Thursday, October 29, 2009

Top 10 approaches to enjoy work

Time to read this post: 6 minutes

It's time to take a position. Why do some people consistently love their work? After multiple degrees, hundreds of academic books & articles, years of interviewing people in their work, I want to summarize what actually works. For people who love their work, what is it that they do? What are their tricks? Their secrets? This may eventually turn something more than a blog posting. For now I want to share the ten most effective approaches that I have learned on my journey thus far.

Three is the magic number. Most self-help books will tell you that there are three rules, three secrets, three pathways to happiness. A holy trinity. Three is a good number because most of us can't remember more than that. I can't recall the names of the seven dwarfs let alone the fifty ways to leave your lover. But what bothered me was that each each academic or book that I read cited a different three. One has Pleasure, Engagement & Meaning. The next has Strengths, Flow and Mindfulness. Or Achievement, Savoring and Love.

What seems to be the problem? Imagine a company that is losing money. Before we can assess what to do, we need to understand the firm's current situation. What is its competitive position? How much money does it have in the bank? What do its customers think of the products they sell? Do employees enjoy working there? Only then can we offer an initial opinion. And yet with people, authors and academics ignore all of that and tell us there are only three things to consider. I'm sorry, but life's more complicated than that.

I have tried to synthesize every major theory about what influences how we enjoy our work. It draws from behavioral economics and Greek philosophy to top athletic coaching and Positive Psychology. It's not a comprehensive list but it's my best starter. I have boiled it down to the ten most important approaches. And I bet that three of them are highly relevant to you. But it probably won't overlap with the three on my list. Over the coming weeks I will explore each of these in turn.

Top 10 approaches to enjoying work (as of October 2010)

1. REFRAME: One way to enjoy work more is to reframe your challenges and time in a more positive light. You might ask yourself each morning "What's going to be good about work today" or start a meeting with "What's going well on our project?". You do acknowledge where you are behind, or what's going wrong but your positive perspectives notably outweigh the negative.

2. STRUGGLE: work needs to be tough enough. We need challenge and without it we get bored. It is about having goals that your really have to stretch for; about pushing yourself, about time flying by as you are absorbed in your work. People who excel here have mastered how to set goals well, who jump into projects that both scare and energize them, who let themselves get lost in the moment.

3. STRENGTHS: focus on using your strengths each day not just shoring up your weaknesses. People who excel here understand what energizes them and reframe their daily work to use their strengths in new ways. These people know the cards that life has dealt them and they lead with their strong suits. They do know their weaknesses but don't obsess over them. For example if they are highly creative but in a non-creative role they still invent excuses to brainstorm and to let their imaginations run wild each day.

4. SIMPLIFY: declutter both physically & mentally. Life is awash with choices and it's easy to drown. People who excel here don't try and do everything perfectly. They compare the prices of three products not three hundred. They delegate less important decisions to other people. They outsource repetitive tasks to personal assistants. They keep one master 'to do' list so they don't have to remember everything going on. They are happy with 'good enough', it frees up time to do other activities they really enjoy.

5. QUIET PLEASE: dampen the constant chatter that runs through your head. We are so used to the running commentary in our brain that we tend not to notice it. People who excel here might practice meditation or they might do active exercise. They are quick to notice if they are ruminating and they know how to stop. If a colleague calls them incompetent they don't take the bait. They can let it wash over them. They have a sense of calmness and serentity about them.

6. CONNECT: make sure you have colleagues who you trust. Actively develop friendships at work. Other people matter to our happiness much more than we realise. People who excel here have colleagues who they can go to for great advice. They have friends who will look out for them and who have their backs. They share the values of their co-workers. They genuinely care about the well-being of those around them. They allow their true selves to shine through and not feel like they are suppressing their true identity

7. GIVE: help other people. This is about making other people successful and happy - both co-workers and customers. People who reframe their work as bringing value to the lives of individuals (colleagues and clients) find they have more meaning in their working lives. They find excuses to do favors for others. They are aware of what they are uniquely good at and use that as a way to offer assistance. Although this is rewarding in itself, these people then find the reciprocity of others overwhelming. They find this approach offers both personal success and happiness

8. REHEARSE: practice all important conversations, presentations and interactions you have. Rehearsing can be boring and so we decide to wing it instead - it'll be alright on the night. People who excel at this approach tend to be obsessive in their preparation for important events. They role-play sales pitches with their colleages who play devil's advocate. They video themselves delivering a keynote speech on their Flip camera and watch it. They brainstorm all the things that could go wrong and plan their response. They walk into the room well-prepared. They find this approach leads to both success and enjoyment.

9. SMELL: appreciate the here and now. Day after day of back-to-back meetings, monotonous commutes, growing to-do lists, it is challenging to remember to enjoy the journey. People who excel at this have mastered the art of being fully present in the moment. When you meet with them, you have their rapt attention. Their lives are busy but they make time to enjoy the small stuff. To make time to enjoy lunch. To switch up their route to work. To stand in the sun in the carpark taking in the view and inhaling deeply. To retain their sense of wonder and fascination with the beauty of the world

10. IMAGINE: have a compelling vision of the future that you are drawn towards. Many of us are stuck in the past, haunted by our past failings, ruled by our fear of failure. People who excel at this approach are not stuck in the past but pulled forward by the future. They are climbing a ladder but know that it's leaning against the right wall. Their vision gets them energized through the tough times. They understand how the current chapter of their life fits into the overall story. They respond to question about "what do you do?" with tales of where they are heading.

Each of these approaches can sound trite. They get boiled down to meaningless catchphrases. I plan to explore each of these approaches over the coming weeks. I will share the theory, the challenges, the tricks & techniques that work for people that I've interviewed.

Tough questions
i) Which of these approaches do you already follow successfully?
ii) Which would most benefit you in your work?
iii) What is the smallest thing that you can do that would make the biggest difference?

© The Tough Guide 2009

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Before you quit your job

Time to read this post: five minutes

About once a month, I get an email from someone at my company who is confused. They want to change career. They want to get a new job. Sometimes they are just done with work. Almost always they have decided they want their life to be different. But they don't know where to begin. So we get a coffee. We talk about how they feel, what they want, what their plan is. I thought that I would share the two big questions that they tend to grapple with. There are some useful resources and approaches out there and people seem to like them.

Question one: What do I really want to do?
Most of us only have a vague sense of what kind of work would bring us a combination of pleasure, challenge and a sense of meaning. When I ask people over coffee what do they think they want to do they tend to give vague answers. "I'd like to work in finance". "I'd like to get a job in retail". The problem with trying to define yourself by industry is that there is huge variation in job type within a sector. The day-to-day interactions with colleagues, the length of commute, your boss's sense of humour will have much more impact on your levels of enjoyment than the abstract industry it may be part of.

Po Bronson in his book argues that working out what you want to do is actually the wrong question. Instead you need to ask yourself "Who do I want to be?"; "What do I stand for?"; "What values do I want to embody?" Then from that place of being you can then think about doing.

A wise colleague of mine says that when he works with CEOs he gets them to take out a blank sheet of paper. On the left hand side he gets them to write down what they love doing. On the right hand side they write down what they hate doing. He has tried doing this with "what I am good at" on the left and "what I am bad at" on the right - but he says that simply doesn't work. It has to be what you love and hate. For me the things I love would include things like "Being the center of attention when telling a joke; running in forests; working fast to hit a deadline; analyzing data in excel; applying lessons from one academic discipline to another..." These are things that really energize me. So the first step I recommend is to get a clear understanding of what gives you energy and what drains you. This is closely connected to playing to your strengths, understanding what motivates you, what your preferences are.

Practical tools:
1. VIA strengths assessment: go to, login then take the VIA strengths questionnaire
2. buy Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Tom Rath. It will give you a code to do their online test (not as long as VIA)
3. Reflect on your Myers-Briggs type or DISC assessment
4. Write your 'What gives me / drains me of energy' list
5. Ask colleagues & friends how you occur to them. When do they see your eyes light up?
6. Re-read those business school applications
7. Write 100 words about your top 3 life experiences, then the bottom 3. Reflect on what it was about you and situation that made them so exhilarating / poor.

Blah blah blah. Undoubtedly all good stuff. But unfortunately these all rely on uncovering a deep truth about what you value most. But often you don't know what you don't know. How can I tell if I should resign and set up a non-profit when I have never done anything like it. Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling Upon Happiness points out that most off us are terrible at predicting what will make us happy. Hermina Ibarra in Working Identity argues that the classic model of i) think hard about what it is you want to do ii) go and do that is not borne out by people who have successfully changed careers. In fact quite the opposite. Most people who redefined their work and careers began experimenting on the side. "Adults are much more likely to act their way into a new way of being than to think their way into a new way of acting."

This is about starting side projects. When I was doing my MBA I got very interested in Organizational Behavior and Executive Coaching. I decided to become a life coach. I trained with the Coaches Training Institute (picture a twenty six year old British guy and 24 middle-aged women from Iowa sitting in a hotel room in Washington DC for five long weekends). I tried giving coaching to practice clients. It was fine but I found it lonely and missed my teammates and colleagues. Thank goodness I had not yet resigned from my steady job as a strategy consultant.

Now I recommend people "try on a new hat" when they go out. The next time you are at a dinner party and someone utters those dreaded four words ['what do you do?'], don't mumble an apologetic reply about your current boring job. Instead explain your vision for the future. "I'm thinking about starting my own dance studio" or "I plan to be working in digital marketing by the end of the year". The other person will invariably ask you all about these exciting plans and you get the chance to see what it feels like to be a budding entrepreneur. They will ask you questions or offer opinions that will make you consider your plans from a fresh perspective. You will walk away with new questions, new plans and a better sense of where you should be heading.

Question two: How do I find a new job?

OK, you know what energizes you but you don't know where to find the job that fits the bill. Classic job search approaches include: writing your bio/CV/resume, cover letter, interviewing skills, networking, references and the like. Again, this is all good stuff but I have a couple of different views.

If your new job does exist somewhere, it is probably more than one handshake away. As we know, networking is not about who you know but who knows you. I look at my hundreds of LinkedIn connections. About 80% of the list are a variety of former-strategy consultants and friends from my MBA. Now if I do NOT want to end up in the strategy department of a large corporate I need to start thinking about my networks very differently. In fact the impressive networking list may not be much good at all. If I ultimately want to be running an NGO in Africa then I need to start running in very different circles. Which circles do you want to be networking in? What would you need to get involved with? Who should you be getting a coffee with?

Here's some worse news: you're close-to-ideal job probably does not exist. Instead you are going to have to create it. Of all the best parts of my current job, I was not asked to do any of them. Zero. Instead I just started side-projects. As long as I was doing my main job well then nobody seemed to question how I used my spare time. A couple of year’s ago I wrote some training in my spare time on the seven things consultants don’t know about enjoying life. I presented it to a group of five secretaries over pizza one day. I even paid for the pizza. It wasn’t very good to tell the truth. But I kept tweaking it and making it a little better. And word spread. I got asked to present it to larger groups. Now two years later I am now invited to give the presentation all over the world. I love doing it. And now I’m paid to do it. It all starts with experiments on the side. Of course, initially this means more work for you. And that's a barrier for most people. That said it has been one of the most consistent strategies that I have seen other people use to create a role that they love. Normally it takes about six months to see if your side-experiment gets traction. It might be something that your current job morphs into. Or it gives you confidence to break out on your own or with friends.

Let me know if you want to grab a coffee.

PS Many of my ideas are inspired by two books:
A: Working Identity by Hermina Ibarra
Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career

B: What shall I do with my life? - Po Bronson
What Should I Do with My Life?: The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question

There are also classic books out there like "What color is your parachute?" which is perfectly fine, it's just really long / thorough and I can never get past chapter three.
What Color Is Your Parachute? 2010: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers

Sunday, October 11, 2009

How to change a habit: the pedometer experiment

Time to read: 3 minutes

Over the years, I have been to more than my fair share of corporate training courses. In general they are mildly interesting with one of two nuggets of information. The real problem is this: despite my best intentions, I rarely do anything differently when I get back to work. I want to. I plan to. But if I’m honest with myself, I always slip back into the old routine. That’s why I’m really interested when something comes along and actually changes my behavior.

I had read that walking 10,000 steps a day was very beneficial to health. Some longitudinal study or other of Harvard Alumni. There’s even a pretty chart about it on the Harvard Health Website showing an asymptotic curve. Walk more, die less. Fair enough.

However there are lots of things that would make me healthier. No beer, no hamburgers, no bacon, no cheese, no fries. I agree with the science. I respect the health columnists who prescribe it. I would like to have more moderation in my life. But I still order a cheeseburger and lager whenever I am in bar. Which is too often.

And then six weeks ago I bought a pedometer and it all changed. It was $25 and had lots of stars and good reviews on Amazon. I popped it in my pocket on Monday morning and set off to work. I live in New York and it’s quite an active lifestyle: you walk to the subway, you walk to grab lunch, you walk home. Sometime I get a cab but normally I’m pounding the street. So at the end of the day I got it out of my pocket and prepared myself to be congratulated. 1,850 steps. Not 8,000 or 5,000, but my entire day was just 1,850 steps. I’ll be honest, it was exceptionally disappointing. This small electronic device was starring at me telling me that I’d failed.

Since that day in September I have changed my daily routine. I now frequent a sandwich shop about ten minutes walk away. Often I walk right down Broadway before jumping on the subway home at Union Square. My wife has one too. We check in during the day to see how we’re doing. It’s ridiculous really.

And I pop it all into a spreadsheet every Sunday night. I’ve average 8,750 a day since September 20th – that was 375,000 steps ago.

So a hundred-fold cheaper and three days shorter than a corporate training seminar. Not bad.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

How to save time - Online countdown

Time to read this post: 1 minute
When I use the internet to do some quick research I frequently lose an hour. I start wanting to check a name or date on wikipedia and before I know it I am watching videos on hulu or reading the BBC entertainment news about day time TV shows I have previously not heard of. All this changed about a month ago when I starting using an online countdown.
The idea is simple. Before I embark on a task, I set the countdown for the amount of time I would like the task to take. Or for when I would like the alarm to ring. Want to check out the football scores? OK I set it for 3 minutes. Look up flight times to London? 5 minutes. Status updates on Facebook? 10 minutes. You get the idea. I have found the tool simple and it frequently stops me from getting ridiculously distracted. Sometimes I will deliberately only give myself a couple of minutes for a ten minute task and then race to see if I can get it done.
One of my friends came back to me saying it was one of the simplest, most game-changing techniques that has improved his effectiveness at work. Apparently it is "completely huge".
Now I've taken in a step further and this is what really made the difference for me. I now have the online countdown as my default homepage. It's the first page I see when I open Internet Exporer or Google Chrome. I can't get around it. Before I embark on a mindless journey down interweb rabbit warrens, I pre-agree with myself that it will only last for a few minutes at most.
What you need to do in Internet Explorer (time to action: 30 seconds)
1. Open internet explorer
3. Go to tools, Internet options then click Use Current
As Stephen Colbert would say, "you're welcome".

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Your story in ten sentences

Time to read this post: 1 minute

One Thursday afternoon in November, the former president of Harvard University and noted orator Edward Everett spoke to a large crowd. Critics thought his speech was "erudite, moving, and well-delivered". Given his speech was over 13,000 words, he clearly had a lot to say.

As a former professor in Greek literature, Everett was masterful in his language. After more than two hours at the podium he wrapped up, "But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates the Battles of Gettysburg". The year was 1863.

I had never heard of Edward Everett. But I do know Abraham Lincoln, the man who followed him.

In just over two minutes Lincoln delivered what is regarded as one of the finest speeches of all time. It is only 242 words - ten sentences in length. It reminded me of the power of an effective narrative. Fortunately, we don't have to deliver stirring speeches on battlefields at the end of civil wars. But we do need to be heard.

Tough questions

  • What is the next conversation, speech or meeting where you would like to be heard? Specifically when is it? Who do you want to be heard by?
  • What is it that you want the other person(s) to remember ? What is the one sentence that summarizes it?
  • How can you hit that objective by telling a story? Telling an anecdote? Using two minutes rather than two hours to be heard?

Write down your ten sentence narrative. Now.

The Gettysburg address

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate...we can not consecrate...we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

India calling - Virtual assistants

In 2005 I got myself a virtual assistant in India to make my life easier. It was an unmitigated disaster. Four years later and I am trying again. So far so good. This is a posting for those interested in what I outsource and how to do it successfully.

Time to read this post: 4 minutes

Who I use: I signed up with Get Friday on their 10 hours per month package. I considered doing pay as you go but I wanted to force myself to get ten hours of someone else helping me. It's about $10 / hour. There are many other services if you Google "Virtual Assistant" but this was a recommended firm that I trusted. By the way, if you do choose Get Friday and say you are referred by Alan Foster - I'd appreciate it.

Why do it: My wife and I had been to a wedding in Mumbai. We stayed with some friends in Bandra where we had breakfast with the father of our friend. He ran four different businesses and only seemed to work for a few hours a day. When I asked how he did it, he said he just got other people to help make his life easier. He had a man for everything. Why didn't I? I had also read Tim Ferris's Four Hour Work Week and become convinced that getting leverage from someone else was the way to go.

Enter Leo: my virtual assistant's name is Leo and so far it has been a huge success. I send him tasks via email. To give you an idea of what I use him for, here are a selection of the last few weeks:

1. Plan detailed parts of international travel: it was my school reunion in France and I got Leo to find a chateaux for my wife & I to stay the night before. he then found some recommended restaurants en route to our reunion that we could drop by for lunch the next day. He sent us PDF versions of the directions on Google Maps that I could print. On another occassion he summarised the recommendations on where to go in Brussels from the best of the New York Times, Guardian, Lonely Planet, Rough Guide & other sources I had recommended. This last weekend we were at a wedding in Pittsburgh, Leo sent us a summary of where to go, what to see and festivals / events that coincided with our stay. I was really busy at work and it was one less thing to worry about. Afterwards I send him a quick email about what I liked and what was missing from his research. He is extremely eager to learn & improve.

2. Job search: I had been procrastinating about doing research about other companies I might want to work at. Leo did a screen of all the portfolio companies of specific private equity firms in New York, put them into an excel spreadsheet, added descriptions, # of employees and then told me how I knew people at that company through LinkedIn. I have given Leo access to my LinkedIn website. He screened ~500 companies in a few hours - it was a repetitive task I had been avoiding. Well worth it.

3. House hunting: I have Leo regularly reviewing houses for sale near oneline where I live in Brooklyn and he alerts me when one that fits my criteria.

4. Website design & maintenance: my mum recently got her PhD and she wants to have somewhere online where people can come read more about her work and contact her. Get Friday has a team of web designers who can put this together in just a few hours. They are on it right now.

5. Document scanning: I realized that my work at home is cluttered. All my business school notes are in many folders scattered around the floors. Leo has researched places in Brooklyn where I can send the folders, get them scanned in onto CD-Rom and then recycle the originals.

6. Speech planning: I recently had a speech to give in London on stress management. I didn't know that much about the subject. Leo scoured the web and even watched a one hour video on TED lectures which he summarized into one document for me.

7. Weekly check-in email: I have Leo send me a weekly checkin email every Monday morning asking me about things I am trying to track each week. Stuff like how many times did I go to the gym, did I speak with my sister, did I use my strengths in a new way? I have 7 set questions that I track. Stuff I mean to do but without someone else hounding me I am likely to fall out of the habit. I had tried getting a Life Coach but I find this new method much more cost effective.

In the future I plan to have Leo do much more of our online shopping for us (he doesn't have my credit card details but their billing team does so it is secure). Down the line I can imagine him & his colleagues helping me run an online business.

Tips: if you do go down this route one of the most important things I have learned is how to request a task. I now always describe a task in 5 parts

a) goal: here is what I am trying to achieve (so he understands my overall intent, he might spot a faster way to do it or know another customer who had a similar request).

b) suggested approach: include your ideas for how he might do it. what sources would you recommend (e.g. if you are looking for a hotel do you want a chain where you have a loyalty card(e.g. Starwood) or a boutique hotel located downtown). Without your advice your assistant may assume you want the same as their other customer who has terrible taste.

c) format: do you want it in an email, to give you a call, in a word document, PDF etc

d) max time to spend: without guidance your assistant might spend five hours on something that you meant for them only to take fivee minutes. Sometimes I say "please work on this for 30minutes then email me and send an estimate for the total time you think it will take"

e) deadline: help them prioritize. sometimes I want it by end of day, sometime end of the week is fine. normally he will complete any task within 24 hours

Real example from last week:

"Leo, we are going to a wedding in Pittsburgh, USA this Friday for the weekend. We are looking for advice on things to do during the day on Saturday. Please could you do a search online (including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal) and see if there are recommended activities and good travel articles (e.g. good restaurants for Saturday lunchtime in central Pittsburgh); museums; anything else. Please could you summarise into a Word document.
Time to spend on this (max 30 minutes)

Deadline end of day Wednesday August 26th

Thanks, Alan"

So that's where I am right now. Still trying out new approaches but it's working out much better than my experiment in 2005.

PS One of my colleagues also uses Get Friday and has his VA (Virtual Assistant) look at to look for suitable dates. They have had sessions over the phone to make sure the assistants understands his tastes in New York thrity something women...

Tough questions:

What are the repeatable tasks that bore you and someone else could help with?

What have you always dreamed of doing if only you had a bit more time to think about it?

