Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Try Doing One Thing at a Time

Virgil Carter

Are you feeling overworked and overscheduled in our multi-tasking world?  Have you gotten to the point where “multi-tasking” is not a positive term?  Writer Tony Schwartz describes this situation in a recent Harvard Business Review blog network article, “The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time”. 
“Why is it that between 25% and 50% of people report feeling overwhelmed or burned out at work?” he questions.  “It's not just the number of hours we're working, but also the fact that we spend too many continuous hours juggling too many things at the same time.”
With great perception Schwartz notes, “What we've lost, above all, are stopping points, finish lines and boundaries. Technology has blurred them beyond recognition. Wherever we go, our work follows us, on our digital devices, ever insistent and intrusive. It's like an itch we can't resist scratching, even though scratching invariably makes it worse.”
But there’s even greater effect on our human resources.  Norris goes on to point out, “But most insidiously, it's because if you're always doing something, you're relentlessly burning down your available reservoir of energy over the course of every day, so you have less available with every passing hour.”
So what can we do?  And what steps can our organizations take to support higher productivity and more innovative thinking?  Norris suggests three policies worth promoting:
      Do the most important thing first in the morning, preferably without interruption, for 60 to 90 minutes, with a clear start and stop time. If possible, work in a private space during this period, or with sound-reducing earphones. Finally, resist every impulse to distraction, knowing that you have a designated stopping point. The more absorbed you can get, the more productive you'll be. When you're done, take at least a few minutes to renew.

·          Establish regular, scheduled times to think more long term, creatively, or strategically. If you don't, you'll constantly succumb to the tyranny of the urgent. Also, find a different environment in which to do this activity — preferably one that's relaxed and conducive to open-ended thinking.

·          Take real and regular vacations. Real means that when you're off, you're truly disconnecting from work. Regular means several times a year if possible, even if some are only two or three days added to a weekend. The research strongly suggests that you'll be far healthier if you take all of your vacation time, and more productive overall.

What’s the lesson learned?  It’s to engage in work by being fully engaged for defined periods of time.  And when one is renewing one’s energy, really renew.  Try doing one thing at a time!

Monday, May 14, 2012

How Leaders Kill Meaning at Work

By Virgil Carter
As your organization’s chief executive, you probably think you know what’s important—what’s Job One.  And you probably do.  But do you know what may just as important as Job One?  “Call it Job One-B”, write authors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.  In their article, “How Leaders Kill Meaning at Work”, published in a recent McKinsey Quarterly edition, the authors suggest that “enabling the ongoing engagement and everyday progress of the people in the trenches of your organization…” is a key to helping your staff to make progress in meaningful work.  This, they say, is the single most important event that can deeply engage people in their jobs.

 The two authors point out that the first fundamental requirement for employee job satisfactions is “that the work be meaningful to the people doing it”.  They go on to note that people are more creative, productive, committed and collegial in their jobs when they have positive inner work lives.  This positively affects the bottom line of the organization as well.

A sense of purpose in the work and consistent action to reinforce it, “has to come from the top”, not just frontline supervisors, Amabile and Kramer write.  They describe four traps that lie in wait for senior executives; traps that drain the meaning from the work of the people in their organizations.

 Mediocrity Signals:  Most non-profit organizations have a lofty purpose and mission that aspires to greatness.  But are you inadvertently signaling the opposite through your words and actions?  Despite executive rhetoric about being innovative and “the gold standard”, is your organization consumed with being ordinary?  Does your staff feel they are doing mediocre work for mediocre reasons? 

Strategic “Attention Deficit Disorder”:  Monitoring an organization’s external environment in order to make strategic moves is a common trait of senior executives.  Thinking about where the organization should go next is an important responsibility.  But does your organization start and abandon initiatives so frequently that employees neither understand the initiatives, nor have sufficient time for execution to determine whether the initiatives are working?  Does each year bring in a new themed strategy?

Corporate Keystone Kops:  Early silent film movies depicted the Keystone Kops, who were fictional policemen so incompetent that they ran around in circles, mistakenly bashed one another and fumbled one case after another.  Many senior executives who think everything is running smoothly in their organizations may be completely unaware that they preside over their own version of the Keystone Kops.  When coordination and support are absent within an organization, people may lose their sense of purpose and stop believing that they can produce something of high quality.

Misbegotten “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals”:  Management researchers Jim Collins and Jerry Porras have written of the value to organizations of developing “big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAG), as a bold strategic vision statement which has powerful emotional appeal.  It’s possible, however, that the BHAGs are grandiose, containing little relevance or meaning for people in the trenches.  They can be so extreme as to seem unattainable and so vague as to seem pointless.  The result may be rising employee cynicism and plummeting productivity.

 The writers conclude their article by noting, “As an executive, you are in a better position than anyone to identify and articulate the higher purpose of what people do within your organization.  Make that purpose real, support its achievement through consistent everyday actions, and you will create the meaning that motivates people toward greatness.  Along the way, you may find greater meaning in your own work as a leader.”

Monday, May 7, 2012

5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2012

By Virgil Carter
It’s early in 2012—spring is officially here and our spirits are uplifted.  So what will the coming year hold for nonprofits?  Is there good news or not-so-good news ahead?  “5 Nonprofit Trends to Watch in 2012”, authored by Nell Edgington on http://www.socialvelocity.net/blog/ offers the following annual predictions which she defines as “probably a bit more wishful thinking than actual predictions”:

·         More Open, Engaging Organizations:  Smart nonprofits are getting better at engaging armies of supporters. In order to do that, they have to cede some control. Nonprofits that can allow volunteers, donors and advocates to engage their friends in their own way will unleash a growing army of support for their organizations.

·         Smarter Boards:  I am an endless optimist when it comes to nonprofit boards of directors. Boards are, for the most part, dysfunctional, but I believe that they are getting smarter and more effective. I think boards will start asking more and better questions, increasingly put themselves to their highest and best use, focus more on strategic issues as opposed to day-to-day tasks, empower their staff leadership to take the organization in more innovative directions, and start putting their money (and their networks) where their mouth is.

·         More Honest Communication between Nonprofits and Their Donors:  Oh yes, I do, I do believe it. The nonprofit sector’s proclivity to endlessly beat around the bush, tell donors what they want to hear, and sugar-coat the truth will start to wane in the New Year. Because the reality is that a severely under-resourced nonprofit sector is the new normal.  That truth is harder and harder to hide. Nonprofits need more money for infrastructure, more and better staff, and technology. And they need their donors to step up to the plate and fund it. 

·         More Strategic Approaches to Solving Social Problems:  It’s increasingly meaningless for nonprofits to talk about the “good work” they do. In order to attract donors, nonprofits must be able to articulate what they do and how it results in change. This necessitates an overall strategic approach to their work. From creating a theory of change, to developing on a comprehensive strategy, to raising the money required to execute on that strategy, to aligning money and mission, to evaluating their efforts, to translating their evaluation into a compelling story, nonprofits have to get more strategic. Those organizations that take a step back and create, and fully integrate their organization into, a long-term plan will be much more successful and sustainable.

·     More Financed Nonprofits:  As part of this more strategic approach, nonprofits will (must) move towards a broader, more strategic approach to funding their work. They will realize that the hamster wheel of chasing receding dollars in a scattered approach just isn’t going to cut it anymore. As the fundamental economic restructuring that we are currently experiencing continues, nonprofits must create a financial model for their work.  The financial status quo just will no longer work in the nonprofit sector.

Edgington concludes by saying, “I’m not a fortune teller, but I am an optimist. I have tremendous hope for our great nonprofit sector. We may be in the depths of an on-going, structurally transformative recession, but it in no way is the death knell for the nonprofit sector. It is simply an opportunity for nonprofits to get smarter, more honest, more open, more strategic, and more sustainable. And that’s exciting.”

That is exciting, don’t you agree?  Do you and your organization see opportunities ahead?  Will your organization be moving in any of these directions in 2012?