General

You’re Not Listening!

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“You’re not listening to me!” she said, destroying his magazine reverie with a pillow.
“Of course I am,” he said with feigned annoyance.
“Oh, really? What was I just talking about?”
“You were complaining that your mother doesn’t plan ahead, which creates a crisis for you.”
“So you were listening. Why didn’t you say anything?”
“You didn’t ask me a question.”
The guttural noise she made was inarticulate yet unmistakable.

This fellow was lucky enough to produce the right answer to her first question. Some of us don’t make it that far and suffer a hail of pillows or more serious repercussions.

So technically he was listening. Fine. But the way he was absorbing information was less than satisfying to her. He wasn’t engaged. He wasn’t interacting even at the most basic level with eye contact, a nod, the occasional, “yeah” or “wow.” He was giving her that percentage of his attention that a radio would receive — a device that has no expectations. It neither knows nor cares how you feel about what you hear.

This argument is easy to make for people in a committed love relationship. But what happens when your boss or coworker is equally disengaged? We all experience this. They keep their eyes glued to the laptop or dumb-thumb Facebook while listening to you talk. They may even be listening to a phone call on ear buds. In their mind, they are being efficient. They are consuming your audiovisual input as well as other content, allegedly killing two birds with one stone. Never mind that a new article appears every other day about how multitasking is not really possible and that our chronic task-switching leads to poor performance in everything measurable.

Humans need to be heard and understood. People want to know that they have connected with a human being, not just a recording device. Stephen Covey put it this way:

“When you really listen to another person from their point of view, and reflect back to them that understanding, it’s like giving them emotional oxygen.”

We must dispossess ourselves of the toxic notion that consuming media is more important than the person before us. Don’t just pretend to listen. Engage.

image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/metrojp/92038203/

Show Up

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Have you ever left a restaurant smiling, talking about your server? I have. I sometimes rave about the man or woman who made my visit more enjoyable or somehow special.

If someone asked you casually what this person does, your simple reply might be, “He’s a waiter.” He or she may refer to their job that way too. But there is so much more to be said about what this person does, how they do it, how you feel about it, and what you take away from the encounter.

When someone treats me particularly well in a restaurant, I don’t just tip them better. I also circle their name on the check and write something like “Fantastic!” I want their manager (or at least their coworker who counts the drawer) to know that this person is special — that they had a positive impact on a customer.

Most encounters that I have in the food industry are not like this. That derives more from my restaurant selection and budget than anything else, but there are bright spots even in the run-of-the-mill lunch scene. When you find one, they really stand out against the canvas of average employees just trying to get through their day.

“Wherever you are – be all there.” ~ Jim Elliot

What does a waiter do, anyway? They take your order and bring you food, right? I mean, if they don’t do those two things, I’m pretty sure they fail at the mission for which they were hired. Beyond the basics, though, there are so many things that they can do:

  • Look happy to be there
  • Greet you pleasantly
  • Make eye contact
  • Explain the specials
  • Give you options
  • Chat about the weather/game/season
  • Find a way to connect with you
  • Glance in your direction
  • Check on your needs during the meal
  • Quickly fix what went wrong
  • Bring your check right away
  • Offer a to-go box
  • Care about your dining experience

You have felt the huge difference between an employee who brought their A-game and one who was simply there to collect a paycheck. It’s the difference between a waitress and a customer experience specialist. Don’t our customers deserve that same feeling? Show up for your customers.

Act on One Thing

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What do you remember from the last book that you read? How about the book before that? Glance at your bookshelf right now. Can you explain in one sentence the value you got from each book? My goal is never to memorize a book or write a novella of notes about it. Instead, I try to glean one or two helpful things from each book I read. Strong takeaways — principles or habits — that I can use tomorrow. Example: Purple Cow — Be remarkable or be invisible.

