Scale and Consistency

One of the things that becomes a problem as your company (or product or service) expands is how to ensure a consistent experience across the board. Whether it’s that you’re operating in multiple countries or just spread across multiple servers, quality of experience can start to vary, not just for your customers but also for your employees.

This is why in huge companies, “procedure” can come to dominate. You want to make sure that all your employees get equal access to career progression, training, personal development. So you mandate that all your people managers follow certain procedures — annual reviews, work plans, etc etc. You want to make sure that anyone who calls customer service receives pleasant, friendly and above all useful service. In an attempt to standardise quality, you give people scripts, mandate that phones must be answered within a certain number of rings, and so on.

Many of us have felt the impact of these kind of procedures — the call centre guy who can’t wait to get you off the phone, because a “successful” call must be finished in less than 3 minutes; the manager who sits you down for a stale, scripted “career discussion” that makes you feel more like leaving the company than going for that next job or promotion.

My theory? These procedures are written in with the best will in the world. The need to write them down is the problem however — the “spirit” gets lost. People become slaves to the letter of the rules.

Have you seen this happen? Ever seen it combated in an effective way?

Busy != Productive

The people I really respect are those who can get mountains of work done and deliver amazing results … and still have a life.

It’s really easy to mistake “busyness” for productivity. The folks always rushing around, having meetings and complaining about how busy they are certainly LOOK like they’re doing a lot. But the reality is that effort and output are not always related. Productivity is about getting loads done — how you spend your time should be up to you.

Some busy people are also productive; some productive people are also busy. There are times when you’ll see me running around like a maniac, juggling half a dozen projects and priorities. But if you measure (and therefore reward) “busyness” as opposed to results, then you won’t get what you want. You’ll get an army of employees who are too busy to talk to each other and potentially on the verge of nervous breakdowns, who actually don’t achieve very much.

Measure results. Measure the outcomes, not the actions. Don’t reward someone for working night-and-day on a task, reward them for producing the deliverable at the end. Reward the person who gets the same work done in less time MORE than the person who is missioning for days and days. That way, you’ll encourage your team to be more productive, rather than just busier. They’ll find their own ways to improve the way they work and the entire team will benefit as a result.

Solving Problems Isn’t Hard

Solving problems isn’t hard. Once you know what you’re trying to achieve, then for most problems you can see a few ways to get there, so it just comes down to choosing the best course of action and following through.

Problem definition, on the other hand, can be damn hard.

When you’re facing some problem and it’s driving you crazy, sometimes you’re best to stop and wonder whether you’ve really defined the problem accurately. What are you trying to solve? What is the original problem? Why is it such a problem? How else could you frame it? What description would make it more tractable?

If you can get the problem definition right, your chances of finding an optimal solution are greatly improved. Don’t keep soldiering on down the wrong path, refusing to acknowledge that failure is also an option.

Quick Tip: Text Yourself

Ever get a great idea and then forget it because you didn’t have a pad and paper to hand? Ever wake up in the middle of the night with the solution to your biggest problem and then in the morning have nothing left other than that nagging feeling that you’ve forgotten something?

This used to happen to me all the time. First, I tried carrying a hipster PDA, but remembering to take it EVERYWHERE was difficult. Then I realised that I already had something that I always carried with me — my mobile phone!

Now, I have a very simple process: any time I get a good idea, whether it be for a blog post, a solution for a wicked problem or an idea for a great new site, I send myself a text. Try it — it works great!

Do Not Disturb Strategies

Sometimes you just need to get your head down and get some work done. Do you find that you’re staying late in the office, or coming in really early, just to be productive? If so, you need a “Do Not Disturb” strategy.

In the olden days (i.e. before the introduction of cube farms), getting some quiet time in which to focus was easy — you simply closed your office door. In the modern office, though, there are a myriad attention-seekers. Online, you can choose to shut yourself off — sign off from IM, close down your email (or at least stop it reminding you of new mail every two minutes) or even just unplug yourself. You can turn your cellphone to silent and set your office phone to go direct to voicemail. But what about people coming up to your desk to bug you directly?

Essentially, you need a way to signal to the world that you are busy and getting some serious work done. Pick a hat or scarf or something and wear it whenever you’re “in the zone”. Educate your coworkers and customers that if you have that article of clothing on, then they should turn around, go back to their desk and email you instead. Better yet, get your entire team to adopt such a strategy — that way if one of you is head-down and someone makes to disturb you, your team members will run interference, explaining the system to them.

The most important thing, whatever signal you choose, is to BE CONSISTENT and use the signal sparingly. Some people put on headphones when they want to concentrate, but because they also sometimes put on headphones when they just fancy a little Caliko, noone really knows whether it’s OK to disturb them or not. And when in doubt, chances are folks will go for the option that benefits them most — interrupting you.

UPDATE: This got picked by Lifehacker — great content in the comments there (and now here too!). Particularly it seems that in less of a team situation, having a polite sign can work wonders…

Blitz Your Email

Ever have one of those days when you get to 4pm and have NO IDEA what you’ve achieved? Chances are pretty good you’ve been “doing stuff” … checking your email, dealing with queries, answering your voicemail and possibly even getting the odd bit of work done … but you still don’t feel like you’ve had a productive day because everything has been reactive rather than proactive. Always-on can be fantastic, but being linked in to every possible distraction for every minute of the working day is often not the most effective way to work.

So what can you do about it?

Personally, I’ve had a great deal of success with a very simple strategy that is mainly about dealing with email distraction. Working in technology, I find that most of my communication comes in via email — if your main distractions are IM or phone, then you might want to adapt this.

Essentially the key concept is to do email blitzes. Don’t try to check email every 2 mins and deal with emails one-by-one. Instead, take an hour, or even a half or quarter hour and mission through as much email processing as you can. For each email that you read, decide whether it:

  1. Shouldn’t have gotten to you anyway –> delete it
  2. Just needed reading –> archive it
  3. Needs a response –> do it right then and there, if it’ll take less than 1 minute
  4. Needs a more indepth response –> leave it (or move to a “needs indepth response” folder)*
  5. Needs you to perform some action –> add it to your normal todo tracking system

I find that taking 30-60 minutes, twice a day, helps me to stay 100% on top of my email. The timings of the blitzes are important though — I find first thing in the morning and just after lunch are the best times for me. The former is because I’m in a role where sometimes there are urgent fires to be put out — others feel quite rightly than an alternative strategy can be more effective. The latter is because just after lunch is typically quite an energy lull — especially if you work in the North East where they believe in proper hot lunches!

At other points in my career, when I had different job responsibilities, I used to find that mid morning (after the initial “get stuff done” burst of early morning energy had passed) and mid afternoon (around 3pm, when everyone just wants to get a cup of tea) were the best times for my email blitzes.

Whatever the timings, though, restricting how much of my life I spent in Outlook or Notes or Thunderbird to just a couple of email blitzes a day has improved my productivity immensely.

Want more tips on managing your email? Try these links:

* I just leave things that need a more in-depth response in my inbox, which is against some of the Inbox Zero-style teachings, but then I easily manage to keep my inbox to less than a screen so I’m happy with my own process here 😉 YMMV.