Sunday, January 24, 2010

Book Review: The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

Professionals spend years developing expertise. We expect it as one of at least three characteristics that define a profession.
  • Selflessness -- put the needs of the person you serve above yourself
  • Skill -- expertise in a body of knowledge
  • Trustworthyness -- following a code of ethical conduct
Unlike most professions, airline pilots have a fourth; discipline -- developing and applying a consistent set of behaviors when things go wrong. As a surgeon, Atul Gawande led a team to develop a surgical checklist for the World Health Organization as a means of improving outcomes in hospitals around the world. This book is both the story behind that project and a collection of stories showihng the value of checklists in any complex profession.

Checklists are useful in two kinds of situations. The most common is in routine circumstances to make sure everything that should happen does hapen. They are also useful in high risk situations for a team to consider the problems which might arise and outline a contingency plan.

Although the book offers guideliens for deveoping checklists (simple, clear, focused on vital items only, etc.) it does so in the context of stories which illustrate their value. The book males a strong case for the use of checklists. I would have liked to see something more explicit in implementation guidelines.

The author strongly makes the case that checklists can save time, money, and lives. Even so, professionals resist using them. High priced, high tech solutions with similar success get aggressively marketed and enthusiastically implemented. It seems to me that developing and implementing checklists is appropriate technology which makes extreme common sense everywhere.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Power of Feedback

"You can't possibly win," Mike said as we competed against each other. In the next sentence, he told me why, and I knew he was right. I changed my tactics instantly, and suddenly Mike was on the defensive trying to remember what he had said.

More often than not, it pays to listen. Mike had given me a critique -- a commentary on my performance which offered neither criticism nor ideas for improvement. In this case, I didn't need advice on what to do instead. All I needed was to understand the folly of my original tactics. In some respects, the commentary we get fits into a rough scale.
·         Criticism -- a comment with no attempt to be helpful. Sometimes the intent is to hurt.
·         Constructive criticism -- offering something the speaker thinks may help.
·         Critique -- a performance appraisal
·         Feedback -- offering specific data about something so actions can be adjusted.

Toastmasters ( use the term evaluation and try to give useful feedback. We see the results of nonverbal feedback every day. Feedback tells me how hard I should strike each key as I type. Feedback allows me to control a car and keep it on the road. Feedback is a necessary part of every functioning system.

Your life, and the lives of those around you, will be better off if you can avoid criticism in its negative sense, and offer and accept feedback in the positive sense. It is a skill we can develop like any other. Here's a quick plan for developing the ability to give and receive feedback.

Ask others to give you feedback. Open yourself up to the possibility of criticism. If you are lucky enough to get helpful feedback, great. If not, accept the data and let the criticism roll past you. As people see you benefit from their remarks, they will get more supportive with them and may ask for your thoughts.

Offer to provide feedback. Ask someone if they would like some feedback and provide it only when asked. Try to sense how much feedback they can handle. Often, a single point to grow on is most helpful. Occasionally, offering a complete list will be useful if there is time and need to get into detail. Beihg thorough cna be appropriate -- being viscious or petty never is.

Expand your circle of trust. Invite people to provide you feedback without requiring them to accept it from you. Look for more people and more situations where you can build the trust needed for an honest exchange of opinions.

Evaluate the feedback quakuty you get. Good intentions don't guarantee good ideas. Acccept the comments you've requested graciously, but decide for yourself what helps and what doesn't. If you find yourself disagreeing, look for a difference in perspective. Assume the other guy knows something you don't and try to find out what it is. If you can't, thank him and move on.

Evaluate the feedback quantity you get. If you get the same feedback from more than one person, it's probably time to pay attention. If one person calls yiou a horse -- laugh. If two people call you a horse -- suspect a consipiracy. If ten people call you a horse -- buy a saddle.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Extreme Common Sense

.Would your life be better if you abandoned self-defeating habits and replaced them with others designed to reinforce your success? Obviously, it would. In later postings, we will explore ideas in detail. For now, let's take a survey of the half dozen ideas that are central to my concept of extreme common sense. 

Pay yourself first. Abandon the habit of automatic spending. Replace it with an automatic savings program.

