Recently in Productivity Category

Life is not a marathon, it's a series of sprints

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If you can get past the slightly rambling intro, this conversation between Jonathan Fields and Tony Schwartz is a fascinating look at what's wrong with the way we currently tend to work. It really starts to get interesting about 8 minutes in.

Although very focused on American business and culture, pretty much everything they say relates to British and European work culture.

One important idea they discuss, and something I've found essential myself, is the idea of pulsing or sprinting when working: to focus for a while and then relax for a bit. This idea is common in athletics, where it's called the work-rest ratio: "It's as important to renew energy as it is to spend energy if [you] want to be a consistently great [athletics] performer."

We forget too easily that the brain is an organ that requires periods of replenishment as much as muscles do. If you work your muscles too hard, they ache, so we learn very early on not to overdo it. Yet we expect our brain to perform at maximum capacity, consistently, throughout our workday. It's just not possible, yet we don't allow for this fact in the way that we work.

Schwartz also says, "It's not the number of hours people work that matters, it's the value they produce during the hours they work, so stop worrying about how many hours that person spends at their desk, and start figuring out, What can I do to help this person design his life so that when he's working or she's working, she's really working?"

To me this is the essence of what social media is in business is all about. We, as humans, work better when we are socially connected. It fulfils a fundamental human need to be part of a group whose whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. Social media also provides ways to communicate and collaborate more effectively and more easily, to benefit from the wisdom in the crowd. As we become more enmeshed in our community, so our ability to solve problems by drawing upon the resources of that community increases.

Social media is, at the moment, only doing a fraction of what it could for business. It's an area full of potential and as we start to marry technology, psychology, business and human nature together, we are beginning to find ways to unlock our potential, not just as individuals but as members of a huge social gestalt.

Most businesses using social media at the moment are dabbling, going for the easy, obvious wins like marketing or some internal Wikipedia clone. We need more business executives to be brave, to think about their business as a multi-human organism that has its own needs and that isn't being properly fed by current business practices and cultures.

When I look at what could be done, how we could use social media to really change our work environments in to something more effective, more enjoyable, I really do think we have a long, long road ahead of us. Change is often slow and incremental. We need some businesses to take a deep breath and leap, to remake their internal culture, to be more human, using social media as the agent of change.

But ultimately, I think what we'll see is the old cultures dying off as new, nimble, socially aware businesses rise up in their stead. This new era of socially capable business is only just now dawning.

Fun makes for passionate users

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How much enterprise software is truly fun to use? Aarron Walter discusses the importance of fun in his article Emotional Interface Design: The Gateway to Passionate Users. It's a very interesting read with some enlightening examples.

But to take the ball and run with it a bit, I think 'fun' is one reason that people who use social media can get so passionate about it. We engage much more with tasks that are fun and enjoyable, and we work better on projects where we are working with people who are fun. Just think about the tasks on your to-do list, and think about the ones that you find fun. I bet they're the ones you actually want to do!

For me, blogging is fun. Working on a wiki is fun. Setting up a Kickstarter project is fun. Heaven forfend, but I even like playing with numbers in spreadsheets on Google Docs. (Don't tell anyone, but I love setting up spreadsheets with formulas that suck data from one cell, transform it in some way and then spit out a number in another.)

Putting my numbergeekiness aside, the one thing those tools have in common is the presence of other people. The fun to be had in writing a blog increases the more other people engage with it. Wikis are both productive and fun when you're working with other people on achieving a shared goal. Kickstarter is fun not just because it offers the opportunity to do cool projects, but because you're doing that cool project with the support of other people. GoogleDocs allow me to collaborate with other people and even discuss the document in real time whilst we're working on it.

Other people make things fun. Fun things are things we want to do, and keep on doing. The more we want to do something, the better we get at doing it. The more we enjoy a task, the better we get at doing it, the more efficient and productive we becomes.

Which begs the question: Can we make work more fun? Of course we can. And we should.

