Take Your Questions From Good To Great: 15 Examples

Ask Better Questions

What questions do you use most often in your work?

You may be focused on squeezing out incremental gains – how can we process 2% more transactions per day through this system? In some cases, that type of question is just right. If you’re working on a banking system that manages two million daily transactions, then incremental gains are valuable. What if your project objective is to create a brand new product? In that case, you need different questions to become more productive. Where do you get started? You need to identify your ineffective questions.

Do You Use These Bad Questions?

Here are some of the bad questions that I see come up in the working world.

1. Who’s your boss?

This is usually a sign that somebody is angry at you and wants to go over your head to lodge a complaint.

2. But how would we pay for that?

This question can be helpful but it is often used as a way to shut down discussions.

3. Couldn’t you just try harder to fix this problem?

Hard work has a role to play. However, if you systematically rely on heroic efforts to get everything done, your organization is dysfunctional.

Fundamentally, those questions don’t prompt meaningful engagement or bring new insight to the table. Now that we have those points out of the way, let’s turn to better questions.

5 Questions To Ask When You Start A Project

Starting a project on the right note is critical. How else will you be able to motivate the team to engage on the project?

1. Why are we doing this project now?

Timing matters! Asking questions like this are one way to boost your business acumen.

2. What is the history related to this project?

Learning from history is a powerful skill. Historical points to explore – are there any other past projects like this? What is the project experience of the person sponsoring the project?

3. Who is the project’s champion and why?

In most large organizations, there is ultimately a single champion, executive or manager who is accountable for the project. If piss off the VP, you’re going to be in trouble even if the project is on schedule.

4. What can I get excited about on this project?

The project team looks to you – the project manager – for leadership. What can you get excited about on the project?

5. How can I better understand the sponsor’s needs and expectations?

Start by finding out how they want to hear from you. Do they want detailed spreadsheets by email or high touch phone calls? At the start of the project, ask how they want to hear from you.

Five Questions To Ask Advice

In project work, you’re constantly doing new activities… And that means you’re probably having to figure out new applications, systems and processes. You can get better support from your peers and mentors if you ask them a few focused questions.

1. What are the most common mistakes you see beginners make?

This question is adapted from Tim Ferriss’s excellent book Tools of Titans. You can apply it to project work in all kinds of ways. For instance: “what mistakes do novices make when it comes to presenting to the management committee?”

2. What resource was most helpful to you in learning this skill?

Even if you have a great mentor, they have limited time and energy to help you. If you’re seeking advice on how to learn a complex skill (e.g. “how do I improve my public speaking skills?), seeking a resource recommendation is the way to go.

3. How can I practice this skill in a low risk fashion?

Low risk practice is essential to developing a skill. As Eduardo Briceño explains in his TED talk How to get better at the things you care about – top performers look for ways to practice and improve. For instance, highly successful comedians are known for trying out new material on small audiences. That way, they will have quality material to present to large audiences.

4. Who can I observe in action to learn how to do this?

For some skills and capabilities, it’s valuable to watch a master at work. I’ve picked up tips and tricks to use Microsoft Excel better by watching others manipulate complex spreadsheets. I’ve also learned some blog writing techniques by studying the work of other highly successful bloggers.

5. Can you give me feedback on this small task or deliverable?

Let’s say you have a presentation to the CEO tomorrow. With the right approach, this presentation has the potential to supercharge your career. For high stakes opportunities like this, ask a mentor if you can practice with them. Remember to ask them to provide feedback and suggestions. Use the Starter Feedback Model as a resource to guide the person in providing useful feedback to you.

Five Questions To Ask For Problem Solving

When you’re leading a project, there is a steady stream of problems. Use these questions to better define the problems and develop solutions.

1. Do we have the facts about this problem?

You may have a vague sense that something is wrong. That’s not enough to take action. You need to gather examples and facts before you make a move.

2. What other ways could we state the problem?

The wording you use to define or describe a problem matters. Let’s say you’re concerned with profits. One way to state the problem is “How can we cut expenses?” A better question might be to ask, “how can we earn more orders from our past customers?”

3. What other causes are at play for this problem?

When a problem occurs, it’s easy to fixate on easy to understand aspects of it. As Taylor Pearson recently wrote, we have a bias toward easy to understand problems and situations. If a problem is easy to measure with an accounting system, it’s easy to focus on financial aspects to a problem. However, fixating too soon on a single cause may lead you down the wrong path.

Resource: Read Pearson’s excellent essay The Illegible Margin: Profiting From The Gap Between The Map And The Territory for more insight on this issue.

4. How could we solve this problem if we have no money available?

Many project problems are easy to solve when you simply spend more money on them. On the other hand, that approach sometimes encourages lazy thinking. Use this question to search for other solutions. For example, rather than hiring an external consultant, could you call 20 people at your company and ask if anyone knows a developer who can help you?

5. What other mental models can we use to solve this problem?

Mental models describe the assumptions, ideas and related concepts we use to look at the world. As James Clear explains, having a variety of mental models available is a key way to boost your problem solving ability.

Resource: To dive further into mental models, read Creating a Latticework of Mental Models: An Introduction from the excellent Farnam Street blog.

Where Can I Learn To Ask Better Questions?

“Questions are your pickaxes. Good questions are what open people up, open new doors, and create opportunities.”

– “Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers,” by Tim Ferriss

I love long form podcast interviews because they represent a special opportunity to explore a topic in depth. Here are some podcasts, articles and other resources to help you sharpen your question abilities.

Testing The “Impossible”: 17 Questions That Changed My Life. A powerful article from Tim Ferriss (one of my favorite authors). My favorite question: “What if I did the opposite for 48 hours?”

The 21 Questions I’m Asking Myself This Week. Business writer and consultant Ed Gandia uses a list of questions to reflect on his business and plan next steps.

EconTalk. This long running podcast features in-depth interviews with authors and economists. It’s a great example of how questions and conversation lead to greater insight.

How to Ask Better Questions by Judith Ross. This HBR article focuses on questions from the perspective of managing people.

The Quest to Ask Better Questions. The article puts it simply and well – “Questions are sometimes better than answers”

 

Master Ego Depletion To Keep Out of Trouble At Work

Tired Person

In project management, you are used to managing resources. You probably look at your calendar and project schedule dozens of times each day.

You may also have a fine tuned approach to managing your project’s financials. Monitoring and controlling these resources is fundamental to keeping your project running smoothly. What about your own mental energy?

If you fail to manage your mental resources effectively, you are likely to make dumb mistakes and erode your credibility.

What Is Ego Depletion?

Reading, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman was the inspiration for this article. I was fascinated to learn about psychological research that explores the human ability to exert deliberate thinking. As Kahneman explains:

“Baumeister’s group has repeatedly found that an effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. The phenomenon has been named ego depletion.”

I think of self-control as a finite, renewable resource. Over the course of a day, there is a certain amount of mental energy available and various activities reduce it (e.g. resisting chocolate, suppressing negative comments, or staying calm under pressure). Result? The typical person in a 9-5 work schedule will be less effective at 4pm compared to 10am due to ego depletion.

How To Keep Out Of Trouble At Work With Ego Depletion

Working with people, navigating complexity and developing creative solutions will tend to drain your energy. Here are a few ways that individuals and managers can avoid disaster by managing their mental energy.

Know Thy Energy

Many people have their best mental energy level in the first few hours after they wake up. Not sure if that pattern fits you? Track your energy levels over a few days. Proxy measures for mental energy include: time to solve problems (i.e. you will generally take longer if you are tired) and patterns for negative outbursts (i.e. if you are consistently yelling at people after 4pm but never before 12pm, then you have a pattern on your hands).

Resource: Read The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal By Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz for more on energy management.

Play To Your Energy Strengths

Once you understand your energy strengths, arrange your work accordingly. In my experience, creative work and problem solving are much more difficult when I’m tired. That’s why I aim to get those activities done earlier in the day. Of course, few people have 100% control over that work schedule – I’m not telling you to ignore the VP’s urgent request. Instead, manage what you can and think carefully about when you plan your own work.

Resource: Horstman’s Noon Rule of Scheduling. A great podcast that explains the value of completing high value tasks in the morning.

Use Energy Restoration Strategies

What about those situations when you need to perform even though your energy is low? What can you do in those situations? Kahneman describes an experiment where people consumed glucose (sugar) and found that it can help. The sugar strategy does provide a short term boost with a longer term cost. What are alternatives to boost your energy?

  • 20-30 Minute Nap. A number of companies provide nap rooms and facilities so staff can recharge. If available, look into this option. For more insight, check out this Scientific America article: Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime.
  • Remind yourself of the why. Working through the details matters. When your energy and motivation decline, it’s time for a different approach. In those cases, I suggest looking into the big picture why. For example, if the project is focused on cost savings remind yourself why that matters (e.g. “If we achieve $1 million in cost savings with this project through process improvement, then we can avoid layoffs). For more on this topic, read Start With Why by Simon Sinek.

Use A “Brain Dead List” For Low Energy Moments

I heard about this concept via one of David Allen’s staff. He once mentioned that one of his staff keeps a specialized to-do list called “brain dead.” This task list has activities that he can easily perform even when he has low energy and motivation. Sure, we all like to scan that Facebook newsfeed (or email inbox) over and over again but perhaps you could do something else instead? Examples of brain dead tasks vary depending on your strengths. It could be organizing email or cleaning up your work space. It’s any task that comes easily to you and takes little time to accomplish.

Avoid Big Decisions Right Before Lunch: A Cautionary Tale For Managers and Leaders

Do you manage people? Take note of the experience of a group of Israeli judges and their decision making patterns. The implication is important. Even highly trained and experienced professionals, who are handling life changing decisions each day, appear to be significantly influenced by breaks and meals. Here is the Economist’s take on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, “I think it’s time we broke for lunch…“:

The team found that, at the start of the day, the judges granted around two-thirds of the applications before them. As the hours passed, that number fell sharply (see chart), eventually reaching zero. But clemency returned after each of two daily breaks, during which the judges retired for food. The approval rate shot back up to near its original value, before falling again as the day wore on… In truth, these results, though disturbing, are unsurprising. Judges may be trained to confine themselves to the legally relevant facts before them. But they are also human, and thus subject to all sorts of cognitive biases which can muddy their judgment.

Rationality is important. We also need to remember that reason and logic occur in a human context. If you’re hungry, tired or drained from difficult work, your reasoning capabilities will underperform.

Question of the Day:

What strategies do you use boost mental energy when you have to complete an urgent project?

7 Ways To Be A Team Player

Image Credit: Pixabay.com

Image Credit: Pixabay.com

Team work and serving as a team player comes up over and over again in the business world. Yet, this directive often lacks specific examples. Without such examples, it is difficult to put this important concept into action. That is going to change today. You will learn seven ways to become a team player and help those around you to win.

Defining Team Work & The Team Player

Much discussion on these concepts come from the sports world (and sometimes the military). Both sports and the military bring together groups of people to achieve a result so the analogy is reasonable at a high level. However, the professional world is significantly different in several ways when it comes to incentives and ground rules. Let’s use the following team work definitions to guide our thinking.

Belbin’s model makes an important observation that individuals tend to focus on a specific type of team role. For example, technical experts are generally comfortable in the role of the subject matter expert. The same person may be less experienced when it comes to the “shaper” role – the person who drives work forward. The flexibility to switch between team roles is important. Why? Adaptable team players know that they need to make different contributions based on what the team needs, not their preferences.

Seven Ways To Contribute As A Team Player

Use these tips to add more value to your work as a team player. Your job title may be manager or project manager. Yet, you will still serve in the team member capacity from time to time.

1.Take The Off Beat Assignment

From time to time, you may be asked to complete work assignments that have little interest and may not be related to your main work. A strong team player will generally accept these assignments and deliver them. There is one nuance to keep in mind: be mindful of how accepting additional assignments impact your “official role”

Action Tip: Say yes with enthusiasm when new tasks and deliverables come up at the workplace.

2. Support Another Person’s Success

Serving as the lead on a project has obvious appeal – the glory and recognition that comes with a job well done. What about supporting another person’s success? That’s a key contribution to make as a team player. This support role may be simple – helping to proofread an important document or acting as a sounding board for ideas – or it may be complex. Either way, support makes a difference.

Action Tip: Is someone on your team overwhelmed? Ask about the situation and listen to find out if there is a way for you to help.

3. Become A Trainer

Has your department (or a related department) recently hire a new person? In that case, training may be needed. Training could be technical or tips on how to navigate your office successfully. Understanding the organization’s history, relationships between managers and related points is difficult without a guide. Serve as a guide to the new person to help them navigate the organization.

Action Tip: Review the How To Onboard Yourself In 5 Days article for ideas on how you can help someone else with helping somebody get up to speed quickly.

4. Become A Student Again

Starting over in learning a new skill or job function is not easy. I’m reminded of what some used to call “the Grade 9 effect” (i.e. finish elementary school at Grade 8 and you are on the top until you realize that you will soon start over again at high school at the most junior level, Grade 9).

Becoming a student again at work requires that you marshal your inner student, become curious and take notes. If you see flaws or ineffective steps in what you are learning, take note of these and raise them at a later time.

