These are my notes on various work topics and experiences.
‘Working hard and working smart sometimes can be two different things’ – Byron Dorgan
Winning the battle and losing the war:
The idea of winning battles and losing the war is age old and we see examples through out history and our daily lives.
I had a case a few years ago where I had an interview with a candidate and we had a mix up on the start time for the interview. We rescheduled the interview for the following day. When I came in for the interview, I apologized for the mix up and started the interview. Before the candidate answered any questions, she says that she had the right time and place for the interview. I never really asked who had the right time. Since she brought that topic up, I mentioned that I have a pretty full schedule with all the meetings lined up and checked by my admin. She responded that my admin must be wrong. I pressed the candidate one more time and dropped the matter. Before the interview even starts, I have a big mark against her. If the candidate doesn’t understand how to pick the battles to fight, how can I expect them to operate in an environment where there are many potential battles to fight.
Just like Hannibal, you can go about winning every battle and lose through a war of attrition. We have long careers. Few of us can afford to fight a battle of attrition. We should think carefully about each potential battle and decide if we want to spend the energy to fight the battle and understand what do we have to gain by winning the battle.
One common issue that I hear from people is that they don’t have enough time. When I take on new responsibilities or I find that my time management is getting out of hand, I find it useful to write a detailed activity log for a couple of weeks. If you are honest with yourself in maintaining the log, you will be amazed at how many things you can do to optimize your schedule. I go back over the activity logs to see if I am doing the right things to achieve my goals. I also organize the work to reduce context switching. There may be opportunities to delegate work. Although I look to get the most of every minute of the day, I don’t neglect time to take a break to clear my mind. I may grab a quiet area to listen to some music or read a book. I also take time for lunch or tea to socialize or exchange ideas. Not only do I get a mental recharge, I may have a fresh perspective on a problem that I am trying to solve.
Not My Job
Back when I was in London, I usually came to the office quite early in the morning and pass by a Pret A Manger on the way to work. One day, I passed by Pret A Manger 15 minutes before the official opening of the store and noticed the open doors. I walked in and grabbed a sandwich. There was a girl sitting behind the counter looking at her cell phone. I asked the girl if I can pay for the sandwich. She said, “The store is not open yet and I can’t sell you the sandwich” I mentioned that I am fine to leave exact change for you if the register is not open. She look a bit annoyed and responded, “That’s not my job” I put the sandwich back and left the store. I am not exactly sure what the girl thought was her job, but I think that part of her job should be the success of the store and her team. Turning away additional revenue for little effort and producing an unhappy customer seems like a bad thing to do.
People may argue that doing more than what is required encourages employers to take advantage of employees. If I think my employer is treating me unfair, I handle that issue in a separate thread. Regardless of how I feel about my job, I look for opportunities to do more than is expected of me. I want people with that kind of attitude on my team. There is a point where you do too much and spread yourself too thin. Until you get to the point, put in the effort to exceed expectations and reap benefits that also exceed your expectations.
People or Process?
Watching various organizations grow from start up to large companies, I can see some of the challenges in harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit of your staff vs. implementing processes to scale the controls and effectiveness of the organization.
I observed the people vs. process first-hand when I visited a local food court. Above the food counter, I saw a picture of a meatball sub which is a hoagie roll with 3 meatballs inside. In the food trays, I saw breaded chicken breasts, meatballs, pasta, and hoagie rolls. I pointed to the meatball sub and asked the person behind the counter for a meatball sub. She replied, “That’s not on the menu. I can’t sell you a meatball sub.” I wondered why they can’t simply put three of the meatballs into the hoagie roll. Alternatively, she could give me the spaghetti and meatballs, hold the spaghetti and give me a hoagie roll. After my suggestions, the girl behind the counter insisted that she could not deviate from the options presented to her on the cash register. I eventually got myself a chicken parmigiana sub.
In a business with high turnover rate and large scale, you depend on process to reduce the number of decisions needed by less experienced/skilled staff and keep a sufficient quality level. I realize that more processes are necessary as the numbers of people grow in an organization, but the processes should give people flexibility to ‘do the right thing’.
My thoughts on email:
One of my quirks is that I drive my life around Outlook email and calendar. Although there are many different opinions on the pros and cons of email, I think a good email process is a key to my productivity. I channel most of my interactions into emails when appropriate. That means I do not usually respond to people who instant message me, phone me, or text me. There are good reasons to use the different channels, but I see many people use these other channels to jump the queue or get instant gratification of my immediate response. My current role involves interacting with people across many global offices and making suggestions or decisions on a variety of topics. I am not keen to stay up all hours of the night talking on the phone to my counterparts across the globe unless the conversation is necessary. I process an average of 200 real (not spam or system notifications) emails a day. 90% of my emails take less than 2 minutes to digest and produce an appropriate response. This scenario leads me to set up my email process in the current form.
– My goal is to get my inbox to empty. This goal could be a result of an obsessive compulsive disorder on my part.
– I evaluate an email subject line and decide within a second or two if the email is something I need to act on.
– Automated emails, junk emails, or emails that don’t seem to need anything from me get trashed instantly.
– I ask myself what happens if I don’t act on this email. If nothing of consequence, I delete the email
– If the email can be acted on by me in a sentence or less, I act on it immediately
– If the email needs more time to respond, 30 seconds or more, I move to the next email.
– Depending on what I need to do on the request, I may move the email to a meeting I set up in my calendar. I block out dedicated time to work on this particular item. Sometimes I have a recurring meeting that I drag items into so I can focus on that item at the time
– If the email needs someone else to do something before me or the email is part of a larger long term project, I put into my follow up folder. I usually process my follow up folder first thing in the morning when nobody else is in the office.
– All other emails go into my archive folders which I usually organize by year or a significant topic. When I have a block of time, I periodically clean out those folders.
– I check email fairly frequently. I try to keep my meetings to no longer than 30 minutes and with 15 minute gaps. I use those gaps to check emails.
– Sometimes I have ideas or actions for follow up that come to me in conversations or during my quiet times. I send an email to myself for follow up later
General email tips:
Many of my email tips relate to a single question. How do I get my email processed by someone who is very busy and has to sort through tons of email?
I try to reduce the iterations in my emails. I often communicate with people halfway around the world. I don’t have time to ask a question, wait for a response 12 hours later, come back with follow up question, wait for another 12 hours, etc… For most topics, I anticipate follow up questions and incorporate my thoughts into the email. I give the reader a choice to agree or disagree with my thoughts. In addition to the improved efficiency, I come across more knowledgeable and decisive to my target audience.
I emphasize to my staff to put in the subject or in the first sentence of email what they want me to do. I see some emails where the author looks like they are writing a novel and I think to myself, what is the purpose of the email? My attention span doesn’t usually last more than the first sentence or two of the email. If your request for me to do something is stuck somewhere in the middle of a giant paragraph, you can be sure I won’t see your request.
I encourage concise and focus communication that shows me what you are thinking. I see cases where people put a bunch of random bits of data into an email and expect me to read their mind on what I am supposed to do with the data. You are going to be more effective by telling me your point or analysis and put supporting details underneath.
You may also ask me for a bunch of different and unrelated requests in the same email. Please separate each topic into separate emails. If you break out into separate emails you have a better chance of me seeing and processing all your requests.
Related to concise communication, I get people who send me a huge excel sheet and ask me to take a look. Why not tell me what you found in the sheet and paste the interesting part for me to see?
Anything that requires an extensive conversation should go to an arranged meeting. Email is not the right channel for such discussions. But please send me an agenda for what you want to cover and get out of the meeting before I will accept the meeting entry.
I like to like to address my emails to a person or two instead of a large mail group. I think that sending requests to a large mail group tends to reduce accountability. Nobody in particular has to process my request. I also get a specific person that I can follow up if I don’t get a satisfactory response to my email.