Management Thinking

Management Thinking, Productivity, Uncategorized

Getting Knowledge Work to Done

Mike Cohn at Mountain Goat Software takes on the idea of Getting to Done.

Cohn’s insightful post is focused on scrum as a software development process but applies to self-management and knowledge work. Let me explain how.

Cohn’s post considers four ways that completing work helps us. He defends the position that it is better to finish five tasks and leave five unstarted than it is to make partial progress on ten tasks. Here are the four ideas. I’ve changed the emphasis of the fourth and added a fifth:

Finishing gives faster feedback. In delivering software applications, feedback is critical. We get an idea what users want and try to build it. We think we’ve done a respectable job, but never really know until the users get their hands on that part of the application, use it, and let us know. Knowledge work is similar. We never really know how good a job we’ve done until we implement the new or improved process and measure the results or deliver the completed report and get feedback. Neither of these can be done with a partially finished knowledge work task.

Finishing gives faster payback. In software, an unfinished feature is similar to inventory and work-in-progress in a manufacturing plant. We have paid for the inputs, but cannot yet sell the product. Until we finish, we won’t get paid and we can’t cover the cost of the inputs. In knowledge work, we have used up some of our valuable attention, and perhaps our employer has paid for our time, but we don’t have anything that we can implement or deliver to recover those costs until we have finished the task.

Estimating progress on unfinished work is a hard problem. Software is well known for the “90% complete” problem. Software project managers have a running joke that programming tasks are “90% complete for 90% of the time”. Cohn’s post makes the point that this could be literally true in the programmer’s mind because as we make progress on a task, we find more detail about what needs to be done to actually complete the task. I believe this to be true of complex knowledge work tasks as well. Regardless, we are terrible at estimating how long things will take, particularly when the task is something we have never done before. On the other hand, we are great at knowing a task is unstarted, and decent at knowing when it is finished. In between, we are terrible at estimating how far we have come and how much we have left to do. And (see the next point) the more partially finished tasks we have, the worse we are at figuring out when they will all be done.

Work should be “not started” or “done” with nothing in between. Here, I’ll emphasize a different point than Cohn’s post. While we are working on a product, a software feature, or a knowledge work task, it is in a very complex state. A finished task is conceptually very simple; an unstarted task is slightly more complicated, but still relatively simple. A partially finished task is the most complex by far as we must keep track of the moving parts within the task.
Imagine a factory with lots of work-in-progress. When we stop work while Product A is unfinished, we must put it away somewhere, clean and reset the tools, and get out the plans/instructions for Product B. When we restart work on Product A, we must find where we put it away, figure out where we left off, take it to its next machine, and reset the tools. Only then can we get it finished and shipped. All these tasks are unproductive, and thus waste.
There is similar waste in “reloading” a complex knowledge work task. I’ll illustrate with a complex writing task. Imagine we’ve set aside a partially complete version of Report A to work on Report B. When we return to work on Report A, we must complete several steps just to get ready to move it along. We must find the right version and figure out the page where we left off. We must get out our supporting materials or refind a web page we are referring to. We must get into a similar mental state as we had when we left off. I call these steps “reloading” the task. This reloading may take seconds for a very simple task, but can take several minutes for a complex task. Also, reloading is a cognitively demanding, mistake-prone task, so it uses up some of the brainpower that we could use to complete the report. Finally, we know reloading is hard, so it gives us another reason to procrastinate and turn to simpler, less important work.

Finally, I’ll add a new point: The psychology of starting. We feel somewhat relieved when we’ve started a task. Depending on our work culture, reporting that we haven’t started may be associated with ignoring work. Therefore, we feel bad about not starting. So, it may be challenging to adopt the “not started or done” mindset. However, I guarantee that, as a boss, I’d rather have something complete than nothing. If you deliver five complete out of ten, at least I can move five projects along. If you deliver zero complete out of ten, I’m helpless. In addition, over time, the “not started or done” mindset will help your boss think hard about the priority of individual tasks. This will get the whole team working on the problem of having multiple number one priorities.

The expenses and challenges associated with work-in-progress are well known in the manufacturing world. Cohn’s post shows similar challenges in the world of agile software development. I hope I have made the point that work-in-progress is also expensive and challenging in everyday knowledge work. Get finished, or don’t start. Devote your attention to a single task, Get to Done what you can, and deliver it, even if some of your tasks make no progress.

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Time According to Drucker’s Watch

qtq80-KJjZNvI just finished reading The Essential Drucker. If you don’t know who Peter Drucker was, you probably should, because he was a leading thinker on organizations and management. He also coined the term knowledge worker more than fifty years ago. He wrote about how the advent of the knowledge worker would change the nature of executive and managerial work, along with the structure of organizations. Drucker – Wikipedia

I find all of his writing instructive. The Effective Executive (for example) is a 50-year-old treatise on the job of an executive in the modern corporation and one of the handful of nonfiction books that I reread occasionally.

Essential includes a chapter titled “Know Your Time,” which describes practices for time management. While decades old, it is particularly useful. In this post, I’ll summarize the main points.


Time is a unique resource. It is completely perishable. In the “accomplishment” process, there is no substitute for time as an input. It takes an instant to have the “aha” solution to a problem, but it takes time to get to the point of understanding the problem well enough to have the “aha”.

We are terrible judges of how we have used time in the past. Invariably, we need a time log, an audit, to tell us how we have spent our time over the last few weeks or months.

The time demands

Much of what we spend time on is unproductive, even if it is work. Our organizations require communication, which is rarely done efficiently. We must build relationships with each other, which cannot be done in an urgent manner.

However, knowledge work requires large chunks of time. Creating a presentation from scratch needs a fairly large chunk to get started, then editing can be done in smaller time increments. Strategic thinking and problem solving need large chunks. Getting work done through other people, the primary task of an executive, requires chunks. Any deep work, by definition, needs sizable chunks.

Time diagnosis

While we have been recording time for manual work since the start of the 20th century, we do not normally record time for knowledge work. But time is more important for the knowledge worker than it is for the manual worker. It is simply easier to record for manual workers.

So, effective knowledge workers track their time. The details of the method are not important, but the act of recording time is the first essential step in analyzing how we use it. Time tracking needs to be done for fairly long periods, weeks or a month, in order to account for daily and weekly variation. And our time drifts toward trivia, so tracking needs to be done routinely, at least a couple of times per year. Once we have recorded our time use, we analyze it for three areas of time use:

  1. Identify and eliminate things that don’t need to be done at all. There are probably more of these things than your memory will let you see. Some thought is usually required as our default is to be lazy and simply declare that things “have to be done”. It is fairly easy to test the assumption – stop doing it for a while and see if anyone notices.
  2. Identify and assign things that could be done by others. This is not exactly delegation, but a complete giving over of authority to another person. Again, we have to be tough on ourselves here as the lazy way out is to default to “I have to do it”. Perhaps the task needs to be tweaked or better automated before we completely hand it off.
  3. Identify and eliminate things that we do that waste others’ time. The only way to do this is to ask the honest question of our peers and direct reports. As leaders, when we ask for reports and status meetings, we must be ruthless with ourselves about the need for them. Again, our default is the enemy here. People likely need less oversight than we think and will ask for it if we don’t offer.

Pruning the time wasters

Having dealt with the things we have individual authority over, we now turn to those things that are organizational in nature. Organizational misalignment and poor structure waste everyone’s time, but primarily the time of leadership. Now we analyze our time record for four areas of concern:

  1. Identify the “routine crises”. These represent a lack of system or a lack of foresight. After the second occurrence of a crisis, we should assume that it will become routine if we don’t do something systemic to prevent it. Budget cycles, seasonal sales, release cycles, and recurring external events, such as employee turnover may trigger these broken processes that need to be fixed. Well-designed work and organizations should normally lack drama.
  2. Over-staffing wastes time. In an overstaffed organization people collide with each other too often. This results in jurisdictional disputes, politics, and other signs that people are in each others’ way. Knowledge workers need to be able to do their work with a minimum of explaining to others and asking permission. If the leadership of the organization spends more than a small fraction, say 10%, of their time on these kinds of issues, overstaffing may be the cause.
  3. Poor organization shows up in excess meetings. Meetings are caused by a need to exchange information. In a perfect world, everyone would know what they need to know to get their job done. However, we live in an imperfect world. Nevertheless, good meeting discipline requires severely limiting the number of meetings. I would add that some meetings may be caused by having hired staff that are unequal to their task and consistently require the help or advice of others to get anything done.
  4. Poor distribution of information wastes time. Routine calls for information and “bystanding” in meetings to see if there’s “something I need to know” can be eliminated by setting up proper distribution channels and creating meeting discipline.

Solutions to these seven kinds of problems may be obvious once they are noticed. Or they may require a long, disciplined effort. But the result of this work is useful for the entire organization, especially in terms of time recovered.

Consolidating discretionary time

The key to consolidation is to move things around to create the needed chunks of time. The problem is that this is a perpetual need. Non-discretionary time expands; new meetings are called; new crises pop up. Therefore, effective knowledge workers need to be consistently vigilant over their schedules.

Finally, it is difficult to know when knowledge work tasks, done during the chunks of discretionary time, are finished. We all have perfectionist tendencies and overdo. If we create 10 hours of discretionary time per week, but use it poorly, we are really no better off. Think in terms of deadlines for discretionary projects. Time box efforts and stick to the time allotted. Understand what is the minimum effective product and move on when it has been achieved.

I would add that attention management is a requisite skill in time management. If we can’t stay focused on tasks we set ourselves during discretionary time, we are not using it well. After, perhaps, decades of fragmented attention use, our ability to focus intently for periods of time may be weak. Don’t forget to defend your attention when entering into periods of discretionary time.

Time is more scarce than any other commodity. So it should be used more carefully than any other. The first step is a time audit.

Question: Have you ever audited your time? If so, let us know one key insight you gleaned. If not, perhaps now would be a good time to start. If you do, come back and share your insights.

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6 Reasons Planning Is a Pain (and Why You Should Do It Anyway)

qtq80-WsNgkaSmart, capable people often struggle with one crucial aspect of knowledge work: planning. In my experience, clients resist planning for a number of reasons. Here are some of the most common.

Planning causes mental pain, at least at first. Planning is taxing work. If you haven’t done it recently or it’s not a habit, it will literally cause pain when you do it. My university students helped me define this pain; it is the feeling of frustration. “It’s too hard.” “I’m just not good at this.” So, we give up too easily, avoiding the frustration of learning how to plan and developing the habit of planning.

Planning takes time. On average, your weekly planning will take 45 minutes or so. That’s for a routine week. If your upcoming week is challenging, planning may take twice that long. Daily planning will take 10-15 minutes. As with many activities, it feels easier to just jump in and start work. Doing so makes us feel that we are, at least, making progress. So we skip planning and just get started.

Planning is deep work. Some people think that planning is merely running over their to-do list. But real planning is the difficult exercise of estimating how long tasks will take and a thoughtful look at our tasks versus our constraints. It forces us to clearly define our commitments and deliverables. Most of us prefer to avoid this deep work, so we substitute a shallow, watered down version. We leave our commitments murky and don’t clarify through planning.

Planning forces us to say “No”. We don’t like to say no to others. Good planning shows conflicting commitments and when our capacity is full. Thus, planning forces us to make choices that likely result in difficult conversations. This brings us face to face with our priorities, which may not be clear. It is much easier, in the short run, to play hero and worry about the consequences later, so we don’t plan.

Planning shows hard truths. When you plan, you realize your limitations and understand your constraints. This is much more challenging than just believing everything will work out. Over time, planning also shows you how long it actually takes to get your tasks accomplished. This can challenge your mental image of how good you are at some of your tasks. These challenges are uncomfortable; we avoid planning so we don’t have to face them.

Planning is inexact. Even the most experienced planners and project managers cannot predict the future. Things happen. Key resources take a sick day. A supplier’s truck breaks down. In addition, we are predictably bad estimators, typically underestimating both the time it takes to do something and how much discretionary time we will have in a given day or week. Our plans don’t work out, so we abandon planning.

So, we resist planning because it is painful, time-consuming deep work, that doesn’t work perfectly and forces us to confront an uncomfortable reality. But I would like to show two essential parameters that planning produces: The first is time boxes that show us how much time we can allocate to any given task. The second is milestones, which show where we should be on a multi-step project. Clarity on these two parameters is our responsibility in managing our schedule and tasks.

Time boxes force us to deliver even when the level of quality is unclear. We can be perfectionists and let deadlines slip chasing perfection. Remember that the quality of knowledge work is notoriously difficult to define. Challenge yourself to work hard for the duration, but, when the time is up, ship the result. It is probably at least good enough. Time boxes help give us the courage to “just ship it” on the deadline.

But, even if it is not good enough, you probably don’t know how to fix it. My experience as a writer shows this challenge. I invariably think part X is bad while part Y is good. However, my reviewers and editors think the opposite. So, rather than continuing to perfect part X, I should have been working on part Y. The same holds true for much of our work: presentations, reports, and communication. The parts we think need additional work are actually OK, but we overlook parts that need shoring up. So, instead of exceeding our time boxes and blowing our schedule by chasing our view of perfection, we should set shorter time boxes and use the additional time to get feedback on what needs attention.

In addition, using time boxes gives good historical data on how long a task actually takes. Working on a deliverable in short spurts is inefficient and makes it difficult to tell how much work we actually did. We need to know how long the task took last time in order to guess better how long it will take this time. Disciplined work during time boxes shows us that.

Milestones are advance warning signs that a project may not turn out well. Milestones give us time to renegotiate our commitments while our stakeholders still have time to adjust. In my experience as a project manager, people are usually reasonable when they know of a problem in advance. They are less reasonable when they find out today that we don’t have something they expected to get yesterday. Some of our work is speculative; we guess, in advance, how long a task will take. Sometimes those guesses are wrong. Maybe our stakeholders can do without a piece of the work. Maybe we misunderstood their deadline. Maybe they’re happier with a blue one on time than a green one that is late. But, we only find out by having the conversation. Milestones help us do that earlier.

Planning is challenging and can be painful. But, good planning produces time boxes and milestones. These parameters help us face reality, rather than living in an imaginary, but happy, world of false bravado and superheros who can overcome any constraint. They parameters help us keep our time under control and give us the best chance to make our stakeholders happy. Planning is imperfect, but, when it comes to executing our work, an imperfect view of reality beats a 20/20 view of a fantasy every time. So, overcome the pain and challenges and plan your work.

Question: What is your biggest pain point when keeping on track with your daily and weekly planning sessions? How much does it interfere with creating the habit?

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Culture, Management Thinking

Your Employees Feel, Not Hear, Your Culture

This post from Vital Smarts is about how a personal brand relates to the perceptions of others. Your brand is co-created with your stakeholders and based in their perceptions, which you cannot directly control. People perceive your actions from their own perspective, not from yours. In many ways, organizational culture and engagement share this problem. The culture (“how things are done around here”) represents a similar perception problem. Engagement (“how employees feel about and respond to the culture”) is even more perception-based.

This means that unless the leaders ask how the employees feel about the culture, the leaders won’t know. In my experience, most organization’s leaders don’t ask, because they don’t see a problem from their own perspective. Therefore, they figure everything is OK. In the current marketplace, there is no room for this kind of complacency. Your good employees are highly mobile and, most likely, won’t tell you they’re not happy until it is too late for you to retain them.

The bottom line is that the five steps outlined in the post should be applied to the culture/engagement loop.
In brief, they are:

  1. There is no such thing as a “false” perception. There are only different perceptions from different people.
  2. Accept the current perceptions. Since people’s perceptions are not “wrong”, we have to take them where they are. We will fail if our position is “let me help you correct your perception of the situation.”
  3. Understand the current perceptions. The only way you can know how people perceive the situation is to ask them.
  4. Don’t build a non-negative brand. Being perceived as “not X” is not a strong position. Figure out the positive statement of the negative and pursue that. You can’t build a strong culture if you pursue “we’re not uncaring.” “We are a caring organization” is much better. Take some active steps to change the reality that others perceive.
  5. Seek feedback on the perception of your efforts. Doing so shows respect for your employees and prompts them to reevaluate their perceptions. If they perceive a change, they will appreciate your efforts. If they don’t, you have received valuable feedback on the outcomes of your efforts.

Your organizational culture is too important to be left to chance or wishful thinking. Over time, iterating through the cycle above will produce a positive cultural and engagement “brand” for your organization.

Question: Is your organization intentional about understanding how your employees perceive your culture?

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Management Thinking

Were You Trained as a Knowledge Worker?

Like it or not, your work world, and the work world of the next generation, is changing.  And I’ll bet you were not trained for it.

Current work and future work are founded in knowledge work.  As Peter Drucker taught us in the 1960s, knowledge work is different from the routine work of 60 or 75 years ago.

  • It engages our brains more than our bodies.
  • It involves working in teams in interdependent ways.
  • It is difficult, if not impossible, to manage knowledge work in traditional ways.

I want to explore this third aspect of knowledge work further because it has subtle implications on how we need to approach work and personal work management.  I’ll start by explaining three of the assumptions of traditional management.  I’ll focus on one of them and it’s implications on our self-management training and practices.

Traditional management was designed to manage routine work.  Routine work is observable, thus traditional management relies on observation.  Factories were designed to make routine work tasks as independent as possible, so teamwork was not required.  Managers who designed the factory knew best how to perform routine work within it.

All three of these assumptions have important implications on how we need to approach work in the 21st century, but I’ll focus on the third in this post – the boss knows best.

Traditional management is built on the assumption that the higher you rise in the organization, the better you understand how to solve organizational or customer problems.  As you rise through the traditional organization, you learn more broadly about the firm and it’s operations. On the other hand, the lower your position in the hierarchy, the more you get told what to do and how to do it.  From the perspective of the worker, this aspect of traditional management can be both annoying and comforting.

The annoying part is constantly being told what to do and lacking freedom. Being under the control of another person is a challenge for anyone.   Every worker has, at one time or another, accused the boss of “micromanaging.”  This is a typical response when the worker disagrees with how the manager wants the job done.  However, in traditional management, the boss actually had a claim to better knowledge and the employee was more successful when doing work the way the boss wanted it done.

The more subtle, comforting part of this tacit arrangement is that the worker does not have to take much responsibility for the results of actions they were told to do, decisions made by the manager, and schedules set by the manager.  After all, the best excuse for a problem is “you told me to” – just ask my kids.  In the former economy, many workers simply didn’t have to take much responsibility for outcomes.  This is, in some ways, a comforting thing for the worker.

Now that we have moved into a knowledge work economy, and organizations are pushing authority down the hierarchy, the annoyance of being under the control of the boss is decreasing.  Workers have increasing freedom on what to do, how to get it done, and when to do it.  To the degree that workers are aware of this change, they usually celebrate their increasing freedom.

But the comforting part, having little responsibility, is also changing.  Increasingly, workers are being given responsibility for the outcomes of their actions and choices.  To the degree that workers are aware if this change, they are less thrilled about their increasing responsibility.

This change in freedom and responsibility in the workplace represents a challenge to our self-management processes and habits.  Firms are increasingly expecting employees to be able to manage themselves.  However, most of our current workforce has not been trained in self-management.  Think back on how well you were trained in this area…

  • Were you taught how to prioritize between two good activities?
  • Were you taught how to plan a project?
  • Were you taught how to manage the information that would help you make a choice later?
  • Were you taught to take action on your own, based on information you generated?

Or did you develop your self-management knowledge on your own, through experience?  If so, have you thought carefully about how well your practices work? Have you experimented with your practices? Are you actively trying to improve them?

I think self-management is an area in which we can dramatically improve our productivity, if we challenge some long-held assumptions and seriously assess our practices. The current work environment is calling us to do so.

Question: As a knowledge worker, how do you manage these new challenges?  Whether you were trained to do so or developed your own methods, tell us how and where in the comments.

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Getting Knowledge Work to Done
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Time According to Drucker’s Watch
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Books, Management Thinking, Self Improvement

The Challenge of Receiving Feedback

Feedback is merely other peoples’ opinions of our work. Yet, we struggle both to give it and to receive it. We should welcome it as there are few other ways to determine whether the work we did was good or needs improvement. We should be able to recognize the gift that someone gives us when they take the time to let us know how our work affected them, even if it’s not perfect.

In Thanks for the Feedback, authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen take a fresh look at the subject of feedback. Their opinion is that, at least in the corporate world, we have had some coaching on giving feedback to members of our organizations. On the other hand, there is little or no coaching on how to receive feedback. Being a good receiver of feedback allows us to take fuller advantage of this important growth and improvement tool.  The book is training in how to receive feedback well.

Stone and Heen find that receiving feedback is difficult because it can trigger one of at least three kinds of reactions that block, or allow us to dismiss, feedback. The reaction categories are: truth, relationship, and identity. After defining these categories, they propose strategies for each type of reaction. Stone and Heen use the reaction categories to frame a discussion of the feedback conversation and show how the feedback receiver can act to improve the quality of that conversation as it is happening. I’ll summarize each category and the related strategies and conclude with a summary of the conversation best practices.

Three kinds of reactions to feedback

When we see the feedback as wrong, unfair, or unhelpful, it has triggered our truth reaction. In this case, our giver has likely confused the three purposes of good feedback, or omitted one of them: appreciation, coaching, and evaluation. Givers often skip appreciation and combine the evaluation and coaching steps, or worse, start and end with coaching: “Next time do it this way.” A skillful coach/giver might say “Good effort on this play (appreciation). But you were in the wrong place; you should be over here (evaluation). Let’s talk about how to get to the right place (coaching).” Regardless, the worst thing we can do is let an unskilled delivery cause us to lose the value of the feedback. When we feel our truth reaction being triggered, we need to take a deep breath and get curious. Our giver saw or experienced something and is trying to relate it, not making things up to hurt us. We need to ask our giver to tell us what they liked about what we did, what what they didn’t like about what we did, and how they suggest we take advantage of the things we did right (from their perspective) while correcting the things we did wrong.

When we respond to feedback with discussion of our relationship with the giver (e.g. “You’re the problem, not me.” or “Who are you to say?” or “After all I’ve done for you…”), the feedback has triggered our relationship reaction. In this case, our giver likely has a deeper, relationship-based issue with what we’ve done and is giving us feedback on both our actions and how it has influenced the relationship. When we are tempted to give these kinds of responses, we need to do our best to separate the relationship from the feedback, without losing track of either. One way to do this is to get the feedback about our action off the table for a minute, perhaps by temporarily accepting it. Say something like, “I can see that you didn’t like my action and I’d like to hear more about that in a minute. For now, tell me how my action made you feel.” Once we understand that, at least to some degree, we can discuss how to do the action differently next time, possibly using the techniques in the previous paragraph.

When we internalize the feedback too much (e.g. “I screw up everything”, “I’m a bad person”), the feedback has triggered our identity reaction. This case is different in that it may not have been triggered by the manner in which the feedback was given. When we feel ourselves reacting in these ways, we need to look closely at why we are putting so much weight on the feedback. We may have been trained to receive feedback in a bad way; we may be “magnifying” the feedback out of proportion; or we may not have a growth mindset. Either way, we likely need to work on understanding that we always have opportunities to grow and get better, and that feedback is a valuable tool in our improvement. Further, we need to understand that our actions are not who we are, completely. Gifted people often make bad plays, so learn to see the feedback as an indication of an area in which you need further practice, more experience, or different tactics. If the feedback is especially damaging, we can ask for a delay before discussing it further.

Managing the feedback conversation

These ideas work together to show a set of tools to manage feedback conversations. First, know that we don’t have to actually do anything with the feedback. While there may be consequences of not changing the behavior or fixing the problem, no one can normally force us to accept feedback. Conversely, we cannot force our giver to change the way they give feedback. However, if we decide to accept the feedback, we can usually improve the quality of the conversation and get value from the giver.

Here’s how to have the conversation. The first step is to react calmly, without excuses or defensiveness. The second is to understand what the giver saw and understand the impact on them. The third, if appropriate, is to get advice on what they think we should have done instead. Finally, again if appropriate, get some free coaching; perhaps the giver has had a similar experience, or learned some lesson that may help us progress in our understanding. Remember that the giver would likely prefer that you accept their feedback, and it may be important to let them know you have. Strong relationships can be built in this way.

At 300+ pages, the book has more detail, explanation, and tips. If this summary has resonated with you, you will likely want to take the time to read it in full. Here is the Google books link.

I’ll relate a personal story. For a few years now, my wife has been helping me by proofreading some of my writing. We now work well together as a team, but at first, we would get into heated discussions about some of her suggested edits. You can imagine how that went. We would get into a grammar argument and storm off to Google to prove who was right. Finally, and after I had read this book, we sat down and had a conversation. We decided that her comments were suggestions, not requirements. I was free to make the changes she suggested, or not. After all, it is my work, so I’m the decision maker. In addition, I didn’t have to explain the changes I didn’t want to make and she didn’t have to suggest a correction if she didn’t want to. She could simply say “this part doesn’t sound right.” This mindset change has extended out to other kinds of feedback and to writing feedback from other people. I’m not going to say that I now love negative feedback, but viewing it differently has helped me react more effectively.

Question: what are your tips for dealing with feedback?

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Summary of “Learning to Learn” (HBR)
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Management Thinking, Productivity, Self Improvement

Noise and Attention

In previous posts, I’ve talked about Urgent vs. Important and using the Eisenhower Matrix.  I wrote these to introduce a mental model of how to mange our attention and be more productive, both personally and professionally. I want to consider another topic in this vein: Noise. (Note: much of this thinking was triggered by a post on A Life of Productivity by Chris Bailey, check it out. The core thoughts come from Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.)

As knowledge workers, our attention is our most important productive tool. In my attempt to manage my own attention, I try to evaluate how I’ve used my attention in the past. In one instance several years ago, I recognized that listening to talk radio during my afternoon commute (politics, in particular) frittered away my attention. So, I stopped listening to it. I’ll lay out the logic of my decision after I outline the definition of information as noise.

Bailey cites four traits of noise from Before Happiness, by Shawn Achor (which I have not read):

It is unusable, or not actionable.

It is untimely, and will likely change before it can be acted upon.

It is hypothetical, rumors or opinions with an unknowable level of truth.

It is distracting, diverting attention from information that may actually be actionable.

  • Let’s look at my drive time political talk shows through this lens:
    The information I consumed was unusable, partly because it’s scope was national, but mostly because it was repetitive and merely reinforced opinions I already held.
  • Outside of an election cycle, the opinions and positions expressed were untimely.
  • Since the information was solely based on individuals’ opinions it was highly hypothetical.
  • It felt like I was using my attention in a good way, but I wasn’t. My attention was distracted from acquiring other information that may have been actionable for me.

After I changed my listening habits to books on tape and music, I found that I was consuming actionable information, or at least calming, cheerful, enjoyable music – clearly a better way of using my scarce attention.

When we consume noise, we lose attention that could be focused on gathering actionable information. Take a minute and think about how you are using your attention.

Question: Can you eliminate some of the information noise around you and use that attention to improve your mind or your mood?

Related posts
Time According to Drucker’s Watch
November 19, 2016
Are You an Overwhelmed Leader?
October 10, 2016
Defending your attention
August 21, 2016
Management Thinking, Productivity, Self Improvement

Time Stealers

Sometimes, in order to discuss a problem, we need common terms – a vocabulary. The problem I would like to discuss is efficient use of time. Which activities should I engage in to meet my goals? Which activities (time stealers) should I avoid. I’ll try to start a discussion of the problem by contributing and defining a couple of applicable terms: urgent and important.

We commonly get confused by the similarity of these terms, so I’ll start by defining them (per An activity is urgent when it demands your attention; it makes you feel that you need to deal with it now. An activity is important when it leads to meeting your goals, including your goals for and with others. The confusion arises because these two separate notions are often true about the same activity. Many activities are important and urgent, but many activities lack one or both qualities.

Let’s consider some examples: a ringing phone or a crying baby are both urgent. They demand our attention. But are they important? It is hard to tell without more information. The ringing phone may be your spouse calling to tell you that the car is broken down (important), or it may be a salesperson trying to talk to you about a “special deal” on a cruise package (not important). The crying baby may be your child who has fallen down and skinned her knee (important), or it may be someone else’s child being fussy about too much time at the mall (not important).

In this sense, we can think about activities in a matrix as follows:


(Stephen Covey: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, via

For our purposes, time stealers are those activities in the bottom half of the matrix.

I hope you can think more clearly about the activities you engage using these definitions. You’re probably thinking “Great, now all I have to do is figure out what is important. How would I do that?” Stay tuned, this thinking has broad implications on how we plan and best utilize our time. In the near term, I will post in more detail on how to manage time based on these definitions, including how to identify important information and tasks.

Question: How do you currently differentiate between important and not important?

Books, Management Thinking

Thinking for a Living


The term “knowledge worker” was coined by Peter Drucker in the 50’s, but didn’t come into its own until Thomas Davenport started talking about it in the early 00’s. The term refers to someone who uses their knowledge to be productive rather than their physical effort. Davenport’s book Thinking for a Living (Google books link) covers both the definition of the term and his thinking on how to deal with knowledge workers. Note that this is an immense change for managers and how management works, for one main reason…

It is immensely difficult to observe someone doing knowledge work and thus equally difficult to manage when and where they do it.

While much of the book is devoted to defining and describing knowledge work, Davenport also covers managerial topics and more. This discussion makes for an interesting read on a topic that any modern manager would likely need to understand.

Question: How does knowledge work figure into your life as an employee or a manager?

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Related posts
Time According to Drucker’s Watch
November 19, 2016
Deep Work by Cal Newport
July 10, 2016
What Consumes Your Attention Controls Your Life
March 23, 2016