Be intentional!

Too much on your plate? Feeling busy and overwhelmed? Getting nowhere fast?

It might be a good time to pause, take a deep breath, rethink what’s a top priority and what isn’t. It might be a good time to become more intentional about how you spend your time and energy and what you pay attention to.

It’s all too easy to add stuff to your plate (or get it added by someone else). We start to get busy, and the busier we get, the more we focus on ‘getting stuff done’, rather than thinking about what outcomes we want to achieve and how we can best get there. The more we get into that ‘busyness’, the less time we have to stop, pause, think, and the more ‘normal’ the tactical busyness feels. Ever noticed when you come back from a vacation and you are so much more organized and focused, only to fall back to seemingly random busy-work after a week or two? That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

Heck, it might even give us comfort and validation to ‘be busy’. However, busyness is not the same as impact. Busyness is not the same as achievement. Busyness is not the same as providing value. It’s just busyness, nothing else. If you want to make a change, if you want to make ’a dent in the universe’ as the silicon valley types like to say, you need to be intentional about where and how you invest yourself. Busyness is not a value. It’s a cost. Outcome and impact are the values.

Don’t be busy, be impactful!

So how do you get more intentional? Start with gaining clarity on what outcomes you want to achieve and what actions will be most impactful to get there. Then invest your time intentionally in those outcomes and actions. Don’t just go with the flow.

Here are some examples:

Meetings – Decide if a meeting provides value to what you want to achieve and if you can provide value to the meeting and group. Then go or don’t go. If you go, you must make it worth your time and everyone else’s time. Don’t just hang around in the meeting. Don’t multi-task – it doesn’t work anyway. Turn your webcam on for virtual meetings. Be there and engage. If you don’t feel the meeting is important to you, better invest your time in something else and avoid dragging down the energy of the whole group.

Tasks and emails – When you go through tasks and emails, force yourself to be focused. Limit the time you have available for those tasks. You will see that allotting a limited amount of time to getting something done will make you more focused, more efficient, and happier. It will also avoid that you keep working on something beyond the point of diminishing returns (remember the 80:20 rule). Give yourself a challenging time limit, and then force yourself to get all planned work done in the allocated time. Don’t allow any distractions – single-task!

Working after hours – Sometimes we need to get something done in time for a deadline, and work will bleed into the evening or weekend. Those should be the very rare exceptions, though. Be aware of and intentional about those exceptions. Know why you make them if you decide to make them. Don’t let working in the evening become a habit just because you did it the previous evening. It’s easy to get sucked into bad habits if you don’t observe closely what you’re doing. Today there’s a lot of excitement about being always connected, about moving in and out of work and private times, and blended models. I may be old-school, but I don’t believe in that. If you take your work home and don’t set boundaries, you disservice yourself and your loved ones. Be fully at work when you’re at work, and forget all about work when you’re not!

Downtime – This is so critical for our balanced well-being! Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Be conscious and intentional about taking downtimes. Plan them, appreciate them, and protect them. Don’t feel bad for not doing anything (‘do nothing days’ are a real thing). However, don’t waste your downtimes either. Don’t get lost in browsing the web or playing video games. There is a huge difference between planned downtime, or me-time, and mindless procrastination. Don’t get me wrong, if you like videogames, that’s awesome. Enjoy them for the time period that you have decided to spend on them. However, don’t find yourself looking at your clock, wondering where the time has gone, and feeling guilty about it. Being intentional avoids feeling guilty.

Family and friends – Put that smartphone down! Tug away your work problems! Listen, share and engage! Don’t let anything distract you from paying attention to your loved ones during the time you spend with them. It might be annoying at times (yes, let’s be honest, distractions from our kids can be annoying), it might go against your planned task, but you won’t’ regret it in the long run. The number one wish of people in nursing homes is to have spent more time with loved ones. Having gotten more tasks done never comes up in those conversations.

Be intentional about what you do and how you spent your time. You will have more impact, and you will be happier.


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Dare to fail, dare to lose

Today I’m going to talk about a difficult subject: daring to fail.

It’s a difficult subject because deep down, no one wants to fail, no one want’s to lose, and no one wants to look stupid. We all want to shine, be flawless, and be the hero that saves the day all the time (at least I do, if I’m honest).

However, that’s not how things work. You have to take risks if you want to achieve something. If you play everything safe, you won’t get anywhere.

Every day in life, we are presented with new but scary opportunities, times where we should speak up, or situations where we would love to try out a new approach. However, often we’re scared to fail, to lose something along the process, or to just be embarrassed in front of others. The truth is, if you are too scared of negative outcomes or of losing something, you won’t move forward. Being too scared leads to analysis paralysis, endless discussions of the same topic, and ultimately decision aversion.

