“When you are overwhelmed, overworked, and overinvested in maintaining the status quo – when you find yourself resisting change even though what you’re doing right now isn’t really working – that is a sign you are not fully in charge of your life. You are letting things happen to you by accident.”—Lauren Bacon, on shifting gears, accepting discomfort, and living on purpose, not by accident.
The skills cultivated in improvisation — communication, creativity, teamwork, taking risks, and resilience — are ones you’d want to see on a résumé. Business schools are taking note and even teaching improv. Robert Kulhan, adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business explains, that at its core, “Improvisation isn’t about comedy, it’s about reacting — being focused and present in the moment at a very high level.”
One of the most fundamental principles of improv which produces that mindful reacting is “Yes, and”. You accept and agree with what someone has said, and you’re not done until you build upon it, which requires listening, understanding, and insight.
That “and” generates possibility, and as Tina Fey writes in Bossypants, responsibility. For her, “Yes, and” means, “[D]on’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.”
However, if you respond with negativity, by questioning the premise, by saying “Yes, but”, you abandon your partner and shut down the scene by refusing to engage. What’s worse is that this conduct signifies that those initiations and ideas are not worthwhile and cultivates fear of contribution.
We often buy into the impression that work is about being right, hypercritical, and steely, as if our ideal work persona were Simon Cowell. But that kind of behavior leaves people out to dry.
Often when it comes time to act, move, brainstorm, and make decisions — when it’s showtime! — it does no good to sit around the table with our arms and attitudes crossed. James Mitchell, founder of Improboost, who runs workshops in D.C. to boost teamwork and performance through improv techniques, sees this happen all too often in the workplace.
He recounts, “Many of my students work in competitive office environments, and have learned to say ‘Yes, but.’ You see this in office meetings all the time. One person comes up with a proposal, and a co-worker will immediately come up with a host of reasons why it won’t work. When ‘Yes, And’ is violated on stage, the scene goes downhill; when it’s violated at work, it leads to stifled thinking and a poor work product. People are reluctant to offer creative ideas for fear that their scene partner — or co-worker or boss — will shut them down.”
Why Stifling is Harmful
Those employees who feel stifled, shut down, or even belittled, for sharing their ideas, become unproductive, disengaged, and resentful, and those feelings are unhealthy in the workplace. Why? Our emotions affect cognitive functions like memory, attention, and reasoning. Negative emotions actually narrow our view, interfere with rational decision-making, and inhibit taking risks.
On the bright side, positive emotions broaden thinking and action and increase creativity levels. According to psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, such expansion and growth helps build up personal skills and resources. When “Yes, and” becomes part of a work culture of openness, where ideas are encouraged, heeded, and developed, both the individual and the organization broaden, build, and enrich themselves.
So put an end to your Simon Cowell ‘tude. Suspend your judgment when you don’t want close off conversation and possibility. “Yes, and” requires openness. Go with the flow and add to the momentum.
As Mitchell notes, “In a safe space for brainstorming, people build upon one another’s ideas and add their own unique flavor to the mix; it’s amazing to witness it in action.”
Janet Choi is the Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis and keeps the wheels of the iDoneThis blog turning. She is not a morning person. Follow her tweets at @lethargarian.
All too often, to-do lists end up with more things to do and less things getting done. Humans are awful at completing lists. We often convince ourselves that we can complete our to-do list if we just buckle down and try harder.
Yet tomorrow, or next week, or next month rolls around, and the list is just as bad as it has always been. Probably worse, if you are like me.
So when we found iDoneThis at Zapier it immediately clicked.
- No more over bearing to-do list? Check. - Transparency into what everyone on the team is doing? Check. - Email based? Check. - Built-in motivation to do meaningful things each day? Check, again.
I loved it.
We’re always up to date. We don’t have to constantly bother each other about what’s going on. And for a remote team, it’s an easy way to keep tabs when doing a group hangout just isn’t feasible.
But before this turns into a complete love fest, we quickly discovered two bottlenecks with our new iDoneThis routine:
1. There’s still one more thing to do. Everyone on the team has one more to-do on their list: recording their daily dones at the end of the day.
2. Not everyone is email based. I’m one of the few people on the team that spends a significant amount of time in my inbox.
For engineers who are operating out of GitHub all day long, checking an inbox at the end of the day is not exactly high on their priority list and recording dones as they go breaks their workflow. It’s not that engineers don’t want to update everyone on what they’re working on — it’s just not their habit.
So how exactly can we solve this problem?
The Psychology of Automation
Humans naturally follow the path of least resistance.
In one National Bureau of Economic Research study, researchers set out to figure out how to increase 401(k) savings. The study found that by simply adding automatic enrollment for new employees, plan participation doubled.
What does this have to do with completing our daily iDoneThis updates?
Since humans do what takes the least effort, the easiest way to record our dones would be to not have to do anything at all. If there was a way to automatically notify iDoneThis each time something meaningful is completed, we’d have a way to get rid of that last to-do item, and it wouldn’t matter that iDoneThis is mostly email based.
If automating iDoneThis is anything like automating 401k enrollment, then we wagered that the number of times we “simply forgot” to record our dones would go down significantly.
With this hypothesis in mind, we turned to the Zapier user base which is filled with automation experts. And sure enough, several Zaps had already been shared to help people automate their daily iDoneThis entries.
This type of automation solved the exact problem we were having with non-email based teammates getting into the habit of using iDoneThis and getting hooked. All it took was a couple Zaps.
Once everyone on the team could see everything happening around them, we realized the full benefit of iDoneThis. It was easier to jump in and help on a project that someone might have been struggling with for a few days. You can encourage teammates for awesome days. Or you can help build them up, if there are a few rough days in a row.
How to Automate Your Daily iDoneThis
The trick to automating your daily iDoneThis practice is to find a way to launch an email to iDoneThis when you complete certain tasks.
Many web services can trigger emails for certain activity within their app. Simply set that process to update your iDoneThis account by using the address “firstname.lastname@example.org”, and for personal users, “email@example.com”. (Find the exact address in the “from” field of your reminder emails, and make sure the service or app is using the same email address as the one that’s affiliated with your iDoneThis account.)
If a service doesn’t have email alerts for a specific activity, try using the Zapier Gmail send email action to send an email to iDoneThis from the many Zapier triggers that are already available.
Unleash the power of automation to spend more time on the things that matter and help you get more stuff done! And don’t forget to share your automation tricks and Zaps with us in the comments.
Wade Foster is co-founder of Zapier - the easiest way to automate your business and your life. You can tweet with him by following @wadefoster.
People who often say they’re “too busy” or “crazy busy” sound like buzzing busy signals. And when you start sounding like an appliance, it makes it hard to connect with you. My reaction to your busy signal is much like that of Mindy Kaling, who sees stress as non-conversation:
No one ever wants to hear how stressed out anyone else is, because most of the time everyone is stressed out. Going on and on in detail about how stressed out I am isn’t conversation. It’ll never lead anywhere. No one is going to say, “Wow, Mindy, you really have it especially bad. I have heard some stories of stress, but this just takes the cake.”
Likewise, going on about how busy you are isn’t conversation and doesn’t lead anywhere — except making your conversation partner bored, or worse, peeved. People who act super busy send the same message, making time spent with them never feel quite whole. Interestingly, I find that most people who are legitimately occupied — with their work, or family, or art, or what-have-you — rarely play the “too busy” card, or go out of their way to make time for meaningful connection exactly because they’ve been busy.
The Meaning Behind Busy
When you go on to other people, or to yourself, about being so busy, you’re often engaging in doublespeak. Let’s dig a little deeper to translate what you actually mean when you get in the habit of saying or acting like you’re too busy:
I matter. Being busy means I’m needed and significant in this great big universe. Though going around literally telling people, “I matter!” and expecting some sort of substantive conversation to result would be really weird, I’ll just say “I’m busy!” instead.
I am super-important. Doling out complaints and explanations about being too busy is the express line to a mini-ego trip. It’s going beyond “I matter” to “I matter … more than you” despite the fact that nobody ever wants to hear this.
I’m giving you an easy excuse. This is one of the easiest outs for stuff I don’t want to do. Alternatively, I’ve spent a lot of time being distracted or stuck, but this excuse allows me to feel okay with it.
I’m afraid. I keep relentlessly busy because I suffer from FOMO, or fear of missing out. I’m scared that I don’t matter, that I’m not important, that I’m not needed, so I’m going to spend my time on distracting stuff that doesn’t really matter, that’s not all that important, where I’m not actually needed.
I feel guilty. There’s fulfilling, meaningful stuff that I actually do want to do but I can rationalize it away instead of confronting challenges or changing direction. Alternatively, I think being busy is such a valuable quality that I’ll overbook myself to the point where I feel guilty for not getting to everything or for spending time on anything that doesn’t fit into a limited definition of “productive”.
The worship of busy-ness as such a virtue is where the trouble begins, providing the foundation to its indiscriminate use as a front or an excuse. It’s easy, even enticing, to neglect the importance of filling our time with meaning, thinking instead that we’ll be content with merely filling our time. We self-impose these measures of self-worth by looking at quantity instead of quality of activity.
