The QuickBase Blog
More and more companies are embracing telecommuting – or at least allowing it on occasion. That flexibility is usually a boon for workers … but regular work-from-home’ers know that this flexibility comes with a dark side too: “tele-pressure.”
Researchers coined the term tele-pressure to describe the urge to respond to emails, texts, and voicemails as fast as you can, so that you appear connected and responsive. That leads to people doing things like interrupting evenings and weekends to respond to emails that aren’t actually urgent, or even neglecting their biggest priorities during the workday itself in order to remain continuously responsive to a never-ending stream of emails and other communications. Over time, it can lead to workers being less productive, burned out, and even experiencing health and sleep problems.
“Employees pick up on both subtle and not-so-subtle cues in the work environment that imply that fast response times are needed to be perceived as productive workers,” says Larissa Barber, a psychology professor at NIU and lead author of a new study on the tele-pressure. “This may leave employees feeling like they technically have the option of not being continuously accessible, but that unplugging—even for short periods of time—may be damaging to their careers.”
So what can you do if you’re feeling pressure to show at all times that you’re responsive and productive? These six steps may help:
- Turn off new message notifications on your phone and email so that you’re not getting distracted by the constant “answer me!” ding of every new message. Instead, check your messages several times throughout the day when you’re at a good breaking point in the rest of your work.
- Schedule work blocks for yourself, several-hour chunks of time where you’ll work distraction-free on your biggest priorities, and consciously choose to stay out of your email during those periods.
- Don’t assume that your manager expects instant responses to every email. Plenty of managers send emails in the evening or over the weekend but don’t expect responses until normal work hours. If you’re in doubt, ask your manager: “Hey, I’m assuming that it’s fine for me to wait to reply to emails sent over the weekend until I’m back at work on Monday, unless it’s an emergency. Let me know if that’s not the case.”
- Resolve to disconnect from work email altogether once your work day is over. Not every field allows this – there are some jobs that truly require you to be available and responsive at all times – but the majority don’t. Unless your job explicitly requires you to be constantly connected, try simply not checking your email over the weekend for one week’s worth of evenings and see what happens. If everything seems to go fine, try it for a second week and see what happens. Still fine? That’s probably a sign that you can truly disconnect going forward – and should.
- Remind yourself that if you don’t get an answer within a few hours every time you query a colleague, you don’t assume that person is slacking off; you assume they’re busy with something else. The same is likely true of how your colleagues think of you – and that’s doubly true if you have an established track record of getting back to people and doing good work.
- If you’re a manager, do your part to combat tele-pressure on your team by (a) creating norms around response time that make it clear instant responses aren’t expected unless something is truly urgent, (b) convey specific, non-urgent timelines in your emails when you can (such as “would you let me know by Thursday?”), and (c) explicitly telling people that you don’t want them to feel pressured to prioritize email above other work or disconnecting at night and on weekends.
No matter how much you may wish it to be otherwise, meetings at work are necessary. But they don’t have to be long, annoying affairs that get little accomplished. A fresh look at how we can take ownership of making meetings better.
Think you attend a lot of meetings?
Let’s do the math and see if that’s true:
- There are an estimated 25 million meetings in America on a daily basis.
- If you live to the average U.S. life expectancy of 78.6 years, then you will have spent two years of your life sitting in work meetings. (The average person also swears two million times in a lifetime, although it’s not clear how much of that is related to sitting in meetings.)
So, data has proven what we’ve all known for a long time: We spend too much time in meetings. They are time-sucks that often accomplish little and force us to spend our personal time catching up on the work we should have been doing while sitting in a meeting.
Is there a way to salvage the work meeting?
Paul Axtell, author of “Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations,” says meetings are important, but we’ve lost sight of how to ensure they are productive.
For example, 92% of information workers fess up to multitasking during meetings, even though it has been shown that there is a 40% drop in productivity when you multitask and a 50% spike in errors.
That’s why he advises to “leave your technology at the door,” and “keep only what you need for the meeting in front of you.”
You may argue, of course, that the reason you use your smartphone to check your email (and Facebook and Pinterest) during meetings is because of other people. Other people make the meetings run too long. Other people don’t stay on topic. Other people aren’t focused.
Buy Axtell advises that one of the keys to more productive meetings is that everyone needs to take more personal responsibility for meetings going wrong. In other words, it may not always be other people. It may be…..you.
Here are some ways you can take personal responsibility for making meetings more effective, Axtell says:
- Be patient. Don’t jump in the minute someone pauses in a conversation. By remaining attentive, you’re more likely to hear important information and won’t alienate the speaker.
- Be nonjudgmental. “Remind yourself that the other person’s views are as legitimate as yours,” he says. “Give them the benefit of the doubt; assume positive intent.”
- Listen for something new. You’re going to hear new information and gain new insights if you decide beforehand that you’re going to listen to what others are interested in or care about. Or, perhaps you decide that you’re going to focus your attention on what each person seems to be dealing with in their particular area. The point is to stop listening only through “the filter of your own personal interests,” he says.
- Be a focused speaker. This means that you’re clear, concise, relevant and respectful, he says. For example, don’t add a lot of extra detail unless someone asks for it; don’t speak unless what you’re saying will add value and move the conversation forward; and don’t express disagreement unless it’s necessary.
- Be careful with humor. Don’t make a joke that discounts the previous speaker or the conversation.
- Don’t fidget. Don’t use nonverbal behavior that is distracting.
If you’re a manager in charge of running a meeting, then you have even more responsibility for ensuring that a session is productive. But sometimes that can be difficult, especially if you’ve got a chronic interrupter, a complainer or motormouth. In these situations, Axtell says some strategies include:
- Ignoring it. If someone interrupts, for example, let the person finish his or her comments and then resume yours or ask whoever was interrupted to continue.
- Asking for what you want. Another option for someone who is interrupting or talks too much is to stop and ask for what you want. For example, a conversation hog might be told: “If you don’t mind, I’d like to hold you back for a bit while I get a couple of other people into the conversation. Then I will come back to you.”
- Confronting the issue later. Away from the meeting, you can tell the person that you’d like participation to be more balanced or you’d like him or her to interrupt less.
Finally, if you’re really pressed for time and want to ensure your group stays focused, you might consider a strategy used by Christopher Frank, an author and vice president of American Express. He suggests having participants say in five words or less the problem to be solved. If the answers are inconsistent or lengthy, then that’s a clue that attendees aren’t focused on the same problem.
“By clearly articulating the issues, you will get a good idea of the information you need, the people you should talk to and will ensure everyone is working toward the same goal,” he says.
I’ve talked before about how responsiveness – or lack thereof – can make or break your reputation at work. Typically, I complain about people who never answer emails unless there’s something in it for them at that moment, or who take weeks to do so. However, it turns out that most people’s definition of responsiveness is even stricter than I would have thought. It turns out that your colleagues don’t want to wait for you at all.
Same Day Response is the New Normal
MailTime is an app that converts email to a text message format via the smartphone. The founders recently conducted a study of 1,500 professionals to evaluate email etiquette in 2014-15. What they discovered may surprise you.
Most people (52 percent) expect you to answer work-related emails within 24 hours, and 19 percent want that response within 12 hours. The more time that goes by, the less people tolerate. Only 3 percent think it’s appropriate to answer emails within a week. More than that? Forget about it.
Wi Fi: A Blessing or a Curse?
As technology becomes more and more instantaneous, it’s no longer acceptable to pretend you didn’t see a message right away, or even to cite the “I was traveling” excuse. Wi Fi is everywhere, so except for those precious few hours on the plane (for now, while you still have to pay extra fees), you’re on the hook to get back to co-workers within hours. Unless you’re 80, the 90s model of checking email once or twice a day is long gone.
Slow Responders Reap the Consequences
There was a time when people thought email was going away, but things have evolved quite differently. For the time being, email is still the default method of communication inside the global business world.
What happens when you take too long to respond to a message? To start, you could lose business. In my own line of work, prospective clients frequently email several speakers/writers at once and go with the person who sends back the most satisfactory response in the least amount of time. Second, you’re in danger of a misunderstanding. The sender may think the lapsed communication means you are trying to ignore him, or that you don’t think he is important.
When you get into the habit of failing to respond in a timely manner, people start to question your competence, level of organization, and work ethic. They resent having to chase you down for an answer, and they start to avoid working with you. Word gets around, and pretty soon, your overall reputation is suffering.
“But I Actually Have a Job Besides Answering Email!”
You’re busy. Really busy. And if you thoroughly answered every email that popped onto your smartphone right away, you would never get anything done. Not only does it take longer to type on a smartphone (for most of us), but you’d be constantly interrupting true productive work.
That’s why, in an article for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, MailTime founder Charlie Sheng recommends that you get back to people right away with a one-liner letting them know that you received the message, and that a more detailed response is forthcoming. This way, you appease them while buying yourself time to compose a thoughtful response later.
In case you are feeling overwhelmed by these results, you can rest easy knowing that apparently expectations for personal email responses are not quite as high. Sixty percent of those surveyed by MailTime said they expect responses to personal emails within 48 hours, and a full 10 percent are willing to wait a week.
The Trust for Public Land is a national nonprofit that has protected over 3 million acres of parks and open space for all Americans to enjoy. Since 1972, the organization has been at the forefront of national conservation efforts.
From Walden Woods to South Central Los Angeles, TPL has completed more than 5,200 conservation projects of varying size and complexity. Smaller projects might only require a week and a few staffers to complete. Larger projects might require 2 years of effort from a wide range of staffers and consultants from among TPL’s 40 different office locations.
Like many large nonprofits, the Trust struggled to manage projects across multiple teams and states. Coordination and communication were hampered by an ad hoc system of spreadsheets and emails, slowing down projects and preventing the team from delivering on its conservation goals.
In this video, learn how the team was able to leverage a cloud-based system built on Intuit QuickBase to streamline project management and improve its ability to deliver.
Read the full case study on the Intuit QuickBase customer page.
So you’ve got an employee on your team who keeps making mistakes – maybe small ones, but they’re chronic. You see potential in the person and you’re not ready to cut your losses. What can you try to get them back on track?
Readers offered advice on this question – and had great suggestions for how to respond when an otherwise good employee is making too many mistakes.
1. Ask the mistake-maker to propose a solution
“I am a big believer in insisting the person hammer out a solution to their own mistakes: ‘Going forward, how will you endeavor to prevent this mistake from happening again?’ It’s interesting how many people will actually figure out their own plan to prevent the problem from happening again. Because they created the plan themselves they are more likely to stick to it.”
2. Help people feel the impact
“I think a person almost needs to spend time in a position that gets impacted by the mismatch or the error–to actually feel the consequences–for it to become real. If the address is wrong, are you getting the call from the angry customer who didn’t receive his order? If the line of code doesn’t include a closing tag, are you the one who experiences the visceral embarrassment of seeing a public-facing HTML fail on the company website? These consequences, at least to me, feel so different than a scolding or a write-up.
Some people don’t really internalize the consequences of an error because the fallout is never really theirs to deal with. To them, errors result in a reprimand or a bad grade, and that’s why errors are bad. If there’s a way to give them responsibility for fixing the errors and dealing with the fallout, I’ll bet they’ll develop a better eye for catching them.”
3. Invest some coaching time
“Invest some coaching time being really hands-on with the person, really delving into how they’re operating, what systems they’re using, how they’re staying organized, etc. — the kind of intensive, remedial help they shouldn’t need, but being very hands-on in that regard for a week or two to see if it gets them back on track. Sometimes it does! And then you can back off and return to normal and see what happens. It’s not sustainable for you to continue being that hands-on, so the key is seeing what happens when you stop … but for some people, that will be what they needed.”
4. Checklists and simplifying
“Short term: have a second person complete the same checklist for each item – that is, not do the work, but ensure it was done. Have both people sign off at the end. Say you have 10 people doing these orders. Make two of them ‘inspectors’ who double check the work before it goes out. The amount of time and money you’ll save making sure everything is done correctly before it goes out will more than pay for the fact you only have eight people directly working instead of 10. First pass quality is a big deal.
Long term: Standardize and simplify your processes. Are there common places where mistakes happen? Could there be more computer automation? What are your difficult edge cases, and why don’t they fit within your standard processes? Are there any roadblocks to getting work done? Enough space, materials, resources, time, etc.?
The last thing you want to do is have everyone come up with ‘their own way of doing things’ with respect to repeated tasks because it’s a great way to introduce errors of all sorts down the line.”
5. Another benefit of checklists
“A benefit of using a checklist is uncovering the parts of the job that are taking up so much of your time and effort. In a job I had many years ago, I followed a set of procedures that had been given to me by my predecessor. Over time the job changed and the volume of work increased dramatically. But I continued to follow the old process. The problem was that the process had been set up to address a particular quality issue that was no longer relevant. I was spending an incredible amount of time doing work that no one else valued and I had my nose so close to that grindstone that I never realized I could change how I did that work.
A checklist might have uncovered which tasks/outputs are important and which aren’t. What if you are producing reports that no one reads – eliminate them. Maybe you are tracking other peoples’ inputs and outputs – you can stop doing that.”
6. A culture that supports questions
“Back up trainers. Can you assign them to mentors within their peer group? Can you create a culture where people are available and people feel free to ask each other random questions during the day? I was big on telling them to ask each other, especially when it appeared that someone had a good handle on the area in question.”
7. Have a serious conversation
“Have a very serious, direct ‘this is a really serious problem and it could result in us needing to let you go, but I think you have the ability to excel if you figure out how to address this one area’ conversation — because sometimes people just aren’t taking it seriously enough and don’t believe it’s that big of a deal, and you have to help them understand that it is.”
8. And after it all…
“Make sure you’re regularly following up – it’s easy to have an intensive one-time event that blows by and then people go back to their bad, old habits.”
If you’ve looked for a job in the last five years, chances are you are familiar with Glassdoor. Known as the go-to website for employee reviews of their companies, Glassdoor only has 37 companies (out of nearly 150,000) with a perfect five-star rating. In order to determine what these highly-praised companies were doing right, consulting firm Software Advice analyzed their qualities and reported the following.
Little and Latest: Startups Rein Supreme
Nearly three-quarters of the top-rated companies were founded in the past 10 years, while 90 percent employed 149 employees or less. This makes sense if you understand that half of all visitors to the Glassdoor site are 18-34 year-old millennials, and millennials are known for preferring work at smaller companies. The top-rated companies also tend to be stereotypical startups. Forty-two percent are in the business services sector, while 39 percent are in the information technology sector. Sixteen out of 37 five-star companies are located in California – the global hub of tech-startup action.
If your company is old and large, there’s not much you can do about that. However, you can promote a startup-like culture – through the fostering of innovation, flexible schedules, and shifting challenges and responsibilities – in order to capture some of the Glassdoor magic.
Likeable: Collegial Support Makes the Employment Experience
Over-the-top perks are not what excite Glassdoor reviewers. Rather, it’s the camaraderie and support of co-workers that keep them enthused to show up at work. Thirty-eight percent of reviewers commented on the importance of their team, and managers that promote group cohesiveness and bonding were mentioned as well.
If you’re relying exclusively on benefits to retain your top talent, you might want to re-think that. Benefits are important, but your people and their relationships to one another are what will decrease your turnover. You can start small and simple, perhaps by planning one “official” team-building activity a month or bringing your people together for some low-key fun every once in a while.
A focus on employee careers and helping your people connect with work-related passions will keep them too. The Glassdoor research cites professional development (32 percent) and meaningful work (22 percent) as the second and third characteristics most critical to a top-notch employment experience.
Danger: Growing Pains Ahead
So do employees at five-star companies think anything is wrong with them? The truth is, not really. However, many expressed concern that their currently nimble organizations would experience growing pains that would be detrimental to the strong company culture. Indeed, the need to establish new processes and strategies and bring more employees on board can negatively impact a startup climate.
Employers at five-star organizations should be mindful of what makes their cultures special, and ensure that new hires (particularly those arriving from large, established companies) will support rather than detract from their cultures. Just because you’re growing doesn’t mean you have to become an inefficient bureaucracy.
As for those not at the top of the Glassdoor rankings, it’s worth a look at the five-stars’ employee messaging (via the website, internal handbook, news articles, etc.) to assess exactly why their cultures are praised so profusely. If you can, spend some time on the ground at these companies and see for yourself what they do to keep employees happy with their jobs and motivated to share their positive opinions on Glassdoor. Incorporating some aspects of their vision and strategies into your own operations could be beneficial in improving your own Glassdoor standing and recruitment ROI.
I came across a post in my LinkedIn feed from a PM from Bahrain, Eman Deabil, who sparked a healthy debate about whether “Project Manager” is a real title and “Project Management” is a real profession.
The crux of Eman’s argument is that project management is actually a set of interrelated skills that need to be developed by the person who is in charge of managing a project. These skills differ depending on the project, and especially depending on the industry in which the project will take place. For example, managing a project in IT requires a separate set of competencies than a project in the eLearning space.
No PM is One Size Fits All
Eman cites her concerns with the current PMP certification process, which she feels assumes that people who obtain this credential can go on to successfully coordinate a project in any industry. She simply doesn’t think this is the case. A Project Manager must not only have project management skills, but also the appropriate academic credentials and experience in the industry at hand.
Project Manager, she says, isn’t even a genuine title. Rather, titles related to project management should be much more descriptive – for instance adding details on the person’s line of business or type of project (e.g. Project Manager in Supply Chain). Instead of being asked to choose whether they are principally involved in project management or learning and development, for instance, professionals being considered for new positions should say they are “Project Managers in Learning and Development.”
I see Eman’s point, although I do think that transferable skills – or those that are appropriate across a wide range of industries and roles – are especially useful when it comes to project management. No matter what industry or business line you manage projects in, you’d better know how to lead disparate teams, coordinate multi-functional activities, manage timelines and budgets, monitor and report on progress, and analyze results. [Learn how to create a "GPS" for your own projects today at 2 PM. Or sign up for the OnDemand Recording.]
What Comes First, the Chicken or the Egg?
Can a Project Manager get certification (or obtain essential PM knowledge in another way) and then master the technicalities associated with a particular field, or must the field knowledge be present first, before someone can learn to be an effective Project Manager? Is it truly possible for Project Managers to easily switch industries as long as their PM skills remain intact and up-to-date? There doesn’t appear to be a clear cut answer.
Among the audience of PMs on LinkedIn, some people agree with Eman while others vehemently disagree. Says Ali Al Noory, a PM and training and development manager: “I’ve managed construction projects as well as training projects, and there are limited general skills that can be used for both. However, the industry knowledge is a must, and many of the skills associated with it are non-transferable.”
Samer Abdel Maksoudat, Ali Bin Technology Solutions counter-argues: “The project manager is the Maestro – he can’t play all the instruments himself but he is necessary to deliver a successfully concert.” Adds Mohammed Abu Shammalah at Turner Construction Company: “From the experience I have dealing with lots of PMs, I can say that a PM is not required to understand all of the technology related to the industry because he already has within his team qualified technical people.”
Based on the trajectory of your own PM career, what do you think?
Photo Credit © Zazzle.com
Arianna Huffington and director David Lynch have found meditation to be a big boost to life and career. The late Steve Jobs meditated too. Phil Jackson, president of the New York Knicks, brought meditation to the Knicks’ locker room after using it with previous NBA teams in Chicago and Los Angeles. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll attributes his team’s 2013 Super Bowl victory, in part, to meditation.
Lodro Rinzler, head of the Institute for Compassionate Leadership, also believes that meditation—the New Agey practice that’s considered to be wreathed in incense—has real career, workplace, and achievement applications. Toward that end, he has written a new book, his fourth, on meditation and work, called The Buddha Walks Into the Office: A Guide to Livelihood for a New Generation.
Meditation is the practice of training the mind to concentrate — either as a self-standing discipline with its own intrinsic benefits, or as a means to an end (mindfulness, visualization of goals, transcending one’s earthly concerns or achieving goals like compassionate business practices or intense focus). Practitioners may meditate in different places: sitting on a pillow at an ashram, at home, in a group in Manhattan or even on a subway. There are many kinds, some associated with a religion or culture and some not: Buddhist, transcendental (or Vedic, often with a mantra), energizing and a host of others.
According to Rinzler, the values of Buddhist meditation (the kind he practices) in the workplace can start with compassion for yourself and continue with compassion for the jerk at the next desk or the guy who just dissed you at a meeting.
In the preface, he explains why he wrote the book: “Sometimes at work people are jerks. Sometimes you are one of them.” The book, he adds, is about how not to be a jerk “and how to work with others so that mindfulness and empathy can flourish.”
Here are some examples of how people use the fruits of meditation – the presence you gain from a new, more mindful perspective — in the workplace.
It helps you pay attention.
You might have someone like Brett, who’s more and more a jerk. But if you slow down and are present enough, you might notice that something’s going on with him. You might be in his office and notice that the picture of him and his wife is no longer on the desk.”
When you notice the small clues, you can solve the bigger mystery: It turns out that Brett is separated, and because of his relationship woes, he can’t concentrate. “And our heart opens for him naturally,” Rinzler said. “But we wouldn’t have been able to ‘spare the rod’ unless we could slow down enough.”
The magic happens, Rinzler said, in noticing physical cues like the absence of the photograph. In a business context, meditation helps practitioners tune in to what’s going on right now.
“We can loosen our hold, stop forcing our agenda and be more open to, and inquisitive about, the people we are working with,” said Rinzler.
It helps you listen when no one is speaking.
Let’s say you’re a manager and running a meeting, pushing through your agenda. “As I’m leaving meetings,” Rinzler said, “I’ll notice that someone’s very quiet.”
A person who is focused on the agenda, and the agenda alone, may overlook this stakeholder’s silence. But in Rinzler’s case, “I’ll get inquisitive–‘Jeff, I notice that you haven’t said anything about the budget: Is there anything you want to say?’”
Jeff answers by saying he has misgivings about the budget and about priorities, Rinzler said, information that came out only when the boss was present enough to see Jeff’s reaction and ask for his opinion.
“We can start working together better as a team,” Rinzler said.
It helps you diffuse anger.