Friday, July 24, 2009

6 powerful questions to ask at job interviews

Time to read this post: 4 minutes

What you won't read in "What color is your parachute"

I gave a talk in March of this year at the Wharton School on "Applied Happiness - Building the Positive Organization". I shared the six questions that almost nobody asks when applying for a job. I believe these simple questions are critical to understand whether or not you are suited for it. Kathyn Britton wrote up my talk on Positive Psychology News Daily. Here is an exerpt:

"1. Who will I learn from and how?
Is career development outsourced to training companies that know little about the specific environment? Does the company tell employees “You’re responsible for your own career,” avoiding involvement?
Or does the employer have a mentoring culture where more experienced people gracefully accept the responsibility of helping new people develop? Does it have a peer learning model where people are expected to take time to help each other learn? Do managers share the responsibility for career development with employees? Is mentoring ever tipped upside-down so that senior people learn new skills, such as computer proficiency, from younger people?
Jane Dutton describes a related key strategy, task enablement that can involve teaching, designing tasks effectively, advocating, and accommodating individual differences. Some of the references below explore the value of mentoring to the workplace, mentor, and protegé.

Who is held up as a hero here? What for?
Bandura’s serial dramas are based on the theory that people learn from role models whose behavior they wish to emulate. In similar fashion, workplace culture is conveyed to new members through the stories of its heroes. What behaviors are valued here? Are those behaviors that you wish to emulate?
Are the heroes people who deliver on very aggressive commitments, no matter what — even if people leave their organizations burned out and demoralized? Or are the heroes people well known for collaborating and bringing opposing sides together?
Are heroes always individuals, or are particular teams held up as examples because of the ways they’ve pulled together?

3. How do you resolve conflict here?

There will be disagreements in any work environment. So how do they get resolved? Are corrosive, threatening behaviors tolerated? Or are there procedures for giving everybody a voice but coming to agreement, either through explained decision-making or consensus?
Dutton, Frost, Glendinning, Sutton, and others write about corrosive workplaces where bullying is tolerated. According to Pearson, Andersson, and Wegner, people who instigated incivility were three times as likely to have more power than their targets than to be peers or subordinates.
This is the question that Janet most wished that she had asked in her last interview.

4. How willing are people to help each other?
Are people pitted against each other in job evaluations so that there is a feeling that helping someone else will put a person at a disadvantage? Or is helping others both valued and expected? How is work divided up? Are people given assignments and expected to complete them by themselves? Justin Berg suggests that the Job Crafting Exercise could be used by a team to divide up work so that people spend more time with tasks that line up with their strengths, motivations, and passions. How much flexibility is there for people to divide work and swap tasks?

5. How do you celebrate what’s working?
It is so easy for organizations to focus on problems and negative events and then take victories, large and small, for granted. Gable and colleagues have demonstrated that people get much more benefit out of positive events when they take time to talk them over with trusted others who respond actively and constructively. At an organizational level, do people have an opportunity to capitalize on achievements?
Are questions asked that highlight what’s working?
Alan mentioned that people in his company became much more willing to fill in employee surveys when the first question changed from “What is going wrong on your project?” to “What is going well on your project?

6. What keeps you going when things get stressful?
Fear or a sense of purpose? Competition or comradeship?

This article is © 2009 The original article was authored by Kathryn Britton on April 7, 2009, and can be seen here. To join the discussion about this article, click here."

Picture from Flickr

Friday, June 12, 2009

Four questions away from death

Time to read this post: 3 minutes
At the peak of the last tech boom in 2001 many of my friends were dizzy with how rich they were about to be. One friend went to run an online furniture company ( or something). I felt unadventurous and not a little stupid as I didn't 'get' the new web paradigm where their projected losses and low revenue streams were going to make them millions. At the time I was a young business consultant working for a mining company in the north of England. Apparently at the age of 24 with no background in Engineering, I was our firm's tunneling expert. I would go underground (yes literally 800 meters underground) with the miners and help them work out how to improve their underground productivity. We would have lengthy conversations about roof bolting and their preferred types of glue (or bolt resin as it was called). We would play squash together in the evenings, at one point the whole mining team went on the Atkins diet and I joined them. Years later I would somehow become a key advisor as the mining roof bolt expert for a large Private Equity deal. I remember questioning the value of my esoteric knowledge.
Alain de Botton in his excellent new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, goes on a philosophical quest to understand the way business works today and celebrates the world of esoteric knowledge and, by extension, roof bolt resin experts everywhere. He traces the supermarket supply chain: from illiterate tuna-bashing fisherman in the Indian ocean all the way through distribution centers, logistics hubs, supermarket aisles to the home of 8 year old Andy who pushes his fish around his plate. Andy was not aware let alone appreciative of what it has taken to get his evening meal ready for him. He tracks electricity power lines through suburban London. He shadows tax accountants communiting from Kent. He interviews biscuit production design managers in Belgium. Mainly he questions how we can find meaning in our work today.
Our world has benefited from Ricardo's comparative advantage. Very few of us become farmers, or bakers or any other easy to understand profession you might find in a children's storybook. Instead we become Strategic Brand Managers, Logistics supply analysts and many other eclectic names that even our parents struggle to understand.
De Botton ponders how many workers have become separated from the meaning of their work. Separated from the moment a customer delights in their manufacted chocalate bar. Separated from seeing the banking analyst login to his corporate intranet. Seperated from seeing any benefit from the little differences each of us hope to make in the short time we are around on this planet.
Perhaps work is just there to keep us busy before we die. After all, explains De Botton, we are all only about four questions away from death. If we stop to question why we are actually rushing to this next meeting? Why this meeting will make any difference in the shaping the future of this organization? Whether this organization will make any notable impact on the future direction of the planet? Whether anyone will remember anything I ever do at all?
Should we learn to embrace this tragic view of life? Or can we train our minds to marvel at the beauty of logistics centers, airport carparks and corporate intranet home pages? Or to accept that how we experience the present is not how we will remember it; like Susan Sontag said "Just wait until now becomes then. You'll see how happy we were."
We could all do far worse than reading The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.
Tough questions
How close are you in your organisation to where meaning is created?
How does your organization try bring the stories that create belonging and meaning to the employees?
What can you do to remind yourself of the difference you make?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Strengths of Susan Boyle

Susan Boyle has followed Paul Potts to Britain's Got Talent underdog stardom. Watch the sensation here. Already on the Today show and set for a place on Oprah's coach.

