The Importance of Priorities (How To Take Charge of Your Life)

I have noticed my life becoming increasingly busy lately, to the point where I someties feel like throwing my hands up in despair at all the things competing for my attention on a daily basis. The phone keeps ringing (and when I don’t answer, voicemails pile up). Hundreds of emails pour in. Somebody always seems to be waiting on me for something or other.

I know that I am far from alone in this department. In fact, I think that getting “out of control busy” is possibly a normal path of career growth, and is to be expected to happen to all motivated individuals (I’m looking at you, reader of this blog) who take on a lot of responsibilities at some time in their life. And as we get older, personal responsibilities seem to pile up right alongside the burgeoning amount of work demands.

I have been spending plenty of time thinking about this recently, and have come to a few (fairly obvious) conclusions:

  1. Things aren’t going to become less stressful on their own. The moment I move something off my plate, something new will be there to replace it.
  2. Efficient and effective working methods aren’t enough. Productivity hacks and systems like GTD are part of the solution, not the solution themselves.
  3. To remain sane, avoid burnout and continue to make progress, learn to operate calmly and stay cool amid constant chaos.

When multiple things are competing for our attention and pulling us in different directions on a daily basis, we face a choice of either becoming a victim of the chaos, or the master of it. To me, becoming a victim means watching your time evaporate day after day, progress hitting a plateau, and allowing generally negative thought processes to set in. In a busy world, if you aren’t sure what to do or work on next, somebody else will fill the gap and decide for you.

The path to conquering a chaotic schedule is to set clear priorities, and relentlessly stick to them. Begin by asking yourself tough questions like “What is really important here?” and “What am I unwilling to compromise on?”, and a powerful list quickly develops. Next, the list can be focused further by reviewing your upcoming goals and protecting your path to achieving them.

For example, here is a list of personal priorities to consider:

  • Health (diet, exercise, etc)
  • Family
  • Love and relationships
  • Learning new things
  • Saving money
  • Traveling
  • Spending time with friends 
  • …etc

And here is a list of business priorities to consider:

  • Sales
  • Budgeting
  • Recruiting
  • Leading the team
  • Project management
  • Admin
  • Getting help on certain projects
  • …etc

The application of this rule works in different ways for different people. I like to think in terms of monthly and daily priorities, and manage my to-do list accordingly. In any given month, I try to protect top 5 items from my personal and professional list as much as possible. I don’t always succeed at this, but awareness and clear direction is seventy percent of the battle. It’s always a huge temptation to decide to take on 20 different things in one day, but one has to realize that “If everything is critical, nothing is critical”, and plan accordingly. As much as we can logically split personal and business matters in our head, we only have one life and need to find a way to effectively combine the two.

As for all the other things to do, they usually have a way of taking care of themselves eventually. The key thing is that the fundamentals were looked after first, before the fiddling over the stacks of relative minutia could take over. When working at the fundamentals and getting those out of the way first, we can’t afford to let ourselves sweat over the small stuff.

Every day, remind yourself of your priorities, and why they exist. This will help you to control your life, as opposed to letting the circumstances of your life control you. There’s no comfort or salvation in making excuses. Setting sound priorities and sticking to them is a surefire way to create order amid chaos, reduce daily stress, and galvanize your ability to accomplish that which is important to you.

How do you cope with busyness, stress and many things competing for your attention at once? Let me know in the comments or drop me a line.

When Effectiveness Trumps Efficiency

In my last blog post, I discussed a system for eliminating bottlenecks and making startups more efficient (i.e. doing more faster) across every area of the organization. I did not at all delve into the concept of “effectiveness”, as contrasted with that of “efficiency”.

To me, efficiency is all about how you go about getting things done, whereas effectiveness deals with a entirely different subject: what it is that you choose to do.

When I was in high school, I had an exceptional Physics tutor who would constantly tell his students to “work smart, not hard” and “be effective” with our learning methods. He showed us alternative methods of studying and problem solving that were dramatically faster than the popular methods being taught in most schools, as a result his students consistently outperformed others.

This simple truth applies to just about any endeavour- from learning a language, to losing weight, to running a startup. 

With resources usually being scarce in a fast growing startup company, one of the greatest risks that they face is doing the wrong things very well, without knowing that those activities are adding little value to the company.

Becoming effective requires a combination of trial and error, learning from others’ experiences, and most of all critical, often stomach wrenching thinking on the part of the individual or team involved.

Once a month, it would be useful for the founders and team to go through this Q&A exercise aimed at seeking greater effectiveness:

A. Elimination

  1. What activities can we stop doing immediately that will have little impact on our company goals?
  2. Do we need to change expectations of any customers, or fire any customers that are taking advantage of us?
  3. Is everybody working on something critical? If not, why not?
  4. Are we paying for any services that we don’t need?

B. Initiation

  1. Do we need to invest in any new software to help our business?
  2. Should we hire a new team member to fulfill a specific role?
  3. Are we missing a value-adding activity that our peers are doing? What?
  4. Does anybody need to go for training to learn a new skill that will be beneficial?

Every time, try to table a set of action items, starting with at least one, with a definitive deadline to implementation. Performing this exercise would be like taking a consultant’s view of your own organization. And who better to improve a company than those most familiar with it?

Often, improvement stems from reexamining our basic assumptions and turning them inside out to see what we end up with. It’s a well known fact that effective people (and teams) are highly capable of achieving greater results with fewer resources.

As I mentioned earlier on, this way of thinking applies as much to one’s personal life as it does to business. Periodically, we all need to stop and ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this?”.

Martial arts legend Bruce Lee epitomized a person seeking to be effective in everything he did. (His entire martial arts philosophy of Jeet Kun Do was premised on a fluid style that borrowed whatever worked from other disciplines and discarded the rest). Here are two of my favourite quote of his to drive the point home:

"It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential."

And:

"Defeat is a state of mind. No one is ever defeated until defeat has been accepted as reality. To me, defeat in anything is merely temporary, and its punishment is but an urge for me to greater effort to achieve my goal. Defeat simply tells me that something is wrong in my doing; it is a path leading to success and truth."

Eliminating Bottlenecks to Increase Startup Efficiency

The greatest challenge that every startup must face is the constant pressure of managing limited resources. Regardless of whether that resource is people, money or time, there is usually a known, fixed limit as to what is going to be available to achieve the next set of goals. 

For early stage startups, inability to surmount this challenge can mean the end of the company; in later stage and even successful startups, sub-optimal resource management will waste time, frustrate staff and customers, and hurt profitability.

The founders of the well known startup accelerator TechStars released a book in 2010 titled “Do More Faster”, which essentially sums up the operating mandate of every small startup in existence. So, with this in mind, a question I have often asked myself is: “How?”

The answer is not to work harder- are we not all working incredibly hard already? If I am able to process 50 emails in 15 minutes, then spending 30 minutes processing email will only get me through 100. I might be doing “more”, but I am not actually doing more with less and fulfilling my goal of “do more faster”. This simple logic applies to just about any startup activity, be that working with customers, releasing products, managing admin, etc. 

While some of the answers to this fundamental question might feel intuitive to many entrepreneurs and managers, I have had the best results by applying a logical framework to help me try to solve the problem. In search of answers, I dusted off a book that I read in university and decided to try and apply the principles in my own company. (Side note: I’m constantly reminded by that old saying, the value of a book is not in what the author chose to put into the pages, it’s what you chose to take from the pages and put into your life). The name of the book is “The Goal”, written by Eliyahu M. Goldratt, who is a legend within engineering management and supply chain circles worldwide. It’s a brilliantly written business book structured as a fictional novel, and I highly recommend it to just about everybody.

The premise of the book is very simple, and its method for improving an organization can summarized by the following questions:

1. What is the goal?

2. What is the single greatest bottleneck right now in the process of achieving that goal?

There is a lot more here than meets the eye (which is why you should read the book), but I will try to deconstruct this a little further with a simple startup Q&A example. 

