Finishing lines (1)

Or

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

Artwork: Damien Hirst Image: Chaostrophy (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA)

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

Where are the finishing lines for your project?

Some projects get finished up and wrapped up neatly, others (often work serving people, like education or government) are by nature never finished.

If your project has no clear finish line, it’s worth considering making an artificial one. It could be after a defined length of time or based on contribution: after you’ve achieved a certain goal, had a defined impact… or if something doesn’t happen by a certain timeframe.

Your cause will rumble on (many of our best causes will do so for as long as there are people), but it’s naive (and unhelpful) to think that your project will last forever, at least in its current form.

Values and vision: the acid test

Peter Drucker and Stephen Covey ask the same simple question to get at the heart of these:

“What do you want to be remembered for?”

Covey asks you to imagine your funeral:

  • Who is there?
  • What do you hope they’d say about you?
  • Is this consistent with how you live now?
  • Which goals and relationships matter, in the end?
  • Which work and stresses fall into insignificance?

The answers to these questions are your compass.

More about that monkey

This is a brilliant illustration from William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass about avoiding taking responsibility for other people’s problems.

Where Is the Monkey?

Let us imagine that a manager is walking down the hall and that he notices one of his subordinates, Jones, coming his way. When the two meet, Jones greets the manager with, “Good morning. By the way, we’ve got a problem. You see….” As Jones continues, the manager recognizes in this problem the two characteristics common to all the problems his subordinates gratuitously bring to his attention. Namely, the manager knows (a) enough to get involved, but (b) not enough to make the on-the-spot decision expected of him. Eventually, the manager says, “So glad you brought this up. I’m in a rush right now. Meanwhile, let me think about it, and I’ll let you know.” Then he and Jones part company.

Let us analyze what just happened. Before the two of them met, on whose back was the “monkey”? The subordinate’s. After they parted, on whose back was it? The manager’s. Subordinate-imposed time begins the moment a monkey successfully leaps from the back of a subordinate to the back of his or her superior and does not end until the monkey is returned to its proper owner for care and feeding. In accepting the monkey, the manager has voluntarily assumed a position subordinate to his subordinate. That is, he has allowed Jones to make him her subordinate by doing two things a subordinate is generally expected to do for a boss—the manager has accepted a responsibility from his subordinate, and the manager has promised her a progress report.

The subordinate, to make sure the manager does not miss this point, will later stick her head in the manager’s office and cheerily query, “How’s it coming?” (This is called supervision.)


William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass – Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? in the Harvard Business Review

Step out of the picture

If you’re up to your eyeballs, and your team isn’t getting the job done, it’s sometimes necessary to do the work yourself so that it gets done and done right.

Sometimes necessary. Always dangerous.

You’re taking work back – work that presumably you took time to spec and explain to someone else – but worse than that is taking the responsibility for getting things done.

Often you’ll find that if you explain whose job it is to get something done, point them to a resource or two, and step out – remove yourself from the picture – people find amazing ways to get things done.

Do whatever you can to make sure that whoever’s got the monkey keeps it.

That little bit extra

… is often what makes the difference, for good or ill.

  • Still going for a run even though you’re taking the kids to the park, so will get exercise later
  • That extra ten percent of time to improve the finish on a piece of DIY – so that it gives you pleasure every time you look at it, instead of bugging you
  • The extra ten percent of money it costs to buy a product because it’s good, not because it’s the cheapest one
  • The not-strictly-necessary time that you spend catching up or doing fun stuff with your colleagues that makes you more than just people who work together
  • The extra job that you tick off so that you not only don’t have to spend time on it tomorrow, and – as importantly – don’t have to spend time and energy remembering tomorrow.

And in the opposite direction…

  • The extra helping / desert / few squares of chocolate that you eat each day, putting your calorie intake 2% above your use, instead of 2% under…

This sort of thing

Those who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.

Artemus Ward*

I came across this at the start of Aaron Dignan‘s Brave New Work**

It’s a fantastic line. It was written as a faux-disparaging remark that was exactly intended to show the sort of humour you could expect from the Ward/Browne.

