Failure is Thankfully Unavoidable

All knowledge workers will fail!  Guaranteed!

Nobody likes to fail.  In fact, a harsh stigma is often attached to failure.  Yet ironically failure is a natural part of life.  It is both unavoidable and necessary especially in the realm of knowledge work.

Remember that knowledge work is composed of tasks and goals that must be defined by the knowledge worker themselves.  Alas, even with their best judgement and experience, knowledge workers are often faced with a deficit of information.  Based on an incomplete picture, they are forced to make their best guess and then see how it plays out.  A knowledge worker living in fear of failure becomes paralyzed into inaction, perpetually avoiding a decision.

To counteract this problem, I agree with blogger Venkatesh Rao in that our approach to solving problems should be similar to that of software engineers.  Successful software engineers are constantly tinkering with code, testing it over and over again looking for bugs and creating situations where it will crash.  It is only after many different trails and iterations that they reach a pragmatic success.  This approach, known as “agile” has its own mantra, “Fail Early, Fail Often.”

Therefore, I believe that agility is a key factor for a successful knowledge worker.  They must be willing to learn from mistakes, course correct, and experiment constantly until they reach the desired goal.  When viewed this way failure is not a problem, but instead a necessary component of the path.  Once this is understood, failure loses it sting.  The knowledge worker can become fearless!

UC-TeddyDon’t worry about your failures, as each one is a stepping stone on the path to success.  As President Theodore Roosevelt said:

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, then to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

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How Software is Eating the World

Look around your room.  How many devices do you see that run on software?  Our computers obviously, but we often forget that software runs our televisions and cable boxes.  Many people now own smart appliances or have Ring doorbells.  All recent cars have a software package that controls vital aspects of the car.  With the spread of software, we are more and more reliant on an invisible profession to manage our days: software engineers.  As Marc Andreessen wrote in his 2011 Wall Street Journal article, software is eating the world.

raoVenkatesh Rao has deeply explored how software design process altered our way of living.  In fact, he champions that idea that we need to think more like software engineers who embrace failure and use it to constantly improve their work.  In his online series, Breaking Smart, he argues that software has become a transformational technology on par with the development of language and money.  Yet being in the middle of this transformation, we still struggle to understand its full effects. Venkatesh writes:

“As a simple example, a 14-year-old teenager today (too young to show up in labor statistics) can learn programming, contribute significantly to open-source projects, and become a talented professional-grade programmer before age 18. This is breaking smart: an economic actor using early mastery of emerging technological leverage — in this case a young individual using software leverage — to wield disproportionate influence on the emerging future.”

This is clearly demonstrated in the impact of people like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google.  Venkatesh’s ideas are complex, but the Breaking Smart blog is worth tackling if you want to get a better sense of the often-unseen impact that software has on the world.

The Two Problems in Life

davidallenSome days it seems like our lives are full of problems.  They appear to come at us in all shapes and sizes, adding stress and tension to our days.  But perhaps all these problems are not really different from each other.  Maybe they all have something in common.

According to David Allen, we only have two types of problems.  In his recent blog post at Getting Things Done, he shares his theory.

“You only have two things you ever need to be concerned about. Not only are there only two problems—they are really quite simple. Ready?

Problem #1: You know what you want, and you don’t know how to get it.

Problem #2: You don’t know what you want.

“Anything you can define as a problem can be reduced to one or both of those statements.

“Now, since there are only two problems, it follows that there are only two solutions that you will ever need. You need to make it up, and make it happen. You must decide and clarify what outcome you’re after; and you must then determine how you get from here to there.”

Learn in more detail how you can solve either of these two problems by reading the rest of David’s blog post.

Time or Attention? Which Works?

AdamGrant_2016-headshot_previewWhen I ask students why they decided to attend an Efficient Librarian seminar, a common response is that they wanted to learn more about “time management.”  While it seems logical to believe that you can get more work done through better management of the hours in your day, it may not be that straightforward.  In fact, focusing on time management may actually make you less productive.

In a recent article on the New York Times web site, Professor Adam Grant argues that managing our attention, not time, is a better approach to getting things done.  He writes:

“Being prolific is not about time management. There are a limited number of hours in the day, and focusing on time management just makes us more aware of how many of those hours we waste.

“A better option is attention management: Prioritize the people and projects that matter, and it won’t matter how long anything takes.”

This reminds me of a classic David Allen quote from Getting Things Done:

“If you don’t pay appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.”

Read the rest of Adam Grant’s article on the New York Times web site.

Do You Know the Purpose?

We all got them.  Sometimes they are fun and other times they are a struggle.  Truth be told, they are a fundamental fact of work life that will never go away.  What are they?  Projects!

I was reminded at the NEFLIN workshop this past week that many people tend to think of a project as something big and complicated.  However, most of our projects are actually very small.  David Allen defines a project as anything that requires more than one action to complete.  By that count we have dozens and dozens of projects underway!  Unfortunately, it is far too easy for projects to stall and grow stagnant.  Is there a way to move them along?

flat lay photography of macbook pro beside paper

One approach is to follow the Natural Planning Model from Getting Things Done.  (In the latest edition of the book, it can be found on pages 60-63.)  Every project starts for a reason.  When that reason becomes obscured or forgotten, the energy behind a project can fade.  That is why the first part of the Natural Planning Model is all about purpose.   If you and your team do not clearly understand why the project even exists there will be little energy to see it through.  Another way to think about purpose is to ask the question, “What problem am I trying to solve?”

So what projects are on your plate that have lost focus and energy?  It might be time to take a good long look at the purpose of those projects to see if a little clarity might be the spark to move them forward.

The Konmari of Gifts

mariekondoGift giving is an integral component of the holiday season.  Many of your recently experienced that joy of receiving a beautifully wrapped item.  It was probably followed by a moment of anticipation where you tried to guess the contents.  If fortunate, the gift was truly desired and added to the collection immediately.  However, what should be done with a gift that is undesired and unwanted?

Marie Kondo has simple and elegant advice on the art of gift receiving.  She shared it recently on her blog:

“Try out every gift at least one time – even those that don’t immediately spark joy. The ability to feel what truly excites you is only gained through experience. Be adventurous and welcome things that are different. The more experience you gain, the more you’ll refine and heighten your sensitivity to joy. However, you don’t have to keep using the gift forever. If you try using the item and decide that it still doesn’t suit you, thank it for the joy it brought when you first received it – and bid it farewell.”

Read the full blog entry at the Konmari web site.

As 2018 comes to an end, I wish all of you a very Happy New Year. May this coming year be your best ever!

 

Making Meetings Meaningful

It is common for people to dread meetings.  However, the game of knowledge work is played out not only at your desk but in the many different conversations we have with our colleagues, clients, and collaborators.  In that light, a meeting is simply a conversation that is scheduled for a specific time and place.  While important to getting work done, meetings can also be a source of confusion and conflict if not done effectively.  So, are there best practices to having better meetings?

gtdcoverIn a recent blog post, David Allen shares his insights about meetings and it starts from the top of the Natural Planning Model, that is defining purpose.

“An essential question to answer at the start of any meeting is, “What do we want to accomplish here, and by what time?” If purpose isn’t clear, no one has sufficient criteria by which to frame and monitor the ensuing conversation, nor the information to know whether he or she should participate in it. So, step one, make sure the purpose of each meeting is clear.”

Read the rest of the blog post at Getting Things Done.