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…


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Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
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ISBN 9798718017663

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A path to continuous process improvement

Every process can be improved! Every process!

It does take energy and time to inspect a process. You might need to overcome inertia (“that’s how we do it”). But it will pay off in the long run!!

It’s important to remind ourselves that process improvement is not a one-time thing; instead, it requires continuous reflection and ongoing critical assessment.

There are many different models, frameworks, and visualizations on process improvement. You can even earn martial-arts-themed belts in some (loving and practicing martial arts myself, I always found that silly, but that’s just me). The key point for all of them is never to stop critically looking at your processes and systems and to ask yourself how you can improve them constantly. What can you do to make the experience better for your customers? How can you simplify the workflow to make it easier for yourself? How can you make the overall system more efficient to reduce total operational costs?

If you want to get started on simplifying your processes, I would (strongly) recommend doing the following:

  1. Start with documentation! – You don’t need to make this a scary huge project that you hope to never get to. Instead, just write down what you do, as you do it. Often you will have something to copy from to further lower the barrier – an email that you sent to the team, meeting notes, a brainstorming document, or your own mindmap. Take that content as the starting point for your documentation. Bonus points if you put your documentation somewhere, where people can find it. Simple documentation beats no documentation every single time!
  2. Audit and reflect critically – Look at what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Ask yourself if all steps are necessary, or if some of them could be changed and simplified. Ask yourself if the customer experience is the greatest it could be. Think of customers as everyone that interacts with the process – true customers, your partners, and supporting resources. Step back and remove yourself from the process and your emotional attachment to it and take a hard look at what doesn’t make sense. Ask your customers what they think you should do differently, ask them what they like and don’t like about the process. In agile, we call this “doing a retro”.
  3. Tweak and test – Try a new process improvement and see how it works. Is it better than what you had before? If so, keep it and keep going. If not, revert back. Try lots of different things and observe how they fare in comparison. Make small tests before you make a big change for everyone. Keep what works, discard what doesn’t. If you want to be fancy and show off, call it “experimentation”.
  4. Update your documentation – Don’t forget this step! In step 1), you spent the time and energy to document what you had before. As you make changes to your SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), also update your documentation to keep it fresh. Few things suck more than out of date documentation.
  5. Simplicity drives adoption – And here is my master rule for all processes: Keep it simple! The simpler, the better. The simpler, the more likely it is that your process will get adopted and followed consistently over time.

Things can always be improved. We might not have gotten it perfectly right the first time, circumstances might have changed (e.g. resourcing constraints), capabilities might have changed (e.g. technology advancements), or certain aspects of what you did before might just not be necessary anymore.

Everything can be improved. I’ve yet to encounter a perfect process or system. Take the time to reflect on what processes you can improve or help to be improved!


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Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

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.

Meeting effectiveness and efficiency

We all spend a LOT of time in meetings. That time is important and valuable, as meetings help us to discuss topics, get different opinions, resolve issues, and decide on actions. However, those meetings can also waste a lot of time.

So how do we make meetings more effective? Here are some things that I learned over time – 8 quick checks for your next meeting:

