Efficiency and Effectiveness

When it comes to how I think about projects, the two words that I have always used to define my approach are efficiency and effectiveness. These ideas have been a major focus of my style for over a decade and were born of the idea of how can we do this better

To make sure we are all on the same page, I have provided a brief summary of how I define both concepts.

  • Efficiency: The reduction of wasted work/effort to the greatest degree possible.
  • Effectiveness:  Ensuring that the desired result is achieved to the greatest degree possible.

I recently had to describe my approach and it made me think to actually write it out for a blog post. My goal was to clearly define the process for myself, but also create a framework for others to use if they find it useful. It should be noted that I am writing this as if I was coming into a project already in place, but the process also holds true when creating something from the ground up.

  • Workflow: To fully understand how something is being done, I like to start by putting together a workflow diagram to visualize the process. In order to put together an accurate workflow, I try to interview anyone who impacts the process being undertaken. My goal is to cover two key ideas – the current state and ideal state. The current state provides an understanding of what they do now and the ideal state allows them to provide suggestions for doing it better. Getting ideal state information from those who do the work is – to me – the lowest hanging fruit you can get for ideas to improve a process. Once all of this is compiled, a clear workflow diagram can be put together. If not, that means I need to either interview more people or a real problem has been identified. With a workflow diagram in hand, it is helpful to then observe the actual work going on to make sure the map is accurate. If it is not, amend as needed, but also note why there were any discrepancies.
  • Hierarchy and Reporting Structure: In addition to the workflow, understanding the organization’s hierarchy and reporting structure also plays a key role in efficiency and effectiveness. The two are not always the same and do not necessarily need to be – it can vary greatly depending on the circumstances and organizational structure. However, it is important they are logically laid out in an organized format for the benefit of that organization. The movie Office Space perfectly highlights the issue of when this is not the case.
  • Process Improvement: Once these items have been mapped out – based on the current state questions – I look to see if there are any obvious improvements to be made. I have worked with a lot of groups that do not look at this regularly, so old and new processes get merged over time, and inefficiencies can get overlooked. I then start looking at the ideal state information and examples of how those actually involved in the process think it can be improved. I also bring my own experience to bear to find other areas for improvement.
  • People: People are a huge factor when it comes to increasing efficiency and effectiveness. The right people have to be on the team and motivation needs to be kept high. This allows for the two factors to be kept consistent and at a high level. The wrong people – and by wrong people I mean those with the wrong attitude – can quickly derail the situation.
  • Innovative (Spirit of Innovation): Going along with people, a general spirit of innovation must be present. This means having the policies and procedures in place, as well as a culture, where people know they can voice ideas or concerns, and that they will be heard and their comments appreciated. To me, that is the most basic element of innovation. Higher-order levels of innovation can certainly be put in place though, such as everyone spending 10% of their time on their own projects and/or working to improve an area of operation – but that is a different story. All of these require intentional decisions by an organization’s leadership.
  • Bringing It All Together: Finally, there is making sure everything comes together well – an organization’s secret sauce. There are a lot of articles written about excellent companies, but it is difficult to copy their success. Case and point, the book Built to Last by Jim Collins – a book that made a big impact on me early in my career – is not a checklist of items to form a successful company. There has to be something else. Each group must find its own secret sauce to make their organization work efficiently and effectively. However, when everything does sync up, it can be very special.

As I regularly mention, I am a process guy, so it helps me to have this all laid out. However, I want to emphasize the point that this process changes slightly every time I do it because of the unique nature of each project. When looking to do this on your own, always be ready to adapt and adjust to your unique situation.

What are the things your organization does to keep efficiency and effectiveness at a high level?

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Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

I just finished the book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp and I am struggling to clearly define my feelings on the Design Sprint process. First and foremost, I cannot disagree that wonderful ideas and products have come out of teams using the Sprint process. The idea that I am struggling with is if it is truly a design process or, rather, a reactive process to better focus/refine work that is already being done. Early on in the book, it is noted that the author draws from both Lean and Agile practices, which it clearly does, but I feel both of these practices are about starting from the beginning. The examples used in the book felt like they were all ideas or products already in the works, like the hotel robot and fitness app, but had not found the right next step – like specific functionality or a target market. I also felt like there were some contradictions, like stating a prototype is better than an MVP, but then they gave examples of building a website using simple presentation software – essentially an MVP.

Again, I love the idea of a Design Sprint. I am a process guy and really like how it is clearly laid out with well-defined objectives for each day. To me, it is the clearly defined process that is the Design Sprint’s greatest strength. To help me lay out my thoughts and maybe figure out how I would use a sprint, I have written out the pros and cons – as I see them – below:

Pros – Things that I really liked about the process:

  • As I said above, I think the level of detail provided for the five-day process is a massive benefit to help drive success. This helps make it easier for non-process people to simply follow the instructions. It also acts as an accountability measure as facilitators can easily point back to the process to stave off folks who are pushing against the process and/or an idea.
  • Making sure that all the key stakeholders are in the room is fantastic. Functional managers, decision-makers, etc. By having all of the relevant voices in the room, especially decision-makers, it helps to reduce the chances of hitting a roadblock down the line.
  • Sprints allow for quick repetitions to continue the learnings from the previous week. If the prototype completely fails with the five interviewees, the team will have at least learned why, and then be able to adapt and refine those items for the following week. Spending a week, two weeks, or even a month is likely far less time than some organizations are currently burning up on developing/refining new ideas.
  • The Design Sprint process pulls some of the best elements from the Lean and Agile processes to quickly find solutions that will lead to a satisfied customer and are therefore more likely to find scalable success.
  • An element that was addressed really well was dealing with potential conflict areas, possible groupthink, and avoiding bias. It really came through that these best practices were learned through trial and error – with the process continuously being improved with each iteration.

Cons – Things that stood out as not ideal:

  • The first thing that really stood out to me is that the book clearly draws from Lean principles, but does not address the most important idea of starting with customer discovery – identifying a customer’s hair on fire problem before developing a solution. Sprints seem like a reactive process to not finding initial success, and needing to find a small pivot, rather than a proactive approach.
  • Key assumptions are made from Monday to Thursday. That time is wasted if you only learn that on Friday – even if the interviews yield information for a small pivot.
  • Only five interviews make me feel nervous if there is not a clear next step to verify the information with additional potential customers.
  • Finally, I believe each example given in the book depended on a large amount of work having already been done before the Sprint came into the picture. None of the examples seemed to really be pure design. It seems more fine-tuning to get the right fit before launching.

As I look back at my notes, I feel the main issue I keep coming back to is the idea that a Sprint is meant for an idea that has already been started. It is not a design process that starts with a truly blank slate. There are a number of assumptions made on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and this would be the case whether it was the very start of an idea or with a team that has already started building.

So, I started thinking about what I would do to address my concerns before conducting my own Sprint. Right now, the process is laid out like this:

As a firm believer in Lean principles, I think more preliminary analysis, understanding, and customer discovery in needed to increase the chances for success – faster. Below is the addition of an initial week to add in more customer discovery, but following the same timeline and processes set in place for the standard Sprint: (click to enlarge)

As I write this, I fully understand no one can control certain factors about getting interviews and even the interviews a team would get on those two days would not be able to fully validate anything. However, it would at least present a firmer foundation to launch the Sprint and could potentially involve fewer resources (people) throughout the week to reduce the impact. It should also be noted that if the first five interviews on the standard Sprint fail an extra week is going to be added anyway.

At the end of the day, I do really like the Design Sprint idea and approach. It has clearly been very successful for many different companies. I just look at it and think there are ways to make it an even more powerful tool for an organization to use.

What do you think? Are there other ideas for improving the Sprint approach?

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Crisis or Opportunity?

doors-1587329_1920I 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?

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Put Down the Remote: Being Productive While Quarantined

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?

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Mindset

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?

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Strategy – Your Plan of Action

strategy-791197_1920Strategy 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.

The Process:

  • 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.

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The Business Side of Volunteering

volunteer-1326758_1280I 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.

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