How to Escape the Cult of Busy
In the children’s book (that every adult should read), The Phantom Tollbooth, the protagonist Milo comes across the frightening, faceless Terrible Trivium, a “demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.” Milo and his friends fall under his spell, agreeing to perform busy-work like moving a huge pile of sand from one place to another, grain by grain, using a tweezer. The Terrible Trivium’s explanation for this terrible fate?
If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing….
What a scary thought!
So if you find yourself feeling frazzled, habitually explaining away things with a busy status, it’s probably time to slow downand pay attention to the important, difficult stuff. Examine what is keeping you so busy compared to what you really should and want to be doing.
Here are a couple ways to start:
Track yo’ self.
In the quest to better connect your attention and action, do an attention audit. Track your time using a tool like Harvest or a time log spreadsheet. Break down how you spend time on the computer with RescueTime. Or see how you answer the questions of “What did you get done today?” and “What did you pay attention to today?” over time using iDoneThis.
Change your language:
We like this tip from Laura Vanderkam. Instead of putting things in terms of time and activity, frame them in terms of priority:
Instead of saying “I don’t have time” try saying “it’s not a priority,” and see how that feels. Often, that’s a perfectly adequate explanation. I have time to iron my sheets, I just don’t want to. But other things are harder. Try it: “I’m not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it’s not a priority.” “I don’t go to the doctor because my health is not a priority.” If these phrases don’t sit well, that’s the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don’t like how we’re spending an hour, we can choose differently.
Another thing you can do is once you have a clearer handle of your priorities and how you want to spend your energy, change your definition of “productivity” to encompass those things.
Not only do we need to rest and renew, we also have to slow down and pause to acknowledge our feelings, celebrate our accomplishments, and gain some insight.
Brené Brown explains how people stay busy out of habit and fear. She recommends letting go of “exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth” and allowing us to explore what matters:
[W]hen we make the transition from crazy-busy to rest, we have to find out what comforts us, what really refuels us, and do that. We deserve to not just put work away and be in service of someone else. What’s really meaningful for us? What do we want to be doing?
Do less and feel more joy.
The opposite of the fear of missing out, as Anil Dash so beautifully wrote, is the joy of missing out. Pay attention to what’s in front of you, and you’ll gain control and find joy.
Being the one in control of what moves me, what I feel obligated by, and what attachments I have to fleeting experiences is not an authority that I’m willing to concede to the arbitrary whims of an app on my mobile phone.
Feel more joy. Learn how to doless. Stop spreading yourself so thin by saying “no” more, by saying “no” to being busy, and by meaning “yes” more fully.
Before you stomp over to people to tell them exactly how you feel about their impertinence, step back and take a deep breath … and one more.
As a time coach and trainer and the author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment, my specialty is in working with people who really struggle with getting in control of their time and their routines. I can assure you that unless they’re natural rebels, people generally want to do what you’ve asked but they just haven’t mastered it yet.
While some people need only one telling to master a task or respond to a request, others need multiple. This can make you crazy if you let it, as you’ll need to keep at it for awhile. You can’t control others’ speed of integration of change, but you can control your emotional response to situations and your method of communication.
My book leads you through different types of accountability and discusses how to reduce time-caused drama—including tips for recovery. To help you with your resilience and patience in the midst of implementing team-wide change (or lack thereof) — using the example of getting reluctant team-members to use a new work tool like iDoneThis — here are five steps you can apply:
Step 1: Recognize and Validate Your Feelings.
Before you can work through something effectively with someone else, figure out what’s going on inside of yourself. People tap into their emotions in different ways. Some sort out their thoughts best when they exercise. Other individuals talk to a trusted adviser or need to write out their thoughts to discover what is happening. Regardless of exactly what you do, move from your current physical position in some way. Switching your bodies’ state can dramatically shift your mental state.
Once you find yourself in a different place, or at least a different posture, figure out the answer to these questions. You may discover them in this order or in a different one. The order doesn’t matter, but the discovery of all four does:
What was my interpretation of what just happened? For example: Do I think this person is deliberately ignoring me or that he just forgot?
What emotions did that trigger? For example: Anger, frustration, guilt, resignation.
Who am I blaming? For example: Am I blaming myself for not doing a better job of explaining the change or for not being more firm? Am I blaming the other person for not following through?
What would be the most constructive next step? For example: Talk through the change at our next group meeting, bring it up in a one-on-one, let this slide and see what happens next time.
Step 2: Suspend Judgment.
You have a right to feel how you feel, but you don’t have a right to judge, especially before you understand the total picture. Start by validating your emotions because denying them will keep you from coming up with real solutions and cause them to pop up at inopportune times. But the second step of a mature leader involves disengaging from your emotions enough to handle the situation in an effective fashion.
Instead of stomping over to someone’s desk for a dressing-down, or mulling how to deliver the perfect managerial monologue, put the wheels in motion for the most constructive next step. Fanning the flames of self-justification may feel good in the short-term but doesn’t benefit your team in the long term.
Start with the assumption that there must be a good reason that a team member didn’t follow through on the change, and then focus your energies on figuring out the best ways to uncover those reasons.
Step 3: Ask Questions.
Before you start doling out punishments or even suggesting solutions, stop and listen to the other person explain the situation. You could ask a question like: “I noticed you haven’t been replying to your iDoneThis e-mails. Could you explain to me what happened?”
What you hear may surprise you and also calm you. For example, you may discover that long hours kept a team member busy at work until 10 p.m. so that the 6 p.m. reminder e-mail was no longer visible with a quick inbox scan. Or you may find that the reminder was being sent to a spam folder. Or you may uncover that more than a reminder e-mail is necessary to prompt action.
Employing the principle from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that you should seek first to understand and then be understood, you can now explain your side. It’s important that you state facts as facts, and interpretation as your perception. For example:
“When you didn’t reply to iDoneThis this week after I made a specific request last Friday at our staff meeting that it be updated, it made me think you weren’t respecting what I said. Now that I understand your side of the situation, let’s look at solutions.”
Step 4: Work Together on a Solution.
Instead of focusing on the problem, focus on solutions. A collaborative approach to problem-solving can benefit both sides because the person having the difficulty may not have the ability to recognize what’s causing the problem. Also, you may not know the right solution until you talk through the options. What works well for one person may not work at all for another.
The best way to navigate this discussion is to go through the list of issues and then brainstorm solutions together. For example:
Manager: It seems that you sometimes forget to check your e-mail at the end of the day. Then you don’t see the iDoneThis reminder, correct?
Team Member: Yes, that’s correct.
Manager: Could you put a pop-up reminder in your calendar or stick a note beside your door that says, “Did you remember iDoneThis?”
Team Member: I really don’t like pop-ups, and I’m not much of a paper person, but I think it could work well to have an alarm go off on my phone as a reminder.
Manager: That sounds reasonable. You know what? You can use the iDoneThis app to get a reminder and reply on your phone. Let’s plan on you setting one of those options up today.
Step 5: Define Follow-Up.
Once you’ve talked through a solution, define in writing how and when you will follow up and the acceptable minimum of results. Also, agree on consequences for lack of follow-through based on the negative impact it makes on the team.
“Everyone loses out when you don’t update us on your work. I’ll expect that you’ll update iDoneThis at least four times this week, and I’ll check in with you during our weekly one-on-one session. I’ve been using these reports as the basis for our team meetings. It’ll be embarrassing and a waste of time to have you stand up in front of everyone to update us on what you’ve been working on.”
Keep your word to follow up, congratulate progress, refine solutions, and uphold consequences until you’ve achieved consistency. In the process, stay calm.
It takes time for people to change. You can’t control others but you can dictate your emotional response to a situation.
Running a classroom and running a business have interesting parallels for what works best to cultivate intrinsic motivation, effective productivity, and successful performance. Whether we’re students or employees, we need supportive conditions to achieve know-how and expertise.
On the education front, Dr. MaryEllen Vogt has examined the effect of how teachers’ perception of their students’ aptitude influenced their classroom approach. She found that when students were perceived as high performers, teachers:
talked less and encouraged more interactions among students,
allowed for more creative and generative approaches to learning,
offered opportunities for independent work,
had warmer and more personal relationships with students, and
spent little time on behavior or classroom management issues.
When teachers saw their students as low performers, they:
prepared more structured lessons,
allowed fewer opportunities for student creativity,
covered less content,
rewarded students for “trying hard” rather than for “good thinking,”
spent a significant amount of time on behavior and management issues, and
had less congenial relationships with students due to their heavy emphasis on discipline.
So according to Dr. Vogt’s research, teachers cultivate a rich, conducive working environment for high achievers by encouraging autonomy, collaboration, creativity, and personal relationships. These same nutritious factors also translate into feeding employee engagement and productivity. Meanwhile, low-performing students have to deal with trying to learn in a setting that sounds depressingly like a miserable office space, suffering under control, compliance, and discipline, spending more time and energy on management and less on substance.
