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I liked a recent experience on the City of Worcester’s Task Force for Sustaining Housing First Solutions. In the current climate of incivility, especially on social media, consensus-oriented approaches to hard problems are especially appealing. Here’s how this one worked.
Smart editors, including Barbara Poppe, prepared a set of 26 recommendations. The goal was to have each of the 19 representatives around the room agree that their organizations would officially endorse the recommendations. Each recommendation would be read, and then each representative would give a thumbs up, a thumbs sideways, or a thumbs down.
Thumbs up meant your organization would endorse the recommendation as written.
Thumbs sideways was a request for floor time to ask a question. All questions were asked in series without answers so that commonality of questions could be identified. Then questions were addressed in bulk.
Thumbs down meant your organization would not endorse the recommendation. A thumbs down was expected to come with a proposal for alternate wording.
In about 90 minutes, all 26 recommendations were reviewed and approved unanimously, several with extensive modifications.
The thumbs up/down/sideways technique is notable for how it cuts away discussion about agreement. Oftentimes, volunteer (non-business) groups fall into a dynamic where one person states a shared principle or interest, and others take a long time agreeing or adding their own statements of shared interest. All of this is unnecessary in the context of a document that needs to be approved. The thumbs focused discussion on differences.
By being able to iterate on the text in the room, with most key stakeholders present, objections didn’t stop progress, get overruled, or result in a watered-down document. Instead, they resulted in recommendations that were both more concrete and also more widely supported. It’s hard to have people voting directly on complex issues, but iteration in this way seemed to make it work.
“Thumbs up” were the most common because a substantial amount of work had already been done on the text. We were voting paragraph by paragraph, which made each piece manageable.
“Thumbs sideways” were the second most common. Usually, participants asked their question, received clarification, and turned their vote to a “thumbs up.”
“Thumbs down” were rare. They did occur, most notably when Worcester City Councilor Konstantina Lukes expressed a strong desire for one recommendation to be issued with a “shall” instead of a “should” wording. Much discussion resulted, with the end result that Councilor Lukes gave a thumbs up without changing her insistence on the importance of “shall” and without the wording having been changed. It was a failure to reach consensus that we papered over.
This shows the trouble with strict or 100% consensus decision making approaches. Councilor Lukes held the power to scuttle the entire recommendation, or to present the entire document as non-unanimous. Instead of doing that, she conceded her point and went along with what was a clear majority. Perhaps some more work could have been done to address Councilor Lukes’ concern, or to formally note the concern in the official recommendation.
Besides this last issue, it was a good process. There was official consensus on all 26 points, and true consensus on 25 points. It felt efficient. It felt that all voices were heard. It has certainly produced a better result than simple majority rule would have. I hope to use the technique in the future.
I haven’t written a blog article in about seven months. It has been about a year since I optimistically wrote “The Great Untasking“. Here’s an update of that graph. Big-picture, little has changed:
The “total queue” seems to be on average 280 items. “Days overdue” seems to be on average a month. Both series are structurally higher than prior to our first full-time hire in late 2016. This hire, which was the cause of so much optimism, gradually reduced their full-time hours until finally they went on full-time leave. This was for personal reasons, and we don’t begrudge them it. I was too cautious/optimistic in waiting for their bandwidth to return; MassLandlords should have re-hired much sooner.
We hired that one person full time before we should have. A single full-time hire leaves one vulnerable to changing bandwidth and personal circumstance. We have since hired four part-time people to replace the one on leave, and have been cross-training them in essential operations. We are now more immune to key personnel departures.
Despite the graph moving in the wrong direction, there are reasons to be optimistic. The new hiring process we used successfully identified new team members with the right skills, and took very little of our time. For the first time, I perceive my personal inbox to no longer be growing even with minimal attention. At time of writing, the inbox represents 188 items and 32 days’ worth of queue, no small percentage of the above backlog. So any day now, when I process that inbox down, we may realize what becomes a new structural low.
Types of Work
This graph shows the types of activities where I spend my time. There are three possibilities:
- Individual contributor (IC; I am doing work that theoretically could be hired for)
- Leveraged management (LM; I am working with or specifically to enable another team member)
- Strategy and analysis (SA; I am stepping back to think about what is happening or should happen)
You can see when the MassLandlords employee went on leave in January, I realized I needed to change what I was doing. I spent much more time on the MassLandlords hiring process, and on our four part-time hires, and have prioritized keeping them busy. I don’t know how high I can drive the leveraged management bar, but the goal is that IC should go down to zero. If it can be hired for, we hope to hire for it.
Split Between Projects
This graph shows the split between my projects:
- “MTL 7” includes running the house and shopping for a new property (it ought to be renamed from “MTL 7” to “real estate”)
- “RH” is RentHelper
- “ML” is MassLandlords
- “Personal” is other unsorted work stuff like this blog
The real estate portion has been climbing because of the sudden vacancy, a renovation, and some open houses (maybe we’ll buy something). The real estate portion could fall back to long-term levels once the vacancy is filled if we don’t buy anything. Or we could buy a new property and it could climb.
RentHelper is not getting the attention it needs.
Overall, with the exception of the most recent week, I’m more engaged with my work than in the 2017 timeframe (more hours worked each week on average).
In the absence of any real “stepping back” to reevaluate what I’ve been doing, I’ve resorted to the trap of expediting. In the reminder system, some things are tagged as “must happen today.” For instance, each team member gets a “must happen today” reminder to address any remaining emails or overdue tasks at least once a week; 13 ticklers are related to team members. This effectively limits the time they’re waiting for my input on routine matters; they all get expedited answers by chatting or messaging me when they need it.
The rest of the priority ticklers are almost all related to cashflow management, taxes,and billpay. These are all tedious and you would think I could eliminate them, but the consequences of a possible mess-up have prevented me from delegating these.
The final ticklers are about reinforcing priorities. For instance, I purposefully work on the MassLandlords newsletter, MassLandlords events, and RentHelper lead nurturing ahead of older items in the queue.
The problem with expediting is that the queue keeps growing. So until I can work this list of priority ticklers down to zero, we shouldn’t expect to see the task queue decrease. I briefly experimented with eliminating the team-oriented ticklers, but as I wasn’t able to stay at inbox zero, I found our team became unreasonably delayed waiting for my input. So I added them back in.
If we’re thinking about structural issues, the major issues are certainly distractions from what will drive progress. A negative example: a MassLandlords contract partner felt threatened by our ascendancy and stated they would sue us; we offered to discuss and settle, they said no. A positive example: I was invited by the City of Worcester to participate in a task force for housing-first solutions to chronic homelessness; I said yes. None of the work I do on either of those will move the needle on these graphs, but the work needed to be done, both for our long-term well-being and for the public. So it goes.
Starting 18 months ago, I began more detailed timetracking for MassLandlords, which is a bootstrapped startup. I started noting the difference between what Andrew Grove called “high leverage” activities and what Pratt and Whitney called “individual contributor” activities. This is the first time I’ve made a graph of the results. It’s a prime example of “what you don’t measure doesn’t get better.” It shows that I haven’t been unburying myself the way I imagined.
The graph shows percent “level of effort” (what percent of time I spend on just these two activities) vs time. Each point is four days’ worth of time data, averaged over the last 40 days so it looks smoother. I track my time in four-day intervals because I use a piece of paper on a clipboard that I keep with me at all times, because only four days fit on a sheet, and because weekends are not very relevant anyway =(. I quickly note what I’m doing on paper. I don’t need to use any company-specific information systems like harvest, where maybe I’m not logged in or I need to switch accounts or who knows what is going wrong. (I love harvest for team-level perspectives, but paper is like harvest just for me.)
The blue portion represents time spent doing “leveraged management.” The idea is that one or two hours spent with a direct report, employee, or contractor will enable them to do eight or more hours of work on their own. In the last 18 months, MassLandlords has brought on about 50 hours of work each week (one big and several smaller hires). So I somewhat expected that I would add about ten hours of high leveraged work each week and lose a lot of unleveraged work. The red portion of the graph is “individual contributor,” or things that an employee should be hired to do.
The new hires are definitely working out, but they are exposing weaknesses in customer service, event logistics, and financial controls. All of these areas are largely my “individual contributor” responsibility. On our bootstrapped trajectory, it has been undesirable to lose touch with our customers by hiring for service, and impossible to hire adequately for logistics or controls (these positions seem to require some degree of scale because of the physical nature of the logistics work, and great degree of trust required to hand over financial controls). The increased effort for event marketing, event planning, and advertising have certainly been helpful, but they are generating more customer interactions, more events, and more transactions.
The graph showing total hours gives more insight. The red “individual contributor” line has been climbing as MassLandlords has grown. Our major hire started fall 2016. During their training, the blue “leveraged management” line spiked. It has been declining as they (and other team members) gain experience and ability. The blue line should have stayed high after that major hire. Except with the weaknesses in service, logistics, and controls, the red line shows a lot has landed back on my plate. This has distracted me from focusing on scaling and the next hire.