One of the biggest virtues Rinzler extols is the practice of being benevolent. “Often when we butt heads with someone, they’ve completely derailed our project, or maybe they said they would do something and didn’t,” he said “We might call them on it, and they get angry.”
But the compassionate results? “We don’t have to perpetuate that response,” he said. “When someone’ s very angry with you, you can come right back to them and say ‘Listen, buddy, I have to warn you, if you keep getting angry with me, I’m only going to get more gentle with you.’ ”
Rinzler likens this to a bull in a pen at a rodeo. The handlers tease the bull, rile it into a frenzy, and only at a certain point release it from the pen, raging, kicking and snorting.
“More often than not, when people are angry, we keep poking them,” he said. “But as a result of meditation, we can be benevolent: opening the gate, and letting the bull fly out of the gate into a wide open field. At some point, the anger exhausts itself. The bull kicks and screams and eventually tires out. And then you can communicate.
“In other words, you don’t buy into the anger – you give that person enough space to calm down, and then you can relate to them like a normal person.”
Rinzler was one of the instructors at The Path, a new meditation-focused start-up that holds weekly “sits,” as meditators refer to group sessions. in the West Village in Manhattan. It was founded by Dina Kaplan, formerly of blip.tv, and you can request information or an invitation to join at thepath.com.
Separate from The Path, Rinzler also does sessions in person and online, as do many teachers. If you want a deep dive, his Institute for Compassionate Leadership in New York City has a six-month part-time training program: a mix of meditation, leadership skills, and coaching. If your workplace is already compassionate enough, you can read one of Rinzler’s other books, Walk Like a Buddha: Even if Your Boss Sucks, Your Ex Is Torturing You, and You’re Hungover Again.
If your company is like most, this time of year is dedicated to focusing in on projects that will become a reality sometime in the near future. This normally means you’ll have to look at the project “wish list” to determine what’s doable and get them on the schedule to begin the process of getting it done.
It can be an arduous task that no one looks forward to since it typically involves several rounds of discussion to nail down projects that need to be done for maintenance purposes and new projects that will help move your business forward.
Before you really dig in to the process, it’s important to ask three simple questions that can help focus your efforts and make the outcome more meaningful.
Question #1: Where are we now?
You absolutely must take a quick look back at what happened in the past year. Assess what got done, what stalled and what never got started. Make sure all the projects that were completed are properly closed out and archived for future reference.
You also want to consider any internal or external influences on your company. Has something shifted in those environments that will directly impact where you focus in the next twelve months?
Last, take a look at what worked really well in the past year for each of your projects. This is not one of the tasks that we do best, but it’s an important component of project success. Here are a couple areas you’ll want to take a look at.
- Were there specific people involved that made things run smoothly?
- Was a new tool or process used that helped to successfully move projects along from idea to execution?
Make sure you identify all of the key success factors so you can replicate them in the coming year.
Question #2: What didn’t work well and why?
You can more than likely tick off a laundry list of things that didn’t work well for your projects last year. We’re all pretty good at focusing on the things that don’t go right. But instead of just compiling a list, make the time to actually assess why they didn’t go so well.
After all, you can’t fix something if you don’t know what caused the issue in the first place. You may discover the root cause of the problem has an easy fix that can help make this year’s projects even more successful. Or you might find you need to totally ditch a tool or a process you’re using and find another way to fill the gap. Either way, knowing what caused the problem and addressing how to change that will save you time and money in the long run.
Question #3: Where do we want to be?
The first place to start answering this question is to take a look at this year’s business goals and strategic direction. Any projects that won’t have a direct impact should be moved to the bottom of the priority list. There’s no need to waste time and effort on something that has no chance of ever becoming a reality.
Then review what’s left and complete a tentative priority list based on your business drivers and requirements.
Asking these three simple questions before you begin can help streamline your project planning process to ensure you make the most of the time required to get your schedule set for the coming year.
Let us help you close the gaps by attending our free webinar January 21: “Creating a “GPS” for Your Projects: From Project Request to Success” Click here to register now. Alternatively, you may register for the OnDemand recording and free assets to watch on your own time.
1. Is business use of voicemail dying out?
Tech experts have long been predicting the death of voicemail as a business tool as people increasingly prefer email and texting, and now at least one large company has completely ditched the technology: The Coca-Cola Co. shut down its voicemail last month, in order to “simplify the way we work and increase productivity,” according to an internal memo. In situations where someone would have reached voicemail in the past, they now hear a message asking callers to try later or use a different method to reach the person.
The company did allow workers to keep their voicemail if they could present a critical business need for it, and about 6 percent of employees chose to retain it.
2. “Work hard, play hard” is real and potentially dangerous
People who work more than 48 hours a week are more likely to drink at dangerous levels (defined as 14 drinks per week for women and 21 for men) than people who work fewer hours, according to a new study in the British Medical Journal. The research found that the connection between work hours and alcohol consumption stayed consistent at all economic levels and suggests that employers should be more aware of the social and health impacts of working long hours.
3. What to do if you’re smarter than your boss
Harvard Business Review tackles what to do if you’re smarter than your boss, a problem a lot of people think we have (whether we really do or not). It suggests that you keep quiet about your assessment, notes that being smarter doesn’t mean you’re more effective, and suggests finding something to respect, focusing on doing a good job, and helping your boss be better but not covering up her mistakes. “There’s no reason not to be generous,” author Amy Gallo points out. “If your boss is successful, there’s a greater chance you’ll be successful too.”
Take a look at comments posted on workplace blogs or on social media sites, and it won’t be long before you find an employee complaining that they’re often left out of the loop regarding business decisions.
These employees complain that their boss doesn’t keep them informed of strategic business decisions, what’s in the pipeline for the next year or even how their work is part of the bigger picture. Senior leaders are even worse, they contend.
It’s a frustration Mike Figliuolo has heard before, and he has a simple response: “That’s crap.”
Figliuolo, managing director of thoughtLEADERSLLC, says that employees who complain that they don’t know what is going on within their company simply aren’t trying hard enough.
“If anything, it’s easier than ever,” he says. “Just look at your company’s organizational chart and find someone about two levels above you. Send that person an email and ask them to send you their department’s latest strategic plan.”
With that information, you’ll be able to see what’s going on and then be able to ask additional questions to determine how you or your department are affected by pending plans or possibly involved in a new initiative.
“It’s just pure laziness to sit back and say, ‘I’m not being included,’” he says. ““If you can’t take the initiative then sure, you’re going to sit at the kid’s table and eat chicken nuggets.”
An inclusive culture
Zappos is a company known for being transparent with workers. Employees not only receive detailed information about the company’s performance, but are encouraged to share information about the company. CEO Tony Hsieh often shares company news via Twitter and Facebook, even announcing the layoff of 124 workers in 2008 via Twitter.
Some employees may conclude that since they don’t work for a company like Zappos, they’re forever doomed to sit at the kid’s table because their company’s culture is different. But Figliuolo argues that many employees simply have never “reached out” to try and become better informed, and “they just expect management to spoon feed them.”
But if you’re an employee ready to become a strategic influence at your company, then Figliuolo suggests:
- Stepping into someone else’s shoes. Instead of looking at an issue only from your perspective, try thinking of it from the position of someone in another department. For example, maybe you’re an expert on the minutia of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. But “that’s not going to get you invited to the table,” he says. The key is understanding how Sarbanes-Oxley is going to impact the CIO and plans for future development in that department. If you can explain that Sarbanes-Oxley is going to impede those plans, then you’re going to get attention because that person’s agenda is threatened, he explains. “You get invited to the adult’s table when you bring something from another perspective,” he says.
