Habits and patterns make it easier to be productive.

Recently, my schedule has been a bit off. I’ve been working on a variety of projects that all seem to have project teams that schedule meetings at conflicting times. This means that I regularly end up with 30 or 60 minute gaps in my calendar between meetings. These are the most unproductive times possible because it takes at least 5 to 10 minutes to unwind from the last and then the same to get back ready for the next. This leaves only 10 to 45 minutes to get something done.

Predictability in your schedule is good for ensuring you have high productivity. When you know how the rest of the day is going to go, you can focus on the tasks at hand and start to get ahead. If you find yourself constantly bouncing back and forth between new tasks, you will never get anything of value complete.

I have a hard time with long-term habits. I’ve developed a few but I fail more often than not when trying to establish new ones. It can be very difficult to do things in new ways. But striving to do better is always worthwhile.

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3 tips for getting the job done.

I figure it can’t hurt to throw out another simple list type post. Sometimes it helps to think things through in simple terms.

1. Figure out what the final product will look like before you start.

It may seem like overly simple advice, but I’ve started more than a few projects without knowing where I was going to have to start over once I figured it out. This doesn’t just apply to complicated tasks, but to easy ones as well. A five-minute task that turns into 30 because you had to restart a few times is a bigger waste of time than an 8-hour project becoming 9.

2. Identify any support you are going to need.

It should go without saying but never start a project that you can’t finish. Sometimes the ability to finish a project is completely outside of your control. I’ve worked on high-value projects that came up with great solutions with well-defined costs and risks that ended up going nowhere – only because there was nobody willing to pick it up and implement it. There’s no use working on something that you cannot complete on your own and you don’t have support to get completed.

3. Don’t play politics.

This one is key. Sometimes you will get pulled into corporate politics and there is nothing you can do about it. When other people play the game and you need them, there’s nothing you can do but participate. But that doesn’t mean you have to play them yourself. The most effective way I’ve ever seen to deal with politics is to treat it as if it’s a real request and handle it just like anything else. Always focus on the solution and do everything in the light of day. Your solution should stand on its own; if it doesn’t then more work is probably still needed anyway.

Telling the story versus doing the work.

I remember the first time that I was taught the power of stories in business. A vendor salesperson had come in to help us better understand their product and how we could use it. He started his time with us, not by opening up the tool and showing us examples. Instead, he had us close our laptops and chat for a half hour.

There we were, 4 technical people sitting around a table. This salesperson opened up by saying something along the lines of:

You can never get anyone to do something different if they don’t buy into the story you are trying to tell them. No one has ever bought a story that starts with “look at how many features this tool has.”

Getting people to change requires getting them to invest time into doing things differently. You need them to make the mental leap that it is better for them to take the risk of making the change than continuing on as they are. The only way you can do that is by planting the story in their head of what they get from the change. Tell them the true story of how their job will get better.

You can sell a lot of solutions by focusing on the raw numbers that you can impact: 12.3% ROI. $1m NPV. Payback in 24 days! You can sell even more solutions by getting people to understand (and believe) the story of what you are going to do for them: sell more per person while making your customers happier! Deliver faster with greater consistency. Give everyone a single place to go when they have questions.

Stories aren’t measurable, but they still have an impact. Getting people to believe a story may be harder than showing them raw numbers but it generates greater stickiness. Maybe give it a try.

4 questions to determine if you are being productive.

Anyone who has a job that has changing tasks and responsibilities on a regular basis is likely familiar with the internal question of “am I being productive.” It’s not that we don’t know what needs to get done, it’s just that some tasks may not be aligned with our internal sense of what is productive. For example, anytime that I get a project that takes me down highly creative, design-oriented routes I quickly feel unproductive.

Here are four quick ways that I’ve developed to help me understand if I’m being productive:

1. Do others know the next stop or are they just as confused? 

The most common situation that initiates my feelings of unproductivity is not knowing what step comes next to get to a solution. If I have to stop because I don’t know where to go, that time always feels a bit wasted.

My first step toward resolution is to ask others what they think I should be doing next based on their experience. Often they can quickly point you in the right direction and get you back on task. When they can’t and you are truly in unexplored territory then you know the time is going to be useful because someone needs to blaze a new trail. Stay on top of the time you are investing but don’t feel bad about it. It will go quicker the next time.

2. Is the size of the prize equal to the time being invested?

Some projects simply require time and thought. Projects that are big enough (saving money, costing money, high publicity, impacts a lot of people, lots of controversy, etc) to need investment beyond just getting to the answer. There are many soft outcomes that need to be done to keep everyone onboard. Handholding, answering questions, presenting the solution, evaluating new options all over and over and over are not wasted time. Spending time on making sure others are comfortable before you move forward can sometimes be the best time invested even if it feels unproductive to you.

3. Is inaction going to lead to a better solution than more action?

There have been more than a few projects that I’ve worked on that simply needed time to simmer if they were going to be successful. Solutions sometimes have an optimal time that they can be decided within. Trying to get it done too early can be wasted time and trying too late may be completely useless.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be doing anything during this window. You can be preparing for the arguments you’ll get, further refining the answer, modeling various alternatives but you may be doing everything behind the scenes. And much of it may turn out to be overkill.

4. Are you simply being too tough on yourself?

Sometimes you have to ask yourself if your expectations of what you can get done. If others are constantly questioning why things aren’t being done, then you should definitely be wondering if you are simply being unproductive. But if you are consistently the only one questioning your productivity then the problem may simply be one that has been self-created.

Best practices are certainly worth striving for, but they don’t really exist.

Best practices is one of those great buzzwords that is really hard for people to object to. No one is going to object to striving for best practices. They may object to certain individual practices being proposed but not the idea.

This is the thing about buzzwords – defining them in a hard way is devilishly hard. If you poll 50 “top companies” in a given industry on a given process they will likely be about the same at the 50,000-foot view, roughly similar still at the 20,000-foot view, and almost no similarities at the 10-foot view.

For example, there really aren’t that many different ways to run finance while using SAP. However, almost no companies are going to use the same processing, routing, and approval workflows while they will also differ on data labeling and analysis practices. So if you say you are adopting industry finance best practices, at which level are you trying to match?

So if you say you are adopting industry finance best practices, at which level are you trying to match? You probably already match at the 50,000-foot level and you’ll never match at the 10-foot level. Do any of the details in between really matter? But again, no one is going to object to the attempt; they’ll only object to the details.

The secret behind 90 day transition windows

In many industries (definitely across CRE), you will find yourself needing to transition something. It may be an outsource provider, moving from one vendor to another, implementing a technology system or simply testing a new tool. If you are talking to a third party to assist you, you will likely come across the generic 90 day transition period.

It’s funny how often transitions of very different things always take exactly 90 days. It’s almost as if people got together to agree to 90 days as the perfect standard. In many ways, that is exactly what happened. (Not that people physically got together and defined this from the shadows, just that they came to the same conclusion through independent paths.)

90 days is the perfect amount of time to make it seem like real effort is being put in but it’s also quick enough to seem aggressive. If I were to say go today, 3 months to implement something feels like it could be realistic. Psychologically, a non-expert is unlikely to question this period of time. If you were to advertise 60 days people will immediately think of all the little things that can delay the solution by that long without batting an eye. If you say 120 days, it crosses that triple digit barrier and starts to look long.

The other variable in the equation is what “transition” really means. Many organizations take a very fuzzy definition of transition. Often it may be something along the lines of:

Transition: the sequence of activities that ends in 90 days that allows us to show how good we are at listing things on gantt charts.

That’s very tongue-in-cheek but not terribly far from the truth in many cases. The actual “transition” (defined as everything needed to actually reach a new Business-as-Usual state) is difficult, painful and can take a very long-term. Often you can’t even clearly define where the transition ends and BAU begins in larger projects.

The 90 day transition is just another marketing ploy but designed as an operational reality. Remember that marketing doesn’t stop just because the sales process has.

Retail is not dying, it is simply changing.

There are many doom and gloom articles about the pending death of retail. It’s a vastly overstated premise. Much like how Apple and Android disrupted Nokia and Blackberry in the mobile phone industry, Amazon and other e-commerce companies are disrupting traditional brick and mortar retailers. This does not mean that retail is dying, but it does mean some traditional retailers will continue to fade.

Take a look at the retail process of yesterday and it looks very similar to what it is today.

  1. A customer goes looking for something that they want. Use to be in a store, now it occurs in a browser.
  2. The customer either purchases the item the first place they find it or price matches at competitors.
  3. Item is transported to the customer’s final destination. Use to be by the consumer direct, now often through parcel/post.

The retail process is unchanged to what shoppers want, the only difference is that technology has disintermediated the process from where it used to take place. Big box retailers used to have a monopoly on shopper attention and information. If you wanted to purchase a TV you had to go to Wal-Mart or Best Buy to compare them. Now you can go to any number of websites that compare the newest models in depth and even have fairly robust images, videos, and reviews of them. You actually get more information about what you want to buy by NOT going to a brick and mortar store.

For groceries, the brick and mortar store still remains king for now but even that is starting to change. The key differentiator for the grocery store is the ability to guarantee the freshness of hot/baked goods and produce. However, as supply chains further mature and advance even this starts to change. How much further do we need to go before shipping fresh food to a customers front door is more efficient than shipping to the store?

Retail is a great example of the poor of the information age disrupting legacy industries. The fundamentals haven’t really changed once you dig in but it certainly appears to be fundamentally different to the traditional players.