It’s striking that teaching strategy turns on how teachers view their students’ capacities. Yet, managers who neither trust their employees or believe in their abilities and potential lead in a similarly authoritarian manner, using a carrots and sticks approach that has been proven to be less effective.
How do you escape categorizing people as low-achievers and move toward a high-achieving environment? In the classroom, this involves finding the “zone of proximal development”, teaching at a level just beyond students’ current abilities. The effect of hitting a sweet spot between actual capabilities and level of potential development is that students, with the support of their teachers, rise to meet higher expectations.
In Drive, Dan Pink writes about a corresponding concept in the work world, ascribing the standout productivity and innovation of companies like thatgamecompany and Green Cargo to their employees being given “‘Goldilocks tasks’ — challenges that are not too hot and not too cold, neither overly difficult nor overly simple.”
Finding that “just right” sweet spot of challenging employees is surprisingly uncommon, given the competitive advantage it can yield. In a survey by Lee Hecht Harrison, 62% of workers said they often feel underutilized in their jobs, while 24% said that they sometimes feel underutilized. That’s 86% of people who aren’t fully engaged and whose skills aren’t being fully harnessed. In contrast, engaged employees actually find their peak experiences of learning and interestingness during the workweek rather than the weekend.
With knowledge work requiring meaningful engagement for better performance and higher job satisfaction, businesses should see all their employees as high achievers and develop their full potential.
Here are some quick tips based on Dr. Vogt’s findings for managers to get team members to raise their hands and achieve A+ performance:
Expect more. Get your employees in the zone of proximal development by giving them tough Goldilocks tasks. It’s also important to provide the resources, responsibility, and decision-making power to meet these challenges.
Talk less. Encourage information-sharing, interaction, and collaboration. That means spending less time treating your employees like (low-achieving) schoolkids and more time being quiet and open.
Enable progress. Over 75% of employees would rather have a leader who helps them get things done than have a leader who is “inspiring.”
According to the “progress principle” discovered by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, the most powerful motivator at work is making meaningful progress. The manager’s actual job isn’t to dictate but to lead by facilitating team progress, helping get actual work done by providing support, tools, and resources.
Do no harm. Spending your employees’ time on compliance and management issues and treating them with distrust and lowered expectations gets in the way of progress. Experiencing setbacks and obstruction at work has a negative effect that is three times as powerful as the positive effect of making progress.
Get to know your team. In order to match your team to a Goldilocks zone and help them find their intrinsic motivation, you have to get to know them. Take some time to develop personal relationships that aren’t based on disciplinary or “I’m the boss”-type contexts. Learn about their skills, interests, and goals.
Being aware of how people feel about their work and whether they feel underutilized or underappreciated is also enables progress.
Do you have any management lessons from the educational realm? Do you feel like you’re underutilized and unchallenged at work? Share with us in the comments!
Janet Choi is the Chief Creative Officer at iDoneThis and keeps the wheels of the iDoneThis blog turning. She is not a morning person. Follow her tweets at @lethargarian.
Her Twitter bio urges, “Have a career. Don’t turn into a pod person.” We talked with Jessica about how she managed to do just that, the benefits of quitting, productivity personalities, and the future of work.
You’ve been on this “work” beat for some years now. How did you get into business journalism and writing about work?
When I got out of grad school, I moved out to San Francisco literally because my old college roommate was there. I had no idea what I was doing, and I saw an ad for a blogging position with BNET, which eventually became CBS MoneyWatch. My friends all laughed at me because I had a background in creative writing and literature. So I had a really strong writing background, but I was completely lacking in any knowledge about business.
I really took to it. I liked the pace, the research and learning, I liked the people I was working with. When I moved to London, they offered me a freelance gig. I said, I really like the blogging that I’ve been doing, so let me see if I can turn that into a full-time gig. By then I had a network of editors I’d worked with and went from there. I stumbled around until I ended up somewhere I liked. Here I am! I like it here!
There seem to be two kinds of people — those who have this laser-beam knowledge of what they want to do and others who stumble into something they like.
Some people have a plan for life. My husband, for example, super knew what he wanted to do, and fought tooth and nail to do what he wanted. People worry about that, but for me, it’s trial and error too. You steer warm or cold until you zero in on what you want.
Speaking of career paths, younger people are having a tough time getting good jobs these days. Maybe it’s forcing people to be more entrepreneurial. Do you have any thoughts about the millennial workforce?
I was lucky to dodge the worst of the economic explosion, so I don’t want to speak too authoritatively. But just through reporting and observations — what you’re saying about entrepreneurship, I think there’s just no choice. It has become very clear that there are very few, if any, safe bets. I don’t think it’s laid out in the way it used to be. There isn’t this benevolent system that’s going to shepherd you along.
I don’t want to underplay how nasty an environment it must be to graduate into right now, but also, in some sense, it’s good that people are thinking about it. It’s a silver lining kind of good. At least people are having to make active choices to shape their own path. It leads, in the long run, for some people to a more fulfilling career than if you just stumble into a nine-to-five job that’s alright.
Your experience finding a more fulfilling career involved figuring out hot and cold and trial and error. How hard was it to switch paths?
I was a big fan of quitting. I can’t speak for everyone. People have student loan debt, people have complicated lives — there are all sorts of things that make that hard. I was lucky in that I didn’t have a lot holding me in place. If I had some ramen noodles and a couch somewhere, I was happy. That being said, I usually quit after I’d found something else or another trajectory.
It was really useful to abandon ship, not in a rude or unfair way but in a conscious way, to make choices. That’s how I got from warm or cold. You tack back and forth. Change when things are not working.
I do know people with great results of sticking it out, but they really liked the organizations and that’s the difference. If you really like the organization and the culture, then maybe it’s worth it. But if you feel like, “My god, these people are from Mars. What is going on here?”, then no.
What were the kinds of situations that just didn’t work for you?
I had some copywriting gigs where I would be on a project and someone would have to give approval or something. I knew damn well that I’d be sitting in the office googling what’s going on in “America’s Next Top Model” for four hours, twiddling my thumbs.
You email around, you ask if you can help out with anything, of course you do all of that. I was willing to put in long hours, but I just hated to sit there when I knew I didn’t have to. I had very little patience for that, and I knew I’d be miserable, so whenever I would find myself in those situations I would try to find a way to move out of it.
What about your working style? Writers have to be so disciplined about being productive. Is that a challenge for you?
I don’t struggle too much. [Whether] you like what you do — that’s sort of the x ingredient that people never admit when they talk about productivity. I like what I do, so I don’t find it super challenging. I’m pretty protective of my mornings. I write much better when I wake up than in the afternoon. What would take me an hour in the morning will take me four in the afternoon, so I try not to book things like billing, interviews, and things that could break that time up.
So, one — the fact that I’m doing what I like makes it pretty easy, and two — I have the flexibility to control my schedule, and three — I’m a bit of a control freak about getting stuff done. Some people are procrastinators by nature. It’s not my personality. I find it so stressful, I’d rather just get it done.
That must be nice. I’m a procrastinator, so sometimes there’s this big disconnect to read and even write about productivity and time management.
It sort of ends up the same place though. When I was in undergrad, I had this roommate who was pre-med, this super-smart, cool girl who just thought I was hilarious because she always waited to the last minute to do everything. She’d have these all-nighters, drinking Red Bulls and going crazy, and I was always the nerd who got the term paper and was like, “Okay! I’m going to start on November 5” and dutifully sit down.
But to be honest, I’m happy with my career, and she ended up being a surgeon, so she’s clearly made it work too. Go with your flow. I don’t know, maybe some people have a real stoner flow — but for most people, working with what you have is better than battling it. I can’t imagine battling yourself all the time.
Are there any interesting trends you’re seeing in terms of how we work?
One of the things I like to follow is this Results Only Work Environment, that trend away from inputs and facetime and more towards just caring about people’s output. Tech makes that a lot easier. You can monitor and communicate, and coordinate and collaborate, and it doesn’t have to be so regimented because the tools are just better than they used to be.
I don’t know if I’d be willing to say that people are actually going there. But I certainly hope slowly but surely people will go in that direction, towards focusing on getting things done and less towards bureaucratic structures and having this mechanistic approach to productivity. I think people are recognizing that for a lot of jobs, especially knowledge work, it’s just not like punch in at nine, punch out at five. It matters less where you are and what hours you’re doing things, and a lot more what your output is.
I hope that’s where we’re going and I do see it cropping up a lot. So fingers crossed, there will be less drab cubicles in the future!
People who feel powerful are happier, according to a recent study published in Psychological Science. Researchers found that authenticity is what connects that relationship between power and “subjective well-being”, or happiness. When you have power, your behavior can align more closely with your desires and values so that you are free to be more authentic. And when you can go about your day being more true to yourself, you feel happier.
“[B]y leading people to be true to their desires and inclinations — to be authentic — power leads individuals to experience greater happiness,” the study authors note. What’s especially interesting is that dispositional power, or your sense of power, is a strong predictor of happiness, so your perception matters.