Reading for inspiration or pleasure is one thing. The benefit is energy that you can use for something else. But since there is no end to the books being published, reading how-to material and expecting to remember a lot of it or use it all is a fool’s errand. Even highly focused and insightful books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective people cannot be applied all at once. You’ll choke on the volume if you try to change everything. No, pick one or two things to work on. Then build them immediately into your day or week. Don’t make a list of them. Engage the material. Think of them as tools or weapons to be used.

It’s much better to act on one thing you learned than to have ten neatly written bullets of the great ideas you read but never applied. They’ll gather dust in a notebook somewhere and you’ll be no better off than before. In fact, you might be  worse off for wasting time and money on a book that you didn’t benefit from. Start every non-fiction book with the goal of grabbing one thing you can use to make life better. Then do it. Act on that one thing.

 

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/19779889@N00/16405450410/

Give and Take

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A good conversation is a bit like making love.
There is passion that drives one to the other in the first place.
There is giving and receiving.Talking is not always giving and listening is not always receiving.

Sometimes one needs an outlet and when you listen, you are giving.
Other times one needs input and then giving is talking.

Just as love would die without both giving and receiving, so conversation lives through both listening and talking.

Both are necessary, but in balance.

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
~ Epictetus

Seek a healthy rhythm.
Give more than you receive.

Image credit: Karsten Bitter

Focus

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If you want something badly enough, you will try to make it happen. Will you succeed? Our problem with underachievement is not usually a lack of knowledge or our circumstances, but rather our inability to focus.
A street lamp is considered harmless but useful — it can light up an entire cul-de-sac. Similar power focused tightly in the form of a laser can burn through steel. Same energy – different priority.

In order to make progress in an area that is difficult… we must say Yes to one thing and No to many other things. The point of having a specific direction in your life is to help you prioritize, set goals and stick to them. We often need help to get clear on what we want, to prioritize, to focus our energy, and persevere to the finish line. Are you showering everything with your limited light or are you focusing so that you can make an impact?

Positive Images

The mind cannot form a negative image of a physical idea. You cannot picture the idea “stop eating,” for example. Instead, your mind will envision a person who is eating. You can picture positive things — a fit person or a cool car or sitting on the beach because your business is doing so well.

It is crucial to want something to the degree that you can see it, taste it, smell it before it even exists. Crystallize it in your mind as a real thing. This is not some etheral visualization technique by which you ‘manifest’ something that doesn’t exist, thereby making it real. No, this is what successful people do when they plan — they form a vision of the future that is tangible —  something that matters to them — and they make it so clear that it drives lesser distractions out of the way. They focus. They go all in.

Tame Your Email

My email inbox is empty. No, really. There’s nothing in it. Does that mean I have nothing to do? Far from it. But that empty inbox is a sign. It’s a confirmation that my email has been and continues to be managed in a way that I control — a way that keeps me productive.

Do you have hours or days that seem to disappear into the black hole of your email inbox? Letting your email manage you instead of the other way around can render you ineffective. Here’s how I tame the email monster and stay productive.

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PRINCIPLES

To create any effective system, you have to know what you’re trying to accomplish. I tend to think in terms of a hierarchy of principles. These are the principles apply in my email management system:

  • Do important things first
  • Avoid wasting time

PROCESS

To implement the principles above, I use the following process:

  1. Take control
  2. Reduce noise
  3. Prioritize
  4. Focus

TAKE CONTROL

Step 1: Don’t open your email. Unless you have absolutely nothing on your to-do list, don’t look in there first thing in the morning. Not yet. First, get something important done that is already on your list — something you decided was important enough to write down as a personal action item. Something that, if your day bursts into flames, you won’t get done. Getting things done is a function of planning and focus. Don’t jump right into reaction mode to begin your day. Check email on a schedule that suits your work habits. Reading email should not be your top priority. “If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan…” ~ Jim Rohn

REDUCE NOISE

Put technology to work for you. Use automated rules to route incoming messages into appropriate folders. Segment them based on where they come from. You know that the system-generated update is not likely to be as important as an incoming email from an individual. Don’t let them land in the same place. Here are the folders into which I route mail using rules:

  • Confluence
  • JIRA
  • Newsletters
  • SystemAlerts

PRIORITIZE

Life is like this: Some things are more important than others. If you don’t order your tasks, you’ll spend your limited time on things that you shouldn’t. Now, you can really overthink this, so keep it simple. I use the ABC approach and create a folder for each one:

A — Important and urgent (that project email from the boss)
B — Important but not urgent (that license expiring in 30 days)
C — Everything else (that article I want to read)

Sorting messages into folders sounds simple but it takes self-restraint. It’s so tempting to open every email as you go along or process that urgent thing before finishing. Don’t do it! Put your items into the priority folders first. Skipping minor and trivial items helps you maximize the value you produce today. Email is not an emergency communication vehicle. That’s what phones are for. If you have a task that came to you by email, it can wait a few more minutes while you prioritize your work.

FOCUS

Now that you have quickly sorted items by importance, work the A folder. Simple, right? Here’s the kicker: Don’t look in the B folder until the A folder is empty or you are blocked on everything in it. Pick the most important item and answer it or make the call or move that task forward. If you are consistent about this, you will find items in your C folder growing mold. That’s OK. You put them where they belong in the first place, so don’t worry about them. They are not as important as the A and B folders.

Busyness is a major malady — we are always being flooded with new information and new tasks. None of us has enough time in a given day to do everything that we want to do.  Accepting this can give you a measure of peace if you know that you are working on the most important tasks. This simple system will help you do that.

Daily Basics

In a career now spanning 40 years, I have read a lot of books — most of them while running a software consultancy for 15 years. Running your own business makes you hungry for the wisdom of others. I still read stand-out titles in business, marketing, and personal growth. Right now I am learning how to “think like Leonardo da Vinci.” These books are inspiring and my goal is usually two-fold: add something to my personal toolkit and share something valuable with a friend.

While there is much to be gained in such reading, there are also dangers. One can whipsaw back and forth between trends, get mired in minutia or just become overwhelmed by how much there is to know and do. Reading marketing books, for example (Seth Godin, Harry Beckwith, Ries & Trout), created such an internal gap — a sharp sense of being behind — that I had to put that subject aside and read something grounded and practical (Ken Blanchard, Michael Gerber, Norm Brodsky).

The problem with life, they say, is that it is soooo daily. How do you put all those inspiring thoughts to use? What system of daily living can you hang new ideas on that will make them useful? After four decades, I find myself returning to the same habits day after day. It is unlikely that this list will inspire you. If you follow it, however, you will be an effective person in your daily life.

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SHOW UP

Sounds silly, but can I count on you to show up tomorrow? People have widely differing values when it comes to their physical presence. Some arrive on time, some early, some late. Make it part of your DNA to be predictable… to be the person that others think of as solid, reliable. But arriving is only half the goal — you also have to be present. Jim Elliot said, “Wherever you are, be all there.” Fully engage with the people and work before you. Don’t be that guy who is physically in the room but mentally miles away. Your coworkers and family can tell.

LISTEN

Stop talking and pay attention to what people are telling you. Stephen Covey put it this way: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” No one learns anything by talking — except perhaps the speed at which they lose influence. People communicate by what the say, what they don’t say, and how they act.  Ask questions, then listen carefully to the answers. Tune your radar to pick up signals about what people need, what they want, and what they fear.

RECORD

Write stuff down. Unless you have perfect recall (virtually nonexistent in adults), you will need to capture the data being given to you. If you rely only on your memory, you’re communicating loudly that what people are telling you is not that important. Take notes during meetings and clean them up as soon as possible, while the conversation is still fresh in your mind. Develop a note-taking system that works for you.

