How we decide on where to put our resources

A while back, I was asked in a 1:1 how one should decide where to put resources and effort.

There’s a pretty simple and basic framework to making those decisions, and it all comes down to ROI (Return on Investment): getting the most value out of the resources you are able to invest. This applies to decisions large and small: what product to purchase, what project to prioritize, how to plan your time.

While the framework is simple, it’s worth reminding us of it and bringing it top of mind for our daily decisions. Some of us are instinctively (or through years of training) following that model; others might consider putting a post-it note on their desk as a reminder.

ROI: the balance of Opportunity and Cost

  • Opportunity – The first decision criteria is the size of the Opportunity. If we do this project, if we buy this SW, what will we gain from it? What metrics will it change, and by how much? What is the impact on our overall operational cost? It comes down to quantifying the “Why” – and as you know, I am a big fan of always, always starting with the “Why”. Why do we do this, and what will we get out of it? How does that compare to other things we could do with our time? Steve Balmer used to say: “Show me the money!”
  • Cost – This one is easy: what does it cost to do the project? This includes headcount, fees, and future maintenance. We got all excited about the new opportunities and operational savings a solution will provide us, but what’s the flipside? What is the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) of implementing this new solution now and in the future?

Having Opportunity and Cost gives you the ROI. As a first cut, you should rank all projects by their ROI – Which one gives you the most bang for the buck? Where should you invest limited resources?

Criteria that might override the ROI decision

  • Feasibility (and timing) – Feasibility is the criteria that should be checked first: do we have the prerequisites to even do this project or implement the new SW? Do we have the resources, or are they booked in other efforts? Is now the right time for this, given the other priorities for the organization, or should this be planned for a different time?
  • Risk tolerance – Of course, there is also a different category of projects that you just have to do, and this is where Risk comes in. Some work is required for compliance (e.g., new regulations) or minimizing threat vectors (e.g., increased security measures). In these cases, risk tolerance becomes an additional input to the ROI equation. What’s the cost of exposure, and how likely is it? How much risk are we willing to tolerate for a better ROI in this project or for putting our resources into higher-ROI projects? How much are we willing to forgo high-ROI projects in order to avoid risk exposure. Unfortunately, this category isn’t a hard science and usually requires informed judgment calls.
  • Follow-through – The last important criteria to consider are follow-through and sunk cost. It’s easy to chase the new shiny object. However, if you do that before you finish a project that you already started, you are on the path to wasting a lot of resources and frustrating a lot of people. Switching priorities can be necessary in (very few) cases, but it usually comes at a high cost. Whenever possible, follow through and finish what you have started – don’t waste effort by frequently switching priorities. The big exception to that rule is when you learn that your initial assumptions were incorrect. For example, the benefit might not be as high as anticipated, feasibility might have turned out to be questionable, or cost might be skyrocketing. In those cases, you need to reassess the whole project ROI. As for investing, don’t cling to a losing stock only because you already have sent a lot of money on it.

While ROI is a fairly simple financial calculation, the criteria in this bucket are less quantifiable. In most cases, it comes down to looking at all the facts you can collect and making an informed decision and judgment call.

As you do so, make sure to document the man decision criteria for that judgment call so that you know to revisit your decision if any of those criteria should change further down the road.


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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

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Show, don’t tell – Tell, don’t ask

How do you make things real for your audience? How do you move complex work forward swiftly?

Easy: you go from wishful thinking to concrete and tangible. You “Show, don’t tell”, and you “Tell, don’t ask”.

The first quote is an old saying, and I’m sure you’ve heard it many times. I made up the second one, but I like it just as much.  😊  Here is what both of those approaches mean to me:

Show don’t tell

If you want to have an impact and drive action, it often matters more how you say something than what you say. As you try to convince your audience and convey your thoughts, you must make them clear and real for your listeners.

Make it specific – “Specifics eat generics for breakfast” (I made this one up as well). Be specific! Provide examples, explain the specific impact, concrete next steps, dates, and owner. Instead of “we are trying to complete the project through summer”, say “Sam will complete the exploration phase by July 15th, after which Tom is responsible for implementation completion by September 21st”. Instead of “let’s regroup and follow-up on this”, say “we will meet next Wednesday and make a final decision on this – let the group know of any additional information you need to make that decision”.

Specifics eat generics for breakfast.

Make it real – Show a visual if you can. We can talk about how we should do things all day long, and everyone will make up their own pictures in their heads, circling around the discussion and misunderstanding each other. Show an image, flow chart, demo, UX mock-up, and your discussion and decision-making will leap forward. Give your attendees something to hold onto and react to – it will dramatically change the discussion’s dynamic. The same applies to agendas and meeting notes. Show them to your audience as you are in the meeting. Share your screen as you type the notes, provide your audience an artifact to look at, and anchor the discussions through that artifact. Extra points if you share those notes in real-time with the group.

Provide artifacts to anchor discussions.

Speak confidently – Last but not least, speak confidently. Say it like you mean it. If you’re not confident in your opinion and plans, take some extra time to think them through, but then step up and make an impression. Avoid softening words like “wish”, “hope”, “want”, “could”, “should” and instead use clear and confident language. “We will” convinces and wins your audience. Saying “I hope we can get this done by the end of Fall” is a recipe for failure; putting a stake in the ground and stating “we will do whatever it takes to go live on October 1st” gets your team focused.

Say it like you mean it!

Tell don’t ask

If you want to make progress, you need to put stakes in the ground. If you wait for others to make decisions for you, you will spend a lot of your time waiting…

Open-ended questions – I hear open-ended questions in the decision phase of many project discussions. “What do you think?” is a great question for brainstorming – and only for that! I am by no means downplaying the value of open-ended questions. They have their place in discovery, brainstorming, reflection, coaching, mentoring, and even in critical and contentious discussions. They are terrific to foster learning, information sharing, and broadening understanding and perspective. Unfortunately, they are terrible for coming to decisions.

Closed questions – Closed questions and “tell, don’t ask” come into play when it’s time to establish a common base and move on (“Any objections?”, “Is there anyone who doesn’t agree?”). They are also your tool to drive decisions. For example, don’t ask “What do you think?” when it’s decision time, instead tell and verify: “Alright, the plan is to roll this out by August 8th – are there any blocking issues with that?” Btw, don’t ask for “concerns” – voicing concerns is a tactic that is often (unconsciously) used by risk-averse team members to push away responsibility for unknown risks. It will not help you to advance a decision – ask for “blocking issues” instead.

Be deliberate about when you want to widen the discussion funnel (ask and listen – open questions) and when you need to narrow it (tell and confirm – closed questions).

Turn silence into an advantage – Have you ever said “Please come back to me and let me know if you agree or have concerns”, only to never hear back from anyone and not knowing if you had support or opposition for the plan? I certainly have. I learned to switch to “default approval statements” (not an actual terminology, I made that up as well) instead. Give a clear timeline by which you need to hear any objections and define what silence (i.e., lack of feedback) automatically triggers at that date. A good way of establishing a decision is to say “Unless I hear any blocking objections by the end of day tomorrow, we will move forward with the plan as proposed”.

Don’t trap yourself in an undetermined waiting loop – make default approval statements with a clear deadline.




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

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Listening is your most powerful collaboration and leadership tool

That means really listening!

Did you ever watch yourself and checked what percentage of the discussion you were the one talking and how much of it you were listening? Most of us will be surprised by what we find.

To add some more self-reflection, check your thoughts during the periods when you are listening. Are you really following, digesting, and trying to understand what you’re hearing, or are you spending more time formulating your own wise answer?

Are you communicating to learn or to show off? Are you listening to understand or to make a point?

Listening is understanding, and listening is leading. Unless you give a presentation to a large audience, meetings where you talk most of the time are a waste of everyone’s time and energy. They don’t drive engagement with the audience – be it one person or a team of 20.

You lead by listening, not by talking.

So how can you change your interactions towards a more collaborative and engaging setting? Here are a few ideas.

I. Make short statements

Force yourself to make short statements and watch for the reactions. Don’t try to fill quiet space – it’s ok to have a few seconds without someone talking.

Remember that it’s not about you! Leave room for others and leave room to truly understand their thoughts and contributions (if that’s not important, you didn’t need a meeting in the first place). If no one speaks up, call them out individually and on specific topics or questions.

Here’s something critical I learned about (crisis) communication back in my days in Corporate PR:

The more you talk, the more people will think you don’t have a strong point (or you try to deceive). If you have a strong point, a short statement will do just fine.

Plus, if you keep going on and on in your speech, circling the same topic, you will have a really good chance of losing your audience to some more exciting topics in their heads or on their screens.

II. Pause and ask questions

Force yourself to stop talking. Take pauses and breaks. Ask questions – lots of questions.

Make a (short) point and then get feedback. Critical feedback is even better. Tap into the knowledge and experience of the crowd – if you don’t seek and need that input, you shouldn’t have a meeting to begin with.

III. Take the input

Acknowledge the input you receive. Really take it, think about it, and acknowledge what you have heard. Don’t just brush over it and go on with what your thoughts, plans, and opinions were in the first place.

It’s incredibly frustrating for me when I am in a meeting, the group is asked for inputs, thoughtful ideas come up, and then the meeting lead moves on with an unspoken “actually, I already have a plan and don’t really care about what you guys said”.

On the flip side – if you don’t want to take input on a particular topic, be upfront about it. Don’t pretend to ask for it.

Trust that the wisdom of the crowd is more brilliant than yours. Leverage it to your advantage. Learn from the folks in your meeting!

IV. Take notes

Taking notes is a great tool to focus yourself on listening and really following what is being said.

How do you distill down the key ideas that were shared in your own words? This active processing of the shared content will force you to listen and be tuned in. It will prevent your mind from wandering to the next topic, developing your own smarty-pants response, or multi-tasking in your email.

V. Play back what you heard

Lastly, we need to be aware that all we hear is being heard and processed through our own (unconscious) filters.

What you hear might be very different from what I tried to communicate. The only way to ensure that you really heard and understood correctly is to play the statement back in your own words.

“Thank you for sharing this. Can I quickly play back what I heard to make sure I understood correctly?” or “Let me just quickly play this back to make sure I got it right?” do wonders towards active and collaborative communication.

Talk less, listen more!

Listening is leading. Active listening is finding collaborative solutions. Talk less, listen more! There are better ways to demonstrate smarts than by dominating airtime.




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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.

Reflection on the power of reflections

Recent performance discussions with my team prompted me to muse a little bit about reflections and the power of reflective thinking. In my mind, the biggest single value of formal performance discussions is that it prompts us to pause, reflect, and decide what we want to take away and change from those insights. Forget the forms and processes – instead, focus on the insights you can take away.

So here it goes, my reflection on the power and value of (more than annual) reflections.

Reflect to celebrate and be proud

The most immediate benefit we get from reflecting on what happened in the past is usually a feeling of accomplishment and happiness. All too often, we are solely focused on what lies ahead, and we miss recognizing and being proud of what we have already achieved. Especially in today’s busy life, it is easy to look back at a day, week, month, or year and wonder what we had actually done and accomplished during that time.

Continuously and frequently reflecting allows us to balance the scale and not only see what still lies ahead but also be proud of what has already been accomplished. Write those accomplishments down to make them real for your brain; otherwise, they will be forgotten in an instant.

Reflect to celebrate. Reflect to be proud. Reflect to feel accomplished and happy.

Reflect to acknowledge and share appreciation

Similarly, we often forget to appreciate contribution and achievement from the ones who help us move along – family, friends, co-workers. Reflection is an opportunity to pause, think about all the help we received along the way, and express a quick but heartfelt “Thank you”.

We can only succeed together, and the true leader is not defined by what they accomplish but how they engage those around them to boldly go beyond their perceived limitations.

Reflect to say thank you. Reflect to appreciate. Reflect to encourage.

Reflect to learn

Last not least, we all make mistakes all the time. And that’s ok. It’s how we learn and grow.

Reflection helps us to analyze situations in hindsight and with the 20:20 vision that hindsight provides. If we don’t reflect, we are bound to make the same mistakes over and over again. If we reflect, learn, and adjust future actions accordingly, we will embrace those slips and use them as inspiration to grow.

The only thing we can really change is the “Man in the mirror” as the famous philosopher Michael Jackson told us back in 1988 (yep, I know, I just dated myself).

Hindsight is 20:20. However, you can only benefit from this clarity if you look back with the intent to learn.

As you dive into your reflections, find ways to share them. Keep everyone on the same page and take the people in your life along your learning journey. Do this, and you will get double the benefit for the same amount of time and work.

Reflections are a powerful tool, and they are a lot of fun once you get into the habit. You can do them daily (e.g., journals, work logs), weekly (e.g., status updates, learnings, plans for the coming week, this email), annually (e.g., annual discussions, progress on strategic goals, and necessary course corrections, post-mortems), or anywhere in between. The more often you reflect on past experiences and outcomes and let those reflections inform future priorities and corrective actions, the more you will benefit. Personally, I do all three of them.




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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.

Focus on the opportunity, not the challenges

I was going to write about asking “Why not” instead of “Why” – which is advice I’m hearing often – but then I decided differently. While well-intentioned, I think that advice might drive the wrong behavior if it’s heard and understood the wrong way.

In many meetings, we tend to focus our time on why things won’t work, why they are hard, and why we cannot do them right now. We are guessing what might (!) hold us back or make things complicated.

Well, anything that is worth doing and any problem worth being solved tends to be hard and complicated. The easy stuff had already been done a long time ago.

Instead of looking at the challenges, we need to look at the opportunities: what do we gain, what can we enable if we solve this problem? Is it a worthwhile endeavor? How does this rank against the other things we could be doing with our time and energy?

Once decided, we need to stop thinking about why it’s hard and instead start focusing on how we CAN do it. For every problem, there is a solution. It might not be easy, it might not be quick, but there is a way to get it done. Dwelling in the challenges will only discourage us and waste both time and energy.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for ignoring challenges and problems to be solved. I’m instead saying that those problems need to be identified, acknowledged, written down, and then tracked to resolution. That is the productive approach to deal with challenges. Reiterating, discussing, and dwelling on them without concrete action is the unproductive approach. Once you identified a problem, you write it down, find a time and owner and move on.

Once we decided that something is important, we must only be concerned about how we can get it done and finding a realistic approach, plan, and timeframe. We must not waste our time discussing why it’s hard, and we cannot waste our resources looking for easier projects that we can tackle instead. The important stuff tends to be hard.

Back to the “Why not” advice that I poo-pooed earlier – It’s actually well-intended as it challenges us to instead of asking “why do we need to do this” rather get in the mindset of thinking, “yes, why in the hell would we not do this”. Always starting with the “Why” and assuming that there is value in a new project, initiative, or change is a good thing. Dwelling in reasons not to do something that is useful is wasted energy.

Just for the fun of it, here’s a list of a few things that were impossibly hard at some time: personal computers for everyone, finding stuff on the internet, a smartphone for everyone, streaming the movies you like to watch, getting an online order delivered the next day, electric cars, GPS for everyone, online banking,… – well you get the idea. All of those were solved by people who chose to focus on how to overcome hard problems instead of discussing why they are hard to solve.

Since we’re talking about starting with the “Why”, here’s a recommendation for one of my favorite business books:

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
Simon Sinek
ISBN-10: 9781591846444

Everything always starts with the “Why”. If you know your “Why”, you know your purpose and motivation. If you know the “Why”, it will be easy for you to enlist others for your cause.




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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.

Countdown deal: Back to school, back to work

We’re running a countdown deal for our career and management book: “Thriving in High-Pressure Environments“.

Check it out on Kindle for $0.99 for a limited time starting today for a week (9/18 to 9/25.)

And if you would take the time to leave a few stars or even a review we would really appreciate it! 🙂

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.

Optimize your impact, not your hours

I was recently asked: “How do you optimize your productivity hours?

My answer was clearly not what the person had expected: “You don’t. You optimize your impact!

When we think about productivity, we often look at the wrong metric: the hours spent and the effort taken, not the output and impact of what we did. However, how busy we felt or how hard it was, doesn’t matter with regards to our productivity. We can be very busy, work extremely hard, and still not achieve anything.

Therefore, “hours” is the wrong metric. It’s not about the hours we spend and the effort we put in – it’s about the output, deliverables, and impact we achieve through our work. So the real question is: “How do we maximize the output and impact we have?

The answer is to put our energy to its best use, invest our time where it matters most, and keep ourselves healthy and balanced so that we can operate at peak performance for those deliberately selected areas.

Three simple shifts in your mindset will get you there:

Focus on the things that matter most

Invest your time where you get the most bang for the buck. Don’t spend all your time in “busy work” – it’s easy to fall into that trap as we feel so accomplished if we were busy with lots of stuff all day.

Instead, we need to develop the discipline to look hard at the impact of our actions and have the courage to say “No” if some work and priorities don’t make sense.