The trick here seems to be to make sure that some portion of the blue line includes time spent scaling and focusing on the next hire. If that’s the case, then we will eventually successfully pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. On the other hand, if the blue line is being spent just to keep the existing team going, then we must be caught in limbo. Not only will no one be working on scaling, but also, because I am just one person, the red line will eventually max out, customers will go unhappy, churn will increase, and the organization will rebound downward. Understanding this graph is of the first importance. And anyone with a bootstrapped startup probably should be making their own graph, because so much of starting up is “the grind” that produces so little value compared to high-leverage activities.
Random Grumbles and Advice
Service: Knowing what I know now, I would have implemented a customer service process much sooner, maybe at the outset. It would have been possible for me to maintain contact with customers even from inside a framework like zendesk. Now we have a situation where customers are emailing the last team email address they saw, which is pretty much not working out for anyone.
Controls: I also would have prioritized a relationship with a bank that gave granular access controls. Most small business banks — and even quickbooks online, which I otherwise much admire — have laughable separation of controls. The person who enters vendors must not be the person who pays them, and this must not be the person who records the debts in the first place. Most small business systems make all of this accessible to the same user. Thereby, any dishonest schmuck can enter a fake vendor bill, enter the fake vendor billpay, and pay the fake bill to themselves or to their cousin. Sure, they will eventually get caught, but only after much stress and financial loss on our side. I think Avidia Bank will be our partial salvation but until we implement it, I can’t say for sure. QuickBooks online is still not compliant, and I don’t see a way around that yet, so we’re waiting to hire an employee who can be paid enough to come with high “trust factor.”
Logistics: This is a problem particular to MassLandlords, where we basically need to have 23 physical locations one night a month. I don’t think I have any insight to share at this time.
So that’s the latest timetracking update on our bootstrapped startup. I see now why people take capital: just go hire all the people you need.
I drew this on a screenshare today while talking to a MassLandlords manager.
I don’t remember where I learned it*. The basic gist is that lots of people will suggest lots of things for you to do.
Some things are going to be hard and have a low impact on your goals. Write them down, but don’t do them.
- These might become more relevant or less difficult in the future.
- Writing them down, as opposed to outright rejecting them, lets you return to them in the future. It also is more politically palatable to a requester to hear that it’s in your system, albeit lower priority, than “I have deleted your request.”
Others are going to be easy, low impact. Most administration falls into this category. Hire for it if you can. If you’re not able to hire, do these items when you’re tired.
- Anna Dietrich described these items as “zombie tasks” or “shooting zombies” because they are repetitive and won’t ever die. I like that analogy.
- When possible, try to eliminate the source of the zombies. Automation or process changes can eliminate a lot of the low impact work we take as given.
Some things are easy and will have a high impact on your goals. Do these asap.
- This is the most difficult thing for someone detail-oriented like me to do. I like to have a clean desk and inbox zero. Much of my best work happens because I ignore the other pressures.
The final set are things that will have a high impact but are hard. These require project plans and a longer-term commitment.
- It’s extremely important not to let a “high impact” item linger because you haven’t created the project plan. Oftentimes the first “action” is a brainstorm or research. Get these items into your task list. David Allen’s advice is invaluable on this front. Define the next action. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
I don’t like spending lots of time bucketing items into different categories. I don’t like systems that have nine or 16 squares. This four-square framework can be useful for communicating when you will or will not work on something. Otherwise, just get back to work.
*Covey’s Original Prioritization Framework
It turns out Stephen Covey popularized this, but he didn’t have “difficulty,” he had “urgency.” This switch hides any recognition that management or project planning might be needed. I might have learned to replace “urgency” with “difficulty” at Pratt & Whitney, I don’t know. Suffice it to say I think of the grid above when I think of priority frameworks.
Thinking of “urgency” works better in the “personal productivity” space, but less well in organizations. Everything is urgent to the requester.
Saturdays at 7:30 am (5:00 or 6:00 pm India time depending on daylight saving) I call the MassLandlords bookkeepers in India. I love it.
I actually get up at 6:30 to prepare for the call and to review our “treasury dashboard.” I love getting up early on a weekend. It feels so productive. Plus, this phone call represents two-and-a-half years of process development. We review income and expense reporting for MassLandlords and two MassLandlords partners. We use asana for linear processes, skype for the call and screen sharing, Google Drive for file transfer, and Google Docs for the dashboard itself.
The idea for the dashboard comes from my training in operations. You want to quickly see a visual status of the entire organization. One of these boxes updates via an API, most are manual and take 30 seconds to update, maybe five minutes for the whole week’s work. I can update them or the team in India can.
The other thing I really like about the team in India is their combination of hard working and good attitude. They have had no end of challenges, from power outages to dengue, and yet we have continually taken care of our people and our jobs. We’ve had language skills training to the point where we’re talking politics, technological innovation to automate a lot of our work, and a mindset of continuous improvement to leave us all feeling productive and headed in the right direction.
I’m lucky to work with their team leader, who is receptive to suggestions and candid with feedback. It’s a great team, almost three years in the making, and checking in on their progress is certainly my favorite part of the week.
This afternoon I’m at the worst backlog of “things to do” since GTD tracking began in late 2014. I have 333 items in my inbox, on my desk, and in my task list that all demand attention yesterday. What’s astonishing is that “days overdue” is only 8, which means none of these things really originated before the last week. That’s 300 things to do since last week.
I can take a lot of pressure, this is getting near the limit.
A big part of it is the MassLandlords meeting cycle, which holds back a lot of ideas and issues over the summer and then many of our 1,200 members start sending them in. That’s wonderful, but also difficult to manage. I’m lucky we have new part time staff in Springfield to help with some of these requests. But then again, the Springfield group’s dissolving and folding in has taken a lot of my capacity the last two weeks, contributing to the backlog.
The other thing that’s happening is I’ve implemented a really great expediting system, which is a sure sign of flow failure if ever there was one. Expediting certain tasks ahead of older ones in the queue signals my lack of bandwidth. It keeps the fires from raging but it builds up pressure on the overdue items and creates stress. The right way to schedule is to create excess capacity or flex capacity so that things like phone calls don’t send us off on a tangent that we didn’t have time for.
Clearly we need more staff at MassLandlords. I’m working on it. But as I’ve learned over the summer, it can be worse to put the wrong person in the job than to have no one at all. The wrong person can cause more harm than good.
My average pace has been 57 hrs/wk. I had a nice relaxing summer, where the average went down to only 37 hrs/wk. In the big scheme of things, I still exercise, and eat right, and sleep adequately. And I’ve put in harder hours in the past. But boy, I really could use another Friday right about now.
It has been over nine months since the last update. I have been busy. I may write an update soon. In the meantime, it occurs to me to share this strange fact: every workday, everywhere I go, I carry the final pages of Andrew Grove’s High Output Management. Lame but true.
High Output Management is a soft skills book written by an engineer-at-heart. Grove was CEO of Intel during their rise to prominence. Possibly he’s the reason you know the name Intel.
At the end of the book, he lists out homework. “You have trusted me enough to buy my book and read it. Now let me say a final thing: if you do at least 100 points worth of what you find here, you’ll be a distinctly better manager for it.”
I’ve been chipping away at his assignments since May 2012. So far I’ve earned 70 points. Every time I do an assignment, I write the date. I aspire to do one every two months. I guess the average assignment is worth ten points. So I’m doing less than two each year. Not brilliant. Here’s what I’ve done:
- 8-21-14 What are my outputs? 0 points (I made this one up)
- 2-25-15 Identify half a dozen new indicators for your group’s output. They should measure both quantity and quality of the output. 10 points
- 6-20-16 Install these new indicators as a routine in your work area, and establish their regular review in your staff meetings. 20 points.
- 10-11-15 and 12-17-15: Look at your calendar for the last week. Classify your activities as low/medium/high leverage. Generate a plan of action to do more of the high-leverage category. (What activities will you reduce?) 10 points each time
- 5-10-12 Forecast the demand on your time for the next week. What portion of your time is likely to be spent in meetings? Which of these are process-oriented meetings? Mission-oriented meetings? If the latter are over 25 percent of your total time, what should you do to reduce them? 10 points
- 8-13-12 List the various forms of task-relevant feedback your subordinates receive. How well can they gauge their progress through them? 10 points
- 8-11-15 GTD reread, review, and revamp 0 points (I made this one up)
Most of this work has been done for MassLandlords. The 2012 bullets were Terrafugia.
The December 17, 2015 assignment still is not done. This is the reason why I’ve been so busy. I am trying to get all of my time into high leverage activities. I can’t be mowing the lawn. Problem solved. I can’t be coding the website. Problem solved. I can’t be answering phone calls from customers. Problem soon to be solved.
Overall, this assignment has shown me that I am the biggest problem with MassLandlords. I’m the long pole in the tent, holding everything up. I’m supporting but I’m also delaying by being integral to every process.
The work to unload has been painful. Since last winter, I terminated two employees that didn’t work out. I also lost a cofounder on a side project. I missed (or am missing) two huge opportunities that I just don’t have time for. Every setback is another sharp turn downward on the startup roller coaster.
This is why I carry Andrew Grove around with me everywhere I go. I’m not yet where I need to be. But I will learn from him and others, and I will get there.
Yes, I guess I am, but I don’t feel that way. Below are some fun statistics from my personal task list, and one big surprise at the end.
(For those of you that don’t know, I follow David Allen’s Getting Things Done to stay in control and Making it All Work to keep perspective. The gist of the first book is simply that you should write down everything that occurs to you and keep this all in one place. That way you never panic that you’re forgetting something. The gist of the second book is that you should keep a separate, shorter list of bigger things that matter.
I also follow Andrew Grove’s High Output Management, which is what inspired me to start taking data on this stuff.)
This first graph shows task completion since I started tracking data last winter:
My collection habit means I go through phases, like May to early June, where I add much more to my list than I can remove. If the blue line stays above the red line indefinitely, my task list will expand forever, and that’s bad. So I want that red line up high. Overall, the red line makes it looks like I only do five things a day. I guess most of what I do is so spontaneous and isn’t on the list.
This second graph shows the quality of my tasks. One of the things David Allen goes on about is making sure that your tasks have a context. So I want that green line down near zero. Most folks would also want that purple line down near zero, too, because that would mean they could retire (nothing left to do). But for me, always thinking about what could be better, I’m okay with letting it pile up until I get some help.
You can see the effect of tracking metrics in these first two graphs. When I first started back in December, I saw literally hundreds of task list items that had no context and appeared undone. I reviewed these all until they had moved to wherever they belonged. Some of them were given contexts and/or set status = “complete.” Others were set status = “maybe someday,” which means I still might get to them. For instance, some day, maybe, I want to dedicate a statue in a park. Doesn’t need to be on next week’s “to do” list.
This final graph speaks to my ability to follow-up. David Allen defines a “tickler” as a reminder to do something. As of yesterday, there were about ten ticklers overdue. The red line indicates that I’m waiting for something and I haven’t set a tickler date. That’s not helpful, so I want that down near zero.
So what’s the big surprise? Since I started tracking data in December, I’ve completed 937 tasks and 23 major projects. That’s about one project a week. Here’s a sampling:
- Win my first freelance consulting job.
- Prove that some physics we were testing in one program works.
- Rent out one apartment. And then another.
- Help Team #1 launch a consumer product (Hands Free Groceries).
- Write a business plan for XYZ (didn’t start).
- Help Team #2 launch a tech startup (ArtistBomb).
- Help Team #3 rewrite the bylaws for a non-profit (had some help on this one).
And I’m not breaking a sweat. Thank you, David Allen and Andrew Grove.
I’d like to share a surprising quote from the book Made in America, a sort of conversational biography of the founder and manager of Wal-Mart, Sam Walton, who said:
The larger truth that I failed to see turned out to be another of those paradoxes — like the discounter’s principle of the less you charge, the more you’ll earn. And here it is: the more you share profits with your associates — whether it’s in salaries or incentives or bonuses or stock discounts — the more profit will accrue to the company. Why? Because the way management treats the associates is exactly how the associates will then treat the customers. And if the associates treat the customers well, the customers will return again and again, and that is where the real profit in this business lies, not in trying to drag strangers into your stores for one-time purchases based on splashy sales or expensive advertising. Satisfied, loyal, repeat customers are at the heart of Wal-Mart’s spectacular profit margins, and those customers are loyal to us because our associates treat them better than salespeople in other stores do. So, in the whole Wal-Mart scheme of things, the most important contact ever made is between the associate in the store and the customer.
Those words were spoken in 1992 or before. Now 21+ years later, when you think of Wal-Mart, do you think of a role model for collaboration between corporations and employees? I don’t. Take, for example, this New York Times article from earlier this year, which makes a recent addition to a years-long story of Wal-Mart and wage disputes.
Walton goes on to say (back in 1992):
Theoretically, I understand the argument that unions try to make, that the associates need someone to represent them and so on. But historically, as unions have developed in this country, they have mostly just been divisive. They have put management on one side of the fence, employees on the other, and themselves in the middle as almost a separate business, one that depends on division between the other two camps. And divisiveness, by breaking down direct communication, makes it harder to take care of customers, to be competitive, and to gain market share. … Anytime we have ever had real trouble, or the serious possibility of a union coming into the company, it has been because management has failed, because we have not listened to our associates, or because we have mistreated them.
It’s been about a generation since Walton spoke those words, but they seem just as applicable today.
Anyway, if you’re keeping a reading list, Made in America is an easy read that I highly recommend.
For further reading:
Check out my previous post on one way how not to treat employees.