The 5 Rules of Professional Creativity

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Are you creative?

If you are managing projects, serving customers well and making an impact, you are creative.

What if you’re not sure about your creative gifts? Maybe you think it is a gift reserved for those who perform in concert halls. That is only one example of creativity. In business, there is also a great need for creativity. It is one of the best ways to immunize yourself from the pressure of automation and outsourcing.

The 5 Rules That Creative Professionals Use

1. Engage fully

Have you heard the term “FOMO”? It means “fear of missing out.” Sadly, it is a barrier to both creativity and satisfafction. The ability to pay attention to other people and your current context is valuable. Yet, if you are always thinking about your next appointment or yesterday’s disappointment, it will be difficult to make progress.

Here are one way to tame your technology and engagte fully at work:

  • Turn off digital notifications. Automated notifications from your computer and smart phone make it difficult to focus. The worst example of this is a smart phone placed on the table during a meeting that buzzes and vibrates periodically. With rare exceptions, your organization willl survive without your attention for an hour or two so you can focus in a meeting.

Tip: Read “Fighting FOMO: 4 Questions That Will Crush the Fear of Missing Out” for more insights on this challenge.

2. Learn something new daily

Daily learning is one of the best ways to become more creative. With more ideas, examples and stories, you are able to combine ideas into new combinations. Over the years, I have experimented with different approaches. Here are some ideas to start your daily learning.

  • Set a daily reading time. A key part of my morning routine is to read a book for 30 minutes and it puts me in a good mood.
  • Study new words. I subscribe to the OED Word of the Day. As a student of history, I love reading about the origin of words. A few favorites include philobiblian (A book-lover. Obs.’) and  ad hominem (By attempting to disprove an argument or proposition by attacking the beliefs or character of the person proposing it).

3. Record new ideas as they happen

Capturing new ideas, to do items and questions as they occur to you is an important practice. Once an idea is recorded, it is easier to work with it and develop it into a new idea. Once an idea is written down, you can create a mind map, come up with additional questions and tasks to get moving. Here are two of my favorite tools.

  • Evernote. When possible, I like to use Evernote to write down ideas and notes. If an idea has developed into a task, I move it over into Nozbe, a task management tool. I like the flexibility of Evernote and the ability to search and organize material easily. I like that Evernote is available on several platforms including the iPhone, Web and a Windows application.
  • Moleskine Notebooks.  I have used these notebooks for years and recommend them. The durable covers and the various physical sizes make them easy to manage. I also prefer to bring a physical notebook to meetings, seminars and other settings where a laptop would not be welcome.

4. Welcome restrictions

Restrictions can be fun!

Several years ago, I attended an “welcome to the company” orientation one day program at a large company. To foster networking and conversation, attendees were assigned a few challenges to complete a task with limited resources and time. I enjoyed the challenge of building a small bridge capable of supporting a medium sized toy car.

Here are a few ways that working with restrictions leads to better results and productivity.

  • Automation instead of man hours. When you face a time crunch, traditional approaches may not work. I have sometimes faced situations like this in working with Microsoft Excel. In order to meet a deadline, I had to learn how to use formulas in a new way. Learning that new skill made me more effective in the future as well.
  • Question complex solutions. Building a highly complex solution often comes to mind as the first way to solve a complex problem. Unfortunately, complex solutions may be too much for the end user to handle. Ask yourself “what solution would I develop if a non-expert had to use this?”

Tip: One of my favorite scenes from “Apollo 13” explains how to achieve success despite limited resources

5. Go beyond your screens

This is a broad suggestion that can be read in different ways. If you are anything like me, you probably use computers and digital devices all day. They are great tools for work and leisure. Yet, they only represent one aspect of the world and one way of thinking. Here are some ideas to spur your creative skills by going beyond your usual routines.

  • Read a magazine from a new field. I first encountered this suggestion in Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind. It is a great way to ask new questions and consider new opportunities. For example, you might pick up a copy of Wine Spectator or National Geographic. Reading widely gives you more mental models and examples for your mind to use.
  • Visit somewhere new in your city. It’s easy to confine your thoughts of travel to a few short weeks of vacation each year. What about exploring new aspects of your own city? For example, the A Long Walk From Toronto blog shares reports and photos from Toronto and the nearby area (e.g. Scarborough Museum and the East Corridor).

Creativity Resources

There are many great resources in books and on the Web to help you become more creative. Here are a few examples to get you started.

Knock Em Dead – The Job Search Guide by Martin Yates

I came across the five rules in reading Yates’s book this month and it provided excellent inspiration for this blog post. If you are going through a career change, this book is a helpful resource.

Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono

A classic book on problem solving that is well worth reading and studying. This book is especially valuable if you are looking to build creative skills in a team.

A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink

Years after reading this book, it continues to come to mind. Pink encourages readers to think with “right brain” qualities such as empathy, stories and invention. The website, linked to above, provides a wealth of resources including book discussion guides.

Do You Know The Difference Humor Makes At Work?

Ease Stress With Humor

Laughter and humor have the power ease conflict situations, reduce stress and improve teamwork.

That’s the message I recently learned from Michael Kerr who gave an outstanding presentation to the PMI Southern Ontario chpater last week. Kerr describes himself as a recovering government manager. He is also the author of several books including The Humor Advantage. In this article, I will share what I learned from Mike and provide a short list of further reading resources.

Benefits On The Value of Humor At Work

You may be skeptical about merits and value of humor at work. I understand that perspective, especially if you tend to see yourself as a highly logical Mr Spock. Like it or note, emotional connection and mood have a significant impact on human performance and team results. Consider the following points.

1. Reduce Absenteeism. Work often grinds to a halt when a key person is absent from the office. Some level of absenteeism is expected, it can be reduced. Jessica Mesmer-Magnus, writing in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, found that “Humor is associated with enhanced work performance, satisfaction, workgroup cohesion, health, and coping effectiveness, as well as decreased burnout, stress, and work withdrawal.”

2. Improve Your Decisions. The quality of our decisions make an impact on our results.  Lydia Dishman writes in Fast Company: “Positive moods prompt “more flexible decision-making and wider search behavior and greater analytic precision.”

3. Boost Problem Solving Capacity. Our ability to solve problems depends on our emotional state. When we are in a positive state, we have increased capacity to solve problems. Alice M Isen writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shares, “Studies have shown that simply watching comedy films can improve creative problem solving skills.”

4. High Performers Tend To Use Humor. A 2003 article in Harvard Business Review, “Laughing All the Way to the Bank” by Fabio Sala states, “The executives who had been ranked as outstanding used humor more than twice as often as average executives, a mean of 17.8 times per hour compared with 7.5 times per hour.”

Above and beyond these benefits, a bit of humor also makes the working experience more attractive. After all, there is no law that states we have to suffer at work to achieve success.

5 Ways To Add Humor To The Workplace

Master comedians spend years crafting material. In fact, Seinfeld’s number one piece of advice to aspiring comedians is to write a joke every single day for years on end. Fortunately, you don’t have to achieve comedy mastery to achieve the benefits.

1. Seek Out Comedy And Notice What Works

The first tip is to seek out more comedy. Yes, you have permission and encouragement to take in comedy shows. Some of my past favorites include Dilbert, The Office (so far, I’ve only seen the U.S. version) and attending Second City shows. Here’s a comedy lesson from “The Office”: be wary of trying to too hard. Comedy, like much in life, can be overdone.

2. Notice “Accidental” Comedy

There are countless mistakes in signs, policies and documents that have humor potential. In fact, Mike Kerr started collecting examples during his government career. Not sure what to look for? Check out these two videos for inspiration:

3. Participate In Humor At The Office

Adding humor at work doesn’t require you to play the role of the comedian. In many cases, it is enough to simply enjoy a joke or humor that someone else brings up.

Tip: Be wary of joining in on humor that attacks another person. Such jokes often leave wounds.

4. Experiment With Fun Ideas

In Mike Kerr’s presentation, he gave plenty of examples of fun, even wacky ideas to use at work. One approach is to create unconventional awards (e.g. “worst idea of the week”). Another approach is to bring in props to meetings. I can see value in these ideas. Yet, I have to confess that I have not tried that approach. As with all of these approaches, it is wise to start small.

5. Make Fun Of Yourself Occasionally

From time to time, it pays to make fun of yourself. It is a way to ease tension and conflict. This approach also helps people connect when there is a power or authority gap. I have certainly felt more connected with managers and leaders who occasionally joke than those who are “all business, all the time.”

Further Reading on Humor and Work

I hope I have inspired you to look for ways to add humor and comedy to your work. The resources below provide additional examples, evidence and techniques on using humor at work.

The Science-Backed Reason You Should Watch Standup Comedy Before A Meeting by Drake Baer (Business Insider). Of course, I enjoy comedy on its own merits. This article also suggests that we can improve performance in meetings simply by enjoying some comedy or humor first. In the article, you will learn about James Altucher‘s practice of using comedy to improve his performance.

10 Reasons Why Humor Is A Key To Success At Work by Jacquelyn Smith (Forbes). Smith’s article provides an overview of the merits of humor. If you have read this far and still have a skeptical view of humor, consider the following survey finding. “A Robert Half International survey, for instance, found that 91% of executives believe a sense of humor is important for career advancement; while 84% feel that people with a good sense of humor do a better job.”

The Humor Advantage: Why Some Businesses Are Laughing All The Way To The Bank by Michael Kerr. Of course, I have to mention Kerr’s book because he inspired this article!

How to Use Humor at Work Without Acting Like a Jerk by X (Entrepreneur). This article leads with excellent advice to “know your audience.” Some people are naturally more interested in humor – it is probably best to start by connecting with them

25 Ideas for Building Fun into Your Work Setting by Paul McGhee, PhD. I will close with this practical list of tips. Here is an example: “Have fun dress-up days.” I have seen some organizations embrace Halloween for that purpose.

How To Improve Your Customer Service: Lessons From Disney, Fedex And Beyond

Customer Service

Image Credit: Customer Service by ddswayne85 (Pixabay.com)

 

Customer service remains a key way to set yourself apart as a professional and achieve success as an organization. In this article, you will learn the basic principles of customer service and ways to develop your skill in this area.

These skills are typically emphasized in sales, marketing and other roles that directly connect with end customers. What if you work in IT or a corporate function like finance, operations or human resources? Customer service skills still made a great impact in these areas because everyone in business has customers to serve.

Designing Experiences & Solving Problems: The State of Customer Service Today

Based on my research, customers see two aspects to effective customer service. First, customers expect and appreciate a well designed process that takes care of their needs (i.e. the proactive side of service). Second, customers want to be able to solve problems FAST (i.e. the reactive side of service). Developing both aspects of

  • Technology Impact. Leading companies are using technology to deliver certain aspects of customer service. As project managers, there is a great contribution to be made here. If you have a strong understanding of process and business analysis, you can use technology to deliver consistent customer service.
  • Deliver a WOW Experience. Michael Hyatt explains how to create and deliver a WOW experience (i.e. exceed customer expectations) in his book Platform: Get Noticed In A Noisy World. In the book, I was impressed by his example of the receptionist at Thomas Nelson Publishers. This person had the assignment to create “a WOW experience” for people visiting the company. This experience included greeting guests by name, offering them food and/or drink and considerations. The best part? The person’s job title is “Director of First Impressions.”
  • Avoid The Bad Customer Experience Time Suck. According to Ruby Newell-Legner, “It takes 12 positive experiences to make up for one unresolved negative experience.” Delivering a good customer service experience up front means that you have more time available for other activities.
  • Solve Problems In One Interaction. We have all had the experience of contacting an organization to resolve a billing error or get an important question answered. According to Accenture research, 89% of Canadians surveyed say their #1 frustration is not being able to have their problem solved based on their first interaction

Customer Service Lessons From Leading Companies

In this section, I will share a few examples of companies that have delivered the goods in customer service. In addition to customer service excellence, I noticed that these organizations do NOT base their strategy on cost or price. If you aspire to be a “premium professional” who is paid above the market average, consider improving your customer service experience.

1. Porter Airlines

My experience with Porter Airlines, a regional Canadian airline, has always been positive. The company’s committment to a positive customer experience became clear to me when I arrived at the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport for the first time. Porter provided a complimentary snack bar with high quality snacks and coffee. In addition, the lounge offered free wireless Internet access and a set of Apple computers with large monitors. In addition to their excellent facilities, the staff were friendly and the whole experience ran smoothly. Air travel often leaves much to be desired in customer experience. Porter shows that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Lesson: Many people are upset by poor customer service in air travel. That frustration creates an opportunity to excel in customer service. If your department or organization has a weak reputation, you can stand out.

2. The Walt Disney Company

In October 2015, I attended the PMI Global Congress in Orlando, FL. From my arrival to departure, I spent 95% of my time on Disney properties. Overall, I was impressed! Disney has thought through the end to end customer experience (e.g. picking up visitors at the Orlando airport, providing great conference facilities and so forth). I’m not the only one who has noticed Disney’s excellence.

Carmine Gallo wrote about Disney’s customer experience on Forbes. He noted that Disney parks are maintained to a high standard. Even better, Disney staff are equipped to communicate effectively: “the staff is also trained to answer common questions, even if it’s “not their job.”  One Disneyland employee I talked to even knew the times of a show at another end of the park and how long the show would last.  Most employees at other businesses are not trained to communicate.”

Lesson: Disney’s outstanding committment to training and cleanliness is an advantage. This example shows us that outstanding delivery on basic ideas like cleanliness can be enough to set you apart.

3. FedEx

Federal Express (FedEx) first became known through a promise to deliver packages fast each and every time. Recently, I have been impressed by the company’s efforts to build a robust self-serve website for customers. I was able to sign up for email notifications about the status of a package. I also appreciated the fact that the company called me in advance regarding customs duties payable on a package. Of course, I also have to mention that Federal Express’s committment to customer service was memorably depicted by Tom Hanks’s character in the 2000 movie Cast Away.

Lesson: The Federal Express customer service approach shows an outstanding approach to logistics, operations and delivering customer service through technology. Look for ways to deliver more up to date information to customers using technology, a service that Fedex and Amazon have both developed to a high level.

How To Deliver Better Customer Service in 4 Steps

Delivering better customer service as an individual professional is one of the best ways to stand out. Use these steps to start the process of improving your service.

1. Determine Your Current State

Look around your current project or organization for customer service problems. A classic opportunity is the “It’s not my job to do X” situation. In other cases, you may notice a chronic problem where everyone in the unit runs sloppy meetings.

2. Look For A Quick Win

Once you identify a customer service problem to work on, you can move forward to improve customer service. Remember, your perspective is to ask “What can I personally do to improve customer service?” If everybody is used to waiting five business days for a decision on change requests, you can start to respond in three business days.

3. Collect Customer Feedback

Gathering customer feedback is essential to your effort to improve customer service. After all, your effort to deliver a quick win may fall on deaf ears if you identified the wrong problem to work on. On the other hand, you may gain positive comments from surprised customers. Keep a record of these positive comments because they will help you to influence others to join you in your improvement efforts.

Tip: A survey remains an effective way to collect feedback. Google Forms and Survey Monkey are two popular options.

4. Plan For Continuous Improvement

Customer expectations are constantly changing, so flexibility is a key aspect of customer service success. If your efforts have been well received, your next step may be to plan a project to roll out your new approach to the rest of the organization. Otherwise, return to the first step and look for other problems.

 

Why You Need Grit To Get Your Projects Done

Image Credit: Running By Skeeze (Pixabay.com)

Image Credit: Running By Skeeze (Pixabay.com)

Imagine two professional project managers are given similar projects to manage and deliver. They have comparable technology resources, similar teams and other capabilities at their command. Why would one project manager achieve success while the other decides to abandon the effort? In many cases, the answer comes down to grit.

Defining Grit And Why It Matters To Your Success

We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappoint- ment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course. – Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals by Angela L. Duckworth, Christopher Peterson, Michael D. Matthews and Dennis R. Kelly

Talent, skill and education are valuable. Yet they are not the complete the picture. As the above quote suggests, the trait of grit matters a great deal. On an intuitive level, this research rings true with me. In 2015, I took up long distance running in races for the first. In April 2015, I ran the Toronto Yonge Street 10k (my very frist race!) and a few days ago, I ran the half marathon (21.1 km) in the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. These events are all about grit.

Grit matters in physical achievement and far beyond that setting. If you are leading a complex project, building a software product or writing a book, grit makes the difference.

The 2007 Grit Case Study: Success in West Point and Beyond

Some people are skeptical of the value of personal development as it relates to professional and business success. I appreciate that perspective. The evidence for the value of grit is strong and worth examining in detail. My favorite example of grit in action comes from the United States Military Academy at West Point and other students. The following quotes are drawn from the Grit study linked to in the previous section.

  • Grit predicted completion of the rigorous [West Point] summer training program better than any other predictor.
  • In Studies 4 and 5, grit was a better predictor of first summer retention at West Point than was either self-control or a summary measure of cadet quality used by the West Point admissions committee.
  • Among more than 3,500 participants attending nine different colleges, follow-through was a better predictor than all other variables, including SAT scores and high school rank, of whether a student would achieve a leadership position in college.

The second bullet point is striking and worth exploring. Everyone who goes through the summer program at West Point has already met a high standard for academic achievement, focus and character. So what determines who continues with the program? The researchers found that the grit trait makes an important difference.

How To Develop Your Grit

At this point, I trust the value and merits of grit are clear to you. That just leaves one question – how do we develop this quality and achieve more of our goals? The effort is well worth it. As you develop more grit as a project manager, you will inspire your team. Your greater focus will mean fewer failed projects and a stronger reputation at work. Use these five techniques to get started.

1. Build Your Willpower

Will power, also known as self-control, is a skill that you can develop over time. Lack of willpower is a significant barrier to success. More than 25% of Americans cite lack of willpower as a barrier to achieving their goals according to the 2011 Stress in America Survey organized by the American Psychological Association.

You can build your willpower capacity by going through small tests to resist temptation. A classic approach is to resist eating a sweet or dessert for a period of time. You could postpone a dessert by an hour instead of eating it immediately. The willpower you develop through such exercises will yield benefits in other areas of your career.

2. Write Clear Goals

Without clear goals, focus becomes difficult. In a project management context, you might have a goal to “improve IT performance.” Unfortunately, that goal is vague so it is difficult to measure progress and determine when you have achieved victory. Use these guidelines to develop better goals.

  • The Third Party Rule: A clearly written goal can be measured by a stranger who has never met you. If there is no objective evidence or measures involved, it is easy to deceive yourself (knowingly or not).
  • Deadline: Project management professionals have long known the power of deadlines to motivate action. A deadline provides a sense of urgency that helps you to make daily progress.
  • The Numbers Rule: There is a lot of truth to the old saying that numbers don’t lie. Look for a way to add numbers, dollars or some other quantifiable meaure. A customer service project might start with a vague intent to improve customer service. Instead, yuo could add a measure to the process by using the Net Promoter Score system or target certain results through a survey.

3. Identify Your Reasons For Working On A Goal

Students at West Point have plenty of reasons to successfully complete their studies. There is prestige and social status associated with graduating from the school. Graduates also have access to an alumni network that includes U.S. Presidents, entrepreneurs and other leaders. In addition, West Point graduates are famous for their dedication and personal discipline.

It’s now time for you to identify the reasons for your goal. What’s the connection between reasons and grit? Simply put, reviewing your reasons will give you added motivation during times of difficulty. I first learned the importance and value of developing a list of reasons (or “Whys for your goal”) when I took Michael Hyatt’s Five Days To Your Best Year Ever program in 2014. As a guideline, I suggest writing three to five reasons for each goal you work on.

4. Use Tiny Habits To Make Gradual Change

Some goals in life are about creating new habits. As James Clear has shown, shaping habits is a powerful way to achieve sucess in business and other areas of life (keep in mind: habits account for about 40% of your actions on a daily basis). Success habits for project managers include meeting habits, ways to manage conflict and related points. If you are looking for baby steps to build better habits, I recommend the Tiny Habits program.

5.  Access Resources And Support

From time to time, you will need support from other people to achieve your goals. At West Point, that could be tips from an upper year student. In the project management world, you might ask review the lessons learned database. Or you could read the articles here on Project Management Hacks! For more career advancement resources that will help you improve your grit, join the Project Management Hacks email newsletter.

Further Reading On Grit

To continue your studies on grit and related qualities, explore these articles and related resources.

Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals by Angela L. Duckworth, Christopher Peterson, Michael D. Matthews and Dennis R. Kelly, 2007

Grit and the Secret of Success by Maria Popova, 2014

The key to success? Grit by Angela Lee Duckworth, TED.com, 2013

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth (Release Date: May 3, 2016)

Nine Things Successful People Do Differently by Heidi Grant Halvorson, 2012

How To Build Trust At Work

Image Credit: Trust by Geralt (Pixabay.com)

Image Credit: Trust by Geralt (Pixabay.com)

Without trust, your ability to achieve significant work is limited. Low trust environments operate much slower than high trust environments. The unique pressures of project work make trust even more important. Limited time makes it difficult to accomodate traditional off site meetings and trust building exercises. Before you become discouraged at building trust, let’s consider the following points on trust

What The Research Says About Trust

  • 39% of Canadians trust what their senior leaders say and less than four in 10 feel that senior leadership is doing a good job of communicating what is happening in their workplace. (HR Reporter)
  • 64% of American of employed adults feel their organization treats them fairly, 1 in 3 reported that their employer is not always honest and truthful with them. “This lack of trust should serve as a wake-up call for employers,” says David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA, head of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence. “Trust plays an important role in the workplace and affects employees’ well-being and job performance.” (American Psychological Association)
  • ” It takes evidence of only a single lie for a manager to be branded a “liar.” In contrast, a person has to tell a whole lot of truth to qualify as a “straight shooter.” Credibility, as we have all seen, is slow to build and quick to dissipate. A generally straightforward manager who is caught breaking an important promise will likely have trouble recovering.” (The High Cost of Lost Trust, Harvard Business Review)

We know trust is important. The Harvard Business Review study also found a link between integrity and increased revenues. These findings give us compelling evidence on the value of trust. That leaves the question – how exactly do we generate trust? I suggest breaking trust down into its component parts.

The Trust Framework

In my approach to trust in this article, I am indebted to the Skillsoft course “Building Trust.” I recently took this course as I have become more interested in interpersonal skills. The course was well worth the effort to study. I’m happy to share my notes and reflections on the course material with you. If you have found trust to be a vague concept in the past, then you have come to the right place. This framework shows the various behaviors and actions needed to build trust.

Building Trust Through Competence

Your ability and knowledge to complete a task is part of being a trustworthy professional. For growing people who love to learn, this is an important factor to consider. To build trust, it is important to be clear on your capabilities. If you have no working knowledge of Spanish, then it makes sense to decline Spanish activities. Let’s look at ways you can apply the competence principle to build trust.

  • High Confidence Response. In situations where you have a high degree of confidence about your skills, say as much. “Yes, I can get this analysis done for you. I know my way around the software and the data.”
  • Learning Emphasis Response. From time to time, you will encounter new tasks. In those cases, you have to use your judgement to determine if you can learn how to do the task with the time and resources available. You might say, “That’s interesting. I would like to do that and I should let you know I haven’t done this before so I will have a learning curve on this task.”
  • Saying No. In some situations, it makes sense to say no. However, you can go further to help the person making the request. You might say, “I don’t know how to do that. Fortunately, my colleague Jane is an expert at regulatory compliance and she may be able to help you.”