Compared to contexts such as friendships and romantic relationships, the power-happiness connection stands out in the workplace. This makes sense, as the researchers note, since workplaces are generally based on hierarchical structures and more pronounced power dynamics. For example, powerful employees were 26% more satisfied with their work than powerless employees, while powerful friends were 11% more satisfied in their friendships than powerless friends.
If you’ve ever had a job that made you feel miserable — from sheer boredom, workplace abuse, having to stay in the office with nothing to do, or having to stay in the office with way too much to do — you are probably familiar with the feeling of powerlessness over the situation. Unfortunately, that kind of misery and disillusionment is startlingly common, with 70% of workers who were “not engaged” or even “actively disengaged” in their work, according to a 2012 Gallup poll.
That sheer amount of disconnection is distressing, not just because it results in decreased productivity but because it means that all too often in life, work is some kind of dementor, draining people of their happiness and souls.
Understanding the relationship between power, authenticity, and happiness — which dovetails with self-determination theory and how autonomy is a necessary ingredient for intrinsic motivation — can help transform how we approach work.
This burden mostly falls to the people with all the power to transform things in the first place. If you’re a leader, you may have to consider how you wield all that power in order to increase happiness among your team and see this as part of your job. Although the study shows how power is key to authentic self-fulfillment, many leaders, new and experienced, may not feel all that authentic or comfortable about how to wield it.
When you’re in charge of a team, and you have the authority to hire and fire people – and the responsibility to keep the team functioning at high capacity, and meet payroll – you do have power, and you’re not doing anybody any favours by pretending you don’t. … Acknowledge that power, center yourself in it, find your own way to exercise it appropriately, and things will get a whole lot more comfortable.
Making peace with your power involves “gaining enough confidence in your own leadership to encourage leadership and autonomy among those who work with (and for) you.” So, wielding power with purpose means realizing that your employees are neither your work zombies or buddies, that you’re the one holding most of the keys to unlocking their power, happiness, and yes, productivity.
For those of you who feel powerless at work, it’s a tough battle. Brainstorm some ways you can gain a sense of control and autonomy. Ask if you can be in charge of a minor project, lead some presentations, or start a new initiative. Round up some research on productivity to argue for a more flexible schedule. Go over and around supervisors and bosses who are overbearing or dismissive to someone (with power) who will listen to how you feel and what you want to do.
If you’re planning on sticking around, fight for your small corner by finding a path toward authenticity, autonomy, and power, and fulfillment. To thine own self, be a little truer.
“Strangely enough, doubt need not impede action. If you really become friends with your doubt, you can go ahead and take risks, knowing you will be questioning yourself at every turn, no matter what. It is part of living, a healthy evolutionary adaptation, I would imagine. The mistake is in trying to tune out your doubts. Accept them as a necessary (or at least unavoidable) soundtrack.”—Philip Lopate, in the NYT’s Opinionator blog’s “The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt”.
How Luc Levesque Leads TravelPod & TripAdvisor to Focus on Being the Best
Transparent communication is a theme running through Luc Levesque’s career, from his 1997 founding of Travelpod, the first travel blogging website where people could share their adventures, to his current practice of handing new employees a boss blueprint. Luc is currently a General Manager at TripAdvisor, responsible for its global SEO efforts and TravelPod’s business unit. We talked with Luc about how he communicates with his team and how frequent feedback is vital to great performance.
Though his team is distributed in Boston and Calgary, Luc heard about iDoneThis from his friend Tobi Lütke, co-founder of Shopify, right across the street in Ottawa. “iDoneThis certainly helps with the fact that we’re remote. Getting those updates daily, I can quickly scan through and see what’s going on day-to-day,” describes Luc. “What I really like is that it avoids the inevitable ‘hey, what are you working on?’ and having to go by everyone’s desk constantly. Actually, with remote teams I can’t do that, but I don’t feel like I need to because I just see their work.”
The ease of using iDoneThis is key for Luc and his employees. “Being able to click reply on the email and send off a few bullet points is the most important part.” He adds, “The other value is in the self-reflective nature of it, that you’re sitting back and thinking, ‘okay, what did I do today, and did it drive towards our goals?’ It’s a really nice piece of the way we do things, and I would definitely recommend it to others.”
Even with transparency as a priority, iDoneThis gives Luc a new communication channel, allowing information to permeate effortlessly. “If I want to share something with the team,” he explains, “and it’s not really worth an email or phone call or a meeting, I can put it in my update so that they can passively absorb what’s going on and be closer in tune with some of the changes that happen quite often.”
Keeping in touch using iDoneThis suits Luc’s management style of facilitating progress while giving his team breathing room to operate. “I frankly give people more freedom in terms of not having to talk to me everyday,” he says. “They can run their things and execute towards their goals. If I see there’s something that’s not being worked on, we can sync up better.”
Recently Luc instituted a new feedback process, an informal but structured monthly review that folds into TripAdvisor’s formal mid-year and yearly reviews. Every month, Luc sits down with individuals to go over goals they have shared in a Google document. “iDoneThis fits in well, where we have it as the daily touch-base. The monthly is the rollup, and that rolls up into the midyear and the end-of-year. It’s a nice progression [and] then the midyear and end-of-year are extremely easy because they have basically already been written.”
The monthly review idea was something that Luc’s business coach had been suggesting for years, but as with any habit change or new management process, required some thought and impetus to implement. After chatting with an employee who was disappointed after his mid-year because he felt he hadn’t been able to capture all his achievements, Luc decided to try monthly reviews to help people track their work better. “It gives people the opportunity to capture specific things they did against their goals,” he explains, including amazing accomplishments that people forget to record.
Monthly check-ins also take the anxiety and ceremony out of formal reviews. It’s easier to give more frequent feedback and have real conversations, especially about things that didn’t go well, without the fuss and drama. “I don’t ever want to run a team differently ever again because it’s what we should be doing as leaders anyways,” Luc declares.
“We should be talking on a regular basis with teams, but we’re busy. But when you have that monthly, and it’s structured, you’re literally walking through the goals. It forces you through the process, and it’s very lightweight. Sometimes it’ll take five, ten minutes. It’s not a ‘hey, how you doing?’ random chat. It’s focused on being the best.”
Luc’s team has consistently garnered the highest ratings within Expedia and TripAdvisor. We’re so excited to be helping Luc and his team continue to focus on being the best!
7 Invaluable Collaboration and Communication Tools for Distributed Companies (Or However You Work Together)
Recently, an internal memo from Yahoo announcing a ban on working from home has sparked a feisty debate about the merits of working remotely. The explanation given for the policy change comes down to one sentence in the memo: “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.”
As a distributed team ourselves, serving many great companies with flexible work arrangements, we don’t think people’s physical presence in one place is necessary to create the best workplace or the best work. Where we do agree with Yahoo is how vital communication and collaboration are to a company’s success.
The nature of remote work actually compels companies to grapple with and figure out how people communicate and collaborate best. Fortunately, connection and communication are what technology and the web have made so much easier. Finding the right communication tools becomes even more pressing for distributed companies since that toolbox helps create our shared space.
It’s a challenge to consistently be up to date on what people are working on because it involves digging through a clutter of information within emails, project management tools, and lists. So we use iDoneThis to keep us in sync and get a high-level view of everything that’s happening.
At the end of the day, you reply to an email asking what you got done, and the next morning, everyone get a digest. With this daily overview keeping us on the same page, we can hit the ground running without the hassle of coordinating ourselves or too many meetings. The meetings we do have are more focused and efficient since everyone has written down and shared what they’ve done.
This transparent record of team progress (or lack of it) allows for feedback, support, and intervention, providing another point for communication and collaboration, and our ability to review helps us better understand how the pieces of the work puzzle fit together and see whether what we’re doing aligns with our goals.
Project management is tricky because elements are always shifting and moving around. It’s hard for teams to know the exact details of every task, and because information doesn’t permeate quite as easily to distributed teams, everyone has to be diligent about monitoring and responding to task and project management tools.
We like Asana because it’s good at showing the nitty gritty details of a project and keeping a record of all the activity associated with particular tasks. It also moves conversations about specific tasks out of the collective space so that you’re not having to “overhear” details that don’t pertain to you without your control. Since information exchange is asynchronous, we don’t have to live in the application. We can get more of our actual work done while always being up to date because information changes in Asana in real-time.
We tried out Trello for project management but it didn’t quite do the trick for how we work. Whereas we use Asana for viewing the trees, we use Trello for viewing the forest.
Trello’s design is intuitive and familiar from the get-go, recalling the simplicity and responsiveness of using a whiteboard and index cards while keeping a better record. Because its design lends itself well to flexibility and the long-view, we use Trello for brainstorming, long-term planning, and developing our roadmap. We like the clutter-free space that allows us to play with ideas and move items about to help us find our direction.
We use GitHub, a distributed version control system and code repository (or “repo”), to manage our code. We don’t have to worry about conflicting pieces of code or juggling different versions, since GitHub helps us keep track of our files and how they’ve changed, while allowing our team to work on files at the same time.
