Friday, May 29, 2009

Clarity Leads to Productivity

"Business is doing a great job at changing to meet marketplace, customer and shareholder needs. And it is lousy at making work elegant -- creating clarity of choice, then providing the tools and information people need to work smarter."

-- Bill Jensen, "Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage"

In my post Strategy Plain and Simple, I stated "People inherently know what to do (i.e., develop their own task lists) if they know what the parameters are for decision making based on the organization's strategic focus."

However, being able to develop their own task lists in line with the strategic focus requires that people have the resources they need to complete the tasks. Information management is a source of unnecessary complexity in organizations according to the book Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage by Bill Jensen. Jensen describes simplicity as an information revolution whose mission is to make the complex clear.

How often have you or your staff done something "the hard way" because your couldn't find the information, training or resources you needed to do it most efficiently? Ironically, we have hundreds of technological tools available to make information readily available and targeted to specific users, often free or inexpensive.

The barrier is not technological availability or cost; rather, it is perspective. Specifically, we don't view our staff as end-users the same way we do our customers. Updating our website is a never-ending activity, and the focus usually is how to make navigating easier for the end-user. Yet, we don't put the same focus on how to help staff navigate their jobs easier, to easily find the targeted information they need SPECIFIC to their job.

How often have you taken a joyride on the information superhighway and hours later realized: I just spent half my day on the internet and have nothing to show for it? At times even when I'm trying to maintain discipline and focus on a job task, I take an information sideroad just because it's there -- the "Ooh, shiny. . . " factor.

The challenge with the sheer volume of information now available is determining what is meaningful and essential. With that in mind, organizations need to pre-route staff trips for information so that each person takes the specific route that is the quickest for them to get from point "A" to point "B." Think end-user experience.

A simple three-column spreadsheet can be the beginning of a simple, effective information management system. With "staff position" heading the first column, two questions head the next two columns:

1. What do I need?
2. Where can I find it?

Then start the list, which can be expanded and contracted as more items come up or as job needs change.

For a free, low-tech, easy approach, save the spreadsheet in Google Docs and make it available online for all staff to share and update. The document can be used to create a searchable database or simply use the search function in the spreadsheet itself.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Leap and The Net Will Appear

Although "Leap and the net will appear" is sometimes attributed to an unknown Zen source, it is, in fact, a quote by American naturalist John Burroughs. But where it comes from isn't important. It reminds me that risk is the foundation of leadership and innovation. The quote is a scrolling screensaver on my computer as a daily reminder.

In Zen Leadership, I have some unusual takes on leadership and strategy, and while I knew some of my posts would create some controversy, by and large the response has been positive. I went out on a limb with the following posts on strategy, as each goes contrary to prevailing wisdom about vision, goal-setting and other mainstays of strategic planning methodology (which, by the way IS a flawed concept):

My views on leadership, which emphasize the importance of humanity, vulnerability and humility, is also a bit different. For a better understanding, read:

For a different take on the “inside job” of developing leadership skills, take a look at:

Three Essentials of Leadership:

This blog is a key example of taking a “leap and the net will appear.” When I began writing two years ago, I only had a general idea of what I wanted to talk about, namely: simplicity, clarity, focus, and maintaining a “beginner’s mind.”

I almost didn’t start because I only had ideas – ideas, not even content – for a few posts and ran into a lot of writer’s block along the way. What I found was, as long as I tried to be consistent, over time the material for posts began to take shape naturally. I didn’t need to plan or figure it out. The net just appeared.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Haiku Strategy

"Principle I: By setting limitations, we must choose the essential. So in everything you do, learn to set limitations." -- Leo Babauta from "The Power of Less"

In "Strategy, Plain and Simple," I summarized the difference between a strategy document that was shelved versus strategy that is integrated into the operations of an organization in one word: simplicity.

In his book "The Power of Less" quoted above Leo Babauta uses the example of the Japanese Haiku poem. Haiku poems are nature-related, just 17 syllables, written in 3 lines, always 5, 7, 5 unrhymed. One of my favorites:

A firefly flitted by:

"Look"! I almost said

but I was alone

- Taigi

The Haiku poet must carefully choose only the ESSENTIAL words. From the very structure of the poem, one is forced get to the heart of things with absolute clarity.