What I love about it is that it’s true of almost everything, including (and perhaps especially) the kind of highbrow entertainment that Ward’s fictional reviewer would have thought was worth their attention: opera, ballet, public lectures… If you like that kind of thing, you’ll find it the sort of thing you like.

And if you don’t like this sort of thing that doesn’t mean it’s bad (though of course it might be bad) – it means it’s not for you.*** And that’s fine. It’s not for you, and your opinion isn’t really relevant – what matters is the opinion of the people who it’s for.

This is a liberating way of thinking about anything you make, anything you’re trying to build or sell… even about yourself.

*Variously attibuted to Ward (pen name of Charles Farrar Browne), Abraham Lincoln and others. Ward is the best bet – more here.

**A really interesting read – recommended – more to follow.

***Seth Godin has written a lot on this – see this post, this episode of Akimbo, Tribes and This is Marketing

What’s it worth? (2)

The way of thinking I described yesterday also applies to buying equipment, services and training in an organisation. The question isn’t simply “How much does this cost?” (which usually feels like a lot), but rather “How much is it worth it to us to have this problem solved?”

The obvious thing to look for is the gain in productivity that the new training or tool will bring: “What will this enable us to do, and is the gain worth the cost?” – if this isn’t clear, it’s probably not worth considering until it is.*

It’s sometimes less clear what a new tool will allow you to stop doing – will it cut several steps out of a process, need less maintenance, reduce physical waste, remove a bottleneck, stop someone from being interrupted to fix its problems?

Then there’s the inverse-opportunity cost of the new tool: what will someone from your team be able to do more of with the time and attention that’s freed up by the new asset? If the new tool frees up time to create assets, build connections, serve others, or run other important processes better, you might find suddenly that its worth several times its price.

Buy time. They’re not making any more of it.**

*And it’s essential to remember that the cost is more than the price – how much space does it take up, what support will it need, what maintenance to keep it working, what does it use up? – see Whole-life cost.

**With apologies to Mark Twain.

Some rules for future success

  • Know what’s important
  • …and know what’s for you (and what isn’t)…
  • … and act accordingly – NOW.
  • Be ‘on assignment‘ – make stuff happen, get stuff done.
  • Really – determinedly, doggedly get stuff done. Done is better than perfect.
  • Find the right people. Say the words. Collaborate. Coordinate. Lead.
  • All the time, be learning.
  • In particular, identify and work on foundations and fundamentals.
  • Communicate clearly and well.
  • Be attentive to feedback of all sorts.
  • Be able to use the best tools of the day to facilitate the above.
  • Be kind.**

** This might sound a bit limp at first pass, but really – If nothing else, what would you hope for in your interactions with yourself, family, friends, strangers?

Counting stamps

Examining the economics of the mail, he [Charles Babbage] pursued a counter-intuitive insight, that the significant cost comes not from the physical transport of paper packets but from their “verification” – the calculation of distances and the collection of correct fees – and thus he invented the modern idea of standardised postal rates.

James Gleick – The Information: a History, a Theory, a Flood

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Where in your work, your life, are you counting stamps when you could be sending packages?

Nit-picking or penny-counting might be costing you a lot more time, money, emotional labour, good-will than you think you’re saving.

Maybe you could standardise, or maybe counting stamps just isn’t worth your effort at all.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 8 (part 2)

This is the eighth-and-a-half post in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 8: Create Boundaries for Yourself

Many of the boundaries that we face are immovable, like limits to the time available to us, or being able to be in one place at a time, or the limited nature of our knowledge, no matter how much we know.

There are other boundaries that we can shift: the resources we have at our disposal, the number of people we partner with or serve, who we partner with, our skills, and the skills of our teams.

In service of the right vision, many of these boundaries are worth shifting.

But where to start? Concentration of force counts: pushing in all directions weakens the force we’re able to apply, and results in slow, frustrating change – if any. Pushing in all directions at once is usually exhausting.

So we decide – even within the immovable boundaries, we make our own, choosing where to apply our effort. This is a helpful way to think about boundaries – not as restrictions that hold you back, but as tools to help you focus.