The Most Important List You Can Make Today

Jim Collins, teacher to companies around the world and best-selling author (Good to Great, Built to Last, How the Mighty Fall, and Great by Choice) speaks and writes about it frequently.

Tom Peters, consummate speaker and game-changing author (The Search for Excellence, Re-imagine, The Pursuit of WOW!, and The Little Big Things) doesn’t just speak on the subject – he rants about it.

Steven Covey, business consultant, professor, and author (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, First Things First, and Principle-Centered Leadership) made it the foundation of his time management principles.

Richard Swenson, physician-futurist, award-winning educator, and best-selling author (Margin, The Overload Syndrome, and In Search of Balance) thinks it is one of the keys to restoring balance in our lives.

Maybe you’re getting the idea it’s a big deal. It is…

…especially for such an innocuous thing.

Here it is:

“To-Don’ts” are more important than “To-Dos”

 

NotToDoList2

A little elaboration:

  • What you decide not to do is probably more important than what you decide to do
  • You probably can’t work on “to-don’t” alone – you need a sounding board/mentor/advisor/nag that you trust to act as a drill sergeant who will march you to the wood-shed when you stray and start doing those time-draining “to-don’ts.”

With only a little tongue-in-cheek:

The top of your “to-do” list for today is to immediately begin working on your “to-don’t” list!

Commander’s Intent: Living Out the Most Important Part of Life

I’m in the middle of a vacation where I’m spending most of the time on an Air Force base, visiting with my son and his family. Although my head knowledge of military life is substantial, nothing can substitute for actually seeing and living in the experience.

CannonAFB

During my observations this week I was reminded of a phrase from Chip and Dan Heath’s first book, Made to Stick: Commander’s Intent. Here are a few excerpts that explain the concept:

Commander’s Intent (CI) is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan’s goal, the desired end-state of an operation.

The CI never specifies so much detail that it risks being rendered obsolete by unpredictable events.

Commander’s Intent manages to align the behavior of soldiers at all levels without requiring play-by-play instructions from their leaders. When people know the desired intention, they’re free to improvise, as needed, in arriving there.

A commander could spend a lot of time enumerating every specific task, but as soon as people know what the intent is they begin generating their own solutions.

According to the Heaths, the Combat Maneuver Training Center, the unit in charge of military simulations, recommends that officers arrive at the Commander’s Intent by asking themselves two questions:

If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission, we must ___________________________.

The single, most important thing that we must do tomorrow is ______________________.

When an officer understands this, and is able to communicate this core idea to his troops, the probability of success increases.

When an officer is vague about this, or fails to communicate the core idea to his troops, failure is inevitable.

Unlike the officers and airmen I’m observing this week, most of our daily lives don’t have national security ramifications.

It doesn’t mean that our core ideas have any less significance for our lives.

What Commander’s Intent are you following?

Conquering Your To-Do List

Long to-do lists are guilt trips. The longer the list of unfinished items, the worse you feel about it. And at a certain point, you just stop looking at it because it makes you feel bad. Then you stress out and the whole thing turns into a big mess.     – Jason Fried, Rework

Lists and I have a love-hate relationship. I love to make them and I hate to get them done.

Before you write me off as a lazy sloth who never gets anything done, a little explanation. I live by my calendar – the one that resides on my laptop and magically updates itself on my mobile phone. All my work: regular daily duties, special projects (broken down by item), future projects, projects under development, projects that are just a few words – they are all on my calendar. That kind of list gets done.

It’s the other kind I’m talking about.

It’s possible to think of a calendar as a list, but I see lists in a different way. Lists are the different colored Post-It notes affixed to various surfaces of my workspace. They are the legal pads with a line – or a page – of notes about something I’m thinking about or working on. The very important lists are those that have made it to journal stage – a protracted, in-depth series of thoughts, actions, and ideas bound between two pieces of cardboard.

No matter what you call them, I suppose they are all lists of some sort.

With all these lists occupying space, it’s easy to fall into the trap described by Jason Fried above. His solution?

Whenever you can, divide problems into smaller and smaller pieces until you’re able to deal with them completely and quickly. Simply rearranging your tasks this way can have an amazing impact on your productivity and motivation.

Now we’re on to something! Instead of a list with 100 items on it, I can have 10 lists of 10 items each. The intent is that you can quickly move through the list and then toss it when it’s done.

Fried acknowledges that you still have the same amount of stuff left to do. But the smaller picture of a list with 10 items gives you satisfaction, motivation, and progress.

And that gives you a Done list.

Isn’t that your goal?

inspired by and adapted from Rework, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

Rework

Waiting is a Less Risky Form of Saying “No”

A few thoughts from the intersection of Seth Godin, George Harrison, Alice in Wonderland, Dr. Seuss, and Todd Henry…

Auxano’s Founder and Team Leader, Will Mancini posed the following question in a morning text to our team:

Where could you use breakthrough clarity on your leadership team? 

The question is intended to be asked by our Navigators to the leaders they are connecting with in churches – but it’s also appropriate for leaders everywhere. Most leaders can immediately identify a barrier or roadblock that stands in their way of moving forward to better future. Many leaders also have some idea about how to break that barrier.

It begs another question: What are you waiting for?

That question was on my mind as I began my day’s reading, researching, curating, and editing – and over a period of a few hours, the following came together:

Excellence isn’t about working extra hard to do what you’re told. It’s about taking the initiative to do work you decide is worth doing. It’s a personal, urgent, this-is-my-calling way to do your job. Please stop waiting for a map. We reward those who draw maps, not those who follow them.   – Seth Godin

Mapmakers are those who can effectively circumnavigate constraints in order to make things happen. We all deal with constraints, especially if we are working inside an organization. There will always be organizational charts, reporting structures, budgets, and defined career paths of some sort. The question isn’t whether constraints exist, but whether persist in finding our way around and through them.

Where in your life and work are you waiting for permission? Don’t anticipate that someone is going to hand you a map. You’ll probably have to make your own. The good news is that once you get moving, the terrain becomes more visible and navigable. It’s only when you’re standing still, unaware of what’s over the next hill, that the path of progress is opaque and frightening.

Say yes, then figure it out along the way.

Todd Henry, Die Empty

A quote often wrongly attributed to The Cheshire Cat:

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.   – George Harrison, from his song “Any Road”

The actual conversation between Alice and The Cheshire Cate:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

And, from everyone’s favorite graduation gift book,

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…

   – Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

A closing challenge from Todd Henry:

When you look back on your life, the moments you will be most proud of will likely be the ones where you stepped out of your comfort zone in the pursuit of something you believed in. Don’t allow the lull of comfort to keep you trapped in a place of complacency and subpar engagement.

You must own your own growth and take responsibility for your own progress.

inspired by, and adapted from, Todd Henry’s Die Empty

 Die Empty

with a little help from Dr. Seuss, Seth Godin, George Harrison, and Lewis Carroll

 

An Apple a Day

While doing some research recently, I came across a back issue of “Fast Company” magazine and a great article on Apple entitled “Apple Nation.” It’s one observer’s version of what “the Apple playbook” might look like. It may be dated, but it’s fascinating – and it has some implications for your organization.

  • Go into your cave – Apple is fanatic about secrecy when it comes to their development process. Behind it’s often closed doors, Apple can ignore the clamor of the world and create its own unique brand of “magic.”
  • It’s okay to be king – Apple’s engineers spend 100% of their time making products planned by a small club of senior managers – and while he was CEO, sometimes entirely by the late Steve Jobs himself. It may seem dictatorial, but it works. The hyper focus lets everyone know exactly what is needed.
  • Transcend orthodoxy – despite all the noise about Apple’s closed ideology, the company adopts positions based on whether they make for good products and good business. Results are the driving philosophy.
  • Just say no – CEO Steve Job’s primary role at Apple was to turn things down. “I’m as proud of the products that we have not done as the ones we have done,” Jobs once told an interviewer.
  • Serve your customer. No, really – however great your product or service, something will go wrong – and only then will the customer/client take the true measure of your organization.
  • Everything is marketing – Apple understands the lasting power of sensory cues, and goes out its way to infuse everything it make with memorable ideas that scream its brand.
  • Kill the past – no other company re imagines the fundamental parts of its business as frequently, and with as much gusto, as Apple does. Nothing holds it back, so it can always stay on the edge of what’s technologically possible.
  • Turn feedback into inspiration – Apple doesn’t exactly ignore the many customer requests for improvements in its products. They simply use their ideas as inspiration, not direction; as a means, not an end.
  • Don’t invent, reinvent – revolutionary is one of Jobs’ favorite words. It curates the best ideas bubbling up around the tech world and makes them its own.
  • Play by your own clock – Apple doesn’t get caught up in the competitive frenzy of the industry; it plays by its own clock. Apple’s product release schedule is designed around its own strategy and its own determination of what products will advance the company’s long-term goals.

Everyone wants to be like Steve Jobs and the powerhouse company he created and led. It’s not easy. But the lessons of Apple above may just help move your own organization forward.

 

Have you had your “Apple” today?

 

Simplicity Never Stands Still

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.

– Leonard Bernstein

Former ad agency creative director Ken Segall’s new book Insanely Simple is written from a unique perspective: developing marketing campaigns for technology giants like IBM, Dell, Intel, – and Apple. It was the stark contrast of Apple’s ways that made Segall appreciate the power of Simplicity – and inspired him to help others benefit from it.

In the chapter entitled “Think Motion,” Segall refers to Apple’s practices of fast-tracking project and marketing development.  Apple has grown to point where it does a tremendous number of things at once, and in doing so has built one of the world’s greatest juggling acts. Apple:

  • lives in constant motion
  • never stops thrilling its audience
  • never lets things get old

The best illustration of this comes from an example of Segall’s work with both Dell and Apple on similar ventures – developing a new branding campaign.

Apple set out to create a brand campaign in 1997.

   Dell set out to create a brand campaign in 2008.

Apple wanted to start its campaign immediately.

   Dell pondered a schedule that would take months.

Apple’s brand team was led by its CEO.

   Dell’s brand team was led by a committee.

Apple trusted a small group of smart people.

   Dell trusted a small group of incompatible people.

Apple knew exactly who it was.

   Dell need to figure out who it was.

Steve Jobs was an active participant.

   Michael Dell would look in when the project was complete.

Apple’s brand team required only the CEO’s approval.

   Dell’s brand team required each division’s approval.

Apple took a month to conceive and create a campaign.

   Dell required a month just to talk about strategies.

Apple ended up with the Think Different campaign.

   Dell ended up with a stack of presentation boards stored neatly in a dark closet.

Simplicity – represented in the above example by Apple’s actions – is a fundamental requirement when you’re trying to achieve lofty goals. As Dell discovered, a fractured, leaderless group without an urgent mandate is Simplicity-proof.

Will you walk the straight path of Simplicity or choose the dark, winding road of Complexity?

Small is the Ultimate Efficiency

When process is king, ideas will never be. It takes only Common Sense to recognize that the more layers you add to a process, the more watered down the final work will become.

– Ken Segall, Insanely Simple

Ken Segall was the creative director at several ad agencies, working for big-name tech companies like IBM, Intel, and Dell. However, it was his work with Apple over a period of years that gives him a unique perspective of the stark contrast of Apple’s ways that made him appreciate the power of Simplicity. Segall recently released a book about these lessons – Insanely Simple. More than just another repetition of Apple lore, it chronicles an outsider’s long relationship with Apple and Steve Jobs that will provide leaders in any organization with the powerful tools of Simplicity.

Simplicity’s Best Friend: Small Groups of Smart People

While working with Apple, Segall often experienced the strict enforcement of one of Simplicity’s most important rules: Start with small groups of smart people – and keep them small. Every time the body count in a meeting or working on a project goes higher, you’re simply inviting Complexity to take a seat at the table.

This small-group principle is a key to Apple’s ongoing success and key to any organization that wants to nurture quality thinking. The idea is pretty basic: Everyone in the room should be there for a reason. Segall distilled years of observing and practicing this idea down into two “Laws of Small.”

The quality of work resulting from a project is inversely proportional to the number of people involved in the project.

The quality of work resulting from a project increases in direct proportion to the degree of involvement by the ultimate decision maker.

To even speak of putting process before creativity did not happen in an environment like Apple’s. A better idea is a better idea – no matter where it fell in the process. The high value placed on ideas is one of the things that Steve Jobs burned into the Apple culture and it will likely continue to guide the company into the future.

How would small groups of smart people work in your organization?