  • Shorter is better – Humans have a tendency to always fill the available time (I think it’s a yet undiscovered law of physics). If you have 2 hours for a task, you will need two hours. If you have only 30 mins, you will focus on what’s most important and be done after those 30 mins. Likewise, if you have 1 hour for a meeting, you will fill that time. Think about what the absolute required minimum duration for a meeting is and then schedule for that time. That will force you and everyone else to stay on topic and move forward.
  • Have an agenda! – If you don’t chart out the way, you will not reach your destination. Share a meeting agenda ahead of time to set proper expectations and get the results out of your meeting that you need. In a previous team, we had a rule to not join a meeting if it didn’t have a clear agenda and purpose.
  • Define desired outcomes and manage towards those outcomes – If you don’t say what you need from the meeting, you might be surprised by what you will get. In tandem with the agenda, also define what the desired outcomes are (e.g. “In this meeting we will agree on the proposed project plan and develop a complete list of necessary changes to that plan. After the meeting, execution against that plan will start.”). If you define clearly what you want to achieve, attendees will be more focused on helping you to get there. It will also give you a way to redirect discussions if they get derailed (and they always will).
  • Recognize sidetracks and get back on track – Every meeting goes sideways at some point. Identify discussions that are not critical to the agenda and your desired and stated meeting outcomes, suggest to move them offline, and politely redirect the group back to the actual agenda. Something that can be quickly solved in the room (2 mins or less) is ok; everything else should be dealt with offline.
  • Know who should be there (and who shouldn’t) – It’s easy to invite anyone who could be even remotely interested. That is also very expensive and doesn’t really add to your credibility as a thoughtful leader. Decide who really should be in the meeting to make the desired progress. Send meeting notes to everyone else.
  • Engage people by asking them directly for input – Many people join meetings, make up their own thoughts, but stay quiet. This is particularly pronounced in virtual meetings and the worst for attendees who join only on audio. It’s so easy to multitask, or just hide away. Ask people specifically for their opinions. Ask them by name. This is important if you need a decision, but it is also a critical tool to ensure that more introvert communicators are not drowned out in meetings – their thoughts and opinions are just as important but often harder to get.
  • Drive for decisions – Be sure to get the outcomes you desired from the meeting. Drive for decisions, ask people by name for their sign-off or explicit disagreement. A little tip / dirty trick: how you phrase the question matters. “Are you all ok with this?” leaves ambiguity and wiggle room. You will never know for sure that you have full buy-in or a defendable group decision. “So in summary, the decision of this meeting is X, unless anyone voices any objections now.” removes ambiguity, and forces people to voice any concerns right now. They cannot say “I didn’t know or agree” later. Everyone needs to be clear that now is the time to voice concerns or rest their peace forever. This is not about forcing a specific outcome; it is about eliminating decision avoidance.
  • Write the meeting notes – Everyone will have a slightly different opinion of what was discussed and decided in the meeting. And as time passes by and memory fades, those gaps will just widen. Write down all decisions to have them documented and make them stick. Plus, who writes the meeting notes controls the decisions to a large part. Bonus points if you take the notes in the meeting and share your screen so that everyone sees them and has an opportunity to jump in right away if they disagree.

Inefficient meetings have been one of my pet peeves for a long time (being a true introvert, I hate long meetings without clear purpose and tangible forward progress). Following the above rules can make all your meetings substantially better.


Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

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.

The Third Way

As some of you know, in my personal life, I have been passionate about martial arts for a long time (some 30 years by now). Studying those ancient arts taught me many valuable lessons over the years. One that I was reminded of just this week is the idea of “The third way” in Tai Chi.

In my earlier times of practicing the arts, my responses were limited to one of two categories: retreat or attack; submission or domination. Tai Chi teaches that in most cases, neither is the best solution, and one should rather look for a third way. You don’t surrender, and you don’t oppose; you find a way to embrace the energy and momentum and direct it in a direction that you deem valuable.

So how does this apply to work, and why am I writing about it here?

Well, very often, we are asked to add things to our already full plates or are confronted with situations that we don’t like or that even upset us. We usually respond either by saying ‘yes’ right away and then silently grumbling about yet another thing or by saying ‘no’ without further regard of the importance of the request.

Unless something is easy to do anyway (in which case we should just do it), or completely out of scope and unreasonable (in which case we should clarify why that is the case), it is usually worth to take a pause and to think about possible third ways. Ask yourself a few questions like:

  • What do we want to achieve?
  • Is there a simpler way to get there?
  • Who is best positioned to achieve those outcomes?
  • Who can we tap into for support?
  • How can the requestor help to make the work more efficient or simpler?
  • What aspects of the ask are hard requirements, and which ones are more flexible?

Don’t just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – take the time to work with the person who asked you to do something to gain a good understanding of the best way to achieve what they need to accomplish.

A recent reporting automation project that my team supports is one example of this. We could just take all requests for new reports, say ‘yes’, and hire more people to fulfill them. We could also cap the number of reports and headcount we are willing to fund and say ‘no’ after that. Or we can think about better ways to deliver what our customers want and need (i.e. good data to gain insights) – for example: where can we simplify (standard reports), or how can we enlist the requestor’s help (self-service dashboards).

Ask questions to understand. Ask questions to find the best solution. Ask questions to lead.

Don’t just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, insist on finding the best solution for everyone.


Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

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.

Start the new year from a position of control

This week started with a flurry of meetings and requests for all of us. That’s just what you would expect for this time of the year: everyone comes back from vacation and rest with a wealth of new ideas, and a new year is always a natural point for clean-up and changes.

While this is all normal and good, it also bears a risk: humans have such a strong tendency to continue doing what they are doing. Inertia is a powerful force in the Universe. As we all started our first week by reacting to tactical requests and fixing small fires, it’s way too easy to get caught in the hustle of those day to day activities. Being busy is just so easy, and the associated instant gratifications are tempting, to be honest.

It’s easy to be busy, but it takes commitment and energy to be impactful.

Right now, as we are all refreshed and the new year is still to be defined by us, it’s even more important to have your story straight on what matters most.

Take a break from getting all tactical and request-driven, and give yourself the time to reflect on what matters most. Then ensure that you take those priorities into action. Block enough time and energy for those activities. Define checkpoints and review regularly if you are progressing at the right pace against those priorities. Adjust your plan, behavior, and days if you see a gap opening up between what matters and what you’re doing.

The important thing is NOT how busy you are. What’s important is the impact you have. For that, it’s much less important how much you do, but it’s crucial that you do the right things.

I happened to stumble upon an (older) article this morning that is very related and provides excellent ideas on how to stay focused on what matters most: https://hbr.org/2019/05/when-life-gets-busy-focus-on-a-few-key-habits. Happy reading!  😊

You have to prioritize!

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If you want to have the most impact you have to prioritize! But how? Based on what criteria?

Do a little of everything? Pick what’s top of your list and work your way down? Do whatever comes to mind and grabs your interest at the moment? Don’t know, so rather stall and don’t do anything at all?

Well, the above approaches don’t seem like great strategies, so let’s take a more structured approach instead.

At Amazon there are limitless opportunities – always – and as a result, we constantly need to prioritize and make trade-offs. Actually, when candidates ask me in interviews what the hardest part of working at Amazon is, I tell them “it’s to decide what not to do”.

There is often quite some ambiguity on how one should make such decisions. I see this across individuals and organizations, way more often than I would have expected. Most people have a good grasp of how they should prioritize, but then they mix and muddy things as they get into the details.

Prioritization is about discipline – both in thinking, as well as in execution.

The operational discipline is something you need to develop for yourself. The mental model is easier to share though. Here is a prioritization framework that works in most cases.

How to prioritize

  1. P0: Things that HAVE to be done to support a strategic goal or prevent a strategic risk. Those are typically set top-down as company or organizational goals. If things MUST be done to support those organizational priorities, they need to be treated as non-negotiable (P0s). The important thing though is that this only applies to blockers (!) for such goals; it doesn’t include all of the nice-to-have things one could do for that space. Nice to have work must stand on its own cost-benefit analysis. It’s not a P0 if it’s not a blocker without a feasible workaround!
  2. P1-3: Things that provide the highest ROI (return of investment) / best cost-benefit ratio in sorted order. Everything else you do need to be evaluated under the criteria of ‘most bang for the buck’. Don’t spend energy on something that will be useful in the future (hopefully), but not just yet. If it will yield a higher return than what you’re doing right now, stop doing what you do and switch over; if it doesn’t, then double down and finish what you started. Sort the things that you need to do by ROI, nothing else.
  3. Exceptions from the rule. There are some reasons why you might have to invest in some projects with lower ROI. The clearest is if you hit a scaling limit by putting more people on a problem. If adding more people to a project doesn’t scale your delivery pace (close to) linearly, you should deploy them somewhere else. Similarly, if you need to make investments to lower your operational cost or substantially increase future delivery speed (e.g. re-architecture), you need to prioritize those accordingly. However, I might argue that those effects can and should also be quantified and expressed in an ROI decision. The other reason to keep some capacity for work that is not ROI-prioritized is to diversify your opportunities and/or make room for experiments to explore new areas. Be very conscious though, as to how much time and energy you want to devote to such activities.

Pitfalls to avoid

Don’t mix criteria. If you make ROI decisions, make ROI decisions. Don’t mix ROI and opportunity or something else.

If you go to a supermarket and shop for oranges, all other things equal, you will pick the ones at the lowest price. You will not pick a bunch of the lowest priced ones and another bunch of the expensive ones, just because they are there. ROI is your metric, stick to it. Opportunity only tells you that you can buy oranges, it doesn’t tell you that the price is right.

Side note: ROI doesn’t need to mean dollars – it means the impact (return) of your resources (investment) on the metric you care about most (e.g. cost, speed, quality, precision, satisfaction).

Don’t take previous decisions as gospel. Don’t block yourself by perceived constraints or previous decisions. As you get more data and understanding, challenge previous assumptions! For example, a goal is not a value in itself, it might have been set based on an incomplete understanding of the total opportunity. As you understand the opportunity space better, re-examine previous goals – if they no longer express the most important thing to do, make a pitch to change the goal!

Elephants get chained when they are young and too weak to break those chains. They learn that chains define their limits. As they get older, they don’t even try to break those chains anymore, even though they easily could. Don’t be chained by previous assumptions, re-evaluate what you know and question what you believe as you learn more!

Invest the intellectual energy to set strong and data-driven priorities. Exercise the operational discipline to focus on those goals without distraction. Nurture the curiosity, flexibility, and courage to revisit those decisions and underlying data to verify that you are still pursuing the right goals.

 


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:

 

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle

 

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.

Throwing Spaghetti on the Wall…

success-2081168

Have you ever heard someone say: “Don’t just throw spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks.”?

Well, obviously that’s not a good strategy to understand priorities and inform a future course of action. It’s also messy and a little disgusting…

A much better approach is to understand problems and drill down to root causes, identifying cause and effect correlations, and then formulating a set of hypotheses on how to influence those root causes. But let’s start from the beginning…

The spaghetti approach

Here is how I know when a PM interview doesn’t go well:

Me: “Interesting problem. How did you find out how to solve it?
Aspiring PM: “I did A/B testing and looked at the results.
Me: “Sounds cool, how did you know what to test?
Aspiring PM: “Well, we tried out a bunch of things, and then picked the one that showed the best results.

That’s not experimentation, at least not in a scientific sense, that’s classic throwing spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks. It’s expensive. With this method, you will find the right solution only by brute force or sheer luck. More often than not, the true solution and needle mover will remain elusive.

If you want to get to the true best global solution through experimentation, you need to have a plan first!

Drop any preconceived notions of ‘the right solutions’. In fact, burn your list. Instead, start from identifying the root causes and focus your experiments on understanding what drives those root causes.

The scientific Method

Experimentation is like throwing pebbles. If you have a plan where to throw them, you will likely hit your targets with a few throws. If you don’t, you will need a LOT of pebbles to hit anything worthwhile.

Here’s how you develop a plan before you start throwing your precious stack of pebbles:

Step 1: Root causes – What is the problem?

Start with identifying the problem. Then ask yourself what causes that problem. List all the drivers that you can identify from the data and observations that you have available.

Check for causations. Are those drivers really causing the root problem, or are they just correlated? Drill all the way down until, based on the data you have available, you cannot draw clear cause-effect relationships anymore.

Step 2: Hypothesis – Enter the unknown!

Up to here, causations were directly supported by existing data and observations. Now they are no longer, and you need to find ways to fill your data and knowledge gaps. You start making a plan for throwing your pebbles.

Start to develop hypotheses for the cause-effect relationships for which you don’t have clear data. Check if there are any drivers that you might have missed. Where do you have hunches (informed guesses), but no data?

Step 3: Experimentation – Closing the data gaps.

You have several brilliant but untested hypotheses. Now is the time to come up with a plan to put those hypotheses to the test. It’s time to develop experiments that can validate your hypotheses and provide you with the missing data.

Be clear as to what data specifically you need to get from an experiment to validate your root cause hypothesis. You can get a lot of data out of experiments, but not all of it will truly correlate to the specific needle that you want to move.

Think creatively and broadly as you get into designing your experiment. Not every experiment needs to be a big engineering project.

There are many ways to get data. Experiments can be product implementations, but they can also be very simple initial and manual tests with small groups of users or user research studies. Of course, the closer your experiment is to a large scale production roll-out, the more precise your data will be. However, you don’t always need that precision for the initial validation of an idea that will inform the next steps in a project.

The faster you can get results, the better. Sometimes you need to build something out in scale to get the right data; more often, you don’t. There are no bonus points for expensive and slow tests.

Step 4: Refinement – What have you learned?

Look at the data. See what hypotheses are validated and which ones are not.

Don’t leave it with that simple checklist though. Reflect on how your cause-effect framework might have changed with the new data and insights. Does the experiment’s data indicate new root causes that you were previously unaware of?

Finally, ask yourself if you have answered enough of your root cause questions to build your MVP, or if you need more experimentation and data to ensure you will head out in the right direction.

Sticking points

  • Experimentation is great!
  • More specifically, targeted experimentation is invaluable to get missing data and understand your space.
  • Just trying out stuff, on the other hand, is wasteful and will likely increase confusion instead of reducing it!

 


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:

 

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle

 

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.

What do Lord Kelvin and Peter Drucker have in common?

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Probably the most famous quote from management guru Peter Drucker is:

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. – Peter Drucker (1909-2005)

However, Scientist Lord Kelvin beat him to the punch and called out a similar principle even earlier:

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. – Lord Kelvin (1824–1907)

For one thing, this shows again that Physicists are usually beating everyone else to exciting insights about how the world works. 🙂

Lord Kelvin also found the second law of thermodynamics, which postulates that everything will eventually end in unstructured chaos anyway, but that’s another story, so let’s not get distracted.

While I full-heartedly agree to the above principle about measuring, I would extend it to:

If you don’t know what you want to manage, you’re wasting your time measuring. Likewise, if you’re not committed to do what it takes to improve a metric, you might as well not bother measuring it at all.

All right, after that motivational downer, I want to reflect a little bit on metrics and reporting, what we should measure, and how we should think and talk about those numbers.

How to think about metrics

Why we care about metrics

Impact and outcomes (Output metrics) – In all we do, we prioritize and target our energy on doing a few things that we believe have the most impact on a given customer or business outcome. There are many things we decide not to do to keep that focus. Once we’ve done what we have set out for, we’d better know if our believes and assumptions were right (i.e., if we can build upon them) or wrong (i.e., what we can learn from them). Metrics help us to track whether our actions lead to the anticipated outcomes. They help us identify where we need to course-correct.

Defects and actions (Input metrics) – As hinted above, not all plans work as anticipated. Looking at the right (input) metrics helps us see where things don’t develop according to plan and prediction. Once we are aware of those areas, we can assess impact, and develop strategies to fix the issues. Input metrics are typically leading indicators, and while we care about the effects and outcomes, input metrics are where we can learn why things don’t quite work and take proper actions. Here is a quick read-up on input versus output metrics: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/focus-inputs-alfons-staerk/

Early warning (Health metrics) – Last not least, metrics help us to avoid being blindsided. Like a canary in the coal mine, a good set of ‘early warning’ metrics help us avoid to discover an issue through an escalation, and instead proactively identifying it ourselves. No one wants to get an angry email from a customer or their boss.

When you develop the set of metrics that you want to track for your product and program, you want to make sure to track all three categories. Each of them is equally important and serves a specific purpose. However, you need to think about how you use them strategically and intentionally.

How we track and report metrics

Outcome metrics (impact and outcomes) are the ultimate goal, but they typically lag and move slowly. You want to present them to leadership and stakeholders, but do you want to do it weekly? Do they change fast enough? What’s the right forum for them (quarterly, monthly, or weekly reports)? If you present them weekly for reference, are they the data that you want to draw attention to every week?

Input metrics are critical to managing your product and program. They are leading indicators and most often change weekly. You do want to look at input metrics (defects and opportunities) weekly, but you also want to make sure you look at and focus on the ones where you would consider taking action. If you are not willing to take action or ask for support to take action, it’s just noise and distracts everyone. Make input metrics actionable or think harder what the right actionable input metric would be! Last not least, some input metrics are noisy. If that is the case, think about how you can report them differently to separate noise from a real trend. Metrics are all about learning, not about showing that you have many numbers.

Health metrics are critical, and you should look at those weekly or even daily. They are your insurance that you are not caught on the wrong foot. However, by definition, they should be very dull and not change much. No news is good news! If you have a story to tell about your warning indicators every week, then there is a more fundamental issue at hand. With that, in most cases, those metrics are something you and your team need to look at very frequently; however, you don’t want to report them to a broader group frequently (e.g., through regular reports). Instead, those are the metrics that, while not looked at by a large group regularly, should kick off an immediate heads-up to your leadership when you see things going sideways.

How to talk about metrics

For me, the most frustrating experience in metric reviews is to see a sea of data with no apparent focus or structure. In those cases, it takes me a while to catch on the slide structure, and by the time I have, I have missed the call-outs. The second worst thing is to have the same call-out on the same data, that didn’t change anyway, every week. The third most frustrating thing is to have a call out, that’s not related to the data on the slide – it utterly confuses me every time. Bonus frustration: having a new slide where the structure needs to be explained instead of being self-evident.

Slides are stories. They need to be able to speak for themselves without additional explanation. The stories they tell need to engage and focus on the ‘news.’

Let’s start with the simple thing – the presentation.

Visual presentation – Make it digestible

As we think about how we can turn slides into stories and data into statements, we need to give focus to presentation. A sea of data is not a story; it’s a distraction. One hundred rows don’t convey insight but chaos. Data that are not organized along a logical flow isn’t providing a signal, but increasing noise.

The flow of your data – First of all, think about the right logical flow of your data. What is the correct organizational principle that will guide the viewer along and help them make their findings? Often this is obvious (e.g., funnel steps or input metrics that feed into an output metric), but give it a hard thought. Having the right structure is the difference between a strong slide and story, and a weekly struggle to get through your WBR section.

Help drive focus – Most times, less is more. What data is needed? What data would you take action on? What data is critical, versus supplemental, and how can you visually highlight the critical data? Can you bold specific data, can you visualize a funnel structure in how you present your data? Make it easy for the viewer to see for themselves what you can see in the data. Also, make the hard choices not to show data that doesn’t matter. We’re all proud of all the data we can find; however, focus wins the game in a presentation every day. Metrics meetings are crisp and focused presentations of the state of the union, not word search puzzles.

Be clear what you talk about – When you talk about something that is not on the slide, be clear about it before you get into your story. Try to avoid that situation though – if you launched something new and it doesn’t show in the data yet, then talk about it once it does. When you talk about something on the slide, make sure to refer to where the data is – searching for the needle in the haystack is no fun in a fast-paced meeting.

Data with Intent! – WHY? SO WHAT?

We don’t talk about the data just because we have it. We have an intent! Be sure to talk about that intent. Why should I care? Why does this particular data matter? You know it, but I don’t, so please explain it to me!

Here are some categories that are usually leading to exciting stories about data. Don’t feel you have to tell each of them every week, tell a story if things have progressed or changed in a meaningful way.

Progress – We all want to know if we are making progress against our goals. A key to seeing that on a weekly or even monthly basis is to have a ramp plan. If we want to achieve a particular goal by the end of the year, where should we be this month, next month? How close are we to that ramp goal, and if there is a gap, what can we do to close the gap? An output metric without a ramp plan is useless! We need to know if we can feel good or should be worried. These callouts are typically related to the outcome metrics we committed to.

Learnings – What did we learn from the data. Are there any surprises or positive trends that we didn’t anticipate. This is where input metrics come in. Focus on the differentials, though, don’t repeat the same insight every week (without taking action). This is where we should talk about surprises and experiments and their related learnings and outcomes. Focus on what’s new, don’t tell the same repeating story again and again without changing the game from one meeting to another (if you decide something is not worth managing, remove the metric from the official deck). Most of the learnings come from input metrics that we are tracking.

Attention needed – Sometimes, trends turn in the wrong direction without warning, and without us having done something specific to anticipate that development. Those are the canaries in the coal mine. Be sure to call out when such things happen. Also, be sure to have some insights on what happened, or at least a plan and a timeline on how to get those insights. These alerts are essential data points and not bad. They tell us when we need to focus on something. Take them as an opportunity to fix something early on before it gets bad. However, don’t wait for a pre-scheduled meeting if you notice that health metrics erode – kick off an email thread with your leadership immediately and take action!

A lot of the follow-up questions from leaders usually poke into one of the above areas. By looking at the categories in that framework, thinking through your story along those lines, and presenting it succinctly, you will convey that you are on top of your game. You will show your confidence, ability, and success, instead of being caught off-balance.

Last, not least:

Don’t try to fill the space/time – If you don’t have a story in any of the above areas, don’t make one up. Power usually lies in not giving in to the temptation to fill empty space. Just say that nothing happened to the data that is worthy of a call-out, and make a short statement as to what changes you expect to see shortly and why (if you don’t anticipate any, then your program is dead, and the slide should be removed). Related, there is no rule that you have to have three call-outs. I would much rather hear one strong call-out and finding than three repetitive ones.

Learning from the data can be fun if we let it be! Use metrics, reports, and reviews as an opportunity to learn about your space and tell compelling stories to leadership.

 


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:

 

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle

 

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.

How do you shine a light on the moon?

Chinese-Academy-of-Sciences-Yunnan-Observatory-1.2m-telescope-moon-laser-rangefinder

How do you shine a light on the moon?

Well, it’s actually pretty easy: you use a laser, not a flashlight.

So what is so special about a laser? It’s really just two things: focus and coherence.

I. Focus (Spatial coherence)

A flashlight creates light in one point (the lightbulb) and then lets it travel out in a more or less focused way. There is a lot of energy produced, but it spreads out in multiple angles, with a quickly diminishing impact. A laser bounces light back and forth in one beam between two mirrors before part of it escapes in a single beam and travels outward.

Lasers are focused (spatial coherence). They point in one direction, and one direction only. As a result, their light travels far without losing intensity.

Focus maintains energy and signal, ensuring that it will travel far without being watered down. That is just as true for our strategies, stories, business, and life. All too often people are all over the place. They overload stories (at Amazon we use PR FAQs to develop, crystallize and communicate big new ideas), have unclear and disconnected goals (for example in annual planning, or OP1 in Amazon speak), jump around adjacent problems (e.g. project updates), or are jack-of-all-trades and master of none (often seen in personal priority setting and time management).

We need to constantly push ourselves to gain and maintain focus!

When you write a PR FAQ (or call it strategy proposal), what is the one thing you want to achieve? Make that your story and stick to it. If you had to pick one thing, what would it be? What is most impactful? If you need to land only one thing with me (and I won’t remember more anyway), what’s that one thing? Put everything else in the FAQ (i.e. the appendices for your proposal).

That focus needs to come from you. Don’t collect a bunch of ideas, and present them (regardless of whether it’s just bullet points or a polished narrative) to see what sticks with the audience. ‘Throwing spaghetti on the wall’ only makes a mess that you will need to clean up afterward. You need to do the hard work of figuring out what matters most and go through the painful process of letting go of all the other cool stuff (there will be another PR FAQ for those).

The same thought model applies to all other plans, strategies, and written updates that we produce. Spend the time to really understand what matters. Then figure out all aspects and implications of that one thing, and write it down in a flow that allows others to follow your thinking.

The same is true for your career. You can do many things every day, and our space certainly allows you to be busy and tactical all day long. The problem is that busy and tactical doesn’t get you very far in the long run (nor does it get your team anywhere). The flashlight shines brightly a few feet away, but it won’t travel to the moon.

Take your time, sit back and think where you want to go. Then make a list of the few (!) things that you need to be really good at and deliver, to get there. Focus on them and deliver excellence. I hate to break it, but people rarely get rewarded for the effort. They do get prompted for impact.

If you’re versatile, you will be the go-to person to fix issues and plug holes. If you focus on your core areas, you will be looked upon to lead others.

The hard work is to keep that focus. Make time for constant check-ins and reflections. When tactical escalations distract you, take a pause, reflect, and come back to your priorities.

Don’t compromise strategy work for tactical work. It’s a true temptation, as humans always seek instant gratification. Push back against that desire. A good framework for that thinking is the 4-block model of urgent vs important. Make sure you spend the majority of your time in the top two quadrants. Avoid the bottom two. Spend time on the important things that move you and your goals forward!

 

4 boxes

 

II. Coherence (Compounding)

The second important quality of a laser is temporal coherence. The waves are aligned in resonance, with the peak of every wave overlaying and sitting on top of the peaks of other waves. It’s the perfect compounding effect. Without that compounding effect, a laser would be nothing else than a very flimsy flashlight, that won’t even be able to illuminate something a foot away.

You want to use the same compounding effect in your stories, projects, career, and life.

When you tell a story, don’t jump around. Once you have identified the key point that you want to convey, build upon it. Develop it further through your PR FAQ, OP1, or project update. Don’t jump around to other adjacent things. Stay on the topic until you’re done, then stop.

A good way of thinking about this is the inverted journalistic pyramid. Start with your punch line, then as you go further, add additional details. Don’t jump around. The story should not change, if the reader goes further down in your text, it only becomes more detailed and colorful. If someone only reads the first paragraph, they should understand the core. As they read further down, their understanding should deepen, but not change. If their understanding changes, and the story morphs and shape-shifts in their mind, then you didn’t do a good job in understanding, developing and focusing on the key point.

pyramid

 

Likewise, in your career, make sure the activities you’re driving are aligned with your goals. Make sure you are consistent with them! Switching around all the time will not let you gain real momentum anywhere. Focus, deliver, deliver more, build upon it, until you can proclaim victory. Small things add up, and the effect of compounding investments is staggering. It’s doesn’t need to be much that you add every time, but it needs to be consistent.

It’s easy to start a lot of things, and not follow through with them – I only need to look at the list of PR FAQs that we ‘wanted’ to write in our team but never did, or the plethora of action items we decide upon in brainstorming meetings and offsites, but hardly ever followed through with. Once you identified a goal, keep pushing.

Don’t kick off a lot of things, and then abandon them. Start a few that matter, and follow-through to the end. Go a few steps further every week, every day. Layer wave peak on top of wave peak. Gain momentum and build upon it. Make it an (Amazon) flywheel that you are constantly pushing!

Be a laser, not a flashlight. You CAN shine to the moon (and back).

#focus #goals #career #success

 


 

Did you like this article? Want to read more?

If you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:

Put on your own oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle

 

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.

Single Threaded Leadership at Amazon

Single Threaded Leaders (STLs) are core to Amazon’s leadership philosophy. We are all STLs for one thing or another. However, what does that actually mean?

A STL is the one person who owns success or failure of a given initiative, project or goal. They are the decision maker or the one who is responsible to drive decisions. They are the single point of contact and the one who answers for the project. The STL is the one who doesn’t have excuses for not raising an issue, driving a decision and moving the project forward.

Less polite descriptions used in other companies are ‘butt on the line’ or ‘throat to choke’. I do NOT think that’s the right way to think about it though!

leader-2206099_1920

How to be successful as a STL

We all strive to be effective leaders, in Amazon-speak strong STLs. So what makes a strong STL?

It starts with Ownership

Being a STL means that you OWN the projects you were given responsibility for (better even: you took responsibility for). It also means that you feel fully responsible for the success of that project. There is no one else to point a finger to or to blame.

It does not mean that you need to fix or do everything yourself though. Far from that!

Ownership doesn’t mean that you need to do everything yourself. It does mean that you need to make sure the right things are happening and the right people know about status changes early on. Delegate and orchestrate!

Ownership means that you own the progress, understand when things go sideways, and either put the right fixes in place to correct course, or escalate quickly if problems/fixes are beyond your control. You don’t need to be afraid if things don’t always got the way as initially planned. However, you should feel bad if things go sideways and you didn’t try proper actions and escalations.

Come with a solution

When things go sideways and a fix is beyond your scope of control, you need to escalate up quickly. Speed matters. There are few things a manager hates more than being surprised at a time when they are out of options to help you out.

So how do you escalate if you need help? Come with a solution!

Followers come with a problem; leaders come with a solution.

Present the problem, give a short explanation on the root cause that got you there, and then offer a solution proposal. Ideally, also explain the alternatives and why you picked that specific proposal (what were the pros and cons of the alternatives?).

Explain how far you were able to push within your scope of influence, what you tried, and what specific help you now need from your leader. Help them understand the tradeoffs that need to be made. Be clear what specific help you need or what action you are taking for which you need backup from your leader.

Do not only come with a problem or open ended question. Your leader will most likely jump on the opportunity to solve it for you, but that will harm your authority as STL and also deprives you from the sense of control over your project.

A quick glimpse into the mind of your leaders

Leaders like to problems-solve. That’s how they grew up, how they became leaders. However, as a leader, the ultimate goal is to grow their impact by delegating spheres of problem ownership and knowing they will get solved locally as much as possible (and without needing to keep track of progress).

So when presented with an open ended question or problem, a leader will jump into solving it for  you (unless they are a really good leader, in which case they will try really hard to hold themselves back). However, after your meeting they will have that nagging question in their mind: ‘why did I have to solve this, what did I do wrong?’ Help your leader to not wrangle with that question!

Help your leader to scale to the next level by showing them that you own your space at the next level.

What makes a great STL?

Know that you are empowered. Don’t just say it, know it, feel it!

Feel responsible for the end to end! Fully.

Own driving the solution, or if you can’t, own having a solution and asking for proper help.

Escalate when you exhausted your options or ideas or spent too much time trying – understand the point when you need to go up.

 


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:

 

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle

 

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.