If Not Talking on the Phone While Using the Restroom Impacts Your Performance

…you need either considerably more or considerably less fiber in your diet.

I can only imagine the horror of the person on the other end of the line as you’re working through a problem and an automatic power flusher goes off.

Worse yet, imagine this being a conference call that someone has on speakerphone. Half of the office will experience the joy of every restroom sound.

I may just have to intentionally set off the power flusher a few times while I’m the stall next time.

Embrace Your Inner Lackey

Have you been given a crappy assignment?

Is your job your field’s equivalent of disassembling the drainage pipes in the building and cleaning them?  Is it beneath your skill set?

Pride goeth before the fall.

News flash: No one’s hiring people with PhDs in operating an abacus anymore. The same may go for your skill set, too.

The key thing to remember about crappy assignments is that very few people embrace them well enough to get good at them.  Yes, it’s true that if you get really good at a job that nobody else wants, you might be assigned to that job for a very long time. Unfortunately, if you do a mediocre or bad job at it, you may not have any job for very long.

Maybe you’ve been assigned this crappy job because people believe that you can turn things around. Do you want to prove people who believe in you wrong?

Maybe you’ve been assigned this crappy job because people expect you to fail. Do you want to prove those people right?

Embrace your inner lackey.

Find the angle that you can own and attack it.

The “I don’t want to risk taking action” Blockade

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Apparently, conventional wisdom has decided that if you don’t take action, you can’t be blamed for anything:

Sure, you’re about to hit an iceberg. However, if you try to steer the ship, and it ruptures, you’ll be at fault. If you hit the iceberg head on and your ship withstands the hit, you’ll have warded off disaster. If your ship starts going down, well, you can possibly pretend you were unaware of the problem. If you take action, you have to acknowledge the problem.

Why must departmental silos treat problems like toothaches: Because there’s a fear of going to the dentist, everyone waits until the tooth abscesses and a trip to the emergency room and an emergency extraction is needed. A little infection or cavity turned into a week-long course of top-tier antibiotics and a missing tooth.

Maybe everyone’s hoping they’ll be laid off before having to take responsibility for a problem.  After all, being laid off assumes far less personal responsibility than possibly failing when attempting a fix.

Let’s all be powerless.

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Creative Writing for Business

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It seems like the greatest skill that many rely on to get through their careers is creative writing.

Most jobs start with a resume, in which you may have to creatively explain how your dark periods, lack of qualifications, and employment gaps don’t make you a less desirable candidate that all the people with creative resumes.

If you’re in a place which provides a peer feedback mechanism, you may need creative writing skills to critique a coworker without completely demolishing that person.

If you’re required to write your own performance appraisal, you will need to strike the balance between accuracy and best story possible. I believe this genre is called “historical fiction”.

Finally, every day you have to respond to an email from a customer or coworker who’s out-of-line, you have to respond creatively.

Forget all the business and formal writing classes. You need well-developed creative writing skills to succeed.

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You Do This Well, But You Could Improve That…

The Problem

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Providing feedback that praises, and then offers suggestions for improvement.

I’ve always wondered why such a method left a bad taste in my mouth, but I came across one possible explanation in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.  The peak-end rule proposes that:

…we judge our past experiences almost entirely on how they were at their peak (pleasant or unpleasant) and how they ended. Other information is not lost, but it is not used. This includes net pleasantness or unpleasantness and how long the experience lasted.

A description of one experiment demonstrating this rule is contained in Determinants of the Remembered Utility of Aversive Sounds (Schreiber/Kahneman)

…participants had two experiences of immersing one hand in painfully cold water.

The short trial lasted 60 s, with water temperature at 14 °C.
The long trial lasted 90 s; the temperature was 14 °C for
the first 60 s, then rose gradually to 15 °C over the next
30 s–still unpleasant, but a distinct improvement for most

When they were later given a choice of which
trial to repeat, a significant majority of participants chose to
repeat the long trial. This preference violates logic, because
adding pain to an aversive episode cannot make it better

A Possible Improvement on the Constructive Feedback Technique

Toastmasters uses a sandwich technique [good-bad-good], but the challenge is that the Serial position effect might cause the criticism necessary for improvement to be lost.  However, this modified sandwich technique might provide the benefits of offering constructive criticism while still producing a more positive result at the end:

  1. Sandwich Layer: Bread
    Evaluation Element: Praise – strengths exhibited by the speaker
  2. Sandwich Layer: Condiments
    Evaluation Element: Areas for improvementwhere can the speaker improve
  3. Sandwich Layer: Meat, cheese, vegetables
    Evaluation Element: Specific suggestionshow can the speaker improve
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The Collateral Damage of a Meeting

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Meetings, much like 1-hour credit lab courses in colleges, carry a much higher price than their appointed time indicates.

We’ve been over this before:  A 15-minute meeting is more disruptive than a 3 hour one elaborated on the 15-minute meeting agenda:

The 15-Minute Meeting Agenda

  • 5 minutes travel time/dial-in time/waiting for people to realize their clock is out-of-sync
  • 5 minutes of greetings
  • 2 minutes of status
  • 3 minutes of disconnect beeps or leaving early for a restroom break

Collateral Damage

There’s more to it than that this.  There is also collateral damage.  Everyone assumes that calendar openings = free time, so you often end up with every hour filled with at least a half hour meeting.

Appointment Backlog

Half-hour meetings rarely run under on time.  In fact, the greeting, handshaking, and orientation portion of the meeting may take 10 to 15 minutes, unless you have an incredible facilitator for the meeting.  Therefore, if the subject matter was worth 30 minutes, the meeting will be closer to 45 minutes in length.  This expansion of appointment time is similar to the reason why your doctor’s appointment runs an hour behind.

Anticipation Frustration

With good fortune, your hourly half-hour meetings will only take 40-45 minutes, leaving you with free time in between.  In this space of time you will worry about being prepared for the next meeting, take care of things (like eating) that you’ve not been giving other time for, and sit in the frustration of not being able to start anything in the amount of time you have left.

Action Items

Effective meeting facilitation will draw out a to-do list of action items that are to be resolved outside of the scope of the meeting, often to prevent the delay in their resolution from holding up the meeting itself. In principle, these are effective tools. In practice, combined with fully booked schedules, they can be like spending 8am-5pm working on adding items to your personal to-do list–it just keeps getting bigger.

Compound Multitasking

With the backlog of to-do list items and meetings, people begin doing “other work” in their meetings. Therefore, as meetings themselves impact the productivity of other work, meetings become less productive and end up running longer to get the same amount of work done–a downward spiral of productivity destruction.

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Crash the Project Plan

Crash Closed
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Why in the world would you want to “crash” a project plan? The very use of the word “crash” seems to purvey a sense of doom.

If you’re not familiar with the “crashing” process, it involves taking a current project plan’s Gantt chart and looking for opportunities to make the chart predict an earlier completion date.

In some cases, this is a completely legitimate practice.  If you have tasks that can be done at the same time by two different people or tasks that are erroneously dependent upon each other, you can possibly shorten the timeline by crashing.

However, I’ve also observed the practice of having an already promised date set for a project, and then having your project managers actually figure out how long it will actually take. When realistic expectations are inevitably longer than promised, the discrepancy will either be:

  1. Allowed to slip for the time being if comfortably close to the original promised date.
  2. Immediately scrutinized for tasks that take “too long”.  (Build a highway: 1 year…  Change that to 2 days.)

Ultimately, there will be a process of crashing either at the start of the project or in the middle of the project. Unfortunately, response to reality taking longer than promised is often to redefine what reality should be instead of actually trying to accept reality.

The end result becomes a crashing of the project instead of the project plan.

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Be Open to Change!

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“The only constant is change.”

“Be open to change.”

“Embrace change.”

For those who work in small businesses or startups, these mantras probably aren’t necessary. When you’re breathing constant change, you don’t have to be reminded that it exists.

No, the only people that have to be reminded that “change happens” are those who work for large, slow moving organizations, such as large corporations and government agencies. Many of us have actually stuck with these organizations, despite all the bureaucracy, specifically because change is such a rarity.

Stop telling us safety seeking employees about this whole change thing. Stop giving us copies of Who Moved My Cheese? If we truly embraced change, we probably wouldn’t suffer the high degree of bureaucracy in favor of the safety of the large organization.

The Priority Queue, or Why the Low Priority Tasks Don’t Exist

A queue is wonderful thing… the next person in line gets the next available worker.

However, in many situations, the first person in line shouldn’t always be serviced first, for example, in an emergency room: You can’t leave a person having a blow-out heart attack in the third place in line behind a broken arm and someone who has a rash on his foot.

In these cases, you create a priority queue, and process first-come, first-serve for all concerns of like priority…  Your priority tiers in the emergency room could be something like: immediately life-threatening, potentially life-threatening or capable of resulting in permanent injury, all the way down to mild irritation [the symptom or the patient].

In a strict priority queue, if there are enough immediately life-threatening emergencies, the people with broken arms and mild irritations will not receive attention until the life-threatening emergencies go away.  If the hospital is chronically understaffed, those low priority issues will never receive any attention. In the middle of the spectrum are those whose problems aren’t immediately life-threatening but will become so if enough time goes by.

This is not to mention that at some point between serious issues and irritation is lunch for the hospital staff.

There comes a point where either the low priority and medium priority patients need to be shipped to another hospital unless you want a couple of them to become life-threatening and the rest to cause a riot in your hospital, in which the overworked hospital staff may be tempted to participate.

Just admit to the mild irritations that they’re going to have to go elsewhere to be treated–unless they have extenuating circumstances that make them higher priority than your original assessment.


Defeating the Clockwatching Game

Your rivals and managers in the office are playing a clockwatching game with you. Among their tools are:

  • Email timestamps.
  • Parking lot spots.
  • People witnessing you walking in and walking out with your bags.
  • Instant messages peppered through lunch hours.
  • Away status on instant messenger.
  • Online status on instant messenger.

These things cannot be used in your favor so much as having interference run against them.

  • Schedule Outlook Messages
  • Park in the farthest space available, always.
  • Keep a coffee mug in your car, and fill it up on a different floor. Walk in with you laptop powered up or a keep a spare notebook in your car and walk in with that.
  • Hook up your smartphone to an instant messaging client that works with your instant messenger.

By the way, if you’re using this to slack off, your lack of productivity will ultimately be found out, you scoundrel.