Work – Life – Balance

Hi there,

thank you for staying with me for a while.

Some 3 years ago my previous employer restructured and I moved to work for a local government agency. After more than 20 years in a commercial environment this hit me like a smash in the tummy!

Many things changed and not in a way you might expect – me included. People and Technology stayed fairly much the same. Good people, who work to make a difference, and some, who simply do their job. Technology, some leading edge and some that survived long after the vendor ceased support. Teams that push boundaries and teams that are grounded in the way things are done around here.

But the latter is a synonym of the real difference: processes and politics. I don’t mean the processes like how you apply for leave, how a customer requests something, or how a supplier is paid. No, these processes are fairly universal and some a well defined and technology supported while others are much more adhoc or manual. The processes, I found inherently different, are related to and about change.

These processes make the difference in culture between the organisations I’ve worked with. To start with there is an inherent organisational resistance to change. The way things are done here are proven over decades. Is there a legislation or regulation that requires a change? There is for sure one that is supporting what and how we do it.

Then we have frameworks on how we change things, why we would, could, or should not change. There are business unit interests, information technology aspects, strategic and annual plans, project and change management, and surely an overall business calendar of events to consider.

Clearly I had to learn navigating this new jungle that has nothing to do with what I still believe is a good thing:

 Trust people to do the right thing.

Because there surely is a regulation or framework, that I haven’t considered and don’t yet know about. And that’s not all, managing upwards and sidewards and downwards is an even more essential part of this new brave world. I needed friends and people who believe in what I wanted to propose. Now I’m spending more time in talking with people about that than actually doing it.

As a result I’m changing. My approach is changing. To achieve something needs time here. Like a seed that may become a tree.

And funnily enough the most positive aspect about the whole thing is I have a better work life balance. I’m much less worrying about tomorrow and things that need doing. Work needs a rest and ideas need to settle. Tomorrow is another day of sunshine or rain.

Today is a day for living. Be in the presence.

Enjoy your weekend, your evening, or whatever rocks your boat. Simply enjoy today. I won’t get it back.

cheers

Frank

Projects, Processes, and People

Photo by Marcelo Braga, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Today, I experienced an interesting discussion and later this evening I read three related articles. That all came together more or less incidentally.

At work we are going through a restructure phase and one team had a coffee to discuss what it meant for them. In general, the people were concerned about the lack of detail, what the change meant for them personally and how “it” was going to work.

I don’t actually need to go into the details who the team was and what they currently do, it is immaterial. Not one team member was or is a change agent, not one was able to translate the strategic vision into something tangible.

Later I came across these 2 articles:

First, a blog post from 99U published in April 2014:

he Difference Between Projects and Processes:

Projects create change. Processes resist change.

Wow, so obvious and still – I forgot about it at the discussion. The people are used to work in a particular way, they are used that someone is responsible for this, then another person does that, and finally a third one completes the task. Quite obviously the new structure is meant to break that. Its objective is to create, to force change. That’s not going to happen if processes stay the same. Hence implementing the new structure must be treated as a project.

And that’s where the second article comes in. This one published by the Smashing Magazine in July 2013:

People > Projects > Processes:

Having a process is good, but be careful that it does not overshadow the project itself or the people involved.

Processes are good to get the same quality every time. The ISO 9000 family is designed to do just that.

Projects are meant to create new processes or make existing ones better. And often they rely on processes themselves (PMI or Prince2 anyone?).

And what is the most important asset any organisation has? Its people. What is in the top 5 most important things organisations try to improve on? Employee Engagement. Why do projects fail? In 72% of all cases it is a communication breakdown.

Summary

Coming back to our discussion. Yes, I failed to appreciate the disruptive value of the restructure. But also, uncertainty about mapping the vision to the structure on middle management level means learning by making mistakes in creating new processes for the same business objectives must be acceptable. Disruption to existing support processes and delays in delivering functional projects may also occur. All under the vision of creating a better service in the near future.

You gotta break some eggs to make an omelette.

Succeeding on Purpose

I didn’t go to TechEd in Auckland last week, but a friend of mine did. He pointed me to the recording of one of the keynotes, saying if you watch one, make it this one.

Succeeding on Purpose

Succeeding on Purpose

It’s a 1 hour recording and if you have the time, it is well spend. If not, here’s my 5 minute summary:

In this talk James A. Whitaker tells his personal 7 traits that everybody can use to succeed in life. The talk is limited to outline 4 of those and James makes sure he advertises his book about it.

(1) Ambition

This is the only trait that is not optional. Having an aspirational goal is a must. Set your goals higher. Even if you miss it you still end up higher than the mediocre goal you were sure to achieve.

(2) Specialisation

Specialising on something gives you an identity. It is an opportunity to master the topic. Although, make sure you choose something that matters. Be passionate about it. Then comes the important part: Make an elevator pitch in 2 forms, one to tell others “that’s what I do” and the other for yourself, “that’s why I do it”. And don’t forget – specialisation does only work for a limited time. You may need to change 2 or 3 times along the way.

(3) Story telling

James tells us 3 stories that matter. The first is about your role and your speciality (see above), the second is about your project and why it matters (this tells other what you do is interesting), and the third talks about you and what makes you special. The latter is probably the hardest part for me, there are plenty of folks who do similar stuff – how do I compare?

(4) Learning

“We are who we learn from” – The sentence didn’t first make too much sense to me. However, when James continues talking about mentors, yes many mentors, it starts to resonate. Having access to an expert in the field makes learning so much more fun. The trick is to find the right one for you.

(5) Mimic / Imitation

He is an advocate of imitating the chosen expert in that field. The advantage, you learn more – you learn the little things, the things people do unconsciously. Although beware, don’t become a carbon copy. Mimic multiple mentors and become the blend that is you.

(6) Innovation’s long nose >>> Derivation

Re-invent the wheel is the credo! But make it better so that it matters. He talks about clairvoyance and creativity in this context. Clairvoyance is about the knowledge you have about your industry and your ability to predict what’s happening next. This goes back to specialisation. Don’t specialise in ‘dead’ things, specialise in things that are going to matter. Some tips about a creativity are added, where he briefly talks about rituals (or habits) that stimulate creativity, distractions that gives your brain a rest, and being centered – a place or places where you feel comfortable and have the greatest ideas.

(7) Leadership

He left that hanging. I have to read the book!

The Art of Successful Collaboration

Create to CollaborateI have been a fan of collaboration for many years at work. “Many hands make light work”. I hardly questioned that collaboration can actually be a hindrance. Sure, I am – like many – aware if one doesn’t pull his own weight the whole team suffers. Although, I didn’t click what prevents this.

Today I came across this article on 99U by Ron Friedman. Using the example of good and bad marriages as well as John Lennon and Paul McCartney of The Beatles he shows that collaboration comes with an opportunity cost. And if that isn’t paid, collaboration pulls everybody down.

I don’t intend to repeat his examples and arguments, please read the above article for it. No, I want to highlight what to do to make collaboration successful (which Ron does towards the end of the article)

The best (visual) design tends to happens late at night.

Jasper Stephenson, a 10 week intern at Adaptive Path said this in his parting blog post.

If I think back to much of my favorite work, the execution part has come from trance-like zen states where I work until well after midnight — not by necessity, but by nature of having a constant flow of ideas that demand to be realized. There’s much to be said for having a team all present in the same space at the same time and the cohesion of ideas that comes from that, but it’s hard to enter a trance of exploration and creation in such an active office.

And this is pretty much what Ron said about The Beatles. The ideas, the rough diamonds, the blink “let’s do this” doesn’t come from the group huddle. It comes from the inspiration at a “non-busy” spot. Like a shower, mowing the lawn, or watching the waves roll in. Then the first bit of hard work starts, working on the very inspiration so I can explain it to my friends.

The Spark

A blank canvas is not stimulating, having 4 or 6 people staring at a blank whiteboard doesn’t help either. A spark is necessary. Much is said about Brainstorming as an idea generating stimulus. Not so. Brainstorming works when you have a facilitator and a topic. Even better, if your participants know the brainstorming session is tomorrow and they have individually time to think about it even if only unconsciously. Ron Friedman demands “homework is necessary”: [The Beatles] collaborated after they [individually] had gotten a piece as far as they could, and were ready for suggestions.

Collaboration

When you meet to discuss the merits and the foolishness of your idea look at your team. Do they tend to agree? Do they have the same sort of thinking? Do they excel at the same disciplines? Let’s face it, while we like people who agree with our ideas – it makes us feel good!, we learn more if people have different view points, different strengths, and can say so without being blunt but in a supportive manner.

Collaborations are most effective when teammates complement rather than replicate one another’s abilities. 

Summing it up

Collaboration works best when

  • there is a rough idea that is the result of hard work – alone
  • there is a team that complements each other
  • there is a team that prepares for collaboration
  • there is a willingness to critique consciously
  • there is a willingness to accept such critique
  • there is a recognition the final outcome is a team effort

 

 

Inbox Zero?

InBox Zero

Recently Inbox Zero popped up again. Not a surprise considering summer holidays in the Northern Hemisphere are coming to an end.

Automated responses

The BBC ran an article 2 days ago where German car maker Daimler offered employees to delete holiday emails in a very friendly way:

I am on vacation. I cannot read your email. Your email is being deleted. Please contact Hans or Monika if it’s really important, or resend the email after I’m back in the office. Danke Schoen.

Comments are consequently positive: “This is good email management.” It doesn’t address the standard flood of emails although it makes the re-start after being away a lot easier and not daunting.

Another approach is trialled by the Christchurch City Council. The management team implemented a suggested response when the recipient is “just copied in”. The response reads similar to this:

“Thank you for your email. As I’m just copied in, your email has been parked in my “for info” folder. I’ll endeavour to check those emails once a week. If your correspondence is urgent please re-send it to me directly with your expectations of my action.”

The objective is to reduce cluttering email inboxes with information that doesn’t require an urgent action by the recipient or in short to reduce clutter.

Most email applications allow for such automated actions via rules and filters, and categories, folders and labels.

Decisions

While the technology allows for such things, it’s up to us humans to actually do it. That means,

  1. consider your response types (do, reply, defer, delegate, archive, delete or see the original post from Merlin Mann),
  2. create good auto- and template responses,
  3. and then actually do it.

The reality looks, unfortunately, different. Some follow their good intentions and put such actions into place while others don’t. There are some good and not so good reasons:

  • a full inbox means I’m busy
  • I actually like having that many emails
  • the Inbox search is great – why hiding important stuff in many folders
  • those rules are too complicated
  • I fear I miss important stuff
  • people expect I’m informed what’s going on
  • the tools don’t match how I work

Some options

Hey, it’s your Inbox, isn’t it?

or

Could we check how you work and see if there is a process that can be adjusted, another tool be found, or expectations managed more efficiently? There are systems like Sanebox, or MailBox, Mailstrom, and Tapermail that all take a different approach. And there is this blogpost for Outlook fans. One might work for you well 🙂

 

I missed the point …

Papal election result

For years my dear wife is telling me some businesses (companies, government agencies, etc) are just covering their butts. They are not interested in the well being of their staff, customers or populace. In fact they have been taught not to make mistakes. The same time I have been arguing the opposite being true for the majority. There are plenty of examples where innovation, technical or medical break throughs etc take place; there are managers and business owners who have the best interest of their people at heart.

Having worked now in the private and public sector I have changed my mind. It is sad but true, many people work to uphold the rules and regulations. You can call it standards, operating procedures, or even culture “that’s how we do tings around here”. The focus is on compliance, policing and governance.

We are missing what we have set out to do, for example:

  • service to the community or our customer base
  • providing solutions and results for the customer
  • develop and build tools / systems that last and do the job well
  • make and distribute healthy food

The common cause is often cited as the growth syndrom:

  • making money
  • gaining power
  • becoming famous

BUT, is that really the case?

How many dads or mums simply want to provide for their children to have it better (education, house, job, ..)?
How many of us simply would like to go on with their business without thinking about mortgage, tax, bills, regulations, … ?

Albert Camus once said, freedom is the freedom of others.

It took me long time to understand. My freedom to do what I want is impacting on the freedom of my neighbour. And here our governance approach started. Instead of common sense prevailing we rely on some authority who tells us what we can or can’t do. And while they are at it, they make it a rule and apply it across the country so a single instance is solved for eternity.

What a load of rubbish!

In Germany it takes months for some decisions to be made because so many committees and sub committees have a say and need to review all the rules, regulations and bylaws. In New Zealand we are getting closer by the minute to the same situation. The recent “super city” is a great example. And I don’t mention the stalemate in the US where some egocentrics in both big parties blame each other rather than sit together at a table and don’t get up until the issue is solved. The election method of the pope is a better example how to do it right.

None of this means the people working in such organisations are bad, stupid or ignorant. No, most are intelligent, focused and trying their best. But they have been taught – like all of us – in an institution called school that rules and regulations and compliance is what drives this world and keeps the order. Challenging the status quo is hard and in school we have been taught not to do so.

Asking questions in school is a sign of ?

(a) intelligence (because you actually thought about it and didn’t come to the same conclusion)

(b) lack of intelligence (because you should know this [by now] and probably haven’t paid attention)

 

Ask your children. Then wonder why I wrote this post and comment below or use the answer and go back to the start.

Ask the “why” question and find out the reason behind a process, rule or regulation.

Don’t get me wrong, some are necessary, some are good, and some (most ?) are covering exceptions. Those are the ones slowing us down. Shouldn’t we go back to “Use good judgement?”

them or I?

list of choicesChanging roles a few months ago and evaluating different opportunities over the past few weeks made me think about the criteria I use to do so.

For example, while working at Tait and previous roles I steadily climbed the corporate ladder, gained clout, responsibilities, and enjoyed the success of projects. Surely this came with the price tag of accountability and personal availability. There is no free lunch. However, my point is, it was my choice. Several times during my career I made a case why it was good for the business to implement a change that was also good for me.

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