- Doing your homework. Spend time talking to those in other departments to learn their top issues and concerns. Ask them to share their annual plans, which show priorities. This will help you refine how you can specifically add value when offering a new perspective or plan.
- Never stop learning. Maybe your specialty is in sales, and you know nothing about IT. But there is a treasure trove of information online and through your company’s own website. The more you understand how your entire company functions, the challenges and industry trends, the better you can always be in position to offer insight or advice that can be seen as strategically important.
Experts also advise that managers need to make it easier for employees to ask questions, and that the organization will benefit if they provide answers.
Paul Spiegelman, chief culture officer at Stericycle and founder and former CEO of BerylHealth, often writes on company culture, and says that managers and organizations can benefit by keeping workers more informed about the company’s success.
“You’ll earn the trust of your employees if you report on your company’s financial performance regularly throughout the year. Town hall meetings are an effective medium for communicating this information, so that staffers can ask questions. If the company is not performing as well as expected, own up to it, and let employees know how they can help impact the situation,” he says.
Harvey Deutschendorf, an emotional intelligence expert, says that if employees “are kept in the dark about what’s going on, they will make up their own version and it won’t be a positive one.”
That means if there is something negative going on, such as profits slipping and sales taking a hit from a new competitor, then employees need to be told, he contends. “Not disclosing will only breed mistrust, suspicions and fear,” he says.
In addition, it’s important that employees learn to understand through transparency that tough times don’t last, and there can be a brighter future, he says.
“Keeping employees constantly informed and involved in long-term thinking and planning for the future helps lift spirits and prevents knee-jerk decisions that could come back later to haunt you,” he says.
Keep your entire team in the know, join us January 21 for a special webinar presentation with project delivery and leadership expert, Gordon Tredgold, “Creating a “GPS” for Your Projects – from Project Request to Success.
Travis Bradberry is the co-author of the bestselling book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the cofounder of TalentSmart, a provider of emotional intelligence tests and training. About a month ago, Travis published an eye-opening article on sleep and work function for Forbes. He confirmed what I’ve believed all along, which is that sleep is really important for high performers. Here are some of the reasons.
Sleepy People Are Dumber
Travis shared some data from the Division of Sleep Medicine at the Harvard Medical School, which said that the short-term productivity gains from skipping sleep to work are quickly washed away by the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation on your mood and ability to focus, problem-solve, and access higher-level brain functions. The negative effects of sleep deprivation are so great that people who are drunk outperform those lacking sleep. Why is this? Travis cited a University of Rochester study, which found that when you sleep your brain removes toxic proteins from its neurons. When you don’t get enough sleep, the toxic proteins remain in your brain cells, impairing your ability to think and potentially derailing your career.
Sleepy People Miss Work
Travis remarked that sleep deprivation is linked to a variety of serious health problems, including heart attack, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. When it is sleep-deprived, your body overproduces cortisol, which wreaks havoc on the immune system. This causes you to get sick more frequently, and stay sicker longer. You’ll also experience a variety of aches and pains that may be enough to send you to the doctor or contagious symptoms that will force you out of the office. Either way, when you’re thinking about how terribly you feel physically, you’re not concentrating about work.
Sleepy People Are Dangerous
As we’ve suggested, sleep deprivation decreases mental accuracy. But for those who work in any kind of job in which reaction time is a factor, it’s also bad news. We see news stories all the time about pilots, manufacturing employees, etc., who get into serious accidents because they aren’t getting enough sleep. And if you commute, sleep deprivation could be enough to kill you. Falling asleep at the wheel is a major cause of driving-related fatalities.
Sleepy People Are Bad Colleagues
Productivity and safety factors aside, being sleep-deprived will negatively impact your workplace relationships. According to the National Sleep Foundation, most people need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night in order to feel sufficiently rested, yet more than half of Americans get less than this. One of the most basic symptoms of long-term sleep deprivation is chronic stress and irritability. When you don’t get enough sleep, your ability to cope effectively with everyday interactions and stay cool under pressure goes way down, and your fuse blows much more quickly. A sleepy employee runs a much higher risk of being the colleague no one wants to work with.
What’s a Busy Person to Do?
Getting enough sleep is difficult, I agree. Even when I aim for eight hours, it feels like something always gets in the way – from a forgotten blog post to my three-year-old in my room at 5AM. But Travis had some good ideas that can help us do just a bit better.
First, stay away from sleeping pills. You may think you’re helping your body, but the effect is exactly the opposite. Sedatives interfere with the brain’s natural sleep process and greatly decrease the quality of your sleep.
Second, skip that cup of coffee after lunch. It takes a full 24 hours for caffeine to work its way out of your system, so much of the coffee you drink during the work day will keep you awake at bedtime.
Next, get rid of anything that emits a blue light (laptops, smartphones, etc.) in your bedroom. This kind of light halts production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and makes you feel more alert.
Finally, mind the basics. Try to keep your sleep schedule consistent – that is, go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time every day. Use your bedroom only for sleep – that means no working in bed! And to the extent you can control it (see the point about the three-year-old), avoid middle-of-the-night interruptions like an alarm that isn’t set properly.
Recognizing that sleep is critical, and not just a minor annoyance you give in to occasionally, is half the battle. While sleep will surely be plentiful when you’re dead, it will also improve the quality of the time you have here – especially when it comes to work.
Recent research on project management indicates that the field is about to enter the spotlight. Once an isolated function, project management is quickly being elevated in strategic importance. According to analyst firm Gartner, by 2017 senior executives in the largest organizations in America will rely on enterprise program management offices (EPMOs) to execute projects in alignment with overall business strategy.
The business case is there, of course. An article in CIO Magazine by Moira Alexander of Conture Business Advisors cites Project Management Institute research illustrating that EPMOs are capable of significant ROI. Specifically, they are estimated to improve confirmation of business priorities and project alignment with strategic objectives by 10 percent.
If you wish to keep pace with your market and competition, it’s wise to adopt the EPMO model sooner rather than later. Paraphrased here are some initial ideas Moira Alexander recommends in her article.
The principal role of an EPMO is to ensure that all business units are engaging in initiatives that are in line with the company’s vision. Therefore, it’s more important than ever that PMOs gain a seat at every table in the organization. By being everywhere at all times and by leading company-wide planning sessions in which they are able to communicate the organization’s direction, traditionally siloed PMOs become EPMOs that deliver greater value to the business.
EPMOs work closely with senior management from the very beginning so that all projects throughout the organization tie directly to business goals. They are instrumental in helping executives determine what matters to the organization and establish key performance indicators so that these priorities are measured and monitored properly.
This means that the executive management team must view the EPMO as a strategic partner that reports in directly and has full access, rather than just another business unit that happens to be project-based. Senior management and the EPMO should maintain an ongoing conversation so that business objectives and projects never fall out of alignment.
Management involvement doesn’t stop once a project is off and running. At the end of each initiative, the EPMO is responsible for quantifying the success rates in relation to the established objectives and communicating this data to the executive team. Senior management and the EPMO should work together to assess lessons learned and make the changes required so that future projects can better meet business goals.
As we proceed further into the 21st century, more will be expected of stellar project managers. Members of the EPMO, says Moira, will need to be exceptionally efficient and effective, and maintain high performance in the face of constantly changing economic and business conditions. Since they’ll be operating at a higher level, their results will be scrutinized by more sponsors and other internal and external stakeholders, and they’ll be regularly challenged to raise the bar.
