All social groups seek the company of people who help them reach their goals. For example a network-gaming oriented group will generally be composed of people with profiles compatible with the purpose of the group: gamers. On the other hand, people with generally incompatible profiles are rejected. This becomes a problem when someone still wants to join with an inconsistent group. The only solution for that individual is to adapt and align their goals with those of the group, or find another group compatible with their current profile.
In the case of a social group, this process is more or less unconscious. In a company, it's the same thing, but with the aggravating circumstance that you generally cannot choose. If you are not aligned with corporate goals, you will eventually pay the price. On the other hand, if you understand that the closer you get to the corporate goals, and show that you will help achieve them, you will become indispensable.
This type of person was recently named the Linchpin in the latest book by Seth Godin (which has the same name). Here is his description:
There used to be two teams in every workplace: management and labor. Now there's a third team, the linchpins. These people figure out what to do when there's no rule book. They delight and challenge their customers and peers. They love their work, pour their best selves into it, and turn each day into a kind of art.
Linchpins are the essential building blocks of great organizations. They may not be famous but they're indispensable. And in today's world, they get the best jobs and the most freedom.
This book is really worth every penny, and if you like this article, I strongly suggest you to buy it as it is full of similar content.
In this article I will tell you about a simple and effective way to become indispensable: make sure you do not create new problems, and on the other hand, that you solve a lot. Become a problem solver.
The trick in organizations is to identify what is "creating a problem" and what is "solving a problem". For example it is not necessarily creating or resolving bugs. It's evident that if you create many bugs, you're creating problems, even though when you solve them, you are solving problems. I will focus on another kind of behavior that can be considered, generally unconsciously, the same as the act of creating problems. Some problems that you are not directly responsible for will still be associated with you just because you report them. Or worse, you don't report them. Here are examples of behavior that will be seen by your management as problems that you create (or bring) while this is not necessarily the case:
- You complain to your hierarchy about your work environment.
- You indicate that your application has serious performance issues.
- You report that the components suite that you purchased is not suitable for your needs.
All these examples are your problems until you talk to your manager. They become the problem of the manager from the moment you bring them to him. Even if you are not directly responsible for these worries, you'll be automatically associated with them. The average manager has no time to deal with new problems and he will try to avoid anything related to them.
The first tip is to manage them yourself as much as possible and thus to take responsibility. You have everything to gain with this attitude. Because in this case, you do not create the problem, you are really solving them! Very few people have the ability to take responsibility for such decisions. But we can develop that talent by doing. When you face a problem, ask yourself the question "can I myself, or with the help of my colleagues solve this problem?"
Unfortunately in many cases this is not so easy. You will simply not be able to adopt that attitude for organizational reasons, such as hierarchical approval processes. If you can't be the decision maker, you must pass it to the management. Faced by what seems to be a great constraint, there is a very simple technique that is used by the indispensables and almost always overlooked by others: report the problem and your recommended solutions.
Too many people limit themselves to reporting the problem and then are inevitably associated with it. When reporting the possible solutions you are associated with them and then credited for what you've become: a person who solves problems. Someone absolutely essential to keep in the organization in contrast to those who create the problems and who it would be better to get rid of. The more you act this way, the bigger your circle of influence grows. Your opinion will have more and more value. While you are improving your company, you'll also improve your own working conditions.
Just like the basic concept, the technique is extremely simple to remember. When you encounter a problem that affects you or your company, do the following:
- Identify possible solutions to the problem.
- If you think you can solve the problem directly, without the advice or approval of a tier, do it without hesitation.
- You cannot (yet) make the final decision? Then report the problem with the solutions obtained in step 1.
Examples repeating the above examples:
- You complain to your hierarchy about your work environment: if the problem can be solved with a purchase, specify the references of the desired material as well as all associated costs. Don't forget to explain how you are affected and how it impacts the company.
- You indicate that your application has serious performance issues: don't excuse yourself, they don't care. Recommend potential architecture changes instead or at least an external expert that could come up with more advice.
- You report that the components suite that you purchased is not suitable for your needs: propose a few alternatives that you have tested and always give your personal opinion (what you would pick if you were the boss).
Additional tips to write an effective problem/solution report:
- Be convincing by using an appropriate response structure (see this article).
- Write your email so your boss just has to write the word yes or no in his reply.
- If you have many problems to report together with your solutions, send them in one mail only, even if it's more logical to have separate threads in case of discussions. The average boss will generally try to avoid discussions.
- Focus on the problem and the solution and only that. Avoid talking about people when possible.
Becoming indispensable to someone is a lot about solving his problems and having the same goals. Companies are seeking problem solvers. Become one of them.
When I needed to do presentations of Scrum to executives and students, I started to look for existing ones. Most presentations I found were very good for detailed presentations or training. But what I was looking for was a presentation I could give in less than 15 minutes (or more if I wanted). Most of them also contained out dated content. For example, the latest changes in the Scrum framework were not present and what has been removed was still there.
I decided to start over and created a new presentation with the following objectives:
- Based on the official Scrum Guide: the structure is very similar and I attempted to extract only the essentials.
- Not more than 10 slides (without the front and back cover).
- The least text possible to extend the possibility for the presenter to say what is important to his organization without missing the core principles of Scrum.
- Having good visuals to make it attractive.
- A final invitation to read the official Scrum Guide for those who wanted more detailed information.
The result is a ten slide presentation that you can download then use as a powerpoint by clicking on the button below. Images are also available so you can use another presentation tool. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License (commercial usage & sharing allowed & encouraged). Feedback & suggestions welcome in the comments of this post.
Here are the slides:
When you need to convince your boss about something, such as upgrading your development machine, the most common mistake you can make is to talk about your problem. You'll face some situations in which your opinion, your problem, your pain is not really that important compared to all the other issues your boss must deal with. In fact you should never make the assumption that the person you will talk with is going to put your interests before his own. Of course you know many people that will be genuinely interested in your well being, but most of the time, convincing someone to do something you think is good can be very difficult, especially for the introverts. Coming up with a solution instead of the problem alone is not enough. You must learn to focus on other people's interests and come armed with facts rather than opinions.
Focus on him, not yourself
Focus your argument on your boss's interests, and avoid mentioning yours. Let's take the example of the machine upgrade: you want a new machine because your existing one is too slow and you really dislike working on it. Don't go to your boss and tell him: "I need to upgrade my machine because mine is too slow, it is painful to develop on it". If your boss cares less about your comfort than his budget, you will certainly get answers like "Maybe later" or "I'm out of budget" or even "But you are not blocked right?". Instead, put yourself in his shoes and try to identify what's important for him.
To help you with that, try to ask yourself how he is evaluated by his own bosses (or customers). How does he report his own performance? In that particular scenario, there are good chances that he will be praised if his team brings new functionality on time and blamed in the case of late deliveries. Your lack of productivity is the pain. Try to tell him: "I need to upgrade my machine because my productivity is really badly affected right now". Be prepared to get another kind of answer! At best a formal acceptance without resistance but in many cases, a demand for clarification.
Come with facts
Any serious boss will ask for more information to understand your needs and eventually use it to validate their decision. You will certainly meet bosses that use them to cover their own backsides. Don't wait to be asked for it, and augment your request with facts that demonstrate the real positive impact on the pain you identified earlier. Be sure to use real facts: articles written by an industry authority is not enough. There are good chances that your boss practices critical thinking and coming with blog posts from people he has never heard of will have little effect. For the example we used earlier you could calculate the startup time or the gain in compilation time. You must convert that time into a metric he is sensitive to: money. Multiply the time you save for one or two years by your hourly cost and compare it to your upgrade's costs. If the gain is real, you won't have any problem in getting your upgrade.
To increase your chances, be sure that your argument uses simple words to avoid any misunderstanding, especially if you are presenting it to non technical people. Be sure to be concise as well: you would be surprised by the number of people reading only the introduction and conclusion or who ignore any email longer than a certain size.
Formula = Boss Pain(s) * (Real) Facts * Simplicity * Conciseness
- You should never ask your boss for permission to use a given development practice. Your boss should not impose a way to work on you but should focus on the result instead. You don't tell the taxi driver how to drive his car. You don't tell the hairdresser how to cut your hair. You don't tell a coder how to work with his code. If you think your code needs refactoring. Refactor it. You are the expert, your team should decide what practices you use. Your boss is supposed to decide WHAT to do and more importantly WHY you are doing it. You should take care of HOW you build it. If you are in the situation where your boss tells you how to work, you should ask yourself if that environment is really good for you.
- If you want to attend a conference, try to compare the costs to formal training courses and be sure to put all the advantages such as the opportunity to network.
- If you need a specific tool, be sure to scan the seller's website to help you find the facts to make a good case.
Working from home or a private office is probably the future of knowledge age companies. It allows you to do away with commuting completely and to work in a quiet and non (over) interrupted environment (if you decide to). It's the opposite of the open space office. The gain in productivity can be huge. Both you and your (smart) boss are potential winners in the deal, not to mention the potential real estate saving for the latter.
Unfortunately, telecommuting is not for everyone though and this may be why it is not generalized yet despite the positive conclusions of the studies on the subject. Procrastinators may find it very difficult stay as productive as they are at the office. You will also need lot of independence and self confidence. Some employees may also suffer from isolation.
Procrastination and isolation are the two problems I will address in this post. Other problems related to telecommuting won't be debated here such as:
- security concerns,
- the fact that telecommuters are less likely to be promoted (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2009),
- potential loss of thrust by managers
- communication problems with your team
Here are the 7 things I strongly suggest you to try. I have experimented with this myself during the past 10 years. They provide some tips to help avoid both procrastination and isolation. Disclaimer: you may adapt them to your particular case and not take those empirical & personal observations as a generalization of what to do. I really encourage you to share your own experiences on the subject in the comments.
1. Use a schedule - as if you were in a formal office.
If you don't do so, you will be tempted to work too much or too little, depending on your personality. Both are problematic long term. Having a fixed schedule will not only create some sort of rule to manage your time, but also help you beat procrastination.
One of the keys to beat procrastination is to have "starters" and avoid "retarders". If you like to do non work related stuff such as reading news or browse internet, reserve 30 minutes before and after your fixed work time for it. When you feel the need to do it while you are into your work time, remember you will be able to do it after. It usually calms down the need for it and after some some time, the addiction will disapear. When you arrive at your work time schedule, close everything and start working. This can be hard the first few (ten) times, then after a while the habit will kick in.
In order to avoid the frustration of having to leave off work in a middle of something, I try not to start debugging or another task that has unpredictable time duration at the end of the afternoon.
2. Replace commuting by physical excercises and meditation/relaxation.
Telecommuting will free up a lot of time, and you should take it as an opportunity to take care of yourself, and certainly not work more for the same salary. Consider taking up physical excercies and relaxation or meditation. It will improve your overall productivity and will contribute to reducing procrastination (Davis & Jones, 2007).
3. Take regular breaks
Since you don't have your environment anymore to remind you it's time to take a pause, use the pomodoro technique. I personnaly taking a break of 10 minutes every 45 minutes, but you may setup your own schedule. I use a special software for that called Workrave that I warmly recommend to you.
The pause can be either doing nothing (it's what I do every other break) and free your mind or do stuff off your computer such as class papers or call a colleague. In any case, this should occur in another room, and certainly not in front of a computer. I personally do three minutes of mindfulness or simple observation of what is happening outside (simply being in the present moment). Feel free to adapt this to what works best for you.
At noon, take a full break and don't eat in front of your computer. Some of you may enjoy some cooking time while others may be very relaxed by some time listening to music.
4. Put clear limits between work and your normal life.
This means you have a dedicated office/room you don't use for your pleasure but only work. This is very important especially if you have kids. Your office should not be used to anything else than working. This also means:
- don't work on your laptop when you are watching a movie with your family
- avoid any professional activities during the weekend
- remove all work thinking and be 100% mentally available for your well beloved
5. Go to lunch outside.
Isolation is the other major inconvenience to combat if you are affected by it. To avoid isolation a great solution is to integrate a social lunch with others. Try to do this at least once a week. Even if not with someone else, try to go outside at noon somewhere there are other people. Why not with other telecommuters?
6. Do co-working.
Co-working is the new trend that involves a shared working environment for people even if they have independent activity. It feels like your office, but it's not. To make this work, the co-work area must be close to your home.
7. Don't telecommute every work day.
If you telecommute every work day, you will progressively become more and more disconnected from your company's culture and people. It's inevitable and it will happen. Be sure to dedicate one or two days on site. When on site, go to lunch with your colleagues.