Working style – TBF (Tough But Fair)

Credit: The idea was first exposed to me in a Piers Anthony novel, Golem In the Gears (Xanth series). Delightful books full of puns, if you’re into that sort of thing.


Out at work, one has to learn to look out for oneself. No one else is going to stand up for you all the time. All too often, the corporate environment dictates that maximum effort be reaped from the employee, and minimum reward be given in order to harvest the highest possible output. This is why we have laws on overtime pay, minimum wages and so on, just so that sweatshop bosses have their hands tied.

How then, are we supposed to work? Do we just do the barest minimum of what is required and leave it at that? I’m never the kind to subscribe to something like this. At work, it’s all about giving your all and doing the best possible job you can. How do we gauge the situation however, so that we do not get abused?

This is where TBF (Tough But Fair) comes in. I liken it to using a mirror where the actions are reflected in kind.

  • If you have an understanding boss who appreciates your work and does his best to cut corners and make life better for you, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t give your all.
  • On the other hand, employers that treat you like a slave and demand you take on as much work as possible “because the company is not doing well” and that “the situation will be reviewed in six months or so”? Watch out. This is where you should learn to watch out for yourself, and understand you need to take a firm stance for yourself.

In summary it means this:

Always give your best. If your employer is a good one, keep it up. Should your boss be a slavedriver, repay it in kind.

One good turn deserves another, and if you are under a manager with no concept of two-way loyalty, he deserves to be ditched or repaid with what he is sowing. Loyalty begets loyalty, so if you are ever in a position to handle others, bear this in mind.

The essence of communication.

We talk about work over dinner all the time, especially now that Stan holds a full-time job. So we were discussing the ways bosses communicated, and it sounded like a good topic to expound on.

The human language, I was telling Stan some time ago, is a flawed communication tool. Everyone holds different definitions on the same word, especially when it applies to work. For example, the word “okay”. What exactly does it mean? Does it mean you have the task all completed a la “okay it is all done”, or does it mean “okay I am working on it so bear with me for a while”?

Therefore, it is absolutely essential that real effort be made to establish proper grounds on mutual understanding, so that there is no misunderstanding, and subsequently disasters and firefighting.

Coming from the perspective of a superior, it is even more important that you understand the language of your people. Forcing your own definitions of a word down to everyone else is one way to get it done (albeit a dictatorial style that I dislike), but the important thing is to come to a common understanding on work definitions.

Example:

If my administrator told me “okay” when I asked him on the progress of a server setup, I would not hesitate in asking for an exact explanation of the situation, leaving it as a vague response is not acceptable. Also, I would have discussed the way he responded, and suggested that he reply with a focus on getting a coherent and easily understood answer across, rather than an ambiguous answer that left plenty of question marks.

I for one, would not force people to use my definitions.

For example, using “completed” meant the task was completed with nothing outstanding”, whereas “ongoing” meant the task still had outstanding points to be cleared. Language is a fluid tool, and it is simply senseless to apply a chokehold on the way others speak.

I would be equally pleased if my guy had told me “it’s all done, nothing’s left out”; the response is clear enough without potential for miscommunication, while avoiding the need to adhere to a dictionary of forced work jargon. The idea here is to be able to get the point effectively across, without a compulsory reliance on keyword definitions.

Moral of the story? Communication requires effort, and having a sense of responsibility towards the meaning you are trying to convey. Work at it, and things should go a great deal easier at work.

Big picture, or the details?

This thought has been coming on and off for a while, especially when it comes to work philosophy.

I hear stuff about C-level executives needing to “see the big picture at the high level”, that a grasp of the entire story is needed to make big decisions. Of course, big decisions are never easy, and they often come with multiple factors embedded within. Never an easy choice, when you have to weigh the factors and decide in favour of the one with the most positives. So this rationalisation makes sense, when you think of it this way.

We then come to the bit about being detail-oriented. This fits my view on reality better, because I like to think of big things being made up of little things. If the small tasks are not working properly, it’s unlikely the big machine is going to function efficiently. Fixing things at the root, I call it. Perhaps this is how an engineer’s perspective is like, but I believe it to be the same even if it was from a business perspective. Processes have to be implemented right, unnecessary ones removed so that the business can run with minimum effort for everyone, and not chase paper trails all the time.

