An engineer I know told me about a time when he was called in as a consultant to help a customer improve their manufacturing processes. He analyzed their operation top to bottom and met with them about his findings. The customer was pleased to learn they could improve efficiency and cut costs. Adding money to […]
Do you ever feel like there are just too many things to do and not enough time?
Do you have big goals that you would like to achieve but you just don’t know where to start?
Are you in need of some creative ideas but you seem to be stuck because there are just too many things on your mind?
Yeah, me too.
Back when I was just thinking about starting a blog, I was reading a lot of other blogs for ideas and inspiration. I was looking for how-to type information – how to pick a topic, how to attract readers, etc. Unexpectedly, I found a tool that helped me not only get my blog started, but also helped me in many other areas of my life.
I wish I could remember the blog that introduced me to this, but unfortunately I can’t. In any case, I am very grateful that I was introduced to Getting Things Done with Work-Life Balance. The blogger I read gave it such high praise that I decided to give it a try. I’m glad I did!
Getting Things Done, or GTD, is a time management or work management methodology created by David Allen, a self-described “black belt” in the “martial art” of work and productivity. Allen offers this information in many formats. I opted to purchase the full version with the audio CD’s, workbook and other support tools. I’m glad I did too! Since I already had a problem with getting things done, I didn’t want to add another book to the shelf of books I intend to read – someday.
With the CD’s, all I have to do is put them in my car and within a week of driving back and forth to work, I’ve “read” the whole book. I like to give them a fresh listen at least once a year. The concepts are so simple and actionable that I was able to put them into practice right away.
I will share with you the basic components of the GTD methodology. The subject is far too broad to cover in its entirety, but here is a brief overview.
The first step in the process is very simple and to me, the most fun. Everything you’re commited to do and you haven’t done yet – write it down. Whether you write it on paper or capture it electronically is not important. Whatever you’re most comfortable with.
Putting all your commitments into an external system frees up the part of your brain that keeps trying to remind you of all the stuff you need to do. You know, that part of your brain that wakes you up in the middle of the night to remind you you need to buy milk at the grocery store. That part of your brain is not very smart and has no sense of time. I experienced a literal rush of mental energy and creativity after completing this step.
Go through each commitment collected in the “collect” step and define what it means. Simple tasks like “buy milk” need no further clarification. Anything that requires multiple steps and can’t be completed in one sitting, Allen defines as a “project” that must be clarified. The great thing here is, you don’t have to figure out all the steps in the project. All you have to do, is clarify the desired outcome, and the very next action to move you toward that outcome. That’s it! It’s important to make the outcome as clear and concrete as possible. So for example, “lose weight” is not a good desired outcome – too ambiguous. “I want my size 32-inch waistline trousers to fit me loosely” is a good desired outcome. It is specific and concrete.
Once completed, this step makes it much easier to engage with those projects that you might otherwise resist because they seem so big and you don’t know how to accomplish them. By defining the next action, you relieve yourself of the stress of figuring everything out and you give yourself some task that you can accomplish and get a win, and feel confident that you are moving toward your ultimate goal.
This step helps you put “blinders” on so you can focus your attention appropriately. For example, if you’re at work, you don’t need to be reminded to clean your garage because cleaning your garage is something you couldn’t possibly accomplish while at work (assuming your workplace is outside your home). In this step, you organize your tasks and projects onto lists in a way so that they are visible only where they need to be visible.
Once completed, this step reduces unnecessary distractions. When you’re in a meeting with a client, you’re not distracted by phone calls you need to make because that information is “parked” in a system where you know you will see it when you need it. Likewise, when you’re playing with your puppy, you’re not distracted by your strategic plan.
This is where you address your list of actions and you get them done.
Big, amorphous problems are broken down into discreet chunks. You get to experience the feeling of completing tasks and “checking off” things from your list more regularly. You get a tangible feeling of success and winning as each task gets done.
This is where you regularly set aside blocks of time to keep your lists current. Allen recommends a weekly review at a minimum. Not only do you go through the previous steps of the process, but you also define your purpose, vision, goals and responsibilities. During review, you might discover there are some projects you really don’t want to commit to any longer. Deciding not to do something is okay. It’s good executive decision-making to say “no” to things.
