Getting things done: Do more, talk less

walt disney

My last two days were spent in a workshop, where we were tasked to generate new ideas to keep our business ahead of the competition. The participants were super excited and energetic, exclaiming “Oh! We should do this! And that! And this as well!” With ideas plastered all over the conference room, it finally came to creating action plans to ensure these project ideas come to fruition. All of a sudden, the energy faded. Nobody wanted to step up to lead and execute. There were some soft murmurs and offers to support, advise, or consult, but no one wanted to DO.

In my experience, we spend way too much time talking about what we want to do, why we want to do it, how we want to do it, and what could go wrong if we do it. After hours, days, months, or even years of talking, nothing is done. As the Texan saying goes, it’s all hat and no cattle. Or, as Thomas Edison, who invented the electric light bulb and held over 1,000 U.S. patents, eloquently stated:

Vision without execution is hallucination.

When you’re working in the business world, you simply can’t afford to have endless meetings and consultants talking about what should be done. If you don’t do anything, then your competitors will. And eventually you talk yourself out of a business.

The business school education system exacerbates this problem. As this Harvard Business Review article astutely points out, business schools focus too much on creating and publishing scientific research rather than equipping business practitioners with practical skills. When I was in business school, there were no classes on sales, which is the oldest and most useful skill you need in business. However, there were a ton of classes that studied philosophies regarding investment techniques or strategy development. Professors tend to get tenured because their research is widely published rather than because they built successful companies. Students are encouraged to write several iterations of their business plan before actually starting a business. On top of that, most MBA grads go into jobs in consulting or investing, which involve talking about what a company should do or about which company they should invest in. More business school grads should actually run businesses, whether they are the CEO / co-founder in a start-up or a product manager in a giant tech company.

On a daily basis at work, how can we focus on getting things done? How can we talk less and do more?

1. Eliminate useless meetings: For me, this is the biggest time suck. If someone schedules a meeting without clear objectives and agenda, press the decline button. If someone schedules a meeting with too many people for an effective discussion and decision-making, press the decline button.

2. Reduce consultants: This includes internal and external consultants. I was on a project last year where there were 6 consultants and only 2 doers. That is ridiculous and a complete waste of time for the doers. Move the consultants, so that they either become doers or they are simply informed. You have to earn your right to be involved.

3. Ask for forgiveness rather than permission: People spend alot of time talking because they are afraid to make mistakes. They need to make sure all of the relevant stakeholders are aligned and agreed with the decisions, and then they start to execute. The problem is that often it’s too difficult and time-consuming to align ALL stakeholders. The longer it takes, the less competitive you become. Therefore, once you have the few key stakeholders on board, just go for it. If some people are peeved, then so be it. You did what you thought would be the best for the business and your customers.

4. Just do it: Ok. I recognize that even writing this blog post I am talking about doing something. Therefore, whatever it is you want to accomplish, as the famous Nike slogan goes, just do it.

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Managing work during stressful times

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For the last couple of months, work has been killer. My former boss moved onto a new position and took a long leave before the new boss arrived. During these transitional times, I not only inherited work from my old boss, but also continued with my primary responsibilities while on-boarding my new boss.

All of a sudden, more emails, deadlines, and meetings all started charging my way. People from all sides needed decisions / recommendations / input while I was still trying to figure out what was the issue at hand. Meanwhile, a large, hot spotlight was on my back as I had to continue running our group before my new boss was fully onboard.

My first reaction was to bang my head against the desk…repeatedly. After discovering that head-banging did not resolve any issues, I then proceeded to take deep breaths…until my desk neighbor thought I was becoming asthmatic. Finally, I took some more sensible steps to manage (and attempt to reduce) my stress.

