Make your outcomes visible

‘Are you outcomes-driven or are you inputs-driven?’ 

– This is a question I often pose during my productivity presentations and workshops. 

By outcomes-driven, I mean do you let the bigger picture drive how you spend your time? The significant work, the work that makes the most difference over the long term.  By inputs-driven, I mean do you let the immediate drive how you spend your time? The stuff that’s just turned up in your inbox, interruptions, “drive-by” meetings. 

Unfortunately, the reality is that way too often, much of our precious time is driven by our inputs – they’re noisier, and more in your face. 

Monthly planning is a sure-fire way to achieve greater balance between being inputs- and outcomes-driven.  At the start of every month, think about and record your ‘Top 10’ – the significant, meaningful pieces of work that require your time and attention, the biggest priorities for the month ahead. 

When I invite participants to do this during workshops, I often find people struggle to come up with something even close to 10. 

I am positive the outcomes would exist somewhere, since most businesses engage in setting goals and objectives each year.  But perhaps they are buried in a document or plan that’s gathering dust somewhere; perhaps they exist in your head only.  This lack of visibility of the most important work often results in people being driven by their inputs instead – living in the inbox; reacting way too quickly to urgency; being very, very busy, but not necessarily as effective as you could or need to be

Stopping at least once a month to connect with your outcomes helps you to stay focused on the right work, and to prioritise how you spend your time each week. Making your outcomes visible and tangible by thinking about them and getting them out of your head, or the pile they are buried in, will help you to connect with them more frequently.

How connected are you with your outcomes?           

Do you conduct or cushion urgency?

In case you haven’t noticed, your team is probably drowning in emails, buried in meetings and struggling to deliver the critical outcomes you and the organisation need from them. Much of the work that comes their way is urgent, and they probably spend much of their week reacting to the latest crises. And while you would like to think that your team is the gold standard in responsiveness, the constant bombardment of urgent work will eventually take its toll on their morale and on the quality of their work.

As a leader or a manager, you have a responsibility to your team to protect them from unnecessary urgency. A part of your role is to act as a shock-absorber or buffer that will dampen the urgency being driven by other parts of the organisation – from stakeholders, from senior management and from clients.

This is a contentious idea, as many would see your role as a conductor of that urgency. That you should be communicating the urgency to your team, and ensuring they get on with the job with a sense of urgency.  But I see this leading more often than not to senseless urgency, rather than a sense of urgency. And remember, in many cases the urgency is not real, or is unreasonable. Your job should be to evaluate the request and work out if the urgency is real or not, or if it is reasonable or not. If it is false or unreasonable, you may need to push back, negotiate or simply ask why?

A manager I worked with recently was an urgency conductor. Many requests and issues came his way from the leadership team in the organisation. He invariably passed these urgent crises straight to his team, pulling them off whatever they were working on. His team were in a constant state of anxiety, and felt that they could never plan as their week and day was always rearranged at the last moment. They did not feel that many of these issues were truly urgent. They felt that other more senior managers made things urgent either because that was how they got stuff done, or they left things until the last minute and then made the request. Their manager responded to their seniority and let them away with this, and expected the team to suck it up. Not surprisingly this was a high stress, high turnover team.

So, what can you do to cushion the urgency a bit?

  • Always ask when work is needed by before accepting it (not when they want it)
  • Push back on unreasonable deadlines
  • Make sure you know what your team has on their plate already
  • If something is truly urgent, ask why it is urgent. What could have been done differently?
  • Fight to protect your teams’ time – it is their most precious resource
  • Remember that you are not working in ER (unless you actually are)

What can you do differently this week to dial down the urgency for your team?

Busy: A story we tell ourselves

Two executives bump into each other in a lift. One asks the other how she is going. She replies “Busy”. It is almost an instinctive answer that we give when asked the question. But we are all busy. I reckon that busy is the story we tell ourselves when we have not prioritised our time effectively.

Henry David Thoreau once said “It is not enough to be busy; so are ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” 

If you are always so busy that it becomes the badge of honour that you display when asked how you are, maybe you have let too much low value work into your schedule, or failed to prioritise what you have on your plate effectively. Now I can hear some of you say “But we have no other option – this all needs to get done and I am expected to do it”. I hear you, but respectfully suggest that you always have options. You just need to get creative and go beyond your initial reaction of OK, I will do it.

Here are some thought starters:

  1. Say no more often. It is a small but powerful word
  2. Push back on urgent deadlines. They are rarely as urgent as people make out
  3. Plan your meetings and priorities for the week ahead, and make them both visible in your schedule
  4. Be clear about your most important priorities for the month ahead, and fight for the time to work on those things
  5. See workload negotiation as a positive and necessary skill. I bet your line manager is good at it!
  6. Delegate more. And remember, you don’t have to be the boss to delegate to others
  7. Negotiate how much time you will spend on activities. For instance, agree to attend 15 minutes of a meeting to deliver your action, rather than attend the whole meeting
  8. Don’t look at gaps in your schedule as ‘free time’. See these gaps as time to get your priorities done, and protect them well
  9. Be ruthless in controlling your schedule. If you don’t, they will

Change your mindset and automatic response. Next time you are asked how you are, don’t just say ‘busy’ – say ‘productive’

Which actions can you take today to reduce your “busyness”?

How is your productivity fitness?

Professional athletes in sports like rugby, soccer or AFL need a mix of anaerobic fitness and aerobic fitness to excel on the field. Anaerobic fitness is critical to short burst activity, like sprinting or lifting weights. The energy is created by a chemical reaction in the muscle. This is great for a burst of speed, but cannot be sustained for long.

Aerobic fitness is key to longer form activities, like distance running or constant movement on the field. The energy is created through oxygen in the lungs and bloodstream. By the way, I am no expert in the field of fitness, as my soccer teammates will attest, so forgive me for any scientific error in my descriptions above. I am trying to make a point about productivity.

You see, I believe there are two things that provide energy to our activities at work. Urgency and Importance. They are very similar to anaerobic and aerobic fitness, and need to be used in the right way at the right time for peak productivity performance.  I could even extend the analogy and say that we need to practice and train just like an athlete, if we want to be at the top of our game!

I see many executives over-using urgency as the energy to get things done. They often react to things like emails, making them urgent even though they are not, or they leave things until the last minute, where they are forced to react yet again. While a deadline can deliver that chemical burst of energy needed (anaerobic), if we use this energy to get everything done, the quality of our work suffers and we burn out.

Your work is a marathon, not a sprint, therefore I believe that importance (aerobic) should be the energy of choice for most of your work, punctuated by quick bursts of urgency when required. This will ensure a healthier approach to your work, and better overall results with less personal cost.

How do we ensure this balance? Dial down the urgency. Take a more proactive approach to your work, and ensure you have a solid action system in place to manage both your meetings and priorities in a proactive way. Negotiate deadlines and filter everything that tries to get into your schedule. Make importance the first filter you run potential activities though, then urgency. Take control. How you spend your time will dictate what you will achieve. Make sure your productivity fitness levels are at optimal if you want to survive, or even win the rat race.

The Holy Trinity of the Inbox

In a recent coaching session with a senior client, I had to give the executive some brutal and honest feedback. He had come to me with a specific problem. My Inbox is overwhelming me, he said. So, we worked on some strategies to get his 8,000 odd emails down to zero.

In our second session, he presented a very positive spin on his progress, and said he was feeling a lot better about his email. He had reduced his Inbox from 8,000 emails to just over 3,000. He was thrilled. I was disappointed. My belief is that he had made himself feel good about his progress by clearing some of the low hanging fruit in his Inbox. Deleting rubbish and filing the obvious. This made him feel like a good student, and that he was taking action as a result of our coaching sessions.

The truth was he was still a slave to his Inbox, was still trying to manage his priorities in a reactive way. He was not achieving the Holy Trinity of the Inbox – Clarity, Focus and Control

The reason I bang on about Inbox Zero so much is that I know that people who achieve it on a regular basis experience the following:

  • Greater clarity about what deserves their attention and what does not, because having reduced the noise, they can see the forest for the trees;
  • Increased focus on the important work, because they are consolidating their email-driven priorities into one task system alongside their other priorities;
  • A high level of control over how they spend their time, as they are proactively scheduling their work in a time-based action system, and therefore managing their time.

With my coaching client, when he measured his progress against the Holy Trinity, he came up short. Although he had cleared many emails from his Inbox, that was just the backlog. The real issues still remained. He had no clarity because his Inbox was still way too cluttered and overwhelming. He had no focus because his strategy for managing email actions was still mainly to leave them as unread in his Inbox. And he had no control as things kept slipping through the cracks or became urgent before he got to them.

Although Inbox Zero may feel like a chore and a constraint, it is actually easy and liberating once you put the right system in place, and adopt the right mindset.

How is your Inbox going? Are you achieving the Holy Trinity?

The death of email

A few weeks ago, I read a report that Ray Tomlinson, the man credited with the invention of email as we know it, as well as the @ symbol, died at the age of 74. It gave me pause to think about the impact that email has had on our lives and our work. While the great man is dead, is email also about to shake off its mortal coil any time soon?

Mark Twain was famously reported to say “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” in relation to some confusion regarding his gravely ill cousin.  I often have clients ask me if email is dead, or at least, dying. There is much discussion on the interwebs about the impending death of email, and about it being replaced by other, more suitable collaboration tools.

Well, in my opinion, the inventor might be dead, but his legacy lives on and will do so for some time in the corporate workplace. But is that really such a bad thing? I am not sure. I believe email to be a fantastic communication tool. It is we, the emailer, that use it poorly and in the wrong situations. When it does finally get replaced by some other tool, I guarantee we will sabotage that as well, and use it in turn poorly and in the wrong situations!

If you think about all of the frustrations we have about email, they are caused by our own behaviours.

  • Email was designed to be an asynchronous tool. I send it now and you deal with it in your time. But we have subverted this and made it a synchronous tool. I send it now and call you in 5 minutes if you have not responded!
  • I don’t think Ray ever envisioned that we would get more than twenty emails per day. Yet some of my clients are getting 300-400 per day.
  • Maybe Mr Tomlinson thought that email would reduce noise levels as we could quietly tap away at our keyboards and send a communication without distracting anyone. But maybe he did not foresee the amount of noise generated each day by our colleagues and sent into our inboxes.
  • I am sure the big man never thought that most workers would end up with an additional part-time job managing, filing and searching for this email information he enabled. Yet many of us spend way too much time trying to wrestle with our mailboxes and filing systems.
  • Did he ever imagine that most people would end up using their inbox as their priority management system? I don’t believe so. That would be crazy!

Ray did not invent email with these issues in mind. Like climate change these issues are man-made. While there are some sceptics that might refute that climate change exists, I reckon no-one could refute the issues that we have created with email.

So take a moment to reflect on what this great man has achieved, and make a promise to yourself to honour his memory by using email a little more wisely.

What could you do this week to change the way you use email?

The power of a weekly plan

If you are a busy executive, you probably spend some time planning the week ahead. Most of us have a Friday or Sunday ritual that helps us get our head around what the week in front of us has in store. Unfortunately, because we are so busy, most of us don’t spend enough time on our weekly plan. There is an irony here, as this is exactly the reason we should stop and spend time planning – because we are so busy!

I have worked with several executives recently helping both themselves and their EA to design a powerful weekly plan. At the senior level, if there was one lever that I could use to boost productivity, it would be a solid weekly planning process shared by both an executive and their EA, or indeed their team. But it needs to go beyond the one-dimensional planning that they are used to.

Weekly planning serves several functions. It firstly gets you up to date. It is a time to review anything that is outstanding or incomplete, and make decisions on how to move these things forward. Secondly, it is a chance to get organised for the week ahead, and ensure that your time and attention is well spent on the right activities.

Thirdly, it should allow you to look ahead and anticipate what is coming down the track at you. Lastly, and most importantly, it provides time to reflect on the bigger picture and plan time for the important activities that are going to make a real difference.

So, if you want to reduce your stress levels, increase your focus and get set for a truly productive week, try a 4 dimensional planning process:

  1. Look back at last week and get up to date
  2. Look forward to next week and get organised
  3. Look ahead several weeks and anticipate
  4. Look up at the big picture and make sure you are working on the right stuff



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