A number of people have asked what underlies her instant appeal. Well her story follows a classic narrative - a challenge plot protagonist who is fighting against all odds. She risks ridicule and public humiliation. Though not yet empirically proven in psychology lab (yet), she elicits in us the positive emotion of elevation. First proposed about ten years ago by Professor Jonathan Haidt, elevation is still somewhat of a mystery to scientists. It is distinct from admiration though that emotion is also present when we watch Susan Boyle sing.
Tough question: how are you risking ridicule to do something you really believe in? What will you do that might elicit elevation in others?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Maximum impact

Time to read this post: 2 minutes

I spoke with a uber-mentor on what are his life lessons in juggling multiple priorities with limited time. His responses are very much in line with Tim Ferris's 4 hour work week

1. Carry one thing in your top pocket

Those who manage to have huge impact make progress on a small number of big things. They know the 1-2 (max) game-changing issues. This gives them huge mental focus and allows their creativity to go into one thing. This singularity causes all their creativity to be channeled into this one project. These people understand the difference betwee urgent and important tasks

2. You have a requirement to do only what only you can do

This was told by a CEO client. He said that is your duty to lead on a small number of projects and work out how you can get others to help you on your quest. This involves a process of benign abdication to others. Consider what you can get away with not doing.

3. Phenomenal workrates

The best people batch their work and are able to work at an extremely high rate. This involves turning off email for many hours; guarding your calendar; not attending every meeting; sending people "if/then" emails to get out the back & forth; blocking out time on your calendar intentionally. It is a question of priority: choose carefully what you do first each day as it will expand to fill the day. Start the day by checking email and you may never surface again.

4. Life as an 'Energy Balance Sheet'

Work life balance is the wrong goal. Rather than seeking to minimize the number of hours works, seek to rejoice in an interesting-rich-fulfilled life. Think of sustainability as an 'Energy balance sheet'. Think of the energy created versus the energy destroyed. If you end up having to work for hours but in a way that is hugely energizing, it's probably a worthwhile trade-off
Tough questions
A. What is the one project that you should be in your top pocket right now
B. What is it that only you can do? Where do you add unique value?
C. What should you be starting the day by doing? What will this look like tomorrow?
D. What is the status of your life's Energy Balance Sheet? Are you creating net worth?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Applying Positive Psychology

Extracts from a recent interview I did:

Tell me about the beginning of your career.

Until recently, I have had quite a typical career since joining as an analyst with a global professional services firm in London in 1998. I did a transfer to our South African office, then, after getting my MBA I transferred to New York in 2004 as project manager. I have enjoyed looking at the future of the fresh soup market, modelling the profitability of supermarket customers, going down a coal mine underground for nine months, looking at toothpaste innovations and investigating the economics of NASCAR sponsorship. Pretty standard stuff.

At the same time I have always been fascinated with people development. As a Consultant I started toying with the idea of being an Executive Coach, so I enrolled in a 3 week intensive training program. It was interesting but not my calling – so back to case work it was. I remember managing a particularly ruthless travel case doing tech strategy for a multi-national client. I was at the airport when I picked up a copy of Time magazine that had a cover story on the science of happiness. The idea of taking a data-driven approach to individuals was intriguing (what has actually been proven to make us successful and happy). There was only one academic Masters course teaching it globally - at the University of Pennsylvania. I spoke to my wife and realized I had to apply. So I walked into to our New York HR Partner’s office the following morning and offered my resignation.

What made you decide to study positive psychology and what actually is it?

Positive psychology is the empirical science of what goes right in life. Traditional psychology is more focused on mental illness not well-being. Happiness has traditionally been left to religions, philosophers and self-help authors– science has been silent on the topic. That has recently stated to change. For example, thanks to empirically-valid studies we now know:
Ø Optimistic people are much less likely to die of heart attacks than pessimists, controlling for all known physical risk factors
Ø Externalities (e.g., weather, money, health, marriage, religion) totaled together account for no more than 15% of the variance in life satisfaction.
Ø The pursuit of meaning and engagement are much more predictive of life satisfaction than the pursuit of pleasure.
Ø Self-discipline is twice as good a predictor of high school grades as IQ.
So I went to study my Masters at uPenn, learning from the academics & researchers who are at the forefront of this emerging field.

What is your role at your company now?

I thought I would have to resign, however my company had other ideas. I was very surprised how keen they were to support me. They asked me to craft a role in Global Human Capital where I could focus on helping teams be more effective with clients and have more successful experiences & outcomes. Specifically I am charged with improving our culture of apprenticeship & coaching.

So far, what change that you have driven are you most proud of?

One of the first projects I undertook was to take a data-driven approach to team outcomes. We have a database of ~17,000 project teams and over half a million data points that nobody had ever looked at. We quickly were able to establish which questions were actually predictive of high team satisfaction and which strategically important questions were missing. With the support of the global office heads we piloted and then rolled out a radically simplified team survey. It’s by no means perfect, but we think it team will be less likely to get stuck in ‘analysis-paralysis’. It will help focus their attention of what are the key drivers in our client outcomes and team satisfaction. It’s a only small change but it cost nothing and no teams were subjected to any touchy-feely training sessions.

How do you think that things you have learned will be most useful where applied to the corporate world?
Studying Positive Psychology made me appreciate how well my company already does many things. That said, one of my big learnings was that ‘success’ and ‘happiness’ are two distinct concepts. There are plenty of ‘happy’ people who achieve little and many highly visible successful people who feel empty inside. Like most people at my company, I want it all. Now I realize both these concepts have different underlying drivers and they need to be tackled with different tools. Currently there is no corporate toolkit for individuals. My vision is to help build this new toolkit over the coming years.

Another big lesson for me was how we get confused between pleasure, challenge and meaning. These are some of the main drivers of happiness. By looking at the employee survey we found that teams reporting high impact but had ‘unsustainable lifestyles’ were significantly happier than teams with ‘sustainable lifestyles’ but no impact & challenge. My colleagues love a challenge. In the moment we often want the easier option (more pleasure, less challenge) but if we get it we quickly become bored.

What are the most helpful ‘quick fixes’ that would make people feel better if they are a bit down?
Do everything you can to establish a good relationship with who you are working for. Our analysis showed it’s all about who you work. This, I realise, is not in your hands. Forget the individual project, the industry, its duration – they are pretty insignificant. At the start of the project put in extra effort to get off on the right foot. This might sound cheesy but I always tell my boss that I want to help them be successful (and actually mean it when I say that), then I tell them that I’d would really appreciate it if they give me feedback on my performance. For me just saying this seems to work. If it’s not working then I try to ask them about it, for example “Hey, I feel like we are not communicating that well. What can I do to help here?”. This acknowledges the issue but is not accusatory in tone.
Don’t trust your feelings. When we are feeling stressed or miserable it’s incredibly hard to imagine we ever felt differently or will ever feel good again. That said our moods pass much more quickly than we think. We think about resigning. Friends tell us to listen to our gut and trust our feelings. This is terrible advice as our mood completely clouds our judgment. Practically, exercise is one of the best proven ways to feel better, even just fifteen minutes.
Know what gives you energy and do more of that: this might sound trite but one of the simplest exercises you can is to write down 2 headings on a piece of paper. Column 1 write “Things I like doing” and column 2, “Things I don’t like doing”. I love being creative, and project work often didn’t provide enough of an outlet for that. So each year, even when I am underwater with work, I help to organize our summer offsite meeting. It makes a huge difference to my sense of well-being
Keep a journal of what goes well: one of the most consistent findings in positive psychology is that writing down at the end of each day what went well has large effects on happiness. It builds over time, I did this for a week and didn’t think anything of it. Then about three weeks in I started waking up feeling more energized. When I walked to work I started noticing the trees, the people on the subway, the beauty of the world. A cynical New York manager recently told me that she had done this now for two years and it was single thing that had made the biggest difference in her life.

Are you enjoying what you are doing?

All things considered, I am enjoying what I do and excited at the challenges ahead. Form time to time I get stressed and have to focus on taking a few deep breathes and going on a walk around the block.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Redesigning office space

What are the tricks to using office space effectively? I recently met with the HR Director of a global beverage company. I walked into the drab office building and immediately sensed an oppressive hush. There was a fully stocked bar in the reception which was all locked up. Grey-suited workers tip-toed by muttering quietly to one another. I couldn't tell you why, but I was immediately certain that nobody working there was enjoying themselves.

The HR Director was delightful. We spoke about cost-cutting, about the aggressive performance management they were in the middle of. Most of all we spoke about the depressing, low morale culture of the office. She asked me what could they do to change the look and feel of the office. It got me thinking more broadly about how to use office space. Here are seven issues that I think are important:

1. visual branding: what is on your walls can be used to reinforce the culture. Do you have corporate announcements that sit there curling at the edges? Do you have photos of community office activities? eople move in the direction of their attention. What do you want your workers to be paying attention to? Who is responsible for keeping it fresh and relevant?

2. unintentional signaling: who gets the corner offices? who gets offices at all? where does the most important person sit? where are the meeting rooms? who has to share with who? many many, real estate is everything . it depends on whether signaling strong hierarchy is a 'good thing'. Normally the more open plan the better (for the company, individuals would all like a room of one's own which leads us to...)

3. unplanned encounters: to what extent do you want people to be connecting with one another informally over the course of the day? Normally much more than they are now. This is how people build a sense of attachment, belonging and share ideas. People behave just like animals. They take the most selfish direct route for their needs: food, water, bathroom, mail. Companies who try to cater to what their employees say the want unintentionally create environments where no-one is forced into physical proximity with other people. There are no 'water-cooler' moments. The poor design of our kitchen is one example - it should be the place in the office where you can bump into anyone and chat (people of all levels) but instead people just scurry in and out. Having more places to get tea and coffee actually reduces the social connectedness of the office. Most organizations don't get this.

4. changing it up: we quickly adapt to our environments. much faster than we predict we will. companies spend time putting up notice boards, photo displays etc but if nothing changes, we no longer notice them. It can be important to make continual small changes to the office environment e.g. no-one is in charge of the notice boards where I work and they are neglected. they are a missed opportunity to reinforce the culture and signal what's important and tell people what they should be thinking about
5. dirty laundry: what space is 'private' for employees only and what is 'public' that clients & guests should be able to see. If you want a place for employees to eat / bond / joke with one another, don't put it by the main client reception area.

6. seating mix: who needs to collaborate for the organization to be successful. What type of colleague should sitting within the vicinity (same function as you, same level)? This may be driven by the organizational structure: functional vs industry vs geographic vs customer segment. One argument is that if you organize by function (e.g. junior marketing people report to head of marketing not to their brand product) then should all the marketing people sit together? well it depends. If you sit them together you reduce the transaction costs of them communicating. But they will likely not mix and speak to people from other departments. How important is it for cross-department collaboration?

7. lines of sight: the atmosphere of a place of work changes significantly depending on how many people you can see from where you sit. There are huge differences between open plan and cubicles where you can't see (yet can still hear) one another. I know of HR departments who were given high cubicle walls for privacy yet they were not soundproof so they can't have the confidential conversations they need to do their job. Yet they are now isolated from their colleagues. In local communities / neighborhoods you can predict the amount of crime by the number of lines of sight that people have when walking around. They didn't realise this when building in the 1960s but now it is a key part of planning 'walkable urban' downtown areas.
PS my blog artwork was designed by my sister

Friday, January 30, 2009

Five big ideas from Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers

If you haven't yet read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell you have probably read about it. Gladwell asks the provocative question: "why do some people succeed, living remarkably productive and impactful lives, while so many more never reach their potential?"

He looks at the lives of outliers from Mozart to Bill Gates, he builds a convincing case for how successful people rise on a tide of advantages, "some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky." There are five powerful ideas in Outliers. If you are too busy to read it because you are becoming a successful outlier, here they are:

1. Skill

The concept: (i) skills strengths and abilities are as much about Emotional Intelligent as IQ (ii) you need lots of people to help you along the way (iii) divergent brainstorming skills are as important as convergent 'smart' skills

Examples: SATs & GMAT are based on convergent skills (e.g. solving a logic problem). Being asked to name 55 uses of a brick is equally hard and requires different skills (but it's harder to test for in a short standardize tests). If you are a lone genius but socially awkward it's very hard to sell ideas and get others on board

Tough questions: how skilled are you in enrolling others in your ideas? how often can you persuade others to help you and join you on your journey (do you have woo)? what can you be doing to develop your right-brained idea generation skills?

Relevant good books: 6 thinking hats - Edward de Bono; Made to stick - Chip Heath

2. Relevance

The concept: the big ideas of today will not be the big ideas of tomorrow. Important to pick long term trends that are emerging.

Examples: The people at the top of New York law firms are often Jewish men who were shut out by the law firms in the 1950s who then started out on their own with a hard work ethic. Rising to the top of a commoditizing, irrelevant industry is hard work and more likely to lead nowhere.

Tough questions: what are the likely long term trends in your industry? what will happen to prices & differentiation? what is getting outsourced to China & India? where are the emerging trends? what problems will people and organizations be looking to solve in ten years? if you are stuck in a disappearing industry, what is your plan to get out?

Relevant books: Blue Ocean Strategy; The World is Flat - Tom Friedman

3. Timing

The concept: when people are fast-tracked for success then huge advantage to have timing on your side. Being born in the right era helps match you to your skills

Examples: Professional hockey and soccer players are much more likely to be born closer to January. They are fast tracked at a young age and that's when a few months of additional growth helps you excel against you peers and picked for the team. That then gives you more experience playing with the A-players which creates a virtuous circle. Also true for what decade / era you are born in: Bill Gates, founders of Sun Microsystem etc were all born within a few years of each other

Tough questions: Where can you be the big fish in the small pond? How can you use that to get preferential experience?

4. Effort

Concept: Persistence, grit & self-efficacy are all necessary in getting ahead. Mastery comes after 10,000 hours of practice. Don't predict geniuses too young. People will only be persistent if they are doing what they love. For it to be meaningful a person must have i) autonomy ii) the task must be sufficiently complex (to enable Flow) iii) connect effort & reward (person gets appropriate timely, honest payoff / feedback from their work)

Examples: Mozart's early compositions were poor. Boris Becker, classical musicians, writers, almost everyone starts to come into their own after ~10,000 hours of practice. Kid's spelling Bee success is predicted by persistence more than verbal reasoning

Tough questions: where do you seek mastery? for what are you on track to get 10,000 hours experience? What needs to change in your life to get more? How much grit do you have in life? Are you really matching your work with your strengths? How well do you praise the efforts of others vs their innate ability?

5. Cultural predisposition

Concept: Parents play a huge role teaching kids to be assertive, questioning authority. As to proverbs we teach our kids to instill behavior. But also our predispositions go back generations (war-mongering for instance is much more genetic than we realize). Hofstede: Power Distance Index (PDI) predicts which junior team are prepared to question their boss.

Examples: incidence of national plane crashes correlate closely with Hofstede's PDI. High PDI means that junior crew is unlikely to question the captain when he makes a mistake. Crew is unlikely to assert itself with air-traffic control even when it is in trouble. Chinese proverbs are much more about hard-work than Western ones

Tough questions: how assertive and questioning are you? how much do you just want to go with the flow? when do you allowed yourself to be steam-rollered rather than standing up for your beliefs? How much do you allow others working for you to question your judgement or decisions?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fishing in Mexico

One of my favorite parables:

An American businessman was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to
catch them.

The Mexican replied only a little while. The American then asked why didn't he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family's immediate needs. The American then asked, but what do you do with the rest of your time?

The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life, senor."

The American scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually youwould have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your
own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise."

The Mexican fisherman asked, "But senor, how long will this all take?" To which the American replied, "15-20 years." But what then, senor?

The American laughed and said that's the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.

Millions, senor? Then what? The American said, "Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos."