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Rebooting Your Productivity: How to Recover from a Workflow Crash

Rebooting Your Productivity:  How to Recover from a Workflow Crash by Laura Stack #productivityLet’s say your productivity takes a nosedive. Maybe you’ve gotten lazy with your planning processes and your to-do lists are out of control. Perhaps you went on vacation, and you just haven’t been able to get on top of your inbox. Maybe you have a looming project due date that you haven’t even been able to think about. Or maybe unexpected changes in your industry have presented new challenges and taken you off your original course.

Now what?

Every second you’re out of the race, you and those depending on you fall farther behind. So leap into action, resolved to restore your productivity in record time. But how do you reboot your productivity? Do what you do when your computer crashes—a hard reboot.

A hard reboot always seems to be the last resort. You throw your hands up in the air, accept that you’re dead in the water, and push the button. So just accept that you’re stuck, stop dwelling on it and wallowing around in your frustration, and decide to hit the restart. You may have to be pretty harsh about it. In 2012, Merck Pharmaceuticals’ new R&D head, Roger Perlmutter, had to clear out the bureaucratic deadwood—human and otherwise—before he could return his division to profitability.

When everything’s ready, flip the proverbial switch and put your head down for a few hours. Get mad. Get decisive. Get fast. For me, a productivity hard boot is a personal retreat. I check myself into a hotel a mile up the road and check out 48 hours later, refreshed, reenergized, and reorganized. I think, write, plan, strategize, and get caught up. I don’t leave the room (go somewhere with a microwave and refrigerator and take your meals with you). It’s so exciting that I can hardly sleep.

We can’t control everything in our environments, but we can accept that things can and do fall apart. When they do, how you react will test your strength and character—and how quickly you bounce back. So when you take it on the chin, bop life back and move on. Learn from experience, pulling whatever’s useful from the wreckage, and rebuild something stronger. Remember: you never really fail until you give up.

What does your version of a productivity hard reboot look like?

That Little Extra Something: Harnessing Your Personal Creativity at Work

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” — Kurt Vonnegut, American author.

That Little Extra Something: Harnessing Your Personal Creativity at Work by Laura StackIf it hadn’t been for drive-thru banking, fast food would be a lot less convenient. Years ago, a McDonald’s vice president was visiting the drive-thru window at his local bank when he thought, “Why couldn’t this work for our restaurants?” The rest is history. McDonald’s integrated the drive-thru idea into its new stores, and now lots of restaurants use drive-thru windows, including Starbucks. If a store doesn’t have a drive-thru window and you’re in a hurry to get a burger or a mocha latte, you probably won’t even stop there.

This represents just one example of the value of unleashing your personal creativity on a work problem. It costs you nothing extra, except maybe a little brain sweat, and it can deeply benefit your organization. If you lead a team, encourage them to think of novel ways to boost the company’s profit. It’s in everyone’s interest, it’s cheap, and as with Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Oftentimes ideas strike in the shower, while commuting, or as with the McDonald’s VP, while running errands.

Give that childhood creativity you’ve been reining in for the last few decades a chance to come out and play! Consider these suggestions for blending creativity with your work processes.

1. Set aside some time for creativity. You may have heard of a little company called Google. Until recently, they let some employees spend up to 20% of their time working on personal projects they felt could boost the company’s profitability. Results included Gmail and AdSense, and possibly Google+ (sources differ). The practice clearly produced some excellent products and earned them millions while it lasted. You may not be able to give your people a full day a week to pursue personal projects, but the occasional half-hour spent brainstorming can have a positive effect on your productivity.

As leader, you have more flexibility when it comes to spending your time. For example, you might get up half an hour early and think while your home or office is still quiet. Marketer T.J. Rohleder of M.O.R.E., Inc., whose company has grossed over $160 million since its inception in 1988, credits his “Five A.M. Club” concept with earning him a significant percentage of said millions. He gets up no later than 5:00 A.M. every morning, sits down with a pen, a pad of paper, and a cup of coffee, and lets his mind wander until inspiration strikes.

2. Study other disciplines. We’ve all heard of hybrid vigor. In nature, some of the most vigorous creatures are crossbreeds. For example, mules—the offspring of horses and donkeys—are amazingly strong and durable. “Heinz 57″ varieties of pets and livestock tend to be healthier than purebreds, because inbreeding reinforces bad genes and produces more “duds” than random breeding.

The same goes for business ideas. Read widely about successful people and businesses in a variety of fields, stay aware of scientific progress in fields other than your own—and keep your eyes open. That’s how the McDonald’s VP picked up his multibillion-dollar idea when he visited his drive-thru bank. How many other fast food restaurateurs had done the same and completely missed the connection?

3. Listen to your team’s ideas and advice. Your team probably has combined experience measured in decades. Take advantage of that experience, urging everyone to make suggestions about how to better achieve company or team goals. If they prefer to stay mum, offer a reward for profitable ideas. You may jostle a few loose.

Their ideas may be like seedlings: when they first emerge, you never know which will die off, which will become a weed, or which will grow into a mighty oak that buttresses your organization’s success. So give ideas a little time to mature before you thin them out. That way, you can better identify the ones that will profit you.

4. Don’t punish failure. Everyone makes mistakes or overestimates the worth of some things. Most ideas fail. Some fail dismally, like Microsoft Bob. (If you don’t remember Bob, then I think I’ve make my point). Let your people err without worrying about punishment. Otherwise they may give up too soon. There’s an old joke about someone’s uncle who invented 1Up through 6Up before giving up…and though meant only as humor, it does teach one a sly lesson about tenacity. Many famous entrepreneurs—T. Boone Pickens, Donald Trump, H. Ross Perot, and others—failed multiple times in their careers before striking it rich.

Creativity Unbound

While we have procedures and traditions for a reason, we can’t let them hold us back. In many ways, modern business consists of the blind leading the blind. The mavericks, who keep their eyes open and are willing to try something new, drive innovation. So open your eyes to the possibilities; because as the saying goes, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Imagine how well you can do with both eyes open.

The ABCs of Motivating Your Team

“New Employee Incentive Plan: Work or get fired.” — Hand-lettered sign seen behind the counter of a rustic country store.

The ABCs of Motivating Your Team by Laura Stack #productivity #leadershipAccording to a recent story in Inc. magazine, Brian Halligan, CEO of software marketing firm Hubspot, has a singular way of handling go-getter employees who present him with great ideas with the potential to improve the company’s bottom line.

He fires them.

The punchline? He fires them from their “day jobs.” He then appoints them as the CEOs of their own change initiatives, something like little start-up companies within the company. Halligan refers to this as his Mini-CEO Program, and he does it to both decentralize the company and empower team players. You can bet it motivates the heck out of his employees to do their very best for him, so they’ll have a shot at the big-time.

What can you do to motivate your employees? With fewer than 25% of non-managerial employees fully engaged in their jobs, those of us in the catbird seats have a unique opportunity to dangle similar carrots before our team members. Helping them help themselves by devoting themselves more fully to their careers is a true win/win. There’s no altruism here: fully-engaged employees, who are passionate about their work, keep team and organizational performance trending steadily upward.

As a leader, you can’t motivate anyone to do anything: they have to be motivated personally. However, you can provide incentives and an environment that people find motivating, which inspires them to give discretionary effort. It’s as easy as ABC—and DEF:

A is for Analyze. Each person is different, so determine what your team members want from you in return for their extra discretionary effort. What will motivate them? Give everyone on the team the opportunity to profit when the company does: offer flexible scheduling, raises, bonuses, conference attendance, part-time telecommuting, a certificate, or pats on the back—whatever it takes. Another A-word, Awards, will be your friend here. But don’t hand them out indiscriminately. Give them only to those who really deserve them.

B is for Balance. Your team members—and you—require a good work/life balance to remain productive. At a certain point (about the 10th hour of a long workday), accumulated error and poor performance can overwhelm any benefit derived from working longer hours. Take good care of your people, making sure they get the rest and the breaks they need—from daily lunch breaks to their annual vacations—and they’ll take care of you. Be a good role model as well. If you send email at 2:00 AM when you have insomnia, that’s up to you, but make sure you explicitly let them know it’s not implicitly expected of them.

C is for Communicate. We use the gift of gab for a reason: because it’s still the best way we’ve invented to convey ideas. Explain what you need everyone to do and why. Communicate your directives clearly, plainly, and honestly. Each week, my office manager, Becca, and I review her master task to prioritize her tasks for the next few days. We make sure we are on the same page, and then I get out of her way and let her do her job. If I change her priorities mid-stream, I communicate the redirect and explain the reasoning. I check in daily to make sure all is well and am available to answer any questions. So keep the lines of communication open for whenever team members need assistance, and leave them alone long enough to get something done before you interrupt yet again.

D is for Direction. Although the manager’s role has changed in the last few decades, leaders are still responsible for providing the vision and mission to the team. You’ll see better results when you strategically align individual and team goals with organizational goals and objectives. Performance management can be challenging, but it represents one of the most important areas of motivation, since it produces significant improvement if you can implement it. Outline in detail all the organizational and team goals in as transparent a manner as possible, set the course, and make it easier for the team to follow your direction. Review milestones and provide coaching with each of your direct reports in weekly 1-on-1 meetings. Show them why their contributions matter in the grand scheme of things—and why you can’t get there without their help.

E is for Expect. Let your people know exactly what you expect from them in as unambiguous a manner as possible. If necessary, lay it out in company handbooks and procedural manuals. But if a worker discovers a better way of getting from here to there, let them take it, as long as it’s ethical and legal. Draw on another E-word to help you keep them on the strait and narrow: Example. You lead by example no matter how you lead, so if you want to improve performance, then lead in a way you expect people to follow. How motivating is it so send an email to your boss and never hear back? Or if you leave the office at 4:00 every day and expect everyone else to stay? Expect great things from your team and model those expectations in your own behavior.

F is for Facilitate. When you make it easier for your people to succeed, you boost the team’s moral, performance, and productivity. Sounds simple, right? Yet many leaders stumble here. They may as well send their people into the Amazon without a map or a machete. Instead, go out ahead of everyone and demolish the bureaucratic hurdles, fill in the technological potholes, and build training bridges to span knowledge gaps. Influence senior leaders to get the budget you need. Run interference if another department is slowing them down. Try hard to eliminate anything creating frustration. When your team sees you out there fighting for them and providing the assistance they need to improve, your team can’t help but want to do their best for you.

Your Turn

Yes, you can still get things done with a demotivated, disengaged team. However, if you give your folks valid, easy-to-understand justifications for wanting to do well, you’ll push productivity through the roof. Of course, this article just scratches the surface of the various ways you can motivate your people to shine—and the letters have more than one word to draw upon. What have you discovered that really motivates people? What letter of the alphabet would you use to describe the biggest lesson you’ve learned about how to motivate your employees?