I recently opined on the topic of “how to double productivity“, and my friend Pascal weighed in with a comment suggesting that the focus should instead be on doubling effectiveness. I replied by saying that I saw the construct of “productivity” including both effectiveness (doing the right things) and efficiency (doing things right), but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about his question. Perhaps they are not so tightly linked as I suggested. Perhaps there is value to be gained in reflecting on how effectiveness per se could be doubled. Therefore, here’s my five ideas about how to double effectiveness.
Idea 1. Negotiate Better Upfront on What It Means
One of the things I’ve always admired about Eric is the way he seeks a deep understanding upfront on what the outcome of a project should look like. I’ve worked with him on a couple of things, and in every case, he’s always wanted to talk through “what’s the desired outcome”, “how can we be in alignment on this”, and so on. That’s been a challenge to my more gung-ho approach of “let’s get going”.
For small things … projects or next actions that might take an hour or two … having an extended discussion is not so important, but definitely spend 5-15 minutes if there are other people involved getting as clear as possible about what is expected / desired. We all have “customers” to serve — be that external marketplace customers, internal customers, the Board, shareholders, etc — and so getting as clear an idea as possible about what they are expecting and what we can do to help them be successful is a good thing.
For longer term projects … multiple days, weeks, months or years … spend much more time upfront getting clarity about what is needed.
- If you are writing a book, get a book proposal written, submitted to a publisher, and signed off. Merely writing the book for the fun of it isn’t enough. In the majority of cases, having other people equally invested in the success of your book project is a good thing. And they’ll help you ensure that the hours-upon-hours that you spend writing your treatise are hours well spent.
- If you have a piece of software to write, either for an internal project team or for use by people the wide world over, don’t just jump into coding as soon as possible. Do the ethnographic customer studies. Examine the interaction theory at play. Design the underlying data model, both for today and taking into consideration possible future changes. Traditional “requirements documentation” may not be good enough to bring the proposed software project to live for your customers, so consider the rapid development of prototypes as a way of confirming / denying what you think you’ve heard.
- If you have to write an investigative report for your boss or a client, seek to understand what decisions hinge on your report. As a result of what you do, what do they have to decide to do? Or in what contexts do they have to act as a result of your work? Knowing what they have to do as a result may make a significant difference to they way you conduct your investigation, to the form it takes, to the breadth or depth you explore various matters, and so on.
As another idea, if you are new to working with a group of people, ask for some excellent reference points. In other words, what previous projects have they been involved in where the outcomes were “great”, “excellent” or even “awesome”. Take what they provide, study it, and plan for how you can do the same in the current situation.
Idea 2. Make a Plan
As a general principle, write out a plan for any project, programme of work or significant next action. After you know what you have to do, invest some time thinking through the best way to get it done. If it is something you’ve done numerous times before, adopt Mr Brogan’s awesome idea and write your own mini-process flows. If it’s something you haven’t done before, ask for advice and direction from others that have. Perhaps the person giving you the project has some ideas on how best to go about doing the work. Perhaps some co-workers, colleagues or significant others in your life can share their experiences. I advocate listening to what they say, thinking about the validity of their ideas in your context, and then making your own decision about how to proceed.
Some other ways of making a plan include writing down the steps involved, making a mindmap to get a visual overview, keeping a wiki page for odd thoughts about the project (things you need to do), and if the project demands it, making a formal project plan with milestones, deliverables, timelines and more. What you do depends on the size of the undertaking … that you do it is essential to effectiveness.
Finally, sometimes you have to throw out everything you’ve done previously and ask “how could I do this in an optimal fashion?” This is the innovation idea coming into play … you have to rebel against the status quo of documented processes sometimes in order to get a significant breakthrough. Play that card with thought, however.
Idea 3. Seek Frequent Feedback to Guide Course Corrections
Get frequent feedback through interim, tentative, or draft versions of the final outcome. I’m working on a multi-month project at the moment, and I gave what I thought was a wonderful draft after a couple of weeks. It was a shock to me to hear that I’d missed the boat. Even though we’d spent time upfront going through what was involved, their definitions of various words and their expectations about what I’d provide where quite different from what I thought was expected. It was good for me to learn about those differences a couple of weeks into the project, rather than a couple of weeks before the end of the six month project. Wherever possible, build in interim deliverables of the final. It will help a lot with using your time productively in the coming days and weeks.
- If you are working on a software project, do a rough prototype and show it to the customer the day after you initially talk to them. “Are we on the same page?” is the question you need to answer.
- If you have an important presentation to deliver at a trade conference, get it done quickly and dry-run it with your team, your boss or the significant others in your life.
- If you are writing a book, trial run some of your ideas in a white paper or a blog post. See how people respond. See how you could modify your message to make it more clear.
- If you are working on a project that could be interpreted in many ways, intentionally schedule “here’s where I’m up to” meetings both the people directly involved as well as with people who could offer some valuable input and insights. Get feedback from many.
I love Rod‘s suggestion for an effective presentation … prepare your speech so that it takes up half of the allocated speaking time, and then leave the rest for questions and a conversation. “You’ll still get your main points out” he said to me, “because the discussion is likely to give opportunities for you to repeat them.” As an alternative perspective, perhaps your prepared speech doesn’t quite hit the informational and actional needs of your listener … thus having an extended Q&A time provides you with the opportunity to be of highest value and service to those that are listening. They’ll speak their concerns … and you can respond with your expertise.
Idea 4. Learn from the Best of the Best
I love being around people who through hard work and discipline have become top performers in their field. They inspire me. They teach me. They give me ideas. If you can be with such people in person, do it. If not, buy their books or subscribe to their newsletters or blogs. Read them, digest them, see what you can learn for yourself. For example:
- If you want to know about how to get things done as a knowledge worker, you can’t go wrong by reading all of David Allen‘s work. He’s got books, seminars and a monthly coaching programme. If this is an area you need some help with, he’s (one of) your men. Others are Stephen Covey (7 Habits), Neil Fiore (The Now Habit), Mark McCormack (Getting Results for Dummies), and many, many more. I have two whole shelves of books on this topic!
- If you work in a professional services firm, eg, consulting, you’ve just got to read everything that David Maister has to say. His book True Professionalism stands as one of my all time favorites. Whenever I feel really stink about work, I read his book, and my perspective is immediately lifted. He’s got a blog too.
- If you work in a software-related field, buy all of the books that deal with the software technology you are invested in. Learn what has worked for others. Learn what hasn’t. Hang out with the best via their books and blogs, and thus propel yourself along.
- I’ve never met Tom Peters, but he’s got a big opinion on the future of work and business. His book The Pursuit of WOW is another of my long-term favorites, and he’s done many others. And he has a blog.
- If you have to travel frequently for work, and want to know how to stay in shape physically and mentally, Jason Womack is your man. He doesn’t have a book out … yet … but I’m looking forward to when he does release it. Keep those fingers dancing on those keys Jason!
You get the idea. There are many others.
Idea 5. Reflect Frequently on What Worked For You
If you don’t have frequent times of thinking and reflection about your work, what’s working, what’s not, what’s hot, what’s a waste of time … I’d wager a fairly significant bet that you’re performing suboptimally in some significant areas of your life. Dale Carnegie said it years ago in How to Win Friends and Influence People … a program of regular reflection is a key habit for self-improvement. Some questions to ask yourself:
- What’s worked well today? What have I done today that I’m really proud of, where I was truly “me”? How could I do more of this?
- What hasn’t worked well today? Where did I waste time and effort? How can I ensure that I don’t repeat those process losses tomorrow and the next day?
- Where is my job going over the next six months? What do I need to start reading tomorrow so I can be ready?
- What are my goals? Am I putting frequently time into my significant goals, or merely losing my days to the tyranny of the latest and loudest?
- What could I do to significantly improve my performance?
- If I started over again, what would I do differently?
Idea 6. Gain a Working Knowledge of Ideas and Concepts Beyond Your Immediate Discipline
It’s great to be an expert in a field. It’s great to be able to add significant value to people by doing what you love. But … others aren’t so well versed in your discipline as they are in theirs. If you want to work more effectively with them, learn some of their language, paradigms and professional disciplines so that you can converse with them more fully. Although I’ve never done it, I had a long-term passion for the idea of doing an MBA … for the sole reason that you get to formally study many business disciplines in a single degree. Rather than doing a single discipline degree, the MBA gives you a working (albeit high-level) knowledge of multiple disciplines, which is extremely helpful for working in organizations, which by their nature are multi-disciplinary. But even if you can’t get the time to do a formal MBA programme, there are always books you can buy, magazines you can subscribe to, conferences or workshops you can go to, or even lunches that you can have with others from your organization (“hey, let’s have lunch on Friday; can you tell me about the frameworks and paradigms that drive your approach to business?”) Building on that idea, if your organization is big enough, why not find 5-6 other like-minded professionals and schedule a regular lunch meeting (every fortnight, for example) to discuss a topic from multiple points-of-view. Set a topic and then let everyone describe how they see it and would approach it from the framework of their disciplines and professional interests. You’ll be amazed at what you learn …
How About You
Well those are six of my thoughts on this subject. What do you think is involved in doubling effectiveness? What’s worked for you? What hasn’t worked for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.