Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success (REVIEW)

Smartcuts By Shane Snow Book Review

Ever since I read “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcom Gladwell, I have been fascinated with productivity and success. I recently read Shane Snow‘s book, “Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success.”

In sum, it is a good book that puts forward compelling principles and provides fascinating stories to support them. I loved reading about the variety of “smartcuts” Snow found in shoe design, space technology, baby incubators and more.

Hacking The Ladder: Using the “Sinatra Principle” To Get Ahead

What comes to mind when you think of the pinnacle of achievement in a profession? You might think about someone who is highly experienced, a person who has climbed the ranks over time. Certainly, that’s one approach to take. Snow presents interesting data from U.S. Presidential history to suggest that paying your dues is not the only way to the top. He found that several Presidents including Theodore Roosevelt and John F Kennedy became Presidents with relatively little experience in national politics. How does that work?

They use the “Sinatra Principle” to leverage credibility from another field. Snow is referencing Frank Sinatra’s famous song “New York New York” whose lyrics include “If I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere.” In our world, we might say the same thing about working at Google. If Jenny Blake was successful at Google, then we should get her books and programs. In the case of Presidential politics, how does this work? The “outsider” candidates brought credibility and leadership skill from another area (e.g. Eisenhower’s success in the Second World War) and transfer it to the political arena.

Application: How can you reach your goals faster by transferring credibility from one area of achievement to another?

Training With Masters: How To 2X Your Growth Through Mentorship

Getting ahead all by yourself is difficult and rare. Even Vincent Van Gogh had support (and financial assistance) from his brother Theo. In “Smartcuts,” Snow points out the value of learning from masters. It’s an important idea that other authors have also covered – I recall the story of scientist Michael Faraday’s apprenticeship as told in Robert Greene‘s excellent book “Mastery.” Snow takes a different approach here by emphasizing obsessive study. Snow’s research also suggests that organic mentorship efforts tend to be the most successful (i.e. one person reaching out to another without an organization organizing the interaction).

In this chapter, he looks at the rise of noted comedians Louis CK and Jimmy Fallon. As a young man, Fallon was dead set on joining Saturday Night Live. To pursue that goal, he worked with two types of mentor: a traditional, in-person mentor in the form of his manager and a distant mentor, namely studying other comedians such as Adam Sandler. On a related note, it was great to take career insights from comedians. We all hear about start-ups, traditional professionals and CEOs in the business media. Learning principles from a new profession was valuable.

Application: Live mentors and other models are most effective in your growth if you seek them out and model their success. Waiting for your employer to organize mentorship tends to be less successful. In addition, look for mentors in books and history who can inspire you.

Rapid Feedback: Decide How To Use Feedback Effectively.

Consider the difference in practicing a skill by yourself versus getting steady feedback. Which scenario do you think will make the difference in boosting your results? Clearly, feedback makes a difference. Snow pushes beyond that observation to ask how feedback is best used. One approach is to intently observe others fail and draw from that experience. Snow cites research on surgeons who improved after observing medical mistakes:

On the other hand, we tend to pin our successes on internal factors. When they failed [at performing the medical procured], it was because of bad luck. It was hard to see. The patient was unstable. There wasn’t enough time… When doctors failed due to what they perceived as bad luck, they didn’t tend to work any smarter the next time… When someone else fails, we blame his or her lack of effort or ability. For the cardiac surgeons, this made the failure of a colleague quite valuable. Since it was that guy’s fault, fellow surgeons instinctually zeroed in on the mistakes. “I’ll make sure not to do that,” they said subconsciously. And they got better at the surgery.

This principle suggests that the practice of lessons learned have great potential as a feedback mechanism. Building on Snow’s surgeon example, close observation of a failure event makes the difference. I wonder if reading a traditional lessons learned report or end of project report would have the same feedback value.

Application: Observe others around you who practice a similar profession. What mistakes are they making that you can avoid?

Simplicity: Inside An Innovative Solution To Saving Babies

Constraints and creativity have an interesting relationship. If you have endless resources, you may not come up with experimental or breakthrough ideas. In contrast, if increasing the budget by $1 million is simply not available, then you have to find other solutions. In the project world, we’re used to change requests, “gold plating” (i.e. staff adding extra features they believe to be valuable but which are not specified in the project plan) and similar activities. What if you had to achieve results and a higher budget was not available?

That’s the case presented by Snow in this case. The challenge? How to save more premature babies in developing countries? The standard solution in the developed world is to use incubators, which often cost over $20,000 each and require training to use effectively. Initially, Jane Chen’s team looked at cutting costs or making an inexpensive glass box. Those efforts did not lead anywhere. At that point, the team analyzed an incubator at a feature level: what were the features of an incubator which features provided the greatest benefit? Their conclusion: providing consistent warmth was the most valuable feature. This insight led to Embrace, an inexpensive solution that does not require electricity, significant training or a hospital. It has saved many lives.

Curious to know more about the Embrace story? Watch Jane Chen’s TED Talk: A warm embrace that saves lives.

Application: How could you achieve more of your project goals by radically simplifying the project requirements? Consider breaking down your wish list of features and determine which features add the most value.


13 Statistics On The State of Work In 2016: Meetings, Productivity & Conflict


What’s happening in the world of work in 2016? To answer that question, I reviewed the U.S. State of Enterprise Work Report from Workfront. Here are some of the highlights from the report. I’ve also provided links to resources to help you become more productive, get better at meetings and get ahead.