There is probably no real right or wrong to this, but I believe good leaders need to be detail-oriented enough to correct problems at the ground level, and set the correct direction at the top at the same time, before the organisation can move forward effectively.

So, which perspective do you take more often?

The work a startup needs.

So.

I was involved in this discussion a month or so ago, and Ashley (who is the founder of Qeeple) brought up a few valid points during the email exchange. I’ll quote her words here verbatim, screening all mention of the project.

You guys highlighted what effort you’re keen on putting in for this project and everybody seems to be more keen on taking a idea conception and advisory role.

No. This will not work.

At least 1 person needs to work on this full time. I don’t know if any of you have been involved in a start up before but execution is much much more important than sitting around giving ideas and criticizing. If you want to do this as a hobby, then you will get hobby results. Don’t expect to reap millions from doing this just 2-3 hours a night. If you want to talk about equity and stake at this point, any partner putting in just an advisory role should get single digit percentage stakes. The person(s) driving the project gets lion share.

What many aspiring entrepeneurs fail to realise, is that a fantastic idea is just that – an idea. Startups are more than just an idea, they embody hours of insomnia, sweat and work.

Something that I have seen quite often; people going off on the excuse of “I’m not a technical person”. Not being technically competent is not an excuse to shy away from work. If you are not ready to learn, then be prepared to know exactly what you want before outsourcing it. But outsource it with the intention of keeping the work on track, not with the mindset that you can fully entrust your brainchild to someone else, whom you think understands exactly how and what you want. Telepathy is sadly not in fashion, and only constant communication can bring about a successful product. Keep a tight rein, and stay abreast.

And most important of all? I would like to think that it is passion for your idea. Without passion, there will be a lack of motivation to play with your idea, to think of how it could be further streamlined. Neither will it keep you awake at night, ideas buzzing in the head incessantly. Or keeping you so hyped up, you feel like sharing your wonderful idea with everyone.

Incidentally, this is something I have not found yet, the next idea which inflames the mind. Until then, every single opportunity just shrivels into a bunch of tasks and details waiting to be completed. With efficiency, no doubt, but without passion.

Managing expectations at work.

Some stuff that they never teach you in school, matter the most.

One of these, I call managing expectations.

In an ideal world everyone would have perfect memory recall, be able to multitask like an effing octopus and finish everything rightttt on time. In the real version? People have leaky braincells, fail to multitask and more often than not hand things up late.

If you get assigned to a task, it’s inevitable that you would be slapped with a deadline. More often than not, the deadline is called ASAP. Not a very reasonable deadline, and something I really dislike.

One task labelled as ASAP, sure thing. Ten ASAP tasks? Alarm bells go off, not a good sign. Either you disappoint a few by only completing a few tasks, or you disappoint everyone by screwing everything up and fail to complete anything at all. Either way, someone’s going to be disappointed.

How then, do we manage expectations?

Let’s talk about a simple scenario here.

Your laptop dies on you. What else are we supposed to do? We bring it down to the service center, and let the guys have a look.

Not managing expectations: technician gives the laptop a once over, scratches his head and says, “I’ll get working on it right away. I’ll promise to have it back to you soonest but I can’t say when. But it will be soonest!”

So you end up waiting, and waiting, and waiting. And there’s nothing like waiting with no idea of what happens next. It could be fixed tomorrow, but it could be a week later for all you know.

Managing expectations:The dude hums and haws, looks at it for a bit and says okay, “I can’t say for sure we need your laptop for about a week. It should be fixed by then, we’ll give you a call if something else comes up.”

So you wait, knowing that the laptop should be fixed (hopefully!) by next week. Which leaves you free to worry about other inconsequential things in your busy life. And the tech gets time to finish his work in peace, without you calling up every five minutes or so to check on progress.

See what I mean? Setting a deadline, and letting the user know about the time frame is very important. Knowing things like this makes the user secure in his/her expectations on the task, and allows you to even stealthily slip a bit of buffer time into the task, should some other assignment crop up in between.

(Not forgetting the little superhero aura you emit, if you finish it way ahead of schedule. It helps. Really.)

So, managing expectations.

  • Set a delivery time frame, and give yourself some breathing space.
  • Also – prioritise! Not everything is a matter of life and death, some things are obviously more critical than others. Use your judgement, your boss didn’t pay you to be a brainless automaton.
  • Plan your schedule, work at it. Something I read in younger days goes to the tune of “failing to plan, is planning to fail.” Truer words were never said, winging it is always a bad idea.

