productivity

The Laws of Subtraction

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The Laws of Subtraction by Matthew E. May was selected in a book club I recently joined. It's a compelling concept and I would have picked up the book otherwise, but I might not have finished it. The six laws of subtraction that May proposes are designed to help us remove the superfluous because success in the "age of excess everything" demands the skill of subtraction. That piqued my interest, as we really do have unlimited options and distractions and the key is the ability to prioritize and tune out the rest.

May compiles more than 50 different stories and perspectives on the topic, resulting in a book more than 200 pages long. I am an easy reader - I love nonfiction and I love new ideas that I can put to use. Unfortunately, I fell asleep twice while attempting to read The Laws of Subtraction.

May failed to apply his own methodology to his writing. The stories and metaphors designed to illustrate his laws went well beyond the point. I would have expected a book on the laws of subtraction to be short, concise, and laced with thought-provoking "Aha!" moments. Unfortunately, the gems were buried in lengthy explanations and I truly don't recall any of the specific laws themselves - they weren't catchy and actionable.

That being said, I respect May's obvious expertise and passion for the topic and took away a few pearls that certainly made the read worthwhile:

Pulsing

Pulsing is the concept of working in 90 minute stints with recharging breaks in between, such as a walk, meditation, doodling, or reading. Studies of brain activity show that we move from higher to lower "alertness" every 90 minutes. May points out that the symptoms of pushing the boundaries include restlessness, hunger, drowsiness and loss of focus, which explains why I find myself staring out the window and eating M&Ms.

I would add emphasis on the first 90 minutes of the day. What would happen if you invested the best of yourself each day into your highest priorities, with a targeted deadline less than 90 minutes away followed by an enjoyable activity? Sprints result in quick wins that build momentum.

Design...In Everything

FedEx LogoWe often only think of design when it comes to logos and advertisements, like this FedEx logo. (Do you see the white arrow?) But simplicity and clarity truly are desirable in all our interactions, so why not consider how simple and clear our lives and businesses are designed?

I often explain too much, burying my focus in a muddle of words. I also save way too many documents in a pile on my desk, just in case I might one day want to review one. What areas of your organization are cluttered or absorb an inordinate amount of your energy? Do you have white space where a person can relax, create, and work effectively?

Intentional Limits

In the past two years, I have often found myself paralyzed by the sheer number of directions I could go in. We all have a variety of passions, interests, and strengths...which to pursue? May observes that intelligent limitations provide the necessary frame to contain our efforts. Without those purposeful guideposts, we stare at a blank page.

Derek Sivers, author of Anything You Want, notes, "Give yourself some intentional restrictions in life and you'll finally get inspired to act. Restrictions will set you free." In what ways can you set better boundaries on your work, your time, and your relationships so that the next step is obvious and builds on the steps that came before?

The Principles of Skunk Works

Skunk Works is the top secret Advanced Development Program for Lockheed Martin. Their legendary chief engineer, Clarence "Kelly" Johnson, developed a strict set of principles for leading this shoestring rapid innovation team to repeated success, and they hold true for leading any team:

  1. It's more important to listen than to talk.
  2. Even a timely wrong decision is better than no decision.
  3. Don't halfheartedly wound problems - kill them dead.

The implications of the lessons contained in The Laws of Subtraction are open for application to large organizations, small groups, and individuals. Fewer distractions, clear direction, and clean space benefit everyone involved.

A surprising and genius vacation policy

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Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to speak to my local American Society of Training and Development chapter on building a change-ready culture. During the presentation, I had participants team up to discuss how they could tackle some of their urgent change problems. The teams shared some of their results afterward and a couple gems emerged around corporate vacation policies that I had to share:

The typical company vacation policy: 

Each employee has the opportunity to take up to X vacation days during the organization's fiscal year and must submit their vacation request ahead of time with manager approval contingent on coverage, seniority, yada, yada, yada.

Invisible fine print: We pretty much expect you to still manage everything while you are out on said vacation. While we can't force you to respond to emails and calls, we will reward and promote the type of employees who aren't ever really on vacation.

The genius company vacation policy: 

You MUST take at least X vacation days and management will actively monitor whether you are taking said vacation days and how your team functions while you are gone.

If YOU are required to deal with the situations that arise, then you are FAILING. If you are micro-managing from Tahiti, you will find yourself across from your supervisor when you return. In fact, we are going to monitor the number of emails you send while you are off duty and if it surpasses X, IT will shut off your access on your next vacation.

Why? 

As Wes Stockman of Nicholas & Company and Jay Naumann of RC Willey pointed out (two fantastic minds on organizational development):

Vacations provide natural opportunities to grow your teams and develop new leaders. Micromanagers hold their teams back and communicate to their direct reports that they are not competent or responsible enough to rise to the occasion, which sabotages a culture of ownership and excellence.  Leadership should empower synergy, not bottleneck growth.

Of course, there is also the more obvious benefit: your employees actually return to work recharged and rested and should they fail to return (or need to be escorted out at some future date), you will have plenty of competent replacements ready to jump in without interruption.

So, next time one of your employees requests time off, consider who will be empowered to practice their role while they are out and communicating strict email boundaries - for everyone's sake.

What happens when you curate real teams

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There comes a point in your career where the word team causes indigestion. We've all been on a "team" that did absolutely nothing beyond meeting and talking about doing. There was no one to carry out the plans or the team stopped being relevant long ago and no one disbanded it.

We've been on teams that got momentum (and therefore noticed by leadership), only to have the team's resources cannibalized and diverted to additional projects.

Then there's the dreadful committee, thrown together on a whim, without any real authority, and consisting of already overworked employees.

Whether you are developing your board, an executive team, or a project team, diversity reigns. This includes diversity in capacity. Without conscious curation of compatible personalities and balanced skill sets, leadership breaks down from within, never getting the chance to fulfill the collective goals of the group.

I've witnessed multiple nonprofit directors salivate over a potential board member from a behemoth law firm or bank. They don't consider that these high-level professionals often sit on multiple boards, have honed their skills at saying no when assignments or donation requests go around, and may never have time to show up to a meeting.

Similarly, I've watched as new executives are promoted into leadership teams based on their ability to do the day-to-day work only for chaos to ensue because their personality and style steps on the toes of the established team they must work within.

Project teams are one of the most obvious examples of terrible team dynamics. We assign the already swamped department head to oversee and add in her direct reports.

How many committees, boards, or teams have you sat on? How many have truly engaged you in action rather than just sitting?

Let's build our teams to get stuff done:

  1. Establish a list of priority outcomes for the team.
  2. Identify the critical skills and resources necessary to produce those outcomes efficiently.
  3. Begin identifying the people who have those resources AND the capacity to bring them to the table. Mix it up. Cross-functional teams create better results and companies that take advantage of energy and talent lower down stimulate employee engagement, problem solving, and intelligent succession routes.
  4. Once you have a list of ideal recruits, identify each person's personality and typical group role.
  5. Create a final team line-up with one dominant leader, at least two task-oriented doers, and at least one wise person who has a knack for setting the tone, managing dominant personalities, and drawing out the observant personalities.
  6. Finally, invite these players to your team specifically to fill those roles in a way that brings out their unique contributions. Don't leave your hopes and expectations to chance, but also provide space for them to share how they think they might best support the goals.

Ask your wise person to set the tone. Ask your type-A personality to record results and track progress (forces them to listen). Ask your doers to be implementation leads. When the team first meets, introduce the people AND the primary resource you hope they can offer to the team.

By using this method we:

  • Create ownership by allowing team members to opt-in;
  • Guide contributions to fill the actual needs;
  • Prevent the doers from becoming martyrs by appreciating their skills and ability;
  • Remove the guilt from the advisors who don't have the time or skills to implement; and
  • Produce momentum and engagement, leading to outcomes.

The bottom line: If you can't commit to at least rushing through these steps prior to creating a "team", don't do it at all. People are a valuable and limited resource, especially volunteers. Don't waste such opportunities haphazardly.

Have a horrid team experience? What was the problem? Conversely, what created the magic within the teams that brought out the best in you?