Resource: Read the Zen Habits article “How to Live Life to the Max with Beginner’s Mind” for further guidance on this topic.

5. Ask “How” To Maintain Forward Momentum

Seth Godin wrote, “The devil doesn’t need an advocate. The brave need supporters, not critics.” Raising reasons why some an idea or project will fail has limited value. Instead, contribute as a team player. Instead, ask the “how” question such as “How can we meet this deadline?” or “How can we address this customer situation?”

Action Tip: Ask “How” questions to focus on solutions and move the team forward.

6. Serve As The Meeting Scribe

In 2010, Scientific American reported research showing that eyewitness testimony is often highly flawed. Eyewitness reports are subject to bias and incorrect police procedures. Given these problems, why would you rely on memory in the workplace when important tasks are involved? That’s why it is important for meetings to have a scribe who takes note on decisions made, tasks assigned and deadlines given.

Action Tip: Before a meeting begins, ask the meeting organizer if there is a scribe assigned to take notes. If the answer is no, consider volunteering! Otherwise, much of the value generated in the meeting is at risk.

7. Report On Your Work

If nobody knows your work is complete, does it have value? This is not a Zen koan: it is a practical question to consider! If managers or team members are waiting for you to complete a task, they need to be made aware. Report to those who need to know when you complete a task and advise them of any issues they need to know about in order to keep moving.

Action Tip: Send a communication to others on the team when you complete work assignments.

Team Work Resources

Explore these team work resources to develop this important aspect of your professional skill-set. Even if you are an executive, you need to function in teams so this skill and attitude will always be important.

 

Why You Need Better Analytical Skills

Analysis

Analytical skills are a powerful set of tools and techniques to understand problems and work toward solutions. The value of analytical capability is much in the news: consider the rise of data science and Big Data.

In 2015, I wrote Adding Value with Big Data Projects for ProjectManagement.com to explore one aspect of the analytics opportunity. This year, I wrote Career boost: Break into data science for InfoWorld to define the career opportunity in data science. However, not all of us are interested in those areas. In that case, how should you approach developing your analytical skills?

What Are Analytical Skills?

Like any important set of skills, there are multiple aspects to consider. Here is a short list of the skills and abilities that contribute to a strong analytical capability

  • Break Down Problems. Many people get stuck when considering a large problem. Analytical skills help to break down problems into smaller parts which are easier to solve.
  • Gathering & Evaluating Information. Also known as information literacy, this skill allows you to separate the wheat from the chaff. After all, you don’t want to embarrass yourself at work by presenting out of date or incorrect information.
  • Managing Information Effectively. The ability to manage ever increasing amounts of information is important. This skill set includes both personal information management and organizational efforts. If you use databases, use Evernote, manage a SharePoint site or use other similar resources, you already have this skill to some degree.
  • Generate Alternatives & Solutions. Over time, I have learned that there are many paths to success in life and business. With strong analytical skills, you will be equipped to generate additional alternatives and therefore achieve success. You can also use analytical skills to evaluate and rank alternatives.
  • Comprehend Difficult Reading Material. From time to time, there is a need to read and understand complex reading material at work. It could be a new corporate policy that requires implementation. It could be a technical document explaining how to use an application. Analytical skills help you to read such materials and put them into action.

6 Situations That Require Analytical Skills

The following situations are easier to manage when you have well developed analytical skills. Other knowledge and skills come to bear in these situations (e.g. relationships with important people and technical skills). Yet, analytical skills often prove vital in navigating through the situation. If you are struggling with uncertainty or doubt, an analytical approach can help to put you on the right track.

1. Problem Definition

The first instance of a problem is usually misleading or incomplete. A leaking pipe in an office in a production facility appears to be a simple maintenance problem. However, there are other aspects to the situation such as ineffective management oversight or aging infrastructure issues. Simply defining the problem as “a leaking pipe” would fail to capture the whole scope of the problem.

2. Strategy Development

Understanding your organization’s capabilities and opportunities requires an analytical approach. It is easy to overestimate what an organization can do and misunderstand competitors. Analytical skills help to reduce cognitive bias thereby improving the quality of the strategy.

3. Quality Improvement

Delivering quality remains important and it cannot be assumed. Analysis plays a valuable role in detecting and evaluating quality failures. The PMBOK Guide’s list of quality tools require an analytical approach and a willingness to go step by step through those tools.

4. Process Improvement

To operate at scale, it is valuable to look at your work as a process or a system. My view of process is inspired by the classic business book The E-Myth Revisited – a series of defined steps that create success. Analysis contributes value in two ways. First, an analytical approach is needed to document each step of the process. Once that documentation is in place, analysis comes to play again in looking for ways to streamline the process thereby saving time and money.

  • Tip: Looking for accomplishments to add to your annual review? Demonstrating increased productivity by improving a process is a great approach to take. For example, “Saved 5 hours per month in project reporting by implementing streamlined reporting process,” would show that you have delivered a meaningful improvement.

5. Following Through On Goals

I am excited by the vision and possibility of goals! There is a time and place to dream big and consider your options widely. For example, the 5 Days To Your Best Year Ever goal setting program lays out a five day process to define annual goals (I’m a fan of that program!). What happens after those goals are set? If you want to make progress and achieve those goals, analytical skills help.

  • Tip: If you feel stuck working on a goal, look for the smallest step you can take to move forward (e.g. set up a meeting to gather input, write a draft one page project charter). This concept is adapted from BJ Fogg’s excellent Tiny Habits program.

6. Learning New Skills

As a growing professional, there is a constant need to learn new skills. It could be a new enterprise software program at your company. Or it might be further developing your communication skills. This idea is inspired by Tim Ferriss’s  learning book, “The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life.” Ferriss points out that cooking skills are easier to learn when you break down the process into discrete steps – an approach that works for many other skills.

  • Tip: Over the past year, I have developed the “inputs, transformation, outputs” model for learning new processes and activities. It is a simple and effective mental model that guides one through the activity.

Further Reading On Analytical Skills

Explore the following resources to continue your development in developing your analytical skills. These resources are only the tip of the iceberg. Dig in and develop your analysis skills further.

Data Is Useless Without the Skills to Analyze It. This HBR article points out that raw data yields little value. Skilled people are essential to review it and draw useful insights from data.

Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload by Mark Hurst. Managing an ever increasing volume of information is part of analytical skill. This book and other resources help to guide you through the process of finding the information that matters.

Problem solving and data analysis (Khan Academy). Whether you like math or not, the mathematical perspective adds much value. This free online video course shows how to use math concepts to understand data.

Reasoning, Data Analysis, and Writing Specialization (Coursera). The ability to weave together data, words and logic in a compelling way is a powerful skill. In this three course online certificate program, you will learn how to make that happen.

8 Ways To Contribute To Meetings

Contributing effectively to meetings matters because it is a key tool to get work done. Yet, badly run meetings are common. One workplace humour website, Meeting Boy, regularly points all the ways meetings go wrong. Rather than shout at the darkness of bad meetings, let’s find ways to make them better.

Note: Step “0” for contributing to meetings is understanding when they are truly needed. If a decision or action is better suited to an email or phone call, then use that approach instead.

1. Facilitator: Encouraging Effective Discussion

Over the past year, I have seen some outstanding meeting facilitators in action. They play a great role in bringing everyone into the discussion and guiding a discussion. If the meeting`s agenda includes defining a problem, developing possible solutions or other creative approaches, then a facilitator adds value. High stress or crisis situations sometimes also call for a facilitator to manage the discussion.

Resource: There are two facilitator training programs (Facilitation Certification from APMG International and Certified Master Facilitator Certification) available for those who wish to take their skills to the next level.

2. The Technical/Subject Matter Expert: Deliver Insights

Experts play an important role in meetings by offering their insights. The key challenge for experts is to share their knowledge at the right level of detail for the meeting. As a rule of thumb, start contributions at a high level of detail or in brief. If additional details or data are called for, then offer it.

Tip: If detailed information is critical to the meeting’s success, share a memo or other document in advance so everyone can review it. Including a simple diagram is often an effective way to explain a new process.

3. The Volunteer: Moving Us Forward

If you are seeking to get ahead at work, pay attention to meetings. Stay tuned for references to upcoming work assignments, projects and other activities where you can volunteer. The volunteer role also covers smaller tasks that make a difference (e.g. cleaning up old records for the department or building management items). Stepping up to do more than your “official” job description also marks you as having a positive attitude.

4. The Referee: Keeping Order

Rules help us to function effectively and that principle certainly applies to meetings. The meeting referee is sometimes called the meeting organizer or chairperson. This person encourages everyone to focus on the agenda and table off topic discussions for a different time. It requires tact and a diplomatic approach to serve in this role effectively.

Resource: The “Chairing a meeting” document created the UK’s Resource Centre has additional tips on how to serve in this role.

5. The Scribe: Why Rely On Memory When We Have Writing?

Taking notes effectively in a meeting is fundamental. Earlier in life, I attempted to operate like Hansard – a verbatim record. That approach is usually overkill in meetings. Instead, focus on taking note of tasks to be completed, deadlines and similar information. In most cases, it makes sense to summarize these notes and share them in a meeting summary email after the meeting.

Resource: The article How To Write Effective Meeting Minutes gives further guidance on this topic.

6. The Pre-Wire Contributor: Avoid Surprises

Laying the ground work prior to an important meeting is important. Briefing people about a meeting’s content and agenda prior to the meeting is the essence of a “pre-wire.” This activity is especially important if the meeting seeks support for a project, spending or other major action. If the meeting involves bad news (e.g. pointing out delays caused on a project by another department), sharing that news in advance helps.

Once again, the ability to communicate clearly and diplomatically is important. This function is often played by the person who called the meeting. Yet, individuals can also play this role if they see an important relationship at stake. An added benefit to this pre-meeting work is helping you to refine your approach in the meeting. That’s a great way to improve your performance.

7. The Agenda Creator: Defining The Focus

In some companies, you are encouraged to reject meeting requests where there is no written agenda. That’s a powerful signal about the importance of planning the session in advance. A well crafted agenda that is shared in advance prevents many of the problems that typically hit meetings. For most meetings, a one page or shorter document serves as an effective agenda.

Tip: Plan the most important agenda items early in the meeting so that these topics have the needed time and attention.

Resource: Read How to Design an Agenda for an Effective Meeting from Harvard Business Review .

8 The Follow Up Manager: Realizing Meeting Value

Consistent follow up on meetings is important in order to realize the meeting’s true value. Taking note of your own action items, completing the items and informing the rest of the meeting attendees adds energy to the effort. Project coordinators and business analysts often take on the role of the follow up manager to ensure that tasks are completed. 

Tip: Asking clarifying questions on due dates is a key step to enable successful follow up. Asking about other’s tasks and deadlines also matters because those timelines impact your work.

Further Meeting Resources

There are a wealth of resources, articles, books and courses on meetings for two good reasons. First, meetings remain an important professional skill. Second, there are many types of meetings which require different skills. For example, a two person meeting often requires less planning than a twenty person meeting. Explore the following resources to continue your development in this area.

Read This Before Our Next Meeting by Al Pittampalli. This short book by an Ernst & Young alumnus offers tips to make meetings better and rethink our approach to meetings culture. The book was published as part of Seth Godin’s The Domino Project.

Manager Tools’s Podcast. Once again, the outstanding people at Manager Tools have been an inspiration. Here are a few of the podcasts they have produced on meetings over the years: Effective Meetings, The Project Management Drumbeat Meeting, and Facilitating Ground Rules to Start a Meeting.

Meeting Templates. There’s no reason to start from scratch in the world of meetings – the Internet has a number of great resources. Explore the following: How to Write an Agenda for a Meeting, Classic Meeting Agenda (from Microsoft), and 10 Tips for Good Meeting Agendas.

 

How To READ The News For Career Growth

Image Credit: Pixabay.com

Image Credit: Pixabay.com

The daily newspaper habit is overdue for a revival. It is among the best ways to  stimulate your career growth. Compliments from senior managers, greater influence and a greater impact are among the benefits available to readers of the business press.

There is just one problem. The world is filled with media options. With limited time, how do you make the most of your news reading? The READ approach outlined in this article helps you glean great value from the press in just a few hours per week. If you are changing careers or seeking a major increase, you need the READ strategy even more. Without it, you risk looking confused when industry trends and challenges are brought up in meetings.

How To Find Time To Read The Business Press

Like any new activity or habit, your first question may be “how am I supposed to fit this into my schedule?” Your answer will depend on your specific situation. At a minimum, dedicating thirty minutes a week to this process will deliver value. At that level, reading a few articles each morning will get the job done. Alternately, you might read a publication in depth on the weekend. Much like exercise, I have found that this habit tends to work better when you engage in it a few times per week rather than placing your emphasis on a single session.

Here are four times in the day when you can read the press:

  • Morning Commute: If you commute by public transit, train or similar means, you have some time to catch up on reading.
  • Lunch Break: A few times per week, you can use part of your lunch break to read the news.
  • Early Arrival At Appointments: From time to time, you may be a few minutes early for appointments. You can put this time to good use with reading.
  • Coffee Breaks: Productivity research has found that taking breaks from your work increases your overall productivity. Reading one or two articles during this time is an option.

Tip: Use the resources section mentioned at the end of the article for suggestions on ways to speed up the reading process further.

The READ Model

The READ model is a methodology to read the news with purpose and assumes you are operating with limited time. This approach assumes you have access to quality news publications whether through your own subscription or other means. The examples here emphasize written media because it is easier to manage and share with others. Use each step of the model in order to obtain the best results.

1. Review Your Career Goal

Your approach to the news media will be shaped by your career goals in the short term and long term. A short term goal might be to build your reputation by making better contributions in meetings and other venues at the office. In the long term, you may have a long term goal to seek a promotion to program manager or to an executive role. If you are seeking to move to a new industry, you may want to ask a few people in your network for suggestions on the “standard publications” everyone reads in that field so you can get up to speed.

Action Step: review your most important career goal because that will inform where you spend your reading time.

2. Evaluate Your Press Options

In our time, we are blessed to have a wide variety of publications to draw on for insights, facts and opinion. The flip side to this situation is to determine which publications suit your budget and time. As a general guideline, I suggest reviewing 2-5 publications on a recurring basis. These publications will fall into several categories: general news coverage (e.g. a major daily newspaper), an in-depth publication (e.g. a weekly or monthly publication that provides greater depth of analysis) and a profession/industry specific publication. Of course, I also recommend you include ProjectManagementHacks as part of your reading program!

Action Step: Select three publications from the resources section of this article to add to your READ habit. Several publications (e.g. The Wall St Journal and the New York Times) offer low price subscriptions to new readers so you can try out the publication for a short time.

3. Actively Read The Press

In school and university, many of us learned the art and science of critical reading. It is time to apply those skills to our professional reading. In the READ process, active reading means evaluating articles with a few key questions. Use the following points to develop your active reading process:

  • Does this trend present an opportunity or threat to my company?
  • Does this article have implications for the future (e.g. a forecast for declining oil prices)?
  • Does this article have credible data and sources? If not, does it have other useful ideas I might investigate?
  • How does this article fit with your professional knowledge and experience? Does it confirm what you know already or challenge it?
  • Is news item part of a broader trend that will impact your employer or career?

At a minimum, read articles that directly refer to your organization and your industry. Knowledge of your industry includes some understanding of your main competitors. After all, if a competitor launches a new product then your customers may start to ask your company for a similar offering.

Action Step: Apply one or more of the above questions to a news article you read this week.

4. Disseminate Your Reading To Your Network

Up to this stage, the READ model has been a relatively solitary experience. The final stage of the model is to share what you read with other people. Sharing an article with someone in your network is a great reason to stay in touch. Some readers may have encountered this suggestion before. If that is so, ask yourself whether you have put it into practice in the past month.

If not, then you have a new opportunity to put it into practice. Here are a few ways to share your reading with your network. With this technique, a little effort goes a long way  (i.e. sharing 1-2 articles per month with your current department is great: sharing more than that is probably too much).

Tip: I recommend writing a short email by hand (with a link to the article) when using this technique. A brief email with one or two key points from the article is better than using the “share this article” tool that many publications offer.

  • Current Department. Sharing your insights with your current manager and coworkers is a great idea. For example, you could send a “mini-broadcast” email around once or twice per month or bring a copy of an article to a staff meeting.
  • Internal Network. As project managers and managers, we depend on people in other units to get work done. Sharing interesting news items about your company and competitors from time to time is a great way to stay in touch. Otherwise, you may fall into the trap of only interacting with other departments when you need something from them.
  • Reconnecting. I have hundreds of LinkedIn connections and I’m aware that I can do better in staying in touch with them. One way to bring those connections to life is to share the occasional article with someone.
  • Shared Interests Connection. My interests include history, wine and science fiction and I enjoy connecting with people on those topics. If someone mentions a shared interest with you in a conversation, that is an opening to share your perspective with them.

Action Step: Share 1 article with someone you share by email this week. Include 1-2 sentences summarizing the article and why you think it is helpful.

News and Media Resources

This overview of leading media resources will get you started in putting the READ strategy into action.

  • Wall St Journal. One of the world’s leading business publications. Career Tools recently published podcasts on How To Read The Wall St Journal. If you work in the financial industry, the WSJ is a “must read.”
  • The New York Times. An excellent general interest newspaper that includes strong coverage of business issues.
  • The Globe & Mail. A leading Canadian newspaper known for strong business coverage.
  • The Financial Times. A major UK publication that also provides strong coverage of European affairs.
  • The Economist. As a weekly publication, the Economist often provides greater depth of analysis and new perspectives on current affairs.
  • Harvard Business Review. Widely read by managers and executives in many industries, HBR provides new perspectives and research based articles on business matters.
  • American Banker. A guide to the banking industry with an American focus.
  • Mergers & Inquisitions. Ever wondered how people find jobs at investment banks and hedge funds? This website brings your reports, salary information and training resources to help you achieve success in the investment industry.
  • ProjectManagement.com. I write a monthly column for ProjectManagement.com and that is only one of the great resources you will find there. There are great forums, templates and other resources for project managers to use.
  • CIO.com. Since 2015, I have been a regular contributor to CIO.com (e.g. How IT supports sales at 3 large companies, How CIOs can ensure M&A projects pay off and How Lockheed Martin, Cisco and PWC manage cybersecurity). If you are in IT management or aspire to such a role, CIO is an excellent resource.
  • Bloomberg Businessweek. A long running business publication
  • Fast Company. For professionals interested in innovation, growth and new ideas, Fast Company is a great resource.
  • Fortune. If you want to know what the world’s largest companies are doing, Fortune needs to be on your reading list.
  • Forbes. Forbes is known for publishing a guide to the world’s wealthiest individuals and providing quality business coverage. There are also great writers who contribute articles to Forbes such as Dorie Clark (writing on personal branding, marketing and networking) and Carmine Gallo (writing on business communication)

 

How To Improve Quality With Standard Operating Procedures

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are an important way to ensure consistent quality, support training and reduce risk. Unfortunately, these documents have a negative reputation in some circles. That’s understandable. A poorly written standard operating procedure is hard to understand and even more difficult to use.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Learning how and when to use standard operating procedures is a valuable professional skill. Let me unpack that last point further. A defining point for professional work is consistent quality. For example, when you seek a lawyer’s advice, you trust that they will complete all of the required steps in a legal process. Likewise, a professional physician will generally use proven procedures with patients. By codifying standard work, you have more energy and credibility to propose and implement innovations while getting the fundamentals done.

How I Discovered The Standard Operating Procedures

A few years ago, I read “The E-Myth Revisited” by Michael Gerber which explains why so many small businesses struggle. The problem? It all comes down to systems. As a company grows beyond the founder, other people become involved. Informally training these staff on new activities is one approach. It is fine to start with 1-on-1 training. For better results, systems and standard operating procedures make a big difference. Dedicated readers may remember that I previously wrote about how to build a checklist and wonder how procedures are different. Checklists are short documents designed to prevent serious errors. In contrast, procedures are detailed documents that specify each step.

Four Reasons To Create Standard Operating Procedures

Whether you are a manager or an individual contributor, there are good reasons to create and use standard operating procedures at work. They may not make for entertaining reading yet they do serve a valuable purpose.

1. Support Training

In many organizations, there are ongoing cross-training programs to ensure that all important tasks can be performed by multiple people. It is much easier to train another person on your key work tasks when you have a procedure document. Why? Creating a document forces you to note each step rather than vaguely thinking that certain steps are “common sense.”

2. Improve Quality

Delivering consistent and high quality results is a key reason to use procedures. In fact, delivering quality results in operations and the basics is an excellent way to build your reputation at work. The opposite is also true: failing to deliver quality will quickly undermine your professional reputation.

3. Support Continuous Improvement

With constant pressures to cut costs and innovate, you need all the improvements you can get. Fortunately, procedures help with productivity. I have improved productivity on several tasks over the years by creating procedures. It is easy to find steps to eliminate or document once all of the steps are visible. If you are interested in greater productivity, then you have a good reason to create a procedure document.

4. Increase Capacity For Creative Work

It may sound counterintuitive to learn there are creativity benefits to creating standard operating procedures. Let’s explain this point. When you have a clear process to follow, you don’t have to work as hard at recalling each step. Procedures help you reach the unconscious competence skill level much faster. At that point, your mind may wonder and you will start to ask new questions about your work. It’s difficult to have those thoughts if you are worried about getting the basics executed.

Key Practices For Writing Procedures

My suggestions for best practices assume you are working in an office environment and using a computer for much of your daily work. If you are an engineer working in the field, you may need a different approach.

1. Use the “ITO” model to summarize the process.

I recommend using the “ITO” (Inputs, Transformation, Outputs) model to document a process. When I write a procedure in Microsoft Word, I like to use the Smart Art feature to represent these parts. This basic model is widely used in many circumstances including cooking (Ingredients and equipment are inputs, the cooking approach is transformation, and the final meal is the output).

For small to medium complexity activities, the ITO diagram will generally be one page or less.

2. Document systems and applications

Systems and applications are important aspects to creating a successful procedure because they are used in every step of the process. Pay special attention to applications that require accounts and permissions as such accounts often take time to arrange. Also include settings, codes and other details needed to make the application perform in the procedure.

3. Add screenshots

Screenshots make procedures MUCH more useful even if you are a highly gifted technical writer. Why? Even if you properly describe each feature and click, some people find a verbal description difficult to master.

Tip: Press “Print Screen” (sometimes shown as “PrtScn” on some keyboards) to take a snapshot of your computer display on your computer. You can then “Paste” this image into Microsoft Paint or any other software for further editing.

Resource: Snagit is a great application for producing screen capture images and videos.

4. Add validation steps

In accounting, software development and other fields, there are established methods to prove that a given step was performed correctly. These steps are important to produce quality results and to help new people learn the procedure.

Tip: If your procedure relates to a recurring activity (e.g. the activity is performed each month or each week), one validation step could be “compare this month’s numbers to last month – are they significantly different?.” If so, recommend the procedure user determine if the change is valid or an error.

5. Test the procedure with fresh eyes

The final best practice for creating an effective standard operating procedure is to test it with someone new. After all, it is easy to forget a “basic step” when you are documenting a familar process. For the best results, provide a copy of the procedure to the other person. Then ask them to mark it up every time a step is unclear or confusing.

Further Resources For Technical Writing

There is an entire industry and profession dedicated to the art and science of creating procedures, manuals and similar documents. If you find yourself creating procedures for your projects and other work with regularity, explore these resources.

Standard Operating Procedures: A Writing Guide. Published by PennState, this article provides a great overview to guide you through the process of creating a SOP.

How to Master Technical Writing. Standard operating procedures are a type of techical writing. This article explains technical writing techniques and methods to create procedures and other technical documents.

Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) – Airports. Learning a new process is easier when you study a live example. This webpage provides Federal Aviation Administration procedures.

How to Create a Standard Operating Procedure Template. Clear and simple design makes procedures easy to read. Take a look at this webpage for a Microsoft Word template you can use.

 

How To Use Structured Problem Solving

Image Credit: Pixabay.com

Image Credit: Pixabay.com

If everything worked smoothly in your work, there would be no need to keep you on the payroll. Even if you did stay, your daily work would quickly become boring. Facing new challenges prompts us to grow and develop new skills. To use an athletic analogy, you don’t build endurance until you push yourself to work harder. This multi-step process is a proven method to get work through challenging problems.

When Should I Use Structured Problem Solving?

It is important to use the right tool for the task at hand. This is a powerful method that takes some time to plan and use. As a result, it only makes sense to use it on medium or large problems. If you are facing a minor computer glitch, simply restarting your computer will solve 95% of such problems. If you are facing a problem with a multi-million dollar project, this process makes sense to use. Finally, this process is useful to apply when you are facing an unfamiliar or frustrating problem.

Why Should I Use Structured Problem Solving?

Using a disciplined problem solving metod is useful in several circumstances. Consider using this process when are facing a situation that meets some or all of the criteria below:

  • New Problems. If you face a new problem that initially baffles you and defies solution, look into using a structured process to address the situation.
  • Stressful Problems. Certain problems – such as those involving weak skills or difficult people – trigger stress feelings. Emotion does help in motivating you to act. Unfortunately, emotion does not tend to generate specific solutions.
  • High Risk Problem. High risk problems have the potential to cause significant damage to your organization and career if you do not take action.
  • Priority Impact. If a given problem directly undermines your ability to achieve success on a priority goal, then it makes sense to apply some additional resources on solving the problem.

Ultimately, you will have to use your professional judgement to decide whether and how to apply this scenario. If you are just getting started with this process, I suggest using it on a small problem first. That way, you can build confidence in using the strategy.

The 6 Step Process For Problem Solving

Use these steps in sequential order to gain the best results in solving complex and important problems.

Step 1: Identify the problem

At this stage, you are defining the scope of the problem you have to solve. Points to consider at this stage include: problem origin (if known), problem impact (e.g. on customers, on staff or reputation) and timeline to solve the problem.

Example: “Three important vendors for next week’s conference have failed to meet several milestones defined by the contract. Vendor non-performance will result in conference attendee complaints and reputational damage.”

Note: the time factor is important to consider because it influences how much time you can dedicate to thinking through the problem. In extreme conditions, you may run through this entire process in less than an hour.

2. Structure the problem

Putting the problem into a clear structure for analysis is one of the great insights that consultants and MBA graduates bring to their work. What does it mean to structure a problem? It means identifying the important issues.

Example: Vendor non-performance in this case has the following points. First, there is a contract aspect to the problem. Second, there is a problem relating to our oversight and monitoring over the vendor. Third, this problem has an impact to the attendee experience.

Popular structures to use include Porter’s five forces model, connecting the problem to company goals or connecting the problem to a balanced scorecard.

3. Develop solutions

According to research by Chip and Dan Heath in their book “Decisive,” most managers develop only two solutions: “Do x or do not do X.” It will come as no surprise that this approach rarely delivers success. Binary choices tend to have a 50% or greater failure rate. On the other hand, fifty solutions is probably too many to handle especially if you are working through a problem solving process on your own.

The Solution Sweet Spot: developing three to five solutions is usually enough according to business consultant and author Michael Bungay Stanier.

To return to our vendor scenario, here are five solutions one might consider:

  1. Hire a new vendor to deliver.
  2. Enforce contract penalties for non-performance.
  3. Escalate the issue to a higher level (e.g. your executive calls the executive at the vendor) to discuss the situation.
  4. Implement new milestones with daily status reporting.
  5. Cancel the event if there is no way to produce a quality outcome according to schedule.

4. Select a solution to the problem

With a list of possible solutions on the table, it is now time to decide. If you face a personal problem or one that only impacts your work, choosing the option that strikes you as best is enough. In other situations, use a scoring process.

In our conference example, your decision criteria could be: cost, quality and reputation. Writing up a few notes to explain your decision is helpful if you need to convince something else to support your decision.

Example: I recommend hiring another vendor to complete the printing because we have a list of three backup vendors and the additional cost is within our planned budget.

Note: For large scale problem solving, you may have to follow an organizational template or policy if your solution requires a large amount of money.

5. Implement a solution

In this step, you put the solution into action. Implementation may become a project of its own. In that case, you have a full toolkit of project management tools and processes to call on.

Tip: If you are solving a novel problem, stay humble about your solution. It may not work or there may be a better way.

6. Monitor for success

Monitoring the solution and situation is a key step to ensure the problem is truly solved. Failing to follow up – especially if you have assigned the task to someone else – is a recipe for disaster. Monitoring is also important because problems are sometimes symptom of a deeper problem.

Tip: Increase the quantity and frequency of reporting when you are working through an important problem. In the conference example, you may ask for daily progress reports if the conference is ten days away.

Further Resources For Problem Solving

Consultants, authors and other professionals have done great work in creating tools and methods for business problem solving. In this section, you will find a few resources to continue your problem solving education.

McKinsey & Company Case Interviews. The global consulting firm provides business cases and other resources to assist job applicants seeking a role at the firm. Take a look at the practice problem solving tests to refine your skills.

CasePlace.org. Created by The Aspen Institute Business and Society Program, Case Place is a rich resource of case studies on a variety of organizations. Of special note: users can find cases by business discipline such as accounting, law and operations.

Are You Solving the Right Problem?. This Harvard Business Review article points out that problems vary in value. You may face several problems on any given day – choosing the right problem to work through matters.

 

8 Ways To Improve Procurement

Image Credit: Pixabay.com

Image Credit: Pixabay.com

Buying products and services for your company is an important discipline to develop. Outsourcing, offshoring and increased specialization in the economy are all factors driving demand for this skillset.

Use these 8 best practices to improve your procurement. These recommendations are informed by my professional experience, study and research. Some readers may find some practices basic. Yet, there are regular reports (e.g. a Colorado construction company paid a $500,000 fine in 2016 for, ” illegally taking over government contracts that were meant for small, disadvantaged businesses”) showing that these best practices are not universally followed.

Managing And Controlling With Invoices

The invoice is a key operational document in managing a procurement effectively. As a buyer, it is your obligation to understand the invoices you are paying and question unusual items. These three best practices make it easier to monitor and control invoices effectively.

1. Implement an invoice schedule

When invoices are received on a recurring schedule, it is much easier to monitor them. Following a set schedule for invoice release also makes it easier for the vendor to be paid on time.

Tip: If you expect to receive an important vendor’s invoice by the 10th calendar of the month, write a recurring reminder on your calendar. That way, you can easily follow up if it is not received on schedule.

2. Validate the invoice’s prices and price changes

How do you know if the invoices you are paying are correct? Inspecting the bottom line cost is not enough. Use these tips to validate invoices on an annual basis or more frequently as conditions warrant.

  • Compare invoice pricing to the contract. For example, if the contract defined a $100 per transaction price for “electrical repairs”, does that same price and description appear on the invoice? If so, then you have just validated that the invoice is correct.
  • Compare invoice price changes to the contract. It is common to have price changes in multi-year contracts. Ensuring that prices are only changed as per the agreed contract is an important discipline.

Using the above methods to validate invoices tends to find errors and potential cost savings. Demonstrating control over invoices and following up in errors is a great way to demonstrate your professionalism.

3. Complete regular invoice data analysis

Without an invoice database, it is very difficult to forecast expenses and detect unusual expenses. Fortunately, a simple invoice database is relatively easy to build and maintain in Microsoft Excel. Here are some tips on building an effective invoice database.

  • Request invoice data files. Invoices are typically delivered in PDF format or in paper. That process may be required for payment processing. In order to build an invoice database, ask the vendor to supply data files (e.g. Excel files or CSV files) that display all of the invoice elements (e.g. item, unit price, volume, tax, cost and grand total).
  • Build a full year of invoice data. With a full year of invoice data, it is much easier to detect and understand seasonal trends (e.g. does the vendor have higher expenses due to winter weather?)
  • Build a PivotTable. A PivotTable is a great Excel feature to summarize and display data: it is a useful way to see trends and perform ad hoc analysis.

Managing The Sub-Contractor

Whether you are building a house, an ERP application or a submarine, it is a common practice to use sub-contractors. For the buyer, sub-contractors pose special questions and challenges. The sub-contractor may not have a clear understanding of the buyer’s situation because they are a few steps removed from the situation. Use these best practices to reduce sub-contractor risks.

4. Exercise sub-contractor oversight

In high risk situations such as work with live products or customer data, seek additional oversight over sub-contractors. For example, I have seen contracts that request that all sub-contractors be required to go through the same background and/or security evaluation process. In other cases, buyers request the right to review and approve sub-contractors before they become involved.

5. Request sub-contractor right to audit

For risk conscious organizations such as banks and governments, it is a common practice to seek a right to audit sub-contractors. The details will vary depending on the situation. It could include the right to visit and review a sub-contractor’s facility or perform a cybersecurity review.

6. Apply organizational standards to the sub-contractor

Many organizations have defined standards and policies that govern their activities. These documents cover areas such as records retention, privacy protection, a general code of ethics and many other areas. Seek to obtain sub-contractor agreement to these provisions. One cannot outsource risk management responsibility to a third party after all.

Managing The Bid Process

A poorly run bid process creates a host of problems. In government and the public sector, mismanaged bids are often the topic of negative media attention. In other situations, auditors and managers may ask about how and why you made the purchases you did. These are fair questions to ask and it makes sense to be prepared to answer them.

7. Review the organization’s procurement requirements

Before you contact a vendor or start to write a bid, start by understanding your organization’s requirements. How exactly do you find these requirements? Use these resources and tips to learn the baseline requirements.

  • Search the intranet. Most large organizations have an intranet (an internal website) that contains standards, templates and other documents. Take 10-15 minutes and search for procurement resources here.
  • Meet with the procurement department. In projects, you may go through large procurement activities once or twice per year. At that frequency, it is difficult to develop skill and remember all of the steps. Given that reality, it makes sense to meet with your company’s procurement staff (also known as “sourcing” or “strategic sourcing”) for advice.

8. Document your buying decision process

At the end of the procurement process, it is time to make a decision. It is important to document your buying process because you may receive questions about it later. Points to include in this documentation include: your scoring process, who was consulted on the purchase and why other vendors were declined.

Further Resources For Procurement

Here are a few resources to continue your procurement studies and learn additional best practices.

  • Purchasing B2B. A Canadian publication on purchasing activities.
  • Procurement Leaders. A magazine, blog and other resources addressed to procurement leaders.
  • Procurement Asia. An online publication that covers strategy, manufacturing and related points on procurement.

12 Ways To Use Email Better

Office

Image Credit: Office (Pixabay.com)

Email remains a key professional communication tool. Many of us have multiple email accounts for different reasons which adds to the confusion. Use these email hacks, resources and tools to become more effective with email.

Email First Principles

Let’s start with guiding principles before diving into the technical hacks and tips. These principles apply to all email platforms and put email into a communication context.

1. It is one tool in a toolbox

Email is a powerful tool. It is fast, widely used and relatively reliable. Yet, it is important to recognize that the limitations of email. When you have a message to share, give thought to whether email is the right way

2. It has low emotional content.

Words on a screen have limited ability to convey nuance. A classic example is the one word response (e.g. “Approved” or “no”) from an executive. At first glance, these responses may appear rude from a certain viewpoint. From the sender’s perspective, it is a concise response that keeps business moving. The varying interpretations remind us that email can be read different ways.

Tip: Have an intuition about your message’s sensitivity? Consider picking up the phone instead.

3. Brevity matters.

Short emails work. Long emails require more effort from the reader who may have to flip back and forth to understand the whole message.

See what I did there?

If you need to make a case for what you are thinking, scheduling a meeting (hint: use these meeting tips) and making a presentation is a better approach.

Tip: BLUF – “bottom line up front” – is a writing technique pioneered in the military. This method means stating a request at the beginning rather than building to it.

Writing Effective Email

Writing effective email is a vital business skill. In this section, I highlight a few tips that will make your email better.

4. Begin Well

Starting an email well is a win-win courtesy. With a clear subject line and greeting, the reader is more likely to read and act on the message. Omit these best practices and you will frustrate the reader and possibly not receive a response.

Tip: Six to ten words in a subject line is effective according to research reported in INC Magazine.

5. Make clear requests

Too many emails are written in an unclear or a vague manner. The importance of clear requests is especially important when you are communicating to executives and managers. Remember – they may read and respond to your communication on a mobile device while on the go.

6. Include the “minimum viable reference” material

Wasting time with multiple back and forth messages is a frustrating way to use email. Instead, plan to include minimal documentation. If the document is complex (e.g. a multi-tab spreadsheet), provide some notes to the reader so they know where to look.

Tip: Do you use Sharepoint or another content management system at your organization? If so, you can include links to online documents.

Email Management Tools and Technology

There are many tools and technologies on the market to make email more effective. If you use email for sales and marketing activities, consider looking into CRMs (e.g. Contactually or Salesforce) and email marketing services such as Aweber. For the rest of us, there is great power in using “off the shelf” email applications.

9. Microsoft Outlook

This application remains a key tool in the corporate world. I like that Outlook has an integrated calendar function which makes it easier to manage meetings. I am sometimes frustrated by the slow search function in Outlook. Outlook delivers the greatest value to users in large organizations.

Tip: Lifehacker has published a helpful article 12+ Tips and Tricks to Work Faster in Microsoft Outlook. My favorite tip – use keyboard shortcuts (e.g. Control + R to trigger a reply).

10. SaneBox

This app offers a lot of enhancements to make email better. While I don’t use the service myself, I see great value in the tool. You can track emails (e.g. track a given email for response within 5 days). The company’s website states that they have saved 900 years of time for their users. As more and more business activity goes through email, it only makes sense to bring in automation tools.

11. Gmail (Google Email)

Far and away, I consider Gmail to be the best email service on the market. The search and storage features make the service into an informal database. Even better, Google offers a suite of experimental services through Labs. PC World points out a few key features to experiment with: Undo Send and Canned Response.

12. FollowupCC

In the Getting Things Done system, there is a “waiting for” list. In this list, you make a note of tasks, messages and other situations where you are waiting for another person to take an action. Keeping track of those activities can be difficult. This service makes it easier to manage emails that require a follow up.

Tip: For email within your organization, I suggest a waiting period of 3-5 business days for a response. After that period, it is reasonable to seek a follow up response.

Email Further Reading and Resource

Email management is a microcosm of wider issues we face in becoming more productive. There are whole courses, consultants and companies that provide additional assistance on managing email. Here are some resoruces to aid you in becoming more effective.

Got Email by Manager Tools. Published over 10 years ago, this podcast provides great tips and an overview to managing email in the professional context. It is rare that technology advice stays current for so long – kudos to the Manager Tools team for their great work. The organization has also published podcasts on how to leverage DISC to write better email.

The Two Minute Rule. This productivity tool comes from the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. Simply put, if a task – such as writing an email response – can be completed in two minutes, then do it immediately. Caution: it is easy to do a long string of such tasks and use an hour so use this principle carefully.

Managing Email When Your Inbox is Overloaded by Stever Robbins (Get It Done Guy). I like the tip – also advocated by Manager Tools – to manage email at specific times. Otherwise, it is easy to use up the whole day in reading and responding to email.