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.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Weekly Tip; Keep your GTD system water tight - not bomb proof

While working for npower, I used to send a Weekly Tip to an individual on a work-related, or sometimes non-work related subject. I promised to keep these going once I left the company, but instead of Emailing that person directly, I thought I would share... so as promised here's the first one;

Making your GTD System water tight - not bomb proof;
As a user of David Allen's GTD system, I used to have a lot of issues with managing my lists and projects. It used to feel bulky, complicated and hard to do.

I realised that the issue I was having, was that as I wrote an item down on a list, it would sometimes create another action, or, as I wrote Project Plans, they would be cluttered with actions that didn't really seem to add value and as a result, those Projects didn't get done as quickly. I thought that I was doing the right thing by writing everything down that could possibly be needed, but then I realised that the system needed to be water tight, and not bomb proof.

So on to the tip...

Make sure that any action you take (that is not "Job done"), you write down what the next action is at the time you complete that action (unless you are going to do the action straight away of course!). This makes things water tight (but not bomb proof).

For example;

I receive a refund cheque from the water company and have written on my errands list a reminder as follows;
@errands; Take refund cheque to the bank
***I deposit the cheque***
I then write on my @waiting list "Check online bank for water company cheque clearance"
***I check and it's all cleared***

This is a simple example, but can be useful in lots of other circumstances e.g. Have you ever heard the phrase, "Well, I sent you an Email about it" and you roll your eyes. This approach can help, as you may have an action on your Next Actions list of "Send X Report to Jane", and then, you can put an action in your calendar to say "Call Jane to confirm Report X is okay". This type of attention builds relationships and stops things slipping through the gaps. Makes things water tight as the desired outcome is that Jane can take action with the report, not that it's just been Emailed to her.

Some of you may be a GTD follower, and think, "All these actions should be on the project plan" (and therefore be bomb proof). By definition, in GTD speak, anything that requires 2 or more actions is a project, but I think setting up Projects for small things, will make your system appear bomb proof, but in reality it can often be a time wasting activity that actually delays getting things done.

Using the example above, if I were to do a "Water company refund project" There are then about 5 actions you will need to take e.g. 

  • Call water company requesting refund
  • Awaiting arrival of cheque of £X from water company
  • Process the cheque when it arrives (put the cheque in your wallet)
  • Take cheque to bank
  • Check statement for clearance.
But would you set up a project? Probably not, but writing down these actions as they are needed will help you keep things water tight. A bomb proof approach would have you write a complete plan like this one, as it could be argued that you may forget to write down the next action that is required, but I think a method of writing down actions when they are needed is much more realistic for many situations we face day to day.


  • Only use this technique if you are clear and confident that the scope of the action is unquestionable (if there may be some ambiguity, opening a project to clarify scope can be beneficial)
  • I use this for outcome I write in my projects plans e.g. a Finance project might have "Get refund from water company" - I would then go to my next action list and write "Call water company and request refund" without transcribing it on my Finance project actions list, or further detailing the additional required actions. This may seem a tenuous link between actions and projects but to get over this I number my projects e.g. 23. Finance Project, and then on the actions list next to the action I write a '23' with a circle around it to relate the action to the project. So although there isn't a direct link between the project plan outcome of "Get refund from water company", I can take a pretty good guess the majority of the time!! (water tight, not bomb proof remember!).

Glossary and useful info;

  • GTD = Getting things done, a time management system. See
  • Use of @ in this post; I use these to denote lists, so in text files I can clearly see where my list starts e.g. @Next, @Calls, @Errands, @Waiting etc. If you are wondering why there are multiple lists, best look into GTD and
  • Projects, in this context can be as simple or as detailed as required, but for GTD purposes, simple outcome statements and lists of key outcomes, maybe a few key stakeholder names, is what I had in mind when writing this post - not a full project plan/Gantt chart.
  • I don't use anything special to manage my 'system', on re-reading this, it may sound like I got some fancy software or something, so I want to make clear, I run my entire GTD system from a A5 moleskin notebook at home, and then write errands on a notepad on my iphone when I'm out and about (I used to try to carry an A6 notepad with me everywhere - fine in an office environment, but impractical for day-to-day management).