Which of these 4 traps makes you work longer hours?

In today’s “always on” business world, containing the workday becomes increasingly difficult. For many people, the concept of a 9 to 5 job is a fantasy, as projects, meetings, and inbox wrangling can easily consume nights and weekends if left unrestrained.

But blaming your boss, colleagues, or clients for having to work longer hours provides false satisfaction. Which of your own work habits are the cause? Watch out for these four traps:

  1. Goal not defined clearly: if you are the type of person who immediately jumps into a project or task without stopping to define the outcome, this trap is the most likely cause of your long work hours. Even if you “begin with the end in mind,” you must take the time to think about your work product and deliverables from the perspective of your customer (or manager, or peer; whoever is the recipient of your work). What does success look like from his or her perspective? What problem are you working to solve? What are the acceptance criteria? For larger projects, it is worthwhile to outline your answers in a few concise bullet points, and review them with your customer before beginning work.
  2. Process to achieve the goal not well understood: Once you understand the goal, you must understand how to get there. Often re-work and delays arise when the process of getting from point A to point B is undefined. If the work is new to you, but not to your organization, invest a bit of time in researching the group’s documentation for the processes you will follow (examples: procurement, maintenance, software release management). Then, talk to people you trust to understand the “tribal knowledge” that isn’t captured in any formal document. If the work is new to everyone, take a few minutes to sketch out a swimlane diagram (see basic and advanced examples) to clarify who does what, when.
  3. Time not reserved to do the work: Block out a few hours per day in your calendar with working time to discourage people to invite you to meetings for for whole day. If you don’t you’ll find independent work time creeping into your nights and weekends (in many organizations, the meetings will too, sadly).

    Meetings are productivity eating zombies if not tightly managed.
    Meetings are productivity eating zombies if not tightly managed..
  4. Unproductive during work time: There are three main causes of low productivity during the time you’ve blocked out to work independently. First, you can be distracted: phone calls, drop ins (different from hop ons), reading mildly informative blogs and other unrelated interruptions (for starters, just close your email client!). Second, you can have relatively low domain knowledge: “newbies” in any industry will be less productive as they learn new vocabulary and concepts (although they may find novel solutions without suffering from the same constraints as the veterans). Third, you can have low process proficiency. In plain English, you are slow to complete tasks despite having both process and domain knowledge.

Everyone makes different choices about how much time to devote to career and how much to family, friends, and hobbies. If you’re interested in reclaiming more of  your weekly hours to non-working pursuits, check whether you are susceptible to any of these four traps. Leave a comment if you have other feedback, questions, or ideas!

image credit: myconfinedspace.com

Lessons in Life and Leadership from My Dog, Jack

It might seem surprising to think of a pet as a role model. But when reflecting on the 10 years that I was fortunate enough to share with this Corgi, I recognized a number of character traits worth emulating.

Jack. 2000 - 2015.
Jack. 2000 – 2015.
  1. Know what motivates you. Pursue that with passion. Like most Corgis, Jack was “highly food-motivated.” His nose was a relentless sentinel in pursuit of the next snack. A good belly rub was a close second. Key point: Reflect and understand what deep, internal drive motivates your actions. Don’t get caught in a mindless routine.
  2. Be fully present and focused on the task in front of you. Ignore distractions. Whenever Jack was playing his favorite games or practicing his (admittedly limited) commands, nothing could break his concentration. Squirrels, cars, kids, cats, seagulls – none could elicit a wiggle of those attentive ears. Key point: in an increasingly distracted, multi-tasking world, give yourself completely to the person or work in front of you. This focus and commitment demonstrates the priority and will elicit your best level of performance.
  3. Be patient when people get in your face. Know when to walk away. Jack was not a fighter. Sure, he would growl at dogs three times his size if they came on his turf. But he showed admirable patience with babies pulling his paws, grandmas wiping his whiskers – and when he had enough, he would trot back to his crate and find space. Key point: Control your emotions when others test your temper to avoid damaging relationships.
  4. Speak only when you have something important to say. When you speak, leave no doubt that you were understood. We have all met people, and dogs, who whine, yip, and howl incessantly. None of these are fun to be around, and eventually we tune them out. Jack rarely barked; when he did, there was a good reason, and we listened. Key point: The most effective communicators are selective, clear, and concise.
  5. Make the most of second chances. We adopted Jack when he was 5 years old, after his original owners got divorced and he was returned to his breeder’s kennel. We were all very fortunate to come together, and Jack became the “first, furry kid” in our family. Key point: Mistakes happen, plans fall apart. Don’t let the past hinder you from building a rewarding future.
  6. Demonstrate consistency, integrity, and thoroughness in your actions. These traits build mutual trust and confidence. We joked that Jack was the best behaved member of the family, but in many ways, it was true. Without reciting a long list of examples, please remember that exhibiting the traits listed above will strengthen any relationship: with clients, co-workers, friends, or family.
  7. Leave nothing but positive memories in your wake. Jack made a lot of people very happy. Even as his body failed him, his energetic personality prevailed. Many of us would be fortunate to live up to such a positive standard in our own lives.

Rest in peace Jack, you will stay with us in our hearts.

Stressed? Here’s the MBTA Approach

With the recent ongoing snow storms in Boston, we’ve all been feeling stressed. There are many stress management techniques to choose from, and I thought looking at the MBTA as a case study would provide another perspective. Hey, they are a $1.8b revenue company that managed to turn a profit last year, so they must be doing something right…right?

The Onion recommends a similar technique to improve health and professional satisfaction
The Onion recommends a similar technique to improve health and professional satisfaction
  1. Pretend nothing’s wrong while your performance suffers. This includes telling people about problems long after they’ve happened, providing hopelessly optimistic expectations, and general denial that anything’s wrong.
  2. Shut down completely. Give people a few hours’ notice, and then just stop doing your job for a while. Maybe you will take the opportunity to resign from your job. If, however, you’ve chosen a temporary shutdown, continue to step 3.
  3. Resume underperformance combined with abject denial of any problem. Maybe you’ve drawn inspiration from the thought that every crisis in life is temporary. Maybe you’ve realized you are a publicly funded monopoly without any real consequences for failure. Either way, keep your head high while you flail!

We can learn from any case study, whether it is a success or failure. Hopefully you’ll find a more effective stress management technique on your way to career fulfillment. Have any suggestions? Leave a comment.

Are you a normal thinker in a power-law world?

Along with celebrating the holidays, eating cookies, catching up on sleep, eating cookies, and doing fun projects with the kids (did I mention the cookies?), one reason I enjoy the year-end is the chance to chip away at the stack of unread books piling up in my house. A particularly thought-provoking book in this year’s batch is Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, which has earned a spot on my recently revised Essential Reading List.

This post is not a book review, but rather a highlight of an idea Thiel introduces early in the book and has appeared in my daily thoughts since reading it. He reminds us that conventional Western thought trains us to think of outcomes as following a normal (random) distribution, but in fact both the natural and business world follow a power law distribution. Accepting this re-framing of the world around us is easy in theory, and changing our choices in life as a result can be very difficult.

Some are mean, some have no mean
Some are mean, some have no mean

The idea itself is not original – from the application of mathematical theories to the emerging computer science field in the 1950s, to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2006 New Yorker article, to Taleb’s Black Swan – but Thiel’s framing of the concept, and its implications, is novel.

Many of us are taught to value breadth over depth, and to avoid “placing all of our eggs in the same basket.” We are coached to believe that well-roundedness is a virtue but hyper-specialization is “weird.” The entire premise of the liberal arts education system, from classical to modern times, is to provide foundational knowledge in a broad range of topics. [Personal note: not all institutions follow this mantra. The feedback I heard after being rejected from MIT’s undergraduate engineering program was that I was “too well rounded.”] As students and professionals, we are graded on a curve (the normal distribution). We are advised that portfolio diversification is the safest and most profitable theory of investment.

But strategy is about trade-offs. A business must choose to specialize in a certain market, geography, or product domain in order to reduce competition and increase profit. We cannot diversify our professional lives by being partially invested in many careers. At some point, we must choose to specialize in a function, industry, or growth stage in order to excel.

Sure, it’s interesting to think about whether phenomena like marathon finishing times, portfolio company performance, emissions, or health care spending follow a normal or power law distribution (at least for a few moments). But how can we apply this new way of framing the world? Here are a few ways to put this theory to action in life:

  • Think, plan, and go deep – from an early age. Find out what you (and your kids) are passionate and talented in, and build expertise. The most knowledgeable and talented people in any discipline are always in demand, regardless of market cycles.
  • Take risks with definite outcomes. Be certain, which means being certainly right or wrong, not indefinitely indeterminate. Too many of us hide behind a fear of failure and instead drift along in the middle of the pack without achieving much.
  • Concentrate your investments in a much smaller number of areas: in your professional pursuits, and your personal interests. As the new year begins, instead of asking yourself “what else can I start doing?” think about what you can stop, in order to focus your mental and physical energy on the few things you do best and enjoy most.

Does this resonate with you? Sound completely crazy? Leave a comment and let me know! Regardless, have a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2015.

Be Thankful for the Worst Moments of Your Career

Thanksgiving is a fascinating holiday because it unites the American population — all too easily fragmented into racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic tribes —  with a day of celebration characterized by overeating, football, parades, sitting in traffic, and shopping. God Bless America.

Memorable, perhaps not for the intended reasons
Memorable, perhaps not for the intended reasons

Thanksgiving also prompts us to reflect on the aspects of our lives for which we are grateful. If this habit of reflection and gratitude is not already part of your regular routine, the holiday is a convenient trigger to start. Since so many other pundits will focus on being thankful for the happy, fluffy stuff (like kittens, having a Twitter account that isn’t censored by the government, etc.) I decided to take a different angle and prompt you to reflect on the worst moments of your career; the moments that we so easily sweep under the rugs of our memories.

Why be thankful for the worst moments? Two main reasons:

  1. Without the worst moments of failure, our best moments of success wouldn’t shine. Few of us will experience the extreme “rags to riches” arc of Dhirubhai Ambani (founder of Reliance Industries, one of India’s largest firms) or the drought-erasing victory of the 2004 Red Sox, but every moment of success is more enjoyable in contrast to relative failure.
  2. Our mistakes offer meaningful lessons and accelerate our growth. One of Ray Dalio’s principles is “pain + reflection = progress.” It is easy to read about concepts in books and articles, but the most powerful case studies are the ones we live through.

We’ve all had “forgettable” moments in our careers: the presentation that ends with confused silence, the spreadsheet error that gets through to the Board recommendation, the budget models that go through countless revisions over many bleary eyed weekends (to name a few of mine). Here’s an approach to making the most of those tough experiences:

  • First take a few moments to feel, truly and vividly, the painful feelings of failure and disappointment. Afterwards, it’s much easier to move past the negative experience without lingering regret or embarrassment. Don’t despair: life goes on. You are not an inherently bad person because of a poor choice or error.
  • Then reflect on what faulty reasoning or gap in skills led to the mistakes. We can take on new challenges with confidence provided by new skills and perspective. Be thankful that this failure occurred as early in your career as it did – you will now benefit from the learning for the rest of your days.

Just like roses can’t exist without manure, and a delicious turkey dinner can’t exist without a sink full of stinking dishes, professional blunders are an inevitable part of any career. Be thankful for the learning opportunities they provide, and soak up the satisfaction of success even more fully when it arrives.

Image credit: Business Insider

Is your job as hard as you want it to be?

First: a Veterans/Remembrance Day moment of appreciation to all military veterans out there. The rest of us will never actually understand the level of service and sacrifice that you made. Thank you, truly.

Now, some of that leadertainment you came here for. Many people find themselves restless at work, struggling to find balance. If you are, like me, a modern day corporate Goldilocks seeking professional balance that is “just right,” perhaps this framework will be helpful to you.


  This is not what I meant by “hard.” Entertaining, though, on a few levels.

What I’m proposing is that a job can be hard on you physically, mentally, both, or neither. Ok, I won’t wait up late for the Nobel phone call, but perhaps you haven’t taken stock of your job this way before, or thought of ways to change the balance.

Why is your job hard?
Why is your job hard?

Once you’ve placed your current job on the matrix, ask whether the role fits what you want from your career at this stage. Maybe your commitments at home are growing and you’d happily take on some career Atrophy for more bath time with the kids and date nights with your spouse, or the flexibility to start volunteering. At the other end of the scale, perhaps you are a recent empty nester and are ready for the Exhaustion of a tough growth challenge with a startup organization. Many of us are very happy with Heavy Lifting or Deep Thinking roles, once have found the right match for our strengths.

In an upcoming post, we’ll dive in to the concept of purpose at work. For now, think about why your job is hard, and whether you are satisfied with the answer. If not, collect your thoughts and reach out to your manager, your peers, and your team, and make a plan to change it for the better.

Hold on, were you just trying to delegate?

Let’s go back to the basics here folks. Whether you have 3 months or 3 decades of leadership experience, an essential skill to keep your team effective and engaged is delegation. A wise man once said “delegation is about deciding what you don’t do, and prioritization is about deciding what no one does.”

Cliche aside, the skill required in effective delegation is assigning tasks to your team members that achieve leverage and learning. Terry Pearce has a classic (i.e., VHS!) training video about leadership speaking in which he tells the story of dropping off his daughter at college: the main message about delegation is that unless it hurts, you haven’t delegated a large enough task. But what does this look like on a graph, you ask?

Successful delegation takes self-awareness on the part of the manager and the team
Successful delegation takes self-awareness on the part of the manager and the team

The ideal level of delegation gives the team member enough autonomy to achieve a task that requires a slight “stretch” of skill (i.e., learning) to complete at the required level of quality. Yes, the manager could have completed the same task at a higher quality level (per unit time), but the free time created in the organization allows the manager to take on a higher complexity task that, presumably, no one else below him or her in the team could achieve. This is what I mean by leverage.

Locating this curve for each employee/manager combination requires self-awareness and feedback on both sides. The team member needs to raise awareness of his or her skill level, and the manager needs to raise awareness of his or her level of control or autonomy with delegated tasks. From the manager’s perspective, you must be willing to sacrifice control for the sake of leverage and learning, without setting your team up for failure. Staying too far to the left is demeaning and stifling for your team. Too far to the right, and you will assign tasks that my former (rugby loving) manager would call a “hospital pass:” drop it and your team loses, catch it and you’ll get knocked out.

As a manager, signs that you are too far to the left on the curve include:

  • you ask a team member to circulate a document for feedback among a group, and then scold him or her for sending an email to that group before letting you proofread it
  • you ask a team member to facilitate a meeting, and then chime in after every one of his or her comments with a “clarification”
  • your team members have asked (directly or indirectly) for more responsibility and authority to set direction in achieving the team’s goals

As a manager, signs that you are too far to the right on the curve include:

  • many of the tasks you assign need to be reworked at the last minute
  • few team members volunteer for tasks on offer because they are intimidated by the complexity of the task or the risk of failure

So, I challenge you to use this post as a prompt to reassess your ability to delegate. Have a conversation with your team members to reach alignment on where you are on the curve. Find low-risk ways for your team members to fail constructively, and watch the benefits of learning and leverage accumulate.

Three dimensions of career specialization

For all of us professionals who made the mistake of getting a college degree instead of learning a skilled trade, over the course of a long career we face many decisions about which roles with which organizations will be most rewarding–however you choose to measure rewards.

Once you’ve chosen which of the four job types is for you, at some point in your career you will begin to specialize. If you’ve reached the point in your career where you’re wondering what’s next and preparing to transition to a new role, think about the dimensions below. Sometimes deciding what you will not do next can simplify the search for what you will do.

specialize in a function, industry, or growth stage and gain flexibility in the other two

As you advance professionally, your choices for successive roles will enable you to specialize by:

  • Function: by choosing a functional area (e.g., operations, finance, sales, etc.) of expertise, you can bring best practices across industries.
  • Industry: deep knowledge of a single industry (e.g., B2B software, upstream petroleum, auto insurance) is an asset that allows you to move between companies or functional roles.
  • Growth stage: the problems that confound businesses trying to break above $10m in revenue are very different from those at the $1b revenue threshold. There are many stages of growth (e.g., expanding to a second country or continent, going public or private, etc.).

Building a track record of success in one of these dimensions will lead to flexibility in the other two dimensions as organizations that require your expertise will seek you out as a valuable asset.

I’d be thrilled if my daughters grew up to be welders, plumbers, or electricians. If they don’t I hope they at least read my blog as they navigate their professional careers.

Thanks to Bernardo Menezes for sparking this idea.

Two Essential Charts for Portfolio Project Management

Whether your organization is an oil & gas major or an elementary school, making smart investment decisions and managing the performance of a portfolio of projects is essential to maximize returns on limited resources.

Hopefully you have better investment screening rigor than Kramer. But how clearly can you articulate the relative performance of your investment options? Should you cancel an in-flight project that is underperforming, and redirect the resources? The two essential charts below should be included in any executive dashboard for portfolio project management in any organization, regardless of mission or industry.

  1. Portfolio Analysis Bubble ChartPortfolio Analysis Bubble Chart: The two axes on this chart are NPV (Net Present Value, which is the expected future returns minus investments, discounted to today’s value) and IRR (Internal Rate of Return, which is the rate by which you’d have to discount the future returns to equal zero today). Accounting jargon aside, the chart compares the magnitude and efficiency of investments. The third component, bubble size, could be anything that is appropriate for the organization (in this example, something really specific like “impact to stakeholders”). You want to select the big bubbles in the top right corner that have large, efficient returns. pre- and post-money options on the same chart (in different colors), and you can inform a decision to sell or wind down a current project in favor of a more favorable option.
  2. Project Health Trend ChartProject Health Trend Chart: A snapshot of any portfolio of projects could be misleading if your projects tend to have large up-front costs and generate returns towards the end of their life. This chart measures the performance of projects on an arbitrary 12 point scale: 4 points each for 3 factors (in this example, financial health, impact, and innovation). By plotting this score for each project on intervals from their start dates, a leadership team can make both absolute and relative comparisons.

What other charts would you include in your “desert island” project portfolio management package? Have you used either of these? Leave a comment with your questions and feedback.