Archive | Best Practices

Tip: Strengthen the Weakest Link

When you have a complicated project, it’s sometimes hard to figure out what to work on first. Like any prioritization task, the first step is to get an overview. You can’t judge priorities without an overview.

Once you get an overview, you can often identify the order you need to do the work, by just identifying temporal dependencies. If that’s not enough, I recommend that you prioritize by looking for the weakest link and strengthening that, first.

The top problem area is the part of the project that is most risky. It’s the part that you worry about.  Call it what you will:

The Weakest Link in the Chain

The Long Pole in the Tent

The Bottleneck

The Logjam

It’s the one part that is “behind” everything else. It’s the section of the report that hasn’t been drafted. It’s the module in the software that no one has figured out how to do. It’s the time period on the schedule marked “To Be Determined.” It’s the element with the longest lead time. It’s the one resource that’s overcommitted.

An overview gives you the context to see what the top problem is. It’s the “top” problem relative to everything else. You can’t judge how big a problem something is unless you know how everything is going.

But once you know, it’s worth putting some extra effort into fixing it. As a rule of thumb, the project as a whole will benefit significantly if you can fix the biggest problem. Strengthening the weakest link of a chain increases its overall strength. Adding resources to a bottleneck speeds up progress on the overall timeline. Putting up the long pole gives a structure to the whole tent. Breaking up the logjam makes everything move downstream.

So, that’s my advice. If you are feeling a little overwhelmed by a complex task, make a list of the parts, and look to see if one of them is the problem child. Focus your effort on that and you will make a large improvement in how well the project is going overall.

June 5, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The 24-Hour Rule for Reviewing Performances

What do you want to improve? Your presentations? Your powers of persuasion? How you run a meeting? Your joke telling? Your ability to answer questions?

Whatever it is, to improve it, you need to review it. You may be thinking that means to record your performance, then go back and watch the video or listen to the audio. That is a very powerful way to improve. I used to go through every all-day workshop I gave, analyzing every minute. But that takes a lot of time. That’s why we rarely do it.

So, I recommend you do a shorter review, more often, by following the 24-hour rule. Within 24 hours of any performance, sit down in a quiet place with pen and paper and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What went well? What do I think contributed to that?
  • What didn’t go well? What do I think contributed to that?
  • What would I do differently next time?

These are not particularly hard questions if you ask them within 24 hours. That’s when your recollection is still fresh. You can answer them in about 5 minutes. This is what I try to do for every performance. I reserve an in-depth analysis for a special case.

I recommend you “think on paper” to answer the questions. That gives extra objectivity through seeing the pluses and minuses in black and white. Sometimes the minuses are a little upsetting, but writing them down always helps you to  figure out how to improve. Moreover, if you do the work in a thinking notebook, you can find your notes later when you need them. You can easily refresh your recollection before  similar performance.

But follow the 24-hour rule: Do the review within 24 hours of the performance.

This is an example of a technique that gives you significant value at a very low cost. The most important areas of improvement will be obvious to you, in retrospect, just after your performance. You can harvest those observations if you’re fast. But if you don’t get around to it, they will fade away.

Improvement is a lifelong undertaking. Finding simple ways to make reflection for improvement a regular, easy process helps you become the best you can be.

 

May 14, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Ask An Easier Question

Asking yourself questions is essential in thinking. It’s the way you get information out of your subconscious and into conscious consideration.

Your subconscious is a huge repository of past observations, past conclusions, past training. It is where your expertise resides. But only some fraction of that information can be activated at a given time. Questions activate the information so you can use it into your thinking.

But what do you do if the information lies dormant–even when you ask yourself about it?

Suppose you ask yourself a reasonable question (like “what should I be doing right now?” or “how am I going to explain this to person X?” or “how are we going to get this done on time?”) and the response you get back from your subconscious is “I don’t know”?  Or the more emphatic: “Aaaaaye donno.”

When this happens, don’t despair. You probably know much more than your subconscious is letting on. What happened is that the question you asked was a little too hard for you. You don’t have a ready-made, pre-packaged answer for that question. You will need to put one together from pieces of information–pieces you can lure from your subconscious databanks by asking an easier question.

To me, “ask an easier question” stands for the more complicated thought, “soften up your subconscious with patsy questions it can answer that inexorably lead to your figuring out the answer to the question it resisted.” It’s like you’re playing “good cop” with the suspect–playing along with what you get, edging toward what you really want–a full confession of the truth!

So, for example, if I were a little stuck on a question like “how am I going to explain this to person X,” I might ask myself things like, “what does X need to know?” and “how would I explain it to someone else who’s not as touchy?” The right follow-up questions would be ones I felt I *could* answer. Spending the time on them would help me put into place the information I would need to build a full answer to the original question.

“Ask an easier question” is a sound bite to remember. When your subconscious says, “Aaaaye donno,” ask yourself an easier question, and find out what it *does* know that can help you with your task.

May 7, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Picking Favorites

Some years ago, I attended a seminar on “The Art of Introspection.” The speaker (Psychologist Edwin Locke) encouraged the audience to consciously pick favorites. Wherever you are–in a hotel lobby, at work, watching a movie, reading an article–pick your favorite aspect. By taking the time to identify your preferences, you strengthen your own values and get extra enjoyment from them.

For example, I pick favorites when I go to museums. After I’ve looked around a room, I stop to choose my favorite painting. After I’ve been through all the rooms in a section, I choose my top favorite for that section.

This makes my museum trip more enjoyable and helps me identify my artistic preferences. In addition, picking favorites has two cognitive payoffs.

First, it counters museumitis–that glassy-eyed, mentally numb state which comes from looking at each item with equal intensity. The same strain happens when you try to proofread a table of numbers by simply checking one after another. It is difficult to concentrate afresh on each and every item when there are dozens. Trying to do so creates a mental strain that interferes with any degree of concentration. In no time you become bug-eyed and bored.

The solution is to add variety to the process. In proof-reading, you might get a partner switch off tasks, proofread backwards, proof only 20 numbers at a time, etc.

At the museum, picking favorites breaks up the monotony. You look more purposefully at the candidates for favorite (and pay less attention to the others), plus you get a little break for reflection when you come to the end of each room.

Second, picking favorites aids memory. When you identify something as a positive value and spend a little time thinking about it, you are more likely to remember it. My museum trips no longer blur together, thanks to this technique.

Like many of my tips, this is a small action with big payoffs. Next time you feel bored or you are just “hanging around,” make a point to pick favorites in the scene (or perhaps in some area of your life that warrants a few minutes of reflection). Thinking about what you like will perk you up and put your mind in a higher gear.

May 3, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Use a Physical Process to Release Tension

I admit to being a fanatic who looks to thinking as a solution to all problems. I look for a psychological cause for everything that happens to me. And I look for a thinking process to help me deal with everything that happens to me.

If I cut my finger, yes, I put on a Bandaid. But I also reflect on what I was doing, and consider whether I need to be more mindful of my actions. If so, I spend a moment considering how that can be accomplished.

Due to this predilection, I used to be puzzled that quite a few of my friends go for a long run when they are upset. But eventually I understood: they exercise because the intense physical activity reduces body tension. If you reduce body tension, you can more easily deal with the emotions.

Here’s why: the tension intensifies the experience of some emotions (such as anger) and masks and/or interferes with the experience of other emotions (such as joy). A process that reduces the tension–literally physically relaxes the body–provides a timeout, so that some emotions will pass, and creates a neutral physical baseline, so that emotions are experienced normally, and you can more easily identify them and sort out their meaning.

Let me elaborate on this important point.

First, tension masks many emotions with pain. When you are extremely tense, you experience pain in your neck, in your shoulders, maybe in your back, sometimes in other joints. If the pain takes your attention, it will mask the subtle experiences of many emotions.

Emotions have signature physical experiences associated with them. There is the frission of surprise that runs from your belly up your spine. There is the clutching of your stomach at a moment of intense fear. There is the choking feeling in your throat when you feel hurt and invisible. All of these are difficult to distinguish when there is an overriding experience of pain. The pain gets the primary attention.

And of course, sometimes people simply block out the pain, in which case, they block off awareness of all bodily feelings.

Second, some emotions–such as pure joy–simply can’t be experienced when you are tense all over, because the somatic experience involves a freedom in your breathing that is incompatible with a highly tense state. Moreover, if you’ve ever experienced a bout of chronic pain, you know how pain undermines your access to positive emotions. For those who haven’t, simply note that people in chronic pain are usually grouchy. Most positive emotions involve a feeling of physical freedom and well-being, tension and pain prevent you from having that experience.

The effect of these factors is to make it difficult to introspect your feelings, when you are extremely tense. When you ask yourself “what do I feel?” the answer is, “pain,” “tension,” “aching.”

Another effect is that it is hard to concentrate. You don’t feel good. You tire more easily. You want a break from this bad physical feeling, and moving or resting seems like a good idea. You don’t have free access to emotional signals. Basic tactics like “thinking on paper” and “introspection 101” aren’t as effective when you’re in this state.

I finally understood this deeply a few years ago when I was stiff from having driven 300 miles, twice in a few days. I didn’t pay much attention to the tenstion. Instead, I noticed I had difficulty concentrating and was in a bad mood. I tried my usual tactics, and they weren’t all that effective. Out of desperation, I decided to tackle the physical symptoms of tension directly.

Okay, I said to myself. Exercise. Stretching. Breathing exercises. Alexander self-lessons. Massages. There are many physical processes that reduce physical tension.

I swam, I stretched, I had an Alexander lesson. And suddenly I could concentrate again. Suddenly I was in touch with my feelings again–which were subtle feelings about projects I needed to help me think about work, not intense feelings about some personal issue.

Now I notice whenever there is tension in my neck. I have suddenly become enamored of all the little physical de-tensing techniques that I’ve learned over the years: Stretching at breaks, breathing exercises, etc. I’m raring to go.

Lesson learned. If you feel physical tension, reduce it with a physical mechanism. It’s easy. It makes thinking easier. It is silly not to.

March 31, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Having a Point

There are some skills that people self-identify they need. And there are others that they don’t.

Many people who have a problem getting to the point don’t realize it. But when you talk with them, you see their problem reflected in your own frustration. They say something, you try to clarify. They neither agree nor disagree, but sheer off onto another topic. You ask them a question. The answer doesn’t address the question. The conversation rambles and digresses and circles around, and you can’t pin them down.

Now, sometimes this is deliberate evasiveness, but that is not usually the case. Usually the problem is that they don’t know how to get to the point.

This is a skill that I had to learn consciously, so I am aware, both of how surprising it is to realize you are not, in fact, communicating well, and what is needed to communicate better. There are a number of best practices, but the crucial prerequisite is to have a point.

All three words are crucial.

First, you need to have a point. Many times people come into conversation without a clear purpose. They do not know what they want to say, or even why they are having the conversation. It is impossible to get to the point if you don’t know what it is–you can’t aim for a destination until it’s been identified.

This is why you need to spend at least a moment figuring out why you are having a conversation. If your purpose is to convince the other person of something, you need to know what you are trying to convince them of–you need to identify the point.

On the  other hand, if your purpose is to pass the time, or to explore issues, there may not be a point to communicate–and then you need to make sure you don’t give them reason to believe there is. If you are just exploring and playing devil’s advocate, but you’re acting as if you are trying to convince them of something, they may both confused and frustrated.

Second, in order to get to the point, you need to have one point. One point. If you have multiple points, you need to make them one at a time–and wait until you’ve gotten one across before going on to the next. If you try to make several points at once, the other person will likely not be able to follow you.

Third, the point needs to be a point. A point is a single thought–one complete sentence–which is the conclusion you are trying to get them to reach. You may give examples to concretize the point, you may make an argument to prove the point, you may give contrasting cases to differentiate the point. But whatever you do, whatever you say, it needs to be logically connected to validating the point. You may address their concerns by clarifying the points. You may say a lot of things, but if you want to get to the point, everything you say needs to add up logically to the one point–the conclusion that you are trying to get across.

When everything adds up, a pyramid becomes a great metaphor for the conversation. You build a layers of evidence on a base, narrowing to the point.

But if you include the kitchen sink and anything else that occurs to you along with logical material, you get a pile, not a point.

March 26, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Reminder Cards

I advocate a lot of simple tools. Here’s one for remembering good advice: Make a pack of reminder cards. By reminder cards, I literally mean 3″x5″ index cards with handwriting on them.

So, for example, over the years, I developed a pack of about 30 blue index cards with writing advice. Several cards consisted of editing checklists. Others listed questions to ask before or during writing. Several listed steps to take in the writing process. I read probably 50 books on writing over a 10 year period, and whenever found a great new idea, I summarized it on a card. For years, whenever I had problems writing, I shuffled through that card deck to find a critical tip. (Eventually, I organized this into my Nonfiction Writing Handbook.)

Similarly, I developed a pack of about 15 purple index cards with exercises. Some are stretching sequences, some are breathing or Alexander Technique exercises, some are physical therapy exercises. I would use a card regularly for a while, then it would stay in the pack. If I needed a refresher, I’d go back and find the appropriate purple card.

I also have stacks of cards for motivational quotes (which can give a little boost of encouragement), warmup questions for thinking, procedures for planning, and a few other miscellaneous categories.

I keep them all together in a little bin on my desk, and I add to them whenever I see a gem I want to remember. Sorting through the physical cards is a pleasurable experience. As I read each one, I remember why I thought the advice was so good, and how that idea could help me at present.

Some of you may think this is old fashioned. Why not use a notes program instead of cards? I say, if a file works for you, great. Cards are better for me. I can spread them out and look at them all at once. Plus, the need to write out the advice on a physical card helps me be selective about what I include. If I just had to cut and paste into a file, I would be indiscriminate. Soon I’d have an unwieldy mess–too much information to be helpful.

My little pack of cards keeps useful ideas at my finger tips. If you are finding some of the tips I send out helpful, why not start your pack of cards with some of them now?

 

February 17, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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