Two powerful GitHub features are issues and pull requests. We use GitHub’s issue tracker to share customer service problems and bugs. Our workflow becomes simpler since issues and code can refer to each other. For instance, you can write “closes #123” as part of your commit message, and then that issue number is closed. The pull request lists all changes to the code in a way that is easy to navigate, allowing us to review and have a discussion. This way, we can give feedback and sign off on code before finally syncing with the repo.
We use GitHub’s wiki feature to store both technical and general reference documents. So, along with information about the code, there are documents such as guides for resolving common customer service requests or how to handle social media. In any case, the wiki equips newbies to the team or to a task with grounding information.
The chat client Campfire is where we hang out during the day. It’s our virtual office, giving us a channel to have conversations ranging from watercooler talk to a two-minute question about a customer issue to a detailed exchange about some logic. We can share screenshots, links, code, and files to get quick opinions or have a laugh.
The best thing is that conversations are all saved, searchable, and visible to everyone, so information is always there as a reference. Many of us also share images and files with CloudApp, and use a Campfire client like Flint or an extension like Kindling for extra features like notifications.
Our communication toolbox is incomplete without Google Groups. We’re still a relatively small team so we send our emails to the entire group while tagging our intended recipients in the subject line.
This transparency helps with information permeation without interrupting people at every turn. We can dip a toe in the email waters to see what’s going on, and we know when we have to dive in and focus on emails that are sent to our or the whole group’s attention.
Finally, we hold our weekly team meetings over Hangouts as our regular dose of face-to-face interaction. People regularly hop over from chat to Hangouts because so many things are easier to talk about “in-person.” We could be discussing one of our book club selections or going over a particular problem. What’s great is how the ability to see each other adds to our camaraderie.
Whether people are located in one office, at home, at a coworking space, or coffeeshop, everyone has to work together to effectively communicate and collaborate. And when it comes to communication tools, as Jamie Wilkinson of VHX said, “It’s a question of having a good Swiss army knife … having small tools that do certain things really well.” We’re using these seven as our handy Swiss army knife. We’d love to hear about what your team or company uses!
“Many think of management as cutting deals and laying people off and hiring people and buying and selling companies. That’s not management, that’s dealmaking. Management is the opportunity to help people become better people. Practiced that way, it’s a magnificent profession.”—Clayton Christensen in Wired, “Clayton Christensen Wants to Transform Capitalism”
How C2I Intel Overcomes the Knowledge Gap to Deliver the Lowdown
Knowledge is power, and when you’re an entrepreneur and running a small business, it’s a challenge to get sufficient people-power to catch all the relevant information and news out there. We talked with Michelle Frome, president of C2I Intel, which solves that problem by delivering that knowledge directly, providing competitor and industry intelligence to help companies gain a leg up.
Michelle’s path to providing the business scoop was indirect. Brought on by a company to help build an electronic medical record product, she found that she needed a way to keep track of confusing and evolving regulations, as well as keep up with competitors. She worked with programmers in Vietnam to create the technology that would automate much of that work. With the medical records project up in the air, Michelle and her team decided to focus on developing the software for business intelligence instead, bringing in review teams to help target, tailor, and finetune the research.
Recently, C2I Intel was accepted into Tampa’s version of Shark Tank, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s Startup Scholars Program, which aims to ignite innovation and foster entrepreneurship in the area. Michelle saw how helpful her product and expertise would be to many of her fellow applicants, explaining, “We’ve actually been working with the other companies that were there. There’s a woman who designed this thing that turns any water bottle into a baby bottle. She spent money on a mold, and it fit every single bottle except one. She had to spend more on a new mold where she could’ve had us keep track of the changing trends of water bottles. We could’ve let her know.”
Michelle needed a way to deal with her own knowledge gap, between herself, the domestic team dispersed throughout the U.S., and the overseas team. Michelle found it especially challenging to be kept abreast of the Vietnam team’s accomplishments, given the twelve-hour time difference and language gap. “I’m not a software person, so I was constantly having to bug them all the time to find out what’s going on. With iDoneThis, it’s so much easier because I’m able to find out exactly where they are with projects, any issues that they’ve had with it, any software glitches, and what they’ve done to fix it.”
That easy communication also works when dealing with current and future investors. “It’s been nice because we’ve actually been able to chronicle our daily activities,” Michelle comments. “We can forward the daily summaries over to our investors so they know where we are with projects, and we can show people how far we’ve come.”
Getting everyone on board with using a new tool is always a challenge, and the C2I Intel teams also felt some bumps in implementation. The ability to tailor the email delivery times became key for such a widely distributed team. Michelle also emphasizes the importance of setting clear expectations not just for her team but herself. The team can see from her own entries that she’s meeting and bringing on new clients, and everyone can hit the ground running.
From beta testing with a handful of clients over the summer, C2I Intel is aiming to grow to one hundred within the next few months. Such fast expansion can bring into high focus how time is being spent. Using iDoneThis has translated to more efficient meetings and handling of information. As Michelle recalls, “there was so much time wasted going over the status of our project that we weren’t making any progress. This way, we don’t have to spend time recapping.”
There’s also a single, comprehensive source of reference. “Bringing on a lot of new clients can get really overwhelming, but now we have one platform that collects all the information. We’re not having to go hunt for it. It’s right there every morning!”
We’re impressed with C2I Intel’s focus on helping startups take off by delivering information and excited that iDoneThis is making it easier to do so!
Share More Feedback and Recognition with Individual Likes & Comments Per Done
Many of you told us that you wanted to be able to give specific feedback on people’s dones, and we couldn’t have agreed more. So we’ve revamped the feedback system so that you can now add comments and likes to individual dones — on the web and through your email digests!
These changes may seem simple, but for us, these small improvements are significant. We had a hunch that improving the feedback system to make it more responsive and interactive would be key to increasing the engagement and fulfillment of our members with their work. Since launching the feedback per done feature on February 6, we noticed some interesting trends that indicate we’re on the right track. We thought we’d share some of those preliminary observations, based on three measurements: number of likes over time, number of users giving likes, and number of comments over time.
First off, our users have been receiving more than double the number of likes from their fellow team members since the launch of the new feature. (You’ll notice a drop-off of activity over the holidays.)
In planning for the feedback per done feature, we’d seen how the most commonly used words in comments on overall dones were quick expressions of gratitude and praise, like “thanks” and “great”. So we figured that it was important to have an easy way to give such positive feedback or a virtual pat on the back — that was targeted to a specific accomplishment — with one click.
On the flipside, people not only appreciate a nice boost of acknowledgment for their deeds, but want to experience the satisfaction of “message received”. Your particular contributions and news of such contributions through your status updates are not lost to nothingness but appreciated through a simple gesture.
We also had to check that the increase in likes weren’t due to that one enthusiastic person in the bunch, clicking on every single entry. Thankfully, the increase in likes isn’t due to “superlikers” getting click-happy, but an overall boost in involvement.
The increases in both the number of likes and number of likers translate into something of a team mood ring, showing a collective team positivity and appreciation. So we’re excited that more people are giving and getting recognition for their accomplishments and sharing positive feedback. The more people are able to visibly give and receive recognition for their work, shaping a work environment of support and progress, the more satisfaction they’ll find in what they do.
Open communication of dones is a great opportunity to start conversations and give feedback through comments. While we were hoping to see a similar boost in the usage of comments, that hasn’t happened quite yet.
At the same time, we’re not discouraged by the lack of a consistent increase in comments. Before the new feedback system was put into place, the website UI was confusing, especially when it came to entering your dones. People were writing down their dones in the comment box by mistake. Now, placement of the comment feature is much clearer, so we think there are fewer mistaken entries. We’ll have to re-examine once the numbers start fluctuating less.
Overall, we’re encouraged and excited by our new individual likes and comments feature. By the end of 2012, we saw how active teams on iDoneThis shared five times as many likes and comments every day than those teams that eventually fell inactive. That visible interaction represents the kind of deeper connection we want usage of iDoneThis to encourage between employees and their work.
Dan Pink, who has written a lot about motivation and engagement at work, has pointed out the weakness of modern workplaces in communicating feedback, that “[o]ne of the key challenges of organizations today is to make the feedback that people get inside the organization as rich, relevant, and frequent as the feedback they get outside of the organization through their smartphones, games, and social networks.”
We’re aiming to make that happen, enriching and enabling the process of providing useful, relevant, frequent, and supportive feedback. The ability to share feedback on specific dones is a great step toward that goal and toward cultivating a positive feedback loop of greater appreciation, happier work performance, and catalyzing progress.
“I … went to work again–work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite–ultimately recovering some measure of power.”—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, on why she wrote The Yellow Wall-paper, after a specialist had told her to refrain from intellectual life, “never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again,” — words which led her to near “mental ruin.” Indeed, it is heartening to remember that there is the possibility of power, joy, growth, and service in work.
The peculiar challenge of knowledge work is that so much of it takes place in our heads and out of sight. In contrast to the era of factory work, knowledge work is nowhere near as visible. You can’t discern the state of progress by looking at tangible output or product.
This poses a particular problem for managers, whose job it is to support their employees and enable progress. You can’t properly manage what you can’t see. Otherwise the result is directives and orders that don’t make sense, veering toward irrelevance and away from the reality of the situation. Leading blindly without understanding the status of projects and the context in which people are working makes as much sense as managing a production line without seeing the state and quality of a product as it is being assembled.
