Mastering Workflow

Posted on March 24, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , |

Once again, for this article I am leveraging heavily from David Allen’s GTD methodology and translating into my own words based upon my experiences. I encourage you to visit the website for tips and tricks on productivity and to buy his books. In addition to the classic Getting Things Done he just published Making It All Work.


I’ve “dressed up” the GTD model here a little and made a few minor modifcations based upon my preferences. This is the roadmap for processing your daily flow of work. Starting at the top center where “stuff” comes into your inbox (whether email, voicemail, notes, postal mail or otherwise), it must be understood and sorted – what I like to call, triaged. The trick is to gather everything together, start at the top of the pile and only handle items once. As you grab each item ask yourself, “can I take action on this?” If the answer is, “no” or, “I don’t know,” it will either be thrown out (preferred), incubated (for a time when you have more information or context to make a good decision) or filed (for later reference – be brutal here to avoid a glut of clutter.) My personal rule, if someone else generated it I only keep it if I will use it frequently or won’t be able to get it later and I know I will need it.

If you answered, “yes” to the action question, you are now allowing that item into your daily workflow. Next, ask yourself, “what is my next action with this item?” If it can be done within 2 minutes, do it now. (This is the GTD rule, sometimes I allow a 2-5 minute margin. Try to stick to 2 minutes and avoid anything longer than 5 as you will be derailed and not get through your processing!)

If the item will take more than 2-5 minutes to complete, you’re either going to delegate it to someone else (and track in a file called “waiting for”) or defer it for later. I use my calendar when something has an urgency or specific time element to it and a task item if it is not time sensitive. If the item looks confusing, complicated or just too big, it’s a project.

Projects are activities that will require two or more actions to complete. For example, your boss asked you to reserve a nice place to eat for the department celebration. Before you can place a phone call, you’ll want to know what’s the budget, who’s paying, how much time will be needed, who’s invited, preferences for venues, menu options and so on. Avoid putting this on your task list as a single item. Or, if you do, be sure to write out the specific steps that will be needed to complete the project. Why write them out? When the project is fresh and you’re clear about what needs to be done for completion, why redo your work later? If you use the note section of the calendar or task item, you’ll save valuable time later by simply reading and executing. See my article on Natural Planning for pointers on how to tackle more complicated projects. (These notes on the task or appointment is actually a project plan!)

Now that the item is captured in your system, work your system. If you are thorough about capture, process and organize, everything will be in your work process and you’ll be ready to get things done! As Henry Ford said, “Before anything else, getting ready is the key to success.”

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Natural Planning

Posted on March 16, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Because best is much better than good, it is always a good idea to take time to do some planning anytime you take on a project – even if it is a simple project, planning pays. The following 4-step natural planning model is derived from more than six years using David Allen’s Getting Things Done model (aka GTD) for time management plus another nearly 30 years of personal training, reading and trial and error. Although the GTD site is generally a good resource for tips that support the books, I found nothing on this topic, so I’m putting an article here for reference.

Natural planning is “natural” because we do it whether consciously or not… it happens naturally. What makes this concept powerful is that it specifically takes a “one size DOES NOT fit all” approach to planning. Sometimes having a robust and powerful project management software tool is necessary, these are also the projects with a dedicated “controller” whose fulltime job is to maintain the project plan and coordinate progress reports with the leads who are accountable for deliverables. Face it, 99.9% of projects do not have controllers and MS Project is overkill!

The following process works well using a spreadsheet program (Excel or Google Docs, etc) but can also be done in a project notebook or – my favorite – in the notes section of an Outlook Appointment or Task. (I like using Outlook appointments and tasks for two reasons, it keeps me in a single system and I can add a reminder.)

1. What Needs to Be Done?

Whether its just you or you and a hundred colleagues, explicitly stated purpose, vision, goals and metrics will play a unique and important role in getting things done. In more complex projects, these activities are often separate steps. When the project is small, they may be identified in a single step.

  • PURPOSE shows how this project fits with the bigger scheme of the company or your life. In bigger projects, purpose may never be fully realized. Then again, it might be as mundane and routine as “make sure my children’s teeth are healthy.”
  • VISION is the concrete form of the purpose, something you can literally “see.” For a company in the business of providing consulting services for a technology sector, it might be, “become the leading provider of XYZ services to ABC industry.”
  • GOALS are where you start to get “messy.” Some people will argue about objectives versus goals but don’t let that distract you. All are a form of nesting that simply make the goals easier to organize and track. Go with whatever terminology makes the best sense and get on with things. See my previous article on Linking Strategy to Tactics for details on goals.
  • METRICS sounds fancy, but only means knowing when you are finished. Will you have completed manufacturing of X number of widgets or will you have shipped them? Will you want them sold or is having booked orders good enough? It is always easier to answer these questions before you start than at the conclusion of the project!

2. Brainstorming

Having come from an engineer-driven work culture, I know very well the appeal immediate action has for getting things done. There is nothing more satisfying than identifying a problem, seeing its root cause and dispensing with a quick fix. However, often in life “slow is fast.” Meaning, if you have the time to think through various options, solicit input and gather data, you will be better off in the long term. Unless you work in an emergency room, first responder services or the military, there are very few real “emergencies”. (A wise, former boss used to remind me, “if it’s important it will still be here in the morning.”) A few hours of perspective or a few trusted colleagues’ differing perspectives may provide unique options you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

3. Organizing

Do yourself a favor, while your plans are fresh and current, write them down! And write them as if they are for someone who has no knowledge of what was discussed. In the 2000 movie Momento, the protagonist is attempting to remember who killed his wife, but he’s sustained a blow to the head and loses his short term memory. Every time he falls asleep his memory is cleared and he has to start over. He attempts to write notes to remind him of what he’s learned, but they are too cryptic to be of value. Don’t be like Leonard in Momento, write your notes as if you have no short term memory.

When organizing my project plan, I’ve found it powerful to collect who, when and how measured. That is, who is responsible for getting the task accomplished (you may find the RACI model useful in keeping track of roles and responsibilities if your project is complex); when will the task be completed; and how will you know the project is finished?

4. Next Actions

Make the question, “what comes next?” automatic after every meeting, phone conversation or commitment you make. Planning is no different. By asking this next action question, you focus your energies on where they’ll matter most – the very next step closer to completion.


My rule of thumb is, anytime I feel nothing is getting done, lower my perspective; and when things are chaotic, raise my perspective. Simply put, when it feels like I’m working hard without getting anything accomplished, my perspective is too lofty. Lowering my perspective means I switch from a focus on the big picture and ask, “what is the very next thing that needs to get done?” This usually causes me to split up my existing tasks or add new details to my task list.

On the other hand, when I am so deep-in-the-muck that I feel overwhelmed… my thinking is too grounded. Chaos is a sign of activity not guided by purpose. This is where reminding myself of why I am here is useful and can often provide the perspective to either jump back into the fray or decide to change the game altogether.

Happy Planning!

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Linking Strategy and Tactics

Posted on March 11, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , , , |

Linking Strategy to Tactics

Linking Strategy to Tactics

Working with an organizational client helped me see just how difficult the interplay between tactics and strategy can be for some. To keep these straight, it is important to understand both relative to “purpose”. In the diagram, I’ve shown a chevron diagram that leads from many tasks to a few goals and a single vision all of which point toward a target or “purpose”. When we work from a plan, this is is happening naturally, we don’t have to “think about” what we are trying to achieve… the plan takes care of that for us.

Plans are worthless but planning is priceless.

It is a long distance between purpose and our daily task list – or that work which is staring at us from our computer monitor or in basket. So, how does one bridge that distance between a “next action” and his or her “life purpose”?

Planning works in the opposite direction from daily action. In planning we start at our purpose, or “why am I here,” “what do I want to achieve,” or “how do I add value?” (By the way, individual planning is no different than group planning. If planning for a group, replace the word “I” in the questions above with the word “we.”) Sometimes, this first step can take a long time, even months, to fully understand. Often, just starting is as good as starting with the perfect purpose. In planning, nothing is ever finished until you re-write the plan! So, if you get stuck while writing your purpose statement, don’t dwell on it, just go with whatever you have after an hour or so and revisit it later.

If done correctly, a purpose cannot be achieved in a single lifetime! It is a spot on the horizon. If you can quickly achieve your purpose, you aren’t planning big enough.

Where purpose may be rather vague even esoteric, such as, “Be the best I can be” or “Build the perfect mousetrap”, a vision should be very concrete, for example, “The best salesman in the United States” or “The top selling mousetrap in North America.” This specificity will help in the next step.


To identify your goals, ask yourself what things need to happen in order for this vision to be achieved. Bear in mind the vision may take many years, but goals should be “SMART.” This is an initialism used for Specific — Measurable — Aligned — Realistic — Time-bound goals. Specific refers to focus of the goal, vague goals will not be completed. Measurable is an objective way of determining when the goal is met. Aligned refers to the place each goal fills relative to other priorities. Realistic references the ability to accomplish the goal within the time period, usually one year. Time-bound means the time in which the goal will be accomplished must be stated. I like the rule of “seven plus or minus two” when writing goals. That means, don’t write more than 9 or fewer than 5 goals. although there is debate over the validity of scientific studies, it remains useful to focus your awareness on 7 +/- 2 items. The surest way to inaction is to have too many goals, but you’ll underachieve if you write too few.

Nesting Goals

In some cases, you may find that nesting your goals is necessary. If you can’t achieve your vision without 12 goals, look for linkages such that the overall number reduces to that magic 7 +/- 2. Nest them and work on them in sequential order if necessary. See the discussion in the next two paragraphs on seequential and parallel tasks to get a better understanding of how this nesting strategy works.

Linear or Parallel Relationship?

When identifying your tasks, consider the goals and plan out what steps are required for each to be accomplished. Here, I highly recommend you work on just one goal at a time. You will identify these steps either need to be done in sequence or in parallel. Sequential tasks can have a “linear” relationship where one must be accomplished before another can be started. An example is baking bread, the ingredients must be acquired before the mixing can start and the dough must rise before the baking can start.

In parallel tasks, the relationship is different. Most often, these type of tasks involve waiting time and therefore several tasks may be happening at the same time. For instance, when putting together the meal, you may get the bread dough mixed, but it needs to sit for an hour before it can be baked, so you start on the meat marinade while you are waiting. Ideally, all parallel tasks are completed around the same time and by the conclusion of the goal deadline.

Next Step?

The final and most frequently addressed activity in planning is identifying the “next step.” Review your goals regularly and your active tasks daily and constantly ask yourself about the next action. In other words, when you finish a meeting, conclude a phone call or before you send an email, ask yourself this questions, “What’s the very next thing to do?” Don’t be afraid to say this question out loud with whomever is present. They will be appreciative and it will cause everyone to stop for a moment and think about the next step. This is a very useful summary question.

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