If your PMO is still a bit limited in scope, the most intelligent first step is to open a dialogue with senior management about the EPMO concept. Review Gartner’s research with your executive team and brainstorm together how your PMO can better understand and work against current company priorities. Perhaps you can select an initial business goal and project, and engender senior management’s trust by exceeding expectations.
Project managers, do you consider yourselves part of a PMO or an EPMO? What do you see as the essential differences? Do you think full strategic alignment with the business and involvement in all business units is feasible for your team in the near future? Want the tools to help get you there? Join us January 21 for a free Webinar with expert, Gordon Tredgold, “Creating a “GPS” for Your Business – from Project Request to Success.”
If you’re a manager, you’ve probably known the frustrating feeling of assigning work, feeling confident that your employee understood the assignment and was equipped to do it, and then seeing the completed work and realizing that it doesn’t meet your expectations at all.
Often when this happens, it’s because of failures in two possible places: the original expectation-setting when you first delegated the project and/or the role you played (or didn’t play) as the work progressed. If you want to ensure that you and your team are aligned about what you’re looking for from their work, and ensure you don’t get unpleasant surprises once work is completed, these steps can make that happen.
- Be more explicit about expectations at the very start. Have a detailed conversation with the staff member about what a successful outcome would look like, as well as any important details the person should know (such as prioritization, constraints they need to account for, available resources, examples similar to what you’re looking for, etc.).
- If you’re not sure precisely what a successful outcome would look like, be transparent about that with your staff member that and brainstorm together. Or ask her to go away and think on it and come back to you with a proposal.
- Before ending a discussion about an assignment, check to make sure you’re both on the same page by asking your staff member to summarize her understanding of the assignment, expected outcomes, and next steps. For complicated projects, you might also ask for a written plan to ensure that you’re both on the same page about how she will be moving forward.
- Once the work is underway, be sure check in periodically. If you wait until the work is completed, you’ll lose the opportunity to give input or course-correct before it’s too late. Instead, touch base periodically as the work progresses, probe into the areas that you think are most likely to cause concern, and generally ensure that you have a solid feel for how the work is coming along.
- When a project is large enough, ask to review a piece of work before the whole project is completed. For instance, you might ask to see a short segment of a document while it’s still in progress or a page from a new website design before the whole site is created.
Using the tactics above will ensure that you and your staff member are in agreement about what success will look like, and you’ll have a chance to catch any problems early on.
If you’re doing all this and the work still isn’t what you’re looking for, the issue might instead be one of performance and you might need to address it from that angle. But even then, doing the steps above will help you conclude that with more confidence, since you’ll know that you actively set the person up for success.
Managing projects? Learn how to set up and track your projects from request to success with Gordon Tredgold and Intuit QuickBase in this free webinar January 21.
Many people start off the New Year with a new calendar, gadget or app they believe will finally help them become more focused and productive. But according to Rory Vaden, those tools may be a waste of time. He says he knows a better way to finally make the most of your time.
Rory Vaden wants you to forget everything you know about time management, because it’s probably wrong.
He wants you to ignore the advice on doing the most difficult tasks first every day, or the rule about answering emails during certain time periods. Those kind of activities are simply muddying the waters when you’re searching for a way to be more productive with the time you have, he contends.
The key to truly focusing on what matters comes from understanding the emotions that get in our way and prevent us from maximizing our time, he says.
“There is no such thing as time management, there is only self-management,” he says. “Time continues on regardless of what we do, so all we can do is decide what we will be spending our time doing or not doing for that day.”
For example, guilt or fear may prompt us to tackle certain tasks or projects that really don’t help us be more productive. Even chronic overachieves can make poor decisions about how they use their time, participating in what Vaden calls “priority dilution.”
“While priority dilution has nothing to do with laziness, apathy or being disengaged (like traditional procrastination) it nets the same result: a delay of the day’s most important activities because your attention shifts to less important, but perhaps seemingly more urgent, tasks,” he explains. “You are trading your to-do list for emergencies.”
Vaden, author of “Procrastinate on Purpose” says that the most successful people, who he calls “multipliers,” have learned to manage the emotions often tied to how we use our time. The key, he explains, is that multipliers ask themselves: “What are the things that I could do today that would free up more time tomorrow?”
“They get outside of their to-do list of short-term priorities and they realize that the real key to creating more margin in their life isn’t about working faster, or somehow ‘prioritizing’ better; it’s about learning to think differently,” he says.
In his book, Vaden provides five “permissions” that he says will help you make better use of your time and become a multiplier:
1. Eliminate. Vaden notes that those wanting to achieve success will always look at what they need to add to their lives, but they actually need to ask themselves: “What are all the things that I can eliminate?” Start considering the significance of what you do, instead of the volume of tasks you complete. He notes that many people avoid eliminating anything because they’re emotionally unable to say “no.” But when you’re able to say “no,” then you will be able to spend more time with your family or working toward your dreams, he says.
2. Automate. Those who balk at automation of certain tasks do so because they’re worried they don’t have the time or money to change a system. “Every moment that passes that you don’t automate something that could be, you are exponentially losing future time,” he says. “Anything that wastes your time is a waste of your money.”
3. Delegate. Vaden suggests asking this question at the beginning of every day: “Does what I’m doing right now require my unique skill set, or is it possible that there are other people capable of doing this?” Many people don’t delegate because they’re afraid of the job not being done right or a deadline being missed. “Whether it’s in your professional life or your personal life, the size of your success is usually determined by the strength of your team,” he says. If you properly train the right people, delegation can help you make better use of your time.
4. Procrastinate. “There is a big difference between inaction that results from indulgence, and inaction that results from intention,” he says. “One is procrastination and the other is patience.” Vaden’s company, Southwestern Consulting, found in a survey that 91% of respondents believe that things will work out for the best “and yet we rush around frantically so often to try and satisfy our fear that things will fall apart if we don’t,” he adds. He stresses that “timing matters” and that delaying action because you don’t feel it’s the right time can be freeing and help you make a better decision.
5. Concentrate. Vaden explains that there is an “emotional fear” of letting other people down, which “causes us to sacrifice our own priorities.” But if you concentrate on the significant activities that will create more opportunity for those around you, then you will find yourself focusing more completely on important items.
Finally, Vaden advocates looking at time as not something you spend, but something you invest. “Multiply your time by giving yourself the emotional permission to invest time into things today that will create more time and more results for tomorrow,” he says.
I recently spoke to Shep Hyken, who is a customer experience expert and the Chief Amazement Officer of Shepard Presentations. He is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Cult of the Customer and The Amazement Revolution and has been inducted into the National Speakers Association Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement in the speaking profession. Shep works with companies and organizations who want to build loyal relationships with their customers and employees. Some of his clients include American Airlines, AAA, Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, and AETNA. In the following brief interview, Hyken talks about how companies can develop successful customer support operations, how data can help companies improve, and how to train people in effective customer relations.
Dan Schawbel: How can data help you create a better customer support process?
Shep Hyken: There is an old saying in business that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Measurement sets a benchmark – a baseline – from which to recognize if your company is improving or losing ground in the customer support process.
Schawbel: How can empowering employees help a company develop better customer support?
Hyken: There is a strategy/tactic that I strongly believe in: One to say YES and two to say NO. This is opposite of what many companies do. They require their people to seek the approval from a manager or supervisor before they can say YES to a special request. The best companies have empowered their employees to come up with good solutions that are customer focused. It starts with hiring the right people, training them properly and then giving them the opportunity to do the right thing. If they make a mistake, consider it to be a learning opportunity. Obviously, if they make too many mistakes they either haven’t been properly trained or they are in the wrong position. That said, if you get the right people in the right job, train them well, empower them to do their jobs and take care of the customer, you will have better response and ratings from your customers, and a side benefit, you’ll have more engaged and fulfilled employees.
Schawbel: What does an effective customer support system look like?
Hyken: This is a difficult question to answer as it looks different from one company to the next. So, let’s look at this as a bigger picture. It’s not so much the system as it is the culture. If the organization’s culture is truly customer focused, then the systems will fall into place. It starts with leadership determining the customer service vision. Then it needs to be communicated to the employees. This puts them in alignment with leadership’s vision. At that point all employees need to be trained to that vision. Note: Training isn’t something you did, it’s something you do. Constant reinforcement of the vision through training is necessary to create and sustain the customer focused culture. From there, the vision must be demonstrated. Leadership, and all employees for that matter, must demonstrate and be role models for others to admire and emulate. Finally, a truly customer focused culture celebrates their successes, letting employees know the organization is fulfilling the vision and initiative.
Schawbel: What do most companies get wrong about customer support?
Hyken: Customer support shouldn’t be limited to just the “customer support” department. Sure, the people in that department may be responsible for support, complaint resolution, etc., but a truly customer focused company recognizes that customer service and support is everyone’s job. Internally we all have customers. These are our fellow employees who depend on us to do their job. If we don’t take care of them, and they can’t do their job, then it trickles out to the customer. One of the favorite things I share with companies is that what is happening on the inside of an organization/company is being felt on the outside by the customer.
Schawbel: How do you go about training companies to be better with customer service? What kinds of things do you talk to them about?
Hyken: As mentioned, training isn’t something you did. It is something you do. The foundation has to be set. That’s usually a bigger training session. It could be kicked off with a keynote speech and followed up with a half-day or full-day of training. Some of our clients have us come back several times over six months or a year. Even if they don’t have our trainers come back, they recognize that the training sessions can’t be an event. To be effective it has to be a process. Many of our clients have short weekly meetings – some even daily. Our suggestion is to take a few minutes of these meetings and reinforce some of the customer service lessons that everyone has been trained on. We have ideas and exercises we share with our clients so that they always have something they can talk about in these sessions. Several things that we always share in our trainings:
Customer service is everyone’s job. Every employee has two (at least) major responsibilities. One is to do the job they were hired to do. The other is to take care of their customer.
Customer service is common sense that unfortunately, is not always so common. The ideas we share in our training sessions aren’t that sophisticated. They really focus on the interaction that people have with their customers, both internal and external. Sure, there are systems that happen behind the scenes, and we are happy to consult with our clients about them, but our over-arching philosophy about customer service and support is that it is about interactions. Manage the interactions for a positive experience.
Finally, I want to emphasize one of my customer service mantras: Customer service is not a department. It’s a philosophy to be embraced by everyone in the organization.
You’d think that workplace trends would help us be more productive, and they’re usually heralded that way. But in reality, many modern workplace trends can actually impede your productivity rather than raise it.
Here are four current trends that might be making you and your coworkers less productive.
1. Open office plans. Workplaces that consist of wide open space – no private offices and not even any cubicles – are gaining popularity, even though most workers hate working in them. While companies that have made the switch have promised improved collaboration and team work, most workers dislike the loss of privacy and the distractions that make it hard to focus.
As it turns out, those complaining workers are on to something. A flood of new research shows that open layouts increase stress, raise blood pressure, and cause workers to take more sick leave. A Harvard study found that whatever collaboration benefits these layouts provide were outweighed by workers’ dissatisfaction with noise and privacy issues. Noisier work settings undermine both motivation and productivity, according to research in the Journal of Applied Psychology. And “workers in two-person offices took an average of 50 percent more sick leave than those in single offices, while those who worked in fully open offices were out an average of 62 percent more,” reports a recent study of more than 2,400 employees in Denmark.
Adding insult to injury, that collaboration promised by open-office proponents isn’t even happening: Collaboration dropped by 20 percent between 2008 and 2013, while time spent alone has increased by 13 percent, according to a survey by design firm Gensler.
2. Constantly being on call. Before email and cell phones became so ubiquitous, most people could disconnect from work at the end of the work day. (Remember when it used to seem that doctors were the only ones in danger of being contacted by work during a weekend or evening?) Now people in all sorts of jobs and at all levels are expected to stay connected and respond to calls, texts, and emails 24/7, meaning that some people never really get to turn work off at all. While this is supposed to raise productivity – after all, if you’re working at 10 p.m., you must be getting more done overall, right? – in the long-term in tends to lower productivity, as people become burned out and miserable.
3. Email. I say this as a lover of email, but while email has made many things easier and more efficient, it has a dark side too. We field way more messages via email than office workers in earlier eras ever fielded via memos, phone calls, or in-person conversations. It’s so easy to dash off quick questions to coworkers or send FYIs or otherwise fill up our colleagues’ in-boxes that we all do it without thinking about our collective abilities to process all these messages and still get our core work done – or rather, still get our core work done within a reasonable number of hours and unplug at the end of the day.
4. Group work. Modern companies are fond of organizing employees into teams, but some research indicates that group work can actually lower productivity. That’s because people in groups tend to exert less effort than they would individually, partly because they’re less accountable for results. In fact, studies consistently show that as a working group size increases, work capacity declines.
Making matters worse, research finds that creativity can be stifled in groups because of the pressure to conform to the majority opinion. If that makes you wonder about the utility of group brainstorming, you’re on to something: A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that group brainstorming generates far fewer ideas than the combined efforts of several individuals working alone.
It’s something to consider before assembling your next project team.
Photo Credit © gaston gazette
If you’re feeling overworked, you’re not alone. A survey this year finds that more than half of U.S. workers feel overworked or overwhelmed at least some of the time. Perhaps it’s time to give mindfulness a try. The ancient art is growing more popular as a way to deal with daily anxieties – and to become a better performer on the job.
One of the solutions being touted more and more as a solution to the emotional and physical overload many of us experience is mindfulness. But is mindfulness the answer? Or is it just the latest fad that you don’t have the time or inclination to try?
Scott Eblin, an executive coach and speaker, says he understands the skepticism many feel when they’re told they will be happier and less stressed if they’re more “mindful” in their lives. But as someone who has practiced mindfulness for 20 years and credits it with saving his life after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Eblin believes that mindfulness can help anyone improve their quality of life.
“Most people are very happy to learn that mindfulness is not nearly as complicated as they thought. You don’t have to meditate all day or do yoga every day,” he says.
Eblin says the need for mindfulness is greater than ever, as the declining economy several years ago put more pressure on workers to take on more work – and do it with less resources.
“We still seem to be in that crisis mode, even though things have improved,” Eblin says. “And whatever boundaries we’ve had have been erased by the smartphone.”
Let’s say your day started with your daughter forgetting her science project for school, forcing you to turn around and go get it. This caused you to be late to work and an important meeting, ticking off the boss. By 10 a.m. you had 200 emails in your inbox and three more meetings to attend.
If such a scenario sounds familiar, Eblin says the first thing you need to do is breathe.
In his book, “Overworked and Overwhelmed,” Eblin points out that there is scientific evidence that breathing deep from your belly can alleviate your stress and help you become more focused. That’s why he calls breathing “the killer app of mental routines.”
Focusing on your breathing, Eblin explains, is the simplest form of mindfulness. If a thought crosses your mind while focusing on your breathing (“I have to answer 200 emails!”) just acknowledge that thought and let it go while you again refocus on your breathing, he explains.
“Think of it like doing reps at a gym,” he explains. “Within reason, the more you do, the stronger you get. Mindful breathing is like a workout for your brain.”
In the book, Eblin offers several ways that you can use mental routines to overcome various sources of stress and become more productive with your thinking. He suggests you:
- Focus on learning. Don’t let your thought processes get caught up in remorse or regret for mistakes you’ve made, or things you could have done differently. No one is perfect, and you will make mistakes and have regrets. Instead, ask yourself questions about what was supposed to happen, what actually happened and what would you do differently next time. “What are one or two things, if any, that you want to do in the near future to mitigate what went wrong or to set things up for better outcomes in the future?” Eblin suggests.
- Don’t let your mind wander. You may be washing dishes or brushing your teeth, but you’re probably thinking of many different things while doing it. But try being fully present while washing that dish – think about the temperature of the water, the quality of the soap bubbles or the spots you missed on that last pan. “If you find your mind wandering off to that meeting you had today or the presentation you’re doing tomorrow, no big deal,” Eblin says. “Just notice it, and then come back to the pots and pans.” Staying in the present in little ways can “help you be more present when it matters most,” he explains.
- Let go of “what ifs.” When you’re feeling overworked and overwhelmed, your mind can slip into constant worry. “What if I’m not ready for that meeting?” “What if I don’t get this done on time?” Recognize that you’re worrying about the future, which never accomplishes anything. Instead, ask yourself if everything you’ve got going on is really necessary. Do you have to dial into that conference call? Do you really have to make homemade cookies for your daughter’s class party? If you find things are really necessary, then what’s the most important thing you need to get done that day? What could be postponed? Another tactic is visualization, when you breathe deeply and then ask yourself: “What am I trying to do?” and “How do I need to show up to do that?” which can help you identify specific tips you can take to create successful outcomes.
Finally, Eblin suggests that even the busiest people can carve out five minutes a day to do regular meditative breathing. “It’s not that big a deal to do but can pay huge dividends in terms of reducing your mental clutter and increasing your focus,” he says.
Nilofer Merchant has launched more than 100 products that netted $18 billion. In her 25 year career, she has gone from being an administrative assistant, to division leader, to CEO of Rubicon, to board member of a NASDAQ-traded company – gathering monikers such as the “Jane Bond of Innovation” along the way for her ability to guide organizations through seemingly impossible odds.
I interviewed Nilofer about her recent book, The New How: Creating Business Solutions through Collaborative Strategy and her concept of the “Air Sandwich.” Here are some of the highlights of our discussion.
Can you briefly tell us about the Air Sandwich? Why does this happen and what can we do about it?
Chances are, you’re already familiar with the concept of the Air Sandwich, if not the term itself. An Air Sandwich is what happens when a leader in an organization issues orders from 80,000 feet and lobs them to the folks at 20,000 feet, creating a large, empty void. That gap between the top and the bottom is an Air Sandwich, and just like two pieces of bread without the meat or fixings, this sandwich is missing all the stuff that matters: namely, feedback, debates, trade-off discussions. As long as we’re eating Air Sandwiches in our organizations, we lack the shared understanding necessary to achieve the kind of results our organizations need.
If a leader is accustomed to formulating strategy solo, or with the help of a few higher-ups, how can s/he get employees at all levels involved?
The fastest way to get all levels to play is to invite them. As in, send an email to as broad of a group as possible and say “we’re working on X, anyone interested in working on X is invited.” And then let them work together to figure out the problem that needs to be solved, and the options for solving it. It’s not a group hug scenario (not every vote is equal), but it is an opportunity to come to a shared understanding.
How can leaders make the leap from a great idea to a great strategy?
The best strategic idea means nothing in isolation. If the strategy conflicts with how a group of people already believe, behave, or make decisions, it will fail. Conversely, a robust team that believes in an idea fully can turn a so-so strategy into a marketplace winner. The HOW matters in how we get performance, and that’s why it’s necessary to invite people from all levels to take a seat at the table.
What is the most effectively strategic company you’ve worked with and why?
My first job in technology was at Apple, and what I’ve seen them do in the mobile space is nothing short of revolutionary. They’ve figured out how to tap into the power of many people’s ideas – what I call onlyness – and have a large group of individuals creating something more robust than what Apple could do by itself. It’s a sign of how the social era works – when you can join together with others in shared purpose, you can create more rich and viable ways to grow.
Why do you think the future of work will involve so much emphasis on co-creation?
The social era is so markedly different than the industrial era. If the industrial era was about building things, the social era is about connecting things, people and ideas. It’s allowing talent of all kinds to count. It’s allowing people to get things done without having to belong to and work up the ranks of organizational structures. It’s giving power more widely to anyone, quite possibly everyone.
Thanks, Nilofer! For more about Nilofer’s work on co-creation, visit her blog, Yes & Know.
These four resolutions can be the equivalent of hitting the gym for your team.
1. Give more feedback. If you’re like most managers, you don’t give nearly enough feedback to your staff members. Or you give plenty of positive feedback but don’t speak up quickly or clearly enough when you’d like people to do something differently (or just better). Or you might be the opposite of that, if you’re a manager who’s comfortable giving critical feedback but doesn’t give much praise for work well done.
But feedback is one of the most powerful tools managers have for getting results from their teams. In fact, just articulating the areas in which you’d like to see an employee improve or develop can go a surprisingly long way toward making that change happen. And of course, employees who don’t get alerted quickly when there are problems with their performance don’t get the opportunity to develop professionally – and bad habits are more likely to become ingrained. Or, when it’s positive feedback that’s lacking, people will often become demoralized and feel unappreciated, and that can show up in lower productivity and lower retention rates.
Resolve to make 2015 the year that you get serious about upping the feedback you give – on individual projects as well as overall. Make sure each staff member hears it when they’ve done well and knows when you wish they’d do something differently.
2. As a team, get ruthless about figuring out how you could perform better. In resolution #1, we covered you giving people more feedback to help them do better. This resolution is a different side of that; it’s about brainstorming as a group to figure that out at a team level.
As a manager, you probably have plenty of ideas about how your team can be doing better. But your roadmap will be far stronger if it contains input from everyone on your staff. So spend a few hours with your staff reflecting on what you want to achieve this year, what you might do differently to hit your goals out of the park, and what might get in the way of success. Give people the freedom to put everything on the table – are there strategies that aren’t working, policies or processes that are getting in the way of results, or whole new avenues you should be looking at?
People may have ideas or perspectives that never occurred to you – and plus, doing this will make staff members feel more invested in your team because they’ll feel that their input is meaningful and their voices have been heard.
3. Measure your own performance by your lowest performer. As a manager, you might be tempted to judge yourself by what your top performers achieve. But the real measure of a manager is how you handle your lowest performers. After all, they’re the ones who show what you’re willing to accept on her team, and whether you’re willing to take on problems head-on and hold people accountable, even when it means difficult conversations.
Make 2015 the year you get serious about tackling any performance challenges on your staff.
4. Get really serious about hiring well. The biggest thing you can do to influence what kind of work your team produces is to hire the right people in the first place. But if you’re like most managers, you’ve probably been guilty of rushing to fill a position so you don’t have a vacancy – and so you can stop spending time on hiring and get back to your real work. Of course, any time savings from that approach gets canceled out if you make the wrong hire … and even if the person you hire is okay, there’s a big opportunity cost attached to “okay” versus “extraordinary.”
In 2015, resolve to put a ton of energy into recruiting and screening candidates – especially including finding effective ways to test candidates’ skills and see them in action before making any hiring decision.