Of course, we also need to communicate early, proactively, and clearly to our stakeholders if we decided to deprioritize a given task. No surprises!

Remove distractions

Multitasking doesn’t work – period. As endless studies have shown, multitasking doesn’t work for anything that requires our conscious focus on two things at a time. You can brush your teeth and reminisce about your day – however, you cannot solve a logical problem and check your email simultaneously. The switching cost to get back on task after an interruption (multitasking) is surprisingly high – often up to 20 mins.

Knowing that every distraction can cost you up to 20 mins of your focused time, you need to eliminate all distractions. Switch off notifications, don’t have email counters on your phone, kill all notification sounds or pop-ups – better even, close all apps aside from the one you need for your current task and put your phone on mute. Don’t even listen to music; our brain immediately zeros in on the lyrics – if we like it or not (white noise is ok).

Allow your brain to get into “the zone”, find your “flow” and be sharp, focused, and effective. When you’re done, you can leave “the zone” and follow distractions for a little while.

Protect your recovery times

The third piece of advice actually does go towards optimizing your productivity hours (although that’s not my primary purpose): ensure that you can be at your A-game when you’re on task.

You cannot be the best version of yourself if you worked through the night or weekend and come into the office already exhausted in the morning. Take your breaks, take time to recharge, don’t push beyond the point where you are focused and effective. You need to recharge, you need to balance, you need to come back the next day with your A-game.  

Observe yourself and your focus and notice the point where you aren’t productive anymore. I learned that it is better to call it a day then, rather than trying to push through a little more – most times, your work will get sloppy and faulty when you get tired, and you will spend more time cleaning up the mess you created than if you had just waited for the next day. Trust me, I’ve been there many times.




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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.

Managing work-stress — Full-circle ownership

My personal dance with work-stress

A shiny new gadget

My first real job was 24/7 onsite support for mission-critical data center servers that ran national credit card processing.

As part of the job, I got a brand new Nokia cell phone, which was a big deal then – none of my friends had anything fancy like that. We were at a party at a nearby lake, and I proudly showed this gadget around – then it rang, and I had to jump in the car, leave my friends and drive 100 miles to the customer site. From there on, whenever I was on call, I didn’t sleep well, couldn’t fully enjoy what I was doing, and felt miserable.

What I learned from that is that I don’t do well in jobs where I get phone calls at home. I am telling this story because, for me, being called for work-stuff during my off-times is a deal-breaker. I walked away from jobs that I otherwise loved because I didn’t want this boundary to be crossed. On the other hand, I am totally ok to work into the night if it’s required – as long as the endpoint is in my control. Others don’t mind being on call and enjoy the extra money that goes with it.

Values and boundaries are personal and unique – there is no one size fits all!

Close encounter with burnout – too close

Since that eye-opening moment, for one reason or another, I ended up working in high-stress burnout roles for the coming 25+ years, and for the most part, had a lot of fun doing so.

I started my career with HP/Tandem in that 24/7 onsite support role that I talked about in the intro. I then went to Microsoft, where I had different roles, such as being the national spokesperson for crisis-PR – right in the midst of the Open Source and Linux wars and the DOJ monopoly investigation. After 17 years, I looked for new challenges and found them with Amazon, where I had several leadership positions, amongst others, leading product strategy for a 250+ people engineering team. It was always “more” and “faster” at Amazon, and after five years, I decided to prioritize my family and move to Bozeman – where I arrived right with the start of the global COVID pandemic.

Life has not been boring, and I actually like it that way.

While you’re young, you can do a lot of things that are not sustainable but are fueled by pure energy and naiveté. There was always a lot to do – more than one could humanly achieve – and I had to learn to prioritize and be more effective. That got me quite far and is a key component of achieving anything. You need to learn to make the most out of your time and have the most impact with the resources you have. Cut out the slack, ignore the distractions, simplify what you do, and focus on what matters most.

However, things get harder when you add responsibilities for others. Eventually, being effective wasn’t enough as there was always so much more to do. I also felt the increasing tension between spending time at work (up to 60 hours a week) and wanting to be there for my family and kids. I started to feel tired, lacked drive, and felt bad for not connecting enough with the areas of my life that I really cared about. I didn’t realize it right away, but I slipped deep into burnout. Luckily, I noticed the slippery slope before it was too late, and I decided to take action. I needed to rebuild how I work and learn how to set boundaries while still performing at the highest levels. I had to fix the engine while flying the plane, and I had to do it quickly before serious damage was done.