  • Prioritize: I turned to my tried and true method for dealing with “ALOT of stuff.” I listed all of my work tasks and prioritized each item based on urgency and importance. What do I need to do NOW? What can I push back on? What can I delegate? What can I ignore? I think this is critical from transforming a large blob of work to manageable tasks. 
  • Focus: My inbox has been overflowing with emails. While sometimes I find it irresistible to check every single email that comes through, the key to getting things done is to focus on what you are doing. I started scheduling specific times to check email. I’d tell myself, “OK. You will work on this for 45 mins and check your email for 15 mins.”
  • Negotiate: I find many times what people request in emails can be very different than what they actually want. Investing in a 5 to 10 minute phone conversation to figure out what they really need can be such a time saver. A request can go from “I need every competitor product sales for the last 5 years” to “I just need these 3 product sales for the last 5 years”.
  • Decide: Indecision can generate more workload. A decision may be held up because more information, analysis, and stakeholder buy-in are needed. However, the longer a decision is stalled, the greater the ripple effect on other people’s work. When time runs out, the indecision manifests itself into a series of painful fire drills. Therefore, I find that action generally trumps inaction when running a business. Sound and efficient decision-making can save yourself and others a tremendous amount of work later on.
  • Step Out: Sometimes, you find out that the sky is falling and then more bad news follow, pushing you to the brink of a heart attack. When this happened to me recently, I shoved my computer away and went for a walk (without my phone). It turned out to be a great move. The walk allowed me to not only calm down but also helped me put the situation into perspective.
  • Celebrate small wins: I relish the feeling I get when crossing out an item on my to-do list. I can actually feel a small rock removed from my shoulders. Crossing out items also signifies that you’ve made progress. You set out to do something and you did it. I think it’s important to celebrate these small wins to encourage yourself to keep moving and progressing.
  • Stay Healthy: The automatic reaction to stress tends to be sleep less, consume more caffeine and carbs, and cut out exercise. However, I find myself utterly useless when I’m sleep, nutrition, and exercise-deprived. Forcing yourself to sleep, exercise, and eat vegetables are actually better for your productivity.

Completely cutting stress out of your life is near impossible. Instead, I think the key is how to manage stress and perhaps even turn it into a positive trigger.

3 conversations to re-energize yourself at work

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I had been getting bogged down at work. It happens almost without you noticing. You attend one too many meetings (with questionable value add). You juggle more office politics than usual because someone’s ego issues (aka. insecurity). You have to work with negative people (with little rainy clouds over their heads). You spend hours on tedious work (also with some questionable value add and that could be outsourced to monkeys). It happens.

However, in the past 1-2 weeks, I engaged in 3 conversations that remarkably renewed my sense of purpose at work.

1. Talk to your customers

This could be the easiest way to lift you out of a work rut (unless you have really terrible customers or your organization provides a really terrible product or service). Since I work in agriculture, speaking to my customers (who are mostly smallholder farmers) reminds me how I am able to help them increase their incomes. With higher incomes, they are able to keep their children in school, provide them with more opportunities, and break the cycle of poverty.  For me, that is incredibly motivating.

For people without customer-facing jobs, this is particularly critical because it puts into context the purpose of your role which may not always be obvious. For example, if your job is packaging in supply chain, then visiting a customer’s warehouse makes you realize that good packaging could really make a difference as your company’s boxes would stand out next to those of competitors, or your products are easier to move because they have handles on the side, or different products are easily identifiable so the customer doesn’t pull the wrong box, etc.

For people with customer-facing roles, it’s meaningful to engage your customers on a more personal level. Shelf the normal business talk (e.g., sales next quarter) to truly listen and learn about the way they use your products / service and what they think about it. Negative feedback can also provide good motivation for you to do something about it.

2. Talk to people that want to work at your organization

Through alumni networks, LinkedIn or other references, I get pinged by people that are interested in working at my company. I find it refreshing to talk to them because it reminds me what it was like when I was in that position — how excited I was to get an interview, how eager I was to get an offer letter, how I visualized myself walking around the office. Most importantly, it reminds me why I wanted this job in the first place.

Therefore, go ahead and chat with those eager beavers that want your job! They can help you take a step back, realize what you take for granted, and re-inject a sense of purpose.

3. Talk to a stranger about your job

2 weeks ago, I attended a networking event, where people inevitably trade name cards and ask about what you do. At first, I felt like a broken tape recorder saying, “My name is…. and I work at ….. as a …….”. However, I ran into a few people that were somehow genuinely curious about my work. I started explaining in more detail about the purpose of my company and my job as well as industry trends. Before long, I was really getting into it. I almost felt bad for taking up so much air time.

Talking to a stranger about your job forces you to strip out the monotonous work involving pointless reports or pre-pre-pre-meetings and forces you to focus on the important parts of your work.

Next time, when you find yourself in a deep dark rut, where you’re about to stab yourself in the eye. Go out and talk to people. They will help you re-focus and strip out the noise. If you’re still grumpy after these conversations, then perhaps it’s time for a new job. As Mother Teresa astutely once said:

Work without love is slavery.

How to motivate others to work with you

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Whenever a particular co-worker passes by my section of the office, I witness grown men and women attempting to dive under their desks to hide from him. Whenever he leaves, you hear comments such as:

“He just scheduled another hour long meeting with 20+ people to talk about nothing.”

“He asked for 5 minutes of my time, and he ended up talking for an hour!”

“I already gave him this information. I don’t know why he’s asking me again and again.”

“He always wants something from me. I don’t know what he’s done for me in return.”

To avoid being that guy, here are some ways to increase your likelihood that people would want to work with you.

1. Cherish people’s time

We are all busy. For people to pay attention to you, you are competing with a zillion things – emails, unfinished work, phone calls, meetings, urgent matters, instant messages, and (potentially more important) people. It’s more likely that people will pay attention to you if they know you respect their time.

A. Understand clearly what you need and what they can offer

I think the key to respecting people’s time is to first clearly understand what you need from engaging them. Instead of approaching someone with a vague question, think carefully beforehand so that you can ask them very specific and pointed questions which are relevant to their function / expertise.

B. Do prep work to save time

People hate giving you information that they know you have or that is widely available. If you have questions to ask someone, be sure to check first whether you have this information on hand. Additionally, be sure to get background information before you approach someone. This will save both of you some time.

C. Select an appropriate mode of communication

Has this happened to you before? Someone sets up an hour long meeting for something that could have been easily resolved through a quick email. Or, someone sends two dozen emails for something that could have been resolved through a quick face to face or phone call. Think about the nature of the conversation and select the most appropriate form of communication.

D. Keep to your reserved time

My fellow co-worker is quite famous for his drive-by’s. He will walk past my group’s section and stop next to someone’s desk and say “Hey! Do you have 2 minutes?” The problem is that 62 minutes later, he’s still there!  The opposite extreme is the people that reserve your time for a meeting, but then they themselves are 30 minutes late! People do not want to work with you if you waste their time.

 2. Listen

People are inclined to work with you if they know you genuinely listen to them. I’ve been on telecoms where a question is asked, and someone will immediately start answering the question only to realize that they have no idea what the answer is 3 minutes later. Thus, 3 minutes of everyone’s time could have been spared if the person just listened to the question in the first place.

A big part of listening is giving people a chance to speak and asking probing questions. I’ve seen people that just ask a series of questions and then try to answer the questions themselves or keep on explaining the questions. The other person only needed to be given the chance to answer. Often times, probing questions are necessary if you are listening to understand rather than listening to get a superficial yes / no answer.

Remembering is proof of successful listening. OK. Maybe we don’t all have great memories with so many things going on. However, if you don’t remember, then people don’t think you’ve listened to them.

3. Earn their time

People generally respond well to give and take relationships. Even outside of work, you would probably stop inviting / hosting a friend for dinner if she never reciprocates. Hence, nobody likes a taker, so don’t be one.

The best way to get someone to do work for you is to do something that benefits them. The first step to do that is to have a good understanding of what they do, what common issues they may face, what support they need, and what you could offer, which could include:

  • Relevant Information: In today’s data-driven world, information is key to effective decision-making, but there is so much of it and often resides in disparate places. If you have access to a system or have seen a news article / report that could be helpful to the individual, then share it freely.
  • A good word: A super easy way to get on someone’s good side is to give their boss positive feedback about them and let them know that you’ve done so.
  • Contacts: You could refer someone that could help this person’s work or career. For example, for this person’s role, you may know his Africa counterpart. It could be good to put them in contact to share best practices across regions.
  • Funding: Providing someone with extra budget to pursue their project is probably one of the most powerful ways to get someone to work with you.
  • Career Development: If you know of any good opportunities that the person could be interested in, then you should not only point them in that direction but also put in a good word if possible.
  • Personal Interests: Bring up information that may serve their interests outside of work. For example, if you know someone is really into fusion food, then you could alert them if a new fusion restaurant is opening.

Be careful not to make the relationship too transactional — only doing something for someone when you need a favor. It’s important to keep the give and take dynamic in mind, so be sure to give even when you don’t need to take.

4. Maintain the relationship

Once you develop the working relationship, it’s important to maintain it even if you no longer work with the person directly. This is good practice since you may work with this person again or need something else in the future. Periodically, be sure to catch up over coffee or lunch just to see how they are doing. It’s much easier to rekindle a relationship than to establish one from the beginning.

How to say “no” to work

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All of sudden, you’re flooded with a zillion meeting requests, a gillion projects, and other random one-off requests. There’s only one of you, finite hours in a day, and personal  / familial demands to maintain — what do you do?

Recently, I’ve come to appreciate the value the “Decline” button and the word “No”. While rejecting others can be quite difficult to implement, it’s liberating afterwards. More importantly, it allows you to focus on your priorities. Here is how to say “no”:

1. Build a reputation for being hard working

Before you start rejecting others, you not only need to say “yes” but also make sure you produce outstanding work. Building political capital upfront is a critical precedent to drawing boundaries later on.

2. Consider and evaluate the request

Generally, when people reach out to you for work or to join a meeting, this is good news….because you are needed. If nobody wants to work with you, then you probably are in deeper troubles. When evaluating the request, consider the following:

  • How important is this request relative to the other work on your plate?
  • Is this work aligned with your performance and / or career objectives?
  • Does this work provide you with any strategic developmental opportunities? (e.g., work with a business unit you’re hoping to transfer to, or with a senior leader you’re hoping to network with)
  • What would be your role in the project?
  • How much time and resources would this request realistically take up?
  • What are the possible risks in this project? (e.g., the technology is relatively untested with our customers)
  • Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

3.  Ask Questions 

If you can’t answer all the questions above, then be sure to contact the requestor for more details. Of course, I may rephrase some of the questions (particularly around your career and developmental goals) depending on the audience. Sometimes, you may find that the requestor hasn’t thought through all the details thoroughly, so it helps to figure that out as well.

For example, I was recently asked to join a meeting about drafting legal terms and conditions. I approached the meeting requestor and asked: “What would be my role in the meeting? Would my contribution be critical?”. It turned out that the answer to both questions were “no”.

Therefore, often you don’t even need to say “no” directly because your questions would have allowed someone to conclude that perhaps it’s not critical for you to join a meeting or work on a particular project.

4. Provide a justified “no” 

If possible, say “no” in person or through the phone since email messages cannot convey tone, particularly if you’re responding to someone you don’t know well. Convey the following key messages:

  • Show appreciation for being considered in the first place
  • Say “No”: Phase it to be something like…”Unfortunately, I am unable to join this project for the time being.”
  • Provide key reasons (Remember to make this concise. Nobody likes to be rejected by a laundry list of items.)
  • Offer alternatives: “However, Johnny has managed similar projects in the past. I’ve also spoken with him, and he’s very interested in this project. You should reach out to him.”
  • Leave the door open for future possibilities

When you turn down a project, focus your communication on what would be most helpful for the project goals. That way, you are pulling out for the good of the project rather than rejecting the requestor as a person.