A Business Technology Place

The reality of now

Yes, but what about the reality of now?

I played that card recently in a conversation with a colleague while we were discussing his vision and objectives for a more efficient work flow. I hated to do it. But it’s something that can’t be ignored to sustain a healthy business. Business does need a vision. Business does need to look for continuous improvements. But business also needs to take care of the here-and-now. The customers see and feel the here-and-now. Customers make decisions about who they’ll partner with here-and-now. That’s the cash that funds the vision and future.

Steven Brown writes about focusing on problems over objectives in his book 13 Fatal Errors that Managers Make.  His point is that we can get pulled into spending most of our time on problems that influence a small amount of our overall productivity as a business.

Brown offers an illustration to show how successful managers use the environment and business conditions to work through problems while focusing on larger objectives. If someone finds themselves thrown off a boat that is some Swimming to Shoredistance from the shoreline then they will not succeed if they fight the water by thrashing or trying to swim too fast. In this manner they’ll surely lose all their energy and drown. They are fighting against their current environment and conditions. To successfully get to shore, the person will first float or tread water. This person is using the environment to sustain themselves while they determine a proper shoreline destination to swim to. At that point, they will move with measured pace towards the shoreline goal. In this, the successful swimmer uses the environment and conditions to achieve success. They work with their environment and not against it.

Can we use a problem filled environment to sustain our efforts?

I asked myself this question and thought through my experiences for a few examples. The answer is definitely yes:

Case #1

Problem: During a production system outage customers are unable to use systems to communicate and transact business.

Use the environment: Communicate clearly and frequently with customers about the situation rather than making excuses and placing blame. I have found that in times of service outages that customers appreciate knowing what has happened, when it started, the expected time to fix and what is happening to resolve it. No one is happy about a system outage, but customers tend to have a reasonable response if they are informed.

Overall Goal: Provide uninterrupted service to customers for system availability.

This is often expressed in terms of a service level agreement (SLA) or system uptime goal as a percentage of time. Get to the goal by focusing on what can be done and how the team is progressing to fix the situation rather than focusing on all the reasons for failure. There will be a time to examine the failures after service is restored.

Case #2

Problem: The programming and business teams are missing project delivery dates because they are stuck with a high number of “bugs” discovered during testing.

Use the environment: I have found that it is best to use the scope of the project as the decision matrix to determine how to treat software bugs. Use the original scope to communicate clearly with the business owner and classify bugs as “must haves” or “can be deferred”. Use the value of the current scope as an influencing factor to deliver a solution sooner to the business.

Overall Goal: Deliver the defined scope of the project to the business/customers to provide the stated value of the goal. This is often expressed in financial terms, efficiency gains, or additional features. Get to the goal by focusing on the scope to attain it and moving other benefits to future iterations of the project.

Is this the reality of now?

So what about the reality of now? It’s important. We can’t just completely punt and fight it. We have to use it, to help move towards our goals. When I first gave the answer to my colleague a few weeks ago I didn’t think about it in these terms. But the reality of now requires using the good, the bad, and the ugly of our current environment to get to our intended target. Think about that.

Onward and upward!


Photo credit: Instabeat.me

The framework for creativity

How do your find your creative zone?

Finding a creative zone is a popular topic for writers, artists, journalists, designers, and many other professionals that create content for a living or as a hobby. Some thought leaders like Graham Wallace have tried to define the stages of creativity in academic terms as a formal process.   Others, like Todd Henry, promote a lifestyle of intentional behaviors and rhythms that lead to “accidental creativity”. I’ve read other articles that promote starting the day early, finding that special thinking place, or playing a specific type of music in the background. For me, my best creative times come on a weekend morning with film score or piano music playing. In the end, it’s a personal thing. We each have to find what works for us.

Photo Credit Jeff Cremer

Photo Credit Jeff Cremer

Many technology professionals don’t consider themselves creative people.

I’ve worked in the Information Technology for most of my professional career. I remember the day I took an internal job transfer to the Marketing department and was accused by IT colleagues of “joining the dark side”. That’s just not something that happens very often.

Something that I don’t agree with is that many IT professionals don’t consider themselves creative professionals. They see their jobs as process and rule followers. If they see problem X then they follow the steps in the Y process to get the result of Z.

Reality is that we hire technology professionals to create custom solutions and to find ways to help us work more efficiently. We want them to take costs out of the business by automating processes with technology tools.  So as an IT professional myself, I consider creativity to be part of the job description. I see a direct link between between successful with my job and having the ability to be creative.

Put people in a position to be successful.

I remind my team of this concept often. As their manager and as an organizational leader, it’s my job to put them in a position to be successful. There are a few tactical ways to do this:

  • Keep their work prioritized so they focused on a few things at a time and don’t become overwhelmed with context switching.
  • Move their work that is beyond their current output capacity to a backlog of work tasks and communicate the priorities and current state to the requestor.
  • Give them freedom to think and be creative as they design and create solutions to problems.