Money cannot solve everything, but the lack of it creates new problems. In The Richest Man in Babylon, George Clason offers basic and time-tested advice in the form of a story. The fundamental idea of saving "a part of your earnings is captured in the quote "A part of what you earn is yours to keep." 

A more comprehensive and more current representation of the same message in David Bach's Finish Rich books including The Automatic Millionaire. Bach recommends automatic withdrawal from your wages as the key to his plan, financed by controlling habitual expenditures. If you can replace a habit of automatic spending with automatic savings, your financial outlook can improve dramatically.

Write down everything. David Allen says your mind is a great place to have an idea, but a terrible place to store it. Relieve your stress by capturing ideas and actions instead of depending on your memory. 

Allen has written two books as alternate views of a system that takes you from capturing an idea to implementation. The first, Getting Things Done, defines a five step process for managing your actions and using them to support projects and goals. The second, Making it All Work, offers a different perspective and newer examples. Either book goes far beyond simply capturing ideas, but that's where you need to start.

Decide what you want. Think big, be specific, and yes, put that in writing too. 

There are many books on this subject offering different points of view but conveying the same meGoalsssage. Anthony Robbins focused on the power of decisions in Awaken the Giant Within. Brian Tracy covered the importance of goals in Goals! How to Get Verything You Want--Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible. Rhonda Byrne took the perspective of visualization and the law of attraction in The Secret. Check out one or all of these, but in the end you still need to do something. 

Take Massive Action. Think about all the ways your goals can be achieved and pursue as many of them as possible. Share your ideas with people and encourage them to participate. Think leadership, not salesmanship, and you'll be on your way. 

Seek Continuous Improvement. We fikk our lives by doing things, most of them repeatedly. The Japanese offer a philosophy of continuous improvement in those things we do called kaizen. If you aren't fluent in Japanese, check out One Small Step Can Change Your Life by Robert Maurer. It is one small book that will change your life. You understand, I hope, that this habit is pointless unless you've decided what you want and are taking action.

Accept 100% Responsibility. Jack Canfield thinks this is so important he made it the first chapter of The Success Principles. Successful people say "I must do something"; unsuccessful people say "something must be done." I saved this for last because it reinforces all the other habits.

  • Be 100% responsible for paying yourself first. Your employer has already done his part -- more if he offers a financial match in a savings program. 
  • Capture your ideas and actions into a consistent framework. Another quote from David Allen "there's no point in having the same idea twice unless you like having the idea." Asking a good thought to show up twice is a bad iea. 
  • Only you can decide what you want. People can help, but you need to point the way.
  • Nothing says responsibility as loudly as taking action.
  • You are responsible for the quality and speed of your work. Take responsibility and seek to be smarter about how you do things. 
None of these books will help unless you're prepared to follow through on their teachings. Developing improved habits is work, but I hope you can see the extreme common sense in how these ideas relate to each other. Don't thry to adopt all these ideas at once -- pick the one that seems like it might have the biggest payoff for you and start there. Email me at to let me know which one that is.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Don't Assume Against Yourself

After writing my blog article What Are You Assuming? (see ) I found myself thinking more about assumptions people make. I ended that article with the advice to make assumptions your tool, not your prison. This time, let's look at one way people imprison themselves with assumptions.

If you hear yourself saying "he won't ..." or "they don't..." you are making an assumption against yourself. The best case is you catch yourself thinking this way and the thought is one more obstacle toward your goal. Anything else reduces the chance of getting what you want to zero because you stop yourself from asking. You may be saving the other guy time by doing so. More likely, you are denying him an opportunity as well as yourself.

Rather than assume against yourself, take some action to find out if what you want is possible. If you cannot take that action immediately, add it to your actions list. Be specific. WIll you research it on the Internet? Make a phone call? Ask someone at the next opportunity? Put it in writing. Forgetting to take action is as effective a block as assuming against yourself.

Asking someone for something is a skill. One book I like on this subject is The Aladdin Factor by Jackk Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. They would tell you to ask as though what you want is reasonable and with the expectation of getting what you want. The book offers much more help on developing this skill.

