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 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

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, and was in the context of Project Management, but I think is perfect for process too.