Overall Trends For U.S. Office Workers

Here are some of the data points from the survey that stood out to me. I was most surprised by the short lunch breaks that people tend to take. A rest in the middle of the day is a valuable way to refresh yourself and take on more activities in the rest of the day.

  • The top reasons people work according to the report: Pay the bills (76%), mental challenge (27%), fulfill my goals (21%), learn new skills to grow my career (14%).
  • The top motivational factors at work according to the survey:  Chance for bonus and/or higher salary (29%), appreciation/recognition from superiors (22%), promotions and/or opportunities to advance my professional skills (18%), reaching or exceeding goals (14%)
  • 45.1 hours. That’s the average amount of hours worked for office workers according to the survey (a small increase over 2015)
  • 9-11am: Time period reported as being the most productive. In contrast, the least productive time period is 3-5pm.
  • Email and spreadsheets are the most popular work tools for office workers

Trends For Project Managers

What findings does the report have for the work of projects? Here are four data points from the survey.

Meetings are an important tool in the project manager’s toolbox. Yet, many people perceive meetings as wasteful. Given this finding, it is more important than ever to design and run effective meetings that make decisions and move projects forward.

  • Keep meetings to a minimum. — 59% of U.S. workers surveyed said wasteful meetings are the biggest hindrance to productivity. For project managers looking to stay on top of timelines and get the most quality work out of their team members, it’s important to know which meetings are necessary and how you can execute meetings that don’t waste your team’s time. Use meetings to discuss resolutions and next steps in the project, not rehash tasks or processes that are already known or completed.

Email is a highly popular and flexible tool. Yet, poor email habits slow many of us down. Part of the problem is a lack of productivity and task management system.

  • According to the State of Work report, 43% of survey respondents said answering and organizing email is a major distraction from assigned projects, and I think we all feel that pain. Project managers should work with the decision-makers in their department to identify useful tools and resources that can bring collaboration and communication into a central hub. This lets email act as the venue for immediate needs or new interactions with external sources (a necessary evil), and the collaboration tool is used for all comments, input and revisions to actual work. In addition being a collaboration and communications hub, it can also be used to track team bandwidth and resource management.

There is a major productivity improvement opportunity available. Consider the following observation:

  • 92% of survey respondents said they feel productive at their jobs. Given the fact that only 39% of our time is spent on our primary job duties, that’s a good sign project managers are succeeding at guiding team members in the right direction through what might be heavy-workload weeks. However, it may also mean teams are perceiving a higher level of productivity than they are actually performing. Taking the time to evaluate processes, tools and traditional components to project management may pay off in output and avoiding burnout in the long run.

Power tools for PM success —

  • 70% of workers either already use a project management tool or would like to. For any size team, a project management tool has become as vital as a computer. Even for a sole proprietor, logging hours and assets against that work is made so much more efficient through a project management tool. Every team has different needs, and it’s important to reflect inward before researching the available tools that meet those needs. Project managers are the drivers of those conversations, as they know their team’s challenges and talents, preferences and dislikes better than anyone else in the company.

Building A Vendor Management Office: Lessons From Insurance And Airports

Image Credit:
Image Credit:

Managing vendors and procurement activities effectively has never been more important. Why? The drive to outsource activities and build more complex products means you need contributions from beyond your organization.

Alas, project management isn’t like Amazon. There’s no “one click” buy button or overnight shipping when you’re building a bridge, submarine or a CRM implementation. You need a more sophisticated approach. If you’re just getting started, read 6 Steps To Successful Vendor Management. To take your vendor management approach to the next level, stay with me.

This week, I attended an session on “Building A Vendor Management Office,” hosted by Fasken Martineau, a Canadian law firm. It was a helpful session with some great war stories. In this article, you will learn how two organizations in very different industries improved their vendor management practices. For more events like this, look into joining the International Association of Outsourcing Professionals (IAOP).

Economical Insurance: Vendor Management & Transformation

Economical Insurance was founded in 1871. Today, it is one of Canada’s leading property and casualty (P&C) insurance companies. That long history brings certain assets such as long standing customer relationships and a well-known brand. However, the company has also accumulated vendor relationships that needed to be revised due to a new strategy. Economical has committed to success in the digital world and the vendor management strategy has to support that goal.

Innes Dey, Senior Vice President & Chief Strategy Officer at Economical Insurance,  presented his experience. I appreciate his efforts especially considering he had a difficult cold!

  • Purpose: The company’s drive to modernize vendor management is part of a broader transformation agenda to ‘demutualize’ the organization. In a mutual structure, the organization is owned by employees and policy holders. It’s a rare structure but it is still used in some cases. Vanguard, a major investment firm known for offering index funds, is owned by its policyholders.
  • The Limits of Contracts. Be wary of assuming that a good contract is enough – it’s also important to have good people to work with at the vendor. After all, if the vendor team is rude, unprofessional or unresponsive, then you will not achieve value from your spend.
  • Engage in “productive overlap” with staffing. By partially overlapping responsibilities between staff, you can have support and collaboration. This is a great management principle. It also means that people can go on vacation without worrying that a critical process will fail.
  • Maintain Internal Unity When Dealing With Vendors. Innes  made the interesting comment that vendors are “skilled at exploiting disorganized clients.” If your executives are getting wined and dined by vendors, the vendor management office needs to know about it.
  • Be wary of conflicts of interest. Some consultants have business relationships with other organizations that may influence their recommendations. These relationships become problematic when YOU are unaware of these interests.
  • Staff Up To Achieve Value. If your organization is managing millions of dollars in vendor relationships, make the case for full time vendor management staff. Managing seven figure contracts with IBM, Deloitte and other large organizations requires dedication.