We need to remind ourselves that very few decisions are as critical as they feel to us. Our minds are primed to focus and over-index on the risk and negative – after all, for our ancestors, the impact of being eaten by a lion was much more dramatic than the impact of losing out on juicy fruit. Being overly scared made our species survive in the early days when we were some of the weakest animals out there. There are very few real dangers to us in today’s world, and we need to make sure that our minds don’t apply live-or-die frameworks to much more mundane decisions. We need to make a conscious effort to see the opportunity and the positive instead of being paralyzed by perceived risks.

Sometimes it helps to ask yourself what could really go wrong if you make a wrong decision. In most situations, the outcome is far less dramatic than what our subconsciousness wants us to believe. Most decisions we are making are reversible, and very few have a life and death impact.

Put things into perspective and move forward!

Embrace risk, be bold, and contribute to your full potential: voice your opinion, take the leap and try out the new process, push back against authority if the facts are on your side, don’t let the loud voices in a meeting (or email thread) drown you out, make bold decisions that move things forward (you can always test it in a pilot if you’re not sure)! Don’t wait, don’t fall prey to analysis paralysis!

Looking at my personal experience, I was always the best, most effective, and received the most positive feedback when I didn’t worry about losing. When I felt I had nothing to lose, I made the best contributions and had the biggest impact. In a nutshell, I was most valuable to the team when I was willing to lose everything. In times when I was scared to fail or worried about the future impact, I ended up not contributing much at all, as I was waiting things out, trying to determine where the safest path would be. Leaps forward always happened to me in times where I was most willing to embrace risk.

As many of you know, I’ve been practicing martial arts for many decades, and one of the key principles that stuck we me from early on is this:

You cannot win if you’re not willing to die.

That sounds extreme, but to put it in words that are more fitting for modern times, if you are not ready to lose (everything), your mind will hold you back. Your moves will be half-hearted and not bold enough, and your mind and heart will not be fully into it.

My martial arts teacher used to say:

There is no half-pregnant. Either you do it, or you don’t.

Dare to be bold, dare to take risks, dare to lead!


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Achieve your desired outcome!

How much time do you spend in meetings? For me, it’s currently 57% of my working time (yes, I do track how I spend my time as I make it a point to be intentional about where I put my time and energy). Even if it’s not quite as much for you, I’m sure you spend a LOT of time in meetings. As that’s the case, we better make that time count, right!?

How many times have you been in a meeting where folks talked for an hour, but at the end of the allocated time, you were just at the same point where you started from. It was unclear who was doing what next, and after a few days, the memory of whatever was discussed in the meeting faded away as well.

In our roles as meeting organizers or meeting attendees, we are all empowered and responsible for changing that – to make meetings effective, actionable, and worth the time we spend in them. Instead of wasting your time in a meeting that doesn’t drive change and action, you would better spend that time with your kids, puppy, or taking an office nap. Seriously!

Hold yourself and others accountable for more effective meetings, regardless of whether you are the organizer or ‘just’ an attendee. It’s your’s and everyone else’s time – make it count!

You need to make two fundamental changes to get more effective meetings: 1) move from agenda-driven to action-driven and 2) track decisions and progress and don’t let people slip back.

Here is what we all need to do to get there – if you are the meeting organizer, you need to build this into the meeting; if you are an attendee, you need to hold the meeting organizer accountable for these.

  • State the desired outcome at the beginning – Most meetings have agendas (don’t even get me started about large group meetings without an agenda). However, agendas only tell us what we want to talk about, not what we want to achieve. And in many of those meetings, there is a lot of talking but not much achievement. Drop the classical agenda and instead list desired outcomes for your meeting. Don’t call out what topic you want to talk about but instead what the group must have achieved by the end of the meeting. If someone submits an agenda topic to you, ask them: “What do you want to achieve with your agenda topic?” Instead of “Discuss project plan.” add “Agreed on and locked milestone dates for Phase 1 tasks.” to your meeting plan.
  • Allocate time – Allocate time and manage time for each of the desired outcomes. Drive to and force decision and closure on the desired outcome within the allocated time. Be really, really, really resistant against not achieving a desired outcome in the given time. It should pain you personally. Sometimes it happens, but it should be the rare exception, not the norm. If you didn’t achieve the outcome, you wasted everyone’s time. Having allocated time for desired outcomes will help you reign people back in if they go on a tangent or enjoy themselves on rat-holing or side-conversations on a topic that’s not material for the desired outcome.
  • Take action notes – Take action notes during the discussion and share them with meeting attendees in real-time as you take them. Let them watch you type. Action notes are different from verbatim notes – they focus on the critical outcomes of the meeting, not what everyone has said. Focus your action notes on: 1) decisions and decision reasons, 2) action items, 3) follow-ups and open questions, 4) risks and concerns, and 5) critical facts and findings. If you want verbatim tracking, record the meeting. If you want to drive progress, make and share action notes. Always remember: “She who takes the notes controls the meeting!” (trust me, it’s true).
  • Close by summarizing action items – Summarize all action items at the end of the meeting. Remember that it’s only an action item if it has an owner and a date. That means one (!) owner and a specific date (not a quarter or month). If an action item doesn’t have a date and owner, it’s not an action item – it’s wishful thinking.
  • Make it real – Send out notes and action items right after the meeting. Like culture eats strategy for breakfast (Peter Drucker), timely raw notes beat well formatted but delayed minutes every single time. Remember that it’s not about beauty; it’s about driving action! As a matter of fact, in most cases, less well-formatted notes are more effective than pretty ones in sophisticated templates (however, don’t make them ugly and hard to read either!). You can thank digital marketing for that – it has trained us to ignore emails that look too pretty as they remind us of marketing newsletters and sales pitches right away. If you want to drive action, have your notes and action items directly in the email instead of an attachment and have bullet points for what needs to be done right on the top. You can still add a nicely formatted template attachment if you want, but know that what will drive action is what you put in the body of the email. Also, don’t underestimate the importance of timeliness – to be honest, I never even skim notes for a meeting that has occurred a few days ago – it’s just not relevant to my current context anymore.
  • Check back in – All throughout life, the difference between success and failed attempts lies in the follow-through. The same is true for action items – if you don’t follow through on them, you teach people that you are not really serious about them, and they can safely ignore whatever task was assigned to them. Make it a point to revisit project deadlines and action item progress at the beginning of every meeting. If you don’t, you might as well not assign them in the first place. If you have a well-functioning and high-performing project team, everyone will feel accountable for their own action items, and you might not need to check-in anymore. However, be aware that it will take a long time for the team to work together to get to that point.

Walk away from meetings that are not action-driven. Yes, really do! Don’t just pretend to be there while doing something else on the side – that would just encourage the bad meeting behaviors.

In closing, I want to be honest – I’m an introvert, so I really don’t enjoy large groups where everyone is just talking for talking’s sake. That makes me a little biased with regards to meeting efficiency. Just saying…


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Perceived constraints

constraints

Let me begin with a little story

A while ago, I read a story about how elephants are trained not to run away from their owners.

What the trainers do is tie elephants up with chains while they are young and weak. The young elephants learn quickly that they cannot break the chains or tear down the walls they are tied to. They are too small and too weak.

Later, as they grow up, those same elephants tear down walls and lug around trees all day long. However, they continue to obey their chains even though they could easily snap them.

Why do those mighty animals not run away towards greener pastures? Well, they learned a long time ago that they could not break the chains, and they stopped trying.

How does this apply to all of us?

Have you ever heard: “We tried that before.” or “This is how we always did it.” or “This could create a problem.”?

All of the above are forms of perceived constraints. We think something won’t work, but we haven’t actually tried it (or even given it a deep thought). It even might not have worked in the past, but well, guess what, the world changes – all the time.

What didn’t work in the past might be one of the greatest ideas today. Does anyone remember how Steve Balmer was convinced that phones without a keyboard wouldn’t sell? That was true at a time, but when Balmer made that statement, it was long expired.

We often limit ourselves by what we think are constraints – but are they really constraints? Do they need to be?

Some of the constraints we see are real. However, most will turn out to be learned or assumed.

Don’t hold yourself back by what you think are your constraints. Never stop re-visiting, never stop trying, never stop looking for new data or changed circumstances.

It is critical to understand your constraints. However, which of them are real, and which of them need some poking and testing to see if they still apply? Always ask what underlying factors drove those constraints and if those factors still apply. Do you have new solutions (new technology, skills, people, changed policy) at your disposal that might circumvent those previous constraints?

Of course, there are hard and real constraints as well – I can jump out the window as often as I want, I will not grow wings and start flying. However, for every constraint (or challenge) that you face, you need to clearly determine if it’s perceived or real.

If it’s perceived, discard it right away and move on. If it’s real, think about how you can work with or around that constraint.

If you face a real constraint, come up with a plan to deal with it:

  • Blocking scope – What specifically is that constraint blocking? Part of what you want to achieve or all? If it’s just a part, get started with the things you can do and take it from there.
  • Underlying drivers – What is causing that constraint? Can it be negotiated, even just for a small experiment?
  • Risk versus benefit – What would happen if you would give up the constraint? What could go wrong, what’s the worst case? Is it really so bad that you need to give up the improvement opportunity?
  • Be creative – Is there a way around a specific constraint? Can you develop a different solution to overcome the constraint?