This step allows you to look at all your commitments from a higher level. You discover that your work is not something that defines you – rather, it is something you define for yourself according to your purpose and what you want to accomplish in your life. It gives you a sense of empowerment.
If you’re not already using a system or methodology to manage your time and your tasks then I definitely recommend Getting Things Done. Above is just an overview. There are many other nuances and tips that I couldn’t go into here that are worth exploring. I get something out of it each time I review it.
In the first post of The Data Whisperer, I presented the relationship between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. I also defined data and wisdom respectively as “facts taken out of context”, and “knowing and doing the right thing at the right time”. With this in mind, how do we consistently take a bunch of facts and turn them into actionable knowledge? What skills or domain does one study to become proficient in the alchemy of spinning data straw into insight gold? Is it analytics? Visualization? Statistics? Data mining? These are all useful skills, but none is broad or inclusive enough to encompass the systematic practice of turning data into insight. After thinking about this for a long time, I was surprised to find I had learned about this dark art many years ago in elementary school.
As a boy sitting at a desk, I learned of these wizards who turn mere observations into understanding of our world and our universe. I learned the magic they use is powered by methods passed down to them through the ages. These wizards are scientists, and the magic they use is reveled to us mere mortals as scientific method.
In the context of business, Steve Miller suggests here that the scientific method we employ looks like this:
Observe a phenomenon or group of phenomena
Formulate a hypothesis to explain the phenomena. The hypothesis takes the form of a causal relationship or a mathematical function (the more of X, the more of Y).
Use the hypothesis to predict the results of new observations.
Perform tests (experiments) with predictions.
Don’t fret if you don’t have a lab coat and you are not currently surrounded by test tubes and beakers. You don’t need those things to do this kind of science.
Consider this scenario. An accountant produces an annual educational course to teach small business owners what he has learned from decades of analyzing financials of successful and failed businesses. Every year he sends out mailings inviting prospects to a free seminar where participants are offered enrollment in the paid course. The response rate to the mailing is predictable based on past results. On the advice of an expert marketing consultant, one year he makes changes to the format of the mailing to increase response rate. The response rate plummets and the accountant suffers a loss in course enrollments for that year.
The lesson? Don’t make risky decisions based solely on the hypothesis of an expert. Do an experiment instead. The accountant learned he should test changes to a proven mailing by applying the changes to a sample instead of an entire campaign. This little experiment would have insulated him from the risk of losing enrollment in his educational course for the year while still exploiting the possibility of improving his mailing response rate.
So if you want to do more of the right things at the right time, the stuff you need to use is science, which you already learned in elementary school. But don’t throw out the statistics, analytics, visualization, and all the other stuff you learned since then. That stuff will come in handy too!
What’s your story? Have you ever had success employing scientific method to a problem in your business? Ever had a failure where you regret you didn’t? Please share in a comment below.
I recently saw The Social Network. It was a fascinating look at the story of the founders of Facebook. I found it to be thoroughly entertaining and I recommend it if you haven’t seen it.
It is truly amazing that the events in the movie took place such a short time ago given Facebook’s current popularity. A report earlier this year revealed 6.8% of business internet traffic goes to Facebook and by now that figure could be higher. As you can imagine, all this Facebook use at work has employers concerned about loss of productivity and security risks. As a result, some have chosen to restrict access to Facebook or block the site altogether.
So what? What if your employer blocks access to Facebook? I mean, you are using company resources, and those resources should be used in a way that benefits the company. Why shouldn’t they restrict or block access to a site that just sucks up bandwidth and wastes time?
But is Facebook a waste of time? Sure, it can be. But does it have to be? More specifically, is there any business value in allowing employees access to personal Facebook accounts from work?
At one point in the movie, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) discuss whether it’s time to monetize their creation. Zuckerberg responds with “we don’t know what it is yet” as an objection. Later in the movie, Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) echos the same sentiment. In the same way the characters in the movie needed to understand what Facebook “is” before figuring out how to capitalize on it, organizations need to figure out what it is in order to understand how it might benefit or harm the business.
So what is Facebook?
First of all, Facebook is not a social network despite the movie title. Rather, Facebook is a website, service, and software platform that helps people build and interact with their social networks. So in a larger sense, in order to understand the business value of Facebook, we have to understand the value inherent in the activity of employees building and maintaining their social networks.
So what is a social network?
A social network is social structure where people or organizations are referred to as nodes, and they are connected by interpersonal ties . These ties can be either weak or strong, and they represent the amount of information that is transmitted between the nodes. A strong tie carries more information and a weak tie carries less information.
It’s all about information
So a social network is really all about people and the information that passes between them. Understanding this flow of information is key to understanding and evaluating the value of a social network. So in terms of information, can you guess which ties (strong or weak) are most valuable within any given social network? Keep reading to find the answer.
This is where the lights came on for me. I did not inherently “get” Facebook. In fact, I remember the first time someone suggested to me that I should sign up for an account. The conversation went something like:
Julius, you should sign up for Facebook. It’s more grown-up than MySpace. I was able to reconnect with a friend from middle school through it. It’s really great!
I think I smiled and was polite and all, but I really had no interest at that point. My personality and perhaps my generation made me disinclined to see any inherent value in establishing digital ties to people I may have known long ago but now are practically strangers.
My attitude changed two years ago when I attended my 20 year high school reunion. (I know, I’m dating myself) That reunion was a blast! Through that experience, I understood how much fun it can be to reunite and catch up. One of the first things I did when I got back to San Antonio was sign up for Facebook.
Ok, so two years ago I went from believing Facebook had no value, to believing Facebook was fun. Like the person who suggested I sign up, I became an advocate and encouraged other people to sign up. Why? Because it’s fun! If anyone had asked me then if there was any business value to being on Facebook I would have responded “that’s what LinkedIn is for”. However, after learning of the relationship between social networks and information, I began to change my tune.
Social network value
I credit Andrew McAfee with helping me see Facebook and other social software platforms in a different light. Because of him, I learned the shocking truth about the value of weak ties. Yes, weak ties! If you guessed (like I did at first) that strong ties are most valuable then you would be wrong.
The theory, first introduced by American sociologist Mark Granovetter in his appropriately named paper The Strength of Weak Ties , goes something like this (paraphrased):
Strong ties carry lots of information, therefore the people who share strong ties also share a lot of common or overlapping knowledge. Weak ties carry little information, so people who share weak ties have less knowledge overlap. What this means is, the biggest potential to receive novel information (something you didn’t already know) is through a weak tie.
So being connected to people with whom I share little common knowledge gives me access to novel information. This was a huge revelation by itself, but McAfee helped me recognize something else about the value of Facebook. He pointed out a specific innovation built into Facebook and other emerging social software platforms that makes it possible to get value from social networks in a way that was not possible with previous forms of communication – the status update.
With a status update, you can post information you want to push out to your network. You can also receive information from your network by reading their status updates. In this way, you can share things with your network they probably didn’t know and you can learn things that you didn’t know. Hopefully, some of the things you learn will be useful to you.
Mobilizing the network
But you don’t just have to hope. A status update also allows you to post a question as well. By posting a question in a status update, you can mobilize your network of weak ties to provide you with information – specific information that can help you resolve a variety of problems. Just because Facebook is social, doesn’t mean the problem can’t be work related.
So maybe you are faced with the dilemma of what to do about all that traffic at your organization going to Facebook. Maybe you have considered blocking access. Maybe you have already blocked it. In either case, make sure you consider the potential benefit of keeping access open. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake I did of believing Facebook has no business value or it’s only about fun. It’s really about information, and blocking access will cut you off from the potential benefit of that information.
So instead of a complete ban on Facebook at work, consider the following strategies:
Remind employees that work resources are primarily for work purposes and that they should limit social activities to reasonable levels
Have clear conversations about what information is ok to share and what is not ok
Train yourself and your employees about the potential business value of social network activity – they may be like I was and think it is only useful for entertainment
Encourage employees to share updates about company events – new products and services, web seminars, promotions, job openings, etc
Encourage employees to mobilize their networks to help solve company non-sensitive problems they may be stuck on by posting questions as status updates
Ask your employees for their ideas on using Facebook for business – especially the younger ones
What do you think? What is your company’s stance on personal Facebook access from work? Are you convinced like I am that there is potential business benefit to keeping Facebook access open at work or do you think it’s hogwash? Please feel free to weigh in with comments below.