Building Trust Through Dependability

At first glance, dependability may seem self-evident. In fact, there are several important practices related to this personal quality. Many agreements are broken because they were never clearly understood in the first place. To improve your dependability, use the following steps:

  • Determine if there is a request. Sometimes others make vague statements that sound like requests. Listen carefully to determine if someone is actually making a request to you.
  • Clarify and evaluate the request. To clarify the request, seek information on deadlines, quality and other key aspects of the work.
  • Be clear. Once you make a decision, tell the requestor what you plan to do.
  • Follow up. Following up is a vital skill (and I admit to having had shortcomings in this area in the past). It could be as simple as sending a short email to the requestor telling them that the work is done.

Building Trust Through Honesty

A reputation for honesty is one of the most valuable qualities in society. All the contracts in the world have no value if there are doubts about your the value of your word. In the context of building trust and teams, there are a few key principles to keep in mind.

  • Omissions. Holding back critical information prevents others from effectively making decisions. For example, if you hold back data about a decline in the quality of a vendor’s work, then you would likely be considered dishonest.
  • Facts vs Non-Facts. For others to understand and evaluate our comments, it is important to know our facts. Specifically, this means admitting to speculation. For extra credit on this point, it is a best practice to have references and sources available for facts you state. There is nothing wrong with communicating forecasts, estimates or opinions as long as they are communicately in a clear fashion
  • Consistent Message. Sticking to one message in several circumstances is key to this quality. If you change your mind, clearly tell everyone affected why. Otherwise, many people may not understand why you changed your views.

Building Trust Through Consideration

Adjusting our communication and actions for others is a key aspect of consideration. In the project world, this theme relates to stakeholder management. It’s natural to focus our attention on friends, family and those with the most power (e.g. our managers). Yet, consideration encourages to think more broadly.

  • Seek to understand other’s interests. You cannot be considerate until you understand what the other person wants. You can use surveys, meetings and other approaches to gather that information.
  • Practice active listening. Demonstrating that you are listening is vital. In a face to face meeting, you can nod and take notes as the other person speaks. In virtual meetings, directly state your understanding of the other person and ask for clarification.
  • Make adjustments as necessary. This is where the rubber meets the road. You may get better ideas and improvements from the other person. In other cases, consideration may exact costs. In either case, concrete action is a good way to show consideration for another person’s viewpoint.

Question & Action:

Which of these principles will you put into effect this week to become more trustworthy?

 

The Professional Development Tripod: Leadership, Strategic Management & Technology

Continuing Education Requirements (PMI, 2015)

Continuing Education Requirements (PMI, 2015)

On May 6, the Project Management Institute announced exciting changes for continuing education requirements. These changes present an excellent opportunity for us to increase our value. In this article, I will analyze the requirements. You will also learn how these changes will help you to get ahead in your career. The below image summarizes part of the continuing education requirements PMI announced:

Where Did The Education Requirements Come From?

In order to offer valuable education and professional resources, the Institute regularly reviews the marketplace. Unlike law or accounting where many of the requirements are specified in law, project management has greater flexibility to adapt to changing conditions. Now that PMI has done the initial research, it is up to each professional to put these ideas into practice.

Theme 1: Learning Leadership

In my view, leadership skills are the most important area for project managers. Leadership is a broad category to practice and study. For our purposes, let’s consider leadership as being an aggregation of mutually supporting skills (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Negotiation Skills. The ability to understand your needs and the needs of the other side. The best negotiators work to achieve win-win results. For a fresh take on negotiation, I recommend William Ury’s new book: Getting to Yes with Yourself.
  • Decision Making. Leaders make decisions, despite limited information and risk. Fortunately, there are ways to lower the risk in decision making (e.g. using decision criteria or a defined process)
  • Motivating Others. Project managers working in a matrix organization understand that their formal power is limited. That’s why it is important to take the time and effort to understand motivation – you will become a more effective leader as a result.
  • Delegation Skills. Asking people to do work for you is a skill that leaders develop. Simply issuing orders is not enough.
  • Communicating in Difficult Situations. Working through conflict in a professional and effective manner is vital for leaders. This skill could be considered a subset of conflict management skills. The book “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most” is an excellent resource in this area.

There are many approaches to leadership education. Studying leaders, past and present, through their biographies and autobiographies is an excellent approach (e.g. Career Hacks From Young George Washington). In addition, I suggest seeking out workshops, seminars and training that emphasizes interaction and self-reflection. Where possible, look for ways to build on your strengths in leadership.

Theme 2: Strategic & Business Management

Management skills make the difference in getting work done. Vision is essential but it is not enough. In developing your management skills, there are several approaches you can take, though claiming PDUs may not be possible in all cases. Here are some learning strategies to consider in developing management skills,

  • Finance for Management. Understanding how to speak the language of finance is helpful. It’s not required to become an accountant to be effective. At a minimum, I suggest an introductory book such as the HBR Guide to Finance Basics for Managers or a course. Alternately, you can take a finance minded colleague to lunch and pick up some of the basics.
  • Strategy. Strategy is an interesting area I first explore on this site in 2014 (i.e. Strategic Project Management). Strategy includes setting goals for your project that align with the organization’s goals. Many colleges and universities, especially those with business schools, offer night and weekend courses in strategy.
  • Staff Development. Developing staff is an area that becomes relevant in certain situations. If one has a relatively stable team with long assignments (over 6 months), then it makes sense to look for ways to develop staff. There are various approaches to learning how to develop staff. Consider looking into courses on leadership and coaching.

The broad area of management offers many opportunities to increase our skills. Specialized skills such as Lean Six Sigma and business process improvement also follow in this area. Project managers may also want to look into studying other PMI certifications such as PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP).

Theme 3: Technology

The majority of project managers I have met over the years bring deep experience in technology. For example, it is common to see professionals start their careers in software development or business analysis and then transition to project management. This expertise is valuable because it produces expertise power. In addition, technically aware project managers are better able to ask good questions. Like the areas covered above, technology is a vast area. I will highlight a combination of standard and cutting edge technology areas to study.