  • Q (mentor): What is the goal?
  • A (manager): I can’t get through all my customer inquiries. Every day, the questions from various customers are just piling up, and the time spent on email is preventing me from doing more work. I need to figure out how to answer these questions faster.
  • Q (mentor): Is the goal really to answer more email? What does that accomplish- what is the end goal?
  • A (manager): The goal is to answer customers’ questions as quickly as possible, and make them happy.
  • Q (mentor): Then that is your goal. What is the main thing holding this process up right now? What is the bottleneck?
  • A (manager): I get too much email to respond to. I suppose I am the bottleneck- I don’t have enough time…
  • Q (mentor): How can you open up this bottleneck? Can anything at all be done?
  • A (manager): I’m not sure. There are so many daily emails and only I know how to answer them. 
  • Q (mentor): But can anything be done to open up the bottleneck, even a little bit?
  • A (manager): I suppose that I could start recording common things that customers ask for, and then write publish a FAQ that new customers can check before emailing me. This would free up some time.
  • Q (mentor): Boom! So what are you waiting for?

This simple, clear style of investigative dialogue can be applied to any challenge where one needs to deal with limited resources. Note that it is essential to address core issue being faced, and not to try to get tied up on the “hamster wheel” of addressing superficial symptoms or byproducts it causes (aka “damage control”). Another crucial aspect of the method is to remember to ask the “right now” part of the question, as bottlenecks in a system are constantly changing, so clearing bottlenecks and “doing more faster” is a really a process of ongoing improvement. With yesterday’s bottleneck eliminated, tomorrow will just present a new one (but hopefully by then things are moving a more smoothly). And, remember, only try to address one bottleneck at a time.

Goldratt coined his method as the “Theory of Constraints" (TOC), defining a constraint as "Anything that limits a system from achieving more of its goal".

This seemingly simple theory has had incredibly successful application to manufacturing and process oriented environments for almost 30 years. It can be pretty powerful when applied to startups too.

The application of TOC in our startup has been simple, structured, and effective.

Here is our method.

1. Define the System

A startup is just a system, comprised of different parts. (In business school they prefer to talk about the company value chain, but I digress). Define the different functional parts that matter most to the organization, i.e. where most of the resources (people, time) are being consumed. 

Some example areas are: Sales & Marketing (getting new customers), Account Management (delighting existing customers), Operations (managing daily work and necessary customer activities), Software Development (building and deploying product), and Financial Management (managing accounts, debtors and creditors).

Every startup is different, so list the areas that matter to your organization. I suggest putting this into a spreadsheet as different column headings. Underneath that, define the singular goal of every one of those functions.

2. Identify the Bottlenecks

For each company function, take the time to analyze and identify where the greatest bottleneck exists right now. If the constraint ends up being a person’s time, try to dig deeper to figure out what tasks are chewing up a disproportionate amount their time.

Some examples of bottlenecks from our past experience are:

  • Sales & Marketing: Repeating the same sales messages to prospects in writing or verbally due to lack of effective collateral.
  • Account Management: Repetitive, high volume email to a variety of business and technical questions.
  • Operations: Poor visibility on what everybody is doing forces management to ask too many questions and interrupt staff often, who become unclear on daily priorities.
  • Software Development: Implementing a new customer installation involves many time consuming steps on our side.
  • Financial Management: One person in charge of all payments and collections but does not have time to stay on top of it.

I suggest adding a dedicated Bottleneck row to the spreadsheet, so that a note can be made under each function column.

3. Identify the Solutions

Once the bottlenecks for each major area are identified, try to figure out practical steps that can be taken to eliminate, or free up the bottleneck. Following on from the example above, here are some of the past solutions listed to those problems:

  • Sales & Marketing: Develop marketing collateral material to leave with prospects after a sales meeting.
  • Account Management: Capture common questions and publish a detailed, easy to use FAQ for customers. Better yet, create a customer service portal with how-to guides, videos, and all manner of help resources.
  • Operations: Implement a system or tool that makes everybody’s work tasks and priorities transparent to the entire team.
  • Software Development: Focus the next wave of software development on automating deployment of the existing platform (as opposed to adding new features).
  • Financial Management: Have a different staff member help the individual keep track of creditors and debtors; and bug them when something needs to be done.

Solutions can be added to the spreadsheet as an additional row below the Bottlenecks row.

4. Review Progress

As with all initiatives, for this to work there needs to be a consistent process of review in order to maintain accountability and momentum.

I recommend that the senior management team of a company do this jointly every two weeks. During review sessions, managers should commit to when they expect the solution to a particular bottleneck to be completed, and this can be noted for subsequent review.