If you want innovation, let people do it on their own

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Mitch Anthony links to a post form PsyBlog about how groups redefine 'creativity' as 'behaviour that conforms to group norms':

When groups are asked to think creatively the reason they frequently fail is because implicit norms constrain them in the most explicit ways. This is clearly demonstrated in a recent study carried out by Adarves-Yorno et al. (2006). They asked two groups of participants to create posters and subtly gave each group a norm about either using more words on the poster or more images.

Afterwards when they judged each others' work, participants equated creativity with following the group norm; the 'words' group rated posters with more words as more creative and the 'images' group rated posters with more images as more creative. The unwritten rules of the group, therefore, determined what its members considered creative. In effect groups had redefined creativity as conformity.

In another part of the same experiment these results were reversed when people's individuality rather than their group membership was emphasised. Creativity became all about being different from others and being inconsistent with group norms. When freed from the almost invisible shackles of the group, then, people suddenly remembered the dictionary definition of creativity: to transcend the orthodox.

If you want people to innovate, you need to give them the room to work things out for themselves. I have always thought that innovation works better when the innovator is tackling a problem that affects them on a regular basis, an itch that they just have to scratch. Certainly in web innovation it seems to work best that way.

How do we best enable individuals to innovate? Simply being able to think through their problems and propose solutions might be a good starting point. Innovation isn't, after all, about massive step changes - although they do happen they are really quite rare - but about incremental improvements. If one person saves his or her department of 12 people just half an hour a week, that's still going to add up: to 44.5 person-days per year, to be precise. Now, if you extend that to a company of 10,000 people, each saving just half an hour a week, that's 37,000+ person-days per year.

Social media can probably achieve that simply by shifting some types of email to more appropriate platforms. Think of a what a concerted drive to help people make life easier - aka innovate - for themselves in their day to day life might achieve.

The Blogger/Evangelist Lifecycle

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For years I've been talking about the Blogger Lifecycle - the way in which business bloggers react to the act of business blogging. Last week this topic featured in a workshop I was running so I finally drew the graph that has been in my head for the last several years.

Blogger/Evangelist lifecycle

Based loosely on the Gartner Hype Cycle, it tracks the emotional response of business bloggers and social media evangelists as they develop their online presence. In reality, people's response to the act of blogging (or other social media activity) varies depending on a number of factors, including:

  • The evangelist's personality
  • Amount and quality of reader feedback they get, e.g. comments
  • Quality of feedback from peers/managers
  • Time pressure
  • Success of venture as they perceive it

In my experience, evangelists tend to start at either:

1. Scepticism/Uncertainty: They are unsure of themselves and/or of the value of social media.

or

2. Enthusiasm: They are keen to engage with social media.

As the social media project progresses, the novelty wears off and the evangelist is faced with the reality that:

  • Social media takes time and effort
  • It can be hard to get comments and feedback
  • It can be hard to become a part of the wider community
  • Enthusiasm doesn't always result in action

That last point is a broad one: It's not just the enthusiasm of the blogger we're talking about, but of their readers, colleagues and managers too. Although the blogger might be getting enthusiastic responses from readers, if those responses don't result in an action, e.g. discussion in the comments or even sales calls, it can still be demoralising. And if enthusiasm by colleagues and managers isn't matched by relevant actions on their part, e.g. helping promote the blog, that can also damage the blogger's sense of how things are going.

Lack of comments/feedback can make the evangelist feel isolated and unappreciated, undermining their enthusiasm. Even as an experienced blogger, I still suffer from this. Starting a new blog these days is really very hard and if you get no feedback or, worse, negative comments it's easy to feel disillusioned. And at the bottom of the Trough of Disillusionment is when a blogger or social media evangelist is most likely to quit.

This is the point at which the good social media manager steps in and supports the blogger/evangelist, encouraging them to carry on, helping them refine their blogging style and giving them tips on how to promote it. Evangelists whose work is appreciated internally, who are supported by peers and management, and who feel that they are producing something of value are more likely to persist with their social media work during these difficult periods.

Evangelists are subject to the same time pressures as anyone else and if they are are not completely committed to their social media work they will find it too easy to sideline it. Successful evangelists find ways to embed their social media activities into their work day and create new habits that support those activities.

If I were running an evangelist programme, I'd create internal communities of practice and encourage evangelists to support one another, share best practice, and sense-check each other's reactions to difficult situations. This kind of peer support has proved very helpful in some of the projects I've worked on, and often it's so useful that it springs up all by itself as the evangelists naturally start to help each other. Giving them a place to talk right from the beginning jumpstarts that process.

Now, you might wonder why all this matters. So what if someone starts a blog or a LinkedIn Group and doesn't carry it on? Blogs die all the time... Well, frankly, I think that abandoned blogs, Twitter streams, LinkedIn or Facebook Groups do not reflect well on the company. If I turn up at a Twittter page or a blog and see that it's hasn't been updated in months, it tells me that the company just doesn't care about communicating with its customers, which I interpret to mean that it's not going to care about me either.

Even in a professional context, using social media is an experience that involves human emotions. It's easy to lapse into the 'we're all professionals here, emotions are irrelevant' attitude, but that's clearly nonsense. Business is made of people and people are emotional. Pretending we aren't doesn't get us anywhere useful. Acknowledging that we all have ups and downs, that social media is a long term investment requiring long term emotional investment, and supporting that investment are essential to the ultimate success of any social media project. Company ignore the emotional at their peril.

What does it mean to be busy?

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I don't think I can put it better than Scott Berkun does in The cult of busy:

The person who gets a job done in one hour will seem less busy than the guy who can only do it in five. How busy a person seems is not necessarily indicative of the quality of their results. Someone who is better at something might very well seem less busy, because they are more effective. Results matter more than the time spent to achieve them.

Great post from Scott, and definitely worth reading the rest of it.

How do you stop yourself getting busy? For me, the biggest challenge has been how to learn to say No to stuff, as there's always the fear that if you say no once, you may never be asked again. Accurately judging how long something will take so that you don't take on more work than you can manage is another key trick. But I'm still doing battle with the insidious culture of overwork that insinuates itself into even the most logical brains: Finishing my day's work early means I'm effective, not lazy!

How Twitter makes us more productive

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Brendan Koerner writes over at Wired about How Twitter and Facebook Make Us More Productive. He says:

Last year, Nucleus Research warned that Facebook shaves 1.5 percent off total office productivity; a Morse survey estimated that on-the-job social networking costs British companies $2.2 billion a year.

But for knowledge workers charged with transforming ideas into products -- whether gadgets, code, or even Wired articles -- goofing off isn't the enemy. In fact, regularly stepping back from the project at hand can be essential to success. And social networks are particularly well suited to stoking the creative mind.

Brendan makes the point that surveys like Nucleus Research's or Morse's, assume that all Twitter/Facebook activity is wasted, but in reality it is not. He then goes on to discuss the human creative process, highlighting the "need periodic breaks to relieve our conscious minds of the pressure to perform -- pressure that can lock us into a single mode of thinking."

Regular breaks, it turns out, are important for our brains to process information and the "conceptual collisions" that occur when we see nuggets of unrelated information can prompt us to make mental connections that we otherwise would not have. Twitter and Facebook are, of course, great at exposing us to unexpected information.

I'd add two more points to explain why Twitter, used well, isn't a de facto waste of time:

Firstly, Twitter is amenable to sporadic checking, which means that users can check Twitter in otherwise dead moments, e.g. waiting for a web page to load, a file to save or a phone to be answered. Quite often I check Twitter whilst I'm waiting for my computer to do something else. What else would I do with that time? Stare at my screen and wait. So net win on the time saving there.

Secondly, Twitter saves me time by connecting me to people who have answers to my questions, including some questions I didn't know I needed to ask. I get a lot of ideas for blog posts from links that my friends post to Twitter, for example. I also often get my answers from Twitter faster than Google can manage and those answers are often higher quality and contain insight Google just can't provide.

These productivity research companies really do need to get a clue when it comes to Twitter and produce something a bit more nuanced and less scaremongery!

Do you have space for incubators?

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Robert Biswas-Diener, who studies the psychology of happiness, writes on CNN.com about the difference between people who procrastinate and those who incubate:

Procrastinators may have a habit of putting off important work. They may not ever get to projects or leave projects half finished. Importantly, when they do complete projects, the quality might be mediocre as a result of their lack of engagement or inability to work well under pressure.

[...]

In a pilot study with 184 undergraduate university students, we were able to isolate specific items that distinguished incubators from the rest of the pack. Incubators were the only students who had superior-quality work but who also worked at the last moment, under pressure, motivated by a looming deadline.

This set them apart from the classic "good students," the planners who strategically start working long before assignments are due, and from the procrastinators, who wait until the last minute but then hand in shoddy work or hand it in late.

I can certainly relate to the concept of the incubator. Whilst I like to have a long run up on important projects, they almost always end up left until the last minute.

This is problematic in a business context, where the slow-and-steady approach is the assumed default. Most project planning, for example, assumes that people will hit intermediary deadlines regularly throughout a project. Yet sometimes, particularly in areas where the ground is constantly shifting beneath your feet such as in tech, this can be a really bad thing because work done and decisions made early in the project can be out of date by the end of the project, ensuring the final deliverables are themselves obsolete as soon as completed.

I do think that social media can help with this, letting incubators share their thoughts, their incubation process with their team and manager without having to hit artificial deadlines that ultimately have a negative impact on the final result. I did this myself with a big report that I wrote last year. We agreed that I would not provide a "first draft", but would instead put each section up on a wiki for the team to look at as it was completed. That meant that, come the "let's assess your progress" meeting, I didn't have anything much to show, but my final draft was something I was very proud of.

The major issue with that experience was that I was quite happy with the approach, it being one I am used to taking, but the people I was working with did not always seem to wrap their heads around it. Such an approach changes how the project should be managed, with ongoing communications the norm instead of sporadic, milestone-based catch-ups. If managers struggle with this different style, then they are unlikely to get the best out of incubator-type personalities.

Embrace your daydreams

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Psychology Today has an article by Amy Fries on how daydreamers are also more intelligent:

Researchers using brain scanning technology found that the "default network," the relatively new buzzword for the daydreaming state, was significantly more active in the "superior intelligence group" than the "average intelligence group." According to the study, this suggests that the stronger connections displayed in the "functional integration of the default network might be related to individual intelligent performance."

My nonscientific translation of this: while daydreaming, your thoughts are gliding and ricocheting all over the place--past, present, future--accessing all your stored knowledge, memories, experiences, etc. What the study seems to be saying is that these connections--the ricocheting thoughts if you will--appear to be stronger in smarter people. Maybe that's why they can get more out of their daydreaming states of mind. They can dig deeper. This seems to fit nicely with other studies that say that people who can go deeper into daydreaming states are more likely to come away with worthwhile insights.

I've spoken before about daydreaming and it's importance to my writing life. I also think that daydreaming is important in business, particularly if you're in a creative or innovative role. Yet daydreaming is verboten in a professional context. We're supposed to be heads-down, focused on our work all day every day. That's not physically possible, of course, so people fake concentration by doing low-energy tasks, like cleaning out their inbox, to give their brains some time to spin freely.

When it comes to social media, I see this need to freewheel as even more important. I can type at over 90 words per minute, but it can still take me an hour to write even a short blog post because for much of that time I'm reading and mulling (a more acceptable word for daydreaming, perhaps). Blogging is, at its best, about people synthesising new ideas from the works of others. That sort of thought, where you're taking in different strands of information and forming novel links between them, requires time, not to mention a good night's sleep.

This is why bloggers need managerial support to be effective. Blogging at work can put serious pressure on the blogger, who may want to spend a day figuring a post out, but who feels that they are supposed to be banging out something quick. Acceptance from colleagues that blogging is a legitimate way for them to be spending their time is also important - there's nothing like negative peer pressure to kill off a blogger's enthusiasm. Without that support the blogger can wind up abandoning their writing or not fulfiling their potential, and everyone loses out.

The long and the short of it is that if you want your staff to be creative, innovative, thoughtful and to benefit fully from their intelligence, give them the time and space to cogitate, mull, consider and daydream.

Social media and productivity

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I've been thinking this morning about why people who are interested in social media are often interested in productivity as well. Adam created a productivity category here on The Social Enterprise long before I turned up and many of my other blogger friends regularly write about productivity. Stephanie Booth writes some especially good stuff on productivity, often mirroring my own thoughts.

In part, I think it's because a lot of social tools are seen as ways to help us improve our productivity. Blogs and wikis behind the firewall are often set up as a way to make us more effective. We want to communicate more effectively, collaborate more easily, take less time to do tasks that used to be tedious with the old tools.

People who are goal-oriented, who want to achieve their ends by the most economical means possible, seem to be the ones drawn to social tools as a way to remake the patterns of their working lives. People who are task-oriented and are much more interested in executing the process that they have learnt (or have been told to do) than in achieving the goal are, I suspect, more likely to resist changes whether that's new tools or new procedures.

Being a regular social media user also begs productivity questions around the way that it fits into our lives: How do I make sure that Twitter doesn't become a time sink? How can I persuade myself to blog regularly? When do I fit checking out my essential wiki pages into my day? How can I become better at managing my time with all this information and stuff going on?

That latter question is an interesting and circular one. Many social tools, such as blogs, wikis and social bookmarking sites, were created to better manage information-and-stuff, but as you use more of them, they become the very sources of information-and-stuff that you need to better manage... And so the study of productivity hacks becomes a de facto item of interest for the committed social media user.

A lot of productivity thinking done by social media people is focused on how people who are driven to improve their own working experience can best deal with, say, email or procrastination. Like giving up smoking or losing weight, these sorts of tips and tricks require the individual to be committed to changing the way that they behave and react. Sites like 6Changes are excellent resources for people who want to create new good habits for themselves.

But how do we encourage good habits in the people we introduce to social tools? Are we spending enough time working with new social media users so that they can fit the tools into their day? So that they can understand how to make positive behavioural changes? So that they can support each other when changing working processes that were previously so embedded in their day that they barely realised it was a process at all?

I always say that social media is only 20% technology and 80% people. Are we really spending enough time and money looking after the 80%?

Giving ourselves space to create

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There are lots of reasons why letting people blog behind (or in front of) the firewall is a good idea, but one of the key benefits to blogging is how easy it makes thoughtfulness and creativity.

In his blog post Stress, creativity and confabulation, Johnnie Moore shares some of the insights he's gleaned from Keith Sawyer's book, Group Genius:

Keith's work also emphasises how we deceive ourselves about leaps of insight, assigning credit for apparently sudden bursts of insight to a variety of causes. Closer examination shows that our minds actually build towards ideas in a process of slow, often unconscious, accretion.

Blogging is one of those ways that we can accrete the little thoughts we need to help us come up with the crucial ideas we need to do our jobs better. It also allows us to share our ideas with our peers who can add their own extensions and refinements, growing our kernel into something bigger and better. Blogging makes explicit the natural idea formation process and through that makes the process itself as valuable as the end product.

It's not true that we are more creative under pressure, or that big ideas come from flashes of insight, or that the lone genius is only one capable of great invention. Just as its a myth that art requires madness, so it is a myth that creativity needs pinpoint moments of brilliance. Better to provide people with the space and time to participate in an ongoing process of creativity than try to coral it in a brainstorming session.

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This page is a archive of recent entries in the Productivity category.

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