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?

Elad

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Managerial attention

Photo by Andrew Turner

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I am a person who is usually on time. I am just wired like that. I don’t know if it something I picked up at home (my Father is like that, my brother isn’t though). I am also quite a nerd when it comes to school. It is rare for me to miss a class. So to many times in my life I have experienced “the talk”. The professor stands there, usually a few minutes after the class begun and starts preaching about the importance of being on time or of being there at all. And I am left there sitting and thinking to myself: “hey, but I am here! I came on time!”. It is not only that I feel disrespected because I am being lectured about something that I have done correctly, I also get angry because the professor is wasting my valuable time.

I was thinking of this situation today when I was reading Andrew J. Hoffman post on HBR.org Firing Someone: What They Don’t Teach You in B-School. Hoffman tells a story from his early career where he had to fire a number of people in a short period of time. Even thought the actions were justified, Hoffman felt guilty because of how he affected those peoples’ lives. When he confided in a peer and asked him what he thought about it, the friend told him he was totally right. When Hoffman continued to doubt himself the conversation came to this:

“Now wait a minute, Andy,” cautioned Benjamin. “You’re making it sound like your decisions were arbitrary. Were they?”

“No.”

“Right, you made these decisions for a reason. Don’t you think the guys that got fired know that? And,” he paused, “Don’t you think the guys that are still on the job know that too?”

“Yeah, I guess so. But I wonder what they see?”

“They see someone who’s trying to hold a high standard of work. Stop thinking about the guys you fired and start thinking about the guys you still employ. They’re the ones who deserve your attention.”

In the last few months I wrote a number of times about the idea, explained in detail in the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, that sometimes, we need to focus on what is working and not on what is not working. Focusing on the positive. In this case – the people who are on time and present. Or the people who do a great job and are not fired.

I wrote about the bigger phenomenon in the past:

I think this is true not only in the business setting, but also in other settings. So much attention goes to weak students, the troublesome soldiers, for those who fail that we forget those who succeeded, those who do everything right and those who are on the verge of excelling. I think, for example, that in any school, there should be at least an equal number of hours and resources spent on the most excellent students as those who go into those who struggle. How many times did you sit in class and felt that you are not being challenged because the teacher was going slower so the weak students could catch up. Now what would have happened if you were challenged?

As managers, parents, teachers, coaches or friends we all have one resource that is scared. Attention time. We have to make choices everyday about who to spend our time with and what to focus our attention on. Human have a tendency to see more of a negative than a positive (from an evolution stand point it makes sense – negative things used to eat us!). So we need to be careful with our intuitive tendencies and make sure we deliberately spend attention on what works. Here is another short paragraph I wrote about this in the past:

Godin got it just right. We ignore those who fit the mold. We let them stay in their mediocrity and put our efforts somewhere else. If you are a cog doing its job, I, the manager, can ignore you. I want peace and quiet. And when employees only get management attention when they are out of line, they start doing everything they can to not be noticed by management – that means no risks, not extraordinary thing. Mediocrity. Management failure.

Elad

Re-visiting priorities

Photo by Jonas B

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Yesterday I was reading a blog post on HBR.org 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 HBR.org 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.

Elad

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?

Elad

P.S.

Check this out for another perspective of the same idea.

Setting your priorities straight

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Photo by ➨ Redvers

When I was an instructor in the Israeli Air-force I used to give a workshop about time-management. The concept “time-management” is a little misleading. It gives us the illusion that time can actually be managed, when in fact, it can’t. Time is given. It will pass if we want it or not. And it will do it at the same pace it always did, no matter what will do. So, we need to manage our decisions given that time.

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.

I like to take principals like the time-management-priorities one and see where I can apply them in other facets of life. Now, after almost completing two session of my MBA program, I think that I can confidently say that “getting your priorities straight” is the key concept that describes my learning this session. Because all the courses I studied this session, had this one concept in common. You have to make choices. And you have to be consistent about them. Or in other words, you have to set your priorities straight.

In finance you can see it in the choice between risks and returns. Do you want a higher risk or a higher possible return? What is the level of return are you seeking? You have to make a choice. And until you set your priorities, your goals, your preferences, be them as they may, you cannot make the right choice. And in order to deliver real value, you need to make consistent decisions over time.

Operations management – does my company need to cooperate with others in the supply chain or not? Do I need a pull or a push based production line? Is responsiveness or effectiveness more important? Well, it depends on your priorities. But whatever you do – you have to make sure, that all other parts of your organization and even you suppliers and buyers, are in tune with the same priorities and are consistent with the same decision.

How do you determine your IMC (integrated marketing communications)? Or how do you decide if you are going to concentrate on growth or retaining current customers? You guessed it – decide what your priorities are and make consistent decisions about them. And most importantly – as in time-management – you have to make choices that lead to tradeoffs that are inherent to the decision making process.

Finally strategy, the mother of all priory decision disciplines. To quote our strategy professor:

“Strategy is making choices… since you have limited resources, you cannot do everything (and expect to do them well)… that are genuine… ‘real choices’ that are ‘difficult’ and consistent. A ‘set of choices’ that different elements strengthen and reinforce each other”

And for me, all of this is the essence of another great idea I believe in. The idea of the comparative advantage. Because comparative advantage is not only about actual competition, but it is more about recognizing what is more important, where can I make the biggest contribution – to myself and to society – and going with it all the way. That is why I try, once in a while, to assess what my priorities are and what my comparative advantage is.

When is the last time you sat with yourself and asked your self – in a personal or professional setting – what are your priorities?

Elad

Time for thoughts

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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?

Elad

Blogging as a time-management tool

Yesterday a friend of mine gave me a torn piece of paper out of a magazine. She gave it to me because it mentioned the Peter Principle, which I told her about a few weeks ago, without remembering its name. Anyway, I found the entire article on-line (it is in Hebrew) and read it. It actually deals with blogging as a managerial tool.

Now the mentioning of the Peter Principle is not accidental. One of the claims in the article is that this principle applies to blogging. In my very own very rough translation:

If what you write is worth reading you don’t have the time [to write a blog]. Whoever has time to sit down and invest in his blog, probably has nothing that interesting to say.

If I put aside my own pride (why? Why am I not worth reading????), I am not sure this is true.

First, there are some very interesting blogs written by very busy people. You can check out the blogroll of this blog and see that for yourself and off course there are many more.

Second, and I think more interesting, is that this approach actually portrays to concepts. One relates to time management. The other relates to blogs and blogging as an activity which is not in the heart of a manager’s role.

In his book, “Management Challenges for the 21st Century“, Peter Drucker says that you never know how a product or service that was invented in one industry will affect other industries. Maybe blogging can be used to solve time management problems.

Take for example what I wrote about “thinking time” a few days ago, after reading a post by Franice Wade of The 2Time Management System blog. What if we use the writing of a blog to create “thinking time” for top-managers? If we agree (and it does seem to be a wide agreed on concept) that the higher you are in the hierarchy the more important it is for you to set aside “thinking time” and that the higher you are in the hierarchy it is harder to do so, than perhaps writing a blog could be used as a thinking tool for the manager. If you commit to writing a blog daily or weekly it means you have to set aside time to think about it – which should be great for business.

Many great writers I know don’t write for anyone else but themselves. Some of them use the writing as a sound box, to test their thoughts. It is the passion in their writing that attracts readers. So if you can use a blog in order to think and do it passionately, you get the “regular” results of a business blog but add a value to your business in other ways.

Elad