The solution is to encourage and cultivate showing your work, or put another way, working out loud. Communicating what you’ve done is vital to moving things along, and it actually should be the other half of your job.
The benefits are clear. With transparency and communication of information, teams and organizations can improve productivity because they are able to manage operational efficiency. With the ability to see all the moving parts, you can figure out how to work better. Then, the opportunity opens up for improving planning and methods, collaborating and striving for more dazzling results, and having a common basis and drawing board to truly innovate together.
The interesting thing about showing your work, though, is how resistant people — including both the managers and the managed — can be in implementing the practice. The underlying reason for this hesitation comes down to how managers hold people accountable, because it changes how people perceive the intent behind the effort to be more transparent.
Bad managers impede and inhibit progress in two ways. One is the traditional school of managing people that fails to deal with real progress at all. That school subscribes to the mistaken belief that management is about oversight and monitoring for the purpose of Big Brother-type control, thinking that you make things happen by paternalistic brute force.
The other approach is one of disengagement in order to keep the positive image of being liked, thinking that this lack of confrontation and involvement is what is necessary to keep the wheels greased. The crazy result is that one of out every two managers fail to keep people accountable.
Employees then feel resentful of losing autonomy and substantive feedback and become increasingly disengaged, feeling like useless cogs in the machine.
Such managerial failures in approach to accountability is thus why employees themselves can view transparency with such suspicion. As with personal relationships, there’s a difference between transparency for the purpose of engagement and open communication as opposed to for the purpose of coercive oversight. And transparency becomes futile when information goes nowhere or falls on deaf ears.
At the end of the day, both the managed and managers don’t want to feel vulnerable. For employees, transparency can seem a risky business of putting themselves out there, with the potential to look weak or ineffective or ignored, especially in situations with bad management. For managers, transparency and accountability means having difficult conversations, truly getting involved with their teams as people and their work, and getting used to the uncomfortable notion that management isn’t so much about control but support and facilitation.
Accountability does require visibility, but we should never treat people like faceless cogs in a machine. Working out loud should not produce more constraints and traps but more autonomy. If managers are doing their job of helping people make progress, people will want to show their work and together cultivate a vibrant company culture of openness, fruitful feedback, and deep engagement.
8 Expensive Lessons in Project Management, for Free!
When it comes to project management, it’s so much cheaper to learn from someone else’s mistakes. So here are a few of mine!
I’ve been running projects for my whole adult life. I started with computer games at IG. After ten years I switched to marketing and copywriting projects at Articulate Marketing, which I still run. On top of that, I’m now also CEO of Turbine, an online app for purchases, expenses, time off management and HR record-keeping.
Project management is the art, craft and science of getting stuff done by teams. And it’s also like walking through a minefield. These tips – based on my own experience over 20 years – will help you find your way through it.
1. Hire slow, fire fast.
My first boss advised me not hire one person until I needed two of them. I ignored that advice at IG and probably hired too many people too quickly. Some were amazing but a few were amazingly awful. My experience was that the handful of underperforming staff took up more time and energy than the vast majority of good people. The big lesson is to spend more time developing the good people than correcting the bad ones. If necessary, this means firing poor performers who can’t or won’t improve.
In my case, after I sold the games company, I kept things small using contractors, freelancers, and outsourcing and only recently have I begun to hire full-time employees again. I’ve made more money, and I’ve been far happier with the new, slow-but-steady approach. My first boss was right.
2. Every new relationship needs a honeymoon.
The human aspect of project management is vital, especially for long-distance relationships like the one I have with my Turbine development team. We had a bit of a rocky patch last year because I forgot that they were people and focused too hard on the product and my concerns about it. Today, things are much better because we have more regular contact and, more importantly, we try to talk more about ourselves and share a bit of water-cooler gossip.
Having paid hundreds of thousands of pounds in financial incentives over the years, my experience is that they are mostly worthless. Why? At best they motivate people to work more hours for a short period of time. At worst, they are taken for granted (which has no benefit at all) or unobtainable (which is actually demotivating).
Find other ways to motivate your staff: set worthwhile goals, give team members respect and autonomy, and create a feeling of belonging to a team with a mission. Maslov’s hierarchy of needs is an essential guide into human motivation. Also, give people a good, productive working environment. Read Peopleware. Don’t fall prey to productivity myths.
4. See eye to eye with the client.
Most of the time, when a project goes badly wrong it’s because of a fundamental flaw in communications with the client. With projects, like software development, that are likely to have changing requirements, the key is to talk often, expect changes and plan for them. With creative projects it’s best to spend the time up front talking to and questioning the client until you arrive at a good, mutually understood brief.
My experience has also taught me two fundamental lessons about client communication: first, sometimes the best kind of conversation is a question, not a statement. Second, sometimes the best answer is no answer. When Kennedy got a belligerent message from Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis, followed quickly by a more conciliatory one, he ignored the first and responded to the second. Do likewise!
Every project has bugs. When I got married, my friend Sophie said, “Three things will go wrong. Don’t worry about them.” This is great advice: bugs don’t cause stress; your reaction to them does.
So if you can accept the inevitable hiccups, even plan for them and agree how you’ll deal with difficulties up front, you’ll have a more successful project. This means going beyond a diagnosis of the individual problem, figuring out why the problem arose and adjusting your processes and systems to avoid that type of problem occurring again.
7. Know when to give up.
I have shut down three big projects in my life. At the time, the decisions were difficult and painful. Looking back, in every case, it was the right decision because it freed me to do something better. One of the arts of managing projects (as opposed to project management) is knowing when to kill them. Google is good at this. They cull stuff all the time. But W.C. Fields said it best: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”
8. Make tea, not war
As the project’s manager you are the lynchpin, so be a friend to your emotions and stay sane. Over the past few years, I’ve realised that my time is more valuable than my money. You only have so many days in your life, spend them on projects that make you happy, better and richer. (Or reading my Devil’s Project Management Dictionary!)
And when I have a problem that’s stressing me out, which is inevitable from time to time, I find that a nice cup of tea is the universal solvent. Try it!
Sometimes the sheer clarity of hindsight is like life’s annoying way of saying, “I told you so!” Looking in the rearview mirror to see what went wrong is integral to learning from our mistakes, but we often wish for hindsight’s clear vision when we’re forging our way forward. Research psychologist Gary Klein has a startling prescription for that feeling: imagine your plan’s death.
According to Klein, one way to tap into the power of hindsight is a practice called the premortem. In the more familiar postmortem, you analyze an unsuccessful event after it has occurred to figure out what went wrong. In the premortem, the analysis faces the event head-on while presuming it has failed to generate plausible reasons for the failure. Performing premortems can help identify problems in advance and tune you into early warning signs because you know what to watch out for.
These are the basic steps for conducting a premortem:
1. Prepare: Everyone should be familiar with the plan before starting the premortem. 2. Picture: Imagine the plan has failed miserably and how that feels. 3. Generate: Each person makes a list of plausible reasons for the failure. 4. Share: Take turns sharing one reason at a time, collecting them into a master list. 5. Revamp: Revisit the plan armed with the reasons and revise. 6. Review: Return to the list every so often to check in with any relevant concerns.
Premortems employ prospective hindsight. The paradoxical term involves the mind trick of imagining that an event has already happened. Prospective hindsight “increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%,” says Klein, citing one of the better-titled studies, “Back to the Future: Temporal Perspective in the Explanation of Events”, by Deborah J. Mitchell, J. Edward Russo, and Nancy Pennington.
The researchers found that people generate reasons more efficiently, and often in more detail, when they conceive of an outcome or event as certain. So while many techniques such as risk analysis share the desired effect of making better plans and decisions, the premortem is not about imagining what might or could go wrong, looking for potential holes. Its effectiveness relies on imagining that things did go wrong before coming up with plausible reasons. The mind works differently when we ask “what now?” instead of “what if?”
The power of the premortem lies in its great leveling effect. Starting a conversation from a point where the project has already failed is liberating. It extracts some of the politics and politeness that can muddle the planning stages. Klein recounts how one executive at a Fortune 50-size company reasoned that a billion-dollar project had failed because of waning interest in the wake of the CEO’s retirement. Sharing that type of thought in other circumstances may be a no-no.
The failed-starting point also helps neutralize cognitive biases resulting from the overinvestment and overconfidence of people who have strong feelings of ownership and authorship of a plan. Instead of flying over objections or identification of problems as a matter of course (the drive-by “Problems? Questions?”), the exercise increases participation and buy-in from objectors who get a real opportunity to share their opinion.
Mentally traveling back to the future is a great way to open up your field of vision to new possibilities and insights and pave the way to better decision-making. Prospective hindsight isn’t 20/20, and projects are sometimes just bound to fail. But at least we can tune up our planning processes and give voice to our team members who would’ve said, “I told you so!” in their head.
“Dreaming is at the heart of disruption — it is only when we dream that we can hope to create something truly new, something that will overtake old habits, old customs, and old ways of thinking and being… And the more we dream ourselves into becoming who we want to be, the closer we’ll come to accomplishing our resolutions.”—
Whitney Johnson, in a great HBR blog post about paying attention to our dreams and who we are.
As Chief Happiness Officer, Ginni ensures that iDoneThis is helping teams and companies stay connected, enhance productivity, and improve their inner work life. Every so often, a team leader will reach out to ask why some team members just aren’t getting on board. Ginni reached out to friend, time coach and productivity expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders for some advice. (This is the 2nd of a 3-part “Manager’s Series”).
Previously, I addressed how emotions such as overwhelm can prevent your team members from implementing changes. But sometimes the key factor limiting people’s behavior isn’t how they’re feeling but not knowing how to integrate the change into their own work habits.
As a time coach, trainer, and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment, I’ve seen that people can understand how a tool or technique functions as an independent entity. But the gap between how something works and how something works for them isn’t easy for many to cross. That’s why in Chapter 7 of my book, I include a step-by-step guide of all the areas to consider when you’re crafting your own routine.
To get you started, I’ll explain four of those considerations here. Go through these with your team the next time you’re trying to implement a new practice, such as having everyone use iDoneThis. Remember that team members may have different answers to these questions resulting in dissimilar methods—that’s natural and normal. The method isn’t as important as achieving the end goal of lasting behavioral change.
1. How Much Time Do I Need to Set Aside for This Activity?
The time you think it takes to complete an activity can be misleading. Depending on the task, you may also have to consider how long it takes to prepare for the task and to shift mental gears. For example, if you’re asking for a new type of report each week, you’re not just requesting the time it takes to write and send the report itself.
As a team, think through the true “time cost” of the habit change and determine whether or not it fits in everyone’s schedule. Depending on the size of the time commitment, this may also mean deciding as a group what will not happen or take lower priority.
2. What’s the Right Start Time or Trigger?
To lower the force required to break inertia and build momentum for a new routine, pick a start time or trigger event. This prevents the fuss involved in having to make (and remake) the decision of whether this activity stands as your highest priority of the moment. It also removes any lack of clarity about how and when the routine will fit into your schedule, which helps with realistic expectations. Without a start time or trigger, you can come to the end of the day, fall into bed, and realize that you didn’t do what you intended to do.
Start times work well when you have a high level of control over your schedule. They are sometimes necessary if you have a set limit on when you need to leave work.
Examples of a start time: I’ll reply with my iDoneThis update when the scheduled e-mail reminder arrives at 6 p.m.; I’ll go to the gym at 6 a.m.
Start triggers work well if your schedule is open to variables outside your control, which means that your life can’t run on clockwork precision. In order for start triggers to be effective, they must happen every time you want to start the desired activity. So don’t choose a trigger that doesn’t always happen for something you want to be a regular routine.
Examples of a start trigger: I will reply with my iDoneThis update after I finish my last task of the day; I’ll go to the gym after my daily 11 a.m. team call is over.
3. What Are Potential Barriers to Success?
Even with the best of routines, outside factors can significantly impact your ability to follow through. In fact, these external forces are the very reason that many people resist making and practicing routines. They reason: If I can’t implement perfectly and someone might mess up my plans, why even bother? But the fact that life happens doesn’t mean that you should give up all hope of making and following new routines. What you can do instead is to anticipate and prepare for potential barriers to success.
As a team, brainstorm how to avoid barriers to success, such as winding down regular business at least x minutes before people have to leave the office so they have time to do a daily wrap-up.
4. What Reminders Will Ensure That I Can’t Forget?
Sometimes you need more than one reminder to push you to do what you wanted to do, especially when forming a new habit. Each person needs different cues, but here are some ideas of what could work for team members aiming to implement iDoneThis:
Set a daily alarm or text reminder on their mobile phones.
Schedule an e-mail pop-up note on your computer.
Put up a sign on the office door asking if they’ve completed the key wrap up activities.
Give people a card that they can set on top of their handbag or keys when they arrive in the office that asks, “Have you done iDoneThis?”
Great customer service requires great communication. LaunchBit, an ad network for email newsletters, manages a ton of communication with their publishing and advertising partners. CEO and co-founder Elizabeth Yin shares LaunchBit’s secrets to speedy, efficient customer service, dealing with high volume while maintaining high quality.
When my co-founder and I first started LaunchBit, we were working with just a handful of publishers and advertisers, and it was easy to respond to everyone. As a small startup, speed was our advantage in winning over new customers. Losing momentum with a customer was a real risk, because it was hard to gain back their interest in our product. In those beginning stages, each customer is critical.
Very quickly, business boomed, and we found ourselves struggling just to maintain our individual inboxes. Yet, our priority remains to respond with the same high level of speed and service in order to stay fresh in the minds of our customers.
In a given week, the emails number in the low thousands. So how do we get through them all with just four full-time employees? We found that staying organized and finding tools that can fill the role of a good traffic cop, helping to direct email smartly and efficiently, work best to deliver quality customer service.
Here are three key tools we use:
We use FreshDesk, a helpdesk software, to coordinate and direct our email. We connect all our customer-facing email addresses (such as hello [at] launchbit [dot] com) to Freshdesk. From there, we’re able to track email threads and assign them to different members on our team.
If we receive technical questions, the threads are assigned to the right engineer who can answer and close out the thread when the conversation is complete. We also hire a contractor for one or two hours per day to assign emails to our team members.
We often get similar emails from customers. Though we update the FAQs on our website with the most common inquiries, inevitably a good number of customers will write in to ask one of these questions. We use one-click templates that everyone on our team can draw from to respond in a second.
My inbox also receives a lot of customer support emails. When I first set up LaunchBit, I used my own email address to stay in touch and follow up with customers. So, almost all of our initial customers still write to me. In addition, I freely give out my email address on the internet. Yet, I’m able to get to near inbox zero (less than ten emails) everyday.
I do this with SaneBox, which sorts my email so that I only read the important ones. I’ve tried all kinds of email management software — most of which have not been effective — but SaneBox is hands down the best at sorting what should be in my inbox and what should be in a “skim later” folder. This cuts my email volume virtually in half.
Sometimes, I don’t know the answer to a customer inquiry upon receipt, either because the data hasn’t come in or I need information from someone else who can help. To remind myself to follow up with the customer later, I use Followup.cc.
Followup.cc allows me to archive an email away for now but then return it to my inbox at a specified time when I need to take action. It clears my inbox while providing important reminders and to-do’s at the right time.
With these three tools, we’re able to process high volumes without a huge team dedicated solely to email communication. Customer service emails work best when the flow is smart, directed, and timely. What tools do you use to handle customer support faster?
Elizabeth Yin is the CEO and co-founder of LaunchBit, an ad network for high quality email newsletters.
The Entrepreneur's Journey: Slowing Down and Why Grandma's Always Right.
Are entrepreneurs always dissatisfied?
It’s hard to stop and bask in your own achievements. It’s why we strive to build a tool that shows you how far you’ve come to motivate and inspire. Daniel DiPiazza, who works with plenty of young go-getters brimming with restless, entrepreneurial spirit, reminds us about the importance of learning to relax and appreciate your own hard work.
Grandmas have an uncanny way of presenting elegant solutions to life’s most vexing conundrums — wisdom without tripping the alarm system. Every day, mine would take me on a short walk from our suburban duplex to the small office where she practiced law at her own firm. I always thought the walks were social outings, but looking back, I know now they were opportunities for her to teach me her life philosophies.
At seven, I just wasn’t ready for the sophisticated dose of grandmotherly psychological judo I received, but her words stayed with me.
“Do not be beholden.”
We talked a lot about entrepreneurship, self-direction, motivation, and self-image on our walks. These may seem like heavy topics for a first-grader, but I am certain I would not be the person I am today had we not had these talks. One thing she said to me still rings crystal clear:
“There is no greater pleasure than working for yourself. You do not want to be beholden to anyone else. Chart your own path.”
As I got older and started working, something didn’t feel right. I never really felt like I fit in anywhere that I worked. At first I thought it was the job. Or the boss. Or the co-workers. Or the uniform. Until I ran out of “or’s”.
That’s when I realized — it was me.
While I had hated every single job that I’d ever held, all that time the entrepreneurial bug had been living inside of me, feeding off my ambition and slowly growing into a gigantic monster that couldn’t be tamed or assuaged, even with the promise of a decent salary.
So I broke out on my own the minute I could, and I haven’t looked back. Happily ever after? Not quite.
The Double-Edged Entrepreneur
The entrepreneurial spirit is an immense gift and equally colossal curse.
On the one hand, you have complete autonomy over your livelihood. You’re practically Django Unchained. Exciting things are bound happen. On the other hand, now you’re completely exposed to the disappointment that comprises the ugly flipside of that excitement. You are 100% naked and at the mercy of your own endless ambitions.
What most of us with the entrepreneurial spirit don’t realize upon embarking on this voyage is that we will never be satisfied. Our greatest efforts will usually never be enough in our eyes, and even when we do accomplish something, we will immediately be looking for the next rush of excitement in another endeavor.
There’s always another peak to summit. Whether it’s attracting more customers, creating a more perfect UX, generating more profits, or doing all of the above faster. As entrepreneurs, our satisfaction always seems to be fleeting at best.
I don’t think true satisfaction will elude us forever, but we have to change our perspectives. We have to change our definition of success if we ever want to be truly satisfied.
What to do about our dissatisfaction:
Stop caring so much about how well your business does.
Yes, I know what I just said. Hear me out.
Stop using business success as a measuring stick for life’s progress. It’s unhealthy and only leads to anxiety. Business will come and go. Our happiness and peace of mind must be a constant force in our life, no matter what is going on in the boardroom.
Start looking at businesses as tools to create more freedom of choice and opportunity for our loved ones and ourselves. After all, that’s why we started this journey: freedom. From this moment forward, you shall no longer be chained by the very creation that was meant to give you freedom.
1. Take back your time.
Start by taking back your time. You actually make your own schedule. Stop letting other people’s agendas dictate how you spend your day. Stop checking your email every 10 minutes waiting for someone to tell you what to do next, you maniac.
Have some self-direction. Have some discipline. Begin your own personal renaissance. Remember that one of the biggest reasons you avoided the 9-5 is so that you would have more time to taste the fruits of life. Why aren’t you tasting them?
Stop being afraid of deep recreational pursuits. Learn a new language with purpose and focus, then take a trip and really test drive it. Take up a hobby that you’ve been putting off for years because it wasn’t the right time. I’ve been stop-starting my martial arts training for ten years. This year, I’m going to take both my own advice and a page from Nike’s book. I’m doing it. Period.
Begin a journey full of new milestones and mistakes that have nothing to do with earnings reports. Those reports will still be there when you return.
2. Turn your business brain off and engage others.
If you’re like every other entrepreneur on the planet, myself included, your brain is a 24/7 storm of creativity begging to be expressed. This is because we invest our entire lives into our endeavors, and they are usually things that we already like to do. At Rich20Something, I get to do all the things I’m most passionate about: writing, designing, coaching and computer programming. Trust me, I understand.
The people that we care about love us, but the don’t necessarily love our creations as much as we do. They just want to see us happy. So let’s have a little self-awareness. Next time you’re out at dinner with your sweetie (or your friends, or your parents), give them the pleasure of not talking about your genius implementation strategy, or the software patch you’ve developed, or the new client you’re so close to landing.
Shut off your start-up brain. Find new things to talk about. And for God’s sake, listen for once. Actually engage and respond to people instead of running business models in the background and giving them the auto-you. Be there.
3. Stop worrying and enjoy the journey.
Worry is the ‘trep’s constant companion. How will this launch go? How will people like what I’ve worked so hard to create? Will we get that VC money? Will people even notice us? Will they even care? Most importantly, how will all of this affect the way I feel about myself?
These questions race through our minds on a daily basis and oftentimes, rather than quelling them, we look for evidence to confirm our worst fears.
Success runs deeper than fear and worry. The truly successful people out there know that no matter what, they are going to come out on top. When things don’t work out, they regroup, retool, and reimagine so that the next one does, until they produce the outcome they want.
Stop worrying so much about your current project. Instead, focus more on how far you’ve come and how excited you are to have the opportunity to try your business ideas out. The results will come with time.
Learn to actually enjoy the process.
Daniel DiPiazza is a digital entrepreneurship expert and the founder of Rich20Something, the only source dedicated to helping twenty-somethings escape the 9 to 5 death trap by launching their own digital products online. Check out his free course on creating your own digital information product here. He loves chatting digital strategy and unrelated debauchery with like-minded entrepreneurs. Say “hi” on Twitter @Rich20Something.
There’s not much mystery behind how a distributed team works. We show up, in our respective locations, talk to each other, and make stuff happen. The alchemy of coming together to make it work is the same that any team experiences when they build something together. There are a lot of ingredients that go into that magic, and these days, people’s physical proximity to each other is not necessarily one of them.
Like many of the teams we serve, our own iDoneThis team is dispersed. While we experience both the challenges and benefits of the form, what stands out is how naturally that form compels teams to consider and resolve the process of daily collaboration. When we get down to it and count the ways we love distributed teams, we see the alignment of four elements — company culture, communication, productivity, and the right people — that help make the magic happen.
half of the magic-making iDoneThis team
1. The Company Culture Advantage
Despite having reached that fuzzy buzzword point of meaning whatever you desire, company culture is widely acknowledged to be, as Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, put it, “the defining issue that will distinguish the most successful businesses from the rest of the pack.”
Company culture is not made of ping-pong tables but of a mission and vision, shared values, and a meeting of minds on how to (and how not to) work together. VC Mark Suster points to supposedly weaker company culture in claiming that distributed teams are less effective. “The best companies are built on common beliefs and culture – a common sense of purpose,” he writes, and those commonalities are built through “human connections.”
Yet, human connections are exactly what technology has been so great at facilitating. Ravelry, whose close-knit distributed team has created a site and network that gathers a tight community of approximately 2.8 million zealous users, is just one example of the power of such connections. How does Ravelry make it work? They found the right people and “tools that work for the business to stay in touch” to advance their shared principles and priorities of utility, connection, and fun.
Without a physical space to connect, distributed teams are bound by a strong sense of common purpose. People have to get on board and ride in the same boat with that sense for it to move forward.
2. The Communication Advantage
One of the most prominent challenges of any organization is communication, which the mere fact of everyone being in the same place does not resolve. There’s always potential for miscommunication and lack of transparency leading to unequal information, politics, trust issues, and overall weaker company health. Even within an office, think about the game of telephone that can play out when distributing information, the people whose last names you hardly know, the manager who speaks solely through e-mailed memos, the meeting that spends one hour to impart five minutes of information.
Though communication tools can address those issues and lower the coordination cost involved in making sure everybody is on the same page and communicating well, the right communication tools become even more vital for distributed teams as shared technology becomes its shared space.
Toni Schneider, of Automattic, illustrates the communications trade-off that happens with a distributed team:
[A] chat conversation is simply not as rich as a real life one. But there are advantages as well. A chat conversation can be archived, searchable, and visible to the entire team, whereas in person conversations in meetings and hallways are often lost to the ether. Being distributed is a good excuse to abolish inefficient meetings, conference calls, and email silos, and get the whole team to use better online collaboration tools.
Such communication methods can also provide the benefit of adding to transparency and work culture. For example, the ability to build a visible record, as iDoneThis has for Reddit’s distributed team, helps both to keep everyone in the loop and to build a company narrative.
3. The Productivity Advantage
Jon Buckley, a developer on one of Mozilla’s software teams, sees an additional advantage to the ability to communicate across time zones and silos: “You don’t have to worry about being in the same room at the same time. That asynchronous nature of updating people is very helpful.”
Asynchronous communication allows conversation to continue at a pace that supplies breathing room for people to get actual work done. People need substantial blocks of uninterrupted time to concentrate and to get in a flow at work. It’s impossible to get in the zone, fully immersed and focused, when you’re constantly being interrupted by noise, chatter, and meetings, or disruptive questions and conversations — no matter how well-meaning or on-point they are.
Without the obligation to hover around the hive and be a good worker bee, you gain space and quiet to concentrate on work, exercise high autonomy, which further drives our motivation, and retain flexibility over your work schedule, which boosts productivity and improves health.
4. The People Advantage
You can hire the very best without having to consider location. As Jason Fried of 37signals, known for its company culture, states in Rework, “Geography just doesn’t matter anymore.”
Laura Roeder, founder of LKR Social Media, agrees, finding that a distributed team is actually a competitive advantage, because it grants her more flexibility to hire for quality and fit. Similarly, Ravelry has a competitive advantage in being able to hire from within its own community people who arrive on their first day of work with the deep-set intrinsic motivation of working on something they love.
The success of distributed teams relies on its people. Physical distance can highlight any inherent weakness in a team and how its run, and every advantage of a distributed team can just as well be a drawback. Flexibility, autonomy, and communication tools, when misused, mismanaged, and in the wrong hands, can produce an ineffective team with little spark.
It comes down to hiring disciplined, autonomous people that fit your company best, who can use tools to effectively communicate and collaborate to find individual and collective workflows that work and flow.
Distributed teams understand the unique nature and value of in-person interaction. It’s why we make efforts to meet for work retreats and social events and use video chats so that we can see each other’s lovely faces. We still acquire the camaraderie of working together and working hard to grab for the gold ring.
So when it comes to distributed teams, something so dependent on the quality of its people and nature of relationships is not lacking human connection as some missing puzzle piece. That connection is what holds it together and helps it succeed.
“You’ve got to be audacious enough to set goals that make you stretch and give you clarity of vision and purpose. But you have to have the humility to know that this work is hard, and that you might not get there. If you start off talking about all the reasons that you’re not going to get there, you’re not going to get there. And so it’s holding that balance of not being reckless, but also having a huge element of fearlessness.”—Jacqueline Novogratz, chief executive of the Acumen Fund, on the balance of audacity and humility necessary to innovate.