Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Weekly Tip - See in the dark

Okay, my tips are normally business, or personal development related, but I thought that I would try something different this week as a little bit of fun;

So here is my tip; Keep one eye open when you turn on the light and you will see in the dark.

Think I'm talking crazy talk? Well read on;

Your eyes adjust to the light that it available, so if you wake up during the night, or you have been in the dark for a while, your eyes will adjust and you will have limited vision, and as such, be able to see in the dark (not very well, but you will be able to see). But, when you switch the light on (or torch if you are camping), you lose all of your wonderful night vision you have built up and it can take quite a while for it to recover.

Well, there is a way to cheat it.

1. Build up your night vision (or remember to do this next time you wake in the night)
2. Use your night vision to get where you want, (lets say the kitchen to get a drink)
3. Close one eye tightly
4. Turn on the light (and get your drink, check Email, or whatever you do in the kitchen at night!)
5. Turn off the light (at this point everything will go much darker, or even into blackness to in relation to what you could see before)
6. Open your other eye (your other eye will have kept it's night vision and you will be able to see in the dark!).

Okay, so maybe I've over promised with the tip title of "See in the dark". But it is a strange sensation as half of your vision is in darkness an they other is in a strange grey-scale (the eye that you did have open recovers much more quickly than regular night vision too!).

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Weekly Tip; Learn how to learn

Apologies, I've been studying for an exam so had to miss a weekly tip, but this study got me thinking. Many of us out there, me included were never taught how to learn, or if we were it was by outdated methods of repetition and myths such as reading slower equals better comprehension.

I will be honest, I didn't try very hard when I was in high school, I sailed through and got pretty good grades, A's, B's, C's. But when it came to A-Level's, it suddenly wasn't so easy, I was bright enough, but it was a lot harder, and I wasn't prepared. After this experience, I thought I was done with education, but within two years, I was at University. In the two years break, I did something that would have been very useful in my School days. I learned how to learn.

The result? I went from barely passing A-levels to a 1st class Business degree, to the great surprise of, well, everybody - including me.

So this tip is all about learning how to learn, in summary;
  • Don't be afraid to learn
  • You still need to study hard, but it can be more enjoyable
  • The key techniques; Memory Techniques, Speed Reading and MMOST (Mind-Map Organic Study Technique)
Don't be afraid to learn
When it comes to learning new things, many adults shut down. I've actually heard people say;

"Now I'm older there just isn't the space to remember new things", or;

"I couldn't remember things like that, my brain doesn't work that way" and my favourite;

"It's harder for adults, as children are like sponges when it comes to learning".

Lets think of it another way. Young children don't have inhibitions, they learn by asking "why?", and aren't afraid to get it wrong, that's why they seem to learn languages faster - it's because they don't anticipate the humiliation of getting it wrong, or the frustration of not being able to recall a word, they just have a go and if the word sounds passable they get applauded. 

Another thing that a toddler will do differently, is they don't get hung up on using the written language to learn, they learn with their innate ability to process the world using pictures, sounds, touch, taste and smell. In fact, they use these innate skills to learn how to read.

So don't be afraid to learn - if a toddler can do it, I'm sure you can.

You still need to study hard, but it can be more enjoyable
After years of frustration of comprehending the things that I was being taught, I figured there must be a better way of memorising things other than just looking blankly at books and notes and repeating things. As a part of this, I found a great friend called Amazon.co.uk, it showed me a world of books I had never heard of before, the stuff that just wasn't available in my local WHSmith. You may have come across these techniques already - great! The thing is, many people haven't, and I still know people that think the way to learn is slow and by repetition.

The techniques I will mention will feel like magic if you've never used them before, and are actually pretty easy to get to grips with. Also, don't worry, this isn't an all or nothing thing. You can pick and choose a few favourite techniques. I really do suggest trying one or two out, as even a little bit of knowledge about better learning techniques can have tremendous benefits. Actually, just being aware that memorisation by repetition is all but useless is a start! I'm going to share the Key Techniques I've had most success with;

The Key Techniques;
There are many resources, techniques and books out there, my favourite is still Tony Buzan's work, he has a vast amount of publications, but I suggest starting with The Memory Book; How to remember anything you want, Buzan also has published dedicated Speed Reading and Mind-Mapping Books.

Memory Techniques
There are several techniques out there, but I suggest getting to grips with a Roman Room and the Peg System.

The Roman Room uses a room or place you already know, and objects such as furniture within that room to link to things you need to remember. So if you are in your lounge and you need to remember 'Banana' then you might look over at your sofa and see it's covered in rotten, smelling bananas (the more vivid the better), then you might look at the coffee table and you need to remember 'Theatre Tickets', you might imagine the whole cast of the play you want to buy tickets for trying to balance on the table, you can hear the table groan as its cracking under the weight... get the idea? Do this yourself, write down 10 items (or more!) and use this technique. If you struggle, don't worry visualisation can be tough if you are not used to it, but use all of your senses not just sight and sound - use touch, smell, taste, make it exciting or repulsive - anything to make it memorable. You can use an ever increasing number of rooms and build up your memory palace. This isn't just the stuff of Sherlock.

The Peg System is another useful tool that I use regularly for shopping lists and other items that I need to remember. This is where you have a pre-set list of memory 'pegs' that you use to link to the thing you want to remember. There are a few different types, but I use the number shape peg system where my peg is an image that looks like a number. So for example, I imagine;

1 looks like a paint brush
2 looks like a Swan
3 looks like mountains
4 looks like the the Sail of a boat
5 looks like a wheel chair
6 looks like a yo-yo spinning
7 looks like a boomerang
8 looks like an hour-glass timer
9 looks like a periscope
10 looks like a bat and ball.

I suggest coming up with an image that you are comfortable with, but once you have this list that you permanently keep, you then use this image to remember the thing you want by imagining the peg image with the item you want to remember.

For example, if you need to remember 'Coffee', take your number 1 peg, a paint brush, and imagine putting your paint brush into a big mug of coffee and accidentally drinking it! You can smell the odd mix of paint and coffee and see the mess you've made of the mug and the horrid taste! Use your senses (I could just imagine painting a coffee bean, but the more surreal and vivid you make it the better!).

Here are a few other examples;

You need to remember "Red Wine", you are on peg number 2 now, which is Swan. You could imagine a huge wine glass with a Swan swimming around it, staining it's perfect feathers red, and yes, drinking the wine, and because there is so much, the swan is very drunk!

You need to remember "Biscuits", you are on peg number 3 now which is mountains. You might imagine trying to climb a steep mountain, but the footpath keeps on breaking up, you look down and you are actually walking over a huge cookie that's full of chocolate chips, you dive down to eat it, but it tastes funny because of all the hikers that have been walking over it - mountain cookies are no good!

Now pause here, I've only gone through pegs 1, 2 and 3. So I would expect you to remember without the aid of this technique. So now try doing it with ten items and see how easy it is, and how long you can remember it for!

Speed Reading
This sounds positively frightening for many, but actually you will not only get through more material, but you will also remember more of it. The basic problem most of us have with speed reading is actually sub-vocalisation (we read the words in our head to ourselves). Getting rid of this is takes quite a bit of practice, and I only mention it because it's a good way to think differently about reading; So for a second, imagine looking at a picture of a boy on a bike, you don't need to stop and think "There is a boy, and he's riding a bike", you could probably take a 1 second look at it, turn around and someone will say "What did you see?". You would be able to describe it easily, perhaps in lots of detail, colour of the bike, age of the boy, his surroundings etc. All with out repeating it to yourself first. See how speed might be applied to words?

Okay, so that's not particularly actionable, so lets start with something easy to explain. I was sitting reading quite merrily using my finger as a guide across the page and someone sitting near me said, "You never learned to read without taking your finger off the page?". I smiled, as actually, this was something I had re-learned, as it is a fantastic technique for keeping your eye focused on the words you are reading and pushing your speed (ever had a time when you are tired and re-read the same line two or three times? This just doesn't happen if you use your finger!). Actually, it's better to use something a little finer than your finger, such as a pen. If you are reading text on a monitor, using the mouse cursor can do a similar job. Give it a try and just see how much easier it is!

MMOST (Mind-Map Organic Study Technique)
Many of you may be familiar with mind-mapping, it's quite widely used. If not, Tony Buzan's books are amazing, but just type "Mind-mapping" into a search engine for examples. Now, I don't want to go over mind-mapping, but actually the study intervals suggested by Buzan. I've used these to great effect and always kick myself if I try and take short cuts.

If you are trying to learn something, try this;
Study the subject for say 30 mins or perhaps you are in a class, then at the following intervals review what you have done and check for understanding (this can take a few seconds or as long as you need);
  • 1 hour later
  • 1 day later
  • 1 week later
  • 1 month later
  • 6 months later
  • 12 months later
If you are doing a course, revision becomes a breeze, I did this during my degree and it made everything so much easier. Even if you are not interested in learning memory techniques, speed reading or mind-mapping, this sequence of revising your notes will be much more effective than trying to cram before your exam!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Weekly Tip; Develop your strengths

Developing strengths isn't a new idea, if you look at Strengthsfinder 2.0 it details how you can find your strengths, and has some great examples of why developing your weaknesses isn't productive. Here is my spin on it, along with an idea on how you can introduce this into either your development plan, or that of your direct reports;

In summary, if you develop your strengths to a higher degree, then your weaknesses will naturally develop as a result. So yes, you do need to know your weaknesses, but developing your strengths is the key. Here is the way I think about it;

  • Don't get hung up on fixing your weaknesses
  • Understand what you need to be good at
  • What to do when your weakness affects your job
  • Beware of over-developed Strengths
  • Dealing with others forcing you to develop your weaknesses

Don't get hung up on fixing your weaknesses
Okay so you may be sitting there and thinking, "but I need to fix my weaknesses". To be clear, this isn't about lack of knowledge of something, if you have never driven a car then this isn't a weakness, it is just a tool you have not tried to learn how to use. This tip is about that conversation you have with your Manager around appraisal time, that repetitive development plan discussion where the Manager says;

"Bob, this year you did really well in planning, and delivering to that plan, but your stakeholder management needs improvement. This year, lets focus on Stakeholders and make some SMART objectives so we track it properly and maybe get you some training in stakeholder management."

After getting over the deja-vu Bob nods along with his manager and agrees that he will make some improvements, and perhaps resign himself to a life of mediocrity because of his poor stakeholder management skills. Can you relate to Bob's situation? Let me ask a question;

Does this process really develop you?

I would say no.

You can blame your Manager for not setting a good development plan, you can blame yourself for not sticking to it. But in the end you can spend your entire life trying to be good at something you are terrible at.

Understand what you need to be good at
Now pretend for a moment, I was Usain Bolt's coach days after he won gold at the 2012 Olympics. Imagine me sitting there and saying the following;

"Usain, you are an absolutely amazing sprinter - the best the world has ever seen. Now that's great n' all, but your marathon running is poor. This year, lets focus on that. Let's make some SMART objectives and get you a coach and sort out a plan..."

Seems a little silly? This is the same conversation you are probably having with your manager year after year. You are really good at one thing, but you spend your time trying to develop something you are bad at. It's madness.

What to do when your weakness affects your job
Hold on a second, what if that weakness is important to the job?

Well that's where developing your strengths comes in. First, you need to be clear, will developing that weakness make me better? Really? In the example with Usain it's easy. He would probably say, "No, sprinting is my thing, I have no interest in long distance running". This may be something to consider, if you are poor with numbers, maybe a career in finance isn't such a great idea. But I think it's safe to say, in almost any job, having poor stakeholder management skills is something that sounds reasonable to work on, or is it?

Yes and no. I would suggest in the first example, Bob is great at planning. Well how can we make that better - it's good, great even, but how can we make it first class? Does he need to do more, does he need to do less (remember an over developed strength can become a weakness!), is everyone on board with the plan... oh wait... here we are, if he were a truly great planner, he would have included people in the planning process, maybe developed a stakeholder management plan... all by working on the planning. The thing Bob is good at may develop, or at least mitigate his weakness with stakeholder management. As he plans and follows a plan of engaging with stakeholders (poor Bob, he's not one for words, but now everyone knows what's what and are happy with Bob's communication). Job done.

Beware of over-developed Strengths
My 69 year old Dad has a stronger grip than anyone I know. If you give him a screwdriver and a screw, through sheer brute force he will get a screw into pretty much anything. The issue is, it's difficult to get my Dad to stop. Quite often the materials get broken, split or damaged as a result of this over developed strength (don't let him near Ikea furniture!).

So is my Dad 'Good' at this? Well he is has a phenomenal grip, but not a great sense of knowing when he's used it enough. So for example, having a great strength in analysis can be an asset, but if you spend days doing unnecessary, detailed analysis that wasn't required - is it really a strength? It may be great, but who's going to read it? 

Dealing with others forcing you to develop your weaknesses
Okay, by now you are hopefully on board with the idea of developing strengths, but not everyone else will be, and you may be forced into a scenario of working on your weaknesses. I suggest that you agree to plans, training and coaching to develop your weaknesses but always think about it in context of your strengths. So you are great with people, but poor at analysis and you are told to improve your analysis. Who can you talk to? You are great with people, work on your network, find great analysts, ask them questions, maybe you can help each other? 

To sum up, develop your strengths, you will enjoy it a lot more than fixing your weaknesses.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Weekly Tip - If it's not broke, prove it

Have you ever heard the phrase, "If it's not broke, don't fix it" and rolled your eyes. Or perhaps you've been frustrated because someone is always meddling with something you think works fine, and you've said it (or thought it) yourself, then this tip is for you!

In summary, if you believe that a process or task that you are working on is working well, or perhaps well enough, be in the position to prove it. Especially if you could improve it, but choose not to. On the flip side of the coin, if you are looking at a process or task and believe it could be improved, think about what you are asking first. In these cases, I suggest thinking about the following;
  • Take any feedback as a gift
  • Is the task that is being criticised done often?
  • Would the improvement to the task really make a difference?
  • Is there a bigger problem?
  • Are you distracting yourself with unnecessary improvements?
Okay, this seems straight forward, but these are the following things I suggest thinking about in both of these situations (I'm not taking a detailed report here - just run through this quickly in your head before making a knee-jerk reaction);

Take any feedback as a gift
It's really easy to get defensive if someone challenges your work personally, so if someone has some feedback for you, take it - and be pleased about it. Understand where they are coming from and what they are trying to say. Do you really understand what they are getting at? Remember, folk that have it in for you won't give you the feedback at all, so you might be offended, but they are actually trying to do you a favour.

On the other hand, if you want to impart some advise, but the recipient is defensive. This is probably your problem, not theirs. In the first instance, I would suggest building a relationship with the person first and think carefully what you are saying, as challenging their work can often feel personal - like walking into their home and saying you don't like their curtains... you need to have a good relationship before you say something like that! 

Is the task that is being criticised done often?
If the thing that you, or someone else is picking fault with is done once a year - is it really worth improving? Every situation can be different, and the answer isn't always no. So if you are doing a yearly task that someone criticises, or you are about to criticise, have a discussion. What would go wrong if the task wasn't done correctly?  Does it matter that it's being done inefficiently?

Would the improvement to the task really make a difference?
This one is tough. There is, of course lots of techniques that can be applied, but all things being considered, including the amount of time that it takes to scope, plan and execute the task is it really worthwhile making a change?
  • Step 1; What would happen if you stopped the activity? (If the answer is nothing, then you really need to question its value!)
  • Step 2; Assuming it is required for some reason, does the current task create an output that is fit for purpose? (And by that I mean, good enough. You can tinker with things forever!) 
  • Step 3; How much more efficient can you really make it? (If it's only a minor improvement, is it really worth it? Be honest here, don't waste your time or anyone else's - don't massage figures to try to get your way!). 
Is there a bigger problem?
I've often seen operations attempt to solve problems at a team level, that really need to be solved at a cross-functional, or even organisational level. This really is like trying to put out a house fire with a water pistol. Raising a risk or issue to the right people, that shows the likelihood and impact of that risk or issue is worthwhile. Don't be dramatic here - try to back it up with real numbers and real cost savings.

Are you distracting yourself with unnecessary improvements?
I will be honest, I often find myself trying to improve my productivity system unnecessarily. I think if I try a different note taking method, or a better task capture method that somehow I will do the tasks more effectively that are sitting on my task list.

When I catch myself doing this, I check to see if there is anything that I should be doing, but just don't want to. It's a great way to look productive, fix lots of stuff with the belief you are making a great improvement (if it's your own project, it is doubtful that you will have the objectivity to really say whether or not something you've changed is for the better or worse, so be as honest as you can when the idea pops into your head!). 

So whether you think your thing isn't broke, or someone else thinks their thing isn't broke. Prove it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Weekly Tip - maintain a fixed list for your repeated actions

We all procrastinate, and there are plenty of great books on the subject, such as Eat that frog by Brian Tracy. This tip is associated with procrastination but it's really just a simple idea to stop stress building up over the little stuff turning into a mountain that needs to be conquered. I would however recommend this for anyone who has to perform repeated tasks in their life that seem to get in the way of the important things;

In summary;
  • Maintain a list of actions that you repeat at regular intervals
  • Refer to and work the list on a regular basis
  • Only put must do items on the list
At this point, if you are thinking that you always stay on top of your regular actions and wonder what I'm talking about, then I am very jealous, and please carry on the way you are! On the other hand, if you, or maybe someone in your team is ill prepared for team meetings and the monthly reporting is always late, then please read on...

Maintain a list of actions that you repeat at regular intervals
So you may be thinking, why not just put a repeat calender entry in you email client? or a repeating task in your task app? Well my tip is based on experience, and I've tried everything, and every trick ended up with me thinking that procrastination, too much work, other priorities and trivial nature of some of the tasks were the reason for not doing them.

The real reason was that I didn't see the value of many of the actions, such as weekly reports, checking tasks, time sheet submissions and so on. Mainly because if I didn't do them, often nobody would call me on it, and if they did, I could say that I had other, more important priorities. So my thinking was, little or no value, don't bother!

This was where I was wrong, as the value of doing these tasks are cumulative and it may take months or even years to reap its rewards.

Refer to and work the list on a regular basis
To make sure you stay on top of your tasks, referring to the list will make it easier to update and think about other tasks you may need to do. It's also good when you are being pressured to take on more work, it may trigger you to remember that you have the month end report to do and the essential one on one's with your team.

As days weeks and months go by, building up your own repeating tasks give you a real sense of how much time you are spending on them, in addition, the tasks become easier as you do them regularly, and your stakeholders, be it your manager, peers, directs or customers will begin to see you as reliable and trustworthy, constantly reinforcing that you are on top of stuff and can deliver.

Only put must do items on the list
There is a requirements prioritisation technique I like called the MoSCoW analysis. It puts the requirements in order of things that;

  • Must be done to make the thing work (usually agreements made with others)
  • Should be done to make it really effective (usually agreements you've made just to yourself)
  • Could be done because it would be cool, added extra (Perhaps a suggestion or idea)
  • Won't be done because it's a waste of time (Re-negotiate your agreements if you need to)
Now make sure you only choose your Musts for this list. If you really want a should on your list, then make an agreement some how to get it there. For example, if you want to read the economist, then agree with your manager to provide a summary of your favourite article each month. Otherwise, you are devaluing the list.

If, after six months or so you are working the list without issue, let maybe one or two should do items creep on, but I wouldn't do too much too soon, as this is a drill for the stuff you must do to keep your professional reputation for delivery going.

So to recap, get a list together of all those must do things that you repeat on a regular basis, and do them!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Weekly Tip; Treat unexpected, urgent issues like a real fire-fighter would

If you’ve ever experienced a major issue that needs urgent attention, you have probably seen a lot of people running around with bits of paper in their hands, in a panic, trying to fix the problem. The day-to-day work just stops, and for many is addictive as it gives them a thrill to their day. This is often called ‘fire-fighting’.

My tip this week, is treat unexpected, urgent issues like a real fire-fighter would. In summary;
  • Be prepared; (Have a structure for dealing with emergencies)
  • Plan your week with space for emergencies; (You still need to get your day job done!)
  • Be clear that you are dealing with an emergency; (Let people know what’s going on)
  • Treat the problem as a project; (It will save you time to pause for thought)
  • Keep your emotions in check; (Running around in a state of panic won’t help anyone)
  • Once it’s over, find out why it happened; (Make sure it never happens again, and share your learns with others)
  • Don’t cry wolf; (If you tell people it’s an emergency and it’s not, they will be less willing to help in future).
  • Reward root cause identification and counter measures, not heroics; (Fire-fighting is exciting, so you need to make sure that reward is focused on fire prevention)

In the workplace, the term fire-fighting tends to describe urgent, important, often unexpected and sometimes preventable work. I’ve not met anyone that hasn’t experienced this, and it is often to the detriment of your non-urgent, important work. Every heard the phrase, “We couldn’t get Project X finished on time because something mega-urgent came up…” It’s not unusual and almost everyone will have something like this in their lives, the call from the School because a child is ill, an employee stuck in traffic somewhere, a supplier not delivering something for an important order.

Some fire-fighting is actually preventable, the same issues occur over and over again because of a problem within the ecosystem of that activity. Stopping and fixing the problem might prevent the fire-fighting. Prevention (Continuous Improvement or Transformation activity) is better than a cure, but still, it’s unrealistic to think unexpected and urgent problems won’t happen. The way you deal with it can make a massive difference to you, your colleagues, your business, and most importantly, your customers, making you look like a competent professional (a real fire fighter) or an amateur running around with a bucket of water screaming ‘fire, fire!’.

So what can you do?

Be prepared;
Knowing that you might have something urgent to deal with this week can help you plan your week, so having a structure in place for you and/or your team on how you deal with unexpected, urgent issues can make all the difference. For example, would a fire fighter hear the alarm, slide down the fire poll and think “I wonder what I need to take with me?”. So, get your tools ready. Here’s what I suggest;

Plan your week with space for emergencies
If your workplace has lots of urgent issues on a regular basis, over-estimate your regular work, so when emergencies eat up half a day, then you still have time to complete your day job (fire-fighters still keep all their equipment maintained and manage to respond to emergencies – so can you!).  If you respond to a lot of urgent work, over estimating your work might help manage your agreements more effectively.

Be clear that you are dealing with an emergency
Real Fire-fighters have this a little easier, an alarm bell rings and they know they are dealing with an emergency, on the other hand office environments can be losing millions and it is plausible that nobody would notice for days… So it may seem obvious, but make sure the people you are enlisting help from are aware that it is an emergency. It doesn’t need to be dramatic, but being clear as to why it is urgent will help for example, “We have an urgent and important issue that needs to be dealt with today. If we do not resolve it, we are at risk of losing £1M of sales from Customer ABC”. Well that got my attention, how can I help?

Treat the problem as a project
If you just think of any emergency as just being a task or project that needs to be dealt with, because, er… it is. Difference is, you may need to come up with much of the information yourself in a short space of your time (do you think a real fire-fighter would run in to a burning building without a plan?). So no matter if you have minutes, hours or days, make sure as a minimum you have the following*;
  • You are clear on Scope; What you are dealing with, and why (Clarifying key stakeholders helps at this point)
  • Create a basic Plan; This is just who does what by when (My favourite www.manager-tools.com rule for Project Planning)
  • Clarify how the team will Operate; During this, know when updates are required (Hourly Email updates might be necessary, daily team meetings might be needed, sub group meetings and so on)
  • State what Tasks need to be addressed immediately (What can the team walk out of the room and do right away!)

Keep your emotions in check
Emergencies tend to lead to high stress, this is the time to keep calm and stick to plan (fire-fighters need to keep their emotions in check as rash decisions can lead to injury of themselves or others). At this point it might be worth noting, that your emergency isn’t always someone else’s emergency. This is where you need to rely on your relationships you have forged with your peers to make sure that if you need help, they are willing, even if it won’t benefit them.

Once it’s over find out why it happened
You’ve come to the rescue, you’ve dragged a child from the building and saved their life… people are patting you on the back, all is great. But why was there a fire in the first place? Knowing the cause means you can prevent or reduce the likelihood of this happening in the future, this is the less exciting part, and certainly in the UK, most people sneer at the Health and Safety inspector, for ‘being a jobsworth’, even though they may have saved hundred’s of lives through accident prevention. Be careful here, the root cause is often not addressed, and the symptoms are just dealt with more effectively.

Don’t cry wolf
If you tell people it’s an emergency and it’s not. They will figure it out eventually and not take it seriously – there really has to be an unexpected, urgent issue. I have seen this before where people have said, “there is a £1M risk”, and after the third or fourth time of being used people are less sure that it’s a reality, where in fact, on close inspection, the issue was related to £1M total, and at worse, the problems may result in a late payment of the £1M, but not a loss of £1M.

Reward root cause identification and counter measures resulting from emergencies, not heroics
Using the imagery of a fire-fighter running out of a burning building, saving a young child from near death, I’m guessing for most folk is more exciting than the imagery of a Health and Safety inspector standing next to a set of cables and saying, “Those need to be sorted, they are a fire hazard”. The thing here is imagery, the real fire-fighter would have been reprimanded if saving that young child put them or their fire-fighting colleague’s lives at risk to do so. Thing is, often in the workplace, we reward the fire fighter for the save even if the behaviour was reckless (think about it – the stakes aren’t as high a fighting a real fire!).

So how, after this fire fight do you reward people? Well, business is different from real fire, sure, but keeping in mind how well the fire-fight was executed is one way but no glory, another way is to reward the identification of, and resolution to the root cause of the problem. So which would be best for future behaviour;

“Well done team, you managed to get a £1M customer contract together in one day – it normally takes 10! I know you worked through the night and pulled out all the stops”


“Well done team, a problem was identified with processing of customer contracts, and now you have put in steps to ensure that all contracts are produced in a timely manner. The customer told me today that they are so happy to be dealing with a professional company that makes good on its promises”

Okay, I will admit, the first one does sound cooler – but going with the second one, you might just get someone come along one day to you and say, “I’ve identified an issue in payment processing… if we solve it now, it will stop payments being incorrectly allocated in future…”, instead of, “We’ve incorrectly allocated Customer X’s invoice and they’ve been accidentally sent debt collection letters…”

*Note, this is based on the SPOT Meeting structure that is detailed in a Manager Tools podcast that can be found at www.manager-tools.com

Friday, March 21, 2014

Weekly Tip - Want results? Make it easy for people to understand you

My blog entries are usually quite lengthy, but making it easy to understand isn't always about keeping it short. I do realise the length of an article can be an issue and you may notice that each weekly tip is summarised in the first 100 words or so. There is a reason for this, which I will explain shortly, but onto the summary.

Summary; In both your written and verbal communication make it easy for people to understand you and you will get better results. A few points to keep in mind;

  • People are busy (they might get bored if you aren't getting to the point)
  • Choose your headline wisely (if you hide your point in a forest of language it won't be found)
  • People aren't good at English (many intelligent, native speakers will struggle if your vocabulary is too fancy, for non native speakers is a nightmare!)
  • Put the action clearly in the communication (don't expect people to just know what you want because it is obvious to you).
  • Summarise (if you have a lot to say, break it down into a short summary - like this one!)

Okay, all this seems pretty obvious, but why do people then get frustrated when action isn't taken as a result of their communication?

People are busy; 
People tend to pay attention to things that interest them, or that may cause them harm. If your message doesn't drop into one of those categories, then you have a lot of work to do. Keeping your message easy to understand well help. 

For example which of the following Is better;

"I need to raise an issue that might cost us up to 100k. Andy is the only person that has access to all the information needed to verify the the amount. I've spoken to him and he thinks it will be half a days work. depending on the outcome, we may need to get the team together to identify a resolution. Would you please authorise half a day for Andy to work on this, preferably by Monday to get things moving?"


"I've been looking at the figures and there seems to be a few problems with the analysis, and I think it might be worth the team getting together and taking a look, I could do with using Andy for half a day if that's okay before hand to go through the numbers, would that be okay?"

I would go with the first option, funny, as there are more words, so what I mean by people are busy, is they are too busy for stuff that isn't getting to the point. For example, The first example contains a figure that is likely to grab anyone's attention, additionally it is clear on exactly what is required - an authorisation to use Andy for half a day.

The second will most likely either result in a string of emails, or worse be ignored by the person receiving it, the first might just result in, "happy for you to use Andy, let me know if you need anything else."

Choose your headline wisely
In the example above, the number, "100k" will grab your attention, make sure that you have your headline in there!
Also some don't just skim read, they skim listen too. If they have something on their minds they may not be giving you their full attention, look for things that get their attention. for some it's numbers, for others, it may be a damage to the company reputation, looking bad in front of a customer or even just looking bad in front of their boss!

People aren't good at English
Nobody likes to feel stupid, and often those who need to Google a word they are reading or second guess what you are saying, are going to feel stupid. If that is your intention, stop, it won't do you any favours to confuse people, and if others witness it, they may think they are next!

Say what you mean at about the level of language you would expect to read in a newspaper like The Sun. This way you won't lose your audience (you will get more respect for being a clear communicator than using degree level language to make you feel clever).

Put the action clearly in the communication
Unless you really have to, don't leave people to think, just say what you want using a polite request, e.g. "would you please send me the month end report today"

The,"would you please" serves as a polite request that someone can say no to if needed without confrontation. The, "send me the month end report" clearly states what it is you want. Finally, when you want, as the "today" part is essential and gives context to the urgency. Take note if you are a manager and make a request without giving a due date, this will lead to either panic as folk drop what they are doing, or ignore it because you didn't specify a date. 

I tend to put an executive summary at the start of communication, my summaries normally look like a contents page with a sentence to explain each item - if you look back to the start of how I wrote the summary for this section, it just says;

  • "Summarise (if you have a lot to say, break it down into a short summary - like this one!)".

I do this as the message I want to convey is more important than making sure everyone reads every word I've written or spoken (I expect very few will read all 1000 words of this post). If I wanted more hits, I could use grabbing techniques that are often seen such as, "you won't believe what this person did to getting understood in the workplace...." and then you read a lame story and are disappointed. Well, that may work for social media, but a conversation, email or presentation at work you need all the information quickly accessible, a summary can provide that, and most importantly, make it easy for people to understand you.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Weekly Tip – Build relationships with those ‘prickly’ folk

In summary, if you build relationships with bad communicators, the ‘prickly’ folk, or people that you don’t like very much, not only will you find that they might be okay after all, but you might just tap into a great resource.

Okay, what am I getting at? Maybe you are 100% professional, never have favourites and split your time appropriately for the size and nature of the task…. No?

At work it really comes down to outcomes, it’s what we are paid for. The outcome you want and the outcome you get from work requests often vary from person to person and day to day. So, take a scenario where you are at work, you have two people you need to get to do something for you. More often than not, if you have a good relationship with a person, you might call them, or if you are in the same building, perhaps you will find them, have a coffee with them, maybe even catch up on the week’s gossip.

The other guy or gal, you don’t get on with so well. They are really good at what they do, but they are abrasive to talk to, deliver work in exactly the way you asked, even though if they had used their initiative it could have been so much better, or sometimes it’s not what you asked for at all. Knowing this, you decide an Email will suffice with a list of requirements and hope that you don’t have to do too much re-work when it gets to you.

So why are these folk so awkward?

In my experience, the people who are good at building relationships tend to do well. The people who are poor at building relationships also tend to be the people that see these good relationships as “politics”, and often when it comes to promotion, “Favouritism”. In addition to this, the phrase “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is used very negatively. These are the people that can be abrasive, rude or even sarcastic, they receive Emails containing complex work requests instead of invites for coffee. They get frustrated when what they deliver is exactly what the person needs or asked for, but the person doesn't use it. I know this feeling well, as during my 20’s, I was one of these people, so speak from first-hand experience of the frustration of handing over a piece of work that I know to be extremely useful, then that work, and me, would subsequently be ignored. So in answer to the question ‘why are these folk so awkward?’ Simple, they believe they are good and are frustrated that nobody seems to see it, awkwardness is their way of acting out and make people work for their product.

So why bother with the prickly folk at all? If they don’t want to play ball – leave them to it, I will get it done elsewhere? That’s perfectly fine, but sometimes these people are really good at what they do, they also have probably been in the same role for a very long time too so have a lot of experience. Also, they probably have no clue that their interpersonal skills have such an impact on their work and career, they also don’t realise that they are treated the way they are treated because of their behaviour, not their work (The 20’s me really did think that if I kept being sarcastic about other people’s errors that they will do something about it! – I was being helpful… In a light hearted way… wasn't I?)

So building a relationship can work wonders, I'm not suggesting taking them out for a meal and a movie, but certainly wander to their desk or at least call them. More importantly ask them for their opinion, try your best to wade through any negativity that may be there and understand where they are coming from. They are probably just not articulating it very well. Think of this as sifting through the grit to find gold. Most importantly, give clear feedback on what was good at first until you've built up a good enough relationship to criticise. Most of the prickly folk out there are probably not getting regular feedback from their managers (If they were their prickly behaviour would have been handled).

Also, don’t expect miracles, first few times you do this, what you get might not be any better, but over time as you come to understand each other it will get more like your other, good relationships. At the very least you will have someone else to go for coffee with.

Bonus Tip for the ‘Prickly folk’

If you are reading this and thinking, “Er… these ‘prickly folk’ sound a lot like me…” there is nothing wrong with getting an Email from a person you have a poor relationship and thinking, “This is a dumb, stupid request, they've had this three times and don’t do anything with it”, but saying that, or escalating to your manager isn't going to help you or the business. Maybe try picking up the phone and saying, “Hi, I'm hoping you can help. I've read your Email, and just wanted to check a couple of things, have you got a minute to chat?”.  This is the tough part – listen to them, understand where they are coming from and be critical of your work and understand why it’s not meeting their requirements. At no point do you say, “But we gave you that last week”. It is okay to say, “Okay, I think we can tweak a few things we've already done for you and get that sorted out”. Far better for both of you, as you don’t look like an unhelpful jobs-worth who can’t work with people, and they don’t feel stupid, so it’s great for everyone! (Note; If you make people feel stupid, it doesn't benefit you, in fact, they will quickly learn to work around you and in some cases, they may even seek revenge – and if they have better relationships than you, they will almost certainly win).

Sound a bit too much to handle? Just try using the phone or speaking in person and not blaming anybody for anything. Just talk about the work and what needs to change and don’t take it personally, and if you can give anyone a heads up that they have work or trouble coming their way, do so – they might remember it and even do the same for you.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Weekly Tip – Don’t use the word ‘Process’

To some stakeholders, ‘Process’ is a dirty word and only applicable to certain disciplines where it is a mandatory requirement for some reason. So, just don’t use the word ‘Process’ and you may get the outcome you want. My tip is;
  • Clarify the outcome
  • Clarify who does what by when
  • Make and record agreements
  • Create an enduring relationship
  • Map the process and keep it to yourself

You may want a little more detail, as well as thinking “We could easily record this in a process map!”, so first, let’s understand the people involved;

Process Lovers;
For those of you who love process maps or talk in terms of process steps, and render your thoughts with lines and boxes, you may be frustrated that some stakeholders have zero interest in your efforts. Maybe you’ve been involved or ran DMAIC event and seen what can happen when people get together, understand their process in a visual way and make amazing improvements to that process.

Process Haters
For those of you that at the mention of the word ‘Process’ you cringe at the idea of process mapping or steps, you may agree in principle that it’s probably a good idea, but it’s just not for you. Maybe you’ve had bad experiences, or just not convinced it’s the way to work.

Process Agnostics
For those of you who are not too bothered either way, you may be happy enough to look at a process map, but you are comfortable with informal agreements too. As a process agnostic you may have considered getting your process(es) mapped, but it all seems a little too inaccessible.

Who is right?
All parties want a successful outcome and all believe that their approach to doing business is the right one. The Process Lovers think that the best way to communicate about business should be in an orderly and documented way, Process Haters on the other hand believe that we should stop messing around and get on with it.  Process Agnostics are happy either way, but will probably do business in a similar way to the Process Haters. So nobody is ‘right’ but if either side think action needs to be taken to improve business and customer outcomes, then we need to think carefully about our approach.

My experience tells me that Process Lovers are in the minority, especially at a senior level where decision making can be essential. As such, it’s down to the Process Lovers to do the hard work and not use the word “Process”.

How do we talk about process without talking about process?
There are different ways to do this, and I’ve certainly made a few mistakes along the way. Here are the ways I’ve found most effective;
  • Clarify Outcome – Be careful here, conversations often get muddled, are you talking about issues with a successful business outcome or a successful customer outcome? For example, you might have a great quality product that the customer loves, but the cost to produce has resulted in that product becoming unprofitable.
  • Who does what by when* - This is the most important of all, if you can reach a consensus on this with all stakeholders, then you pretty much have a process you can draw and keep to yourself.
  • Make and record agreements – Sounds obvious, but I’ve been in too many meetings to remember where minutes and actions were not recorded. A shared summary can be enough.
  • Create an enduring relationship – You may have clarified the outcome, agreed on who does what by when and made and recorded agreements, but these changes need to be embedded over a period of time. Building an ongoing relationship with the stakeholders concerned, in a way they want to communicate will get best results.
  • Map the process and keep it to yourself – If you really want a process, draw one. But keep it to yourself. You don’t have to hide it from anyone, but don’t take it to a Process Hater and expect them to thank you for it. You never know, over time as trust is built up, those Process Haters and Agnostics may realise that you benefit from referring to a process or procedure (you are a Process Lover after all), they may even ask for a copy.

Right now, let’s be realistic, as a Process Hater, or agnostic you are probably jumping for joy and shouting, “No more talk of Process! Yay!”, whereas a Process Lover may be considering other aspects of what a coordinated process effort, or even what a simple process mapping workshop can deliver. As a Process Lover myself, I can empathise, but go back to the point of what a process is. If you have stakeholders that won’t engage with you because you use the word ‘Process’, then it has already failed. So, in these cases, Don’t use the word Process!

*This phrase I picked up from the Manager Tools Podcasts (available at www.manager-tools.com), and was in the context of Project Management, but I think is perfect for process too.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Weekly Tip; Be open about the fact it will get worse before it gets better

I've been lucky enough never to break a bone, but I remember someone from college who broke the arm they wrote with, and it was pretty close to exam time! They did adapt, but their skill of writing didn't quite catch up with their other arm. Why? Well their arm healed and they went back to the old way of working with their regular writing hand.

Some customers of change feel like they have a broken arm when change is imposed on them. To illustrate this, have you ever seen a post declaring that they will never use Facebook again because of the new layout or change in privacy policy? Usually, in a short space of time, this is forgotten and those same individuals are back sharing their lives on Facebook as they were before.

What is difference between a broken arm and Facebook functionality?


If you want to continue using Facebook, you have no choice but to suck it up and get on with it. Most business change has a key issue, it is possible, once the dust settles to go back to the old way of working.

You may already know that after the implementation of a new system or process, that performance will, initially get worse before it gets better. This is often referred to as the ‘J’ curve, and is actually the same as any change, like when your picture upload facility changes on Facebook, or having to write with your other hand, you need to get used to the whole concept and learn the new way of working first before you can consider it being better than before.

The thing is, if we are not open about the J Curve of change with our stakeholders, and be clear that it will actually get worse to start with, the stakeholders involved may complain, protest and in worse case, refuse to use the newly implemented change, it will just feel like a broken arm that’s waiting to heal.

So the tip here is;
  • Be honest about the fact that expect things to be worse initially, don’t just hide the fact in a PowerPoint slide buried in a briefing. If you know how long this might take tell them. Even better, if you know in what way it will get worse, let them know so those stakeholders can prepare
  • Monitor non-conformity. Everyone sighs when they hear the word ‘Governance’ but many times I’ve seen a project team hand off a project to the stakeholders far too early, with potentially great projects abandoned
  • Be present, your stakeholders may be struggling, misusing or misunderstanding what is going on, they need to be reassured that the performance dip was expected, that the figures are not going to get them in trouble, and they don’t need to go back to their old way of working.

Okay, so you've been honest and monitored non-conformity and you are available as you can be, but the stakeholders are still going off and doing their own thing. This is where your relationships come into play. Truly understanding what the issues are, and being honest with findings can be difficult. Did it in fact work better before? Was the solution the right solution? How could it be improved to work more effectively? Which Stakeholders are having the most trouble? Most importantly, is this a part of the J curve, or are we really seeing a declining trend in performance?

Answering these questions honestly can be difficult, but if it is put in with overall context of the change then it may be useful. An example might be call centre metric of ‘Call handling time’* is affected because a new process requires them to log more information from a customer. That information, further down the line leads to faster resolution and quality is higher. Over a period of time, this means that the same call centre will have less repeat calls from customers who are either complaining or wanting an update on their issue.

The business improves.

If, however, the call centre goes back to the old way of logging their calls, because they panic at the increase in call handling, later when they justify going back to the old way of working, they can show a dip in performance as a result of the change, and then their valiant efforts to claw their way back to their previous performance levels when they reverted.

They only saw the 'worse', they didn’t see the 'better', justifying their actions.

So, in summary, be honest about it getting worse, ensure stakeholders are engaged in the change and be available to help them through the change.

*From my experience, Call handling time is often used as a key metric for call centres and is often used out of context against other metrics. This example was used intentionally to highlight that a successful business outcome does not always equal an improvement in an individual departments measures.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Weekly Tip; Fear of Presenting? - Don’t think.

I built my confidence with presenting when I was in my teens. At age 15 I was teaching Karate to students who ranged in age from five to fifty.

Since then, I have spent many hours, both in and out of work with prepared, and sometimes unprepared material. It wasn’t just this experience that gives me confidence in speaking, it was actually reading one of Geoff Thompson’s* books on self-defence that I connected stage fright, with an issue some experienced Martial Artists face in a real street encounter – they freeze.
As a result I have come up with a tip that contains just two rules;

  1. Don’t think
  2. Prepare

So maybe a little more detail is needed? First thing, I don’t want this post to lead you to think I’m fearless when it comes to presenting. The reason I’m so comfortable with it is because I’m aware that most of the issues that people have on this subject is not really anything to do with fear. Like anyone else, I have the flight or fight mechanism built into my body. Great for running from danger, not so great when you are attempting to play the opening chords of an opening song on stage where your hands just stop working (my friends tell it better than me, but I once had an epic fail on attempting to play Master of Puppets by Metallica).

Now there is no easy way to stop this type of thing happening, but most things I have seen or read on presenting that deal with the notion of ‘stage fright’ seem to deal with the problem in the same way – by assuming it is something to do with your confidence, or some psychological issue that causes the problem. My bet is that it's neither of these.

Let’s talk biology for a second, (please note - I’m no expert!), but in basic terms, your body prepares itself for action (to run away or fight), it does this by;
  • Getting your muscles, and your heart into gear (preparation a fight or to run)
  • Minimising digestion to make sure the focus is on the muscles (it’s not needed while you are fighting or running)
  • Taking away blood from the brain (you don’t need to think, you need to run or fight)

So you are on a stage about to present to five hundred people, and an adrenaline dump, or ‘rush’ happens, your hands are shaking, you are sweating (you can’t run or fight, so you freeze). What do you do?

There are only two things, considering this biology that make sense;
  1. Don’t think; Just understand what is happening to you. Realise that you have chemical that is slowing your thought process down (your mind has gone blank because it’s supposed to). So stop thinking, if your hands are shaking, let them shake, if your voice has gone just wait.
  2. Prepare. If you know that you get this chemical cocktail running through you, then prepare. What works for me is ensuring I am comfortable with the structure of what I'm talking about, I personally don’t memorise word for word. As doing this means that you have to think (and that would contradict number 1!).

Okay, this seems mega simple. That’s because it should be. During the time of an intense adrenaline rush, you just can’t think straight, there are many examples of Martial Artists with years of experience that struggle in a real conflict as they are thinking about what move they should use next, they freeze, instead of using a simple, well drilled response.

As a part of your preparation, especially if presenting is a major issue for you, you may want to drill certain habits in to your mannerisms as well as stalling techniques while you wait for the surge of adrenaline to pass (so you look like you are intentionally not speaking, as opposed to looking like a cat in head lights!). I won’t go into detail here, but an example of clearing your throat and then sipping on water can give a natural five to ten seconds for your body to sort itself out, a smile, anything that doesn't involve thinking - that will lead to trouble.

Final note, "Don't think" comes first for a reason, as adrenaline can hit at any time, you might be in a meeting and your boss says "Matt, can you just take us through X, Y and Z" so you have no prep time. Make sure if the adrenaline hits - don't think.

*There are a few self-defence authors I would recommend such as Jamie O’keefe, and Dave Turton, but Geoff Thompson was where I learned on the effects of adrenaline on the body.