All along this journey, I’ve been a manager and people leader. I tried to create those spaces of flexibility for my team and appreciated it if team members took full ownership of their areas. It’s easy to grant autonomy when you see true ownership. However, what I learned is that you cannot do that job for other people. You cannot make others happy – only YOU can make yourself happy. You cannot define values or boundaries for other people – they are personal and unique. Everyone is different, and you can not “carry” someone to happiness – everyone has to define their own path and take charge and full responsibility for it.

There is a Zen proverb that captures this well: “The teacher can only show the door. The student has to walk through it.”

What you will find below are some essential principles and rules that helped me protect my boundaries while still performing at high levels at work. It helped me balance work and life by taking full ownership and responsibility for both. It’s showing the door – you need to decide if you want to walk through it, and if you do, you need to make every single step yourself.

Taking charge, taking ownership

Three main principles are key for work-stress management and happiness (in my experience):

  1. Your values are personal. What works for the person next to you doesn’t necessarily work for you. You are the only one who knows them, and you are the only one who can implement them. No one can carry you to happiness.
  2. You only gain autonomy if you prove ownership and accountability first. Good leaders love to delegate – but only if they are confident the job gets done.
  3. Achieving 1 and 2 is hard work and requires constant engagement. If you drop your focus, they will slip.

Understanding and protecting what matters to you

It all starts with YOUR values | What matters to you?

It all starts with understanding YOUR values! A solution that works for the person next to you might not work for you or make you happy. For example, I am perfectly happy dropping lunch to get things done or working late (occasionally) when it’s crunch time. However, try to make me work on a weekend for no good reason, and you’re up for a hard time. Others appreciate the opportunity to catch up on things during the weekend.

You have to understand your values and what is really important to you. It’s personal. It’s not what the other person has. A good way of doing that is to write down all the things you care about (your values) on little cards. You will end up with some 20-30 values. Now give the ones away that you care less about. Repeat that until you’re down to three – those are the ones that really matter to you. Align your life and decisions such that those values are not violated by what you’re doing.

Those values are the guiding stars for you, not to show around. They can be grand, like changing the world, but they can also be as down to earth as having fun or achieving financial stability. There is no right or wrong – there’s just what matters to you. Those values are personal, and there is no need to share them, although it can be helpful if others understand them.

My values are family, integrity, and autonomy. In that order. That is why it’s important to me that I don’t get unplanned interruptions in my off time – it feels to me like breaking a promise I made to my family. On the other hand, I’m ok to plan for extra time to get the job done, as it supports my integrity value and is done within the boundaries of autonomy.

Set YOUR boundaries | What are your non-negotiables?

Like our values, our boundaries are different for each of us. My big boundary is that when I’m home with my family, I want to be home. Period. I don’t check emails in the evenings, weekends, or on vacation. Others do appreciate the flexibility of today’s merged work/life arrangements. For some, it’s a big deal to be able to go out for a walk during lunch. You might need to come in a little later to drop your kids at school or leave a little earlier for your Yoga class.

Whatever it is that is an important line in the sand for you – it’s not one size fits all!

As you think about your boundaries, you can do a similar exercise as the one for values. Write down the boundaries that you care about. Then give up the ones that are less important to you. Work-life balance is always a tradeoff, and you need to know what you’re willing to trade and what you’re not. Know your negotiables and your non-negotiables. Don’t ‘die on the hill’ or get yourself all worked up for the former.

Compartmentalize | When you’re on, you’re on. When you’re off, you’re off.

Don’t spend energy on things you cannot fix at the moment. Once you’re off work, don’t ruminate about things that concerned you at work. Focus on the environment you’re in at the moment, enjoying the activity you’re doing, fully tuning in to your kids or friends, or just taking brain time off. You don’t win anything if you keep thinking about that work task you need to do the next day – it just ruins your time and attention for other things.

Make a clear distinction between working and being off work. Use the time off work to follow your other interests, passions and recharge. Be off. Then when you’re on again, you need to be fully on. Care deeply about work when you’re at work. Be as effective as you possibly can. Forget about work when you’re at home. Focus on the things that matter personally to you.

Give both aspects of your life your fullest instead of dabbling in inattentive mediocracy for each of them. Multitasking doesn’t work, and it burns a lot of switching energy.

Think about doctors: they need to give the best possible care to patients when they are on shift. However, if they keep worrying about them once they’re home, they will not be able to bring on their A-game the next day.

Earning autonomy and flexibility

Autonomy only comes with accountability | The work still needs to get done. You need to own it. Fully!

Everything we talked about above – living your values, setting boundaries, and compartmentalizing – boils down to work flexibility and autonomy in one way or another. However, autonomy is something that is not and cannot be granted lightly – after all, the job needs to get done, and we all have a critical function for the organizations we work in.

Instead, we have to earn autonomy. We do that by consistently demonstrating that we are on top of things, that we think forward, act responsibly, don’t drop commitments, and are accountable and reliable. We demonstrate ownership.

Ownership and accountability mean being clear about the priorities in your work, communicating those clearly, and focusing your time at work on those. It means tracking your timelines and deliverables and not getting surprised by looming deadlines. It means getting started early and not waiting until the last minute. It means proactively planning how you get the work accomplished by the deadline. Work is NOT the place for procrastination!

Ownership also means looking for better ways of doing things or proactively engaging other people who can help relieve pressure. Ownership means making good suggestions to improve your work area.

No surprises! | Communicate clearly, proactively, and early.

One of the first and biggest lessons I learned was: “No surprises!”

There is almost no problem that cannot be fixed if people are made aware of it early enough. There is absolutely no fix to a problem if you learn about it after ‘the ship has sailed’.

If you cannot accomplish what you had promised, you need to give early proactive heads-up. It’s ok that things change, it’s ok that you get other priorities, it’s ok to have unforeseen complications. It’s NOT ok to not tell anyone about those changes or risks immediately. Be proactive and give people an early heads-up if things stray from the agreed-upon plan.

If you cannot do something that you had promised, don’t just throw your hands in the air and hope that no one will notice – rather, look for solutions.

Pace yourself | Life and career are marathons, not sprints.

Sometimes we need to sprint to get things done and achieve the desired goal. Sometimes it’s crunch time, and we need to let go of our boundaries for a little while for the greater good – the challenges the global COVID pandemic brought upon us are a great example of such a time in which we need to go above and beyond for prolonged periods of time.

However, we need to also deliberately slow down afterward. Humans have a way of getting used to pressure and not noticing it until something pops. Like a sprint, you keep running until you’re out of breath, and then you drop to the floor and pant.

Instead, life is a marathon, and so is your career. Notice when you have times where you can recharge and regain your energy. Use those times! Push hard during crunch time and then focus a little more on yourself, your values, and your passions during the times in-between.

Life is a marathon, and muscles grow while we rest them! However, when it’s go-time, you need to be on your A-game.

If I can leave you with three things

1. You need to take care of yourself first!

This includes your health, the things you care about, and time for your purpose and passion.

2. You need to know what matters to you.

It’s different for everyone, and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for the other. Don’t look at what flexibilities the other person has – be clear about which ones matter to you.

3. Autonomy, accountability, and ownership go together. Always!

You can only set boundaries if you own the expected outcomes and if you hold yourself accountable for the promises you made. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help – it means YOU need to be the one who proactively brings up issues early and helps identify solutions.

If you master the tension between boundaries and ownership, you master your stress.
Trust your team and help your team! In the long run, you win as a team – you can only lose as the lone warrior.




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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.

Musings on data

We all love data, and we all make data-driven decisions. – Or at least that’s what we say when someone asks us because “data-driven” is the thing you need to be these days if you want to be cool.

You can spend a LOT of time getting, tracking, analyzing, and reviewing data – but do you actually get value out of that time investment? Maybe, maybe not. In order to get a good ROI on your data investments, you need to be smart and deliberate about what data you look at.

When deciding what metrics you want to track and report on, it’s helpful to think about four key principles:

  1. Data that’s not actionable is just noise – If you measure something, but you cannot act on it, or you have no intention to make an effort to act on it, you’re only wasting your and everyone’s time. It was one of the first lessons I learned at Microsoft: don’t collect and present data unless it helps your case to drive action. Everything else is just noise. Always ask yourself what possible actions might be informed by measuring a specific data set. If you cannot come up with at least a high-level answer, you shouldn’t spend time collecting the data.
  2. Data that doesn’t track against a goal is useless – Assuming you have actionable data, you also need to understand what the ideal state should look like. If you have a metric but no goal to it, you miss the reference point. If that data changes, you have no way of knowing or telling whether that change is good or concerning. Likewise, you will not know whether you are in trouble or you have reached everything you aspired for. You must have a goal or desired end state to contextualize what you’re measuring.
  3. Show what matters, not how much you have – Tell a story when you show data. Don’t show all you have; show what matters and explain why it does. I have seen and learned that at Amazon: some folks took pride in showing pages and pages of data – a sea of numbers – but they failed to convey a message and drive action with the audience. While the story behind the data might be clear to you, it won’t be for your recipients. Analyze the data, understand what’s going on, then tell a story and have everyone focused on the relevant data to that story. Don’t show a sea of numbers, don’t try to show off by how much data you have.
  4. Proxy data is better than no data – Often enough, we care about a certain metric, but we cannot directly or efficiently measure it. Instead of throwing your hand in the air and giving up, think about proxy data. If you cannot measure the specific metric you really care about, what is a proxy metric that correlates with it? What can you measure that gives you a good indication as to whether the metric you really care about might be tracking in the right direction? If you don’t have precise numbers, how can you create approximations that give you at least directional insight? Amazon is big about proxy metrics, as many things they do are too new to have lots of data available. Looking at proxy data is just as good for making business decisions and necessary course corrections.

Do use data and do make data-driven decisions. However, make them based on a sound understanding of what good data means in the given context.


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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.

Do you have a Worry list?

Hint: you should!  😊

We all have a lot on our minds – juggling different responsibilities, complex project dependencies, competing priorities. The risk of keeping so many things in our heads is that we will miss a bunch. We had a great idea, go to bed, and poof, it’s gone.

The solution to this is to get those ideas, questions, challenges out of your head and into what a former manager of mine called his “Worry list”. If you learned formal project management, you would call it an Issue tracker, but I like “Worry list” better.

The idea of a Worry list is to 1) get things out of your head to free up mental space, 2) collect all issues and questions in one place, so you don’t miss any, 3) have a way to systematically “burn down” the number of issues until you are ready to launch, and 4) see a glide path that lets you predict if you are on-track or off-track.

Add to your Worry list – This process is ongoing until the end of the project (and usually into the sustain phase afterward). If you discover a new issue, challenge, or question for a project, you add it to the list. No curation, no prioritization, no nothing – just capture the thought before it eludes you. Have one place and one tool where you do it and just drop things in right when they come to your mind. I like Microsoft To Dos, others use OneNote or paper, and if you want to go fancy, you can build an Excel issue tracker. The most important piece is that you keep your tool simple enough so that you will use it consistently. If you add too many bells and whistles, the maintenance effort will be too high, and you won’t follow through.

Burndown – This is the fun part. Instead of wondering what you need to take care of next, you look at your list and pick the most important or most urgent question or action. You solve it. You move on to the next. You can prioritize your list ahead of time or pick what is appropriate for the moment. This is “burning down” the list of issues (or bugs if you are in SW development).

Glide path – Looking at the glide path lets you determine if you are on-track or off-track. If a plane is within the prescribed glide path during landing, it will smoothly touch the runway. If it’s off the glide path, bad things could happen, and the pilot needs to take immediate action. The same is true for your worry list: if you solve 5 issues per day, have one week to go until launch, and 40 remaining items on your worry list, you know that you need to take action and change course. A glide path can be mathematical science (linear or polynomial regression) or just a rough temperature check (oops, still ten issues left for the week) – it’s up to your preference. In either case, it’s critical to know if you will be ready in time or not.

Punting – The hidden secret for shipping any product or project is to determine what not to tackle when you are running out of time. Some things must be done before launch, but others can wait until after. Solving issues is not the only way to burn down your Worry list – you can also decide to punt some issues for later. SW companies do that all the time and for good reasons – see this famous (and misleading) article on Windows 2000 https://www.zdnet.com/article/bugfest-win2000-has-63000-defects/. When launch day comes close and you run out of daylight, decide what really needs to get done and what is nice to have and can wait for another day.

Get your worry list started now! You will see that you will worry much less once you have it (you effectively delegate your worries out of your brain and into the list).


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.