  • Vendor Certifications. Several large technology companies (e.g. Cisco, Microsoft, and Oracle) provide specialized training and certifications on their software. Recently, I have been looking into some of the Microsoft certifications.
  • IT Methodology. There are many management approaches to IT that one can learn. For example, one can earn the ITIL certification or the Scrum certifications. If you are based in a large organization, it makes sense to learn the methodology that is most popular (unless you relish the challenge of introducing a new approach!).
  • IT Security. Keeping data and technology safe from misuse, theft and attacks is becoming more and more popular based on the IT salary surveys I have read. The ISACA organization is a recognized leader in the world of IT security
  • Big Data. What happens when you combine computing power, large volumes of data and statistical analysis tools? You get the Big Data trend! From my study of this trend, Big Data approaches can be used to improve marketing, improve anti-fraud measures and other purposes. For professionals looking for cutting edge technology to learn, Big Data is an excellent area to study.

Question and Action:

What is on your agenda to learn new skills? Of course, learning new skills yields many benefits. I will close with one of my favourite quotes on learning from “The Once and Future King” by T.H. White :

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

 

4 Ways To Improve Quality

Quality Assurance Inspector , US Air Force (source: Flickr user e3acomponent)

Quality Assurance Inspector , US Air Force (source: Flickr user e3acomponent)

Quality separates the professional from the amateur. The commitment to produce on time is admirable and important. Yet, it is not enough. Whether you are managing a multi-million dollar IT project or managing your career, a commitment to quality makes a big difference.

When I think about quality practices, manufacturing and safety are the first concepts that come to mind. When manufacturing firms like Toyota embraced quality, lives AND money were saved (though Toyota’s recent experience shows that quality is a never ending activity). Delivering quality is one of those cases where we can see Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” at work.

Improving Profits Through Quality: AtlantiCare Case Study

Consider the following quality case study reported in European CEO in 2014:

  • New Jersey-based healthcare provider AtlantiCare has 5,000 employees
  • Pre-quality improvement profit: $280 million
  • Post-quality improvement program profit: $650 million
  • “AtlantiCare decided to ensure all new employees understood this quality culture from the onset. At orientation, staff now receive a crash course in the company’s performance excellence framework – a management system that organises the firm’s processes into five key areas: quality, customer service, people and workplace, growth and financial performance. As employees rise through the ranks, this emphasis on improvement follows, so managers can operate within the company’s tight-loose-tight process management style.”

The above example attracts my interest on several points. The company’s improvement shows that there is still significant room to improve quality in many sectors of the economy. As the services sector continues to grow (in the US, services are 79% of GDP; in Canada, services are 69% of GDP and, in the UK, services are 78% according to Wikipedia), it is vital to improve the productivity of the sector. In the public sector, quality improvements can translate to more services per tax dollar.

Whether you are managing a large project or your own work, we can benefit from improving our quality practices. The following four principles and techniques are tried and true ways to improve quality in a variety of environments. If you are looking for a way to improve your productivity, improving quality is an excellent strategy to pursue.

1. Define quality clearly

In the management literature, there are several definitions to quality. For example, the Six Sigma school of thought developed at Motorola and General Electric defines quality as minimizing the number of defects or errors. That’s a definition well suited to manufacturing and heavy industry. New approaches to quality emphasize customer satisfaction. In this view, quality is only achieved if the end customer or user can effectively use the product.

Action: take the time to define quality for your current work. If you select customer satisfaction as the definition, come up with an assessment tool (e.g. a survey).

2. Use the Pareto Rule to choose which quality problem to solve

Made famous by Tim Ferriss in The 4-Hour Workweek and several other recent books, the Pareto Rule is a valuable concept with many applications in the business world. The rule states that 80% of results come from 20% of efforts (e.g. 20% of the sales staff generate 80% of the revenues). In this context, the Pareto Rule is helpful in identifying causes of poor quality.

For example, let’s say that you manage an online banking application for a large bank. As millions of people use the application every day, you will likely receive a large quantity of comments and feedback regarding the application. Start by organizing the comments into a small number of categories (e.g. system stability, mobile app performance and security). Once you have those categories in place, you may notice that the majority of defects fall into the security category. The Pareto Rule suggests that addressing customer security concerns will improve quality as measured by customer satisfaction.

Action: Organize defect information into categories and identify the top cause of quality problems. Applying your resources to improve the most significant cause of problems is an excellent quality approach.

3.  Choose a quality tool

In project management (e.g. PMBOK Guide) and other management approaches, there are numerous quality tools and methods. These tools include check sheets, control charts, Cause-and-effect diagrams and the Pareto Rule referenced above. Depending on your circumstances,  some or all of these tools will be relevant. If you have never used any of the tools, I encourage readers to start with the check sheet.

Let’s say you are running a technology project to improve customer service at an eCommerce company like Amazon. As you build and test new capabilities, you may be asked (or simply wonder) how the project is improving customer service. One way to improve customer service is to improve the consistency of the customer experience. For example, you can build a check list that describes what happens when a customer places an order: they receive an order confirmation email within 30 minutes of ordering, a shipment status email within 48 hours and so forth. You can then choose random transactions from the project and run them through the checklist.

Action: Checklists improve the performance of aircraft pilots, surgeons, and other professionals. Choose a task that you perform each week (or monthly) and build a check list for it. The quality of your work will improve as you use the checklist.

Tip: For further reading and inspiration on how checklists save lives and improve results, I recommend reading The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande.

4. Make quality easy to improve

Complexity is often the enemy of improvement and effectiveness. The more variables and issues we face in our work, the more difficult it becomes to deliver work. As you build your quality improvement efforts, remember to keep it simple. This quality concept is especially important when you are building quality practices for others to use.

How can quality be made easy in the health care context? As Atul Gawande points out, using checklists is one approach. In a NPR article, Gawande suggests a checklist for surgeons include items such as “we just made sure that the checklist had some basic things: Make sure that blood is available, antibiotics are there.” These improvements do not require new technology or other costly changes and they may seem obvious to some readers. However, health professionals face a great deal of stress and long working hours – simply assuming they will remember everything is not realistic.

My favorite example of making quality easy to improve? Introduce yourself!

When introductions were made before a surgery, Gawande says, the average number of complications and deaths dipped by 35 percent. (NPR)

Action: as you learn about the power of quality improvements, it is easy to get carried away with the options. Start with a simple change first to show the benefits of quality. Once that change is implemented, you will have enhanced credibility to implement other quality improvements.

Tip: For personal improvement, I recommend the Tiny Habits program developed by Dr BJ Fogg (thanks to Ramit Sethi for introducing me to Fogg).

Question for the comments:

What is your favorite example of a quality improvement project (personal or professional)?

7 Habits of Highly Effective Meetings

Meeting Tips

Image Credit: Start Up People by StartupStockPhotos

Meetings are a powerful tool that are widely misunderstood. Like many professionals, I have read and enjoyed many Dilbert comics that point out the pain and frustration of poorly run meetings. In fact, I’ve been in my share of disappointment meetings. I’ll share a short example with you and data showing that just how widespread bad meetings have become. Finally, I will cover the seven habits – the most powerful meeting tips I have used – that will set you up for success.

The Meeting That Never Ended

It was a Friday afternoon in the fall several years ago and I had a meeting scheduled. There were two other people in the meeting who did much of the talking. After about twenty minutes, it felt like the meeting was going in circles. After the sixty minute mark, I became frustrated and simply wanted the meeting to end. Unfortunately, the other participants simply continued to talk past the meeting’s stated end time. The worst part? The meeting did not achieve anything particularly significant.

Sleeping, Waste and More: The Plague of Dysfunctional Meetings

Many people share my frustration with meetings. Consider the following observations about the plague of ineffective meetings in the modern workplace:

  • The typical American professional attends over 60 meetings per month (Source: A network MCI Conferencing White Paper. Meetings in America: A study of trends, costs and attitudes toward business travel, teleconferencing, and their impact on productivity (Greenwich, CT: INFOCOMM, 1998)
  • Approximately 50% of meeting time is wasted (same source as above)
  • 39% of people attending meetings doze off during the meeting (source: CBS News).

Wow! Whether you are organizing meetings or simply attending them, you owe it to yourself to become more effective at this professional skill. Just imagine the gains you will achieve if you become 1% or 5% better at meetings over time.

7 Habits For Highly Effective Meetings

“A meeting consists of a group of people who have little to say – until after the meeting.”  ― P.K. Shaw

Some readers may consider these habits basic. I encourage you to ask yourself if you are actually applying these ideas to each and every meeting you attend. If not, you have room to improve. Implementing these habits is a great way to improve your effectiveness fast. If you maintain all of these habits, you will learn that meetings are an effective tool to get work done.

1. Obtain Written Agenda In Advance

Vague intentions to have a discussion on a topic rarely end on a productive note. If you are just getting started with agendas, start with a point form list of topics to be discussed and make sure that material is provided to attendees at least one day before the meeting. For better results, provide background information on the agenda so that everyone attending has the same information.

What about when you are asked to attend a meeting without an agenda? Ask, “Can you please send me an agenda for the meeting so that I can prepare?”

Tip: For frequently held meetings such as a weekly status meeting on a project, you can save time by creating a meeting template. Once you have that in place, preparing an agenda becomes a matter of filling in the blanks.

2. Review The Attendee List

The people in the meeting room make or break your effectiveness. I have been in MANY meetings where the key person – a manager or executive – is not present. As a result, no significant decisions can be made.

For Meeting Organizers: limit the number of people attending the meeting. The purpose of meetings is to make decisions and get work done. For the most part, meetings are not the best way to simply share information (exception: meetings are helpful to share sensitive information)

For Meeting Attendees: read the attendee list before you walk into the room. Do you see any unfamiliar names? If so, consider looking them up in your organization’s directory (or on LinkedIn). Surprises are not your friend when it comes to meetings.

3. Manage The Meeting By The Clock

Watching the clock is important in an effective meeting. When nobody takes charge of managing time, it is easy to become careless and unfocused. Remember – when people attend a meeting they cannot do anything else. Make the time count!

For Meeting Organizers: starting the meeting on time and ending on time (or a few minutes early!) will quickly enhance your reputation as an organized person. If you are running a large or complex meeting, consider asking a colleague to serve as time keeper. If managing meetings to the clock is challenging for you, the parking lot habit (see #4 below) will be a game changer!

For Meeting Attendees: start by arriving early at the meeting (I suggest 5 minutes for in person meetings and 1-2 meetings for conference calls). That means avoiding back to back committments on your calendar whenever possible.

4. Use The “Parking Lot” To Manage Off Topic Discussions

The first time I saw a meeting facilitator use a parking lot, I was impressed. This helpful device performs two useful functions. First, it serves to keep the meeting focused on the stated agenda. Second, the parking lot acknowledges important points raised by attendees.

Warning: The Parking Lot habit must be combined with the Follow Up habit if you wish to be truly effective. Otherwise, you are likely to gain a reputation for simply making a show of acknowledging other people.

As a meeting organizer, here are a few steps to use the parking lot concept.

  1. At the beginning of the meeting, explain you expect everyone to focus their discussions on the agenda. Further, explain that this rule will help the meeting stay productive and end on time.
  2. Keep the meeting agenda document in front of you as a guide.
  3. Go through each agenda item
  4. Monitor and contribute to the discussion
  5. When someone raises an interesting point that does not relate to the agenda, say the following: “Thank you for that point, Tim. However, Microsoft Visual Studio tools go beyond the purpose of this meeting. Let me write down that item in the parking lot and I will include it in the meeting notes that I will send out by email so we can explore that point at the right time.”

5. Prewire Important Points and Decisions

From time to time, major decisions will be discussed in meetings. It could be a decision on which projects to fund or which projects to cancel. Serious decisions like this require the pre-wiring habit. In essence, you communicate with people one-on-one before the meeting about the decision before the meeting occurs. While time consuming, this approach increases your chances of success (and avoids surprises other meeting attendees).

Tip: For an extended discussion of the pre-wire concept, I recommend the excellent Manager Tools podcast: How to Prewire a Meeting.

6. Take Notes For Yourself

Taking notes in meetings is an essential skill yet I am often struck by how often people forget to do it. The key reason to take notes in a meeting is to record any questions or assignments that have been directed to you. Let’s look at how attendees and organizers can act on notes.

Take notes in a paper notebook (e.g. a Moleskine notebook or something similar) rather than using a computer, tablet or other device. Even if you have fantastic abilities to focus on the meeting, other people may assume that you are “catching up on email” instead of paying attention to the meeting if you take notes on a computer.

Taking notes for Meeting Organizers: if you plan to send minutes or a summary of the meeting to attendees, say this at the start of the meeting and explain what you will include. Sending out meeting minutes, even a few paragraphs or bullet points, is a best practice.

Taking notes for Meeting Attendees: bring a copy of the agenda and use that document to guide your note taking. Focus on the decisions made in the meeting and items that require further investigation or action on your part.

7. Follow Up On The Meeting

The art and science of follow up is vital professional habit and it also matters in the context of meetings. When it comes to meeting tips, following up in a timely basis is a great way to manage stress and make a good impression on others. For the best results, I suggest following up (e.g. making a phone call, writing an email etc) the same day as the meeting. For very important matters, make a note on your calendar or task management tool of choice to continue following up until you reach a resolution.

Question for the Comments:

What is the worst meeting you have ever been in?

How To Motivate Others: 2 Approaches For Motivation

Teamwork by pmbbun (Pixabay)

Teamwork by pmbbun (Pixabay)

Do you like to issue orders at work?

Unless you’re in the military and blessed with the presence of George Washington, simply issuing commands and orders to others is unlikely to be successful in today’s workplace.

Motivating people at work is one of the greatest professional challenges we face in the world of work. Over time, the best psychological and management thinkers have come up with several answers. In today’s post, I will review the principles we use to motivate others to get work done. From time to time, we can all benefit from studying foundational ideas.

Why Motivating Yourself Matters and How To Do It

How To Motivate Yourself

Image by: Arya Ziai (Flickr)

Before you can lead others to higher results, you must master your own motivation. Learn why motivating yourself matters and six motivation strategies you use today to increase your productivity and satisfaction.

Increasing complexity and the pace of change make it difficult to know if we are making progress. If your work involves knowledge and creativity, our day to day work swings between satisfying and frustrating several times each day. For our purposes, I define motivation as follows:

The (conscious or unconscious) stimulus for action towards a desired goal, esp. as resulting from psychological or social factors; the factors giving purpose or direction to human or animal behaviour…. : the reason a person has for acting in a particular way, a motive.

Source: Oxford English Dictionary

Why Motivation Matters To Your Productivity

Motivation improves the quality of time spent at work. I can speak from personal experience on this front. On high motivation days, I’m certain that my output is significantly higher. Even better, I also notice that the quality of my contribution increases when I have high motivation. Aside from my experience, here are three other findings showing the cost of low motivation.

  • $300 billion: The annual cost of disengaged employees to the U.S. economy (source: Gallup study reported in The New York Times)
  • 70% of U.S. workers are not reaching their full potential according to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace Report in 2012 (even worse, this figure has not changed significantly since 2000 when Gallup began collecting data).
  • No progress, no motivation. Teresa Amabile Steven J. Kramer reports a compelling relationship between motivation and making meaningful progress in work (source: Harvard Business Review, May 2011).

In addition to these research findings, there is another reason to demonstrate high performance and motivation. Demonstrating high motivation is one way to lead by example, whether or not you have staff reporting to you.

3 Strategies To Build Your Motivation Foundation

Self-knowledge and self-care are fundamental practices that build your motivation. Without this foundation in place, your motivation and productivity will be built on a castle of sand – likely to collapse at the slightest stress.

  • Good sleep habits. Lack of quality sleep progressively slow your ability to function. According to a case study reported in Brain Rules by John J. Medina, prolonged sleep deprivation leads to anxiety, depression and numerous other problems.
  • Understand your career priorities. Over the course of our careers, our career priorities may evolve especially as we achieve goals and obtain new responsibilities.
  • Setting exciting goals for your career and life. Setting exciting goals is one of the best ways to maintain your motivation – a key insight I learned from Michael Hyatt (learn more: The Missing Ingredient in Most Goals). A sense that you are simply drifting through each day will destroy your motivation levels fast.

3 Sources of Motivation To Take You To The Next Level

“The ultimate reason for setting goals is to entice you to become the person it takes to achieve them”  ― Jim Rohn

Once you lay the foundation for motivation, it is time to add to your motivation. In this section, I will cover emphasize intrinsic motivation factors. If there is no intrinsic attraction to your work, it will be difficult to remain engaged. Finally, let’s be clear that the drive for increased compensation is an important and legitimate motivating force. Without further ado, here are three sources of

  • Autonomy

The freedom to shape your day to day actions is an asset. As Daniel Pink explains in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, the drive for autonomy is a major economic trend impacting the lives of many people. Autonomy means YOU decide how to achieve a goal. IT also means that you decide how to run your day.

 The drive for autonomy is one reason why many people are attracted to the life of a university professor. It’s also the reason why Google became famous for the 20% rule: encouraging staff to spend 20% of their working time on their own projects.

  • Increased Compensation

Making more money is an important goal. At one level, increased income is a requirement to keep up with increased living costs today (e.g. ) and the need to save and invest for the future. For others, increased compensation means more options – the money to buy what you want when you want it. Increased income also means the capacity to cross items off your bucket list.

  • Mastery

Achieving mastery in work that matters is the Holy Grail of motivation. Achieving mastery tends to bring recognition (though not always in your lifetime!) and increased rewards. As Robert Greene explains in his book Mastery, the path to excellence is a long road that is worth the price. If you have not achieved mastery yet, you may be in the wrong field. Greene shows many examples including noted scientist Michael Faraday who took time to reach mastery.

Next week, we will cover how to motivate others in projects and other environments.

Discussion Question:

What motivation strategies have made the difference for you in reaching your goals?