When Busy is Bad

Have you noticed that when you ask someone how they are, they often respond with one word: “Busy.” Apparently, busy is their state of being: not healthy or sick, happy or sad,  excited or anxious. Yet the word busy is fundamentally neutral and doesn’t tell the whole story about one’s current state. After all, one can busy and happy about it (especially when compared to the alternative of under-employment) or one can be frustrated by it. And yet we persist in describing ourselves as busy.

Clearly, the word “busy” is meant to convey a wealth of meaning. But what meaning? In some circles, it means that one is fully engaged. For a lawyer, it can mean full utilization. Perhaps it even suggests a high level of productivity. But that would be misleading. As we have been learning in the legal industry, a high level of input (our effort is no more than an input), does not necessarily ensure a high level of output or, more importantly, a good outcome. And it certainly does not ensure a high level of value from the perspective of the client.

But there is an even more troubling side to our propensity to describe ourselves as busy.  As Ryder Carroll, the creator of the Bullet Journalling method, noted in his TEDx talk at Yale:


“Being busy doesn’t mean that you are being productive.

A lot of the time, being busy just means that you are in a state of being functionally overwhelmed.”

Carroll says that this extraordinary level of busyness stems from the extraordinary amount of choice we have. After all, every choice requires us to make a decision. And every decision requires focus. But here’s the rub: Focus requires our energy and our time — our two most valuable resources. According to Carroll, every unnecessary choice is a distraction. As we eliminate those unnecessary choices, we reduce distractions, thereby increasing our available time and focus. So unless we are disciplined about reducing the number of unnecessary choices in our life, we end up depleting our most valuable resources without a corresponding benefit.

Ryder Carroll’s TEDx talk hit me with extra force as I wrap up an amazing year in which I started a new job with fabulous possibilities. As I have learned, all those possibilities have led to a To-Do list that just won’t stop. I’ve tried working until I get closer to the end of the list, but that is a recipe for exhaustion rather than a sustainable approach. (After all, it’s a never-ending list.) So my resolution for 2019 is to be even more deliberate in assessing What goes onto my To-Do list, understanding that every task on that list represents a choice that requires a decision, my focus, and my nonrenewable time.

How will you deal with your own never-ending To-Do list in 2019? How will you avoid the state of being functionally overwhelmed?

My wish for all of us is that we have a truly productive and satisfying 2019.

Happy New Year!





Better Productivity for a Fourth-Quarter Win

With the passing of each month, each season, each fiscal period, we have an opportunity to review, assess, plan, and improve. I’m writing this post on the last day of the third quarter. All we have left is the fourth quarter within which to reach our professional and personal goals for the year. Now, more than ever, our productivity matters.

If you have been at the game of life for any reasonable amount of time, you probably have developed some heuristics (rules of thumb) for success. Now is the time to put those proven rules into effect. If, however, you have not developed reliable productivity rules, may I offer you the following:

  1. Look back to move forward. They say you cannot get to where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. In practical terms, if you do not understand the path you have taken, the choices you have made, the decisions that brought you to this place and time, then you are not in a good position to chart your course forward. Without this critical knowledge, you run the risk of repeating past mistakes and disappointments. You know that you have just one quarter left to accomplish your goal. So take the time for some strategic reflection and look at your trajectory thus far. What have you done this year to move closer to your goal? What has put you further back? What worked? What didn’t? What patterns emerge? What do you need to do about them? Your honest answers to these questions will point the best way forward for a successful fourth quarter.
  2. Focus on the 20 Percent.  This close to your year-end deadline, you really do not have any time to pursue options and angles that are fundamentally less productive. So it’s a great time to remind yourself of the Pareto Principle, which states that “roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.”  Then test the principle against your project list for the year. What is the actual return on investment thus far of each of your projects? According to the Pareto Principle, roughly 20% of your projects will be generating roughly 80% of your returns. And, roughly 80% of your projects will be generating only 20% of your returns. So find and fire your underperforming projects. Then focus on your hyper-performing 20% of projects that will yield 80% returns.  Remember, to achieve a fourth-quarter win you must maximize the returns on your effort for the year. This is how you claim true productivity. After all, success is not measured by how much you did but by how much value you added.
  3. Create habits for success. While we love the notion of the overnight success, most truly successful people attribute their good fortune to good habits, focus, and diligence. To understand better where you need good habits, follow the advice of Vince Lombardi: “Don’t succumb to excuses. Go back to the job of making the corrections and forming the habits that will make your goal possible.” Spend the time now to create the systems and practices that enable you and your team to operate more efficiently and effectively. And, while you’re at it, eliminate the systems and practices that make you less efficient or less effective. Taken together, this will maximize your chances of success this year AND set you up for success in 2018. It is never too early or too late to create habits for success.

Over the course of this week, I’ll be taking my own advice. I hope you do too. Let’s check in with each other at year-end to see how close we all came to a fourth-quarter win.


Managing Your Monkey and Monster

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…”

If only. In fact, over the last few years, my summers have become increasingly busy. This is partly due to a terrific course I’m teaching at Columbia University called Collaboration at Scale. It’s also due to some speaking engagements on interesting and challenging topics like Thriving in Change (at the American Association of Law Libraries PLLIP Summit) and Sustainable KM (at ILTACON 2017). And it’s also because of some marvelous consulting clients who keep me busy and on my toes.

With this much happening, there’s a big premium on getting and staying productive. But high productivity does not happen by accident. It takes thought and planning. And, it takes careful management of your monkey and monster.

What monkey and monster?

Tim Urban (Wait But Why) brilliantly described the Instant Gratification Monkey and the Panic Monster in his hilarious TED talk: “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator.” (See below) Along with this monkey and monster, he also introduced the revered figure we wish actually ran our brains: the Rational Decision-Maker. However, for the average procrastinator, their Instant Gratification Monkey has an uncanny ability to hijack the Rational Decision-Maker’s careful plans. And then you drift until an imminent deadline wakes up your slumbering Panic Monster who puts you into a state of high anxiety. This allows your Rational Decision-Maker to take the reigns of control away from the Instant Gratification Monkey — at least until the immediate crisis has passed.

And so it goes. Until you exhaust yourself or encounter a deadline that you simply cannot meet using this pattern of behavior.

If this sounds at all familiar, you will know that you have to find ways to stay focused on the things that are more important than the things that interest your Instant Gratification Monkey. The problem is that many of those important things may actually not come due for quite a while, if at all. For example, studying now for a future career or laying the groundwork now for an interesting opportunity later.  Consequently, these important things for a hard-to-see future almost never cause your Panic Monster to wake up and scare away your Instant Gratification Monkey.  As a result, you almost never achieve these important things. So what to do?


According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to parse a sentence is to divide it into its parts and then identify those parts and their relationship to each other. Similarly, when you have a pile of things that must be done, break them down into their smallest meaningful parts, figure out which of these parts cause dependencies, and then tackle those first. The point of this exercise is to make the tasks so small that they pass under the radar of the Instant Gratification Monkey. Better still, if you can make those tasks fun (or mindless) the Instant Gratification Monkey might be fooled into thinking those tasks were its idea after all.


Stephen Covey once famously said “Don’t prioritize your schedule, schedule your priorities.” But that can be easier said than done — especially in a law firm environment where everything seems to be urgent and everyone feels overworked. S0 how do we manage this? Theoretically, your supervisor should be helping you prioritize. But there are times when your supervisor cannot see the forest for the trees and, let’s face it, there are time when you simply do not want to let your supervisor know exactly how lost you are. To help with these situations, consider developing a productivity partnership with a trusted colleague. To do this, make the following deal with each other: that you will act as each other’s lifeline in moments of stress to help the other identify which next action that would be most productive. You’ll soon discover that there will be many times where you don’t actually need someone else to tell you what to do next, you just need someone willing to listen to you for five minutes as you figure it out aloud.


Scrum software development has reminded us of the value of short sprints of work to get things done. You can use this principle to tackle the tasks you have identified through the parsing and prioritizing steps above. Take the small task you have identified and commit to working on it for a very short sprint. This is not a commitment to complete it — that might freak out your Instant Gratification Monkey, your Panic Monster, AND your Rational Decision-Maker. Rather, it is a commitment to move things forward in a meaningful way. The trick to keeping your Instant Gratification Monkey on hiatus is to make the time period of this commitment short, say 20 or 25 minutes. After all, this is such a short period of time that it’s hardly worth it for the Instant Gratification Monkey to get out of its hammock. What that monkey does not realize is that if you can build up some rhythm to these pulses, you will be able to create momentum to complete the larger tasks as well.


To create that desired rhythm to your pulses, consider using the Pomodoro technique. This gives you a structured way of doing a short sprint followed by a guaranteed rest period. Provided you honor the time commitments for both the sprint AND the rest period, you should be able focus and get a great deal done. (Admittedly, that proviso is a big one but it does get easier with practice.)


While all of this seems perfectly rational and even doable, you should be aware that this disruption of the natural order is likely to send your Instant Gratification Monkey into a tailspin. And your Panic Monster may feel a little underemployed. So you need to find a way to placate them so they are not motivated to disturb your productivity. You can help placate your Instant Gratification Monkey by ensuring that your Pomodoro breaks are spent on truly fun things or things that really make you feel better about life. And then, because you’ve had an insanely productive day, walk away at the end of the allotted time and really enjoy the leisure you have earned. As far as your Panic Monster goes, it is actually to useful to keep the monster around but on a highly reduced schedule. The monster can help keep the monkey at bay so that you can focus on getting to the end of each sprint. So while you won’t have a full-on panic attack, you will have that thrill of urgency that keeps you on your toes and focused.


If you’d love a fun and educational break from your productive streak, here are links to Tim Urban’s TED talk, as well as some terrific blog posts he wrote on the topic. Enjoy!

Why Procrastinators Procrastinate

How to Beat Procrastination

The Procrastination Matrix

[Photo Credit: Tim Urban]


Midyear Milestones

It’s the end of the second quarter. That means it’s a great opportunity to take stock of what you have accomplished thus far in 2017. Obviously, it is nice to be able to check items off your to-do list but that may not be the only, or even most appropriate, form of midyear assessment you should be doing. Applying our knowledge management training to enhance productivity and impact, here are some other questions you should be asking:

  1. What’s Working? And, why? Once you have identified your successes, see if you can also identify the reasons for your success. Are those reliable and repeatable reasons or will you need to take further action to ensure those conditions continue in place?
  2. What’s NOT Working? And, why? Once you have identified your failures, see if you can also identify the reasons for those failures. Remember, this is not about blame. And, it is also not about settling for the most obvious answer. Try digging a little more deeply to unearth entrenched conditions or patterns of behavior that undermine potential success.
  3. What needs to change? In other words, what do you need to do to increase what’s working and decrease what’s not working? Here again, don’t settle for the obvious or superficial answer. Push further to see if you can identify deeper or more widespread patterns that should be harnessed or disrupted.
  4. Am I prepared to make those changes? Is my team ready to make those changes? This is a tough one. It is not just a question of willingness to change, but also the ability to change.
  5. If yes, why? Once you know why you also know how to harness the positive energy of your team to continue on an upward trajectory.
  6. If no, why? Once you know why you also must determine what needs to be addressed to prevent a continuing downward spiral.
  7. What’s surprising? This is always a good question to ask — and ask often. This question engages all our senses in scanning the environment and reporting back. Sometimes the surprises we observe are weak signals initially but keep paying attention to them. They may well herald important upcoming changes.
  8. What have I learned? Life presents multiple (even daily) opportunities to learn. However, sometimes we allow ourselves to become so busy that we do not stop long enough to take note of the lesson. Or we are so set in our ways that we refuse to learn the lesson. In either case, we will find that the same issue comes up time and time again until we learn the needed lesson. There is no social promotion in life. Consequently, it pays to stop our striving momentarily so that we can take stock of our learning — or lack thereof.
  9. What do I need to learn? While you are focused on learning, celebrate what you have learned and then do an honest assessment of what you have left to learn. Paradoxically, it is as we learn more that we begin to understand how much more there is to learn. This is a good place to be — even in our areas of acknowledged expertise. The key is to develop intellectual humility so that we remain open to the possibility of the lesson when it arrives.
  10. How do I improve my rate of learning? For those of us working in the learning or knowledge management functions of an organization, we know that one of the key indicators of our success is whether we are improving the rate at which the entire organization learns. The same applies to us individually and to our teams. So keep looking for ways to improve your rate of learning. Inevitably, this will mean improving your observation skills and increasing the frequency of reflection. Then, take the critically important step of creating feedback loops to feed the results of that observation and reflection (i.e., the learning) back into your processes and work product. The faster you do this, the more useful your learning will be.

Armed with all this information, remember the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button:

For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.

[Photo Credit: Keith Evans]



No More Pretzels!

Let me begin with a health warning: Be careful as you watch the video below. It will give you a sympathy backache. That said, it’s worth watching it to see what a naturally gifted human pretzel can do.

Now think about how you might perform as a human pretzel.  No matter how much physical flexibility you may have, chances are that you cannot come close to the standards that Victoria Jacoby attains in the video.

Actually, let me rephrase that. Chances are that you cannot come close to her ability to contort her body, but I’m willing to bet that you far exceed her accomplishments when it comes to contorting yourself and your technology to accomplish everything you need to do everyday.

A classic case in point is email. Its ubiquity is a testament to its perceived usefulness. However, I’d suggest that we have been pushing its usefulness beyond the boundaries of safety and sanity.

So what are smart and safe uses of email? Craig Jarrow of Time Management Ninja suggests the following:

  1. Non-urgent communication
  2. Follow-up
  3. Praise
  4. Timeshifting
  5. Filtering
  6. One-t0-many communications
  7. Sending documents/pictures
  8. Mobility

If those are the good uses, what are the bad uses? In 2007 Dave Pollard outlined the bad use cases in When NOT to Use Email:

  1. To communicate bad news, complaints or criticism
  2.  When you are seeking information that is not simple and straight-forward
  3. When you are seeking approval on something that is involved or controversial
  4. When you are sending a few people complicated instructions
  5. When you are asking for comments on a long document
  6. To request information from a group on a recurring basis
  7. To convey instructions to a large number of people
  8. To achieve consensus
  9. To explore a subject or idea
  10. To send news, interesting documents, links, policies, directory updates and other “FYI” stuff.

For each of these cases, Dave Pollard provides what he considers to be the better way of communicating. (You can find a concise summary of the alternatives in his post, Getting Rid of Email.) In addition, he has created a detailed decision tree you can use to determine what mode of communication is best in each circumstance.

People are fond of saying that “Lawyers live in email.” A more accurate way of describing this is as follows: lawyers spend their days as human pretzels when it comes to email. They contort themselves and their technology, pushing it to do things it was never meant to do.

And then we get mad when things go wrong?

Perhaps it’s time we shifted from the bad use cases to the better use cases for email. Perhaps it’s time we finally outlawed pretzels — of the human and technological kind.


Happy Year of the Ruminant

Lundy_sheep_(head_detail)East Asians have just celebrated the lunar new year. While all of them use the Chinese character “yang” to name the animal symbol of the year, some translate yang differently. In Chinese, yang could mean goat, sheep or ram. We’re told that it’s likely that the ancient meaning in China was goat. The Vietnamese also translate it as goat. Meanwhile, the Tibetans call this the year of the female wood sheep. (This one was new to me — I’d never heard of wood sheep before.)

While there may be controversy regarding the specific translation of yang, there is no dispute that sheep, goats and rams are all ruminants:

  1. an even-toed ungulate mammal that chews the cud regurgitated from its rumen. The ruminants comprise the cattle, sheep, antelopes, deer, giraffes, and their relatives.
  2. a contemplative person; a person given to meditation.
  1. of or belonging to ruminants.

As I read the definition, I wondered if yang should be the symbol of knowledge management? We KMers are neither even-toed nor ungulate. However, there is a measure of cud chewing and regurgitation that we encourage in the interest of  knowledge sharing and reuse. Even more importantly, we should be contemplative people. As much as we need to be action-oriented, we also provide an enormous service to our organizations by regularly taking a step back to think deeply about what is going on and how it could be better.

A recent working paper published by the Harvard Business School reported that there was markedly increased productivity in organizations that adopted one simple daily practice: at the end of each day employees asked themselves “what worked well today and why did it work so well?” They then took a few minutes to journal their findings. The results were impressive:

The researchers put new employees into groups where people either reflected on their days or didn’t. In the reflection group, employees were given a paper journal and asked to spend 15 minutes at the end of their workdays writing about what went well that day, which they did for 10 days.

The result: The journaling employees had 22.8% higher performance than the control group.


I mentioned this study earlier in the year because it made a big impression while driving home the following points to me:

  1. Although it is sensible to have a to-do list that keeps us on track, we must not get so busy doing that we no longer have a clear understanding of what we do, how we do it and why we do it.
  2. Keeping ourselves oriented towards improvement and innovation requires consistent work. The work of daily reflection helps us to see where innovation is possible and where improvement has been achieved.
  3. Daily accountability is the secret to making each day count and making the next day better.
  4. Even though it may seem counter-intuitive to work less and think more, the ruminant approach ultimately yields more rewarding work and superior results.

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been experimenting with various reflection/journaling approaches to try to find the one that allows me to build on this daily practice. In this brief period I have already seen some remarkable improvement in my productivity.

In this year of the sheep/goat/ram, take a leaf from their book and spend a bit more time chewing the cud. And, once you’ve done that, write down the results of your reflection. As you reflect and write, you will find yourself incorporating your learning into your daily work. According to the HBS study, this will improve your processes and productivity. That’s not a bad outcome for 15 brief minutes of reflection and writing each day.

May you have a wonderfully happy AND productive year of the ruminant!


[Photo Credit: Wikipedia]




Happy and Productive New Year!

NYEBall2As we were heading to a festive New Year’s Eve dinner, our cab driver asked (tongue in cheek) whether we wanted to go to Times Square.  Our negative response was so emphatic that he had to laugh. Now don’t get me wrong. I understand that for some folks their idea of a good time is to spend hours in the freezing cold just so they can watch something drop. I hope they enjoyed every minute of it. But don’t expect me to be there shivering in the cold next to them. Instead, we had a low-key (and considerably warmer) celebration. Over the course of the evening, we took a few minutes to remember the good things that happened in 2014. While no year is unalloyed joy, 2014 was a pretty good year for our family. And we are profoundly grateful.

From a professional perspective, 2014 was a stellar year for me. Among the highlights:

  • I published Optimizing Law Firm Support Functions
  • I grew my consulting and facilitating practice in revenue and diversity of clients
  • I gave more presentations than I have ever given in any other year
  • I upgraded this blog

So why this recital of good things? It’s good science. Let me explain.

A Harvard Business School working paper,”Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance,”  documents research that shows a marked improvement in productivity when you step away from your work to reflect on your progress. Drake Baer reports that the researchers tested their theories in the field with employees of Wipro in the following way:

The researchers put new employees into groups where people either reflected on their days or didn’t. In the reflection group, employees were given a paper journal and asked to spend 15 minutes at the end of their workdays writing about what went well that day, which they did for 10 days.

The result: The journaling employees had 22.8% higher performance than the control group.  [emphasis added]

Why does this work? According to HBS professor Francesca Gino:

When people have the opportunity to reflect, they experience a boost in self-efficacy. They feel more confident that they can achieve things. As a result, they put more effort into what they’re doing and what they learn.

So what does this mean for me? In 2015 I’m going to take the time to reflect more regularly (hopefully daily) on what’s working and why. Then I will try to take those lessons learned and apply them to the following day. This should create an upward spiral of learning and productivity.

And what about you? I hope you’ll make the commitment to greater productivity by taking a few minutes away from your To Do list in order to make the time for daily self-reflection.

Have a happy AND productive 2015!


[For the official livestream, see http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/57133726]

[Photo Credit: Countdown Entertainment LLC]


Find Your Focus

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]








December’s Race to the Finish Line

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]


Are You a Force Multiplier?

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]