SunGard, in the New-York times (conducted by Adam Bryant) and for most of it, I felt like I was reading this blog. Here are some of my favorite quotes with links to my writing on the subject.

Managers no longer know more than their employees:

I think top-down organizations got started because the bosses either knew more or they had access to more information. None of that applies now. Everybody has access to identical amounts of information.

If you start micromanaging people, then the very best ones leave.

The importance of recognition:

… [R]ecognition from their peers is, I think, an extremely strong motivating factor, and something that is broadly unused in modern management.

There is a difference between management and leadership – too many managers are trying to “lead”:

I think too many bosses think that their job is to be the lead, and I don’t. By creating an atmosphere of collaboration, the people who are consistently right get a huge following, and their work product is talked about by people they’ve never met. It’s fascinating

Skill and experience is not as important as inherent talents and traits in hiring:

I care a lot less about the individual skills. I look for drive and a sense of somebody’s intellectual curiosity.

The importance of Thinking-time:

I tell my secretary, I need an hour and a half once a day where I can go somewhere that doesn’t have a PC or a phone, unless I choose to spend that hour and a half writing. But it’s not just managing e-mails and stuff like that. I need an hour and a half to think. And it could be anything.

Sometimes it gets cut short. But many topics or issues can only be dealt with in an uninterrupted format. I worry about our entry-level people — they’re bombarded with information, and they never get to think.


White space time

Photo by Cillian Storm

On the HBR Editors’ Blog Bronwyn Fryer writes a post called: Manage Your Time Like Jim Collins:

When he says he uses a stopwatch, he means that he tracks his time to make sure he gets the most from his waking hours. He divides his life into blocks — 50% creative time, 30% teaching time, and 20% other stuff (“random things that just need to get done”).

Jim took out a piece of paper and drew a picture of four blocks stacked atop each other. Pointing at the top block, he said, “I block out the morning from 8 am to noon to think, read and write. ” He unplugs everything electronic, including his Internet connection. Although he has a reputation for reclusiveness, when asked about this, he replies: “I’m not reclusive. But I need to be in the cave to work.”

Collins calls this white space time:

For Collins, high-quality work requires long stretches of high-quality thinking. “White space,” as he calls it, is the prerequisite for fresh, creative thought. It’s the time that he spends with nothing scheduled, so that he can empty his mind, like the proverbial teacup, and refill it with new thought.

Well, it certainly is a compliment to have similar ideas to someone like Jim Collins. Here are two short paragraphs from one of the posts I wrote about what I call thinking time:

When I give workshops about personal vision building I talk about setting aside “thinking time” as one of the fundamental skills good leaders acquire for themselves and as a way to updated personal vision constantly. I always point out that I am not talking about thinking during the shower, but as an integral part of your day, preferably, in your office. At this point, people usually nod and agree. But if you ask them a few months later, how many times since the workshop did they take a break during their work day to just stop and think, they usually answer – zero.

There are some truths that people will always agree to, but are reluctant to implement. This is something I know for myself. This piece of advice is easier to preach about than practice. So what is the solution? I think the best one is to outsource the responsibility for setting “thinking time” to somebody else.

I think this kind of thinking is again another manifestation of the idea that sometimes what is missing is more important than what is there. Sometimes, what is not there, improves on what is there.

How do you treat the empty slots in your schedule?  Do you actively create them?



Check this out for another perspective of the same idea.

More on managing meetings

A week and a half ago I wrote here about my most important concepts for managing meetings. I got many comments on this post, many of them offering other important concepts and some disagreeing with some of the concepts I mentioned. One of the disagreements that kept coming up dealt with my concept about coming prepared.

This is what I wrote:

Everybody must come prepared. And when I say prepared I mean totally and utterly prepared. When you get to the meeting you already: read everything; made the preparations; calculated the numbers; came up with your own ideas. I spent so many meetings where people come unprepared and as a consequence half of the meeting is spent on just understanding the issue or on doing things that should have been done earlier without wasting everybody else’s time. Too many people believe that they perform the best under pressure and rationalize their way into procrastination. This trend extends itself into the meetings and people say to themselves – “hey, I learn the subject while the meeting takes place”.

Here are some of the comments about this point:

Everyone needs to be prepared. However, avoid over preparation if you want to be innovative. If you want to build ideas as a group, you don’t want to have people come with their ideas nailed down.

Too much preparation can be a downside, leading to people coming in with pre-conceived ideas and already solved problems. Basic preparation is a must though, to understand the key facts etc. but I’ve found too much preparation can hold back a discussion.

While I respect the people who commented on this point, I have to strongly disagree with them.

First, I think the comments confuse between communication skills and preparation. One can come totally unprepared, but still be closed to other people’s opinions. On the other hand, somebody can come with his own ideas and solutions, but be open, receptive and listen to other people. The fact that some people come prepared and are not willing to listen does not mean that coming prepared is the problem (causality). It means that their lack of communication skills and ability to listen is probably the problem. I think one of comments actually described it quite well:

… but I think there is a thin line between coming prepared for a meeting and coming with THE solution. I think it’s very important to be open to new ideas and avoid selling your solution. The attitude that you have when you go to a meeting is crucial.

The issue is the attitude and not the preparation which is positive.

And this brings on the second point. Part of the problem occurs when only one person comes to the meeting prepared. The others, who are not prepared are not able to contradict that person so he seems like he is not listening to them and they are also not able to point mistakes or to create a positive influence on his idea. Everybody loses.

Third, most of the comments also talked about wasting time in meetings and the fact that we have to many meetings. If people come unprepared, everybody’s time is wasted because people have different abilities and speed of understanding. I honestly don’t see the negative connection between preparation and being innovative. On the contrary, the fact that everybody has come prepared only allows spending more of the time on the actual innovation and allows avoiding things like groupthink.  

Fourth, preparation is disregarded in many aspects of our lives, and while I don’t support excessive over perpetration I feel that it should be given its due place. Just recently Jon Gordon wrote a post exactly on this subject:

So often we fail because we fail to prepare. We focus on hitting the ball but we forget to take the time to tie our shoes tight before the game starts

I am going to come prepared to my next meeting. What about you?


Time for thoughts

Photo by springsun

The last couple of weeks have been very busy for me. I found myself studying; working on an event I helped initiate and well… travelling. All of these activities (and more) kept me moving and especially concentrating on the now.

Then, a few days ago, I was on my way to catch a bus for school. As I was crossing the street my bus just want by which forced me to wait for about 20 minutes to the next bus. As I was standing there I realized I forgot to take my IPod with me, which meant – no music or podcasts. So I just waited there.

And then it started… thoughts. Lots of them.

Ideas for my new E-book, ideas for blog posts and thoughts about some of my assignments at school and various things I want to do in the long and short run. It was overwhelming. I had to take my bag off and take out the little notepad I carry with me and write everything down.

As I was writing all these things down it occurred to me. I just experience first handed one of things I write about all the time. The importance of thinking-time. We consecrate so much on the present that we forget to set out planned and intentional time to just think.

As you can easily discern from this post, my thoughts have limited effect, as these days I am only responsible for myself. If you are a manager, you don’t have that luxury. Does your schedule for the coming week contain time to think?