PRIORITIZE

Some things are more important than others. Knowing and acting on this principle is a hallmark of adulthood. But how do you decide where something goes in your list? The priority of an item comes from one of two impact values: positive and negative. Some items have positive impact or benefit to you or others. Rate these items on the size of the benefit to be gained. Exercise has short-term energy and long-term health benefits. Other tasks avoid a potential negative impact or risk to you or others. Rate these items by the size of the potential damage that will ensue if they are not accomplished. Failing to put oil in your car risks expensive engine damage.  Arrange your priorities into daily, weekly and long term lists. Keep an evolving list of things not-to-do.

REVIEW

Look at your daily priority list every day. Profound stuff, eh? It doesn’t matter if you do it at night or in the morning, as long as you review and adjust it for the day ahead. Having clear priorities in mind for your day produces a strong forcefield around your energy, deflecting distractions. Keep your top priorities visible to quickly bounce back from interruptions.

ACT

Do the first thing first. Don’t open your email or check Facebook or read the news. Leverage your hard work of prioritizing by tackling the top of your list. Do it before the energy vultures start circling your desk. How many times have you ended your day with a thought like, “I worked my butt off today, but what did I get done?” Don’t confuse activity with production. Produce something. Create. Build. Ship. Drive rather than being pulled along by the plans of others. The email will wait and half of the problems people want to bring you will solve themselves if you, the answer man, are not available for a bit longer.

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These principles are simple, but not easy. Being effective requires practice and refinement. The payoff, however, is huge. You will be able to measure your days and weeks by the things you accomplished instead of how busy you felt.

Pop quiz. The next time someone says, “How was your week?”, see if you can avoid the usual “Busy” and say “Very productive.”

 

Align the Machine

I am a tactical weapon. A specialized blade in the warfare of business, effective at cutting through certain types of problems. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Let’ start back at the beginning…

HOW BUSINESS WORKS

As the saying goes, “Nothing happens until somebody sells something.” The mechanics unfold something like this… A person possessed with vision, relational skill and passion convinces another person with money that a certain thing needs doing. This thing is the VISION. It can be a product or a service but there is strong emotion and great potential attached to it.

These parties then enlist an operational executive with the skill to turn VISION into business reality. To make the VISION tangible, the organization develops a MISSION. These are the marching orders of the organization. To achieve the MISSION, research must be done and a STRATEGY must be chosen from among many options. Once a given STRATEGY is agreed to, a suite of PROJECTS can be identified that must be funded, staffed and executed in order to fulfill the MISSION.

Some of these PROJECTS may involve automation of business operations and a subset of those will involve SOFTWARE. That’s where I come in. I am the Disambiguator. My personal mission is to move drudgery from humans to machines and my role in companies is to help a team of talented engineers deliver the most valuable software possible in the time allotted.

So far, so good. We have a clear business chain of custody from VISION to MISSION to STRATEGY to PROJECT.

CURVES AHEAD

Here’s where the road gets bumpy. Most activities within an organization happen at the PROJECT level, not at the VISION, or MISSION or STRATEGY levels. The day in, day out crunch of PROJECT staffing, budgeting and scope. Chunks of work that have a deadline. Lists that must be prioritized. Dozens or hundreds of DECISIONS occur at this level – especially with regard to the scope of the project and its priorities. The larger the impact of a given decision, the more likely it is that additional clarity will be required from above the PROJECT level. Project assets like me will reach upward with questions and expect those higher in the food chain to send answers back down. This is often when trouble enters the machinery of business:

Answers to tactical questions must draw on a clear strategy. Lack of organization alignment will create waste at the tactical level through rework and failed projects.

When a mechanical engine is misaligned, parts bang into each other and become dull. The engine can misfire, lose parts, slow down or even grind to a halt. As a former software developer turned business analyst, I am much closer to being a mechanic than begin a visionary like Henry Ford. I don’t want to worry about the VISION and MISSION of the company. Nor does the STRATEGY chosen matter that much to me so long as it is ethical and I understand it. I do care how these things flow down to my level and the impact they have on our PROJECT and team. Just as senior management counts on my efficient execution at the tactical level, I expect them to do the heavy lifting of creating a clear VISION and MISSION, to select a wise STRATEGY and to communicate these critical steering messages throughout the organization.  I expect them to keep the machinery of business aligned so that the tactical blades can keep moving swiftly through the challenges of today.

Indispensable or Essential?

Indispensable. If you hunt this on the interwebs you’ll find 17 ways to become it and you’ll find people telling you that no one is. The former try to build a catalog of things that make you important. The latter point to the cemetery.  If you’re thinking about job security, I would change gears and try to become an essential person.

machineYou can summarize an essential person in one sentence: A likeable person whose production is necessary to the organization. You don’t have to be a big cog in the engine, but the engine must need your work.

It’s important to note that you cannot remove any element of this sentence and remain essential. Consider the nature of each attribute:

  • Production. You must make tangible, visible progress toward some important goal on a regular basis. This can be a widget or the weekly status report. Don’t confuse activity (busyness) with production. Your manager knows the difference and will bring it up in the next resource planning meeting. If your boss is a butts-in-seats manager who judges performance by presence, find a way to take on a project that matters or change jobs. The manager who counts heads for production power one day will count empty chairs for cost-savings the next.
  • Necessary. It’s possible to be doing important work and still get laid off. That’s because priorities shift in business and what is important today is only a third-tier value proposition tomorrow. Huge projects can disappear overnight. Stay informed about the company’s goals and financial health. Apply for projects that are viewed as critical to the company’s profit model.
  • Likeable. We very often hire people that we like. It is a key element in any job interview. We sometimes forget that it is also a key element in keeping that same job. It is not enough to be likeable, but you can’t remain long in an organization without it. If you regularly quarrel with your peers and managers, they will find a way to move those ‘necessary’ tasks to someone else.

Find the river of essential work that flows through your company. Jump in and help. Be pleasant to work with and chances are good you’ll be around a long time.

Appreciate the Craft

Have you ever noticed that other people perceive your work as being easy? There seems to be a tendency to oversimplify the skill, effort, and craftsmanship involved in another person’s job. I routinely see phrases in bid requests that say “this shouldn’t take long” or “I know this is easy.” Just today I saw an ad posted on the internet for some Flash development that was “needed by tonight.” I sent the link to a Flash developer friend just to make him laugh.

The triangle shown here is often used to describe how projects work. If you educate yourself on how the four basic elements of a development project_triangle_q project work together, you’ll sound like a smart buyer and avoid some of the common pitfalls in technical engagements.

Let’s examine a simple task to illustrate how these elements are dependent on each other. Suppose that you asked to fill thirty jars with jelly beans from a big tub.

The skill required is moving jelly beans. An easy job, right? If you can keep them out of your mouth, that is (impossible for Jellybeans spilling from a glass jarme). The Scope has been nicely quantified as “thirty jars.” You probably have some idea how long this will take. That estimate will form the schedule or Time component. If you charge $10 an hour for this type of work you can come up with the Cost of the job. Piece of cake, right? Scope, Time, and Cost are all taken care of. How about Quality? Quality?! What are you talking about? We’re just filling up jars with candy!

Let’s ask a few questions to clarify the Scope before we submit our quote: How big are the jars? Are we talking Bama-style jelly jars, Vlassic whole pickle jars, or the kind of jar the Samaritan woman was carrying when she meet Jesus? The difference in volume and weight is considerable. How close to the top of the jar is considered “full?” Are the jars already empty, clean, and dry or is jar preparation in scope? Is there a lid on each jar? Who is providing the jars? How big are the jelly beans? Are you providing a scoop? How big is that? How big is the bucket, tub, vat where the jelly beans start? Can I reach into it comfortably? Will I be standing up or sitting down? Do I have to wear gloves? Who buys the gloves?

You’re thinking I’ve lost my mind about now, but consider this… If a dead-simple task like this can have this many unknowns (variables), how many do you think your technical project has? Remember that Lucy and Ethel thought it would be easy to put chocolates in a moving box.