Don't assume against yourself. Be confident in asking for what you want. If you aren't, who will be?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Raise Your Personal Standards

Successful businesses, and for that matter successful people, succeed because they set high standards for themselves. The standards at a five star restaurant aren't higher than a McDonalds, they are just directed toward different goals. As individuals, we should pay attention to our standards and work to raise them. If your standards are set to accept an average life, average is the best you can hope for.

In broad terms, standards exist to simplify interfaces, eliminate the need to rethink a problem, or to improve quality. The challenge is to make a standard useful, efficient, and effective. A standard is like a goal since it gives you something to achieve, and unlike one since you should achieve a standard continuously and / or consistently.

One area where society has effectively adopted many standards is electrical engineering. Everything from wall outlets to light sockets operates within well defined standards and tolerances. Electrical standards are examples of defined interfaces. If you plan to sell a gadget in the United States, you use an electrical standard that works in virtually every wall socket in the country. On a personal scale, a handshake is a widely accepted standard for greeting other people -- an interface between you and the person yhou are meeting.

Businesses operating in chains develop standards for the franchise. Allowing for tolerances, a Big Mac and small fries in Boston is difficult to tell from one in San Francisco. Buildings, products, procedures and policies are all standardized so decisions don't get remade and results are predictable.

If you walk into a WalMart, off to one side you'll see a bay of shopping carts. On the far side of the bay, you'll see that the wall is actually a garage door. As shopping carts are collected, they can be pushed through the open garage door so you can pull one out. Employees need to collect the carts, but this one standard minimizes that job. The long term benefit of reduced work overwhelms the cost of building the door. Including it as a standard part of building design also saves on time and effort.

Okay, it is unlikely that you will need to manage hundreds of shopping carts or anything else similar to a large retail outlet. Even so, here are some you might consider as you develop some personal standards.
  • I behave ethically and honestly in my dealings with others.
  • I seek win-win agreements when I negotiate.
  • When I make an appointment, I keep it and am on time for it.
  • I maintain a weight of ...
  • I keep my desk clean and orderly (one I need to work on).
Put another way, a standard is a measure of what you are willing to tolerate. You raise standards by being less tolerant of the chaos around you and more tolerant of the people around you. If you raise your standards, your life will improve. If you don't know what your standards are, it may be time to define them.







Sunday, January 3, 2010

What Are You Assuming?

Several years ago, I was a member of a project team assigned to develop a tool for a custom computer system. At one point, the problem we were researching seemed unsolvable. Any progress we made in one direction created an obstacle in another. Nearly desperate, we decided to see if we could simplify our assumptions.

The assumption we made reframed the problem so well the solution became nearly trivial. Once we verified that the process could be reversed, weeks or months of effort simply disappeared from the project plan.

Assumptions are both useful and dangerous because they change your point of view. The biggest problem most people have in this area is that they make assumptions without realizing it. If you recognize that you are making an assumption, many options become available. Here's one technique for dealing with assumptions once you know you are making them.

Identify the assumptions you are making. Formal problem solving would have you put them in writing. For example, the entire discipline of plane geometry is built on an explicitly defined set of axioms. Entirely new branches of mathematics have been created by changing one of these axioms.

Consider how the situation would be different if the assumption were changed or eliminated. Can you make an assumption that is less limiting, or more limiting? Is it necessary to know if the assumption is valid before you take action?

Seeif there is some way to test the assumption. Engineers sometimes devise smoke tests (simple experiments) to verify assumptions. One famous case where this was not done was the mirror to the Hubble pPace Telescope. NASA concluded that a full test conducted in Earth's gravity would be extremely expensive since the mirror would be used in the zero gravity of Earth orbit. It turned out that the mirror was far enough off that a student with hand tools would have seen the problem.

Consider the cost / benefit if you change your assumption. Our software project became feasible when we changed ur assumption to simplify the problem we were dealing with. THe original assumptions may have allowed more options. More likely, the project would have failed to produce any result.

Assumptions allow us to make decisions quickly because they allow a point of view which focuses on relevant issues. If an assumption gets you focusing on the problem rather than the solution, it may be time to apply the above technique or something like it. Make assumptions your tools, not your prison.