Greater Toronto Airports Authority: Managing Vendors & Becoming The Best Airport In The World

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) is responsible for operating Canada’s busiest airport, Toronto Pearson International Airport. John Alexis and Angella Dikmic presented observations from their journey on improving vendor management. While the GTAA presentation focused on IT and technology vendors, there’s no reason why these frameworks cannot be applied to other functions.

  • Understand Your Reality. The first step is to create a central repository of contracts. This point is especially important if your organization has multiple contracts with a vendor. Multiple contracts sometimes lead to problems like different pricing, payment terms and conditions.
  • Set Your Vendor Management Goals. Initially, the GTAA approach focused on cost reduction. Delivering cost reduction and cost avoidance to the organization was essential to win support from executives. Over time, relationship management and risk management have become more important.
  • Classify Your Vendors And Govern Accordingly. As you create a governance program, it’s important to apply different levels of governance depending on cost, risk and importance. Remember that a small spend vendor may merit a “Tier 1” approach if they provide enterprise critical services.
  • Plan Your Exit. Every business relationship comes to a conclusion at some point. If you don’t define how that will end, you could be in for a world of hurt. The speakers shared a story from another organization that underscores this point. A client ended a relationship with a buyer and asked for their data back. The vendor printed the data on paper and delivered it (ignoring the client’s request for the data in digital form). The result? Many months of client time spent typing up the data!
  • Be Part of the Contract Discussion. For large contracts, it is vital for the vendor management office to be part of the discussion. Leaving them out will make running a long term relationship with the vendor much more difficult. You don’t want to land in a situation where you are stuck with a painful, complicated contract.
  • Leverage Organizational Change To Introduce a VMO. There’s a saying in politics – ‘never waste a crisis.’ In the business context, the same idea applies. With the GTAA, they had a major contract with an IT firm close to expiration. Rather than simply go through business as usual and renew, GTAA management used this change as an opportunity to revamp their entire approach to vendors.
  • Conduct Regular Satisfaction Surveys. The GTAA regularly conducts vendor and customer satisfaction surveys to detect issues and areas for improvement. As vendors become more important in delivering your value chain, this is an excellent proposal to use. I’ve recently used Survey Gizmo to conduct surveys and it has been helpful.
  • Use Recurring Meetings And Calibrate The Detail Accordingly. The GTAA uses a series of recurring meetings with different audiences to execute vendor governance. For example, executives are briefed annually on the top vendors. Other vendors with a lower impact can be managed with a monthly meeting focused on operations.


How To Grow Business Acumen and Business Awareness as a Project Manager (PODCAST)

How To Gain Business Awareness
Do You Have Business Awareness

Are you aware of your business? Do you know what’s going on in your industry?

I was recently interviewed by Cornelius Fichtner from The Project Management Podcast about The Growing Business Acumen and Business Awareness as a Project Manager.

Here`s a listening guide to some of the key points and tips covered in the episode:

  • 2:20: 4 reasons project managers should care about business awareness
  • 04:00 – how I use business awareness in financial industry projects
  • 05:30 – how to balance project delivery with business awareness
  • 06:25 – how to build foundation skills in business awareness
  • 07:45 – using the NEWS strategy to understand the external environment
  • 09:30 – discover decision making patterns inside your organization
  • 11:30 – how the organization’s financial health impacts project manager’s health
  • 12:45 – why the projects you choose to work on impact your project management career
  • 14:00 – business awareness includes understanding your competitors (including “non-traditional” competitors)
  • 16:30: how to borrow ideas from other industries to boost innovation
  • 17:00 – the quick and easy way to identify best practices in any industry and grow your awareness
  • 18:00 – the limitations of traditional risk management and how to overcome it
  • 19:30 – how to make business awareness an ongoing habit and improve your project procurement as a result
  • 20:00 – how business awareness improves your ability to network with executives
  • 21:00 – what are the online tools and resources (free and paid) you can use to boost your business awareness
  • 29:00 – using the “rule of 20” to guide your networking efforts

Play Now:

If you are a regular listener to The PM Podcast then you heard me say on many occasions that projects are the mechanism by which companies turn their vision and strategy into a reality. And it is us — the project managers — who are asked to bring these projects to a successful completion so that the business needs are met.

This means that we project managers need a great deal of business acumen and business awareness. But many of us are accidental project managers, who at some point in our career found ourselves to be quite shockingly thrust into the position of a project leader. We were taken by surprise back when that happened and now they suddenly tell us that we also need all this awareness?

Well, fear not because Bruce Harpham is here to tell you how to grow your business know-how as a project manager. In this interview we review what foundational skills you need, how to access internal business knowledge from your organization and how to look for information and trends in the broader environment outside the four walls of your company.

Our goal is to help you grow the situational awareness that you need day after day on your projects by adding business awareness.

About The PM Podcast: Cornelius Fichtner, PMP is a project management trainer who helps his students with their PMP Exam prep, and since 2005 he has published hundreds of interviews with project managers from around the world. The interviews are free on

Would you like to hear more podcast interviews? Check out the links below to find a few of the other interviews I’ve done:

Winning Tactics For Tracking Construction Projects

[Editor’s Note: Today’s article is written by Chris Cook PMP. If you like his article, please visit his website The ENTREPMEUR]

Image Credit: Pixabay
Image Credit: Pixabay

Imagine yourself sitting in a room full of your peers. Some people you work with daily and others you have never met before. You are all there to be a part of a leadership conference hosted by your employer. Your selection was determined by your place in the company. To your organization, you are in a position to lead. The conference is a three-day event packed full of speakers and activities geared towards making you a better leader. During the breaks, you hear rumblings of people wondering why they are there and why the event even takes place. Overall, people are frustrated by the event and would rather be working.

