Above and Beyond KM

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This publication contains my personal views and not necessarily those of my clients. Since I am a lawyer, I do need to tell you that this publication is not intended as legal advice or as an advertisement for legal services.
  • Southwest Airlines - June 10, 2001 Earlier this year I wrote a post entitled, If Dominos Ran Your Law Firm. That post focused on the window on its operations that Dominos Pizza provides to its customers via the Dominos Tracker. Of course, I was drawing a pointed contrast with the lack of transparency that most law firms offer to their clients.

    In that spirit of pointed contrasts, let’s take a look at Southwest Airlines. Since its beginning, Southwest Airlines has followed a distinctive path. The company has made some choices that other companies find difficult, if not impossible, to make. As a result, Southwest has developed a unique company culture that is known as “Living the Southwest Way.” According to the post, Southwest Airlines “Gets It” With Our Culture, their culture has three components:

    • Warrior Spirit:  work hard, desire to be the best, be courageous, display a sense of urgency, persevere, and innovate.
    • Servant’s Heart:  follow The Golden Rule, put others first, demonstrate proactive Customer Service (that includes both Internal–SWA Employees–and External Customers), and embrace the SWA Family.
    • Fun-LUVing* Attitude:  don’t take yourself too seriously, maintain perspective (balance), celebrate successes, enjoy your work, and be a passionate Teamplayer. [*LUV is Southwest's ticker symbol.]

    Perhaps the most significant way in which Southwest is not like most other companies flows from Southwest’s priorities. Herb Kelleher, cofounder of Southwest, explains what he sees as the false choice regarding corporate priorities:

    When I started out, business school professors liked to pose a conundrum: Which do you put first, your employees, your customers, or your shareholders? As if that were an unanswerable question. My answer was very easy: You put your employees first. If you truly treat your employees that way, they will treat your customers well, your customers will come back, and that’s what makes your shareholders happy. So there is no constituency at war with any other constituency. Ultimately, it’s shareholder value that you’re producing.

    Putting Employees First

    Can you give me the name of a law firm that puts its employees first? If you ask most law firms, they’ll tell you that they “put the client first.” (As a practical matter, many actually put their shareholders (i.e., the partners) first.) At Southwest, the approach is quite different. In fact they express it with the following “magic formula“:

    Happy Employees = Happy Customers = Increased Business/Profits = Happy Shareholders! 

    They also express it quite explicitly as part of the mission statement posted on their website:

    The Mission of Southwest Airlines

    The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.

    To Our Employees

    We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth. Creativity and innovation are encouraged for improving the effectiveness of Southwest Airlines. Above all, Employees will be provided the same concern, respect, and caring attitude within the organization that they are expected to share externally with every Southwest Customer.

    Imagine that? Treating employees as you expect them to treat your clients. Encouraging creativity and innovation rather than conformity and rigid adherence to tradition. Supporting employees as they find new ways to build the business and keep customers happy. The cynic in you might say that words are cheap. In fact you might question whether it is possible to run a financially viable operation in this manner. According to Southwest’s most recent “One Report,” 2011 marked the 39th consecutive year of profitability for the company. Can you name a major law firm that can match these results?

    Southwest’s website features the following quotation from Gary Kelly, their CEO:

    Our people are our single greatest strength and most enduring longterm competitive advantage.

    I suspect senior management of your firm has said that from time to time, but how have they demonstrated it? Aside from moving from the jargon of  ”professional development” to that of “talent management,” has anything materially improved for the employees of your firm? Is there a sense of teamwork and shared mission regardless of whether or not the members of the team have law degrees? Is there a commitment to mutual learning and growth? Is there explicit encouragement of creativity and innovation, not only in the practice of law but in the business of law?

    Herb Kelleher once observed that competitors can buy your tangible assets, but they cannot buy the competitive advantage your company culture gives you. Has your law firm invested in a company culture that keeps your best employees engaged and encourages every employee to become one of the best? As the economic environment becomes more challenging, your people will truly be your greatest strength. Now would be a good time to start thinking like Herb Kelleher if you’re serious about being in this game for the long haul.