On the point about me jumping out the window and trying to fly – if I were smart, I could take advantage of new technologies like a nice parachute.

Discard perceived constraints. Respect real constraints and work with them.


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Amazon’s PR FAQs – My tips and tricks

For my Amazon friends: I stumbled upon my old notes on how to write strong PR FAQs.

They are still true and trusted – not only for the specific Amazon PR FAQ document, but more generally for business communication that is targeted to convey a complex idea and convince people of it’s merits (e.g. strategy proposals, business plans).

Start from the WHY!!

  • Get your numbers early! If you have placeholders, you don’t have a business case. You might think you have one but you don’t know! It’s about numbers, not wishful thinking and assumptions.
  • Get the problem statement right! Until you have that, nothing else makes sense. Once you have it, everything else falls in place.

The ONE thing!

  • Focus on the core, the most important thing. There will be many things that you want to achieve – focus on the one that matters the most, move everything else to the appendix. I know it hurts, but you have to do it!
  • Simplify and crisp up your story. Too much information distracts. Focus on the core benefit that you will provide and structure a logical story flow around that one benefit.
  • Data is key, too much data is a problem. Don’t throw in all the data you have, present the data that is critical to enable smart decision making. If you add data that doesn’t support decision making you will only confuse and distract everyone. You will also demonstrate that you don’t know what you’re doing.

Increasing layers of detail and refinement.

  • Follow the Journalistic Pyramid. Your story must be clear and convincing in the first paragraph. Everything after that adds additional layers of detail and perspective. Try reading a newspaper article – if you read it top down you can stop at any point and you will get the most important information. If you read bottom up that won’t work. The most important information is at the top, additional supportive information is at the bottom. Structure your thinking and writing the same way.
  • Develop your story top down. Likewise get feedback on your story in that layered way. First establish alignment on the problem statement. Then come back and do the same on the bullet points of your solution approach. Finally, and only then, start writing narrative and FAQs. If you try to do all at the same time you will spend a LOT of time and energy in completely re-writing your doc several times.
  • What questions are asked in early reviews? Write them down, those are either things you need to fix in your PR, or they will serve as excellent questions for the FAQ.

Don’t waste the reviewer’s time.

  • Be clear about the state at which your thinking is. If you want to solidify the problem statement, be clear about that and ONLY bring the problem statement. Once you need structural feedback, bring bullet points, not the narrative. When those are ready, only then start writing narrative. It’s super frustrating to review narrative, if you’re not even sure you understand and agree with the problem that is to be solved. Set proper expectations for everyone in the room (including yourself) or everyone will be frustrated! Don’t bring a narrative if you’re not yet clear on the problem statement or structure – it simply doesn’t work.
  • Implement the feedback!! Nothing is frustrating me more than if I spend 30-60 mins to give thoughtful feedback on a document, only to see that it was ignored in the next version. At points I played with the thought of just leaving a review meeting when I see that – I think in the future I will. If you ask for feedback, you MUST work on it. If you don’t want feedback, don’t ask for it and don’t waste people’s time (good luck though with that approach, you better be extra-smart).

Think big, think backwards!

  • Don’t think forward, don’t think incrementally. That is the hardest one, but it’s also what makes Amazon what it is. We all are trained to think forward and incrementally by the previous jobs and companies we worked in. We know what we have, and we think what we can add to it in order to make it better. Don’t! Free yourself from what you have, and think about where you want to be with your product in 3 years. If you would be starting from a green field, what would you build? Don’t think about how you can make your car float if you actually need to buy a boat. It’s hard, but this is the key to being successful at Amazon and in your career.
  • Gather data, then form an opinion. Get lots of inputs, data and opinions from stakeholders, partners and users. Listen to their thoughts, reflect upon them, let them influence your opinion. Then lock down and go do. Don’t try to write a document that makes everyone happy, write a document that YOU think is right and addresses the most important problems and points. Identify the point in the process at which your opinion counts the most – it’s your document and idea – and everyone else only has inputs. Identify the point where brainstorming and seeking alignment ends, and you start owning a document, setting a bold vision and leading change.

Writing PR FAQs is a muscle.

  • Like any muscle, it needs to be exercised to be developed. Write early, write often. Write documents that you only review with your peers or your manager. You don’t want the first document that you ever write be one that goes straight to a VP or SVP (unless you love to be in a world of pain).
  • It’s not about the document, it’s about the thinking. We don’t write PR FAQs to produce pretty papers. We don’t review to show people how smart we as reviewers are. We do both to REFINE IDEAS. PR FAQs help us to explain an idea and then bring the best minds together to poke, polish and refine. Any given idea gets better through the review and debate process. It’s painful at times, but it’s always worth it.

Good luck and enjoy the intellectual challenge!


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.