On day two, there is a Q&A with the company’s masters of construction. They are a group of four senior managers who have a combined 100+ years’ experience in the industry. One of the board members is orating the ceremony. One of the emphases is change orders. The company is performing work without getting paid because the work is outside the scope of the original contract. Even with leading questions towards obvious answers, the masters continued to respond, “$50,000 on a $30 million project isn’t that much.” After a few follow up questions and receiving the same answers, the orator finally let the audience know that $50,000 is $50,000 and should not be overlooked. The dismissive answers of the masters mirrored the dismissive attitudes of the audience. No one was paying attention. The people at my table were on their cell phones. During the break, I was asking individuals if they noticed the lack of follow through on the questions and no one noticed. The active listener rate must have been me and me alone.

For the next day and a half, I was trying to take away as much information as possible. There were speakers from all backgrounds delivering techniques on team work and leadership. No matter what presenter was on stage, I continued to think back to the masters.

I struggled with the idea that a point of emphasis was being glossed over not only by the presenters, but also the entire audience. An issue of documentation and an hour’s work was not worth $50,000.

Key takeaways from the presentation:

  • Pay attention. We have all been in meetings we did not want to be in or thought we should not be in, but there are still ideas to take away from them. This enormous oversight was swept under the rug because no one was paying attention or wanted to be there. Imagine being in a 4-hour meeting and at the end, the owner tries to slip in a work package outside the scope. If you are bored or on your cell phone, you may not notice the change and have to live with the consequences.
  • Know your message. Stay on the script when presenting an idea or topic. The message to a large group should be clear. In this case, the orator had one message to convey while the presenters had quite another.
  • Stay humble even when you’re experienced. The presenters had a combined 100+ years in the industry. While they have forgotten more than I have learned, they have not remained a student. They have become content. Their ways have worked so they will continue on their path. No matter how long you have done something, there is always room for improvement. Why were these managers letting $50,000 change orders slip through the cracks? Because their mindset stays the same. The money is a speed bump (not a roadblock) in their world so keep driving over it.

What Can We Do to Better Track Construction Projects?

How can we, as project managers, meld old with new? Why not have the best of both worlds? Teaching is the best way. Have the older managers teach the younger managers their ways, and vice versa. Put an emphasis on learning. Far too often, there is an attitude of “That’s the way he does it so let him do it his way.” Or “That’s how it’s always done.” Why continue traditions with evident flaws? I understand change is difficult. Losing money unnecessarily is even more difficult.

The experienced managers should give the younger managers a checklist for mental audits. The checklist should include:

  • Look for ways to save. Often times, the emphasis is on making money. Ways to save money include recycle material for road base aggregate, cut and fill to limit trucking off site, and salvage materials to reduce the expense of buying new.

The younger managers need to drive technology. Whenever they find the opportunity, go for it. Show managers how useful the technology can be. Instead of driving 2 hours to check out a job site, Google Maps has street level views that can bring you there without leaving the office. Use formulas within the program to calculate how much stone you will need for backfilling the excavations instead of a scale and calculator. Not only is it quicker, but also more accurate. You cannot go from 0 to 100 on day one. Ease them into the capabilities. Open the dialogue for change.

Further Reading On Construction Projects

Construction projects tend to be in public view so we can learn from them. Explore the following resources to learn more about recent mega-construction projects.

Major International Construction Projects That Went Billions Over-Budget

The World’s 25 Most Impressive Megaprojects (Popular Mechanics) If you’re looking for inspiration on what can be accomplished with projects, look no further.

Megaprojects: The good, the bad, and the better (McKinsey) Imagine working on this project: “Dubai’s international airport is the world’s busiest, accounting for 21 percent of Dubai’s employment and 27 percent of its GDP.”

The Trouble with Megaprojects (The New Yorker). An interesting data point to consider is the rise of China: “China is most responsible for this explosion—according to the scientist Vaclav Smil, the country used more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the United States did during the entire twentieth century”


Podcast Interview: How to Make Remote Work Productive

Cornelius Fichtner and Bruce Harpham, PMI Congress 2015

Do you work with people in different locations? I often work with people in different offices and countries. It’s an interesting experience to navigate.

This week, I appeared on Cornelius Fichtner‘s excellent podcast the Project Management Podcast where we discussed remote work. As a side note, I recommend the PM PrepCast if you are studying for the PMP exam (created by Cornelius Fichtner’s company).

Here are highlights from the podcast to whet your appetite:

  • 03:20: the two principles you need to learn to make virtual work effective
  • 04:30: what does “remote work” and “remote teams” mean anyway?
  • 07:32: the impact of the shared talent factor on remote work
  • 10:10 the danger nobody talks about when it comes to working from home (nothing to do with web cam mishaps!)
  • 13:00: why you – the project manager – needs to go first with remote work (i.e. lead by example)
  • 14:08: what you need to do before you dive into remote work and work from home arrangements
  • 14:30: why you probably don’t have to buy anything to get started with remote work
  • 17:20: what you need to know about remote work and interacting with executives
  • 19:00: how starting with self-knowledge makes the difference in communicating effectively
  • 21:30: how communication flexibility contributes to your success as a project manager
  • 21:50: what to do if your company says “you can’t buy Slack! Use the tools we provide!”
  • 25:40: get a peak inside my toolbox of the favorite apps and tools I use in remote work

Click Here To Listen To ‘How To Make Remote Work’ Effective Podcast Episode

Does your project rely on virtual teams? If yes, then it means that working remotely is the norm for your project team members.

Are they doing their work effectively and efficiently? And even if you answered yes, there is always room for improvement, right? Good, because how to make remote work productive is our topic today.

Our interview guest is Bruce Harpham who has written about remote workers and how to increase all our effectiveness. He argues that working virtually is simply the reality on many projects and project teams these days.

And so in order to help us improve remote work he recommends the following four steps:

  • Evaluate your current tools
  • Review communication preferences and strengths
  • Analyze the project’s requirements
  • Adjust your communication practices

We’ll go through each of these in detail with lots of examples from his own experience.

About The PM Podcast: Cornelius Fichtner, PMP is a project management trainer who helps his students with their PMP Exam prep, and since 2005 he has published hundreds of interviews with project managers from around the world. The interviews are free on Project Management Podcast.

Proof That Networking Really Works: 14 Examples

Image Credit: Shutterstock
Image Credit: Shutterstock

Do you have a “history” with networking?

Maybe you’re like me. My idea of fun often involves reading a book, listening to an audio book during a run or discovering a new wine. Alone time matters! Yet, I know networking matters too – most of my key career opportunities have come through relationships.

So how do you reconcile this tension? It’s different from everyone. There are the “Avoiders”: people – including me at various points – simply avoid the whole activity because of disinterest or discomfort. There are the “Naturals”: folks like Bill Clinton, Keith Ferrazzi and others who connect with ease over and over again. Finally, there’s the third group – the “Curious” who know that networking is part of the story but they don’t quite know how to get started.

How did I make the transition from avoider to curious? I gradually refined my approach through trial and error. If you’re not a natural at networking, don’t worry. This article will have practical networking tips for you.

Experiments In Networking During Grad School: Finding My Groove

In 2007-2009, I earned a graduate degree in information studies. What does that mean? I wrote a Master’s thesis on Net Neutrality Policy in Canada and the United States, learned about book history and print culture and learned about archives. I was looking at (and interviewed for) jobs as a university librarian and an archivist. During those years, I started to develop my networking skills  by experimenting with different methods.

What I Learned About Myself & Networking

  • Struggles With Unstructured events. I find these events somewhat difficult. I found that I tend to perform better when there are explicit points of common ground (e.g. dinner occurs after a keynote address).
  • Started A Podcast. As a graduate student, I started a short lived podcast called “The iSchool Podcast.” I recorded lectures given by guest speakers like Michael Geist and presented them as a podcast. I’m a huge fan of podcasts (see: 16 Podcasts To Grow Your Career In 2016) and it was fun to produce this series. It also helped me to connect with a variety of experts.
  • Prior Research Improves Results. Taking 15 minutes to read he conference program ahead of time makes a difference. Taking the time to read presenter bios, connecting on Twitter or sending emails made it easier to build my network.
  • Set Goals. In sales, it is common to set prospecting goals such as number of cold calls made per day. At events, I started to make goals. I would tell myself, “Ok, introduce yourself to 3 people you don’t know. Once that’s done, it’s mission accomplished for this event.” Sometimes I would go beyond that point. In other cases, I would call it a day and head home.

Leveraging Small Groups: My Approach To The World Domination Summit 2015

Fast forward to 2015. I was excited to attend this unconventional conference in Portland, Oregon. Founded by author Chris Guilebeau, WDS draws thousands of attendees each year interested in creating businesses, new careers and unconventional projects. Having read all of his books (especially “The $100 Startup”), I was excited to attend. Given the costs of travel and participation, I knew it was important to plan ahead to get the most out of the event.

Resource: I wrote a detailed report about the conference here – Field Report from the World Domination Summit: Online Business, Relationships & Great Workshops.

What I Learned About Networking:

  • Play The Host!. I organized a dinner for a dozen people interested in online courses. This was a great success. Kudos to the WDS team for encouraging and promoting these meet ups. The conference organizers had a great online tool that listed conference meetups (e.g. coffee meetings, yoga events and more) and made it easy to start and promote these events..
  • Attend Small Workshops. I attended several smaller workshops that I found helpful. Sean Ogle’s event on “location independent business” was a key experience.
  • Say Hi When In Line. When I was in line to attend a WDS event, I had the good fortune of meeting Jason W. Womack, author of “Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More.” Jason gave me a copy of his book and it was a great read. I have followed his work and learned a lot from him. Jason – if you’re reading this, please say hi in the comments section.
  • Ask Questions At Events. I attended Sean Ogle‘s event on building a business WDS and asked a question about building a business. There were several benefits from pushing myself to ask a question. First, I engaged more deeply with Sean and learned more from him. Second, other people came up to me after the event and introduced themselves to me. They started by saying comments along the lines of “I liked your question!” – what a neat icebreaker.
  • A Missed Opportunity To Meet David Fugate (or Push Myself To Say Hi!). I wanted to meet David Fugate, literary agent to Chris Guillebeau, Andy Weir (author of “The Martian”) and others. Due to schedule conflicts, I could not attend his events. However, I actually saw him on the street nearby a conference venue and could have reached out to introduce myself. I felt shy and missed the opportunity. I’m still kicking myself over that oversight.

Invited Expert: My Experience At PMI Global Congress 2015

This event represents the height of my networking success. In July 2015, I received an email from PMI inviting me to attend the event as a expert. Why was I invited? It was partly luck and partly hustle. On the luck side, the organization decided to promote where I was an active contributor. On the hustle side, I had been active on the website for months publishing articles and delivering webinars. I was determined to make the most of the event because it meant missing a friend’s wedding AND Canadian Thanksgiving.

What I Learned About Networking.

  • Arrange Meetings Before The Conference. I looked up several presenters and exhibitors attending the conference and arrange to  meet with them. It was good to meet a few people 1-on-1 and have that planned in advance. Thanks to Conference Crushing by Tyler Wagner for insight on how to prepare for conferences.
  • Go ‘Off Campus’ To Explore And Bond. The PMI organizers arranged a great night out at Epcot (part of Disney World) which I enjoyed exploring with my fellow experts. The fireworks, food and company were all quite enjoyable. Serious business and learning are priorities at conferences but that’s not the whole picture.
  • Write About My Experiences. In case it wasn’t clear already, I like to write reports on events I attend. I wrote PMI Congress 2015: Lessons Learned for to share a few insights from the event.

Question For You:

What was your most successful networking experience? In the comments section below, please share an example from your experience.


What I Learned About Project Management From A Failed Volunteer Project

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I like to start projects. But I don’t always finish them. Let me tell you a story about what I learned from a failed project.

For several years, I have been a volunteer with various university alumni associations. I’ve created budgets. I’ve ran events like organizing a dinner to connect alumni and students interested in the financial industry. Those have gone well. Based on that track record, I felt confident about taking on larger projects.

In 2015, I decided to organize an ambitious project to recruit 100 alumni mentors to support students at the University of Toronto. Several people were interested in the project. I had supporters. I had a plan. There was even a small budget to support the project. I also had some experience with mentorship through my participation in past mentorship programs.

How I Failed In The Mentorship Project

The project started with plenty of enthusiasm in the summer of 2015. I created a tracking spreadsheet to track prospective alumni mentors and their interests. I contacted people in my network and worked with other people. By the spring of 2016, I only had about 15 mentors recruited. Believe me, writing up the project report for the board was not a fun activity.

6 Project Management Lessons I Learned

The project did not achieve the goal as defined in the scope statement: recruit 100 alumni mentors. From that perspective, it was a failure. However, I learned from the experience – even small projects need a robust process and routine to reach success.

1. No Weekly Project Meeting

Most projects have a weekly conference call. There’s a very good reason for that! It makes a big difference in keeping everyone organized. There’s also an incentive to have progress to report on each call. Given this was a virtual team, the support and connection from a regular check in call would also have made a difference.

2. No Standard Operating Procedure

This one is painful to admit because I have covered the value of SOPs on this website (How To Improve Quality With Standard Operating Procedures). In the mentorship project, I could have used SOPs for several activities – outreach, conversion and follow-up.

Keep in mind that you need some data before you can create a SOP. I’m still thinking about the tipping point to determine when it makes sense to create a SOP. If I have to do an activity weekly or monthly and it has significant impact, then it makes sense to create a procedure.

3. Vision and Enthusiasm Make A Big Difference

This is a positive lesson learned from the project. I had a positive vision that attracted interest from association members and volunteers. Why? While universities engage alumni in various ways, fundraising is the most common call to action.

In contrast, asking alumni to volunteer their time and support students was a novel invitation. The challenge was understanding the different levels of interest and connecting those people to the right opportunity.

For added inspiration on this point, check out Simon Sinek’s popular TED talk: Simon Sinek: How great leaders inspire action.

4. Lack of Milestones

The end goal of the project was clear – recruiting 100 mentors. I did not have clear milestones to mark progress through the project. Looking back now, this could have been done in thirds or quarters (e.g. 25, 50, 75 and 100). Each milestone could then trigger a meeting to assess progress.

5. The “Oh, It’s A Small Project” Assumption

If you read the Project Management Body of Knowledge, there is a vast literature of processes, documents and techniques. It’s a great process for building a nuclear submarine, apartment building or satellite. In smaller projects, that level of detail often feels like overkill.

Unfortunately, I went too far in the other direction – too little process. The lesson? Keep systems and processes in place even with small projects so that you can deliver them on time.

6. Ineffective Delegation

In project management, it’s important to recruit and work with team members. In this project, I could have done a better job with my project team. While I did have a few volunteers and went through some light training with them, there was much more I could have done.

Inspiring volunteers to commit and work on a project is difficult. Yet, I could have done better in this area. I think it would have been better to work with a larger team and assign each team member a smaller task (e.g. recruit 20 team members and ask each of them to recruit 5 alumni).

Question For The Comments:

How have you learned from a failed project? It could be a volunteer project, a current project or something from earlier in your career. I know you have great stories to share!

12 Books To Kickstart Your Leadership Skills

Looking for books to read this fall? Here are some highlights from my 2016 reading. Please take a look and enjoy! You’ll find insight on networking, how to learn valuable super skills, become more productive and find biographies of highly successful leaders.

How Do You Read So Many Books?

Reading books is a priority for me so I make time for it on a daily basis. My minimum is 30 minutes of book reading per day. My connection with books goes way back. In fact, I had a part time job in a public library as a teenager. If learning, growth (and yes, entertainment) interest you, then find a way to make time for books.

1. The Education of Millionaires: Everything You Won’t Learn in College About How to Be Successful by Michael Ellsberg


After listening to this book twice on Audible, I bought to read in Kindle format. It’s an excellent book. The book presents two arguments. First, that higher education in the U.S. (and to some degree elsewhere) is dysfunctional and overpriced and no longer the only path to living the good life. The second argument, forming the majority of the book, is an explanation of key business success skills: sales, marketing, networking and more.

Rating: 5/5



2. The Last Safe Investment: Spending Now to Increase Your True Wealth Forever by Bryan Franklin and Michael Ellsberg

The Last Safe Investment

This ambitious book seeks to take on the financial industry and describe a better way. In some ways, the book is structurally similar to “The Education of Millionaires.” The authors start by describing a large scale system they describe as broken (i.e. the financial services industry) and then propose solutions. There are interesting concepts here such as the Happiness Exchange Rate and Super Skills. In some cases, I found that there was no quite enough examples and evidence to back up the book’s points. There is still much to be gained from reading this book.

Rating: 4/5

3. The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy by Chris Bailey

The Productivity Project

What strategies and techniques actually work in productivity? That’s the premise of Bailey’s book. It’s an excellent book that covers both tactical points and big picture issues (e.g. taking care of your mind and body make a big impact). The author’s website is also an excellent resource of articles that combine serious and playful explorations of productivity (e.g. 5 huge lessons I learned binge-watching Netflix for a month and 10 huge productivity lessons I learned working 90-hour weeks last month).

Rating: 5/5

Tip: Curious to learn more about this book? Read my book review of The Productivity Project.


4. Networking with the Affluent Paperback by Thomas Stanley

Networking With The Affluent

Networking is one of the most powerful skills to develop, yet many people struggle with it. Ever heard the tip to “give value to your network” and wondered what exactly that means? In this book, Stanley gives you plenty of practical examples. For example, write to elected officials to support causes that people in your network care about (assuming you have a similar position). Even better, refer customers to people in your network.

Note: the book is aimed at sales professionals and professional services providers (e.g. imagine you are an accountant looking to building your practice with affluent clients). With a bit of creative thought and reflection, you can apply much of the book’s insights to your career even if you are not in sales.

Tip: Readers ask me how to make the most of conferences. Check out this resource: “How To Get The Most Value From Conferences In 6 Steps

Rating: 4.5 / 5 (The book’s dated examples are sometimes tiresome. Don’t let that stop you from obtaining valuable insights!)

5. Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam M. Grant


Earlier in 2016, I had the opportunity to see Grant speak at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. Grant’s work shows why being a giver in life and business improves productivity and performance. Grant’s dedication to field research sets this book apart from many books written by professors. The final section of the book covers how to apply the book’s insights.

Rating: 5/5



6. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant

Originals Adam Grant

What does it mean to make an original contribution? Grant shows that novelty and logic is not enough to bring a new idea to life. Sometimes you have to take an indirect approach. As I grow my platform and see more of the world, creativity is a growing concern for me. It was well worth it to read this book. Oh, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote the forward.

Bonus: Check out Grant’s TED talk The surprising habits of original thinkers.

Rating: 5/5



7. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries

The Lean Startup

What does it take to create a successful product and business with a minimum of wasted time and money? That’s the question that Ries explores in the book. I like that he refers to his own startup experience in developing the book. If you are interested in finding out more about tech startups and their approach to innovation, this is the book for you.

Rating: 4/5 (I found some of the book’s concepts difficult to apply. However, there is a community of fans and consultants who can help you apply the book’s concepts!)



8. Eleanor Roosevelt Vol 1 & 2 by Blanche Wiesen Cook

Eleanor Roosevelt Vol 1

I picked up theses books after I saw that Ryan Holiday recommended them. Wow! What an interesting life – full of change, activity and overcoming disappointments. Did you know that some insiders encouraged ER to run for President in 1940? ER did not hold public office yet she wielded tremendous influence through her network, publishing and activism. These books took weeks to read – it was well worth the effort.

My favourite Roosevelt biography remains The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. His boundless energy, work ethic and accomplishments remind me to keep working away at my goals.

Note: Volume 3 in the series, covering 1939-1962, is expected for release later in 2016. I may well read on my end of year vacation.

Rating: 5/5

9. The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter by Michael D. Watkins

The First 90 Days

Executives and managers starting a new job face special challenges to get up to speed. In this book, you will learn how to make the most of your early days in a new role. Watkins emphasizes the importance of listening and learning before you start to make changes. You can read this book in a weekend: short, to the point and helpful.

Rating: 5/5 (Project Managers: think about applying this book’s concepts when you start a new project especially if you are working with a new team).



10. Born for This: How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do by Chris Guillebeau

Born For This Book Cover

I have followed Guillebeau’s work for years with great interest. In some ways, he is an inspiration for the work I do on this website (see: 279 Days to Overnight Success which inspires me to continue my work). In this book, Guillebeau explores how to find a career that suits you. To get you started, there are some helpful resources on the Born For This book website such as how to start a side hustle.

Rating: 4/5 (I think his earlier book “The $100 Startup” was stronger. If you’re looking for tips on how to make it big in the Fortune 500, this is not the book for you.)

Tip: Curious about Guillebeau’s annual conference, “The World Domination Summit”? Read my article Field Report from the World Domination Summit.

11. Becoming The Boss : New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders by Lindsey Pollak

Becoming The Boss Book Cover

You’ve been promoted! Now what? That’s some of what you’ll learn in Pollak’s book. I like that she targeted her approach to the Millennial generation though much of the book will apply to others. Most career management books for this generation focus on the first job, so it is great to see this broader perspective.

Rating: 4/5




12. The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier

The Coaching Habit

The best leaders develop their staff. You can’t accomplish that if you never listen and treat your staff like a pair of hands. In his timely new book, you will learn the fundamental coaching skills. Want the ultra-brief version? “Listen more and ask more questions.”

Rating: 4/5

Hat Tip: Today’s post is inspired by James Clear’s book article: Book Summaries: Popular Books Summarized in 3 Sentences or Less.



Question For The Comments:

What book have you read this year to grow your leadership skills?

Escape From Shallow Work with “Deep Work” (Book Review)

Deep Work by Cal Newport Book Cover

I finished reading Cal Newport‘s new book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World a few days ago. It has adjusted my thinking on productivity. The classic productivity books like Getting Things Done by David Allen (want to know more? read this: Leading Yourself With Getting Things Done) are often interpreted as a ‘task management system.’ Newport’s book argues that raw task accomplishment is not enough. We need to focus our energy on high value activities or or what he calls “deep work.”

Two Ways To Think About Your Work

Through book, Newport regularly compares and contrasts shallow and deep work. Let’s clarify with his definitions:

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

The degree to which the work is demanding on your capabilities is a key point. Newport also makes an economic distinction. With few exceptions, deep work tends to produce greater value and rewards. Why? Deep work tends to lead to mastery, new insights and improved skills. If deep work is so great, why don’t we practice it already? It comes down to distraction.

Why You You’re So Distracted: The Impact of Habit Forming Products

What comes to mind when you read the phrase ‘habit forming products’? Tobacco? For many of us, that’s not the challenge. Instead, the challenge is how and when to use what Newport calls “network tools.” In that broad category, he includes Facebook, email, social media, smart phones and more. It’s no accident these products and services are constantly grabbing your attention. A recent book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products delves into the psychology and methods to create this distracting (addictive?) products. If you find it difficult to focus, it’s not entirely your fault. There’s an industry of designers, engineers and consultants who are working at making these services difficult to resist.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Ok, so what can I do about this?” Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Keep reading!

Identify The High Value Activities For Your Profession

Doing the right work is underappreciated. Usually, there are a few activities truly matter. For research professors seeking tenure, publishing articles in highly respected publications is the most important activity. For sales professionals, time spent interacting with qualified prospects is the most important activity. I’m keen on this principle. Yet, I’m struggling with how to apply it to analyst roles or project management jobs. “Deliver the project” seems too broad. Perhaps the application is to aggressive manage the most important person (i.e. your boss, the client or the sponsor) because neglected clients will tend to get upset even if the project metrics look good.

Read: “The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” by Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan.

Use Fixed Schedule Productivity

In the productivity world, there’s an ongoing debate between focusing on your schedule versus focusing on your task list. Clearly both matter; it is a question of priority. I like to use the “3 big tasks” each day strategy where each of the tasks connects to my annual goals (i.e. write and promoting this blog post connects to my goal to grow my email list – you can sign up here: Sign Up For the ProjectManagementHacks Email Newsletter). Newport makes the case for using a schedule approach.

Read the following article for a detailed explanation of this approach: How I Accomplish a Large Amount of Work in a Small Number of Work Hours

Improve Your Email Habits

Handling email is a major source of shallow work for all professionals – especially those who work in project management. Let’s take a look at some of Newport’s suggestions to cut back on email. Remember, the point of cutting back on email is to free up time to work on deep work activity.

Tip #1: Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work

Newport uses his practice of discouraging email correspondents with this example:

If you want to reach me, I offer only a special-purpose e-mail address that comes with conditions and a lowered expectation that I’ll respond: If you have an offer, opportunity, or introduction that might make my life more interesting, e-mail me at interesting [at] For the reasons stated above, I’ll only respond to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests.

Evaluation: I love the principle but it will likely be very difficult to adopt if you are an employee. If you have a way in mind to implement this idea, please share by writing a comment below.

Tip #2: Do More Work When You Send or Reply to E-mails

It’s easy to dash off a quick response simply to “get it off your plate.” Newport points out this frantic approach often generate even more email because others need clarification. How do you improve? Newport’s solution is to use templates and a process approach to improve email.

The process-centric approach to e-mail can significantly mitigate the impact of this technology on your time and attention. There are two reasons for this effect. First, it reduces the number of e-mails in your inbox—sometimes significantly (something as simple as scheduling a coffee meeting can easily spiral into half a dozen or more messages over a period of many days, if you’re not careful about your replies).

Example: You need to arrange a meeting time with a coworker.

Bad Approach: “Let’s meet sometime”

Better Approach: “Let’s meet at the following dates and times (3 options).”

Evaluation: Yes, this is a fantastic principle!

Tip #3: Don’t Respond

Could silence be the best solution to never ending email? Here is Newport’s explanation:

As a graduate student at MIT, I had the opportunity to interact with famous academics. In doing so, I noticed that many shared a fascinating and somewhat rare approach to e-mail: Their default behavior when receiving an e-mail message is to not respond. Over time, I learned the philosophy driving this behavior: When it comes to e-mail, they believed, it’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile.

Evaluation: An interesting approach! It reminds me of email strategy that Tim Ferriss advocates in The 4 Hour Workweek.

Question For The Comment Section:

How do you improve your focus on high value deep work activities?