    Just for fun, here’s an example of a Southwest Airlines employee at work:

    [Photo Credit: Jim Ellwanger]

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  • Dandelion Have you ever made the mistake of leaving talent on the table when hiring or staffing? If so, you should consider what Robert Austin has to say in the video below about the Danish software testing company, Specialisterne. This company recruits and retains a workforce that is uniquely suited to the rigors of software testing. What’s so special about their staff?  Most have been diagnosed with some form of autism. It’s important to note is that this company’s business model is not based primarily on grudging accommodation of people outside the norm. Rather it’s built on “using the characteristics of people with autism as a competitive advantage.” Here’s the company’s extraordinary story in its own words:

    At Specialisterne, people with autism work in an environment where they are presented with the best possible opportunities to reach their potential. They don’t have to learn to adapt to the usual working-environment norms, such as being a good team player, being empathetic, handling stress well and showing flexibility. These are not the usual characteristics for people with autism; a fact that usual[ly] results in their being excluded long-term from the labour market. Instead, Specialisterne welcomes the very differences and character traits that are so often seen as a stigma.

    Putting it simply; at Specialisterne, not fitting in is a good thing. The traits that usually exclude people with autism from the labour market are the very traits that make them valuable employees at Specialisterne, such as attention to detail, zero tolerance for errors and a persistence to get the job done. We don’t see them as people with an autism diagnosis; rather, we see them as true specialists, which is why we refer to them as “specialist people”. Imagine a world where someone who was once defined by their diagnosis, would instead be defined as a “specialist person” ?

    As Austin notes in the video, companies that pass over idiosyncratic talent in favor of more well-rounded or complete talent end up “leaving talent on the table.” They may settle for uncomplicated and reasonably good over slightly more challenging but brilliant.  According to Austin, one way to ensure that you don’t leave talent on the table is to check yourself every time you find yourself sacrificing talent for ease within your context when hiring and staffing.  To explain the importance of context he paraphrases Thorkil Sonne, founder of Specialisterne, who uses the metaphor of a dandelion:

    The dandelion is generally considered to be a weed. However, dandelions can be valuable: they have medicinal properties and can be used to make a salad, a coffee substitute and wine, among other things. Therefore, the dandelion’s essential characteristics are not what makes us view the plant as a weed, but rather the context in which we find it. A dandelion in a lawn is unwelcome, while a dandelion in an herb garden is likely to be nurtured. Similarly, companies may consider people with autism to be unemployable because those companies have been forcing these people into inappropriate and unsupportive contexts. Change the context and then you realize the benefits.

    In these days of shrinking budgets, do you want a minimally competent but unremarkable team, or should you be thinking about the competitive advantage you gain by hiring idiosyncratic talent? While idiosyncratic talent may require gifted managers, Specialisterne demonstrates the benefits of this unconventional approach.

    They don’t leave talent on the table.

    [Photo Credit: Code Poet]

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  • Collaboration is key.  We’re told by social media mavens that it powers networks and unlocks the potential within individuals and the groups with which they associate.  However, collaboration is not always an unalloyed good. Sometimes it can go badly wrong.

    Now, before you throw me out of the social media club, consider the following: collaboration isn’t just about working together; it’s about working together towards a shared goal.   However, sharing a goal is not enough it you are looking to optimize the situation for your group.  Merely accomplishing a shared goal doesn’t guarantee good if the goal itself is flawed.

    If you aren’t convinced, watch these two brief videos in which groups of birds act together to achieve a common goal:

    Here’s an example of great collaboration to achieve a worthy goal:

    Now, here’s an example of a crowd realizing too late that the goal towards which it was working was the wrong goal:

    So here’s the takeaway:  If you’re going to go to the trouble of collaborating, make very sure that the goal towards which you are working is worth the effort.  Otherwise, you might discover that your collaboration effort is for the birds.


  • Focus New Year, new beginnings.

