Thursday, February 17, 2011

Are you Playing Work?

You get up in the morning and put on the suit and tie. Grab a cup of coffee on the way to the office. Settle into your desk chair, fire up your computer, check your regular websites and answer email. The 9 am status meeting comes next, followed by back-to-back project meetings. Answer a bit more email and then it’s time for lunch. After a bite to eat, it's back to the desk to answer some emails, review a proposal for the new project, update the business case spreadsheet, hit the 3 pm staff meeting and then wind down the day. When you get home, you loosen the tie and say, “Wow, what a busy day!”

We’ve all had days like this. When meetings string into other meetings and your email inbox looks like the backup of planes at O’Hare Airport. At the end of the day, you’re not really sure what you accomplished, but it sure was busy. I call this phenomenon Playing Work. Just like my 4 year-old daughter Meredith likes to dress up and play house or have a tea party, we can all fall into the trap of playing work – going through the motions, but not focusing on what really needs to be done for our future. We get dressed up in our business clothes and our briefcase. We drive to the office and find our desk with a well equipped computer and phone. Everything is as it should be, and yet it’s easy to miss the fundamental of what we do – serve customers, create value, solve problems and take advantages of opportunities.

The point of it all is not what I did today, but what did I accomplish for our long-term future? It’s not how busy I am, but where did I make a positive impact today? Were my actions today focused on the vision and what’s important, or was I distracted by all of the urgent tasks around me?

For most knowledge-based workers, our projects, meetings and email can distract us from the real work of serving customers and building value. It’s easy to have an internal focus that moves from meeting to meeting, email messages to business cases to reports. And at the end of the day, we can forget who really signs our paychecks – our customers.

I knew an entrepreneur who spent three days per week working “in” his business – doing the things that needed to be done to keep the lights on and the income flowing. The other two days each week he worked “on” the business – doing the things that were vitally important for the future but were easy to miss in the urgency of everyday life. I liked the focus.

Not everyone can take 40 percent of their week and work on the big picture things that will drive the ultimate success of the business. But everyone can refocus their efforts from “what I did” to “what was accomplished?” In your project meeting, change the focus from an internal perspective to an external, customer-focused one. Which emails are best not to waste brain space dealing with? Which reports could you stop asking for because they really don’t create any real value for you or your customers?

In the end, my opinion is that we need to stop Playing Work. We need to stop letting our efforts be dictated by the Tyranny of Outlook – if it is on my calendar or in my email box, I have to deal with it. Take an hour or two this next week and work on the one or two things that, if successful, would dramatically improve the customer experience or move your business/project/department forward. My experience is when you proactively refocus your efforts, you won’t say, “It was a busy day,” but instead, “I had a great day.”

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Repost: Introduction to Plan B Philosophy

I received a number of comments of new readers that hadn't seen the first post from October 2010. I thought I would put it back out there to provide a framework for how Plan B Philosophy came to be. This is the original post. - Jeff


I live in a Craftsman bungalow built in 1919. The family we bought the house from about 10 years ago had lived there since the early 1940s. Needless to say it needed a bit of work. It turns out that I enjoy doing this type of remodeling, although I had never tackled a challenge like this.

My first project was the bathroom – I had remodeled a bathroom before, so I felt confident that it was within my skill set. Lisa and I picked out the tile, the fixtures and determined the floor plan. Then I tore into the walls. That was surprise number one – in addition to the plaster that I expected, the exterior wall was pure brick, the ceiling was layers of particle board and after my demolition I had a huge pile of rubble on the ground. And I was distraught. This was not what I bargained for. We had a vision of a beautiful bathroom that would begin our restoration of this great house. What I now had was a pile in the middle of the room.

What happened next is illustrative of many activities in our lives – even though most of them do not involve crow bars, hammers and power tools. I called my wife and said, “What do I do now? I don’t think I can put this back together.” Her answer was simple – “What’s the next thing you need to do to put it back together?” In business speak, how can we take the next step forward towards our vision – a beautiful bathroom – even though we encountered circumstances that we had not anticipated originally?

To a large extent, managing and growing a business in today’s world is a lot like my bathroom project. I had the personal skills and competencies to tackle this project. I had demonstrated success in a similar project – a previous bathroom remodel project. Yet that wasn’t enough – I found myself in a place that I hadn’t encountered before and couldn’t figure out the next step. There are surprises around every corner. Some of them are hidden beneath other surprises. Sometimes it feels like you have ripped down the walls and are now sitting with a pile of rubble in the middle of the room. What you do next as a leader is the most important thing. Some people call it adaptability or flexibility. Although these are components of success in today’s world, I think there are more than just those traits. I think it takes an entire way of thinking – something I have started to call the Plan B Philosophy.

The level of uncertainty today is greater today than in any other time during most of our lives. Change continues to move at a breakneck pace. In my business, financial services, we continue to get battered by the economy, regulation, new and revitalized competitors, in addition to the normal factors such as leadership, strategy and operational execution. The world is the same for all of our competitors as well – they face the same set of challenges, many of them that are a complete surprise. The question then becomes how do you react to this?

The Plan B Philosophy Blog will begin to propose a set of principles that leaders can use to adapt to changing circumstances. Some of these principles are ones that I have learned through more than a few scars. Some are ideas that my colleagues, associates and friends have demonstrated through their actions – both in the personal and professional world. My hope is that this way of thinking is infectious. There is an old saying that the Chinese character for crisis is made up of the characters for “danger” and the character for “opportunity.” We are clear about the danger in today’s economic environment. My hope for all of us is that we can stay true to our vision and focus on the opportunity.

I intend to post a couple of times per month with my thoughts on the changing business landscape. I welcome your questions, comments and even expressions of hostility. Feel free to pass this on to a colleague if you feel the urge - we could all use more adaptability, regardless of our role, industry or business.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Try the Bad Version of an Idea

In reading a WSJ article a week ago from Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, I was struck by his concept of the “Bad Version.” This is a technique used in screenwriting to help come up with new concepts. His essay was on ways to tax the rich and make them feel good about it. (It is pretty funny, but don’t click over until you finish this post!)

Adams’ words on the Bad Version: “I spent some time working in the television industry, and I learned a technique that writers use. It's called ‘the bad version.’ When you feel that a plot solution exists, but you can't yet imagine it, you describe instead a bad version that has no purpose other than stimulating the other writers to imagine a better version.

For example, if your character is stuck on an island, the bad version of his escape might involve monkeys crafting a helicopter out of palm fronds and coconuts. That story idea is obviously bad, but it might stimulate you to think in terms of other engineering solutions, or other monkey-related solutions. The first step in thinking of an idea that will work is to stop fixating on ideas that won't. The bad version of an idea moves your mind to a new vantage point.”

What a great concept. As I think about adaptability and a Plan B mindset, one of the best ways to work through an idea is to brainstorm lots of different ways that it can work from a curious point of view. In an earlier post I talked about replacing “why it can’t” with “how might it work?” This is another great idea.

In Adams essay he suggested bad version ideas such trading time for money. For instance, should the government allow anyone above a certain tax rate to use the car pool lane without a passenger or park in a handicap spot or get to the front of the line at the Department of Motor Vehicles? He also suggested a bad version of gratitude by arranging for people who use government health care services to write a thank you note to someone in the top two percent of taxpayers, explaining that when the dollars are personalized, they are harder to gripe about. He discussed ways of raising revenue through shared pain, incentives and additional power. Some interesting thoughts, but the important point was the process.

How could you use the "bad version" process to improve your product or business? I suspect many of these ideas might actually have turned out not to be just a bad version and have been implemented in real life. For instance, as I went through security on my most recent flight, I was able to use the Sky Priority lane because I fly quite a bit with Delta. Could you change the way you charge your customers – what if you charged a surcharge for our pain in the rear customers or gave a discount to our nice ones? Could you change how you deliver your product – what if you had monkeys answer the phones? Oh wait, a couple of companies I know have already implemented that one! The solution isn’t important; it’s the dialogue that begins to change the mindset.

The point of the bad version is to look from an entirely different vantage point to the problem you have and think of all of the possible ideas. Fixating on the problem and ideas that work will never move you forward. Only by changing your perspective can you begin to see solutions.