Revealing Information From Customer Surveys (#retail, #statistics, #business)

I currently manage a retail enterprise whose customers receive surveys from our product manufacturer in addition to the surveys we solicit from our customers for our own business management purposes. These surveys offer a revealing look into the mind and motivations of both our manufacturer partners and our customers.

First, our manufacturer. Our business is roughly divided into two key operating areas– sales, and service. The sales survey sent by the manufacturer has 6 numerical question categories, most of which are broken down into alphabetical sub-questions. In total the manufacturer is actually soliciting input from a sales customer on 23 (!) different questions, most of which are rated on a 1-10 scale while some are a binary “Yes/No”. The customer is of course invited to provide color commentary on these questions as they like, as well as on the survey overall. Similarly, the service survey has 8 numerical question categories but these are subdivided alphabetically so that the end result is 25 separate questions with 1-10 or “Yes/No” ratings.

The survey questions range across topics such as the timeliness and convenience of the business’s service, the friendliness and knowledgeability of staff, the subjective perception of the value given or fairness of charges, the perceived honesty of the process and people involved, etc., as well as the overall level of satisfaction and the willingness to recommend to others. Using a specific weighting formula (where some questions actually receive 0% weight, considered ancillary in nature, and others receive a relatively heavy weighting), the manufacturer arrives at a composite score on a 100 point scale (accurate within 1 decimal place) of the business’s overall “Customer Experience” index score. The bottom 2% of survey scores are thrown out at the end of each month and then the manufacturer provides bonus funds to the business if the composite score is above an arbitrary hurdle.

The national average for all related businesses in terms of both sales and service is ended up at four tenths of one percent above the hurdle for the year ended December 31st, 2015, and the hurdle is being moved up this year to one tenth of one percent above that!

The first interesting thing about all of this that I would note is the concept of false precision. The multiplicity of dimensions against which the business can be rated and the fractionality of the composite scoring system suggest an extremely precise, professionally-calculated measuring tool which itself suggests a customer experience that is almost scientifically specific in nature which, at end we would hope, reflects a consumer demographic that is nuanced, discerning and tasteful in character.

All three of these things are false. The measuring tool’s complexity is its own undoing in that customers rarely seem to understand what they’re rating or why (more on that below) and the surveys are sent out to the fraction of total customers who provide an e-mail at time of purchase, of which a still-smaller fraction actually bother to respond to the survey. Instead of measuring incremental behavior per thousand, for example, which might accurately capture meaningful changes in trend, the tool is instead measuring “fractions of a person’s experience” per tens in a given month in a given business… significantly meaningless specificity. The customer experience process is not as specific as the survey would suggest, many of the items being surveyed are accidents of history and essentially not controllable by the business without undue capital investment to change them. And finally, most of the customers are crude rubes who leave the business either gushing about how great it was, or pounding their keyboards in rage behind a Yelp review page trying to convince everyone that the business should be burnt to the ground and its employees mutilated on the public square in retribution for some minor slight or hiccup. There isn’t a middle ground and as far as the manufacturer’s scoring criteria is concerned, the middle ground isn’t valuable real estate anyway. As you will learn in a moment, there are entire categories of customers who don’t know or don’t care about many of the sub-questions on the survey which means the tool captures little more than their ignorance or angst.

The surveying system, both its conceptualization, construction and monetary reward system, betray a highly bureaucratic mind completely detached from both business reality and customer capability. The bureaucratic mind sees the world as a series of levers to be pulled, with no easy answers, simple solutions or “good enough” approaches. The bureaucratic mind seeks to measure everything, regardless of how valuable it is. The bureaucratic mind ignores the variability in quality and capability of human response (the customer) and tries to slice and dice a bunch of statistical averages rather than being merely curious about something resolute like “Were you completely satisfied? Why or why not?”