    At this point in the calendar, the blogosphere is full of lots of advice for those of us who welcome the opportunity of a new beginning.  Since I’d like to avoid here one of the besetting sins of bloggers (i.e., hypocrisy), I’m going to restrict myself to sharing advice that I’m willing to take myself in 2012:

    1. Find Your Focus. When your attention and energies are scattered in too many directions, it’s impossible to get much if anything done.  When you have multiple projects, it can be hard to determine priorities and allocate resources.  In 2012, be kind to yourself and decide what project (or small number of projects) will be your primary focus for the year.  What’s really worth doing? What completed project would you be glad to showcase at year-end as an example of work well done? Once you’ve identified the project, throw all your concentrated energy into it and see how quickly the results mount.
    2. Plan to be Flexible. The beauty of a well-considered plan is that it helps you answer the daily question of how to spend your time and resources.  That sense of direction is freeing and allows you to just get on with achieving the success for which you’ve planned.  However, very few of us have the luxury of seeing everything go according to plan.  In fact, life often has a way of moving us off course. Sometimes there are bumps in the road, sometimes we find ourselves in a complete snafu.  And sometimes these interruptions are really rich opportunities in deep disguise. All of this is not an argument against planning.  In fact, the value of planning may well be more in the analytical clarity it brings, the contingencies is uncovers and the level of preparedness it inspires.  Eisenhower is famous for saying that “Plans are nothing; planning everything.” So go ahead and plan, but don’t let your plan blind you to life’s realities and opportunities.
    3. Celebrate Progress. Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer Kramer recommend that you Start the New Year with Progress.  By this they mean that “fostering progress in meaningful work is the most important way to keep people highly engaged at work — even if that progress is a `small win.’” Amabile and Kramer have several suggestions for keeping progress front and center:  keep a sharp eye out for progress, communicate it broadly and celebrate it widely.  Don’t let the press of business push people to the next task without recognizing work well done.  It you don’t pause and recognize accomplishment, you run the risk of having members of your team feel as if they are constantly slogging without achieving any meaningful results.  That feeling can destroy engagement and motivation all too quickly. As you focus on progress, be sure to explain why the work is important.  This is not about handing out meaningless gold stars.  It’s about keeping people engaged in work that matters.
    4. Be Kinder. Aldous Huxley is quoted as saying, “It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘Try to be a little kinder.” I have neither his experience nor his wisdom, but this strikes me as good advice — especially in a time of uncertainty when too many are struggling with anxiety. Kindness can help us over the rough patches and sets the tone for how we want to work with our colleagues.

    There you have it in a nutshell:  wise advice that, if followed, should result in a highly productive and more fulfilling year.  Now we just need to stay focused.

    Happy New Year!

    [Photo Credit: ihtatho]







  • Freak Out It’s been over three years since the financial crisis of 2008.  Joblessness is high, optimism low.  Just in the last four months alone, the New York area has had epic weather (Hurricane Irene, floods, the Halloween blizzard) and an earthquake. Worst of all, no one knows when the turmoil (natural or economic) will end. Is it any wonder people are stressed?

    Dr. James S. Gordon, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School, wrote the following sobering words in the Washington Post in 2009:

    I have been practicing psychiatry for 40 years, but I’ve never seen this much stress and worry about economic well-being and the future. There is a sense that the ground is no longer solid, that a system we all thought would sustain us no longer works as we were told it would. … In this uncertain time, symptoms of chronic illnesses — hypertension, back pain, diabetes — that were controlled or dormant are erupting. Low-level depression, whose hallmarks are feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, is endemic.

    Dr. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has an equally direct summary of our current state of affairs:

    We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability. And I think there’s evidence — and it’s not the only reason this evidence exists, but I think it’s a huge cause — we are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history.  …  One of the things that I think we need to think about is why and how we numb. And it doesn’t just have to be addiction. The other thing we do is we make everything that’s uncertain certain. Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty.

    If that’s what’s happening in the general population, what’s happening in the law firm world?  Toby Brown, a wise observer of law firms and the economy recently had an epiphany about the widespread longing for a return to simpler, more certain times:  it isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. In fact, he believes that the current “level of uncertainty may be here to stay. And it may even expand in the future. …  The bottom line is that rapid change results in uncertainty. And rapid change has become the norm.”

    It’s pretty grim stuff.  So what can we do if we can’t get under it, over it or around it?  How do we get through it?  How do we cope with uncertainty? Dr. Gordon has the following recommendations for individuals:

    • Begin a meditation practice.
    • Move your body.
    • Reach out to others.
    • Find someone who will listen and help you take a realistic look at your situation.
    • Let your imagination help you find healing — and new meaning and purpose.
    • Speak and act on your own behalf.

    Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor at Harvard Business School, suggests the following strategies to help organizations cope with uncertainty and find opportunity:

    • Provide certainty of process.
    • Tackle maintenance and repair.
    • Let ideas flow.
    • Mobilize appreciation for key constituencies.
    • Use purpose and values to “think beyond.”

    For law firms that may be choking on the thought of spending money in these uncertain times, Toby Brown has the following recommendation:

    In our conversation, we wondered with so much uncertainty where should a law firm invest its IT dollars? Our answer: invest in flexible infrastructure. Uncertainty drives the need to be able to adjust quickly to changing environments, driving the need to add and remove functionalities under very short turnarounds.

    I’d take Toby’s advice one step further. In these uncertain times organizations should be investing to help make their people as flexible and resilient as possible.  This is what will help organizations respond quickly and appropriately to changes in the environment.  To be clear, in this context resilience does not mean simply reverting to the status quo ante.  The better definition of resilience for these purposes points to growth and progress rather than reversion:

    Resilience is the ability to thrive, mature, and increase competence in the face of adverse circumstances.

    While it is unlikely that 2012 will bring more certainty, let’s hope that we can bring more flexibility and resilience to 2012.  Onward and upward!

    [Hat tip to Ron Donaldson for reminding me of Brené Brown's TED Talk on vulnerability.]

    [Photo Credit: Frau Shizzle]



  • Tempus Fugit “Meetings: the credible alternative to work.” That is the wry conclusion emblazoned on a mug that sits on my desk. It’s a useful daily reminder. However, until all of you get a mug like that to remind yourselves about the huge corporate waste represented by bad meetings, I’d like to make the following modest proposal to improve meetings.

    It’s not unusual for a formal business meeting to be followed by the informal after-meeting discussion.  It’s often in that discussion that the meeting is evaluated and action steps are refined.  I’d suggest that after every meeting the participants take a minute or two to evaluate the effectiveness of the meeting just ended.  Did it have a clear goal?  Were the participants prepared and able to make a decision?  Did the participants meet the goal of the meeting?  Did the person calling the meeting do an effective job?  Did the person chairing the meeting do an effective job? In other words, was the meeting worth the time invested?

    If the answer to any of those questions is no and if those participants earn a negative evaluation three times then they should be discouraged from calling meetings until they’ve done some remedial work to improve their ability to organize and deliver productive meetings.  Perhaps they should even be forbidden from participating in meetings until the remedial work is done since they clearly are not adding value to meetings.

    This may strike you as overly harsh. However, consider what’s really at stake.  Bad meetings are a tax on productivity and morale.  Worse still, bad meetings waste time.

    Of all the resources you and your organization have, time is the scarcest.  Can you really afford to waste it?

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    [Photo Credit: Sami]

  • Bunnies Just when you thought it was safe, I’m here to warn you to look out for the knowledge management menagerie.  What’s in that menagerie? Animals that can upset an otherwise well-designed KM program.  With some thought, we probably could identify enough animals to populate a zoo.  However, since this is a blog post and not a Harry Potter novel, let’s focus on just two: monkeys and bunnies.


    Monkeys became an important part of the management scene with the publication by William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass of the management classic “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” In that article they explained how little of our workdays are really within our discretion and how easily that limited amount of discretionary time can be eaten up by colleagues who inappropriately delegate to us. In the case of the original article, the presenting issue was subordinates who delegate up.  In the context of knowledge management, however, we also experience colleagues in other departments who delegate to KM tasks they should be doing for themselves.

    To understand the problem with monkeys better, here’s an excerpt from Oncken and Wass:

    You’re racing down the hall. An employee stops you and says, “We’ve got a problem.” You assume you should get involved but can’t make an on-the-spot decision. You say, “Let me think about it.”

    You’ve just allowed a “monkey” to leap from your subordinate’s back to yours. You’re now working for your subordinate. Take on enough monkeys, and you won’t have time to handle your real job: fulfilling your own boss’s mandates and helping peers generate business results.

    How do you tame these monkeys? The Harvard Business Review offers the following management tip:

    Have you ever delegated a task to a subordinate, and somehow it ends up back on your plate? Beware of this “reverse delegation.” Employees who are unsure how to do something may enlist you in doing it for them. Don’t automatically solve problems or make decisions for hesitant employees. Focus on generating alternative solutions together, making sure the employee maintains responsibility for executing. Don’t fall for it when a subordinate makes statements like, “You’ll do a better job with this.” While flattering, and possibly even true, they are often a way to get you involved when you needn’t be.

    In the KM context, these monkeys pop up when colleagues ask you to find for them things that should be easily found by them using your KM systems.  A friend at another law firm described their expensive enterprise search engine as “a great tool that helps KM find things.”  It sounds as if what my friend has really found is a KM monkey. Similarly, when every unsolved problem within your firm suddenly becomes KM’s problem, then you’re probably looking at a barrel full of monkeys. As flattering as it may be to think that KM is at the center of your firm’s universe, chances are that you’ve got lots of half-finished projects and insufficient bandwidth to complete enough of them.  What you really need to do is get rid of some of those KM monkeys. The key is to train your colleagues to help themselves. If the issue is that people are coming to you because they are afraid of failing, you need to work with them to build trust and to create a safe-fail environment that puts failure in the proper context.


    Bunnies? Yes, bunnies.  The particular breed that first caught my eye was “plot bunnies,” but they could easily appear in knowledge management.  Unwords.com defines a plot bunny as follows:

    1. (n.) A tempting idea for a story that hares off into strange territory upon pursuit. Known for breeding rapidly and dividing a writer’s attention to the point of achieving nothing at all.

    Example: “I’ve been trying to write a story, but I’ve been cursed by an infestation of plotbunnies.”

    A KM bunny is a terrific new idea that comes out of nowhere and entices you away from your carefully developed plan.  The hard part is that KM bunny is extremely appealing and may, in fact, be brilliant.  Nonetheless, it can be a huge distraction that keeps you from getting the necessary done.  On the other hand, that bunny may represent the one thing you should have been doing all along.  And therein lies the ultimate challenge of the KM bunny — should you keep your eyes on the prize and ignore it, or should you allow it to lead you to potentially more fruitful paths?  How do you know?

    A friend of mine who used to run Fortune 100 companies once told me, “Don’t let others put their monkeys on your back.”  I would add to his great advice the following admonition: And don’t let yourself get distracted by too many bunnies.  They can fracture your focus, disperse your energy, and still not result in anything tangible.

    No matter how cute those monkeys and bunnies appear to be, remember that they can be lethal if not tamed.

    [Hat tip to E.G.R. Warren for introducing me to plot bunnies.]

    [Photo Credit: Barb Henry]

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  • True Value As the economy forces more belt-tightening on law firms, it’s tempting to make decisions based strictly on metrics — of profitability, productivity, efficiency.  For the record, I’m completely in favor of profitability, productivity and efficiency.  But I firmly believe there is more we should be paying attention to and tracking.  What more?  Our Values Proposition, not just our value proposition.

    Value proposition is a basic concept of business. [Note: this is "value" without a final "s."]  Wikipedia describes value proposition as “a promise of value to be delivered and a belief from the customer of value that will be experienced.” It’s the benefit delivered to the customer (from KM personnel, services and systems, for example), after taking into effect the cost of those personnel, services and systems. Once we know our value proposition, we use it to explain to our internal customers why they should be using our services or to explain to management why they should be funding yet another KM project. Perhaps your KM value proposition is based on the efficiency your systems bring to the practice of law. Perhaps your KM value proposition is derived from costs you demonstrably reduce.

    Amber Naslund takes it one step further by reminding us that a value proposition isn’t just a business school exercise or a marketing gimmick:

    Delivering something worthwhile is not achieved in a board room with big flip charts and spreadsheets and ideation sessions. It’s not delivered with a slick brochure or well-written copy, or a stack of press hits in the Wall Street Journal. It’s not delivered in key messages or brand attributes, even. It’s delivered in the work that you do with and for your customers, each and every day. The hard stuff, where you roll up your sleeves and show what you’re made of. Solving real problems for real people.

    While a value proposition is useful, I’m beginning to think that a values proposition is critical. Bill Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company and author of Practically Radical, used the phrase in a recent HBR blog post to suggest a better way to differentiate yourself from the competition:

    There is a temptation, amidst the turmoil, for pundits to conclude that the only sensible response is to make bold bets — new business models that challenge the logic of an industry, products that aim to be `category killers’ and obsolete the competition. But I’ve come to believe that a better way to respond to uncertainty is with small gestures that send big signals about what you care about and stand for. In a world defined by crisis, acts of generosity and reassurance take on outsized importance.

    He goes on to describe interactions with service providers who were competent but left the customer dissatisfied because the delivery of services lacked humanity.  He then contrasts that with service providers whose values helped them understand in the critical moment what really matters.  As a result, they provided “not-so-random acts of kindness that humanize companies and offer an uplifting alternative to a demoralizing status quo.”

    This raises an interesting question: what’s the values proposition of your department?

    • What’s the quality of your service?
    • Do you love what you are doing? If so, does it show?
    • What’s the tone of your interactions with colleagues and customers?
    • To what extent do kindness and consideration color your actions?
    • What intangibles about your service do your clients value?
    • What intangibles about your department make your colleagues glad to be part of your team?

    Bill Taylor quotes Mother Theresa who once told her followers: ”We cannot do great things, only small things with great love.”

    What do your small everyday actions say about your values?

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    [Photo Credit: Jonathan]



  • Calendar We’ve got one month left until the end of the year, one month to close the books on 2011. If you’re like me, you’ve got more on your To Do list than can possibly be done before year end. How does this happen?  Most likely it’s because that To Do list does not adequately take account of the dip in productivity levels that inevitably occurs around the holiday season. Unless you are channeling Ebenezer Scrooge, it’s really hard to work all the time when others are enjoying a little holiday cheer.  Further, it’s hard to push your colleagues to work at an unremitting pace when they too want to enjoy a little holiday cheer. Finally, how do you get everything done before December 31 when the members of your team have been working hard all year and now are fatigued?

    Here are some strategies to help you cope during the year-end push:

    1. Take a hard look at the calendar. In December, you cannot count on having 20 full working days. There are official holidays when people expect to be away from the office. Then there are scheduled vacation days. And, of course, there are the partial days when an otherwise normal working day is interrupted by office parties, school events, last minute shopping and planning for upcoming celebrations. According to a study conducted by i4cp in 2008, 62% of respondents said that productivity dropped in their organizations during the holiday season. In other words, it can be very difficult to find enough days for focused work in December. If you’re being realistic, what will this do to your ability to meet your year-end deadlines?
    2. Take a hard look at your project list. When you set your goals in January, December seemed far away and you probably had a rosy view of how much you would be able to accomplish in 12 months. Now you are down to that final challenging month.  Unless your project has proceeded without a hitch, you are undoubtedly at this point considering whether it is necessary to cut the scope of your project.  As painful as this is, it may be the only way to keep your sanity and your team intact. Professional project managers will tell you that it is extremely challenging to achieve high quality, low cost and short time frames on a project.  In fact, according to the project triangle, you can optimize only two of these goals so you’ll have to decide what’s most important: good, fast or cheap.  In the context of your 2011 project goals, will you have to cut scope or increase costs in order to meet your time commitments?
    3. Take a hard look at your team. If your organization is like so many others, you’ve been trying to do more with less for too long.  In fact, you may be understaffed and overworked.  Add to that the ambient stress of a challenging economic environment and you may well have a team of people who are mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. How do you re-energize them sufficiently to achieve year-end goals? First, if the exhaustion is due to overwork, consider providing some strategically-timed rest and recreation.  After all, even machines need downtime for maintenance. If your team members don’t understand the reason for their work or don’t believe that what they are doing is important, this can result in mental exhaustion.  In this case, you will have to improve your priority setting, as well as your communication about the purpose of your team’s work. People will not work above and beyond the call of duty if they have doubts about their mission. Is their mission for December important enough to inspire and energize them?

    It’s a race to the finish. Unless you approach that race tactically, you could end up crippling your team and falling short of your goals. And, to compound the pain, you may miss out on the joy and hopefulness of the season.  Why risk it?

    [Photo Credit: Angela Mabray]

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  • multiply On most days, my To Do List seems longer than the Nile River.  It contains everything from the quotidien (remember the milk!) to the critical — tasks that trigger serious consequences. On days when it seems like I add two tasks for every one I complete, it can be tempting to focus on the noisiest ones.  What are noisy tasks?  The tasks with the most pressing deadline or the most vocal sponsor. And so it goes, racing from one due date to another, with barely enough time for a breath much less a moment to consider the true results of what I am doing.

    Writers on productivity, time management and strategy have told us for a long time that we should focus on the IMPORTANT not the URGENT. That’s excellent advice.  However, I’ve recently started thinking about another lens through which to view and prioritize tasks:  Will the completion of the task (or project) act as a force multiplier?

    To understand this better, let’s spend a moment on force multiplication.  The military calls a factor a “force multiplier” when that factor enables a force to work much more effectively.  The example in Wikipedia relates to GPS:  ”if a certain technology like GPS enables a force to accomplish the same results of a force five times as large but without GPS, then the multiplier is 5.”  Interestingly, while technology can be an enormous advantage, force multipliers are not limited to technology.  Some of the force multipliers listed in that Wikipedia article have nothing at all to do with technology:

    Now come back to that growing To Do List and take another look at those tasks.  How many of them are basically chores — things that simply need to get done in order to get people off your back or to move things forward (perhaps towards an unclear goal)? How many of them are (or are part of) force multipliers — things that will allow you or your organization to work in a dramatically more effective fashion?  Viewed through this lens, the chores seem much less relevant, akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, while the force multipliers are clearly much more deserving of your time and attention.

    The challenge of course is that the noisy tasks grab your attention because others insist on it.  They want something when they want it because they want it.  They may not have a single strategic thought in their head, but they are demanding and persistent.  So how do you limit the encroachment of purveyors of noisy tasks?  One answer is to limit the amount of time available for chores.  To do this credibly, you’ll need to know where you and your activities fit within the strategy of your organization.  If the task does not advance strategy, don’t do it.  Or decide upfront to allow a fixed percentage of your time for chores that may be of minimal use to you, but may be important to keep the people around you happy.  Another approach is to get a better understanding of the task and its context.  If your job is to copy documents, one page looks much like another.  However, it matters if the document you are copying contains the cafeteria menu or the firm’s emergency response guidelines. Finally, you need to educate the folks around you.  With your subordinates, do your decision making aloud — explaining how you determine if a particular task or project is a force multiplier. With your superiors, ask them to help you understand better the force multiplication attributes they see in the tasks they assign.  (This will either provide you with more useful contextual information or smoke out a chore that is masquerading as an important task.) Finally, with the others, engage them in conversation. When you cannot see your way clear to handle their chore, explain your reasoning.  They won’t always be happy about it, but they will start learning when to call on you and when to dump their requests on someone else.

    Of course, the concept of force multiplication goes far beyond your To Do List.  Do your projects have a force multiplying effect on your department?  Does your department have a force multiplying effect on your firm? These are important questions for everyone, but especially for people engaged in the sometime amorphous field of knowledge management. Sure, most of what we do helps.  But do we make a dramatic difference?  If not, why not?

    [Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds]