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!