Hope this helps someone out there to straighten their thoughts out and avoid unnecessary disasters at work! Comments are welcome as always.

Working the right way.

So.

My brother unexpectedly got a full-time job, which is really good.
And he has about a week to complete the handover from his predecessor, which is not so good.
And the company is due to shift premises a month later, which is definitely not good.

Given current circumstances, it looks to be an uphill battle, in terms of coming to grips with what he has got on his plate. Knowledge transfer, a big first-time migration and the need to beef up on core concepts in various areas. It’s a really big jump, but once this hurdle is past I’d say he’s got a pretty spiffy looking resume coming up. Among other areas, it inclueds: Cisco networking, VMware virtualisation, Windows server administration, VoIP and VPN – not bad at all!

Responsibility

One thing that I was trying to instill just now, was that you have to have a sense of responsibility on what you own. If something belongs to you, you had better damn well know the complete ins and outs of it.

What exactly does one have to know?

  • Function: what exactly does it do? Is it necessary?
  • Personnel: who is in charge? Who uses it?
  • Redundancy: what happens when it goes down? Are there existing options for backup?

Understanding the above, allows you to visualise your understanding in documentation.

Knowing the right questions to ask is an art in itself; I’d say he has some ways to go on this. More power to him, and let’s see how he handles his first challenge.

Keinian ideals – Tips on getting yourself organised v2011

So I wrote about how I organised my stuff back in 2009; it’s interesting how things have changed in my system since then. With new technology comes new tools, how wonderful.

One thing I would like to reiterate in this post is GTD. So what is GTD? IMO it’s the foundation that all the other tools build on, the one thing that holds everything together.

GTD philosophy: If you haven’t read David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity then I would highly suggest that you do. I read his book back in 2008 and some of the stuff still sticks with me simply because they work.

One interesting development after adoption of the GTD is that I am no longer flustered when I forget something, so long as I know where I can access the information. Like I so wryly told Stan, my brain resembles an array of pointers rather than a storage medium these days. Not that it’s a bad thing, since I keep cool and go about finding the information that I stored as opposed to screaming like a madman when my brain fails in its task to store information correctly.

Another quirk of the Internet age is that like so many others, my ability to concentrate has diminished greatly. I get easily distracted by that other tab, that other blinking icon and soon I forget what I was supposed to be doing. It’s only salved by the GTD way of getting it off your list rather than procrastinating. If I can get it done now, I push myself to do it now. If not, it gets shelved to be checked again the next day. Only discipline to the system and an iron will to avoid procrastination can serve as a barrier against the urge to leave everything in a heap.


Springpad: With the arrival of the HTC Desire, it became a lot easier to sync stuff from the phone to the computer. Notes typed up on the go can be accessed on the computer easily, and vice versa. Springpad is a great application because of the way it integrates. The Android app allows pictures and text to be stored on the phone + updated across to the Springpad site, and the Chrome app syncs from the Springpad site down to the Springpad tab on my Chrome browser. Makes random thoughts I jot on the go an easy copy and paste job onto a blog post if I need to.


Emails to myself: This still works, especially when it’s marked as unread with a yellow exclamation mark beside it – that stands for a task undone. An orange arrow means to be followed up on, but I’m waiting on it for now, and a blue information icon stands for important information. I love GMail.


Google Docs: Mostly used at work for documentation; makes more sense to store it in the cloud rather than a hard drive that might develop bad sectors someday, not to mention improved accessibility with internet access freely available.

On the personal side, it’s used as a slate for project planning e.g. the wedding. I draw up lists of things to be done, what I need to follow up on, and a schedule of events for the day as well as a contact list.


Google Calendar: Used as reminders for birthdays, upcoming Celtics games and shared events e.g. sending invitations out to remind Stan and V that we are meeting someone up for dinner.


SpendTrack: Nearly forgot about this! So I took some time out last year and lost a ton of sleep putting together a PHP/MySQL web app that I call SpendTrack. It’s a simple system that allows manual entry of your daily expenses (category, amount, where, description, when) with reporting functions (what I spent this month/this week, household expenses for the family by everyone). This has tremendously improved the way we track our spending, because everyone is responsible for entering their own spends, and it gives us an idea of how much we are spending every month.


That’s all for now, be back with another update in 2012 on this and we’ll see how things have changed.