Viewing entries tagged
Great Work


Saying No to 1,000 Things.

You can't open a business magazine or newspaper without reading another encomium to Steve Jobs' consummate genius or an analysis of why Apple is so successful. I'll add my two cents here: it's because he said no to a lot of products. Think how tight the Apple product line is: three desktop computers. Two laptops. One iPad. One iPhone. Three iPods. Two major bits of software (iTunes and OSX). That's not a whole lot for a $65 billion company. (Yes, I know there are other products out there, but I'm not counting the accessories, the machines that only differ by size of hard drive, or the niche software.) In fact, when Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, one of the first things he did was kill off a bunch of products, including the Newton. As he describes the situation,

There were people going off in 18 different directions doing arguably interesting things in each one of them. . . . You look at the farm that's been created with all these different animals going in different directions, and it doesn't add up. The total was less than the sum of its parts.

In an interview with Business Week back in 2004, he explained that innovation, in part, comes from

saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don't get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We're always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it's only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.

By saying to to all those opportunities, he not only conserved corporate resources -- people and cash -- but he conserved people's ability to do great work and create great products. I thought of this recently when reading about the recent research on "decision fatigue." The new thinking about decision-making is that people have a finite storehouse of energy to make decisions -- whether that decision is major (should you parole an inmate), or minor (do you want tartar-control or baking soda toothpaste). As John Tierney explained it in the NYTimes,

Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making.... You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy. If you’re shopping, you’re liable to look at only one dimension, like price: just give me the cheapest. Or you indulge yourself by looking at quality: I want the very best (an especially easy strategy if someone else is paying).

The cumulative effect of these temptations and decisions isn’t intuitively obvious. Virtually no one has a gut-level sense of just how tiring it is to decide. Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up. Choosing what to have for breakfast, where to go on vacation, whom to hire, how much to spend — these all deplete willpower, and there’s no telltale symptom of when that willpower is low. In making decisions, [willpower-depleted people] take illogical shortcuts and tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs.

This pretty well sums up most people's lives at work. You're constantly making decisions during the day, both major and minor. And that takes a toll.

Steve Jobs did a good job of reducing that cognitive burden by saying no to so many product opportunities. Saying no allowed the company to focus its cash, and  workers to focus their attention, on what's most important. It's not the sole reason Apple became the smash success it has, but it's certainly part of the puzzle.

Take a look at your organization. Are you chasing every opportunity out there? Or are you husbanding your energies to do great work on the few truly important issues? If you're not executing well, this is one place to start looking.



Hacking Work

Stop doing stupid stuff because that's the way it's always been done. Stop using crappy tools because that's what the company offers. Stop following inane rules because that's the policy. Over at AMEX Open Forum, Matt May brought the concept of "hacking work" to my attention. He interviewed Bill Jensen (author of Hacking Work) about this idea -- because let's face it: in a lousy economy where people feel lucky just to have a paycheck, breaking corporate rules doesn't seem like the smartest thing to do.

Jensen explains that

overall, the design of work sucks, and a lot of stupid rules persist. The tools we use in life have leapfrogged over the ones we use at work. What available for people to do their work is out of sync with what they really need to do their best. . . . People are being asked to do their work with a massive anchor wrapped around their leg. In today’s economy, that anchor—the corporate-centered design of work—is making it really hard for everyone to keep their jobs, let alone do their best work.

Jensen provides two examples of hacking that illustrate his idea:

we know of one manager couldn’t get her customer-focused project approved, even though the senior team declared customer focus as a strategic priority. So she secretly videotaped customer complaints (that her project would address) and posted them on YouTube. The public outcry was so huge that the senior team quickly reversed their decision, not only approving her project, but they actually increased her budget.

Or take the trainer that told all her trainees that she knew her mandatory courses “sucked” due to circumstances beyond her control—several years of zero funding—so she sent everyone to free online courses outside of the company, tested them on what they learned, and validated their certificates in courses they never attended.

Jensen is passionate about hacking. He believes that it's practically a moral imperative for the engaged employee to try to improve his or her work. Doing stupid stuff and following pointless rules is a soul-sucking waste of time and energy.

A few months ago, I started an online "community A3" project to figure out how to eliminate the waste of crappy meetings. One of the participants figured out that their team (like groups in most companies) had their meetings on a "push" basis: they scheduled meetings with a certain frequency and followed that schedule regardless of need. They shifted to a "pull" mode -- meetings were only held when needed to solve customer problems -- and reduced their collective meeting burden by 1/3. It wasn't the "way things are done here," but they freed up 56 hours per month to actually solve problems.

Matt points out that the hacker spirit is really another way to describe the mindset at Toyota, where people are constantly trying to find ways to banish waste and unnecessary work. So whether you call it "hacking work," or "A3 thinking," or "kaizen," the point is to stop doing stupid stuff so that you can do great work.



The problem with priorities.

Ron Ashkenas posted a thoughtful piece on the problem with priorities a few months ago. He tells a story of the head of a large hospital who asked his direct reports to make an index card for each of the projects they were working on.  One hundred fifty cards (!) later, it became apparent why so few of the projects were moving towards completion -- with so many projects drawing on the same resources of time and attention, nothing could get finished. Moreover, these senior managers were reluctant to formally drop any of the projects because they felt that all of them were important. But as the old saying goes, if everything is a priority, then nothing is. Something is either the priority or it's not.

This reminded me of something that Merlin Mann once wrote:

Making something a BIG RED TOP TOP BIG HIGHEST #1 PRIORITY changes nothing but text styling. If it were really important, it’d already be done. Period. Think about it.

Example. When my daughter falls down and screams, I don’t ask her to wait while I grab a list to determine which of seven notional levels of “priority” I should assign to her need for instantaneous care and affection. Everything stops, and she gets taken care of. Conversely – and this is really the important part – everything else in the universe can wait.

I've written before about the necessity of understanding your "production capacity." If you had infinite time and infinite resources (energy, money, focus), you wouldn't really need to worry about your production capacity. You'd just keep working and get everything done. You'd rescue your daughter and analyze last month's sales figures. No problem.

Unfortunately, you don't have infinite time and resources. (Or if you did, you wouldn't be working right now. You'd be on a yacht docked at your own private Caribbean island.) So you have to make choices. You have to choose your priority for the hour or day or week or year.

My wife has gradually been learning this lesson. Recently, she's been a bit better at saying no, and has been spending a bit more time on her "great work." Patient care comes first as always -- there's no letup in the number of procedures she's doing each day -- but she's shelved almost all of her academic work and a significant amount of her administrative work. Equally important, she's less stressed about the stuff that she's not doing.

Remember: either your project is the priority or it's not. Period.



Master the art of saying yes slowly.

Learning to say no matters. A lot. I've been thinking recently about what Michael Bungay Stanier describes as "Bad Work," "Good Work," and "Great Work," particularly as it relates to my wife. (Michael is the founder of Box Of Crayons and is the author of Do More Great Work.)

In Stanier's view, "Bad Work" is the brain-numbing, soul-sucking crap that drives you to drink -- stupid meetings, inane emails, pointless office face time, etc. "Good Work" is the work you do most of your time, the product or service that your organization provides to the world. Stanier says

There’s nothing wrong with Good Work—except for two things.

First of all, it’s endless. Trying to get your Good Work done can feel like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the mountain, a never-ending task. And second, Good Work is comfortable. The routine and busy-ness of it all is seductive. You know in your heart of hearts that you’re no longer stretching yourself or challenging how things are done. Your job has turned into just getting through your workload—week in, week out.

By contrast, "Great Work" is the stuff that makes a real difference to the organization and to the world. Great Work

is what you were hoping for when you signed up for this job. It’s meaningful and it’s challenging. It’s about making a difference. It matters to you and it lights you up. It matters at an organizational level too. Great Work is at the heart of blue ocean strategy, of innovation and strategic differentiation, of evolution and change. Great Work sets up an organization for longer-term success.

Now, my wife is a doctor at a major NYC cancer hospital. It's a teaching hospital, which means that while her days are primarily clinical, filled with procedures and patients, she also has a significant research and teaching burden.  I think that kind of work is both "good" and "great." I mean, helping to cure people of cancer is pretty damn meaningful and makes a real difference. But at the same time, it's routine (for her, not the patients); it's often not that challenging; and it's definitely Sisyphean.

Recently, she's been heavily involved with a major process improvement project. Even though it's administrative work, I think it qualifies as Great Work because when it's done, the hospital will be able to treat more people, more quickly, with less of a hassle for the patients. And if you're sitting there with a giant liver tumor, getting to see her more quickly with less of a hassle is pretty Great.

But here's the problem: the clinical, academic, and research burdens are overwhelming her. She has very little time to work on the process improvement project, because she has so much else going on. And she feels as though she can't say no to any of those other responsibilities. Partly that's self-imposed pressure. Partly that's due to preposterously high expectations set by the hospital. So she's got a ton of work that's not getting done, and she feels terrible about it.

Of course, even though she's accepted all the work, she's not getting to a lot of it. Her time is finite. So even though she says yes, she might as well have said no.

And if she had explicitly said no to some of the work -- by doing fewer procedures, teaching fewer residents, not reviewing any papers -- she'd be able to do more of the process improvement project. Frankly, she's not doing those other things in a very timely fashion anyway. And had she done so, she might be less stressed and feel better about herself.

I've written before about the importance of understanding one's own production capacity. It seems to me that if you understand your capacity, it will help you learn to say no (or as Stanier says, at least it will help you "master the art of saying yes slowly").

After all, your capacity is fixed. Saying yes or no will not affect the amount of work you can do. But saying no will make you feel better. And it just might help you do more Great Work.