How Do You Know If You Are Mediocre?

I’ve spent years in environment where we put a big emphasis to hire only the best of the best. Where the goal was to have a team of overachievers. Mottos like “no one was hired to be mediocre” where often quoted. But how do you actually know if someone, or in fact, if you are mediocre? How do you know you are not the over-achiever you believe you are?

Let’s face it. All of us believe that we are better than others. At least in some ways. “I’m definitely better driver than most of the others. I’m much better manager. I’m really good parent. I’m a great listener and always annoyed when I need to constantly talk so others see it.”

Merriam-Webber describes mediocre as “of moderate or low quality, value, ability, or performance: ordinary, so-so”. This is of course relative to the task you are doing. You can be a great driver and a mediocre cook. Whether you are mediocre at something is a result of your priorities, skills, attitude and effort you put into a given activity.

So how do you recognize that you are mediocre?

Considering how quickly the world around us changes the best way to see whether you are mediocre or not is to look at how you respond to the changes. Do you embrace change and constantly learn to keep up with the world? Or do you just sit back and wait what will happen to you? If the later applies, you are most likely mediocre. You are the one who is left behind by the forward moving world around you.

You don’t give your best

Mediocre people sort of give up on improving and even on giving their best. They just plow through the day doing what needs to be done but without much interest and with no intention of going above and beyond. So if you find yourself doing just what is necessary and not more than you are most likely a mediocre employee.

You don’t mind that you are not giving your best

Doing just the bare minimum and not giving your best is a strong indicator, but what really seals the deal of your mediocrity is when you don’t give your best and you don’t mind. It just doesn’t bother you. For any achiever or over-achiever doing work that is not particularly good really worries him or her.

Over-achievers are different

Any over-achiever strives to be better and better. You don’t necessarily need to be the best at any given task but you always try to do the best you can. What more, you always strive to learn and to improve. You want to do your best job today, but you want to do even a bit better job tomorrow. That is what drives achievers. And that is what turns them into over-achievers.

We are going through phases

Even the over-achievers have their down times. Not everything always goes right and not every day is your best. It is that internal voice that tells you that you didn’t do a good job and makes you dissatisfied, that voice is also telling you that you are over-achiever who had a bad day.

So the million dollar question is: “Is it OK to be mediocre?” And the answer really depends on your worldview, internal drives and what makes you happy. For someone to be mediocre is totally fine and they should never feel bad about it (in fact, by definition, they don’t) or try to change it, because being over-achiever very often also mean setting high bars and constantly chasing being better and better. And that doesn’t necessarily mean a happier life.

 

What is your take on mediocre employees? Are you fine having such people on your team or do you believe there is something wrong with them? And how do you see yourself?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

For more read my blog about management, leadership, communication, coaching, software development and career TheGeekyLeader or follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader

Are You So Good? Or Are You Here So Long?

I’m a student of human nature. I like to listen and watch how people react under various circumstances and I’m always trying to figure out why they act this way in a hope that with that understanding I will be able to have a better interactions in the future. One question that recently popped up in my mind is how much your tenure with a company impacts the way you get things done. And more importantly, are the tenured people who always seems to be able to get things done really so good or do they just know how to work the system?

How do you get things done?

Do you rely more on your skills, or the knowledge of the system? Chances are that you follow the standard trajectory. As a newbie you have no history with the company and no knowledge of the systems and people so you are forced to rely on your skills and past experiences. Even if you have done the same task before there is no guarantee that repeating the past experience will work in your new job. You need to be very open to learning the systems and people in your new gig.

As you are more and more tenured your strategy of getting things done will change. You will be able to rely more on the system and your knowledge of ins and outs of the company, you will have forged relationships with various stakeholders who will be able to help you out with your current task. You will rely less and less on your own skills and will utilize the system. And just to be clear, I’m talking about your managerial or leadership role.

The result? You are getting things done faster and better than the newbie could even if the other guy who just joined may have better skills. So far so good. Unfortunately, there is a flip side. By relying on the system you are giving away the need to sharpen your skills and learn new ways of doing things, you stop changing and growing.

How much effort and creativity do you really put in?

So how much effort do you truly put into your task? As you are tenured it takes less and less effort to get things done. You know the ropes, you know where to push, and who to talk to. You know where the bottle necks are so you go around them, or if not possible, you won’t get frustrated by seeing them again. At some point you will realize that the work you are doing is rather without challenges and all it takes to get things done is to repeat the same formula you used several times before and just give it the time it needs.

If you give up on finding creative ways how to tackle the problem at hand you know that you don’t rely on your skills as much as on your knowledge of the system. Once again, nothing wrong with that. Things will be done as they always were, you and your work will be predictable and the business will prosper. For now. Again, there is a flipside. Nothing new and exciting was ever build by doing things the way they were always done so ultimately the business is not reaching its full potential. And neither are you. If you don’t try new way to solve problems you will not learn anything new, you will never change and no change means no growth. Both for you and for the business.

Are you able to teach others how to get things done?

A great way to recognize what stage you are at is to consider how you teach others. Are you able to mentor and coach your team into truly building new skills? As opposed to just saying things like “well, you need to know who to talk to.” This one seems to be really critical. People who rely more on system than on their own skills may have troubles mentoring others. Or rather than mentoring for “how to become a better person” they mentor for “how to play the system”. This may not be immediately recognized by neither the mentor nor the mentee. And in fact, at first glance there is nothing wrong with either approach.

The first type of mentoring and guiding is focus on enhancing mentee’s skills and ability to get things done regardless of circumstances of the project or company. In this case the focus is on transferable skills like good communication, ability to negotiate win-win situations, ability to get things done regardless of reporting structure, ability to grow people, mentor and coach them or understanding the value of resources.

The other approach is purely focused on how to get things done in your current project or your current company. Because the mentor in this case focuses so much on how to get things now, in this project, under these circumstances the immediate effect might be even better than in the first case.

However, when the circumstances change the person mentored on “how to become better” will be able to adjust since the skills he or she learned are transferable. The person who was taught “how to play the system” will get lost when the system changes. The first person was taught principles. The second person was taught tasks and workarounds. The first person strives in change. The second person panics, blames everyone around, resists, complains, and generally just doesn’t know what to do.

Do you learn something new every day?

So ask yourself. Do you learn something new every day and do you exercise your mind to come up with innovative ideas? If the answer is “no” then you probably rely too much on your knowledge of the system and you are not growing. What is worse, if you are in a leadership position you may not even provide the right type of guidance to your team. And let’s be clear here, it is only your fault. Not the company, not your boss, not the environment, it is you who can decide whether to learn and grow or not. You just need to be creative.

So how to change the status quo and start growing again? Common sense dictates that you need to try something new. Talk to a new person you never talked to before, reach out to another department and offer help, volunteer for mentoring newbies or to take on a task outside of your job responsibilities. Make it a point to introduce small innovations in the way you work. It doesn’t need to be anything dramatic. If things are working generally fine you just want to keep testing the waters, try something new, if it doesn’t work revert back and try something else. By doing these small changes and minor improvements you ensure your own growth, your ability to cope with change, and even find ways how to continuously improve the “way we do things around here”.

 

How do you get things done? Are you really so good as you think? Or do you just know how the system in your current company works but if you get plugged into a new company, a new system, you will be totally hopeless and unable to adjust?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

For more read my blog about management, leadership, communication, coaching, software development and career TheGeekyLeader or follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader

The Art Of Giving Second Chances

Working with other human beings either as a peer, a partner, or a leader will sooner or later lead to encountering individuals that don’t perform at the expected level, don’t have the skills, don’t have the right attitude, don’t fit the culture, or rub you in the wrong way. In all these situations the results are obvious. You and the team loses focus and productivity plummets. Instead of driving to reach the business goals you are distracted by communication and collaboration issues and by handholding the person and helping him to perform. So how do you effectively deal with underperformers or people who might be great performers but are just not the right fit for the particular role and time?

The simple answer

You get rid of them. It is the most simple and straightforward answer. Yes, it means you have to go through couple of minutes of pretty stressful discussion with the person in question but that is all what is needed. Well, almost. Then you have to spend weeks and months recruiting her replacement, you have to spend another months training, you may need to do her job for some time, and need to communicate with all the stakeholders to explain what happened, why, and what is the plan going forward. In fact you just lost months of productivity and cost you an equivalent of six to twelve months of that person’s salary.

Giving a second chance

The better option is to identify the root cause of the issues and try to fix it. Give the person in question an opportunity to perform or to adjust to the environment. Depending on what is the policy in your company the person goes on performance improvement plan or personal development plan, or any other scheme that clearly defines what the problem is, what steps should be taken and what the desired outcome is.

Of course this needs to be time bound. The most frequently seen issue with this approach is that these initiatives are dragging for months and months with unclear results. One of the candidates to manager role I recently interviewed told me that he has a person on performance improvement plan for 2 years! That is totally unacceptable. The person obviously didn’t perform, productivity of the team suffered, and the manager had to constantly give attention to this person. You should always give the person enough time to improve but not even a minute more.

Truly giving a second chance

If you want to give someone a second chance then you should mean it. It means you should be committed to work with the person on improving, to provide feedback, to rally support of the team, of the peers and bosses. For example, if there is a developer who is not good with databases and it is critically important that he improves in the area it shouldn’t be just you to help him. You need to get buy-in from the team that they too will help him, provide feedback, and educate. If the team is not willing to help, or even will actively work against the person, it is a lost battle from the beginning and wasted time and opportunity.

And no more

Everyone has the right to make mistakes. But everyone has the right to make the same mistake only ones. If the issue repeats even after it was identified and pointed out then your actions needs to be very strict. You cannot allow of repeated unacceptable behavior. You see this all the time. Person gets on performance improvement plan, is worried for his job, so for a brief period of time truly improves. Only to relapse back to poor performance as soon as he feels the danger is behind him. This then leads to people being on improvement plans every couple of months when in fact they shouldn’t be part of the team anymore.

Impact on the team

You hired smart people. They can spot underperformers and bad cultural fits. And they watch both them, and you. Your actions will have huge impact on the culture you are creating. If people see that underperformers are tolerated (sometimes even rewarded with bonuses) then the message sent is clear “You don’t need to try too hard to be rewarded.” This leads to culture of mediocrity. Truly performing teams are able to identify bottlenecks and either fix them fast, or remove them altogether.

Impact on the individual

It sounds like a cliché but there is some truth in it. It is in everyone’s interest (even the poor performer) to remove the bad apple from the team. I like the concept of “sweet spot”. Under this concept everyone should have a job that fits his or her skills, attitudes, strengths, that stretches them and allows to grow. Being the right person for the job (at the time) is just really critical. You can read more on this in You’ve Got The Right Guy… In The Wrong Job. If things don’t work out not only the team suffers but also the person in question has a miserable life. She tries hard (hopefully), but things are not improving. It is not healthy to be in a demoralizing situation like this for too long. Saying good bye to each other and allowing the underperforming employee try her luck in other team/employer is in the long-term the best strategy even for her.

And keep in mind that it is not just about hard skills, or ability to perform a particular task. It is about being the right fit for the position at the time in question. This is very critical in small fast growing teams. Someone who may have been a great performer when he was the only developer on the team may struggle when the team grows to twenty people. Even though the job is essentially the same the skills called upon has shifted. Communication and collaboration is suddenly more important than it used to be. And the same goes in the other direction. A successful manager who lead teams of hundreds of people may struggle when put to a role of hands-on management of five individuals in a start-up environment.

Question of trust

And it is not only about performance. It is also about good fit with the team on personal level. Call it a good chemistry. If the approach to solving particular task is just widely different, if the cultural expectations are not aligned, if the core values, or personal goals are in clash you have a problem. The problem is called “trust issue”. Regarding how great your employee or your boss is. If you just don’t trust him there is no way you can work successfully together. Mistrust on your part will be very quickly seen by that person and most likely by other people around both of you. This will damage the culture, the morale, and ultimately lead to low performance.

How do you fix trust issue that is not based on any particular hard facts but it is just a question of bad chemistry between two people or feeling that the other party may have some hidden agenda damaging to you? Well there is no easy way around it. My suggestion would be just to put all cards on the table and have a very honest discussion with the person about what you see, why you don’t trust him, understand how he feels and that there are only two ways out of this. First, you increase communication to daily basis and at this open level in attempt to fix the trust issue, essentially getting to know each other better, understand the drives, values, and motivations. The only other option is to admit you will never trust each other and just agree to depart. The one solution that shouldn’t be an option, though most frequently used, is to continue to work together with the mindset “I don’t trust him. I need to check everything he does. I need to watch my back. And I will complain about him to whoever will listen.”

As always when it comes to leading others there are no simple recipes or clear steps to follow that would lead to success. Each situation is different and that is why leadership is more of an art than science. The only real guiding principle you should follow is to have the good of the company, the team, and the individual in mind. And whatever you decide to do you should be always respectful. When your focus is on helping others and respecting them as individuals you should be able to help them realize where their fortunes are. If you give up on good solution before you start the failure is ensured.

 

How many chances are you willing to give to underperforming employees and how do you ensure you are actually really giving them a chance?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

The Puzzle Of Performance Goals

Over the years managing people I have frequently encountered confusion about what the goals for a particular individual should be. Some people pushed for purely performance based goals like “Ship product xyz on February 2nd,” or “Write an article about performance goals that is 500 words long by the end of the week.” Some people pushed more for developmental goals like “Improve your language skills,” or “Learn how to use MS Excel.”

How do you approach setting goals for your team? What is the right mix of these goals and why are they important? In my mind you can divide the goals or objectives into three categories

  • Performance goals (things you need to get done to fulfil the scope of your job)
  • Professional developmental goals (things you need to learn to be able to do your job; usually more so called hard-skills, depending on the job)
  • Personal developmental goals (things you want to learn to be a better person; usually more focused on soft-skills and dealing with others)

Performance Goals

These are the things you need to achieve as a part of your job. Why are they important? Well, without clear goals you don’t know what to do and you have no way of knowing how you will be evaluated. It is important to set these goals regularly for yourself and your team to set expectations. Do this and that by this time. It is important to say not just what needs to be done but how it will be measured or what will be the criteria telling you whether you succeeded. “Hire the team of developers by the end of the month,” sounds reasonable until the end of the month comes and you have five people on board feeling happy while your boss frowns and tells you he expected at least twice as many.

But the performance goals are just the beginning. The one thing you need in pretty much any job is a trust. You need to trust your team that they will do a good job. You need to trust to your boss that he knows what he is doing when tasking you. Trust depends on two principal items: competency and character. Competency tells you whether someone has the knowledge to do the job. Whether he is “technical” enough. Character tells you whether he will do the job to the best of his abilities, whether he will do it the right way, and whether he will strive to be better and better at what he does. These two aspect needs to be addressed by professional (competency) and personal (character) developmental goals.

Professional Developmental Goals

Many of us need to learn new skills to be able to get our job done or even more often to prepare for the next job. We need to constantly use new tools, new technologies and techniques. There are always ways how to be more productive, get more things done and do them better than in the past.

Are you aspiring to lead a team? There are tons of skills you need to learn to be successful at that job. Some of them are more “technical” and some of them more “soft”. How do you hire people? How do you set the tasks? How do you evaluate the results? How do you provide feedback, perform one-on-one’s, or direct meetings? These are goals that are a bit trickier to evaluate but are important developmental steps to get to the next level. If you don’t discuss with your team their developmental goals you are most likely not providing feedback that would help them grow in their careers.

Personal Developmental Goals

Then come objectives like learn to listen, accept feedback and act on it. Things like being able to make tough decisions, being able to coach and mentor people around you. You may want to push the limits of your own abilities, you want to see the world around you, get new experiences to enrich yourself, or you want to get more comfortable in standing by your own values and opinions. You need to have solid values and live them, and you need to play nice with others. These are usually very “soft” things that are very personal. To learn them usually means changing a bit who you are. These are things that no external observer can evaluate, or at least not easily. It is usually only you to decide what you need to work on and whether you are succeeding.

The sad thing is that these are usually the most important goals because they set the foundations of who you are and how you act. They are also most often overlooked in performance discussions because of their inherent touchy-feely nature and difficult measurement. If you want to help your team members with these goals you need to be a coach or a guide who will show them the journey so they can identify these needs for themselves and then be the mentor who will help them work on improving and be better human beings.

In a correctly set performance management you need to deal with all three types of goals. If you overlook one part you will struggle in the other two areas too. So next time you have your performance evaluation or you talk with your boss or your team about the goals make sure you discuss not just what needs to be done to fulfil your job duties but also what needs to be done for you to become better at your job and at the end also a better person.

More on topic of goals and productivity:

Delete Your Calendar At Least Twice A Year

How To Make SMART Goals Smarter

Getting Stuff Done: The Right Attitude

Getting Stuff Done: The Right Priorities

Getting Stuff Done: The Right Tactics

 

How do you set your own goals and the goals for your team? Do you make a clear distinction between them? Along what lines?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Fortune Favors The Well Prepared

7PSince I can remember I had this life motto: “Fortune favors the well prepared.” Living by it enabled me to achieve many things that I thought I’m not capable of achieving. Curious thing I was told on numerous occasions, is that I’m really good at improvisation, that I can come up with good ideas on the spot, I can talk on a topic without giving it much thought or make a decision without over-analyzing. It might sound a bit paranoid but the reason why it may appear this way to the outside world is that I most likely already thought about these scenarios in the past and I’m prepared to deal with them. So what may appear as improvisation is in fact just a good preparation that was done in the past.

Always be one step ahead

Be future oriented person. Don’t live in the past. Always try to see what is coming and be prepared for it. A lot of training I went through was like this. It wasn’t much focused on what I needed at that point of time but rather on what could be useful mid-term or long-term. Whether it was my MBA education, coaching training, participation in Toastmasters sessions or even writing this blog today it was always done with the idea that I may need the skills at some point down the road. This is a strategy that pays off if you have a clear idea on where you are going, what is your goal and also what are your life values. When then opportunity present itself, or you create one, you are ready to dive in and be successful. It could be summarized as “always train for the next job and not the job you have”.

Important note here. I’m not saying you shouldn’t live in present and enjoy what you have today. No, if you want to be happy you must be able to live in the moment and enjoy the small things as they are coming. At the same time you need to take steps to ensure these small happy moments will keep coming also in the future.

Always be prepared

If you want to consistently perform at the highest level it means a consistent preparation. If you are really good at your job you can occasionally get away with improvisation but you cannot do it all the time as you could end up being inconsistent in the way you communicate, in the priorities you set and in the way others would perceive you. Being prepared is the easiest way how to build an image of a good manager and a leader. Being prepared means that you always know what is going on, you always have your facts straight, you always have an opinion, and you are consistent and reliable.

For example, imagine just a simple meeting. If you have your agenda ironed out before the meeting and you have couple of talking points for each of the topics you will be able to focus on the important issues, you will make sure to deliver your message in a really organized and impactful manner and you will be seen as a strong leader who knows what he is doing, who is confident in his or her own abilities and in the direction he or she proposes.

Don’t get surprised

I hate surprises. At least in my professional life. Surprise means that I didn’t expect something happening, that I didn’t plan in advance for it, that I didn’t pay attention or I didn’t communicate well enough. I make it a point that I keep good enough communication with my team, and I constantly keep in touch with important stakeholders in my life to ensure that very rarely I get really surprised. Yes, from time to time there is a slight surprise but usually along the lines of something happening a bit faster than expected. A true leader should never be caught by surprise as I wrote in One Question You Should Never Ask.

For example, in project management it is a good habit to always keep track of risks (and probability of them occurring). When managing software development projects you should always want your team to analyze the current status of the project and come up with three risks with biggest impact and three risks with highest probability of occurrence. If the team couldn’t come up with three you should still push for it so they really think hard. And when the worst risk that you see is something like “we may run out of coffee and get sleepy” that is the time you know the project is pretty safe.

Have a Plan B

As the old saying goes: “If you don’t have a plan B you don’t have a plan at all.” When it comes to critical or important things in life you should never rely on one option, one person, one idea or one goal. As you would do with your money, diversify your portfolio to remove or at least limit risks and negative consequences. You will always have a preferred option what to do or how to do it but there might be other options close enough so you should never close your mind to them. This applies especially to situations when you don’t have things under control, when there are external forces that may impact your efforts. And yes, you should put all your energy and focus to achieve the primary objective. The Plan B just gives you a way out when all your efforts failed so you can easily cut your losses and start in a new direction without much fuss.

You don’t need to have your plan B figured out in all the details but you must be able to turn to it fast enough when things go wrong. Typically in business you would have your disaster recovery or business continuity plans. They are usually pretty high-level as the chances you will need them are slim but when the time comes you and your team need to be able to act on them pretty fast. When your office catches fire or gets flooded you need to have a way to continue the business without significant interruption.

Don’t give up

I love the concept of 6P believed to originate from the British army at the time of WWII: “Perfect Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance”. There are different versions from 5P to 12P but the 6P is easy to remember and goes nicely with my life motto. To make sure this concept really delivers on what it seems to promise I would add one more “P” – Perseverance. It may not rhyme with the rest but it is a key component. When you decide to do something then do it and do it consistently. Don’t give up until you achieved the goal you set to achieve. I’m not saying that you should be stubborn or inflexible. Of course, if the circumstances changed then you should re-evaluate your goal or the strategy to reach it. But if the only reason for giving up is your own excuse like “I don’t have time,” or “I’m too lazy today,” then you need to remind yourself of the seventh P and persevere. The reward will eventually come in the form of you achieving of what you set you want to achieve.

 

What is your way to build new skills? How do you ensure you reach your long-term goals? And what is your leadership motto?

Getting Stuff Done: The Right Tactics

Last week in Getting Stuff Done: The Right Priorities I talked about the importance to get the right stuff done regardless of your short-term personal gains. Today I will talk about the technical aspects of “how” to get stuff done as painlessly as possible. It took me a while but I finally found some time to read Getting Things Done by David Allen. I’m not big fan of various tips & tricks on how to increase productivity and even though I sometimes reluctantly give some tips to others when mentoring I always accompany it with a disclaimer that even though it works for me it may not for others. We are all unique just as snowflakes are. The work by David Allen however made an impression on me for two reasons. First, he is providing a rather detail guide on how to organize your life to get more things done with less worrying about them. Second, to my surprise his system is relatively close to how I organize my actions and I just use common sense and learn from my mistakes.

Mindset & Benefits

The idea behind the concept (or framework) is simple. Have a single system that is so well organized that you can implicitly trust it. Have everything written down somewhere where you can easily find it so you don’t need to keep it in your head. Have things available when you need them but out of the focus when it is not the appropriate time to deal with them. For example, why to look the whole day at a reminder that you need to buy a bottle of milk in the evening? There is nothing you can do about it when you are in the office so it is just constantly distracting you and pushes you to worry about something you cannot fix at that particular point of time. Every single action has the right time, place and energy levels to be acted upon. You can forget about setting up priorities for tasks or trying to order and reorder them all the time. These things are just distractions that make your life more complicated and not easier.

Framework

David Allen describes his framework in five distinct steps or phases

Collection phase – the part of the framework where you collect all the information and tasks that come to your life. Keep in mind that not everything is electronic so some of the tasks may come in the form of snail mail, people asking you for help, etc. What I do is to transfer everything into electronic form as soon as possible and thus have a single inbox for my whole life. And not surprisingly that inbox is called Microsoft Outlook. Anything that I need to act on I send to myself as an email. Just a brief note, or a scanned copy of the snail mail. I know I can trust myself in doing this mindlessly under any circumstances and thus I know I can trust my inbox holds the complete list of things I need to do or need to know.

Processing phase – this one is the most tricky. You need to process your inbox regularly and at the same time it shouldn’t act as distraction to you. Ideally you want to create a habit and process your inbox couple of times a day. I tend to do it in the morning, after lunch and in any spare time I have during the day that cannot be effectively used by doing anything else. Just make sure that when you are processing your inbox you have the flexibility to immediately act on some of the small items, so doing it during a meeting when you cannot pick up a phone is not the best idea.

There are couple of rule you need to follow when processing your email:

  • Focus and process one item at a time
  • Once you look at the item don’t put it back to inbox
  • For every item ask a simple question: Is there an action to be taken?
    • If no then move to archive or appropriate list of reading
    • If yes then ask yourself: Can it be done by me in couple of minutes? (Allen proposes less than 2 minutes)
      • If the answer is yes then just do it right now
      • If the answer is no then either delegate right now to someone else
      • Or figure out what the next step is and put into your action items list
  • Following these rules you can process your inbox really fast and at the end have a bunch of solved problems, bunch of action items and an empty inbox – good feeling right? Especially the small wins and the empty inbox will give you sense of accomplishment and energy to work on the more time consuming tasks
  • Keep in mind that you completely ignore the importance of the tasks! You want every single aspect of your life to move forward, not just the part that currently feels like important or urgent

Organizing phase – here is where the magic comes. Once again you don’t talk about priorities but about context. You want to organize your action items based on your ability to deal with them. So instead of sorting on urgent, important, unimportant, etc. you sort based on location or possibly energy levels. In my case I would have separate lists for

  • Shopping – here comes anything I have to do while commuting between office and home
  • Home – anything that can be done only when I’m physically at home
  • Office with people – anything I need to do in the office where I need support of others, input, etc.
  • Office in the morning – anything I need to do in the office where I don’t need to interact with anyone
  • Weekend – usually some reading or things that I consider low-energy/hobby type of things
  • Meetings (by person) – I have bunch of lists for each of the regular meetings I have. When the meeting with a particular person comes this list turns into an agenda
  • Someday list – this is a list I use for collecting ideas that still need some time to mature, things I may want to read one day, etc. Just make sure you don’t overpopulate this list and clean it up regularly

Do it phase – now you just take your action item list and run with it. You don’t need to think too much about the next steps because they are already written down there. This is sort of mindless execution phase. How do you decide which task from the list to take? Decide based on time and energy. You can consider the importance and urgency at this stage too but it shouldn’t be the defining aspect. You need to be able to finish the task in one go so if you have just fifteen minutes for something that will likely take an hour there is no point of trying to get it done right now. Also if you have a task that requires you to come up with something creative and you just came from lunch and feel sleepy better take a task that will keep you awake like talking to someone.

What if you are long-term not able to finish your tasks and you are constantly behind? It means you learn to say no to some of the work coming your way. The right time to say no is when the request hits your inbox. Once you process it and accept it then you should finish it, but there is nothing wrong in saying no to some of the work because you are already maxed out.

Review phase – you need to regularly review your system and your lists to make sure they stay neat and clean. I do it once a week usually on Friday or during the weekend. I would look at

  • My projects and ensure each has a next step defined
  • My long-term goals and ensure there is an clear action on them
  • Review next week’s calendar and note down any preparation needed
  • Review the Someday list
  • Review the context lists to make sure everything is still relevant and up to date
  • Ideally also make a brain dump into your inbox and if you have time also process it

Urgency & Importance

In Lack of time is just an illusion! article I talked about the 4D concept. It is a pretty well-known and in theory widely used system on how to prioritize your tasks. I used it for some time myself but eventually abandoned as I discovered that it is just too complicated for everyday use. Priorities are shifting, what wasn’t urgent yesterday is urgent today. What is urgent today may be obsolete tomorrow. I transferred some of the thoughts behind the 4D concept to the simple lists. The reason why the framework described above works better than 4D is that it deals with specific small measurable next steps instead of big picture stuff. You may decide that learning a foreign language is important so you keep it in front of your eyes in 4D matrix but unless you come up with the first small step like “enroll to a course” or “buy a workbook” you will never move forward on that goal regardless of the importance.

Projects & Personal life

Just mix it up. You want your system to be as simple as possible and if you want to have a happy what I call “integrated” life (as described in Forget About Work-Life Balance, Just Live A Happy Integrated Life) you may as well mix your personal tasks with the professional ones. If that makes you uncomfortable you can treat your personal life as a separate project. You probably want to call it something different so you don’t end up like me when under the spell of corporate life I called a date dinner with a girl: one-on-one.

In fact Allen proposes to treat any initiative that requires more than one step as a project. That way you make sure that there is always a clear next step defined regardless of how big the project actually is. Most of the time I keep my working list pretty linear without any structure just to keep everything moving forward and have a detailed structure just in archiving data for easier access. It may look like this and every time I finish the step I define a next one to keep things moving forward

  • Initiative 1 – next step
  • Initiative 2 – next step
  • Initiative 3 – next step

For the full disclosure I need to confess that this system assume you work with it 365 days a year otherwise you need to improvise. In my case it breaks down when I take couple of weeks of vacations and go somewhere out of the grid with no laptops, no phone and no electricity. After I return I tend to use the more traditional approach of urgency and priority to sift through the inbox in couple of runs and cherry-pick the stuff I need to deal with right now and sort of ignore anything that can wait. It usually takes me couple of weeks to catch up with my inbox and makes returns from vacations a bit of a nightmare.

 

How do you organize your day to get the most out of it? Do you distinguish between personal and business tasks?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

How to avoid “single point of failure” situations in your team?

One of the most often overlooked tasks of any leader is to plan his succession and to ensure he has a plan how to ensure his team works even if he loses a key contributor. We are all so submerged in the daily tasks that we often don’t realize that we fail to make the team resilient and disaster-proof. So how do you fix this situation?

Identify single-point-of-failure team members

Who are the key people in your organization? How do you identify them? The most obvious mistake you can make is to start looking at titles or seniority. Very often these things doesn’t matter that much and don’t mean that the person is a key to the success of your team and difficult to replace. I have always asked myself these couple of questions:

  • Does the person hold a unique knowledge? (being it institutional knowledge, technical or just knowing lots of people that are key to your team survival and no one else knows them or has that knowledge)
  • Does the person have a unique skill-set? (he might be The salesman, The leader to whom everyone comes for advice and mentoring or have a way to negotiate with others that gets your team anything you need)
  • Does the person provide a unique function that holds the team together? (he might be The leader even if his title doesn’t say it, or just provide a social role that keeps the team together and makes the work fun)

Find a suitable mitigation strategy

When you identify the key people think about what would happen if they wouldn’t show up in the office tomorrow. Just imagine how your team would look like without that particular person. Ask yourself:

  • What is the unique knowledge, skill or function you would have to replace?
  • What would be the impact on the team, atmosphere, product, customers?
  • What would be the short-term and long-term impact?
  • What would be the impact on daily operations?
  • What would be the impact on the potential growth of the team?

When you have the list look at the rest of the team and find people who are close of taking over that particular knowledge, skill or function. If you cannot find anyone who would be even close you are in trouble and you should seriously consider augmenting your team with an experienced person from outside sooner rather than later.

Execute and regularly follow-up

Assuming you found couple of people who would be able to take on some of the function of the key individual create a development plan for them to get the necessary skill or knowledge. Talk with your key employee and make it a point that he or she as a person who has something unique should make it a mission to share this with others. Let him mentor the people you identified as a potential candidates to learn the skill. As it goes with any developmental plans you need to regularly follow-up on the progress of the knowledge transfer or skill enhancement.

Make it part of your decision making process

Keep the execution plan readily available and look at it every time you make a decision about assigning new responsibilities to someone or making reorganization in your team. Ensure that with each new change you remove some of the single-point-of-failure situations, you give people a chance to learn new skills or get knowledge they need to act as a back-up for your key people. The biggest mistake organizations make is to constantly assign their key people on all critical or new projects thus creating bigger and bigger dependency on them, limiting others to grow and increasing the risk for the business.

If you want this exercise to have any meaningful impact you need to repeat it on a regular basis. Probably not every week but once every couple of months especially if the organization grows or shrinks is advisable. When you get to a point that the list of key people gets to zero it means you build enough resilience into the organization that it will survive anything (like someone taking a day off).

Twitter type summary: “Your responsibility as a leader is to identify key people and plan for their unexpected demise. The goal is not to have key people at all.”

Do you have a plan how to ensure your team survives and can execute its mission even if a key contributor leaves?