The fact that the survey system is tied to a monetary reward means there is a strong incentive for the business to find ways to game the system (coach customers — even if “illegal” — and input fake emails or remove them entirely when a bad survey is likely), especially as the manufacturer moves the hurdle ever closer to 100. The bar being set as high as it is (95) betrays both a kind of cluelessness concerning how simple it is for slight mishaps in the customer experience to bomb the score below that and an undue sense of ambition that a “truly great brand” would have nothing less than perfect scores. “If we just keep moving our standards up, our customers are bound to think more of us!” Meanwhile, setting a monetary reward above a hurdle turns the survey system into the equivalent of a binary “Were you/weren’t you satisfied overall?” despite the 20+ questions because anything less than the hurdle is essentially a penalty. And without a statistically significant sample size the manufacturer’s agents have no real place in advising the business’s management team about responses to perceived trends in the data.

So, what about the customers?

There is great confusion on the part of the customer about who he is responding to and what the consequence of his response will be. Many customers can’t differentiate in their mind between the manufacturer’s brand and the business’s brand, and a common lament when the latter of a pair of surveys sent from the couple is received is “I already filled out your survey!” Few customers who had a positive experience understand how important it is (for the economics of the business) that they register their complete satisfaction by completing the survey. And fewer still who had a negative experience understand that by completely bombing the survey they’re increasing the likelihood that their survey gets thrown out and therefore has no impact to the business whatsoever. These disgruntled customers also don’t understand that their individual complaints are read not by the manufacturer, who is only concerned with the statistical averages, but by the business they dealt with, as they are often filled with specific pleas to right some wrong or to put the business out of commission.

The way customers respond to the survey questions is also revealing.

Some customers reveal what angry, destructively vengeful people they are. They will rate the entire experience poorly (for example, rating a 0 for honesty of personnel) because one aspect of it wasn’t to their satisfaction (for example, the product wasn’t received in the condition expected, or they paid more than they would’ve liked, etc.) Or they will rate negatively and cite as their reason a small slight or problem they could’ve easily brought to the attention of the business and had resolved with little cost or inconvenience. This suggests a personality obsessed with power and control that is easily touched off and uses the “tattle” opportunity as a kind of political leverage to punish the perceived wrong-doer.

Other customers will rate the experience a 7 or 8 with comments about never rating 9 or 10 because “nobody is perfect.” These customers seek to use the survey to make grandiloquent philosophical statements about the state of metaphysical reality and can think of no better place to register their beliefs than on a business survey. Their comments are edifying, perhaps, but again completely useless from the point of view of the manufacturer and the business being held financially hostage.

Some customers are incompetent. They will rate the questions all 10s and then rate the final “overall satisfaction” question a 5. When contacted, they’ll express surprise or confusion and say that they “gave you a great survey”, not realizing that final 5 drops the overall score down to a 90% and thus a failing grade, if they can even explain why their “overall” score was inconsistent with the rest of the data they relayed about the specific parts of their experience (they usually can’t). Others will put negative color commentary and express unresolved problems but rate the sections of the survey highly. Others will write very positive comments, including a willingness to recommend to others, but then provide mediocre scores, especially on the willingness to recommend question.

Then you have the “deep thinkers.” They will get extremely granular on every question, providing a specific rationalization for each score given. Sometimes, when questions ask for similar information about a part of the experience, they will take the time to repeat themselves at length but using slightly different words. One gets the impression of a person who takes themselves and everything they do much, much too seriously. Undoubtedly hemming, hawwing and head-scratching were the prelude to the pages-long survey submission.

Everybody shows a bit of themselves and their values with a survey, both the survey maker and the survey taker. The particular survey world I inhabit leaves a lot to be desired in terms of making the survey a useful, honest tool for managing my business. At the very least, however, it provides a good chuckle now and then in reading an inane response or contemplating the unknowable mysteries of the workings of the manufacturer agent’s mind that thought a 20-some item questionnaire would provide invaluable insight into the customer experience. Ignoring the signal that profitability sends in a competitive market, I guess it’s still better than some I’ve heard about wherein the manufacturer’s scoring system revolves around customer responses to the prompt, “Can you imagine a world without [the manufacturer’s product]?”

That’s a real epistemological misfire right there!

Notes – Emotional Intelligence/EQ

The following are notes I took from an introductory course on Emotional Intelligence.

The Four Components of EQ

Emotional Intelligence is composed of four major facets:

  • self-awareness, how aware are you of your own emotional state and thoughts?
  • self-management, how well can you control your emotions and thoughts?
  • social awareness, how aware are you of other people’s emotional states and thoughts?
  • social management, how well can you control your behaviors that influence the emotional states and thoughts of others?

