Monday, June 27, 2011

Adding Margin to Your Work and Life

The bane of modern business is the constant push of busyness. Some of us enjoy the rush, at least for a while. But it comes at a cost. Studies have uncovered a myriad of detrimental psychological and physiological effects resulting from busyness. And the negative consequences at a personal level seem to be on the increase.

Businesses suffer as well. One of the obvious evidences is our tendency to give too little corporate attention to those critically important yet non-urgent tasks that enable our firms to be more successful. Stephen Covey found that a key difference between highly effective organizations and average ones is how much time they spent doing important tasks versus urgent ones. The best companies spent most of their time on important matters; average ones spent their time mostly on urgent (and often non-important) matters.

What's the solution? Perhaps you should consider how to add more margin to your life and business. Several years ago, Dr. Richard Swenson wrote an insightful book called Margin: Restoring the Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives. He defined margin as the space between where we live and our limits. Most people in our modern culture maintain little, if any, margin.

Swenson, a physician, detailed the personal and societal costs of marginless living in his book. Many of these are also evident in our businesses--stress, burnout, conflict, communication problems, lack of vision, poor planning, strained finances. The parallels are to be expected; companies are of course comprised of people. Yet the personal impacts of margin deficit can be multiplied in an organization.

So how do we restore margin to our lives and businesses? There's no better place to start than to attend to how you and your firm use your time. After all, time is the central asset upon which all corporate functions depend. Here are some tips for adding time margin:

Inventory your time usage. Track how you and your colleagues spend time on the job for at least one week. Record your activities in 15- to 30-minute intervals. Then total how many hours you spend in each of the following four categories: (1) important and urgent, (2) important but not urgent, (3) urgent but not important, and (4) neither urgent or important. You might find my "Time Tracker" helpful in this exercise.

You're likely to discover (1) how little time you spend on tasks that are important but not urgent and (2) how seldom you work in significant blocks of time on specific tasks. Yes, you may be aware that this is true, but learning how serious these problems are can provide the needed impetus to take meaningful action. It certainly has had that impact on groups I've done this exercise with in the past.

Acknowledge the myth of multitasking.
The failure to block time might be dismissed by some as a relatively minor issue. After all, who in this business wouldn't describe themselves as a "multitasker" by necessity? But recent research disproves the common assumption that multitasking is productive. Indeed, working on multiple tasks in quick succession can reduce output by more than half!

We need to stop viewing multitasking as a badge of honor and see it as the problem it is. Among other benefits, adding margin provides more space between competing activities and can actually result in getting more done. At the very least, it helps you do things better--hopefully with a focus on the things that matter most.

Unload and redistribute workload. I can imagine your thinking that this is an unreasonable goal. And if you tried to do it on your own, you're probably right. But optimally distributing the workload is one of the key advantages of working in an organization. Plus I suspect that every team, office, and firm can find things to eliminate from their task list, at least for the present.

Consider these four time management strategies: (1) delete, (2) delay, (3) delegate, or (4) decrease. Apply these to your task list--collectively with those you work with. The primary area to focus on is activities that are urgent but not that important. I agree with author Jean Fleming: "The goal of much of what is written about life management is to enable us to do more in less time. But is this necessarily a desirable goal? Perhaps we need to get less done, but the right things."

Schedule more time than you think is necessary.
Things typically take longer to complete than we anticipate they will. This is one of the main reasons that we have so little time margin. When planning your calendar, leave room for tasks to run longer than you think they should. Should you finish early, well, you've created some margin to put to other good use.

Avoid filling your calendar. It's important to leave time in reserve for important, unanticipated opportunities. It may be a request from a client or a friend in need of your help. As Swenson notes in his book, if we are to make the kind of impact in this world that we'd like, we need to move beyond schedulability to availability--having time in reserve for the important matters that can't be planned in advance.

Sound like a radical way to run a business? Well, it's the difference between treating your time as a commodity and deriving the value from it that your finite hours and days deserve. That has a familiar ring to it, doesn't it? Maybe spending your time more wisely will help your firm escape the commodity trap and elevate your business to the value-added status you desire.

Friday, June 17, 2011

More Favorite Free White Papers

Several months ago, I posted links to a few free white papers that I'd found particularly useful. That turned out to be one of my more popular posts. Since I'm constantly downloading white papers in my insatiable search for more best practices and useful studies, I thought it was time to again share some of my more recent favorites with you. Hope you find these helpful:

How Buyers Buy (Hinge). Based on interviews with 137 professional service buyers, approximately 50 of which were related to the AEC industry. There are some profitable insights contained in this study summary that can help you sharpen your business development strategy. Download

Closing the Delivery Gap (Bain & Company). Eighty percent of the companies surveyed in this study claimed to deliver a "superior experience" to their customers. Alas, only 8% of their customers agreed! Drawing from Bain's research findings, this white paper outlines how companies can close the obvious "delivery gap." Download

Employee Engagement Report 2011 (BlessingWhite). This large global study found that less than 1 in 3 employees are "engaged," a measure of their connectedness and contribution to the firm's success. This means that there is substantial untapped potential in your workforce, not to mention the matter of retention when business picks up. This report provides several valuable strategies for improving employee engagement. Download

The Power of Recognition (4imprint). The paper's author may cause you to question its validity, but it is in fact an excellent summary of the research on this subject. The reality is that most A/E firms fall short of providing adequate recognition and positive reinforcement to their employees. This paper is a good resource for considering how your firm can do it better. Download

The Essential Step-By-Step Guide to Internet Marketing (HubSpot). I really appreciate HubSpot's expertise related to "inbound marketing," and would encourage you to look at their other white papers and articles as well. This paper is their latest, eight steps to marketing your firm more effectively over the internet. Download

B2B Content Marketing: 2010 Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends (MarketingProfs / Junta42). If you want to know how your firm's marketing compares to that of other business-to-business firms, this report will be very helpful. It's based on a survey of 1,100 B2B marketers. Download

Mastering Rainmaking Conversations with RAIN Selling ( This paper outlines an effective sales process (similar to what I've been doing for years) and would be an excellent choice to circulate among your firm's rainmakers. Download

5 Lead Generation Best Practices
(ITSMA / One study found that over 70% of qualified leads are wasted due to mishandling or neglect. This white paper summarizes best practices among professional services based on still another study. Download

I hope you find at least two or three of these papers helpful. If you do, please let me know. And, of course, I'm always on the lookout for more, so pass along any suggestions!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Why Incentives Don't Work

Being rewarded in accordance with how well you perform your work hardly seems a debatable matter. That's why 9 of 10 A/E firms provide some kind of bonus or incentive compensation. Furthermore, the trend is moving toward more variable, performance-based pay.

But in this case, the research doesn't seem to support the common sense assumptions. Overwhelmingly, studies have found a poor connection between rewards and better performance. One major study, in fact, found that the larger the reward, the poorer the performance. This same study discovered that incentives do work for menial tasks, but not for those requiring cognitive skill.

On the other hand, behavioral studies establish a strong connection between behavior and consequences. Positive consequences can be particularly powerful in motivating long-term behavior change. This has been well demonstrated in the success of behavior-based safety, for example.

So why the apparent contradiction? Perhaps it has more to do with how incentives are applied than whether they can work. There is also substantial evidence that monetary rewards are not nearly as motivating as most people think. Let's look at some of the reasons why traditional incentives don't usually work in improving performance:

The desired outcomes are not within the individual employee's control. Bonuses are typically awarded on the basis of company or group performance. A high-achieving employee can be denied a bonus due to group performance, while a low achiever in a better group is rewarded. This perceived unfairness can turn your incentive program into a disincentive.

The reward is not dependent on specific accomplishments. When bonuses or other rewards are distributed without a clear connection to achieving certain goals or levels of performance, they can be perceived as more of a gift than a reward. After a while, employees tend to take such disbursements for granted--until it is reduced or taken away!

The reward is too delayed and infrequent to impact performance. Do annual bonuses really motivate people in mid-year? No. People respond best to positive consequences that immediately follow the targeted behavior or achievement. Indeed, the immediacy and frequency of rewards typically matter more than the magnitude. That's why people find it so hard to lose weight, a highly valued goal that too often succumbs to the lure of instant gratification.

The reward lacks certainty. All of the above contribute to the perceived unreliability of the promised reward. If your bonus is conditional on company performance, achieving goals beyond your control, unclear criteria, or other factors that may come into play months from now, it's not likely to serve as much of an incentive, is it? Yet this is case more often than not.

So what does motivate people to do their best? The good news in tough economic times is that it needn't cost you more money. Bringing out the best in people involves providing positive reinforcement for those behaviors that yield the desired results. I've written a good deal on this topic, including this previous post. Corporate culture also contributes much to how employees perform.

Author Dan Pink writes that intrinsic factors exert the greatest influence on employee motivation. In particular, he identifies three: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. For an entertaining and informative presentation of what the research tells us about incentives, watch Pink's video below: