Information Management I: Many of the things

Given the target: to maintain control of all of the things all of the time the importance of information is immediately clear.

Information is however characterized by the following traits:

  1. It increases in volume continuously
  2. It changes
  3. It is subject to interpretation

Facts are the rare exception to this rule, but few of us have the privilege to operate in this dream world of absolutes all the time.

Organizations in the modern world typically have sourced the guarantee the first point is achieved. These same sources (e.g. email) also facilitate easily the second point. And finally, the third point is introduced with email as authors will view facts differently, add opinion and tone in an attempt to enhance their message.

The size of the challenge this situation presents is significant. After all the key point of gathering information is to use it. Using information turns it into knowledge making it more valuable so the time investment you make in gathering information match the value you get from it. This allows you to apply some simple tests to your organization and makes some improvements.

  • The curse of email; are you using email as your prime information sharing system? If you are then you have a problem. Email threads get taken off topic, to and cc lists change and the volume of email is often huge.
  • Do you use all of the information you gather? If you aren’t turning the information into knowledge for some purpose that benefits the organization – just stop collecting it.
  • Do you spend more time gathering than analyzing? The valuable using the information should receive more attention than simply getting it.
  • Are the costly people in your organization gathering information? Often senior staff will spend time gathering, this highlights a problem – these people are the ones who should be doing the knowledge generation.

Quick tests over – I highly doubt every one of those questions was answered positively. So you like the rest of us have an information problem. Before going any further let me make one thing clear – it will never be perfect. Right. Real World considered we can get on to fixing the problems (using the medical method – add proper name here)

Step One: Diagnosis

Before you can manage the organizational information you are faced with you must survey the organization – what information are you trying to manage? This is the time to identify things people think they need but don’t use and don’t have but would really like. The volume of information is now identified and key things like how often things change and how long you need to have it available (do you really need the sales figures from 10-years ago – nostalgia yes, but useful quite possibly not).

Once you have done this it is time to apply a key principle of information management:

Capture once – use many times.

How many of us in organizations need and use the same information our colleagues and yet have an entirely separate way of capturing and maintaining that data? It’s a common problem. It is also why integrated management systems (explore those here) are big business.

But I am in a small organization and have no budget to implement such a system. Ah-ha so I’ll bet you’ve used a series of cunning spreadsheets, perhaps with pivot tables or lookup functions to make things work – sorry. Bad idea.

Spreadsheets have their place but information management is not their area of expertise. What you need is a database. Sorry – go on a course, learn how to use them. Nope, your spreadsheets are flawed – databases (like this one)  are better. Nope, they really are. – Here’s an example common to many small businesses.

The sales team have a sales sheet, that captures contact details or names of clients, values of work perhaps and maybe historical records of discussions. The projects team track project progress for the same clients and report in their own spreadsheet. The accounts team monitor financial performance in their own way. Every time a client or piece of work changes you have multiple groups making a range of updates.

In a simple database the key details of your clients are defined, managed once and then the discrete pieces of information relevant to each group are monitored. This would freely allow managers to look at summary knowledge about clients, and in this example projects people to add to records of client contacts just like the sales team – after all, who talks to clients more than the people working with them day to day.

Step Two: Come up with a solution

Turn what you learned in step one into an information management plan. For each group of information you will know, some or all of the following:

  • How much of it exists
  • Who needs it and how often
  • How regularly it changes
  • What happens to it
  • How long you need to keep it
  • How long it takes to create
  • The impact of not having it

This last point will allow to both prioritize your development of a solution and give you and when combined with how often it is used give you a good idea about how and when information should be backed up. In a modern organization, backups are typically ever increasing in size and over time become costly to complete and store – you can manage this situation.

If you have done all the steps to get to this point the size of the challenge will probably be clear. So how about some soothing words of comfort regarding what the solution might look like?

  1. A couple of simple databases used my separate groups in your organization that share common information
  2. A series of defined meetings – with regular outputs – stored in… a database!
  3. A set of rules for email management (An example will be added here)
  4. Implementation of some shared email accounts, see I am a realist email is not going anywhere soon
  5. Selection and implementation of some software tools (I will put a list here)
  6. And most important – a training plan (if you are in doubt, go read the Change Management section again, once written)

This should go without saying but SHARE THE PLAN. It will help everyone in your organization understand the WHY.

Step Three: Give the medicine

Chances are this is a significant step. It will often represent a step change in how your organization operates. So, go read about Change Management – it is a big subject.

Back now… let’s keep going.

Step Four: Monitor the patient

To complete effective monitoring we can simply go back to our original questions:

  • The curse of email; are you using email as your prime information sharing system?
  • Do you use all of the information you gather?
  • Do you spend more time gathering than analyzing?
  • Are the costly people in your organization gathering information?

Checking on these items will determine how effective the medicine has been. Remember though you must check them at an appropriate frequency. Some information is gathered and used weekly, other information is only gathered yearly so consider this fact when monitoring improvements.

Step Five: Adjust the dosage or change the medicine

Anyone who has ever seen a medical TV drama will know that unless you are 55-minutes into the hour-long episode the medicine being applied is not the right one to elicit that magical recovery. Organizations also follow this rule. It is the real world – you will need to adjust the medicine – but with each change, you will get closer to a solution, or perhaps further away but if you keep monitoring then at least you will know things are not going as planned.

Not the boss – who cares?

People management, projects, issues, risks, work management and indicators – subjects for the boss to worry about.

Well, perhaps not.

Understanding how organizations function is important for everyone. If you know the things that impact your organization you can be more effective, you can be that employee who delivers solutions and not just problems.

Very simply all of these things impact you. If you are the boss you are ultimately responsible but if not you are certainly impacted by your bosses ability to deal with things, so why not be ready to help.

Risk II: Why you struggle to understand risk?

Hopefully there are some people who have taken mild offence to the title of this post. Thinking, well I understand risk of course I do, I am a smart individual you takes control of my life, I understand risk.

Really, really, are you sure? So you’ve never done any of these things:

  • Got nervous when a plane you are in experiences turbulence.
  • Waited for water to warm up before washing your hands.
  • Rode a bicycle without a helmet, but you did wear gloves.

The point I am making is this, if you have done any of these three things you are struggling to manage risk. Most planes experience turbulence and the drive to the airport is statistically more dangerous than the plane journey. Warm water makes no difference to the germs left on your hands when you wash them – it’s the soap and the vigor with which you scrub (it takes water at 80 centigrade to start killing germs, this is way to hot for you – DO NOT TRY IT). And lastly riding a bicycle without a helmet but wearing gloves – hands might be saved from a nasty scrape but your head is a whole lot more fragile.

You struggle because it is personal. Risk to you, yourself, people or things you care about is hard to judge. It’s tough to be objective.

That is why I join others in pressing for a process for risk management. See Risk I for the start of that process. Objective classification of risk following some guide lines is essential.

So hopefully you are prepared to acknowledge your failings as a risk manager and in the next post on the subject I will explore ways to build up your risk management skills and explore your appetite for danger.

Strategy I: Indicators

Strategy is a huge and fascinating subject. It starts though internally, operationally and very simply with a question: How is your organization performing?

Without first understanding where you are, how can you possibly determine how to get where you want to be?

That last sentence is more significant than it may appear. When starting to think strategy, think action. How are you going to get there – practical things, doing words, actions.

Strategy is often listed as a collection of goals, targets and aspirations. Good strategy is a coherent group of actions that deliver short term goals, in turn long term targets and finally the aspirations of an organization.


So where is the organization now? And the related question that is always worth adding to this step of strategy – how did we get here?

Where you are can always be summarized by a series of indicators, making them useful is the hard part. Let us start with a few simple guidelines:

  1. Indicators should be easily available
  2. Indicators should summarize many things into one place
  3. Indicators should be reviewed regularly

Exploring these in turn then; easily available (most of the time). This means you don’t have to work too hard to get the information. There are points for an organization (financial year end being an obvious one) when indicators are produced with a good amount of effort. Producing the accounts will probably take a good amount of work. But you don’t want to be running reports, analyzes, completing surveys and compiling masses of data all the time.

Summary data – it’s a good thing. One indicator that tells you about many parts of your organization. An example here is probably a good thing – so consider monitoring staff utilization – how much time to staff spend delivering the things the organization does? This one number often expressed as a percentage will perhaps indicate whether internal processes are too cumbersome or if demand for services is high or low. But it can’t do this alone – more on this in a moment.

Regular review – it’s essential. Without a regular review you have little or no idea whether the indicators you have generated are good news or bad news. For example – Utilization this year is 75%. So what. Then consider utilization is 75% this year on average but only 50% when considering the last two months. Now you can investigate and ask that most powerful of questions so popular with my kids: Why?

At this point I have advocated for easily available indicators that summarize many things that you review regularly. Now how about building a complimentary set of indicators? Up to this point you have obtained data. The trick here is to turn data into information. Going back to our utilization example – add to the trend data we have these things:

  • Staff turnover and numbers
  • Service inquiries per month
  • Complaints made per month

Clearly it is not too hard to imagine the insight you can now obtain. These four data points plotted together on a simple graph might allow you to identify how utilization dropped, after some staff losses that seemed to be linked to complaints and a further drop in service inquiries. Remember though take one of these alone and the comparative assessment isn’t possible – you can’t tell the story.

This last example is that extra question – how did we get here?

Only by understanding where you are through meaningful indicators, can you tell that story of how you got to be where you are and only then can you decide to take action to change it.


Think about your organizations:

  • Are you tracking the right indicators?
  • Are you reviewing them regularly?
  • Do they give you a good indication of how the organization is performing?
  • Can you pick out some stories? – if not it’s probably time to change.

Work Management I: You, yourself and them

Very specifically this post is not about Time Management.

Unless were are messing about with rather high speeds Time should be considered as something that moves along just fine without us and it’s certainly not something to manage.

Work on the other hand. It uses up time and is very manageable.

The excellent Seven Habits of Highly Effective People explains with eloquence and a passion to which I can only aspire how Time/Work Management can be assessed. I offer my thing based alternative to aid this post and discussion.

work-management-diagrams

The principle behind this matrix is simple to explain. Make sure you spend time (it’s a resource you know?) working on things that are in the top two boxes.

Life happens, placing you in the top left quadrant.

This is fine so long as you don’t spend too much time there.

Spending time in the top right is good. Providing you clear the emergencies and crises and get back to working in this area the number of emergencies will reduce.

Now clearly the bottom right is a bad place, avoid it.

While the bottom left takes some discipline to avoid.

Consider these examples:

  • Email notification pops up
  • Phone rings
  • Some one comes to you wanting to discuss a thing

What your the reaction?

If you stop what you were working on you have just reduced your task efficiency. But if you were down in the bottom right perhaps this interruption has just stopped you wasting more time?

Think back, or imagine, 1996 and a small company. Email was dial-up, faxes were logged and still a key form of communication, and phones went through an office manager.

Compare this to 2016, a small company. Email is everywhere including personal email, faxes have gone and people regularly take calls while in meetings.


So here’s my recommendation – manage time by time travelling.


Channel the wonders of 1996, email that was checked when you were ready. Phone calls with a filter. Meeting protocols observed and respected.

You can leave the faxes but try these other steps and watch yourself begin to manage your work/time effectively.


Application of this simple structure can be useful when working with other people in an organization. As colleague, mentor or supervisor help review where people are spending their time.

Simply review this plot with people and ask them to keep a log of their working week and then take the time to review that record.

Think of the value you have just created in this simple top right quadrant activity. You’ve helped a person assess their time expenditure and given them the tools to make a positive change – or the granted them the confidence that they are working in a balanced and effective way.


So DeLorean free time travel that can change your working life, not bad for four hundred and seventy two words.

Risk I: Issues and Risks

Risks – people are terrible at managing them and understanding them.

Issues – unless we are careful lots of these things distract us from making progress.

To make this easier consider these definitions:

Risk – an unintended of unexpected event which, should it happen, will negatively impact what you are trying to achieve.

Issue – what a risk feels like once the unexpected event has happened.

Based on this rather negative opening it seems we are doomed to have risks become issues leading to our failing to address AOTT2.

Well maybe.

Life and organizations throw up risks and issues all the time. It is naive to think that everything will always run smoothly. What you can do though is pay attention to risks and issues and manage them to minimize their impact on your organization.


How to manage Risk – step 1 – Identify

Start with context. What is at risk?

Remember much of the theory of risk management came from the field of Health and Safety. So what was “at risk” was often a person or some people.

In organizations what might be at risk?

  • Success of a project
  • Achieving a profit margin for a particular product
  • Keeping key staff

Finding the appropriate context is essential to capturing risks. With a context defined it is easy for anyone with a passing knowledge of the subject matter to think of reasons why failure might happen. This is the first step in risk capture. What could go wrong?

An example; an organization wants to retain a key member of staff.

What could go wrong is NOT – that they leave. This is common mistake.

The thing we need to identify is the CAUSE that drove person to leave.  To make this easier let’s expand and improve our definition of a risk.

There is a risk that (UNDESIRABLE EVENT) will occur as a result of (CAUSE) leading to (CONSEQUENCE) with the potential for (IMPACT).

Returning to the example:

There is a risk that Staff Member A leaves as a result of dissatisfaction with work life balance leading to loss of our ability to make Client X happy with the potential for reducing profit.

Breaking this down:

(UNDESIRABLE EVENT) – Staff Member A leaves

(CAUSE) – dissatisfaction with work life balance

(CONSEQUENCE) – loss of our ability to make Client X happy

(IMPACT) – reducing profit

Straight away this improved definition has helped us hugely. Firstly we can quickly see our real issue the CAUSE. Second we can find new CAUSES that lead to the same UNDESIRABLE EVENT and have the same CONSEQUENCE and IMPACT.

Third, and most important, we can take targeted action to stop the CAUSE happening. In this example perhaps talking to Staff Member A and agreeing new working hours to help maintain balance.

Image the alternative asking Staff Member A why they might leave? They may not tell you and you might not get to the root cause of the issue and further it is likely to be a combination of factors. If you first take the time to identify all the potential CAUSES you can have an infinitely more productive discussion much more quickly.

This is the first step, capture. Set your context use the definition and find the causes.

This is a much bigger subject than can be covered in one post but for now we can build on these ideas to explore issues.


How to deal with Issues – step 1 – Capture and Take Action

As with risks it is a good idea at this point to improve our definition of an issue to help capture them properly, try this:

As a result of (UNDESIRABLE EVENT), (CAUSE) is or will occur leading to (CONSEQUENCE) and likely (IMPACT).

For similar reasons to those explained above the value in using a definition to capture issues helps you target the actions. However for issues actions should be targeted at the CONSEQUENCE not the CAUSE.

In the example above there is not much value to an organization of investigating why some one has left and looking at how to prevent other staff leaving when all the while a key client is unhappy and profit levels are starting to drop.

The subject will also be expanded upon in future posts but now you should be better equipped to start the process of understanding risks and issues.


Future posts will explore risks and issues in greater depth but for now take these steps:

  1. Using the correct definition – capture five risks to your organization (start with context)
  2. Using the correct definition – capture five issues impacting your organization (again start with context)

Projects I: The Basics

Project – arguably the most overused word in management.

With good reason.

A Project is an easy way to put a boundary around some things and make a person or group of people responsible for getting those things done.

The first thing to consider are you working in a project or are you in an operations mode. Projects MUST have a beginning, defined scope and most important of all an END.

Projects without an END are operational activities or sustaining work.

So if you need to break up work – define a few projects, make sure they have a good stopping point and it might just help you delegate.

Projects are typically broken down into stages depending on what organization you are operating within. Regardless of the organization a project life-cycle will help to people understand what is needed.

 

Whether the project is the design, build and test of a part or the design and installation of a kitchen or the development of a software solution for multiple stakeholders in ten countries – some things won’t change.

Among the constants are – Risk and Effort – more of those in future posts.

Another common feature of projects is stages, which I quickly summarize as:

  1. Getting started
  2. Getting things done
  3. Stopping

Clearly projects can have more stages, but these are just sub-stages to the big three above.

In each stage different things will be important, some of which are consistent in every organization.  Some really aren’t and that’s where effort needs to be applied to determine what matches each organization. This will be discussed in subsequent posts exploring the stages of project work.

Exploring the three in turn:

Getting Started – The enjoyable stage

You’ve just started a project, it’s interesting, there’s lots to do.

Enthusiasm will be high anyone involved is happy to work on the new project, but…

You might just want to slow down a minute.

For a project to start successfully, you must, “start with the end in mind”.

So, what is the scope of the project? what will mean success? who is involved? what resources are need? does everyone know their roles? in what order do things need to be completed? what organization rules do you need to follow? what legislation applies? and potentially many more.

To underestimate this stage will lead to problems later in the project. Planning and preparation will be explored further, but for now, know it is very important.

Getting things done – The tough stage

The central stage of the project. All the people are busy doing things. Progress is being made (hopefully). Money and time are probably being spent quickly.

The challenge in this stage is finding the balance between monitoring and micro-managing. Between working hard and working smart.

Misunderstandings are common in this stage of a project, and they always cost you time. Future posts will explore this stage of project work but for now remember to keep your eyes on the big objectives and keep working efficiently on your things.

Stopping – The Hardest Stage

In almost every organization stopping is the hardest part of any project. Every organization contains people who will often be perfectionists or magpies*. Both of these personality types make it hard to stop, along with plenty of other personalty types that bring their own challenges.

Stopping means you’ve completed the scope of the project, verified with the client or customer that they agree that you are done AND taken care of any internal tidy up.

Remember – know when to stop. Remember projects MUST stop so figure out what this means and how you’ll do it.

* Magpies – people who see a new bright thing and want to go after it forgetting what they were doing before, similar to toddlers.

 

Staying with the basics of a project – plans.

Creating plans does not need a piece of software. If you want a software package many are available, one famous one, and a few others.

But as I will continually state if you can’t manage a process on paper you really shouldn’t start throwing software into the mix.  See the People, Process, Technology Golden Rule.


More on planning soon, it is a big subject. For now consider taking these actions.

Things to do:

  1. Recognize when you are working in a project.
  2. Define the stages of a project that match your organization.
  3. Identify what is important in each newly defined stage.

People I: The Basics

It has been stated many times that people make any organization. People define the organizations culture. People delivery on an organization’s goals. People deliver success or not. Finally people spend time working for an organization.

People commit.

Some don’t, but many do. This is where the challenge starts for both the individual and the organization.

I will discuss lack of commitment in later posts but for now let us stay with the committed.

In case you haven’t come across it before I’d suggest taking a few minutes to consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Very quickly you will see that people seek to fulfill some of these needs by joining organizations; companies, clubs, societies and associations. These commitments ALL come with one thing. Expectations.

These expectations will relate in some way to the “Needs” of the people.

The implication of this basic step should be significant for both the people making commitments and those running, managing or leading the organizations.

Firstly it’s a good thing. We all have a very simple method and basis to understand what people want from an organization and what the organization is providing to the people. Secondly by looking to the expectations of those people you will quickly, even if you’re not a people person, be able to understand potential reasons people are happy or not. Thirdly there is a way both people and the organization can trade expectations for needs to improve the relationship.

Here’s an example:

Small company has two employees doing the same basic job function.

The employees are different ages, different backgrounds, different personal situations and home lives.

Chances are both employees share some expectations: a fair wage, fair treatment, nice working environment – the basics.

Now consider just one possible difference:

For one employee the job is the sole income to the household.

For the other it is the second income.

The first employee might well value security and be looking to expand income and expect progression. The second perhaps not. Clearly the company should treat this individuals differently.

Other differences are almost guaranteed and could come from needs as diverse as; self-esteem, friendship, morality, creativity.  These are more difficult to assess and

What should be evident is that diversity is everywhere, but it’s not hard to make an effort to understand it’s impact on our organizations. It is not easy to meet the board range of needs that will exist but it does not mean effort should not be made.

We all can appreciate and think of examples where the diversity of the people within an organization is a real strength. What we must do is embrace that diversity and try to better help the people and therefore achieve success – and a bit of happiness too.

Here is the challenge:

Five actions for anyone as within an organization

  1. Identify what you expect of the organization
  2. Find out who should know – for example your manager or group leader
  3. Honestly review of the organization is meeting you needs
  4. Request a review with the person you identified
  5. Accept organizations have limits, but remember so should you – if your needs are not being met, do something about it

Five actions for those running, managing and leading organizations

  1. Make the effort to understand what your people expect of your organization
  2. Honestly assess whether you are meeting those needs and if they are realistic
  3. Determine whether the organization is prepared to bridge any gaps
  4. Give feedback to people
  5. Don’t ever treat people like fools. People know when you make commitments, create expectations and fail to meet them and they don’t like it.

Let’s get started – communication

In a week where dolphins can teach everyone something about good communication deciding where to start was simple.

Communication is the transfer of information. – Simple.

Maybe we should think a little more?

Communication is the transfer of information seen from one person’s perspective through a medium to other people with different perspectives.

Not so simple.

But, here is the trick. The over-whelming majority of communication in business occurs within the organization – and one basic step will help ensure you have been successful. Your message has been received, understood and shared.

You simply ask.

Verify your message was received. In practice this means:

  • When talking with others, ask how they interpret what has been said?
  • When sending email, follow up with a call or lead the email to set the scene and check again after the message is sent.
  • When sending reports to a wider audience sample from that group to ensure the message has got across.
  • In ALL FORMS of communication state clearly the key points. Executive summaries don’t just exist in documents – have one for your phone calls too and definitely for meetings.

The communication equation must ensure that the message going in survives the medium through which it is delivered to arrive with the recipient as intended.

Practical steps to ensure you balance the equation:

  1. Plan your message (what are you trying to say? to whom are you saying it?)
  2. Select the right medium (written, verbal, visual)
  3. Verify your message was understood as you intended

Lastly, know the rules for effective writing (available in many other places) they do really help, even if they are actually quite hard to follow on occasion.