I wrote the book, ZeroInbox, a few years ago to help business clients with a fundamental bottleneck in their workflow, their inbox.
I have trained executives, teams and workshop attendees on this methodology to increase speed, clarity and consistency in managing the relentless flow of email in business.
I think a lot of people simply give up because they feel overwhelmed and end up having thousands of emails in their inbox.
You miss a lot of opportunities, become unreliable, and bottleneck projects when you can’t manage your inbox effectively.
I would say that email is our work when it comes to knowledge work. It’s ubiquitous and a tool that each person knows how to use without extensive training in a specialized system like a CRM or ERP software tool.
And the better you can manage your inputs and outputs, the higher impact you can have getting things done.
Furthermore, you can take advantage of opportunities that you just can’t seem to get to or entertain because you are clear, ready and action-oriented.
When you are cluttered, it’s hard to make space for the bigger opportunities.
If you feel stressed or can’t seem to get on top of your email, then you have a process problem. It’s solvable. But you have to want to solve the problem.
We remember the game as kids. The hot potato moved around the group and your job was to touch it and pass it. You were part of the game of movement. You lose if you hold on too long.
When you are dealing with information, you are holding the hot potato. The next person needs you to pass it. Your team member, boss, customer, vendor, or consultant needs the information you have.
If you hold on, you affect getting paid, creating opportunities or making customers happy. You become the bottleneck. And bottlenecks jam up the flow of deals and projects that keep moving despite your productivity or lack thereof.
Whether we like it or not, the game of hot potato never stops. We can just get better so the flow keeps going. It’s harder when you have to add more creativity to the flow of the game. It takes time, deliberation and accuracy if you have to come up with a creative solution to a problem.
If you are simply clerical, it can become boring. Getting paperwork processed, bills paid or HR forms filled can be tedious. That’s the temptation of letting robots do what we get bored of so human beings don’t hold the hot potato on critical path work.
Think about where you are in the game and how you handle information flow. The great news is that you can get better. You can become more effective by anticipating the work coming your way this day, this week or this year. You can be ready to execute.
Then when you get the pass, you can get the work to the next person that needs it quickly.
That’s how you play and win. It’s how you contribute when you are in the knowledge game.
That one can truly manage other people is by no means adequately proven. But one can always manage oneself. Indeed, executives who do not manage themselves for effectiveness cannot possibly expect to manage their associates and subordinates. Management is largely by example. Executives who do not know how to make themselves effective in their own job and work set the wrong example. ~ Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive
I side with Drucker. I do not think that managing other people is adequately proven. Most of the conversation I have experienced about work is complaining about employees and managers.
The one thing I can control is my own effectiveness. I work hard to improve my habits and get output from my labor. A lot of this is keeping to rituals, pushing to learn something new every day and staying humble.
Last week my lists of projects were getting out of hand. It was one of those cycles where the pile was keeping me from seeing the important things to get done. So I do what I always do:
Cut out things that don’t matter
Completed and shipped low hanging fruit
Simplified my lists
Identified the big things that did matter
I can’t control the chaos, but working through my own management processes over the years has been cathartic and effective. It’s extremely satisfying to manage my own effectiveness and see where that might spill over and move the needle elsewhere.
We can laugh at the paper shuffling reference as a bygone era, however, you would not be hard-pressed to see manual processes still being run today. Regardless of the efficiencies, cost-savings and better customer experience of digitization, old habits can die hard, especially in businesses.
It’s scary when efficiency keeps rolling back the tide and exposing waste. What may have been necessary or productive once is now either wasteful or meaningless work. This goes for digital processes as well.
There are cheaper, faster coders that can deliver an app from anywhere in the world.
You don’t have to manually enter data from one system to another. Using a tool like Zapier can automatically push data wherever you want. Or just make rules between your apps with IFTTT.
Bench is data mining, commoditizing and automating bookkeeping at scale.
Alibaba gets product entrepreneurs prototyping, testing and domesticating products.
Being a middleman these days can be quite wasteful, especially if you are in a production process. Better to figure out how to be more valuable and use the speed to get better results.
Meaningless work has a rapid half-life, especially when business owners and managers are squeezed to deliver better results and profits. Furthermore, you and I are consumers. We are part of the demand audience. We are snobs. We insist on food being delivered instantly, hotels being seamlessly booked and a car to pick us up when we push a button on our phone. Imagine some paper shuffler processing our requests and bottlenecking the exchange.
