Sunday, 27 November 2011

My GTD Weekly Review process

I created a simple Excel worksheet the other day, called Checklists. Each tab in the spreadsheet file is one checklist of how I do various processes, such as setting up a new task.

Here is my GTD Weekly Review checklist.  It doesn't cover every step, but is basically a set of reminders to make sure I don't miss an important step.
  • Collect loose stuff.  I check my pocket notebook, travel Inbox folder, etc. to make sure all my captured "stuff" is in the Inbox.
  • Weigh and measure myself for the week.  (most violated step on the checklist!)
  • Update logs.  I keep various logs to track my progress over time. For example, my fitness log has records of my weight and measurements back to the late '90s.  I have capture forms that I carry with me for some of this stuff, but I want to get them into electronic form periodically.
  • Move pagefinder forward in planner.  I'm still using a paper planner for calendar and action lists, and it's a week-on-two-pages format.
  • Copy appointments from monthly pages, last week, Outlook. When I make a future appointment, it goes only on the monthly calendar page. During weekly planning, I build the calendar for the upcoming week. I also reschedule anything incomplete from last week's calendar page. Unfortunately, I can't integrate personal with company calendars at this time, so during weekly planning I add any meetings created via Outlook invites.
  • Reconcile calendar. My company uses a task scheduling system. I synchronize my paper calendar with it weekly and do new task setup for any new assignments.
  • Process electronic Inboxes.  Work and personal.
  • Process physical Inbox. The Inbox on my desk gets to zero less often that the electronic ones do.
  • Review @Watching. This Outlook folder is for potential upcoming tasks that I've not been assigned to yet, but want to track the email discussion. Some of these can go away after a while, some need to be setup as a new task assignment.
  • Review @Waiting. Do I need to send reminders to anyone that I'm waiting for an answer from?
  • Review Someday/Maybe list.  Does anything on here need to go away or get promoted to a current project?
  • Review Current Projects list.  Make sure that everything has a "next action" identified and on the proper action list, or that I'm consciously deciding not to move forward on it this week. Some things may need to be dropped or moved to Someday/Maybe. I don't do this step every week, but that's okay because it shouldn't get out of whack over the short term.
This currently takes longer than I would like, and I'm looking for ways to streamline it. But for now, this is how I do Weekly Review in my Getting Things Done system.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Thoughts on Customer Satisfaction Surveys

"Close to the Customer" has become a mantra of many companies ever since Tom Peters and Bob Waterman introduced the phrase in their book, In Search of Excellence. And often, our attempts at being close to the customer involve taking their temperature on a regular basis via customer satisfaction surveys.

That's a good thing. However, at some point, some executive takes it one step further and thinks: "We'll hold our (employees, partners) accountable for customer satisfaction by basing part of their (compensation, promotion, renewal) on the results on these surveys."

I think that's the wrong move, for several reasons.

It skews the results, and in the totally wrong direction. People don't like to get bad news anyway, but if their salary or bonus or other compensation depends on how little bad news they get, they'll do everything that can to avoid negative feedback.  "Good," you might say, "They'll please our customers so they won't get negative feedback." No, they'll game the system.  For example:
  • They'll hint or even downright tell customers how to respond.  "If my service isn't a perfect 10, let me know so I can fix it."
  • They'll cherry pick, only sending surveys to customers whose projects went well and "forgetting" to send the survey when they went bad.
  • They'll avoid risky engagements, such as new products and sensitive customers, delegating them to less experienced colleagues. So paradoxically, the most experienced people withdraw from the places they're most needed.
  • They'll avoid being heroes and parachuting into existing projects that are not going well, because their name will be associated with the low-satisfaction project.
  • They'll prefer to do the safe and reduced-to-practice services that they know well, instead of innovating or being willing to take on tasks they haven't done before. This leads to stagnation and boredom.
  • In rare cases, they'll even cheat and file bogus surveys themselves to raise their scores.
On the customer side, the problem with customer surveys is that customers get so many of them already, and when survey scores influence compensation the company has to send one for every interaction, not just periodically. Even though a survey may claim to require only "a few minutes of your time," most are far too long. This discourages response rate, or worse, encourages down the middle lukewarm responses that are easy to give but reveal little.

The net effect is to reduce corporate learning. It's unfortunate, but true: you learn from the bad news. It's hard enough for even the very professional to seek out bad news over compliments because they know it will help them improve. Add a monetary disincentive, and even saints can turn into sinners.

A lot of this is unconscious, of course. Though a few bad apples will play the system consciously, customer be damned,  I believe most folks really do care. The unconscious motivations are corrosive.

The bottom line: if you want to get feedback from customers, great! Encourage them to not hold back and tell you everything you could have done to make it better. Then act on that feedback. Just don't hold a gun to people's heads and hold their paycheck hostage.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Another use for the blind copying (BCC) email field

Many email etiquette guides caution against using the blind copy, or BCC,  feature of your email program. One article on Business Email Etiquette calls the practice "impolite and sneaky". Another, from Net, allows that there are both polite and impolite reasons to use BCC.

The most common and acceptable use of BCC is with mailing lists, says this article on LifeHack. You send a message to many people without revealing all their email addresses to each other. This protects their privacy.

Recently, I've begun using it for a different purpose. I'll include my own email address on an outgoing email, but in the BCC field so it doesn't show on the message that others receive. This plants a copy in my Inbox so I can easily drag it to my @Waiting folder as a tickler to follow up if I don't hear back.  It's easier for me to stay in the Inbox and drag the new message, than to switch back and forth between Inbox and Sent. This is especially the case if I'm accessing my email from a client's network via Outlook Web Access, in which switching folders is a bit more work.

Friday, 24 June 2011

GTD = Just Enough Structure

Last week I was able to attend a webinar given by Dan Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us .  He's started a new webinar series called "Office Hours", in which he and a special guest just take questions the whole hour, much like a professor's office hours in college. (You can listen to past episodes, such as Seth Godin, on the Office Hours page.)

The special guest last week was none other than David Allen, the Getting Things Done guy. It was a funny and informative hour.

One of the best discussions of the hour was about what tool to use to implement GTD. Dan was impressed by how the system itself is "tool agnostic" -- it doesn't matter what tool you use as long as you are comfortable using it.The key thing, he said, is to get stuff out of your head and decide what it means.  David said that until you get it all out of your head (capture) and then be very discrete about each item and what to do about it (processing), the rest of the system doesn't matter.

"I'm running across a lot of high tech people who are going back to paper, because paper is a good way to keep track of stuff running through your head," David said. The computer can be a dangerous animal, he added, because out of sight, out of mind. A computer screen or PDA screen cannot display all the relationships you have to keep in mind all at once.

Someone suggested using a database system, and while David was supportive of anything that works for you, he cautioned that if it's too much work to keep the system up, you won't use it. This was the key takeaway from the session for me, because I tend to over-engineer things. 

"GTD needs to be just structured enough, but not so much that you have to think too much, or you won't use it when things get fast-moving."

Saturday, 14 May 2011

On Resiliency

This is the first post in what I hope will become a series on Change Management. Wikipedia defines Change Management as "a structured approach to shifting/transitioning individuals, teams, and organizations from a current state to a desired future state." In this series, I hope to examine and reflect upon those factors that help us survive change well, without becoming too disfunctional in the process.

I first became interested in Change Management when I was working for SQLSoft+, a Microsoft Certified Gold Partner for Learning Solutions.  (They've since been acquired by QuickStart ). Microsoft was rolling out something called Microsoft Readiness Framework, a tool for assessing an organization's readiness to implement Microsoft solutions. Although MRF never really took off like its sister, Microsoft Solutions Framework (which in turn has become an Agile-based, scrum methodology), I found the MRF training valuable. The training was conducted by Linda Hoopes, who now heads Resilience Alliance in Atlanta, GA, and was based on the work of Daryl Conner, author of Managing at the Speed of Change, and the founder of Conner Partners, Inc.
When I was writing for TechRepublic, I wrote a Change Management Primer based on an interview with Mr. Conner.

I really like Linda's list of seven Resilience Characteristics: traits that people with a high degree of personal resilience seem to have.
  1. Positive: The World - Resilient individuals effectively identify opportunities in turbulent environments.
  2. Positive: Yourself  - Resilient individuals have the personal confidence to believe they can succeed in the face of uncertainty.
  3. Focused - Resilient individuals have a clear vision of what they want to achieve and use this as a guide when they become disoriented.
  4. Flexible: Thoughts - Resilient individuals generate a wide range of ideas and approaches for responding to change.
  5. Flexible: Social - Resilient individuals draw readily on others’ resources for assistance and support during change.
  6. Organized - Resilient individuals effectively develop and apply systems, processes, and structures when dealing with change.
  7. Proactive - Resilient individuals initiate action in the face of uncertainty, taking calculated risks rather than seeking the comfort of the status quo.

In the training we learned that when the amount of change a person is faced with exceeds their their capacity to change, they become dysfunctional in various ways: actively resisting the change, passively resisting the change (sabotaging), freezing up (procrastinating), or seeking a return to the old status quo. This slows adoption of the change and also creates stress within the individual.

Sometimes, an organization doesn't understand the cumulative effects of change. Different parts of the organization propose a number of initiatives, each one reasonable in itself. But the targets of the initiatives -- those being asked to change -- experience the combination as beyond their ability to absorb.

Change Management is a process of consciously addressing the impact of change upon people, both individually, and as a group (teams and organization-wide). It is a vital, but often ignored, companion to Project Management.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Google Apps Migration

I'm midway through a migration of my GTD system to Google Apps. It's been a bit of a challenge. Here's what's been accomplished so far, Phase 1 was to migrate my electronic services:
  • Migrate domains and to new registrars. My old registrar was the same as my hosting company, and it turned out I wasn't able to create custom DNS records with them if I also didn't host my email and website with them. This was more stressful than it needed to be, because I had taken the time to talk with their support staff and was assured I could still control my domain on the free parking account. They were wrong.  Or maybe they just didn't have the same definition of "control" that I had.
  • Migrate email to Google Apps Mail.  Their free level of service now includes custom domain names, so I could keep "" for my email addresses. On the old service, I had actual mailboxes for various uses; on Google Apps Mail I just created aliases for all of these but my main email address. I only created all those boxes as an anti-spam measure; Google's spam filtering seems to be good enough that I don't need to do that any more.  I'm slowly working through the list and changing my address at various sites to use my primary again.
  • Migrate blog from Typepad to Blogger. This, too, was a challenge, until I discovered a tool that let me convert my Typepad export file to Blogger format. I was able to import most of the content including comments.  I imported without publishing, then went through the posts to decide which ones I wanted to leave behind.
I'm currently in Phase 2, which is to convert my paper planner into Google Apps. Here's what I've done on that:
  • Migrate my calendar to Google Apps Calendar.  I now have four calendars to maintain:  my paper planner, my work Outlook calendar, a scheduling system my employer uses (which doesn't sync with Outlook so I have to do that manually), and now Google Apps Calendar. I spent the better part of a day synchronizing all four. I also jotted down some process notes on what to do when changes happen. Four calendars is insane: but it will get better.  I'll eventually replace the paper planner with occasional printouts from Google Apps Calendar, and I've been told that the scheduling system will eventually be able to auto-update Outlook.  So I'll only have two.  I wish it could be one, but given my employer's policies, it's not gonna happen.
  • Migrate my GTD review lists -- Projects, Someday/Maybe, and Waiting -- to Google Apps Docs. I typically only review these once a week, so it wasn't a big impact on my daily workstyle to move them. Bonus: I can now review and update them while on the road; before they were in Excel documents on my desktop at home.
The hardest part of Phase 2 is still ahead: migrating my Action Lists. Although some say that Google Apps Calendar's task list is not powerful enough for GTD, I like the minimalist approach of simple lists. I've created separate lists for each GTD context ("Calls", "Errands", etc.). My next step is to dump all the items in my paper Action Lists into this structure.  I don't know if I will feel constrained by having to be online to look at my action lists. I may have to do an occasional printout of them. I'm not sure how this will work, and it may be that I'll have to re-engineer this later.  But I want to try the simple way first.

Phase 3, and where this is all heading, is that I plan to upgrade my plain phone to a smartphone in a while. At that point, I'll have all this information sync'ed on a regular basis and be able to carry it with me. The work I'm doing now may seem odd from a paper planner viewpoint, but it is laying a foundation of moving all my planning information from PC to the cloud, so once I get the smartphone it will all be in place and ready to switch over.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Database Sharding

I discovered a new term today, via a useful post on Julian Dontcheff's Database Blog (which I also discovered today). His post, Do not go beyond this point: on the "obvious advantages" of Database Shards, succinctly describes what database sharding is, and even better, points to three resources for deeper study.  He writes:
Caution! Database Sharding is like the anti-consolidation of databases. It is splitting the database into many small databases. You spend years and years on trying to unify and gather together databases and all of a sudden you are told that there is an application managed scaling technique using hundreds of independent databases. Tricky, right?
Sometimes, when planning database solutions in terms of scalability and massiveness, going beyond a certain point might be risky. This is the case when database shards may be of huge help (big website used globally). The word shard may sometimes refer to a piece of glass, a sea glass that can be found almost everywhere, for example at the beaches near San Francisco.
I share his amazement that after years of listening to vendor sermons on the benefits of server consolidation, now there's talk about going the opposite direction. Whatever happened to "green" in the data center?

He also makes the excellent point that proponents of standing up many servers with small databases typically ignore database licensing fees, which are typically charged per server (sometimes per core).

Anyway, good read.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Always Learning - Rebooted

I've just spent a painful few weeks with my blog down as I changed hosting companies. But Always Learning is back, with only minor changes.

I dropped the Business Travel Tips category, and also removed some of the older announcements that are no longer relevant.

Another announcement is that my business, B. Watkins Database Training and Consulting, is no more. The domain name has reverted to my personal use. Email addresses should all still work, and the blog will continue to be at this address.

I have plans for new articles on areas of personal interest, such as resiliency, change management, training, Getting Things Done (GTD), and of course, Oracle.  Please stay tuned!

Saturday, 12 February 2011

My Outbox

I've had an IN box for as long as I can remember. But it's only comparatively recently (a year or so) that I've had a formal OUT box. Here's what I've discovered about using it.

It's not actually a box or tray, like my physical IN box. Rather, it's more of a "landing zone" on top of the printer stand - a designated bit of clear space which, in my mind, carries the label "OUT".

When something needs to go out of my office, I put it there. Bowl from this morning's cereal? OUT box. Completed expense reports that need to be mailed? OUT box.  Mail that needs my wife's attention instead of mine? OUT box.

In the same way that a pad of paper lets me capture thoughts without acting on them immediately, the Out Box lets me stage items that need to be moved somewhere, without interrupting my flow of work. I can let go mentally of the thought that this item needs to be put away. When I do want to take a break and stretch, all these "somewhere else" items are in one place so it's easy to scoop them up and walk them to where they need to be.

What I DON'T put in the OUT box are things "to be filed".  I've learned that that doesn't work. It grows without bound, and then OUT is useless because it's cluttered.  I file most things immediately, though I'm ashamed to say there's still a bit of a TO FILE pile that needs attention.  (It's on my "IN OFFICE" action list to clean that up.)

So, the two habits I'm working on right now have to do with comings and goings: (1) when I enter my office, I need to toss any notes I've taken into my In Box for processing; and (2) when I leave my office, I need to check the Out Box to see what can be delivered elsewhere.

Simple things, but they help.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Most expensive training vehicle?

I was listening to the replay of a webinar by datango AG and Neochange about trends in end user adoption of IT applications. One comment really grabbed me:

"With the average cost of a help desk call hovering between 35 and 45 dollars, that's your most expensive training vehicle."

It reminded me of the Fram oil filter slogan quoted often by David Allen:  "You can pay me now, or you can pay me later."  If companies don't invest in training up front, they'll pay more on the back end in help desk calls. But one way or another, there will be a training cost. It's not optional.

Overall, the survey question, "% of Application Budget Spent on End-User Programs" revealed that most of the money spent on end users was skewed to new users (End-user training for new hires) and "laggards" (Help desk support).  Power user support for other users and a self-help knowledge base were second, and Perodic Refresher training for all users was last.

But companies that had a higher than average investment in end user training also had the highest adoption rates - go figure!

The survey can be downloaded from the Neochange link above.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Mike Smith's Open Education Resources (OER) List

I ran across this list of open education resources, posted by Tom Vander Ark at edReformer.  Lots of great stuff here, including government sources, MIT's Open Courseware program, Curriki curriculum wiki, and various other courseware consortiums.

I saw some other interesting posts on the site, such as reading lists and reports on experiments in education, such as a teacher-run school in Minnesota that operates as a producer's cooperative -- as the article notes, not unusual in the Midwest but unusual for schools.

Although the site seems to be oriented toward K-12 and post-secondary education, I think there will be useful information there for corporate trainers as well.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

New Year's Resolution: Unlearning

It's the time of year for articles about New Year's Resolutions -- and most of them are about doing things, such as establishing new habits. Some, though, urge the reader to stop doing things. An example is this one, from the Drucker Exchange (devoted to the writings and management philosophy of Peter Drucker):

"If you’re like most people, you’re working on a list of resolutions for 2011: Eat healthy. Go to the gym more. Read the classics. But Peter Drucker would have likely asked you for a different kind of list: What are you going to stop doing?"

An older post by Bob Sutton, "Bad is Stronger than Good", echoes this theme:

"Studies on workplaces suggest ... that bosses and companies will get more bang for the buck if they focus on eliminating the negative rather than accentuating the positive."

It seems to me that the same thing applies to learning. As 2011 begins, in addition to listing the things I want to learn I'm also asking myself: "What have I learned, that is no longer useful or relevant? What do I need to un-learn in order to move ahead? As Wll Rogers once observed, "It ain't so much what a man doesn't know that causes him so many problems, but what he knows that ain't so."