Over time, old bottlenecks will be deleted off the spreadsheet and replaced with new ones that arise. These meetings tend to be very rewarding, because after a while the progress achieved by following this process becomes obvious to all involved.

When dealing with the day to day volume of work to manage it’s all too easy to ignore this method for weeks and months, trying to make that metaphorical hamster wheel spin faster and faster. It took me a long time to fully understand what a waste of time that can be. 

To truly address the goal of achieving more with less, or doing more faster, and creating sustainable, long term performance gains I believe that constantly improving processes and eliminating bottlenecks holds the real key to startup efficiency. And that makes sense to the bottom line.

How To Manage Projects with More Than One Person

My last post on side projects turned out to be very popular, so I thought I’d continue the series with this follow up post.

We have all had our fair share of projects to deal with in every aspect of our working lives. In many projects, we are not working alone (nor should we be). The addition of a partner can be an excellent force due to enhanced motivation and sharing of work load, but it can also bring communication, accountability and planning difficulties which at worst can destroy a project.

After plenty of trial and error, I have begun following a system that keeps things simple and moving forward all the time. This approach will work for professional “on the job” projects as well as side projects of any sort. I use it to manage all of my small and large projects at work and at home, and this system easily scales to support more team members (within reason).

What I am about to describe is not a project management methodology (there are plenty of good ones), but rather an effective, step by step “how to” system of actions, dependables, and available tools. Best of all, this system works just as well when working with people remotely.

When beginning a new project with someone, here are some of the key questions commonly wondered about:

- What are we trying to achieve?
- What is the scope of work?
- How can we easily prioritize the work as we go?
- How do I know what the other person is working on?
- How will we stay accountable?
- How do we make all this easy to track? I am busy enough as it is.

Let’s begin.

Phase 1: Starting and defining the project

Every project should begin with a brief, 1-2 page “scope” document agreed upon by all parties. As it may change over time, I recommend using Google Docs.

In a new Google Document, give the project a name, title the document “<project name> Scope Document”, list the partners and when it was last edited and by whom (this is useful to be able to see in the document).

Next, add and number the major headings to the document that describe what the project is about, what the goals are, and the high level plan to succeed. Here are my typical headings:

1. Project Overview (2 sentences on what this is all about.)
2. Problem (What is the problem? Why does this project need to exist?)
3. Solution Description (How will this project solve the problem? Describe it in a few sentences.)
4. Goals and Time Frame (What are the specific goals? By when must they be achieved?)
5. Resources Required (What may be needed in terms of people, tools, time and money.)
6. Roles (What is the responsibility and role of each partner? Note that projects can differ greatly in terms of effort required and nature of role of the different partners.)

The body of each description should be kept as brief and succinct as possible. Use of bullet points and tables is recommended. Remember, this is not a pitch to impress anybody- it is a functional explanatory document for and your partner(s) to refer back to.

The next step is to better define the short-term milestones and resources required. I recommend using a new Google Spreadsheet for this.

In the first tab (name it “Milestones”), write out the major objectives that the project needs to accomplish over the next few weeks or months. Then group them according to expected completion. Depending on the size of the project, this can be split into weeks or months. For small projects I recommend doing this for the next 4 weeks ahead, and for larger ones 3 months ahead.

Next, create a new tab called “Resources”. For projects that require capital, create a basic monthly budget and add both a “Forecast” and “Actual” column to each month. (The actual column will only be updated when money actually changes hands). If no money is required, look back to the scope document and assess whether any other resources (e.g. help of a friend) will be needed and by when.

Once you’re all set up, on the same page as your partner and know what to go after, you are ready for Phase 2.

Phase 2: Managing work and making progress

This is the part when using a good tool makes all the difference. After trying plenty of project management tools over the years, I have to recommend one that beats the lot hands down: Trello. Trello has a killer combination of simplicity, visual understanding and functionality that other tools simply don’t match. And there is no learning curve either.

Register a new board for your project on Trello.com and invite your partner. This is essentially a virtual whiteboard (a kanban board to be precise) where you can add lists (columns) and tasks (cells) that can be easily moved around. Names and number of lists vary from project to project depending on complexity, but here are the lists that I usually create right in the beginning, from left to right on the board:

General Backlog (all upcoming tasks not to be addressed immediately)
To-do: Sheraan (tasks I need to complete immediately/short term)
To-do: <Partner> (same as above for your partner)
Doing (tasks that are being worked on right now)
Done (completed tasks, awaiting team review)

Each task added to a list on the board should be succinctly described and always start with a verb, e.g. Research A, Prepare B, Start C, Write D, Contact E, Register F, Test G, etc. Try to avoid using the word “do” is it is often too vague and does not inspire specific action. Each task can have comments or files added to it if necessary. Once all of the tasks are on the board, take some time to prioritize them- highest at the top of the list and lowest at the bottom.

The Trello board is a work space that will constantly change and be updated. When you are working on a task, move it to the Doing list, then to Done when complete. As new ideas or issues pop up in the project, add new tasks to the board and reprioritize them all.

Note that I am specifically not mentioning email as a way to get things done. We are all snowed under with enough email as it is, and trying to use email to manage tasks in a side project is a sure fire way to cause confusion and lack of follow up.

Trello gives the team a fantastic way to immediately know what order to do things in, as well as full visibility on what each other are working on. As ground zero for management of the project, this workspace will be used and viewed on an ongoing basis.

Phase 3: Maintaining momentum and accountability

This is the most important Phase of managing a project successfully. The first step is to engender a sense of personal accountability by checking your project status often (I recommend at least once in 3 days). This involves a quick viewing of the Trello board to see what has changed and what hasn’t. If tasks are not moving across the board, your project is stalling and rapidly losing momentum. All parties need to be realistic about the need to achieve a certain rate of progress in order to succeed.

In order to foster strong communication and joint accountability, schedule a weekly one hour meeting with your partner that you can both stick to. Try not to move this meeting around as it can undermine commitment to the project. During this meeting, start by going over the tasks on the Done list in the Trello board and if satisfied, archive them so that they are removed from the board. Next, evaluate the priorities for the week ahead and adjust the board as necessary. This type of review session will make it very clear if the work is getting done.

At the last meeting in a month, perform an additional review of the monthly milestones Google spreadsheet to see how you have fared. Learn and adjust these as necessary. Then update the Trello board once more.

It is crucial that you physically review every work item completed during the week together as a team, and mark off completed items. It is woefully inadequate to simply discuss things without reviewing the written to-do items and milestones, as talk is often a cheap excuse for lack of effort and progress. This trap is especially easy to fall into when both parties have slacked off on their responsibilities. Remember, a light discussion about work not done may make both feel better, but it will kill a project. If you fall off the wagon so to speak, it’s much better to stare at that truth in the mirror, admit it, and get back on with it as soon as possible.

Make these meetings sacred. If one party can’t make it, reschedule it during a time that works for all. If one party misses a meeting twice in a row or doesn’t seem that interested, they need to restructure their role or be cut from the team.

If you keep repeating the process described in Phase 2 and Phase 3 over and over, it is guaranteed to produce real, ongoing results!

To recap, here is a summary of my project management process:

1. Write project scope document with specific overall goals. (Tool: Google Doc).
2. Define short term milestones; weekly or monthly depending on scope. (Tool: Google Spreadsheet).
3. Prepare project budget/resources needed, forecast and actual. (Tool: Google Spreadsheet).
4. Set up Trello board and add upcoming tasks. (Tool: Trello).
5. Use Trello board on an ongoing basis as work is done.
6. Attend weekly meetings to review and update Trello board, as well as project milestones and budget once a month. (Tool: Skype, phone, coffee shop, apartment).

Final thought

The greatest risk to any project usually is not a poor outcome, but instead a lack of any outcome at all due to abandonment. Most people don’t finish the projects (especially side projects) that they start. Before committing to a project with a partner be sure that both parties are motivated, dependable, and taking things seriously.

While it is no replacement for committed hard work, I do hope that the system I have described makes the process of executing your next project simpler, faster and more rewarding.

Making a Hobby out of Work: The Benefits of Small Side Projects

Most of us- entrepreneurs included- have a full-time job. This is the focus of our professional career for a particular point in time, and it demands our utmost dedicated application. For entrepreneurs, it’s the company that they have founded and need to lead. All of those customers, staff and shareholders are depending on them to deliver at the end of the day.

Motivated people have a penchant for choosing all manner of high intensity jobs for themselves. They thrive under pressure and work hours well beyond the regular cubicle dweller. Moreover, these types of people often love to work as well, or to be more specific, they love cramming productive things into their time. I suppose I fit into this category (at least on good days).

I find that the downside of this attitude toward work is that my main working objectives (the most important and urgent ones) have a tendency to swallow up all of my attention. Sometimes these projects are delightfully interesting, and other times they are tedious and complex- or worse- boring. The type of tasks on the to-do list for that week need to be done however, regardless of how one feels about them.

This brings me to the key question underpinning this post: what is the best way to deal with free time if we want to spend it doing something productive? Or to relax, let off some steam and exercise our brain without making it feel like work?

I often ask myself this type of question on the odd late evening after a long day at work (and usually with a nice red wine to accompany me), or weekend morning (fresh from a full night’s sleep), or on an airplane (where I am writing this post). I enjoy vegging out in front of the TV as much as the next guy, but sometimes there are just too many neurons firing at once to make that an enjoyable experience, so a sense of mental restlessness takes over.

At this point, the thought of responding to more incoming emails, or finishing that presentation, or finalizing that budget, or reviewing that contract (or a dozen other possibilities) present a mild headache that can wait until the next morning at the office when I’m in full swing “company mode” and all fired up. But the feeling of wanting to do something little and yet productive still lingers, much like a craving for a late night snack or an itch that you won’t feel satisfied until you scratch.

At these moments, I personally feel that reviewing the to-do list or inbox is a total mind killer and waste of time. It causes undue stress about things that need to be done soon, in moments when I don’t feel like I have the time (or energy or intensity) for doing them. So, how to flex your mind and have some fun at the same time? I have found that the magic solution lies in side projects.

This might seem like a no brainer revelation, but it’s taken me some time to really take this concept to heart. Side projects are wonderful. They are intended to provide meaningful, productive, self actualizing output while being fun, non-stressful, engaging and personally rewarding. Side projects are also an incredible way to utilize excess cognition and creative capacity while learning new things that make one a better person.

The key criteria for a good side project is the following:

  1. Has a defined, valuable outcome.
  2. Has a flexible due date or is ongoing.
  3. Is not critical to short term job performance.

While all criteria are fundamental, I think that number three is the most important, as this factor will determine if a project is net personal contributor of bad “distress" or good "eustress (what we are after). 

In my opinion there are 3 types of side projects that one can engage in:

  1. Professional, job related: e.g. a pet project for a department that you are not responsible for but want to help; a way to automate some of your repetitive tasks that you never get time to do during the day; a new filing system; a new email system; test driving the latest software app to help you in your job, etc.
  2. Professional, not job related: e.g. writing for an industry publication; advising a different company; joining a professional organization; working on a new invention; taking an online course; starting a pet project with some friends, etc.
  3. Personal: learning a new language; losing weight/getting fit; learning how to cook properly; writing a blog; building a model plane (or lego Death Star); doing community theatre; joining the local Toastmasters or Rotary Club; studying a liberal art for interest’s sake, etc. 

During a tough patch or plateau at work (i.e. your all consuming job), side projects can be a great tool for reminding yourself that being productive can be fun, and that you are capable of achieving wins when you put your mind to it. During the good times at work, side projects provide a stimulating outlet to let off steam while indulging your creative faculties.

The best part about side projects is that you determine what they ought to be. Over a period of months and years, these “little wins” will rack up alongside one’s main career focus and leave a nostalgic trail of rewarding outcomes for mere bits of spare time well spent.

Office101: Handling Liquids on Desk (And A BP Joke)

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Many years ago, in a conversation around desk habits for tech folk, my über-developer friend Kishyr Ramdial gave me some golden advice: no un-contained liquids near your computer.

It’s a simple, crucial rule. For example:
  • Bottle of water near the laptop? Fine. 
  • Cup of coffee? No way. Solution: move the coffee far enough away to avoid spill damage, should an accident occur.
Forget this habit one too many times and you will be punished, as I was today. People working in startups should pay special attention, because they are more likely to spend time eating and drinking at their desks, like I do.
Luckily for me, the keyboard survived :-)

Speaking of coffee spills, check out this hilarious parody of the BP oil disaster: