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Posts Tagged ‘management’

If you liked yesterday’s post about making time for creative projects, see the website it’s from: 99u.com – “Insights on making ideas happen”. It’s got a really good mix of posts about management, creativity, using time well, productivity, self-help, etc.

This is from the About section:

99U is Behance’s research and education arm. Taking its name from Thomas Edison’s famous quote that “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration,” the 99U includes a Webby award-winning web magazine, an annual conference, and the best-selling book Making Ideas Happen. Through articles, tips, videos, and events, we educate creative professionals on best practices for moving beyond idea generation into idea execution.

And this is the blurb for the book:

Making Ideas Happen is the national bestseller from Behance and 99U founder Scott Belsky. Based on hundreds of interviews and years of research, the book chronicles the methods of exceptionally productive creative leaders and teams – companies like Google, IDEO, and Disney, and individuals like author Chris Anderson and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh – that make their ideas happen, time and time again.

See especially the TIPS section here.

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Most of us deal with the little things first. We check texts and emails; we try to respond to the urgent requests others send us; we set about tidying up, clearing the decks, in the vain hope of creating some physical, mental and digital space in which we can one day address the really important and creative projects that matter to us.

Mark McGuinness explains why this doesn’t work.

The trouble with this approach is that you end up spending the best part of the day on other people’s priorities, running their errands, and giving them what they need. By the time you finally settle down to your own work, it could be mid-afternoon, when your energy has dipped and it’s hard to focus on anything properly. “Oh well, maybe tomorrow will be better,” you tell yourself.

But when tomorrow comes round there’s another pile of emails, phone messages, and to-do list items. If you carry on like this you will spend most of your time on reactive work, responding to incoming demands and answering questions framed by other people. It’s a never-ending hamster wheel. And it will never lead to remarkable work, in Seth Godin‘s sense, “worthy of being remarked on.” We don’t find it remarkable when our expectations are met – only when they are exceeded, or when we are surprised by something completely unexpected.

So what does McGuinness do instead?

The single most important change I’ve made in my own working habits has been to start doing things the other way round – i.e. begin the day with creative work on my own top priorities, with the phone and email switched off. And I never schedule meetings in the morning, if there’s any way of avoiding it. This means that whatever else happens, I get my most important work done – and looking back, all of my biggest successes have been the result of making this simple change.

It wasn’t easy, and still isn’t, particularly when I get phone messages beginning “I sent you an email two hours ago…!”

By definition, taking this approach goes against the grain of others’ expectations, and the pressures they put on you. It can take an act of willpower to switch off the world, even for an hour, during the working day. For some strange reason, it feels “unprofessional” to be knuckling down to work in this way.

The thing is, if you want to create something truly remarkable, it won’t be built in a day. A great novel, a stunning design, a game-changing software application, a revolutionary company – this kind of thing takes time, thought, craft, and persistence. And on any given day, it will never appear as “urgent” as those four emails (in the last half-hour) from Client X or Colleague Y, asking for things you’ve already given them or which they probably don’t really need.

So if you’re going to prioritize this kind of work – your real work – you may have to go through a wall of anxiety in order to get it done. And you’ll probably have to put up with complaints and reproaches from people who have no idea what you’re trying to achieve, and can’t understand what could be more important than their needs.

Yes, it feels uncomfortable, and sometimes people get upset, but it’s much better to disappoint a few people over small things, than to sacrifice the big things for an empty inbox. Otherwise you’re sacrificing real productivity for the illusion of professionalism.

McGuinness finishes with some practical tips:

1. Creative work first, reactive work second.
Either start the day on your creative work, or make sure you block out time for it later in the day – preferably at a time when you typically feel energized and productive.

2. Tune out distractions.
You know the drill – email off, phone off, work from home if you can, stick your headphones on if you can’t.

3. Make exceptions for VIPs.
Don’t be reckless. If you’re working with a client to a deadline, or your boss needs something urgently, treat them like VIPs and give them special access – e.g. leave the phone on and answer if they ring (everyone else gets the voicemail).

4. Be really efficient at reactive work.
You can’t ignore everybody all the time. The better your productivity systems, the more promptly you’ll be able to respond to their requests – and the more time you’ll have free for your own work.

I don’t do this, but I think it’s worth trying.

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That’s it. You don’t need to read the post – it’s all in the title.

What a great phrase! We all know those management and self-help rules: that getting anything done requires you to make priorities, that you need to make decisions about what you are not going to do as much as about what you are going to do, that often you need the courage to say no, etc.

I got the phrase from Tom Peters, The Little Big Things, who got it from someone else.

In Peters’ words at the end of this section:

So, top of your “to-do” list for today is immediately beginning work on your “to-don’t” list!

And he quotes John Sawhill, who took over the strategic thinking for a huge environmental charity called Nature Conservancy, and asked the question:

What areas should the Conservancy focus on, and more important – what activities should we STOP? [Peters' italics]

Profound stuff…

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I love baseball. I love Aaron Sorkin. I love, at least since the magnificent The Tree of Life, Brad Pitt. So there were high expectations for my trip to see Moneyball last week. What a shame that it disappointed so much. It glided along well, with some sharp Sorkin-dialogue and a few great scenes, but it never really took off; and I was even tempted to look at my watch two-thirds of the way through. (How it gets 95% on Rotten Tomatoes I don’t know. I’ll blog about Rotten Tomatoes soon.)

But the central premise (based on a true story) is interesting. Baseball manager Billy Bean (Brad Pitt) is running a team that can’t afford to compete financially with the bigger teams. Every time one of his players proves himself, he gets offered a multi-million dollar contract by someone else and is gone at the beginning of the next season.

Bean notices that people tend to rate players on a limited number of obvious skills and characteristics – how many runs they score, how good their swing is, how fast and accurately they can pitch, etc.

But not many people are analysing the less obvious statistical data about what actually helps a team to win a single game, and to keep winning consistently over a season. It’s not, as it turns out, simply the showy stuff or the obvious stuff – hits and catches and home runs and strike-outs (or whatever – I’m not sure I understand it all); it’s a combination of much less interesting factors like whether someone can make it to first base or whether they can throw a ball from the outfield.

When you get a team of non-stars who, in combination, can do this boring stuff, they beat a team of all-stars. You just need to analyse systematically what actually works, and find people who can do this.

The moral, if there is one, is that we shouldn’t assume we know what works and what doesn’t – until we have done the statistical analysis. Yes, statistics can distort or even deceive, but if you ask the right questions, they can reveal what really makes something work. It’s too easy for us to think we know what works, to take for granted that our criteria for judging something properly are reliable and proven, when often we are just going on unfounded hunches and prejudices.

This is why I always prefer to do detailed written feedback sheets at the end of a course or programme. I’ve heard people say that they like to sit down with people and hear from them directly; and there is certainly something to be gained from talking and listening. But my experience is that in a group conversation, even when you ask everyone to speak, the conversation will still be dominated by the louder ones, or the ones who feel most strongly about the issue (positively or negatively); and as an organiser you will always be tempted to be influenced too much by those who speak with most conviction.

But when you give everyone a chance, in a quiet moment of written reflection, to say what they think in detail about how something has worked, you get a much better picture, and often a lot of surprises. How to get honest and helpful feedback from people is a great art. I’d like to know more about other ways of getting constructive feedback.

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I’m in a crisis of self-doubt. After writing about Tate Modern’s ‘How to work better‘ poster yesterday, displayed in the staff entrance to the gallery, Fr Martin Boland wrote: “Are you sure it wasn’t a piece of verbal art?”

Have I been duped? Am I naive? I took this at face value, as a kindly encouragement to common courtesy, or as a not-too-subtle warning from management to put the customer first. Either way, I enjoyed its practical wisdom and aphoristic concision. But perhaps it is a piece of irony or satire? A work of art that seeks to deconstruct or simply mock the shallow, complacent yearnings of the self-help books I love so much? A source of mirth rather than enlightenment?

Help! I need someone from the staff at Tate Modern to post an answer in the comments below and put me out of my misery or condemn me to further introspection.

 

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I have a new guru: David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. At first glance, it’s just another self-help/management book, with a lot of sane advice about keeping the desk tidy, looking at your diary at the beginning of the day, and putting in place some kind of reliable filing system. Some of his best tips are simple enough to put on a post-it note. How do you empty your in tray? ‘Do it, delegate it, defer it, or drop it.’

But there is an idea at the heart of Allen’s strategy that I have found enormously helpful and psychologically quite profound. Most of us feel anxious and stressed about the never-ending list of things we have to do. We think that this stress comes from having too much to do, and if only we could get through the list and finish all the jobs, we’d find that peace that we long for on the other side.

Allen takes a different view. He says that most people live within a great cloud of half-acknowledged and ill-defined responsibilities. There is all this ‘stuff’ (a technical term for Allen) that we want to do, or ought to do, or promised to do, or feel pressured into doing. We can’t deal with it all, so we push it to the back of our minds, where it festers. The anxiety and panic come when this stuff forces itself back into consciousness — either because of an internal prompt (a thought, a memory) or an external reminder (a phone call, the discovery of a handwritten note). And even then, when we are staring into these responsibilities, we are still paralysed, because we haven’t worked out how to take things forward, how to act – so we push them into the background again.

The secret, says Allen, is first to acknowledge all these hidden demands, to ‘collect’ them. And you do this by writing them down. Simple! The writing down and the keeping an unmissable note in front of you means that this ‘stuff’ is out of your mind and on the table. Immediately, you feel a bit less stressed and a bit more in control.

Then, you need to decide for each of these responsibilities, big or small, what is the next physical action that will allow you to move this forward just one step: making a phone call, going to the shop, sitting down to think, or whatever. So the stuff on the table in front of you is not just an amorphous cloud of open-ended responsibilities, it is a collection of manageable activities.

You haven’t actually done anything yet! But you know what needs doing, and you know how to begin doing it — one step at a time. And you feel a new peace about what you are not able to do, because you are forced to consciously put it on hold, or to make that hard decision about dropping it completely.

As I write this, it sounds a bit simplistic and a bit artificial. But I have felt a great sense of relief from working through his book. I’ve looked into this ‘cloud’ of things that need doing, and forced myself to make some realistic decisions about what steps I need to take to move them forward. And now, as Allen promised, I am feeling more energised and enthusiastic, not less, about getting things done. Because at heart I do actually enjoy doing things!

Buy the book. And remind me to post about this in two months to see if it has really made a lasting difference.

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