Monthly Archives: March 2012

Eating Frogs!

I was sitting at my desk debating how best to tackle several tasks on my list and I was reminded of a book on procrastination by Brian Tracy “Eat That Frog!”  Part of my issue was that I really wasn’t sure how I wanted to accomplish either task in front of me so I was finding things to do instead.  The premise of the book is that as Mark Twain once said if you have to eat a live frog first thing in the morning it will be the worst thing to happen to you that day.  Tracy compares the most important thing you have to do each day is your “frog”. 

I love this analogy and have seen it used several times in time management training.  The big message behind using the frog analogy is to encourage people to take action immediately.  For me as I’m sitting stalling and dragging my feet I tell myself it’s time to eat the frog.  I always smile and it forces me into figuring out the next step on the task that is staring at me.  For me it’s a call to action.

The key to breaking the procrastination habit is to get started.  First you have to identify the most critical item that you need to complete that day.  Once you have that figured out, break it down into steps so you know where to start.  Once you know what to do you can plan your day and take the appropriate actions.  Once you know what to do you can plan your day and take the appropriate actions. 

Remember you don’t have to finish the big complex items at one sitting and you will never finish if you don’t take the first step.  Wayne Gretzky has been quoted as saying “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”  So commit to getting started, break down the task into manageable steps and get moving. 

So next time you are struggling to get started on the items on your to-do list, picture eating the ugliest frog possible.  Remember if you must eat that frog, then get to it and get it over with quickly. Your day will get better from there.  It can be eaten in bites, just get it done! 

Bon appétit!

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Spring Cleaning

With the advent of spring there has been a lot of discussion and focus on spring cleaning and getting rid of things.   The extremists believe that you should get rid of just about everything which will simplify your life.  Others take a more moderate approach to minimizing things.  Everywhere you turn there is information on getting organized.  If you’ve been looking at sale ads you have been seeing storage containers to organize your clutter.  So what really works?  That will be unique to each person.  Personally I use the recycling model “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” to determine what to do.

  1. Reduce: Get rid of the things that no longer are needed, clothes that don’t fit or you don’t where, household items that you haven’t used in in the last year, paperwork that is out of date (old tax returns, receipts, bills).  Make sure you keep what you need for tax purposes and shred the older items.
  2. Reuse:  When you clean out the old paperwork, save the file folders in good shape to use later.  Can you find new uses for items you no longer use for their original purpose?  Old kitchen storage containers make good holders for office supplies like paper/ binder clips.  How can something be reused?
  3. Recycle:  Give you old clothes to a charity, you may get a tax deduction and others will get affordable clothing.  Non-sensitive paperwork can be recycled.  Cleaning out the garage you may find scrap metal which can be sold to a metal recycler.  We’ve used sensitive paperwork to create fire starters for our camping trips. 

Once you clean up the unused things it’s time to figure out how to store the things you are keeping.  Figure out what works for you.  I’ve seen people who use labeled storage containers for everything and it’s all perfectly organized on shelves, etc.  For me that would not work at all, it requires too much maintenance long term.  I use containers for some things, baskets for others, and keep things on shelves in some cases.  There is no one system that is perfect for everyone in every situation.  Look at different systems to understand what they offer and take the pieces that work for you.

Spring is a time of new beginnings and is a great time to clean your house.  Use the ritual of spring cleaning to refresh your personal organizational system.  The idea of minimizing what is in your life can be liberating.  Go as far as is comfortable for you, what you can live with and be happy.  Simplicity looks different for all of us, so find you own.

The key is to create a system in your life that becomes natural and easy to maintain.  If it feels like work to do everyday it will not work longterm.

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Team Differences

On a recent weekend I had the opportunity to observe a couple of different teams of teenage kids work together to accomplish joint goals.  I was struck by the differences in the results and in how those who participated felt about their experience.

One group was a church youth group who were working souvenir stands during a major sporting event to raise money for their mission trip this summer.  The other was a group of older scouts that were teaching a merit badge to about 50 scouts from area scout troops.

The youth group team was amazing in their execution and performance.  I was stunned at how well they worked together and how they got things done.   It was smooth and seamless.  All of them knew what to do and if they didn’t know something they asked for help immediately and kept moving.  The oldest of the kids had more experience than the others and they turned to him for help and guidance.  He stepped up and kept an eye on the overall picture to make sure they had the merchandise available to sell, and helped get what was needed all while selling himself.  Customer service was their first priority and they managed to be quick and polite even when there were 50 or more people waiting to be served.  Once the booth closed everyone pitched in to get the inventory sorted and counted quickly and efficiently.  Each one tackled an area and arranged things for maximum efficiency in counting the goods, without really ever discussing the details.  Truly was inspiring to see them work together so well and have fun.

The scout team struggled more to get their task done.  The day of the merit badge class they still didn’t have everything organized or people assigned to tasks.  As they got started with the class it was clear that while every one of them knew what needed to be done there was no clear plan on how they were going to do it.  There was a designated leader who knew all of the requirements and had all the knowledge of what had to be done.  Unfortunately he hasn’t fully mastered detailed planning so his team was lost on what to do at times.  The class was completed and all the scouts who attended received the training they needed.  However some of the team was frustrated with how it went and were concerned that it wasn’t as smooth as it could have been. 

As I reflected back on what worked and didn’t work for the two groups I realized that two key items for effective team work were what differentiated these groups: leadership style and organization.

The team leaders had very different styles which impacted the efficiency of the tasks.  The scout team leader is an expert in this merit badge and likes to control all of the steps and be in charge of everything.  By taking on too much himself he was spread too thin and things got missed because the others assumed he had it handled.  His helpers had to wait to be told what to do since they were not sure of the plan.  The youth group leader was more interested in enabling the others to do as much as possible.  Some things he took on himself partly because he knew speed was critical and he could get it done faster because there wasn’t time to get someone else up to speed.  When he had experience people around him he delegated as needed to keep things moving. 

In terms of organization, the youth group had everything well organized for the sales and it was clearly set up for efficiency of sales. Before they got started for the day each person knew exactly what their role was, what was required of them and who to ask if they needed help.  The scouts knew what to do but they were getting set up and assigning tasks on the fly which lead to more confusion and some skipped steps at first.  With a little more prep beforehadn, the activity would have been set up better allowing even more learning opportunities for the participants.

At the end of the day the scouts who helped with the merit badge were glad they got a chance to do it but were kind of frustrated by the things that could have gone better.  However they didn’t seem to have much ownership of the event.  The youth group all were tired and proud of what they had done.  They knew they were part of a successful event.

So what we can learn is that it is critical to plan out what is going to be done, who is going to do what and then allow them to do it.  Your team will be more efficient and have more pride of ownership if they get to participate in every stop along the way.  Leadership and organization are the backbone of effective teams.

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Meeting as a Team

This week I started looking into the teams and their impact on the organization.  When they are performing well they produce more significant results than individuals alone.  A key to teams getting things accomplished are team meetings.  These are used to assign work, solve problems and check progress.  So how do team dynamics impact the meetings?

Previously, I looked at having a clear agenda as one key to an effective meeting.  This is so very true.  However, even with that the meetings can go awry based on the people who are in the room.  Unless the personalities are managed well during the meeting you can end up of track and not getting good decision or even resolution to problems.  There are five types of problem personalities in meetings.  Let’s look at each one.

  1. Monopolizer – The person takes over and controls all conversation.  They must be heard no matter what anyone else has to contribute.
  2. Tangent Talker – This is the person who pulls the conversation down a side trail leading away from the topic at hand.
  3. Devil’s Advocate – This person questions and challenges statements and decisions.  Their questioning can be seen as argumentative and create hostility in the room.
  4. Cynic ­– Here is the person who can tell you reasons why every idea or solution will fail.
  5. Fence Sitter – Getting this person to commit to anything is hard.  They will wait to see what will be the winning solution before they speak up.

For the team to be effective their meetings need to be effective.  To make that happen, the people in the room need to be managed properly. 

  • The monopolizer needs to held in check to allow others to speak up.  This has to be done tactfully or they will shut down and stop participating or will become hostile.
  • The agenda will help keep the tangent talker on track.  The meeting leader may need to interrupt and bring them back to the agenda topic.
  • As far as the devil’s advocate is concerned it is important to utilize them to challenge ideas constructively.  They can help take ideas to a higher level and turn up better solutions.  The trick is to keep them doing this in a useful way instead of destructive.
  • Again, the cynic can be useful to flush out risks and strengthen the viability of the solutions or ideas.  A great question for them is “What would it take to make this work?”  This gives them the chance to add to the idea and to have their concerns addressed.  Keep them focused on finding success.
  • For the fence sitter it often takes asking everyone in the room to state their thoughts and to agree/disagree with the idea being discussed.  Accountability for speaking up is key to getting them to make a decision.

When a team is in the “performing” stage these disruptive personalities have been incorporated into the fabric of the team.  As the team moved through the “storming” and “norming” phases they naturally found ways to manage the problems and bring out the best in each person.  The problems are the negative impact these personalities have during the “storming” and “norming” phases.  The team leader needs to be aware of the personalities in the meeting room and how to manage any inherent disruptions.  Their role will become referee some of the time.  Solid leadership will allow the meetings to be more effective facilitate the team getting to the high performing stage.

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Team Impact

Today I want to start looking at teamwork.  Our personal productivity is greatly enhanced when we are part of an effective team.  When things are going well a team’s results are greater than the sum of the individual contributors.  Unfortunately all to often teams are anything but effective.   Why is that so true?

In 1965 Bruce Tuckman first used the phrase, “forming, storming, norming and performing” to describe the natural evolution of a team.  These phases are still true today and ignoring them can side track any progress the team is making.  Teams that are producing phenomenal results have reached the performing stage in their development. 

What are these stages?

  1. Forming – this is the initial stage of the team and is where everybody is getting to know each other and what is expected of them as a team.  It can be very uncomfortable for everyone.  Typically the team is not operating well yet.
  2. Storming – this stage is where everyone is getting into their roles and hashing out responsibilities and expectations.  It is often a short phase, however it is very difficult for everyone and is rife with conflict.  Good team leaders will recognize this and work to get the team into the next stage quickly.  Keep in mind some dissention is good, this way the team does not get into a “group think” mentality which kills innovation.
  3. Norming – this stage represents the period where everyone’s roles are understood as is what is expected of each person and the team as a whole.  During this phase the team is picking up speed and is producing results.  It is easy to think this is the ultimate stage and everything is as good as it gets.
  4. Performing – this is the final stage of highly effective teams.  Once they get here things are clicking and more is being accomplished than was originally expected.

What goes wrong?

  1. Not understanding the stage the team is in.  If the team is in the storming phase it has to be recognized and managed.  You will not get top results at this phase, time and mentoring is needed to get them past it.
  2. Expecting one-way progression only.  Sometimes a team is in the performing stage and someone gets promoted off to a new job.  Their replacement joins the team and things aren’t as good.  Is that the new guy’s fault?  NO!  The team has to go back and go through forming, storming and norming again as everyone adjusts to the new person’s skills and abilities.
  3. Rushing the stages.  If a team has just been formed it’s easy to expect them to get to norming almost immediately.  They need to figure out who is doing what and how it’s all going to work, right?  True but the team needs to hash these things out and argue about the details which is storming.  It cannot be skipped or you will not get optimal results.
  4. Not celebrating success.  When a project teams reaches it’s natural conclusion it is easy to say “Job well done.  Goodbye.”  If the successes aren’t recognized the team members may feel like their hard work really wasn’t acknowledged.  This can lead to reluctance to give their all on future team.  There is a “mourning” period as a great team comes to a close.  Recognize that to set the stage for future successful teams.

Paying attention to the life cycle of the teams in your organization and addressing the needs of the stage they are in will help lead to highly effective teams.  This leads to increased organizational performance and personal satisfaction.

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Interesting Articles

I thought I would share some articles that I’ve read recently that I found thought provoking about productivity and working effectively.

Safety: The most important uncluttering and organizing standard:  (From unclutterer.com)  I loved the reminder that there is an important side effect to having an unorganized work area either at work or at home.

6 Tips to Get More Time on Your Side:  (From Stepcase Lifehack)  The idea of checking email less often is a big tool that I’ve used to help others get control of their day.  Personally, I have gotten back into the habit of planning my day the night before so I hit the ground running right away.  It’s helped me get back on track and increased my productivity.

10 Questions That Will Improve Results in Any Area:  (From Stepcase Lifehack)  Getting clarity on why and what you are doing is a key to improving performance.  Really enjoyed all these questions and will make sure they are part of my regular planning process.

Are you planting ‘temporary tree’ solutions?:  (From The Organized Executive’s Blog) How often have you been involved in getting something in place to fix a problem that then failed in the long haul?  This is a fantastic look at why temporary fixes have a place yet have a built in failure point.  I can totally relate to the analogy because I had a Bradford Pear fall down due to high wind.

The Slippery Slope of Non-Productivity:  (From simpleproductivityblog)  This was a great reminder of what to do to stop the slide into procrastination and how to keep away from the edge of the slope.

Five Leadership Lessons From James T. Kirk:  This was a fun look at leadership using an iconic character that many people in the U.S. know from TV.   Good points on what it takes to be an effective leader.  His style may not be yours; however, he did get things done so you can learn from him.

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Getting Clarity

One of the reasons we struggle to complete all the items on our to-do list is that we aren’t sure what to do with all of them.  The problem could be that we haven’t been given clear expectations for the task, we may not have all the information we need to do the task, or we may not know why we have been given the task.  So let’s look at what to do in each case.

  1. Clear Expectations:  When you are assigned a task the person delegating it to you most likely thinks they gave you everything you need to get it done properly.  Unfortunately this is often not the case.  When you are given an assignment, summarize your understanding of what output is expected and when it is due.  If your understanding is flawed you will find out up front instead of after spending time and effort.  Think in terms of X by Y (what is due by when).  If you look at all assignments this way you will get clarity on what is due and what conflicts you will have.
  2. Lack of Information:  Have you ever been asked to put together a report on something but you don’t have all the required data?  When given that kind of assignment you need to ask up front who has the data you need, if you don’t know.   Again, looking at it in terms of X by Y it’s critical to look at what you need, who has the information and when you need it before you get started.  It is very inefficient to start a task just to have to stop again to round up the information needed to complete.
  3. Why Me:  Sometimes we are given something to do and have no idea why we were picked to do it.  If this happens to you, ask why me?  It may be that your boss sees it as a development opportunity for you because it exposes you to a new part of the organization.  It could be that you have past experience that makes it more efficient for you to complete the task instead of others who are newer to the topic.  Maybe you have superior skills and the task needs to be done now and waiting on someone else just isn’t viable.  You will never know unless you ask first.  You can prioritize your work load better if you understand why you are being assigned something out of the ordinary.

Ultimately it is important to know what needs to be done, by when, and what is expected.  Asking some questions up front gives you that clarity.  An additional benefit of asking intelligent questions up front is that your boss will see that you are concerned with doing a good job which will grow your reputation as someone who gets things done.

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Scheduling Flexibility

How do you handle the curve balls that come at you each day?  I’ve found that if I schedule my day too closely I struggle to adapt to the things that come up unexpectedly.  At times it reminds me of a manager I once worked with who wanted his team to write down all things they didn’t know about a project.  It’s impossible to know what you don’t know.  So how to adapt and adjust?

For me I have to have time in my schedule that is not booked so that I can have flexibility.  Obviously some things cannot be moved, some meetings are fixed and not moveable, however if you have some time that is not booked you can allow a new item to be added in if it fits with your priorities. Here are my three favorite ways to build flexibility into my schedule:

  1. No appointments in first 30 minutes of the day.  This allows you to come in, review your day and make any adjustments that are required given new information.  It also allows you to prepare for the first thing on your schedule.
  2. No appointments in the last 30 minutes of the day.  Keeping the end of your day open allows you to make notes for what you will do the next day, clean up your desk and wrap up your day.
  3. Keep lunch time open.  By doing this you can add a lunch meeting with someone who wants to get together with you socially.  These social visits can be distracting during the day and having this time open allows you to channel it and keep it from interrupting your work flow.  It also, gives you a chance to have quiet time if needed to regroup and get a handle on things before the next round.

If you can keep some of your time open each day it will give you more flexibility and control over your time.  By having time at the beginning, end and middle of my day makes it possible for me to keep an eye on the big picture as well as the small tasks.  When I am booked from start to finish I end up stressed and I struggle to maintain any form of productivity.

What are your favorite ways to allow flexibility in your schedule?

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Clearing the Clutter

About a month ago we put our house up for sale since we are relocating to the upper mid-west.  It forced me to clear up the clutter in the house which is always a challenge and a great opportunity.  It has also forced me to keep it clean and clutter free the entire time.  I really do not want to spend more than about 15 minutes to prep the house if someone wants to see it.  The room that has been the biggest problem for me is the home office.  I’ve never been good about keeping this room clutter free which is surprising since my work office is always tidy – I hate piles of stuff around there.  Here are some tips that I’ve been using to keep the office clutter free:

  1. Clear the piles:  The first thing I did was sort out all the piles of paperwork on the desk.  I put it in a file or threw it away.
  2. Create a place:  I have a simple filing system for bills and other paperwork that is due at a later date.  I cleaned that up to make sure it was current.
  3. Process paper daily:  I’ve forced myself to clean up the desk each night so that everything is in the proper place when I go to bed.  That way in the morning I have a clean slate to start the day.
  4. Clean out the files:  As I’ve been filing the paperwork I had or get each day I clean out the files I encounter.  Instead of spending days cleaning out the file cabinets I’ve been taking files as I touch them.  This way a bit gets done each week and over a month things are definitely better.
  5. Enlist help:  As I clear out the accumulated paperwork there are things that need to be shredded instead of just thrown out.  To get this done I have one of my sons help me with the shredding.  He will tackle a pile a couple of times a week.  This is time I can use to do something else that needs to be done.

What I have found to be most helpful is to make sure I know where everything belongs and take a few minutes each day to address the items from that day.  The initial tackling of the desk was the worst part of it all; with simple steps the daily maintenance is easy.

The unplanned side benefit is that I am much more efficient when I sit down at my desk now.  I am not hunting for anything, I know where it is and I can get right down to the business at hand.

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Personality and Focus

I’ve been learning more about personality profiling, in particular the DiSC profile.  It’s derived from the work of Dr. Marsten in 1928 on the emotions of normal people.  The interesting thing about it is that it gives insight into your personal style, how you engage in things and what you focus on.   This is reflected in your approach to work and your daily tasks.  DiSC model

Engagement:

First are you active or thoughtful?  Do you take charge of situations or do you sit back and reflect on the best approach before getting started?  Are you direct or indirect in your communications?  All of these things fall along the vertical axis of the model.  If you are active and take charge you have a more dominant or influencing personality.  If you think first then act you are more steady or conscientious.  The people who are active tend to be more easily distracted and the ones who are more thoughtful can be perfectionists or slow to get started.

If you fall in the active range it’s important to remember to set deadlines and hold yourself accountable for meeting them.  This will keep you focused through to the end of a task.  It’s critical to be aware of what gets you off track and have plans in place to manage these things.  Remember to finish first then move to the next item.

If you are in the thoughtful end of the spectrum remember to get started and to finish a task on time.  You may need to set up check points that cause you to think through where you are on the task and get a clear understanding of what needs to be done.  Focus on the true requirements not your standards, which may be higher than needed.  Analysis paralysis and perfectionism can be just as counter-productive as moving on too soon.

Focus:

Are you task oriented or people oriented?  Do you question everything and everyone or do you accept the world around you easily?  This represents the horizontal axis of the DiSC model.  The task focus leads to decisiveness and controlled personalities.  The people focus tends towards interactive and stable types.

The task orientation causes people to look at what needs to be done and by when.  They are very detailed and understand all the steps to be taken to get things done.  This can lead to very comprehensive plans with well thought out risk analysis, etc.  It can also lead to jumping in and figuring it out as we go.  The biggest issue with this focus is that the impact on people and their emotions is often overlooked and can lead to conflict within teams and organizations.  Getting things done without attention to the people doing the work is not sustainable in the long haul.

The people orientation are the folks that are concerned about how this impacts the team, will everyone get on board with the project, etc.  These can be the peace makers and the cheerleaders within an organization.  They are much more focused on the human side of the task than on the details of what and when.  This leads to over committing and under delivering or extensive planning to ensure nothing rocks the boat.

If you are on the task end of the spectrum make sure you stop and consider the impact on the people around you to limit conflict as you proceed.  If you are on the people end of the spectrum stop and focus on the end results required to make sure you keep the goal in sight.

Overall:

It doesn’t really matter where in this model you are located.  The key is to understand the traits you have, playing to your strengths and being aware of your pitfalls.  With awareness comes greater adaptability and increased productivity.  If you know you are weak on the details and ensuring things are correct, enlist the help of someone who has that strength to help you out.  This may be a proof reader, a sounding boarder or an accountability partner.  If you are steady and concerned about keeping things calm you may need to enlist the help of someone who is willing to dive right in to help you get going.

In the end it really isn’t critical to take a personality assessment as much as it is critical to understand what makes you tick.  Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is far more important than the tool you use to gain that understanding.  This just happens to be the one I am currently studying.

If you want to learn more about DiSC profiles check out:  http://discprofile.com/whatisdisc.htm.

 

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