If you want strategy to be successful, I suggest "Haiku Strategy." Simplicity doesn't just mean limit yourself to 3 to 4 areas of strategic focus solely because people are unable to effectively focus on more than that, although that is a fact. Haiku Strategy means because people can only effectively focus on 3 to 4 areas at most, you are forced, as with the Haiku poem, to carefully choose only the ESSENTIAL areas.

Now, I would also contend, if you could keep all strategic statements, such as visions, missions, goals and strategies to 17 syllables, that would be ideal too.

Google's informal mission statement is: "Don't be evil." Four syllables. It's actual mission statement is: "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Not quite 17 syllables (25 actually) but a heck of a lot closer than most organizations get. Pretty simple for one of biggest, most complex companies on the planet.

The Apple advertising slogan is "Think Different." Can you think of a company to which this simple statement more aptly applies? Can you see how employees of Apple achieve exactly that? While it may just be a slogan, if you worked for Apple, and this statement became the lens through which you made decisions, it's no surprise innovations like the iPod and iPhone become a deliverable.

In "The Laws of Simplicity" John Maeda lists 10 laws, the first of which is "Reduce" where he introduces the concept of "Thoughtful Reduction." He says, "The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction. When in doubt, just remove. But be careful of what you remove." The last statement is the critical one, of course. Keep it simple but not too simple. Don't eliminate the essential, too, in your zeal for simplicity.

The work of determining what is essential, or at the very least, most meaningful and applying "Thoughtful Reduction" is, in fact, the most difficult work. While the outcome is simple, the process of getting there is not. Think again of the Haiku poem. Try writing one. It's hard. But think about how elegant, simple and clear it is when done well.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Strategy Plain and Simple

Strategic planning is simultaneously considered mission critical to our organizations and the bane of our existence. We hole up our organizational leadership in a room for a day or more and cover the walls with flip chart pages.

At the end of the retreat, we feel energized, forward-thinking, ambitious. Brainstorming and banter coalesces into a brilliant 10-point plan for world domination. Then, life happens. We get back into operations and don't look at the strategic plan again until the next time we all head out for a planning retreat.

I've had this experience, but I've also seen a strategy session turn into a living, breathing systemic organizational focus that drove intention and created results. What made the difference? Simplicity.

Often strategic planning sessions look at EVERYTHING the organization does and goals are set in every area (after all, there's room for improvement in all areas, right?). The plan is a multiple page spreadsheet with goal 1, objective 1.1 and so on through goal 6, objective 6.25. The plan looks like a massive task list and none of the goals are given strategic priority. Such a deliverable is why plans get shelved.

The critical missing piece is focused priority given to those areas that are most MEANINGFUL. While there may well be six important things an organization does, all six are not equally important and equally effectively executed. (Imagine disaster struck and you could only choose 1 or 2 or 3 things the organization could keep doing. Which ones would you pick?)

The reality is people and organizations are only able to effectively focus on 3-4 or (preferably) fewer strategic priorities. If you apply the 80/20 Rule or Pareto Principle to your organization, you'll inevitably find a very short list of clients, markets and/or activities drive a disproportionate share of your organization's profitability. That's where you need to focus your time.

I don't believe in detailed tactical plans (goal 1, objective 1.1, etc.) in conjunction with strategy; I only believe in strategic focus documents, strategic thinking sessions and strategy reviews.

Strategic focus documents are simple, short statements listing the 1-3 strategic focus areas you identified as being the most meaningful in advancing your competitive advantage.

Strategic thinking sessions are continuous discussions about actions to take within the strategic focus areas, adjustments to the navigation or whole new courses to set based on new information or changes in the environment.

Strategic reviews are periodic checkups on what has been accomplished so far in advancing the strategic focus areas.

Instead of attempting to have staff implement a "task list" tactical plan developed by the leadership, embed strategy in organization-wide thinking and decision making.

People inherently know what to do (i.e., develop their own task lists) if they know what the parameters are for decision making based on the organization's strategic focus. Make the strategic focus areas the key agenda items of regular, not special, meetings. This makes strategy systemic, integrated in operations, not independent of them.

At its simplest, strategic thinking sessions are an exercise in answering some basic strategic questions that determine your differentiators:

1) Which?
2) Who?
3) How?

Which market, which product, which service? Who are we targeting? How will we set ourselves apart? How do we compete?

Simply use the answers to those questions to create the parameters, the "lenses" through which everyone in the organization sees it. If they make daily decisions that lead to specific actions based on these strategic parameters, then the "task list" takes care of itself.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Principles of Effective Email Management

One of the greatest barriers to effective leadership, at least for me, is the tendency to get sucked into operations instead of strategy. And in the modern age much of the operational aspect of business is tied up in email -- and increasingly, online social media, but that's not the topic today.

There are some really terrific systems for effectively managing email but I try to stick to discussing principles rather than specific techniques and systems. There are plenty of people who have literally spent a lifetime developing productivity systems, including my friend and colleague Laura Stack, The Productivity Pro (R) in her book "Leave the Office Earlier: How to Get More Done in Less Time and Feel Great About it." Timothy Ferriss also has some great advice on email in his book "The Four Hour Work Week." Another great inbox management system is espoused by Len Merson of ChaosOver Inc. And last, an inspiration for this site, Leo Babauta, author of "The Power of Less" and blogger of "Zen Habits" has outstanding, simple advice for managing email.

Suffice it to say, if you have enough email in your inbox for the scroll bar to show up, you manage email poorly. I manage multiple organizations with memberships totalling in the thousands, and those members constantly have customer service requests. Yet, my inbox is empty at the end of every day and frequently during the day. Yes, it is possible. You can do it, too (read the books or get training from the people I listed in the paragraph above if you don't believe me).

So, what are the simple principles that drive effective email management?
  1. Do not use your inbox as a "To-Do" list. This is the single most important principle. Tatoo it on your forehead. It's very tempting to leave email in your inbox as a reminder. Avoid this temptation at all costs. The list constantly grows. Over time, other emails shuffle between "to-do" emails and before you know it, an email that needed a prompt reply gets lost. Now you have to write an apology for a late reply. Turn emails into actual to-do's, calendar appointments or file them in a "tickler" file.
  2. Search and destroy. Immediately delete all junk mail, forwarded jokes, "chain" emails that a "friend who cares" sent you. Browse and delete all "fyi" emails - if no action is required, then only one action is required: read and delete (or file if you are absolutely convinced you may have to look it up for some detail later). Get a good spam program and learn how to create "rules" in Outlook that automatically send emails with specific words (e.g., Viagra) to your junk mail.
  3. Automate. Create a "rule" (or macro) for regular emails that are simply "confirmations" (shipment notifications, voicemail attachments or email faxes, etc.) that auto files them (i.e., "Fax" folder). With a rule, they never get to your inbox to begin with -- they go straight to file. Make FAQ template response emails for questions that come up on a regular basis. Or, post them to your website and just email links to the sender.
  4. Delegate. See my previous post on "Simple Delegation." It's very tempting to answer an email simply because you know the answer and it will only take a second to reply. But, if you happen to have a staff person or coworker who is responsible for these types of requests, don't answer such emails under any circumstances. Always forward them to the appropriate person. If you reply, reply with "John will get back to you on this" or cc the sender with "Sally, can you please assist Mr. Johnson with this. Thank you." This does two things: 1) the person who is responsible stays responsible and 2) the sender is now trained to go to the correct person with such questions from now on.
Much more detail on the "how-to's" of creating rules, managing files, turning emails into tasks and calendar items are available from the productivity consultants and authors mentioned previously. I highly recommend them.

In general, though, stick to the basic principles and your email should stay under control: don't use your inbox as a "to-do" list, search and destroy, automate and delegate.