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Coaching Leadership

What’s Number 1?

You can only have one top priority.

There’s always lots of important things going on, there’s always a lot of demands on your time and there will always be more than you are able to do.

So, you’ve got to be really clear on what is the top priority at any given time.

The advice is particularly valuable if you work in a team with lots of different stakeholders, or even just one who’s very demanding. As much at they might want to have 5 top priority “must do” items, there is actually a list in order from 1 to 5.

As a leader, one of the major strands of your role is teasing out that ordering. You need to manage the list and set expectations across stakeholders. You want to be pointing your team at item number 1, especially if it’s “important but not urgent”.

A physical list of priority items is a powerful tool. When a stakeholder requests a change, or shares more about the value of an item lower down the list, then you can show them the impact of moving something up, and how it moves other things down.

This approach is particularly valuable as you gain active engagement from the stakeholder. They aren’t able to assume you are working on both the old and new number 1 priorities in parallel. The physical list allows you to document the change, so you’ve covered the case of any accidental misalignment as well.

With a single number 1 priority, you’re then able to focus effort towards the top most important thing, and ensuring that if anything doesn’t get done then it’s less important than what does get completed.

Don’t lose focus, show your working and make sure there’s only one number 1.

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Coaching Leadership

Recognising the Craft of Others

It’s easy to recognise the complexity and difficulty of your own role, especially when it’s a specific niche or requires a significant amount of expertise.

It can be harder for us to recognise that same complexity in the roles of others. Whether it’s those of you who write software assuming that design is easy, or people in finance who feel like complex products should spring into life fully formed and predictably, when you look at what “they” are doing, you quickly oversimplify.

How to you prevent yourself doing it, and how do you protect yourself from it happening?

Both sides are pretty similar, you need to go on the journey and walk a few miles in the shoes of others.

Stop and think hard about a job that isn’t yours, but you think is easy. What’s driving that thinking. Do you have any evidence, or is it just a feeling?

If it’s a feeling, seek out an opportunity to join in on the complexity. Sit in on a user research session and watch the skills of an experienced questioner gathering powerful insights. Get a software engineer to run you through the systems and show you how new features are launched. Spend half an hour with a finance professional to understand how they join together complex data sources to create vital governance reports.

Once you can see the complexity, it’s a lot harder to write them off as having it easy.

So if you are suffering the slings and arrows of someone shouting “simple”, then you need to get them inside and see that difficulty. It may be harder as if they don’t recognise the pain, they won’t be as proactive.

Appeal to their experience or see their insight. Get them into a session where they’ll see the difficulty and how you need experience to do well. If you can safely let them experiment in the space then that’s even better. Practical experience of failure will live on in their mind as a lesson far longer than seeing you succeed at something they still think is eay.

Recognise the craft and contribution of others, and help others to recognise your own craft. When everyone understands this, then you’ll form more effective teams, and crush complex problems by pulling in all the relevant experts at the right time.

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Coaching Leadership

Being Wrong

Count the number of times that you admit to getting it wrong. Pull out a piece of paper and make a tally of every time you say “I’m wrong”. Half marks if you think it but just say it, bonus points for putting it out there in a conversation where you are the leader in the room.

If you are regularly hitting zero, then you’ve not got the right balance for learning fast. You aren’t pushing enough, you’re stuck in the comfort zone and you aren’t making much progress. It’s also important to check in here with how honest you are being. Reflect fully on the past and make sure that hubris is not setting you up for a fall. Retelling the story to make you right from day 1 is not going to support your desire for growth.

If you are just thinking it, then you need to make some more space to fail. You’ve got into the space of learning, and assuming you are changing your behaviour or actions then it’s a good start. To make it great, you need to build the safety in the group to willing to admit to being wrong. That’ll speed up the learning journey for all of you, building more momentum for change.

The bonus points for doing it in a leadership context come because you are setting the example for behaviours you want to see. If you want people to innovate, to take risks and to learn, then you need to show that with your actions. Own it when it goes wrong, show people how you are changing and be a role model for that behaviour. Remember, as the leader in the room, you are always being closely studied for signs of how to be successful.

Finally, if you are always admitting to being wrong, dial it back a bit. There’s certainly a balance to be found here, where “always” is as bad as “never”. Try highlighting 4-5 positive things for each negative, and make sure that hitting one small mistake doesn’t turn an overall success into something you were totally wrong about.

If you’re never wrong, you aren’t learning.

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Coaching Leadership

Learn Fast

Fail fast is a common and popular refrain in certain circles. It’s something you’ll hear from a lot of people as they are busy shouting about “pivots” and other sudden changes of direction.

It’s a useful approach, but it’s easy to miss the point by taking it at face value. If you just keep throwing out ideas, trying them and failing, then all you’ll end up doing over time is building up to a big failure. That’s not a positive outcome.

Instead, think about what you are learning from every effort. The goal is to then design activities so you get to learn something quickly, to feed into the next cycle. This puts focus back onto the positive iteration, skipping the sometimes negative tones of failure.

Sometimes, the thing that you learn is that your idea was not right. That’s a great outcome so long as you’ve learnt something, and use it to make your next effort better.

So learn fast, pivot with meaning and build your momentum with positive iterations.

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Leadership

Planning

The value of planning is the process, it’s very rarely the plan itself.

An effective planning process drives out the complexity of what you are trying to achieve. It shows you the priority, who needs to get involved and where the difficulties may be. You also get to say what you aren’t going to do, which is especially valuable before you’ve invested a lot of effort.

One quick test for effectiveness, check the level of detail you are working to, and measure it against the scope and duration of the plan. If the scope is more than a couple of weeks, then anything talking about specific days or people is too much detail to be useful. By the time you are looking at a year, then the plan is more of a strategy, and you are better placed to think about a focus of effort and the outcomes you are chasing, rather than the specific things and order they will be done.

Once you’ve built a plan, get ready to rip it up. Things change, and the only thing that’s uncertain is how quickly they will change. If you stick dogmatically to the plan, you’ll quickly find yourself chasing dates that don’t make sense, or pushing for features that are no longer needed.

The most painful failed projects are those that treat the initial plan as a rigid structure, rather than a guide towards a potential future.

Still, keep cycling through the planning process. Take in what you’ve learnt, what’s been completed and consider what’s changed. This means you are not starting from scratch each time, but course correcting with more information.

Iterating is key, especially in a fast moving environment. If you find planning a chore, then doing it little and often should cure this feeling. If you plan by six-month cycles, try cutting it to three and I’m sure you’ll get a better outcome.

Create your plan, throw it away when it’s no longer helping!

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Coaching Leadership

Who is “They”?

An insidious tactic of someone who’s trying to disrupt your priority list is an appeal to “they”. It’s always an anonymous and shadowy group, and all that you can be sure is that “they” are important, and “they” want something.

The only way to defend against this is with a spirit of coaching, and to start following interest. Make sure to stay positive, and start out by discovering who “they” are. Is this group of people important to you and your team? Are they people that you want or need to keep happy, or are they just fishing for resources? Where do they sit in your stakeholder map?

Next up, get into the why. Why are these people coming to you? What’s stopping them going through normal channels or using their own resources to get this thing done.

Consider offering to take up the discussion directly with “they”. It’s exciting to see how often the request is actively coming from the group, versus their name used in vain to add weight to another agenda. Sometimes just asking this is enough to make the request go away entirely!

Once you give in to requests from “they”, then you’ll find your time is ever more devoted to the whims of others. With some gently probing questions, you take back the power to prioritise effectively and deliver more value sooner. Don’t let “them” win.

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Coaching Leadership

Ignore It?

It’s a busy world, there’s lots of noise and it’s only getting busier and noisier. If you are getting overwhelmed by notifications, distractions and requests for “a couple of minutes” then you could try out a new technique.

What happens if you just ignore it?

This gives you an opportunity to think about if the information matters, if there’s an action for you to take or if it’s pure noise with no signal attached.

It’s a method to sort items into the Eliminate quadrant of the matrix, the things that you just aren’t going to do.

Once you’ve decided if ignoring something won’t have any major impact, the next step is to figure out the minimum amount of effort to get it off your plate for good. Repeatedly ignoring things is probably not the best strategy in a business context!

If it’s a common but low value question, then write up a document and point people towards that rather than repeatedly crafting responses. If there’s a notification that you’ll never act on, then get rid of it and drop the interruptions.

Pointless meeting? Cancel it. Weekly update that’s never read? Drop it.

As with any new approach, you’ll make some mistakes at first. Start with the slam dunks, then trial it on a few less certain things. If you go a bit far eliminating things, don’t worry too much, and bring them back (improved if possible!).

So, what happens if you just ignore it?

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Leadership

Work the Problem

Technologists love solving problems, it’s one of the defining characteristics that pulls people into the world of high-tech. When this desire is put towards the right ends, then it’s a powerful force for good. There are some tools and techniques that can keep you on this path, and a few traps to watch out for.

First up, be clear what the true problem is you are trying to solve. Understand what the issue is, consider who is impacted now and what will change once it’s solved. Look at the value in the solution, the costs involved in solving it and the opportunity cost of targeting this vs something else.

Taking time to build this understanding gives a proper frame to the problem. It’ll prevent a couple of the traditional mistakes we can make, things like automating the existing bad process, or only providing benefit to the noisy stakeholders who are demanding a solution right now.

Now, step away from pure technical solutions. If you stay fully in the world of software and hardware, you’ll find you default to solving all problems by just writing code. The longer you do this, the easier it is to drift away from your customers, until all you care about is the minor version of the tech stack and wringing out another micro performance update. You’ll probably place too much weight on getting rid of old software just because it’s built in a slightly outdated way, rather than moving on because it’s no longer serving a purpose.

So, look over the problem again. If you aren’t selling enough of a widget, then don’t immediately jump on updating a feature. Maybe you are not marketing it to the right people, or your copy is out of date. Is it a complex product that has a sales funnel? Can you optimise that? Are people using it correctly or is it too complex? Maybe the right solution is taking away features rather than adding more?

When you look up beyond the purely technical, you increase the overall impact you are able to have. Work with the cross-functional experts in all the disciplines relevant to the problem and you’ll always come up with a better solution. You can be confident that when you break out the development environment and start cutting code that you’ve worked the problem and that a technical solution is the right one.

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Coaching Leadership

Storytelling

Getting better at presenting is a common theme for the people I’ve worked with. Running a great session that inspires people, drives an important decision or shares vital information can be a weekly challenge in the corporate setting.

Improving your storytelling is a great technique to take your presentation skills to the next level. Think about the type of presentation you’ll be giving, who the audience is and the one key message that you want them to take away from the session.

You can then craft your presentation around this setup, and structure the story to have the impact that you are aiming for. We’re used to telling stories, and we all understand the structure of a range of different types.

Before diving into the detail, throw together a quick storyboard. You can’t go far wrong with a three-act structure, consider something like:

  1. Layout the problem – Why should the audience care?
  2. Give some options for the solution – What path might we take?
  3. Pick the best one – Resolve the situation.

Flex the structure for your own particular situation and the style of presentation.

Once you’ve got it roughed out, run through it with broad brushstrokes. Think about how it feels. Refine it if you need to.

Now you can go into the details. Grab some relevant numbers and the data that you need. Humanise the story with specific individuals. Showing how an option will impact an entire population may not be as effective a story as showing how it will impact a specific person or group.

Next up, get into the editing phase. You tell a tighter story by cutting out pieces that don’t contribute to the narrative. Similarly you make your presentation stronger by cutting sections that don’t build towards that key takeaway.

Finally, practice the flow until you are comfortable. You tell good stories when you know the points you are hitting well. A well polished presentation will also give you confidence going into the delivery, and that’s a slam dunk boost to a better final outcome.

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Coaching Leadership

Selling Yourself

It’s very important to be comfortable selling your achievements. When you have the confidence to talk about what you’ve done and the impact that you’ve had then you are able to put yourself at the front of the queue for future opportunities.

I’ve encountered a lot of people in tech who believe that their achievements should be obvious to others and that recognition should obviously follow. The work should speak for itself.

In an ideal world that may well be true, but in the cut and thrust of modern organisations, this can put you at a significant disadvantage.

This approach will put the responsibility for your advocacy fully into the hands of your manager, which is a risky proposition. The very best managers will work hard to tease out your successes, to formulate them correctly to show the organisational impact and to convert that into fair recognition for your work.

Less good managers, those who are inexperienced, time poor or focused on one of the many urgent fires they need to put out will not do this for you. They might not understand your impact, which is especially likely if they don’t have a similar background. They may have other direct reports they want to spend the time on, or they may just not be great at selling achievements themselves.

So, it’s on you to learn how to effectively sell your achievements in the context of the organisation, to make sure you get the recognition you deserve. As with all skills, it may not come easily to start with, but it’ll get easier with time.

  1. Practice writing and thinking about your specific contribution. Most significant efforts are team based, but if you catch yourself in “we” mode, then refocus to your work. Rather than “We launched product X”, write about what you did. Did you lead the user research, develop a core part of the solution or setup the working environment for the team? How did that contribute to the overall success.
  2. Tie it back to the metrics that are important. Launching products is great, but what needle did it move? Think about the “So what?” and get ahead of that question with the impact.
  3. Make it punchy. If you are selling yourself, then statements around “just doing the bare minimum” are not where you want to be. Pick out highlights.
  4. Cover the right timeline. Achievements from the last week are probably too small, major efforts from before your last promotion are too far back, they’ll have already been taken into account.

Get ideas on paper, then refine them. The right number of achievements and the scope of them will depend on the organisation, but starting with more and cutting down is a good approach. If you aren’t confident at this point, then spend some time with a trusted colleague and get them to review the list. They’ll probably find some improvements, and also some great suggestions you’ve not already covered!

Now is a great time to discuss the list with your manager. Get their context, add their organisational understanding and have them confirm that they agree with your framing of these achievements. With a starting point, it’s a lot easier to discuss and shape, so this is going to work with any decent line manager. Be prepared to take on feedback and further refine your statements at this point.

Now that you’ve got an agreed and up-to-date list of powerful achievements, these become the basis for selling yourself. You can use them in performance reviews, promotion panels and even your CV. It’s a ready made list for your manager, so it’s going to make their job a lot easier when they are asked to highlight high performers or successful people in their area.

By taking responsibility for highlighting your own successes, you make it much more likely they’ll get the recognition they deserve and you’ll jump up in the list of people who’ll be considered for the next big opportunity.