Working smarter is an evolution. Digital tools are providing us ways to work more efficiently, but it comes down to being able to work with other humans. Efficient communication is the key to working smarter and optimizing the digital tools at our disposal.
I just finished the book Principles by Ray Dalio. I highly recommend this book; it packs so much wisdom from a man who is at the stage of his life where his primary focus is to pass it on. Radical transparency in your work life to achieve meaningful work and meaningful relationships—words to life by (literally).
I started writing down a list of what I’ll call rules to my work life—a list of things that I deem important to working smarter.
1. Make sure you understand the question before you answer it.
In my opinion we have a real challenge with communicating clearly. In our race to get things done quicker we have essentially killed off the “clarifying question.” Most people don’t speak clearly; they use terms that are not familiar to their audience, they leave out key context, they don’t fully think through their ideas before talking. That’s a fact of life. Yet, when people who are on the other end of that unclear communication receive it, they race to an answer. I’m constantly amazed by this. The question couldn’t have been any more confusing, yet three people race to answer it by making a pile of assumptions. Then we’re off to the races of talking around potential answers to a question nobody clearly understood in the first place.
The clarifying question is the best answer to any question because it proves that you were not only listening to the speaker, but you were actually trying to understand them. I think clarifying questions are the most powerful tool in the sales person’s toolkit. When you are speaking, and you get asked clarifying questions, you feel listened to. People buy from people who listen to them. People who ask clarifying questions talk less and learn more.
2. One of my favorite things to hear someone say in a meeting is “I’m going to say that back to you so I’m sure I understand.”
This is the best way to absolutely assure you understand the question. Can you say it back to the person in your own words and come into alignment about what question they want answered? You would be amazed how often you do this and the speaker says, “Nope that’s not what I was asking.” Some people think this makes them look stupid. We all have to let down that expectation in our head that we’re supposed to know everything—nobody knows everything. The people who think they do aren’t listening anyway. “I don’t know, I don’t understand, I want to say that back to you” is the most liberating thing you can learn. I wish I knew that when I was 20.
3. Don’t interrupt or talk over people.
This isn’t just rude, it basically prevents everyone in the conversation from hearing what’s going on. I don’t know what it is about some people, but some people just end up talking over people quite often. Don’t ever interrupt the person you’re trying to sell to—that is a sure way to lose a sale.
4. Don’t try and answer your own questions by offering multiple choice answers.
I guess people do this because they want to show the person they are asking that they have thought about it or that they know something about the possible answers. They ask a question and then they list what they think are possible answers. A conversation is not the S.A.T. test; don’t give people multiple choice answers. Just ask the question with a full stop period at the end. When you do that, you are not leading the person to a certain answer and you might get an answer that you don’t even know about it. The worst possible scenario is when you give the multiple-choice selection trying to prove you know something and the answer is “none of the above”! In your attempt to look smart you did the opposite.
5. Don’t create unnecessary artifacts.
We are creating digital messes everywhere. Just look at the desktop on your computer—does it have a random set of files and a couple folders labeled Sort, Super Sort, Never Will Be Sorted? Stop creating unnecessary artifacts. Most documents and/or spreadsheets are created to get alignment, not for publishing. If you are writing to get alignment/agreement, then don’t create an artifact that requires people to manage that artifact individually (a Word document attached to an email). Alignment is best achieved by a shared document that everyone has access to and can contribute to equally. Then there is only ever one version of the document (the latest version) and there is an audit trail of all the changes made to the document.
I cringe every time I get an email with an attachment. My team knows better, and I’ve trained most of my customers. It’s inefficient, it creates a mess, it’s based on the old paper document model of getting to alignment—we are not living under that model anymore. We need to update our behavior to the new model of getting alignment via a shared view of information that isn’t locked into a new version every time someone shares it.
6. Be a good muter.
So much of our business life is done via conference calls now. I don’t know what it is about some people, but they simply are not aware of the noise they are bringing to the call. I have listened to someone noisily eat their entire lunch, take a visit to the bathroom, transact with the UPS delivery man, and settle a dispute between their kids. There is this beautiful feature on every phone today that allows you to mute all background noise—use it.
Be a good muter. A good muter simply by default puts their phone on mute whenever they are not talking. It is acceptable to forget to unmute yourself because that’s a sign of a good muter. We will remind you when there is a lag in your answer that you’re probably talking into mute—we are all OK with that because we didn’t have to listen to you chew on ice for the last twenty minutes.
7. Stop looking at your phone.
When we are in person, we should be in person unless we take specific breaks to take care of our digital lives. One of my biggest frustrations is when we spend the time, effort, and money to spend face-to-face time together and the participants are on their digital devices. This has become acceptable behavior. I see it all the time. We’re in the middle of a meeting and we lose a few people to their phones—there is no “excuse me,” there is no explanation, just a signal to the room that something more important is going on outside this room.
One of most memorable business meetings I ever attended was at Staples. One of the things I loved about that meeting was that all the executives at Staples were at least five minutes early, all of them had paper/pen in front of them, and there were no phones in site. The start of that meeting displayed a culture that really impressed me. Full disclosure: it also impressed me that most of the executives at the time were women.
8. Failures are the richest sources of learning and growth.
When you lose you learn—if and only if you choose to. You don’t have to learn when you lose. It’s a choice. Most people don’t choose it. In every loss there is learning, even if you can justify the loss as primarily due to outside factors. The key to making failures a source of learning and growth is to have an event (meeting, conversation, debrief) that openly discusses why you lost. This is hard if the culture is not open to it. If you work in a blaming culture, then its nearly impossible. The more comfortable your culture is with doing “post-mortems” (why did you fail?), the better learning culture you’ll create. When the leader starts these post-mortems with how she/he could have done better it sets the tone for the company to follow.
9. Have one “trusted system of record” for your projects.
A project is a set of tasks that need to be accomplished to meet some goal or objective. If your project involves more than one person; you need a trusted system of record for keeping track of who is doing what, when, etc. There are lots of technology solutions to project management (e.g. Basecamp, Trello, etc). The tool isn’t as important as how you use it.
There must be one trusted system of record for the project. For software projects, we use a tool called JIRA. The JIRA project board is a list of issues that need to be done on the software. On software project calls, you’ll hear me ask “what JIRA issue are you talking about?” This is to remind the team that everything we’re working on must be in JIRA. The project must have one trusted system of record otherwise we’ll go crazy trying to keep everything straight.
Your trusted system of record can be a list of to do’s on a white board in the owner’s office. Your trusted system of record could be a notepad pinned to a cork board in the prepress department. It just must be (one) trusted system of record that has all the things that need to get done to meet your project’s objective.
As soon as you say, “We’re running the project over emails and attachments with conference calls to bring everyone together once a week,” I say there is not one place where everyone can look to see what’s been done, what’s left, and whose responsible for it. Don’t get me wrong—lots of projects get done like this. It’s just not very efficient and it’s not smart. Today’s digital toolset is rich with powerful solutions that are essentially free for you to create a single trusted system of record for all projects you work on.
It is hard to end on number nine because 10 is such a more acceptable number. I’m ending on nine because those are the nine ways to work smarter that are meaningful to me. My tenth would be forced simply to make the list a more acceptable total.
So much of work today is about efficient communication, internally with our teams and externally with our customers. Our learned behaviors in the paper-based workflow that a lot of us grew up with is out-of-date with our current digital reality. We must “think different,” and we have to act different to optimize the way we work in the digital world.