In your own work, take a look around and get rid of waste. You may have more time with automation. That’s a good thing. Now you can take the extra bandwidth and put the energy into the main thing that produces results for your customers.
Look across your business. It’s required that you eliminate waste. Consider Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno’s moral stance in growing your business, “It is not an exaggeration that in a low growth period, such waste is a crime against society more than a business loss. Eliminating waste must be a business’ first objective.”
Quick Waste Elimination Tips:
Write out the steps you do from attracting a customer all the way to putting money in your bank account. What steps can be removed or modified?
Write down all the software and apps you use. Get rid of 20% of them.
Find the 10% of best customers you have. Meet with them and do bigger deals.
Get rid of paper. Move information into systems.
Make it easier for a customer to buy from you or get support. Increase the speed and responsiveness.
Design a continuous recruiting process for talent.
Define who you like to work with. Only work with those people.
Knowledge is always accessible and allows you to need less indeed. Compare how pros approach their work versus amateurs. Pros, people that know what they are doing, have the following characteristics:
Amateurs throw a lot at problems. They have to. New, shiny tools can cover over their deficiency in knowledge. They look different than pros:
The great thing is that if you are not lazy, you can learn anything your heart desires today. Knowledge is there for the taking and can empower you to be a pro. Finance, law, relationships, and an infinite amount of topics are domains you can study, apply and learn deeply at little to no cost besides your time and attention. You can become a pro.
When I am doing business with people that seem to throw a lot of detail into a project or use a lot of words on deals and projects, I instinctively have my guard up. It is because I am dealing with an amateur that doesn’t know much so they need more to persuade others or to get things done.
The reality is that there are simply too many options out there to settle for mediocrity.
Furthermore, anyone can get ahead of the crowd by simply committing to studying deeply and owning ideas, approaches and problem solving in areas with conviction.
When you look at yourself or others, can you see needing more than you truly require if you were a pro?
Where can you need less?
The charlatans hide their deficiencies with lots of noise. Be better. Be simpler than that.
When it comes to business building, I like boring. I like creating outputs from inputs. I like throughput. Drama, inconsistencies, high stress and heroics are fantastic for movie plots. But they don’t contribute positively to profit and loss in a business. Boring helps cash flow. Cash flow makes customers, vendors, employees, and owners happy.
I am not sure why a certain level of craziness persists for so many operations. Here are my guesses:
A business owner thinks a bit of chaos is normal.
Employees have completely different incentives. Chaos and disorder might reward them with a sense of relevance (and dependency).
Growing so fast with headcount and lacking a solid culture has newcomers confused.
The business owner only cares about money and doesn’t realize the importance of strategy to get money long-term.
There’s not enough drama going on in people’s personal lives.
When I see a boring business that has cash flow working like a machine, someone prioritized making the business work and keeping first things first. They simplified as they grew. New systems, processes and people create complexity. And they were intentional to inject strategies, culture and execution to overcome the complexity. It was more than a money grab.
With the ridiculous amount of competition out there, the last thing you need is chaos and drama when it comes to operations and selling. Making customers happy requires alignment internally on all fronts. Perhaps certain niches can hide for a bit. But, someone is going to eat your lunch that comes along and builds that boring business that reliably executes day in and day out.
Are you operating on systems or charisma?
Do you have consistency or failure points that keep showing up?
Are customers leaving you regularly?
Are employees leaving you disgruntled?
Do you think chaos is normal?
The marketplace is moving so fast and commoditizing every sector. Focus on building the boring business so you can be agile enough to react. It’s hard enough out there.
If you are sitting comfortably, there’s not much incentive to improve your systems. However, disruptors such as technology, competition and atrophy (i.e., Groupon), may force your hand to get your systems more efficient.
I’ve been sharing out various books around the area of business growth and efficiency lately. A classic I would recommend if you are serious about getting your business systems working optimally is The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt. You get an insightful and packed story that illuminates the complexities, sensitivities and systemic relationships of complex systems.
You also learn about what the goal of a system is: throughput. Your challenge is to drive throughput in the midst of dealing with natural forces including statistical fluctuations, dependencies, inventory, operational expense and bottlenecks.
It’s tricky business, and if you are not careful, you can damage your systems in the pursuit of efficiencies and make throughput worse, not better.
If you get myopic around local maximums, for example, you can cause your system’s throughput to suffer overall.
Systems with their dependencies and obedience to natural laws have to be respected, analyzed and refined carefully to avoid unintended consequences.
I have seen so many businesses with good intentions that violate the principles of The Goal and see negative impacts on their cash flow. It’s not pretty, and sometimes it’s hard to understand.
There are undoubtedly higher efficiencies that would make life easier, make customers happier and put more money in your pocket.
What if you could increase your throughput and your cash by 50%? Does it appeal to you to move the needle? All that lost opportunity and money could be a fantastic motivator to keep growing so you are not vulnerable when change comes to force your hand.
Get ahead of that inevitable decrease and drive the throughput. That is the goal of your system.
In my past life as an engineer, I used to visit manufacturing facilities, tool shops and fabrication outfits for project work. These are places where efficiency, speed and output are the focal point. Human beings acted like machines in their work pushing dozens or thousands of parts and assemblies through every day.
In the industrial age we had a focus on making things cheap, fast and predictably. That game is a commodity now.
Now, we are the factory. You take raw materials – content, ideas, conversations, software, and relationships – and put them together creatively to make an output.
If you are merely a functional piece in the assembly line without much creativity, then you’re not worth much. You are not scarce. You are interchangeable.
If you are on the creative side, then you are a factory that has to make ideas happen. It can be a paradigm shift to think that you are the factory. But your ability to output is related to a set of factors that require just as much, if not more, care and attention:
Wide nets. The degree that you are exposing yourself to ideas, experiences and relationships dictates where you draw inspiration, resources and solutions.
Personal growth. Are you becoming someone of more value? Your convictions, attitudes and insights come from the people you meet and the books you read.
Energy. Do you consistently take care of your health and emotions? Daily routines that help you recharge and keep a clear mind focused on your goals is critical to keeping your factory moving from ideas to execution flowing.
Productivity. Are you doing things that don’t matter? Are you focused more on doing things right more than doing the right things? How streamlined, efficient and fast is your workflow? Managing lists, clearing time and space and getting things done keep your processes moving.
Creativity. Do you enjoy nature, listen to music or read wild works? Exposing yourself to concepts outside of your box feeds your creativity. And creativity, not hard work, moves your results.
If you are the factory, you want to gain leverage and ensure you are efficient and continuous. It’s a long-term game of personal management, much like industrial scale factories required continuous oversight.
The great thing is that you can control the variables, and with technology and business systems, do much more than ever before simply by approaching your work like a factory manager.
Factories are about leverage, ultimately. And you, as a factory, are competing with the world of people out there that have the same access. It takes your desire, focus and consistency to reap the rewards the economy bestows to efficient creative factories.
It’s foreboding news for recruiters that have a vested interest in perpetuating their jobs. The author compares what is happening in talent recruitment to the role of travel agents before the internet. Automation has changed the requirement for human beings to do a job that machines can do with much higher efficiency and better results.
On the one hand, we can feel a bit of anguish at the thought of people losing jobs. Of course, those jobs existed to meet a market need, albeit an inefficient one when compared to what is possible with automation today.
Many innovations are ready to go but are delayed by public sentiment. We see the rollout of fast food kiosks in the face of minimum wage hikes. The technology has been there for quite some time and the timing is becoming more digestible in the face of economic pressures.
We went through this revolution already in the factory setting with robots and high speed manufacturing. Perhaps we were less alarmed because those jobs made sense to automate.
When it comes to information management, repetitive workflows and clerical functions, human beings, with their inconsistencies and contrasting slowness, bottleneck the production process.
So, if automation is knocking at the door in your industry and about to sink you, how about looking at where the higher level requirements exist? Think about what is not repetitive and takes creative thought.
Machines are excellent at working with rules and repetition. And we use technology today to create efficiencies and compete as we should.
But sitting around hoping that automation will not overtake you is desperation. The economy is moving at blazing pace the the drumbeat of progress. The time to reinvent yourself and ensure you are positioned to leverage automation, rather than simply be overtaken by it, is now. There’s a much higher probability that what you are doing today will completely change in a short time.
How can you get ahead of automation and increase your value now?