I always try to look for the opportunity in tough situations. We are certainly in a tough situation right now, but I have tried to look at it as an opportunity to improve upon current practices. Many are having to make a swift transition to remote or virtual programming, but that does not mean there is any real innovation or process improvement. That is what I would like to talk about here.
The first time I dealt with the idea of having to rapidly create change was in 2008/2009 as a result of the Great Recession. My organization had a massive budget reduction, so I was asked to review my department’s entire portfolio and then provide recommendations to cut costs. The way I looked at the challenge was how to maintain or even improve upon current practices while reducing or eliminating costs – a search for innovative solutions. By operating with that mindset, it forced me to look at process improvement and understand what current funds were actually ‘buying’ – what value was actually being received for spending that money. The result of that process was an exciting set of improvements that stayed with the department long after our budget returned to normal levels. That exercise made a lasting impression on me and the lessons learned in the process still influence my current approach to innovation and process improvement.
In today’s crisis, as a result of the novel coronavirus, many businesses are not just quickly, but immediately, having to change how they operate. My own organization is having to make the transition, so I have been faced with a similar set of challenges as I did 11/12 years ago.
Below are the steps I take when needing to improve and change my current practices:
- Start from the beginning: Write out your process in as much detail as possible – using a workflow diagram can be very helpful. Think about how and why everything is done. What are the aspects that could be improved? Play devil’s advocate and come up with alternatives that would provide the same or better results.
- Follow the money: Where in the process is money (or time) being spent – either directly or indirectly? What value is being received from that expenditure? Is it worth it? Are there other ways to receive the same results, but with less money (or time)?
- Ask the people: Who are the key stakeholders involved along the entire process? How do they influence the process? Take the time to interview all of the key stakeholders to get their understanding of the process, recommendations they have, and connect what they state to the time and money put into the process. End-users can be particularly important as their value expectation should weigh most heavily.
- What else is out there: Are there other groups inside or outside of your organization doing something similar? Try to look at their process and learn if some of that process would benefit what you do.
- Putting it all together to innovate: Armed with all of this new information, lay out what you think the new process could look like – even listing some different alternatives for each step along the way. Again, a workflow diagram will be helpful with this. Then get some feedback from relevant stakeholders to find out what they think. Where are the gaps? What did you miss? Then insert the new feedback and create a final first draft.
- Test it out: Where possible, test something in a small way to verify it works as desired and then adjust as needed. Once ready, implement the process with less time and money being spent.
This is the process that I use and try to keep to it as much as possible when analyzing a process. With so many people now working remotely, shifting to virtual platforms, cutting out travel, and canceling programs, there is tremendous opportunity to reevaluate, overhaul, innovate, and improve current practices and processes to – hopefully – be more effective and more efficient.
What are the ways you or your organization are innovating?
We are in a unique time and life today seems a lot different than it did just a few short weeks or months ago. One of those changes is that the entire country – almost overnight – made a push for folks to work from home.
While I normally work from home throughout the week, also having my wife at home was a glimpse into what many are going through right now – trying to work from home for the first time. This can be a difficult transition and it is not made easier when people may also have to take care of kids or other factors that take up their time.
However, this ‘new normal’ will likely be here to stay throughout the rest of March, April, and likely May – at least. Since we all have to figure out how to make it work, I thought about what we can do to make the most of our time. There are alternatives to solely focusing on watching every video on the internet…
- Education: There are a number of free resources for taking classes online – even more within the last week. This is a great opportunity to learn something new. Anyone want to go to Harvard?
- Certifications: This could also be a way to look into something that will give you the edge. It could be a great opportunity to find the right certification for you.
- Resume: Even if you are not currently looking for a job or think you will be in the near future, there is no downside to having an up-to-date resume. The same goes for making sure your LinkedIn profile is in top-notch shape.
- Fitness: Take care of yourself! I will try not to get on a soapbox here, but nothing is stopping (most) anyone from taking a walk or run outside. Can’t get to the gym? You Are Your Own Gym is the way to go.
- Spirituality: This will mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. However you view spirituality, take a moment to get centered, be thankful for what you have, and focus on what is most important.
- Friends: We can all take the time to email, text, call, video call, FaceTime, group chat, online hangout, or whatever your flavor may be. This will be just as fulfilling to you as the person or people you connect with.
It is time to put down the remote and get some work done…
What are some ways you have tried to be productive during the quarantine?
I recently had several different conversations about Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, and found that I never wrote a blog about it. The conversations led me to review my notes and it brought back all the reasons why I enjoyed the book. It also made me realize that I had forgotten several important concepts. For this post, I want to focus on the three items that stood out to me when I first read the book. I will save a full review for another post. I would absolutely recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the topics of leadership and change.
- Low-Effort Syndrome: Out of all the topics and ideas covered in the book, this one stood out as the most specifically impactful one to me. I absolutely suffer from this syndrome. This is the concept that we tend to take care of the generally less important and easy actions first in order to avoid the hard stuff. As soon as I read this it hit me like a ton of bricks. While I know and am confident that I am a hard worker, I also know that – when I am lacking motivation for almost any reason – I will start working on the easy action items to prevent myself from having to address the tough ones. I am in what is probably the busiest time in my life and I regularly see myself caught in this situation. Since I reread my notes, I have made an effort to keep track of this and take a moment for a deep breath to refocus my efforts on what is most urgent and important.
- Groupthink: In the book’s discussion of groupthink, I began thinking of it as a funnel where – simply based on ideas that may be mentioned first – dissent diminishes and the team stops thinking critically. I have always tried to take the “devil’s advocate” approach to make sure and always look at things from another side. More recently, I have also advocated for a “Red Team” type of approach to make sure every side is looked at.
- Talent Mindset: From the book, a talent mindset is when talent is worshipped as a set skill. Enron is used as the example – they would select the best “talent” and fire whoever was at the bottom when it came time to review performance. While I do believe we have some natural strengths, talent is something that can be generated based on hard work. By assuming talent is static, we will likely overlook the excellent potential in those around us. As a leader, I always try to push the skills and abilities of those on my team, while also monitoring their own mindset to see if they believe they can improve.
While these were the three topics that stood out to me right now, the book is full of so many excellent ideas that I will likely end up writing another blog post with additional important topics.
What things do you do to avoid the low-effort syndrome?
Strategy has been a major topic for me over the past few weeks. I am working to finalize my company’s midyear strategy update and also facilitated a career strategy session for a group of military spouses. Working on both projects at once helped me to look at strategy from different perspectives.
I look at strategy as the plan of action that gets me from where I am now to my ultimate goal(s). It is a fluid process that can – and will – change on a regular basis, but a well laid out plan helps to keep me prepared for when those changes happen.
My process has come together through years of practice – with trial and error helping to make refinements. Before getting started, it is important that you understand where you want to go – your goal. Without knowing this, developing a strategy is not the best use of your time.
- To get started in developing a strategy, I like to know as much information as possible. This means doing a lot of research and asking a lot of questions. Below are examples of the types of questions I ask myself.
- Is what I want to do feasible? This is an important question because if the circumstances will not allow you to find success, it is best to know early and move on.
- Understand the why of the goal. What is the background of the project? Why is this the specific goal? What is the purpose?
- What are the specific items I need to research?
- What are the hurdles that I will likely face?
- What are the resources I will need?
- Who are the people I should speak to in order to learn more or receive help?
- What are others doing?
- What are the built-in milestones?
- Once I have completed the initial research, I revisit the question of whether the goal is feasible.
- After moving on from the research phase, I create my checklist of action items. This also includes adding in the built-in milestones. I try to make this as detailed as possible to prevent missing a step. For me, multiple steps also help with motivation as checking items off a list keeps pushing me forward.
- With my checklist in hand, I begin putting due dates in that keep me on target. Without deadlines, it is harder to prioritize all of the projects on my plate. It is also the motivation to do a little extra work each day.
- Another important aspect of the timeline is making sure that I do not get stuck in the “now” mentality. This means avoiding the feeling of having to do everything at once. I try to separate items into three categories:
- Things that have to be done immediately (today, tomorrow, this week)
- What needs to be done once the initial elements are completed
- The last items to be completed
- Throughout the creation and implementation process, I prepare myself to be flexible and adapt as things change. A single change will affect the entire plan, but having the plan is what helps me review, revise and then move forward.
Once I put all of the elements together, I like to review and game out the entire scenario. That helps me to tweak things, research anything new that has come up, and fully understand what needs to be done. Then it is time to get to work!
What are elements of the strategy process that help you put together your plan? Please list them in a comment below.
I recently spoke on a panel regarding my career and how living overseas has impacted my options. During my preparation, and referenced in my speech, I thought about how volunteering is a big aspect of my life. The idea of giving back is a core value of mine that was instilled in me from a young age by my parents and was further solidified as a lifelong obligation once I became a member of Sigma Nu Fraternity. While giving to others and the community is an important aspect of life, personal benefits can and should be taken away from those experiences. Following the panel discussion, I spoke with several individuals about leveraging that volunteer experience to specifically add value to one’s career.
There are tangible benefits that come with volunteering. I have written about this idea before, but now I want to get into greater detail. Below is a breakdown of the business/career related benefits I have witnessed and/or received through volunteering:
- Interpersonal skills: With each new organization and event, volunteering exposes you to a variety of people along all measures of diversity. Being able to effectively communication and build relationships in this capacity is excellent practice for speaking to customers and coworkers.
- Networking: Along with interpersonal skills, the same people you come into contact with offer a great opportunity to share what you do and learn about them. These are connections that you would not have otherwise made and likely vary from your current network.
- Time management: Adding time commitments to your schedule forces you to review how you spend that time. This is great practice for when work becomes more hectic due to increased responsibilities. Managing your time effectively requires practice.
- Leadership: This is one of the best potential benefits from volunteering. Overall, I think leading a volunteer group can often times be more difficult than a work group because many of the same incentives for individuals to follow through are not there; such as not receiving a paycheck.
- Management: Effectively managing and organizing is a great takeaway and helpful because it is often done with a limited budget.
- Motivation: With no pay, new ways to motivate people must be found. Positivity and enthusiasm can go a long way, but the small things like recognizing others and creating small wins can help keep the ball rolling.
- Delegation: Being able to delegate and follow-up with people on different projects or aspects of projects is great practice for the workplace. It is about finding the balance between allowing someone the freedom to own their work and not letting deadlines fall by the wayside.
- Recruitment: Bringing in new people is an important aspect of volunteering, especially when looking for leaders. Seeking out the right people with the right skills at the right time is an important aspect of both the work world and for volunteers.
- Business Development: Whenever someone has had to do fundraising as a volunteer, it is quite similar to conducting business development for a company. You have to try to find individuals and companies with a connection and lead them down a path towards “making a sale.” There are clear differences in the two ideas, but the strategy behind them is quite similar.
- Problem solving: When volunteering, problem solving is often one of the most important skills to have across all levels of involvement because the solutions usually require a high level of creativity.
These are real benefits that can be taken away from volunteering. Taking on a leadership role only increases the opportunities. Using one’s skills when volunteering is a great way to give back and learn something new along the way.
Please share a time where you were able to use volunteer experience to benefit your career in a comment below.
One of my most recent projects has been to come up with a potential business strategy action plan for 2017. I was challenged to come up with new ideas and potential avenues to pursue this year with a focus on major initiatives. The idea was to think of anything and everything that could be implemented to grow the business. I jumped in and was pretty happy with the listing that I was able to compile. Once it was done, I tried to think about my process and if there was any way to become more efficient. Below is a breakdown of my process:
- Idea Waterfall: This is where I generally start. I don’t have a plan, I just start thinking of ideas and writing them down. There is no method, just madness. I think of all kinds of outlandish ideas across all areas of the business. The motto during this phase is why not? It doesn’t matter if the idea doesn’t necessarily fit within the context of this specific strategy session because those ideas can always be used later. Plus, those ideas may spark something from someone else on the team. It is just important to get all the ideas down.
- Focus: Once all of the ideas are written down, I go back to the beginning and look specifically at the short-term goals of the company. The idea here is to start setting parameters.
- Deep Dive: Once the short-term goals have been defined, go back and start thinking of more focused ideas that fit within that basic framework.
- Long Game: Next, I start looking through a long-term lens. It is important to make sure short-term gains don’t come at the expense of the company’s future. This means separating out short-term actions that likely create long-term problems. It also includes listing ideas that would take a long time to come to fruition.
- Talk it out: I like to walk around and present my ideas back to myself. In doing so, I am able to see the holes that need to be filled, any potential flaws and become better at conveying the idea.
- Organize: With everything listed out, it is time to start organizing everything into a format that is easy to convey to others.
- Feedback: Present your ideas and solicit feedback. Make sure everything is recorded and review it later to add to the list, refine ideas, remove any potential issues and begin creating a final draft.
All of this comes down to thinking about big ideas and I believe that often comes from the smallest of beginnings. I am fascinated with the creative process and it excites me when I am challenged to deliver. I believe creativity and problem-solving are some of my greatest strengths, so I enjoy the opportunities when I get to put them into practice.
What are ways you approach having to come up with new ideas? Please share in a comment below.
Motivation is a topic that is constantly on my mind. For the past few weeks, my motivation has not been at its normally high level. It could be from getting over not feeling well, returning from a long trip, the holidays, a few work items not coming together or some combination of multiple factors. Either way, I must find a way to get back into my normal grove of high productivity though consistent motivation.
I know I am not the only one who struggles with motivation, so I compiled the top three actions that work for me to help get and stay motivated. Hopefully these can help others do the same.
- Start with a routine: For me, part of motivation is about staying on track and reducing the amount of mental energy needed to get “in the zone.” This means creating a routine that allows me to auto-pilot certain activities. The easiest one is right when I get up; get dressed, eat breakfast, read the news and check for any important personal emails. This takes about thirty minutes, but allows me to feel ready to go and helps to knock out the small items that can usually distract me. After that, I can usually get several hours of work done without missing a beat. The fact that I work remotely presents additional distractions, but that is a different topic.
- Finding a reset: After those few focused hours, my mental cup begins to overflow a little and I need to find a way to reset to get back on track. Working from home, I will often do something small around the house; dishes, laundry, a snack, work on a personal project, etc. Once I accomplish that small item, I am ready to return my focus back on work with a fresh set of eyes. There are also times that I need a larger reset, such as after a big call or meeting and writing the follow-up notes. For this, I often go to the gym, have lunch, call a friend or family member, etc. Then I get the drive back to finish off the day. The important aspect of this is doing a singular task that makes it easy to immediately go back to work.
- Accomplishing a goal: One of my greatest keys to staying motivated is setting goals and achieving them. These will range from small to large. The small ones can simply be getting through all of my emails in the first hour of work or checking off my scheduled activities throughout the day. The large ones could be completing a project by the end of the week. Once I accomplish a goal, I feel better about what I am doing and am able to keep my focus until the next accomplishment.
Finally, as an additional element, I believe that time management and heavy involvement help keep me on track. Besides what I wrote above, keeping myself busy with different endeavors (work, volunteering, hobbies, exercise, community involvement, etc.) keeps my mind focused. By having multiple types of responsibilities, I am able to stay motivated and manage my time well because I am not having to focus my motivation in the same direction all the time. I regularly have fresh items that need my attention. I have to make sure I don’t over extend myself, but that is just a matter of finding the right balance.
Please share what helps you stay motivated in a comment below.