It is possible to have high self-awareness but poor self-management, or to be good at managing oneself and one’s social environment without having significant awareness of either one. Many possible EQ patterns are possible or conceivable, though typically people are either stronger at the self-related items or the social-related items but not both.

Where does EQ fit in?

EQ is considered as “the brains ability to recognize emotions from oneself and others and to use this information to guide thinking and behavior.”

EQ is leg of a three-legged stool of self-awareness. The other components are the DiSC and Core Values Index (CVI) assessments. Whereas the CVI attempts to determine the “unchanging nature of the person” and DiSC seeks to explain behavioral tendencies developed through experiential learning, EQ ideally serves as a way to quantify a person’s ability to modify their behavior and influence the behaviors of others based on perceived emotional states.

EQ is considered related to IQ in that it measures something about an individual and their boundaries for achievement. But whereas IQ measures intelligence or problem-solving ability and is considered fixed at birth by genetic factors, EQ measures perceptive and self-control abilities in social settings and it is considered improvable over time, that is a person who a low EQ score in one of the four components might be able to raise their score with conscious effort and examination of their behavior over time.

Applications of EQ

Some people consider EQ to be more valuable than IQ in a business setting because businesses are about people (employees and customers) so having a superior ability to influence the behaviors of people could be considered more valuable than the raw intelligence necessary to solve problems. If you have the solution to a problem but can’t convince anyone to cooperate with you in implementing it, what do you actually have?

Part of the value of EQ comes from the way the brain is physically hard-wired to handle new data inputs. Stimuli entering the brain pass through the emotional area of the brain and trigger an emotional reaction before passing through a secondary filter and entering the part of the brain where a rational filter is applied and a behavioral response is shaped. The brain gives priority to emotion over reason.

The development of EQ in an individual involves increasing tiers of awareness and capability best thought of as a kind of pyramid with the lowest function at the bottom and the highest function at the top:

  1. (Top) influence
  2. building trust
  3. adapting and connecting to build rapport
  4. recognizing the needs of others
  5. controlling impulses to achieve positive outcomes
  6. (Bottom) acknowledging the self and impact on others

Emotional range

The basic emotions common to all humanity are:

  • mad
  • glad
  • sad
  • fear
  • shame (embarrassment about a state of being)
  • guilt (embarrassment about an action undertaken)

The entire range of emotions people experience can be explained by low, medium and high intensities of these basic emotions. For example, one can be satisfied, excited or elated in terms of experiencing the emotion of glad.

Rage is not a feeling, but rather it is an uncontrolled reaction to pent-up, diverse feelings that have not been expressed and come out all at once. It is a sign of emotional disorder, not an intensity of anger, sadness or fear by itself.

With regards to fear specifically, there are four “fatal” fears that typify most of the emotional experiences:

  1. failure (or success!)
  2. rejection
  3. emotional or physical discomfort
  4. being or looking wrong

The whole person

People are complex, there is no doubt about it. EQ is not better than or worse than IQ, it is simply another component of the “whole person”. In fact, intellectually (rather than biologically), the “whole person” is best described by considering EQ, IQ and personality together.

Review – The Art of Execution (@harriman, #investing)

The Art of Execution: How the world’s best investors get it wrong and still make millions (buy on

by Lee Freeman-Shor, published 2015

A “valueprax” review always serves two purposes: to inform the reader, and to remind the writer. Find more reviews by visiting the Virtual Library.

Note: I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for sharing my thoughts AFTER reading it.

Professor Failure

What can we learn from failure? Aside from the fact that there’s an entire industry of business literature fetishizing the idea that it has much to teach us (as a kind of doppelgänger to the decades of success literature that took a person or business’s success as given and tried to look backward for an unmistakeable pattern that could’ve predicted it) I’m personally skeptical of what failure might teach. Life is complex and there is often little to separate the failure and the success but timing and luck in certain endeavors.

So, I approached Freeman-Shors book with some trepidation as the subtitle of the book suggests this is a study of failure. Au contraire, what we have here is actually a psychological or behavioral study, somewhat in the vein of Benjamin “you are your own worst enemy in investing” Graham, which studies not failure per se, but rather how investors respond differently to failure and thereby either seal their fate or redeem themselves.

A Behavioral Typology

The book recounts the investment results of several different groups of portfolio managers who were categorized, ex post facto, into various groups based upon how they reacted to adverse market conditions for stocks they invested in. The Rabbits rode most of their failed investments down to near-zero before bailing out and taking the loss. The Assassins had a prescribed set of rules for terminating a losing position (either a % stop-loss, or a maximum time duration spent in the investment such as a year or a quarter). The Hunters kept powder dry and determined ahead of time to buy more shares on a pullback (ie, planned dollar-cost averaging).

While I am suspicious of backward-looking rule fitting, I do think the author’s logic makes sense. What it boils down to is having a plan ahead of time for how you’d react to failure. The Rabbits biggest mistake is they had none whatsoever, while the Assassins managed to protect themselves from total drawdowns but perhaps missed opportunities to profit on volatility rebounds. The author seems most impressed with the Hunters, who habitually started at a less than 100% commitment of funds to a planned position and then added to their investment at lower prices when the market gave them an opportunity to do so.

Freeman-Shor’s point is that when the price falls on your investment you need to decide that something material has changed in the story or facts and you sell, or else you need to be ready to buy more (because if it was a good buy at $10, it’s a great buy at $5, etc.) but you can not just hang tight. That isn’t an investment strategy. This is why I put this book in the Benjamin Graham fold, the message is all about being rational ahead of time about how you’d react to the volatility of the market which is for all intents and purposes a given of the investing landscape.

Learning From Success, Too

The author goes over a couple other behavioral typologies, Raiders and Connoisseurs. I won’t spoil the whole book, it suffices to say that this section is worth studying as well because it can be just as nerve-wracking to try to figure out whether to take some profit or let a winner ride when you have one. Freeman-Shor gives some more thoughts based on his empirical observations of other money managers who have worked for him on when it’s best to do one or the other.

More helpfully, he summarizes the book with a winner’s and loser’s checklist.

The Winner’s Checklist includes:

  1. Best ideas only
  2. Position size matters
  3. Be greedy when winning
  4. Materially adapt when losing
  5. Only invest in liquid stocks

The last bit is probably most vital for a fund manager with redeemable capital.

The Loser’s Checklist includes:

  1. Invest in lots of ideas
  2. Invest a small amount in each idea
  3. Take small profits
  4. Stay in an investment idea and refuse to adapt when wrong
  5. Do not consider liquidity

Free e-Book With Purchase!

It is hard for me to decide in my own mind if this book is a 3.5 or a 4 on a 5-point scale. I think of a 5 as a classic, to be read over and over again, gleaning something new each time. This would be a book like Security Analysis or The Intelligent Investor. A 4 is a good book with a lot of value and a high likelihood of being referenced in the future, but not something I expect to get a new appreciation for each and every time I read it. A 3 is a book that may have been enjoyable overall and provided some new ideas but was overall not as interesting or recommendable.

While I enjoyed this book and did gain some insight from it, and I think the editorial choices in the book were bold, it’s closer to a 3 in my mind than a 4 just in terms of the writing and the ideas. I’ve found a lot of the content in other venues and might’ve rated it higher on my epiphany scale if this was one of the first investment books I ever read.

But something that really blew me away is that the publisher, Harriman House, seems to have figured out that people who buy paper books definitely appreciate having an e-Book copy for various reasons and decided to include a copy for free download (DRM-free!!) in the jacket of the book. This is huge. I read my copy on a recent cross-country flight and was really agonizing about which books from my reading stack wouldn’t make the trip for carry-on space reasons and then realized I could take this one with me on my iPad and preserve the space for something else. That’s a big value so I am going with a 4 as a result.


Review – Death By Meeting (@patricklencioni, #meetings, #business)

Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable About Solving The Most Painful Problem In Business (buy on

by Patrick Lencioni, published 2004

A “valueprax” review always serves two purposes: to inform the reader, and to remind the writer.

The Model

Meetings are boring because they lack drama. Leaders must look for legitimate reasons to provoke and uncover relevant, constructive ideological conflict.

Meetings are ineffective because they lack contextual structure. We need to have multiple types of meetings and clearly distinguish between the various purposes, formats and timing of those meetings.

Meetings should start with the injection of drama in the first ten minutes so participants appreciate what is at stake. For example, illustrate the dangers of making a bad decision, highlight a looming competitive threat or appeal to commitment to a higher mission or vision for the organization.

Then, the meeting leader should mine for conflict whenever disagreement is present. It is better to hash the issue out and let everyone say what is on their mind then to let resentment and personal politics build. And it will require “real-time permission” from the meeting leader to make it work. Conflict must be affirmed as normal and desirable to increase the likelihood it occurs.

The Four Meeting Types

There are four different meeting types to be used based on content:

  1. The Daily Check-In, aka the “huddle”, a standing meeting no more than 5 mins in length; each participant reports on what they’re working on or need help with that day
  2. The Weekly Tactical, weekly/bi-weekly, 45-90 mins in length; Lightning Round, go around the table and report on 2-3 priorities for the week in 60 secs or less per person; move to Progress Review, including a report of KPIs, 4-6 per person, 5 mins total; Real-Time Agenda, this grows out of the Lighting Round and Progress Review portions, an agenda for discussion should focus on critical issues raised in these first 15 minutes; the overall goal is to resolve issues and reinforce clarity
  3. The Monthly Strategic, every 2-4 weeks, minimum of 2 hours per topic; discuss a few critical issues that affect the business fundamentally; need to occur regularly to serve as a timely “parking lot” for critical issues raised in the Weekly Tactical
  4. The Quarterly Off-Site Review, meets quarterly and offsite to focus on big picture strategic issues; 1-2 days; includes time for a team assessment; personnel review, identifying stars and poor performers; competitive and industry review to spot trends; most important objective is to build team unity

Sneaker Time

“Sneaker Time” is what is created by a lack of effective meetings and structure. Anything that can not be communicated (or is not communicated) in a group meeting means walking around the office for one-on-one visits. Given there are multiple people on the average team, this time burden involved in communicating can quickly zap teams of their vitality and effectiveness. A great organization can not afford sneaker time and therefore it can not afford to not make its meetings great.

Notes – The Organized Executive (@bhbcs, #organization, #leadership, #timemanagement)

I recently had the good fortune to listen to Bruce Breier, a time management and organization guru, give a presentation on “The Organized Executive” at my monthly Vistage group meeting. What follows are notes from his handouts and the discussion that I considered valuable. Bruce is a professional consultant and can be reached by e-mail. He’s located in La Jolla, CA.

“What’s your biggest time management challenge these days?”

The best place to start in improving one’s time management and organizational practices is to consider a simple needs assessment. Which of these are you missing or need help with?

  1. a methodology for building and managing your annual business plan
  2. an organized program for your direct-reports that define goals, metrics and strategy
  3. a master task list to track commitments and to-do items
  4. a consistent daily and weekly planning system
  5. scheduled private work time (PWT) each day to accomplish priorities
  6. reducing unjustified interruptions to your workflow throughout the week
  7. method for delegating tasks for on-time delivery through the efforts of others
  8. effective and efficient meetings within the business
  9. a system for organizing and managing the email environment
  10. an uncluttered office and work area

Try printing this list and seeing which items you are missing. Then observe your direct reports and do the same for them (or ask them to complete the needs assessment on their own and share the results with you). You will quickly identify the high priority items missing from your time and workflow management system. Start with the most critical item first, then work through the remainders in order.

Building the system

An effective time and workflow management system is a system. That seems redundant but it’s worth repeating– all the elements must work holistically. You task management system should work with your calendar system; your communication system (email, phone and live meetings) should work with your goals and annual plan process. The idea is to create consistency between all the elements to drive a focused effort in the direction of greatest personal and organizational priorities. As an executive, you can not afford to use a system that operates any other way.

After performing your needs assessment, you can consider the following recommendations as solutions to the gaps in your organizational process. Remember, these elements all work together so make sure you understand how, if you don’t have a gap in a particular area, maintaining your current system in that area will serve to complement these recommendations:

  1. use a sequential checklist to develop, finalize and regularly manage the business plan for the fiscal year
  2. establish “success descriptions” for each position on your staff, defining priority goals, metrics and the organizational strategy to achieve excellence for the fiscal year
  3. utilize a master task list system for your role and populate it with to-do items, attaching due dates or deadlines to all tasks
  4. establish a recurring appointment for weekly planning on your calendar, a day and time to get ready for the following workweek; utilize the “bookends” concept, allowing a 15-30 minute start up period each morning and a 15-30 minute wrap up period each afternoon
  5. schedule 5-10 hours per week of Private Work Time (PWT) to accomplish daily and weekly priorities; pre-determine how this time will be spent during your morning book end
  6. establish a written policy for diagnosing all interuptions for urgency prior to causing or accepting them and communicate it to all members of your team; lead by example by respecting other people’s time accordingly
  7. delegate through acutely clear language in terms of what the desired outcome looks like and when it must be accomplished by; proofread for clarity, accuracy and tone before sending electronically
  8. commit to a standard protocol for meetings (such as the structure outline in “Death by Meeting“) and establish a zero tolerance policy for meetings that do not comply
  9. purge inbox and sent items folders of all inactive messages and institute the “Active Only” or “Inbox Zero” method
  10. allocate time to completely purge and organize your physical workspace, establish a filing system for active and inactive documents

Putting It All Together

Now that you’ve performed a needs assessment and considered specific recommendations for improving your organizational practices, what follows are guidelines for implementing each recommendation successfully.

The Business Plan Model

The BPM begins with an executive summary of the the business in terms of where it has been and where it is going and what needs to be accomplished in the next year to get there. This is followed by the vision statement, which outlines the guiding principle of the organization’s actions (such as “To be the highest quality provider of fresh seafood groceries”). The business plan should include a strategic assessment (SWOT analysis) and an outline of the top 3-5 fiscal year priorities. Who will be in charge of these priorities and accomplishing them is the goal leader identification component, followed by the strategy for accomplishing each. Key Success Indicators provide agreed upon metrics for measuring progress toward the achievement of each prioritity. The team should also develop graphical scoreboards to aid in “at a glance” study of performance to help the team know if it is winning or losing and how much time is left to get the job done. Finally, the team divides the strategy into 90-day plans and meets monthly to review the effort to date.

The Success Description

This is a one page business plan for each position on the team (the executive needs this for the direct-reports on his staff, but they in turn should develop them for each position on their departmental teams). The idea is to make it clear what everyone’s responsibility is to help achieve the annual business plan outlined above, so these descriptions need to reference the items developed in the business plan to produce clarity of vision and harmony of effort. Each position should have three top priorities and an organizational strategy for success as well as unique KPIs. Like the annual business plan, 1-3 graphical scoreboards for each position help each “player” to tell if they’re winning or losing and how much time they have to turn the game around. Reviews should be conducted, utilizing the graphical scoreboards, monthly.

The Master Task List

The MTL is simple to employ. First, select a method for managing the MTL, such as a notebook and pen, online software like Evernote or even an Excel spreadsheet. Next, fully populate the list with ALL tasks and to-dos. Every document sitting on your desk or in your email or residing on other assorted task lists should be translated into an actionable activity and placed on the MTL. The most critical step is to assign a due date or deadline for every task, ie, “Deliver inventory analysis report to inventory manager by Tues, July 1st”. A task without a due date can not be prioritized and is unlikely to be accomplished. Once each task has a due date, sort the list by priority, earliest due dates first. Scan the list periodically to make sure you are aware of intermediate steps necessary to accomplish long-dated items– you can also consider creating intermediate, sort-term tasks and due dates for such items to make sure you don’t miss a deadline far in the future because you forgot to prepare essential steps ahead of time. Items which come due repeatedly should be on a calendar and set up as an “appointment” rather than as part of the MTL; they can be added to a daily priority task list during morning planning as necessary.

New tasks should be “downloaded” from sources (email, notepads/meeting logs, conversations with others, etc.) daily, deadlined and re-sorted. Another good practice is to have a “parking lot” on your MTL that tasks can be added to ad hoc throughout the day, then re-sorted at the end of the day for future work. As an executive, request MTLs for ALL managers and check-in on their MTLs occasionally for organizational awareness.

Weekly Planning

Private Work Time (PWT) is essential for every organized, effective executive. This is time in which the individual is inaccessible to anyone else and can focus resolutely on their own work and priorities. Select the day of the week and the time of that day and then make it a recurring appointment on your calendar. Develop a realistic task list to get accomplished during each PWT period during that day’s morning start-up. To allow availability for PWT, confirm meetings for the following week by Friday afternoon and then do not schedule new meetings and activities during the week that weren’t confirmed the week previous, otherwise you can quickly overschedule all “available” gaps on your calendar and leave no time for PWT. Utilize acutely clear delegation to keep yourself uninterrupted and your organization moving while you are in the zone.

Workday Bookends

Workday bookends are the way to synchronize activity between the MTL and actual daily workflow. Begin with the Morning Start-up: scan email for urgent messages, define today’s priority tasks (3-5) and prepare notes and research for scheduled meetings. Time permitting conduct email correspondence as necessary. At the end of the day, leave scheduled time for the Daily Wrap-up: download new tasks to the MTL, file/toss new paper documents, preview tomorrow’s schedule, engage in acutely clear delegation as needed and finish with clean-up email correspondence. Establishing this “spool up/spool down” rhythm to your day is critical to getting control over your time and workflow. The time spent in preparing and debriefing will save much more time lost to interruptions, lack of focus, confusion of priority, etc.

Private Work Time (PWT)

One of the most powerful and most overlooked concepts in every organized executive’s arsenal. Key considerations are how much time per day to devote to PWT? All at once or split it up? What specific time(s)? When will you begin using PWT and when will you schedule it? The concept is pretty self-explanatory. Think of it as a “meeting with yourself”, put it on your calendar and don’t allow interruptions just as you wouldn’t allow interruptions in a meeting with staff, vendors or customers.

Interruptions Management

Interruptions confuse prioritize, ruin focus and create a culture of crisis and anxiety for everyone. It’s critical that everyone in the organization be offered the opportunity to work without interruption as much as possible during the day. An interruptions management system is the solution. First, develop a policy about interruptions in terms of urgency and importance– what kind of interruptions, if any, are acceptable to make (ie, “The building is burning down” or “A key customer is on the line and threatening to end his contract”). Every interruption must be able to be classified as important according to a pre-determined standard, and urgent in terms of not being able to be handled any other time than NOW. Develop a procedure for communicating interruptions and issue a directive to all team members instructing them on how to handle interruptions going forward. There may be different policies based on departmental versus organizational needs (ie, “You may interrupt the sales manager with a customer pricing request; you may not interrupt the CEO with a customer pricing request.”) Request compliance from all team members and monitor for effectiveness monthly.

Acutely Clear Delegation

Acutely Clear Delegation means delegating with instructions that leave no ambiguity or room for creativity in terms of the quality of output or the return time necessary. ACD must explain, specifically WHAT is to be accomplished by WHEN. Attention should be given to the receiver of the instruction in terms of their level of sophistication and communication preferences (ie, don’t send an email to someone who is known for failing to check it). If being sent electronically, proofread. The most important part of ACD is the timing component– if the person receiving the delegated task does not think it can be accomplished in that time frame, they need to immediately communicate with the delegator and explain the obstacles to completing the task on time and requesting a new deadline that is realistic. Finally, the person delegating must “Delegate and Trust”– they have to have faith that the person responsible will take ownership and see it through. Failure to do so should result in a coaching session on commitment to accountability. Repeat failure may be grounds for reviewing the employment agreement. An organized executive does not have time to micro-manage delegated tasks.

Standard Meeting Protocol

A well-run meeting involves several elements. The first is to note at the beginning of the meeting the cost of the meeting in terms of the time value of money or the money value of a goal to be communicated and achieved after the meeting, or the strategic value to competition in failing to meet on this issue. This sets a meaningful context for meeting participants to appreciate the seriousness need for focus and attention. Any items requiring preparation in advance by meeting attendees should be made known by the meeting leader. The meeting must start on time and end on time so that everyone can plan their day around it and not develop resentment about meetings creating interruptions or unplanned challenges for their other activities that day. Meetings require active participation by all participants– if there is nothing for them to do, they shouldn’t be there. All participants should take notes so they have their own records and if there is an official secretary for the meeting, notes should be collected and distributed after the meeting is over. All meetings should end with an “Acutely Clear Ending”, ie, “Person X will accomplish Task Y by Time Z following the conclusion of this meeting” so everyone knows what must be done before the next meeting. For more meeting structure and concepts, consider the review of “Death by Meeting“.

Email Management

The first task to get control of email is to decide on the Active Only or Inbox Zero method. Active Only means your inbox only contains items you’re actively addressing– all others are trashed, archived or added to a task list for future follow-up. Inbox Zero is a slightly more extreme version of this approach where all emails requiring follow-up are created as tasks on the MTL and everything else is archived when read or trashed if it is pure junk. In this situation, no items are left in the email inbox once the inbox has been scanned and sorted. Once a method is chosen, purge/file/task all inbox messages accordingly. If your email software is capable of it, sort your email inbox by oldest on top– it’s easy to get distracted by the “First In, First Out” email management method and ignore aging items received earlier. Always proofread emails before sending, particularly when delegating tasks that you expect follow-up on from others. Hold all emails that are not crucial right now. Finally, utilize the workday bookends concept to catch up on non-critical email correspondence.

Office Organization

Begin with a total office purge. Accumulate all items on desktops or work surfaces, filing drawers, etc. into one stack. Create a new filing system in filing drawers based on anticipated or most logical filing categories for your workflow or business needs. Then, go through your pile and choose to either File/Archive in your new filing system for later reference, Task for an item requiring follow-up (then trash once Tasked) or Trash for anything that does not require follow-up and is no longer relevant or valuable. For items requiring archiving, consider scanning a copy into your computer and maintaining your filing system electronically instead. On your desk, set up chronological desk trays for incoming media. To maintain your office organization system, institute a “File/Act on/Delegate/Shred” process at your Daily Wrap-up. You should come to and leave from a spotless office/desktop everyday.

Additional Resources and Further Reading

Here is a list of books for the “Organized Executive” recommended by Bruce Breier for further study:

Other Notes
Here are other notes I took during the discussion which help give further context and detail to Bruce’s system:

  • Start your day with a daily plan numbering top 3 priorities for the day; do this in the first 15 mins after arrival
  • Friday is the best day of the week to plan for the following week, 15-30 mins of uninterrupted time around 3/330pm
  • “What gets scheduled, gets done.” Schedule “PWT” (Private Work Time), 1-2hrs, 1-2x per day on your calendar where you are unavailable, inaccessible and uninterruptable to focus on your primary tasks; this is your executive privilege and you should make full use of it
  • A task, project or goal without a deadline or due date is a philosophical statement; use a master task list sorted by due date to keep yourself organized and productive
  • “Good is the enemy of great”, we must be selective to be excellent
  • Never let anyone sit down in your office until you know what they want
  • 5 necessary characteristics of those who work for you: initiative, self-reliance, commitment, accountability and empowerment
  • You need a written policy about how to handle disruptions: all disruptions must be prioritized for urgency and answer in the affirmative the question, “Does this need to be addressed RIGHT NOW?”
  • Maslow, human beings are deficiency-motivated, ie, avoidance of fear or pain; hard to make change happen until a person experiences enough fear or pain without it
  • Goal-setting approach for annual business plan: 1 goal each related to customer service, business development, financial performance, staff effectiveness and operational efficiency
  • By Friday afternoon of the present week, next weeks meeting calendar should be finalized, all new requests can be made for the following week; this prevents you from filling your calendar with meetings in “open slots” and never having time to get work done; also ensures you can be prepared for all meetings with plenty of time
  • Delegation depends on trust; trust requires your direct reports be “CMO”, Competent, Motivated and Organized; if your manager is not competent, you can train them; if they are not motivated, you can coach them; if they are not organized, you can help them build systems; if they are unresponsive, you may need to find someone else to get the job done
  • Successful leadership entails continually accomplishing pre-determined priorities primarily through the efforts of others
  • You don’t keep up with what you delegate to others, you delegate and trust. If you can’t trust, you have a problem and need to work on that
  • Let your leadership team run your annual plan, and your annual plan run your business; run your daily plan, and let your daily plan run your day
  • Schedule monthly reviews with your direct reports to see where tweaks need to be made