There is definitely a place in business for transformative big successes that produce an entirely new product or service. The printing press, steam engine, motorized car, and personal computer come to mind. But I like to define success one day at a time. I think about success in the office in terms of cultural impacts and incremental progress at a steady pace.

Giving workers the freedom to think freely to find their creative zone.

Daniel Goleman paints the picture of a “creative cocoon” in his book Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence. Goleman says “Good days for insights had nothing to do with stunning breakthroughs or grand victories. The key turned out to be having small wins – minor innovations and troubling problems solved – on concrete steps toward a larger goal. Creative insights flowed best when people had clear goals but also freedom in how they reached hem. And, most crucial, they had protected time – enough to really think freely. A creative cocoon.”

When I read Goleman’s words, I immediately identified with them because of my own preferences in work style. I don’t always get it right, but I do strive to follow that pattern. Give employees direction and purpose by telling them the ‘what’. But don’t tell them the ‘how’. That’s the fun of the job. As I said before, we are hired to be creative and make stuff. 🙂

How do you find your creative cocoon?

(Photo Credit – Jeff Cremer)

Practical speak for staying focused in the office

My greatest weakness?

Focus and attention are aspects of my life that I think about each day as I try navigate through tasks and interactions with others. By nature, I’m a very task-driven and goal oriented person. I told my wife just this week that while this can be one of my strengths, it’s also my greatest weakness. I’m so caught-up in thinking about the next task to be completed that I’m often not able to pause and enjoy the success and moment of the now. During a typical work day I can struggle to remain focused on any one task because so many people and devices are competing for my attention.

I’m not alone.

There’s a daily war for our attention from other people, computing devices, marketing ads, etc. I was recently reminded of it in my own family through a couple of events. During a recent movie night at home, each family member showed up to watch the movie with a personal electronic device (phone, tablet, laptop). Apparently spending two hours watching a single screen was difficult.

In another event, when we returned from a week-long vacation without cell phones, no one spoke for hours after first getting connected back “on the grid”. The moment cellular service was accessible was like drinking water after long hot day working in the sun. The phones started sounding with alerts and whistles aSquirrelnd our attention was quickly taken away from the present. Everyone except the driver of course. 🙂

Adults like to pick on teenagers with focus problems by quoting stats about video game usage and text messaging counts. Teenagers are known for using thousands of text messages per month but hardly any actual voice minutes. But adults have their own challenges for attention and focus. Think about conference calls at work where people who multi-task cause a speaker to have to repeat a question. What about co-workers that stop what they are doing every time a new email arrives? How many laptops were in your last meeting?

Learning more.

I’m reading the book Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman to explore and learn more about the science behind focus and attention. Goleman says the following about multitasking, “Then there’s what people think of as ‘spitting’ attention in multitasking which cognitive science tells us is fiction too. Rather than having a stretchable balloon of attention to deploy in tandem, we have a narrow, fixed pipeline to allot. Instead of splitting it, we actually switch rapidly. Continual switching saps attention from full, concentrated engagement.” This seems obvious but the battle for concentrated engagement is something we face everyday. How do we fight the battle?

Practical advice for work day attention deficit disorder.

I don’t submit that I’ve mastered each of these items. But I have used each of these tactics at various times to help myself stay more focused on the immediate task or meeting at-hand. I see this as a good list of tips for keeping our concentration and focus.

1. Don’t take your laptop to a meeting

What message do we send the meeting organizer and other participants when we show up to a meeting and start working on other things with our laptop?  How can we fully participate in a meeting and add-value if we are half-focused? If this piece of advice is difficult to follow then we may need to ask ourselves if we really need to be a participant in the meeting.

I know some people show up with a laptop to take notes. But others clearly do not. I like revert back to the traditional pen and paper. I take notes about the meeting and later transcribe to my computer. This isn’t the most efficient work habit since it involves rekeying something. But I find that it does help me to concentrate on the meeting at-hand and participate more. In theory doing something like this will help our knowledge absorption and memory of the meeting as well.

2. Leave email closed during the time of day you want to concentrate.

Goleman quotes a research group from Carnegie Mellon University, “The most precious resource in a computer system is no longer its processor, memory, disk, or network, but rather human attention”. Despite the ability of our equipment to have multiple programs open we are still limited in many ways to our own attention.

One aspect of our daily work routines that challenges many people is the ‘new email’ indicator. Visual pop-ups and sounds pull our attention away from a current work task. We lose context on our task when we check email and ultimately take longer to complete that task. Things that are more important yield to things that are immediate.

If you are working on something really important and easily distracted by email then my advice is to close email or at least disable notifications. Save email for specific times during the day.

3. Leave social media sites for home or lunch

I don’t struggle with this one. There’s plenty to do during the workday and social media sites don’t cross my mind. I do use twitter and LinkedIn to check items related to business industry, but I don’t do any personal social media at work.  If you are challenged by this then look for ways to reduce the reminder. Maybe that means putting the mobile device in a drawer.  Maybe it means installing a browser add-on like Stay Focused to help limit the time spent on certain sites.

4. Find a way to minimize multi-tasking during conference calls.

We’ve all been on calls when someone says “I’m sorry can you repeat that?” Certainly there are times when this is legitimate because conference calls can have audio challenges. But it’s often because the person is multitasking and not paying attention.

I’ll admit I struggle with this one. The computer screen is visually in front of me during a call and it’s way to easy to get pulled into email or some other distraction. A few techniques I use to keep myself focused are to stand-up from my chair or walk away from my desk (if on mobile phone). This is a simple way to stay more focused on the conversation. Another idea is to turn off the computer monitor and break out the pen and paper.

Word of mouth marketing. It’s a matter of focus.

Word of mouth marketing is like the gold at the end of the rainbow for eCommerce operators and marketers.
It’s a dream that many follow but few achieve. Word of mouth marketing (WOMM) is the ultimate marketing tool. Wikipedia defines it this way, “an unpaid form of promotion in which satisfied customers tell other people how much they like a business, product, service, or event. Word-of-mouth is one of the most credible forms of advertising because people who don’t stand to gain personally by promoting something put their reputations on the line every time they make a recommendation.” Word of Mouth Marketing

Social media makes word of mouth marketing fools gold.
Marketers face a big temptation from social media because it provides an easy medium to support WOMM. Social media enables messages to scale and multiply because with social sites each person has a network they can communicate with very quickly. Social media doesn’t require face-to-face contact and can quickly jump to additional people circles. The trick for marketers is to determine how to get people to share their experience with the product or service.

Therein lies the problem. The focus for WOMM is not about convincing people to talk about your products. It’s about giving people a reason to talk about your products and services. The social media aspect is useful because it makes it easier for people to share your product and services with others. Customers talk to prospective customers not because marketers convince them to, but because of the experience they have with the product.

Word of mouth marketing originates from seeds within your company culture.
I don’t think I’m out of place to say that WOMM doesn’t come from a focus on turning profits and making money. I’m not arguing against the fact that companies exist to make money. I recognize that companies are in the business of making profits. But where is the focus of the business? Is it to provide the best customer experience possible? Is it to continually innovate products and services that wow customers to meet a need? Profits come as a result of satisfied customers.

A great example of this is Southwest Airlines. The are well known for winning customer service awards and have a great loyal following. This is an airline folks! In an industry where its common place to criticize and share bad experiences, Southwest uses service tactics such as games and activities when flights are delayed. They don’t charge customers a fee when they want to check a bag at the counter. They maintain a low ticket price. Oh, and this is a profitable company. But it’s a company focused on customer service and they have a string of customer service awards to prove it.

My argument is that WOMM comes from companies obsessed with finding connections with customers through their products and services. Not companies obsessed with finding profits through price increases, fees, and sales trickery.

What is your obsession and focus?
People don’t like recommendations from friends if it feels like a sales pitch. The message still has to be relevant. This is why product reviews and sites like Angies List are popular. Even the power of recommendations from a stranger hold weight for persuading purchases.

Customers feel the urge to do this based on their experience with the product, not from the pleading of your marketing copywriters.

So to find WOMM, we have to first find our focus.

What about the little things?

We’ve all been told that it’s the little things that make a difference.
Sports coaches love this phrase. They tell their teams that it’s the little things, or the fundamentals, that win a game. In relationships it’s the little things that make people feel special. I’m thinking simple things like opening the door, giving flowers for no particular reason, or even just saying thank-you.

In business it’s the little things that keep customers. Part of a healthy B2B relationship is knowing the client’s needs. What market conditions are they facing? How are they challenged in running their business? What makes them successful? Knowing this level of detail is something we get by paying attention to the client. A little thing.

For B2C it can be about that little extra touch that keeps customers coming back again and again. Look at Chick-Fil-A and how their employees tell customers that it was “my pleasure” to serve you. Look at the return policy of Zappos and how it creates a no fear online buying experience.

Another business principal is to learn to say ‘no’. You can’t do it all. Focus on what’s most important.
Look at this quote from Steve Jobs “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on.  But that’s not what it means at all.  It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.  I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done.  Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.” -Steve Jobs

Wait a minute. Doing the little things means saying “Yes”, even when it’s not the most immediate path to revenue or cost savings.

We’ve also been told to focus on tasks that are important but not urgent.
In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey classifies work tasks in quadrants of ‘important’ and ‘urgent’. Covey suggests that most people spend too much time focused on tasks that are both urgent and important. This creates an unbalanced and hectic life because it focuses more on emergencies and responding to the demands of others. Covey’s recommendation is to focus on tasks that are important but not urgent.  This enables one to complete tasks and to work in a non-emergency mode. The theory is that over time it creates less urgent tasks because the focus is on solving the truly important tasks.

So where do the little things stand on Covey’s quadrant?
Are the little things in the quadrant of “not important”? Are they “not urgent”? Or do they belong somewhere else?  If it’s the little things that make a difference then I’d say they are important, but not urgent. That puts them in Covey’s sweet spot quadrant of what we should be focused on completing.

What do you think? Are the little things that important? What are the little things for you?