“We’re not happy to stop doing our best”

Disclaimer: Sports anecdotes are very annoying especially when people use them to reveal some truth in another sphere of life. This isn’t a sports anecdote.

The title is a quote from Ingrid Engen who plays soccer for Barcelona. And apparently, they are the team… But honestly, I don’t follow soccer. Best of luck to them.

It’s the wording that caught my eye. “We’re not happy to stop doing our best”. Good on you Ingrid. You sound like you care a lot. How lucky is she that she has found a career doing something she deeply cares about?

What happens when you flip this quote?

“We stop doing our best when we are not happy”.

I think that’s fair enough. How can we expect people to do their best work when they are not happy?

It’s probably too much to expect work to be responsible for making people “happy”. But we can try to make sure that work does not make people Unhappy?

Let’s say there is an expectation that everyone is at their desk at 9 AM on the dot every morning when the CEO is usually walking through the office. Imagine the stress this could create in an individual who has to drop their kid to school at the same time. They plan to work late to make up that time, 15 mins or so.

Should anyone give a damn where that person is as long as the work gets done? Isn’t it better that the person isn’t stressed out every morning?

But so many organisations blindly prioritise policy over happiness. More or less insisting that their employees are not as happy as they could be.

Ask yourself: Is there some aspect of our work environment that could be making employees unhappy?

Further reading, kinda related: I am reminded of Fredrick Herzberg and his article “One More Time: How do You Motivate Employees”. Here’s a good summary.

Prioritise the routine even during an emergency

In a typical knowledge work environment, there will be something new worth discussing everyday. Some crisis, or opportunity or emergency. There’s always something.

As leaders in organisations, it is very tempting to leap into action – We have to understand this new thing. We have to wrestle it into submission. And in doing, so we lead from the front.

But do we do this at the cost of sacrificing the routine?

  • Did we review the latest numbers for X?
  • Did we give the formal go-ahead for project Y?
  • Have we answered that outstanding query?
  • Did we finally decide on issue Z?

When we prioritise the new over the routine, we potentially kill or disrupt momentum in other parts of the organisation.

How many times have you heard/given the excuse “Oh, we ran out of time in the meeting before we got to that issue”. If this is a regular occurrence…

  1. Recognise that you have a problem
  2. Commit to covering routine items before covering the latest “thing”

Step 2 probably needs some reinforcement. Maybe an agenda for daily stand-ups or a daily reminder in your calendar.

The long term outcome of prioritising the routine should be that you have fewer emergencies and more opportunities. Win-win.

Do you have a Decision Making Velocity problem?

Before you read this, I don’t provide the answer, I am just wondering if you are aware of this even being an issue?

Do you have an issue that has been kicked around in meetings at whatever level: Within a team, across teams, at management meetings. Conversations that usually start with…

  • “We’ve discussed this before…”
  • “Did we ever find a resolution for…”
  • “Remember the thing with…”

Sound familiar?

If it does, is it a problem? In my experience, it is a massive problem. These issues have no clear solutions, information is lacking, politics may be involved. These sorts of discussions, if unmanaged, can waste hours upon hours. And because they are not resolved, they come back again – with the same old ground covered.

Not all infinite loops are easily identifiable

There’s a lengthy write up here that discusses how one organisation tackled their Decision Making Velocity. It’s not a bad read and includes some good Bezos’ quotes. My only problem with it is that it’s not something you can implement today.

Breaking Infinite Loops

If you encounter any of these types of discussions mentioned above, it can feel like you are stuck in an infinite loop. Each successive discussion does not seem to progress the issue. Not everyone may agree that there is an issue, some wishing that it would just go away. However, the fact that it regularly comes up indicates that this issue needs addressing.

But how to handle these issues? I find it helps to have the appropriate language and labelling for these issues. Just calling them out for what they are can help resolve some of the tension around them.

Recognising these infinite loops exist, and labelling them as such when identified can help you to move such items onto a different track – Separate from the usual decision making process that *usually* gets things done.

Ok, we’ve labelled it, what now?

We need to break the loop. How?

  • Give one person/team the responsibility for resolving it – Make sure they have the authority to tackle it as well.
  • Get immediate agreement that this issue will be parked for a minimum period of whatever time. Who knows, maybe the answer will reveal itself in the meantime.

That’s it. Do or Don’t – But Please, stop talking about it.

Are you a closed system at work?

Er… You are!

Are you a closed system?

Though so many of us act like we aren’t. We have incoming requests for our time – Our main resource. We process those requests and we produce outputs.

So three variables:

  1. Inputs
  2. Processing capacity
  3. Outputs

Sounds so straightforward, but there are so many ways to tune that system by fiddling with those three variables. And still, it can be simple.

But then further complicate the situation by combining your closed system with that of every other person or team in your organisation.

A network of closed systems and a closed system itself

The outputs of one system become the inputs for another, or probably several more. How are you supposed to optimise the output of the system as a whole? And all the while keeping in mind the overall aims of the organisation?

This is the kind of thing that occupies my mind.

Disagreements at work aren’t real

Well, sometimes they aren’t.

Assuming it is clear why the organisation exists? To make profit or serve some function or other. And assuming everyone working there is aware of this and also sound of mind… How do we ever have disagreements?

Not the smaller ones along the lines of “We need to prioritise X over Y” but the more serious ones: “You are wrong and you need to go away and die”. Rare, but they do happen.

Ever come away from a meeting wondering how someone could have such a radically different view to your own and what the hell is going on in someone’s head?

I used to have these thoughts and double down on them. Not healthy. I’d be angry and hurt… and not really helping anyone…

Many years ago I read something that changed how I look at this. Assuming we are all on the same side… the difference of opinion must be caused by a lack of some crucial information on one side.

It might seem small, but it changed so much for me.

I’ve developed a nose for when arguments may be imminent and can instantly reframe the encounter as a fact finding mission.

The argument never happens and work relationships are so much better for it.

Of course… Some people are just assholes. 😉

The right person for the right job

Timmy is an accountant with 15 years experience. He is organised and has a list of tasks stored in a popular web-based task management software. At the bottom of the list is a 10 month old task to change a company logo on a report he generates using some software he has become the in-house expert on. It’s a five minute task. When I ask him why he hasn’t done the task – he is visibly upset and what follows is an hour long chat on the nature of his job.

How can a “five minute” task be depressing?

Timmy knows his shit. After 15 years, he has a finely tuned operation. The important work gets done – But this task. He told me has looked at that task dozens of times over the year and each time he gets depressed. So much so that he can’t face doing it.

When I have discussed this with others, a common response is “Get over it, just knock it out and move on”. This ignores the fact that the five-minute task represents a change that has happened to Timmy over the years. Timmy has spent years developing all sorts of skills – hard and soft. However, a portion of his work has remained firmly unevolved – happy to wallow in it’s own slime.

The Flow Zone

With apologies to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Mihaly is the genius behind the concept of Flow. The diagram above is my own version of a graph that plots skill level against challenge. (Luckily I have avoided using terms like arousal).

Someone is said to be in flow when their skill is closely matched to the challenge before them. This is used in game design with each successive level being harder than the previous. There are implications for work as well, especially knowledge work.

Take Timmy, he is firmly planted in the “FFS!” quadrant when faced with the “change logo” task. It’s a simple task and he considers it beneath him. This kind of thing happens all the time – boring work for senior people, anxiety inducing work for junior people. The outcome is unhappy people.

What are your options if you or your colleagues are out of the flow zone and in one of these horrible quadrants?

The “FFS!” quadrant

This is where Timmy found himself – A simple task that bores a senior person. So what are the options here?

  1. Change the person
  2. Change the task

These options apply in all the quadrants. But wait, what? …how?

In the “FFS!” quadrant, either Timmy himself or his boss might want to consider “Changing the Person” by delegating to a junior colleague. “Great way to turn a 5 minute task into a day-long task” you might say – but that’s how a junior person becomes a senior person. Of course, you don’t want to nudge the junior person into the “Oh Fuck! quadrant – delegation needs to be matched with appropriate training. And given that this is a 5 minute task, training will probably take less than 10 minutes. Presto – Boring job be gone forever. (As an added bonus, have the junior document the process. They need to know the process inside out to document it and they can hand it over to someone even more junior next week).

How can you Change the Task? Maybe the logo replacement process could be automated? Or maybe logos can be removed entirely from the reports – Why are they there in the first place?

The “Cool, cool, cool, cool” quadrant


This quadrant is all about the tension between a noob’s confidence and their ability to deliver. As an employer, why would you set up a new team member to fail by plunging them into “Oh Fuck!” territory. Send them home at the end of every day or week knowing they have contributed and gently nudge them up the flow zone through learning and success. Improve their skills through training and coaching.

The “Oh Fuck!” quadrant

What a horrible place to be… Still learning your trade and shouldered with a crazy complex project. How did this happen? Did someone lie during the hiring process?

If you can’t change the task or change the person… Run away!

The “Oh Yeah!” quadrant

That’s the feeling when you are enjoying your work at a high level. You’ve got the knowledge and an exciting challenge.

I read somewhere that one of the big tech firms tasks their senior engineers with making the junior engineers more productive. So they work on internal tools and processes that help others to do their jobs better. Being senior, they understand the problems faced by juniors in their work – they have solved those problems in the past. Once they attain a certain level, they only work ON the work, not IN the work.

Tasks, not roles or jobs

Roles can be challenging and fun, and still have these stupid depressing tasks included. Weed them out. Everyone wins.

The problem with knowing how Bottlenecks work

Reading “The Goal” changed how my brain works when faced with a problem. To be honest, it took probably 4 or 5 readings but it did tilt my perception forever.

This week I had to nip into town, remembered it was a Tuesday and that the local Farmers market was on and that there would be heavy traffic as a result. Is our farmers market that popular that it would draw that much extra traffic? Nope.

So it must butt into the road and slow down traffic that way? Nope. All the stalls are well back from the road.

So WTF is the connection to the connection between the Tuesday market and the heavy traffic?

The market does straddle the main road through the town which goes straight through the town’s square. This means we get the occasional pedestrian crossing between traffic and rubber necking from nosey drivers.

It’s kind of shocking how much of an impact small changes can have on a system that is, under normal conditions, close to 100% capacity anyway. It’s worth spending a few mins watching this TedX video on traffic and the introduction of congestion charges in Copenhagen.

If you don’t have the time to watch it, let me summarise:

  • The introduction of a congestion charge led to a drop of 20% in the amount of traffic entering the centre of Copenhagen.
  • This had a dramatic effect on journey times.
Travel time in Copenhagen plotted against volumes of traffic following the introduction of a congestion charge,
Travel time in Copenhagen plotted against volumes of traffic.

As you can see from the chart, a drop of 20% in traffic led to a ~70% drop in travel time. (Roughly 50 mins to 15 mins).


The introduction of a congestion charge => 20% drop in traffic => Average Journey Time dropping from 50 minutes to 15 minutes!

So here I usually talk about Work, and Teams and what not… What has this got to do with it?

Have a look at how steep that curve is near point A. Every small reduction along the X-axis leads to massive life-improving change along the Y-axis. This is the promise of continuous improvement for me. There usually isn’t a congestion-charge equivalent in our work, but there may be 20 individual 1% changes that can transform a workplace from a place of chaos where we achieve very little to a place of peace where every day is productive.

Organise work around the resource, not the problem.

In the world of physical production, it makes sense to organise work in the sequence it needs to happen. For example a shoemaker would probably start with sole material, then the uppers, and finish with the laces… (Apologies to all the shoemakers out there).

In a factory setting, this sort of organisation may require the re-location of work stations so that work flows from step to step over the shortest distance possible. Hence one of the 7 wastes in lean is unnecessary motion.

I’ve seen this carried over into Knowledge work in the way that work is visualised. For example, individual kanban boards for separate projects. It makes sense, doesn’t it?

Well, I guess in some worlds, people only ever work on one project at a time. I’ve never actually seen that though. There’s always some unexpected demand from some forgotten corner. An urgent support issue or another project that needs help with this specific issue.

So does this issue get added to the Project Kanban board? If the answer is No, I can understand that. But I also think it is a mistake.

Looking at your project kanban, how do you prioritise the support request against the agreed project work?

If the answer is “Well you don’t”, then you are lying to yourself… Whatever gets worked on next implies a decision on priority has been made by someone. If this unexpected task, whether worked on or not, is not represented on your visualisation of work – Then you are lying to yourself.

So what’s the answer?

I’m not against project kanban boards, but if you don’t find a way to visualise all work, what’s the point?

So yeah, Organise the work around the resource, not the problem/project. If you want to know how I do this, contact me.

How to find bottlenecks in a Knowledge work environment.

Not sure if I read it in The Goal or the Phoenix project, but they mention that the easy way to identify the bottleneck in a factory setting is to walk around the factory floor and see where the biggest piles of inventory are sitting. Whatever process they are queuing for – That’s your bottleneck. The one process that limits the throughput of the whole factory. (Massive simplifications here, go read the books).

But what if your organisation doesn’t use a factory to create it’s outputs? What if you use mostly computers to do your day-to-day work? How the hell do you find a bottleneck then?

Of course you might still have physical bottlenecks, like money, licenses, processing power, or disk space… But even harder to identify and probably even more limiting are human bottlenecks.

Knowledge work relies on the sharing of information, making decisions, agreements, winks, nods and handshakes.

Some organisations go out of their way to limit this communication through strict hierarchies, silos etc… If you do work for one these organisations, my heart goes out to you.

Hopefully, you work at an organisation that encourages communication in all directions at all times. (And as long as it helps move work forward, why wouldn’t this be the case?) In such an organisation unfortunately, bottlenecks do and must occur. So how do you find them.

You could carry out extensive measurements across a ton of dimensions over several months.

Or you could check a few quick things:

  • Who is hard to get hold of?
    • Impossible to schedule meetings with?
    • Never available for a call?
    • Slow to reply to emails, or possibly known for not answering emails.

If no one pops to mind, this may be because of your position. As in, a CEO rarely has to wait for a response. Try asking someone who is at the bottom looking up for help.

Our duty to be responsive

In any organisation which relies on the flow of information (i.e. every organisation), there is a requirement for everyone to be responsive.

“But I’m much too busy.”

It is also your duty to ensure you have enough slack in your day, everyday so that you can respond to any and all queries coming your way.

“But if I do that I will be inundated with requests”

Possibly, for a while. If you find that you are, again it is your duty to delegate or automate the issues away. Being busy is not a valid excuse for being non-responsive. The consequences of not answering your colleague’s queries are far reaching.

  • A customer query goes unanswered for too long because someone on the front line is waiting for a Yes/No answer.
  • A project kick off date is missed because a finalised list of who should be involved is not agreed upon.
  • A technical project is brought to a halt while waiting for the deployment of a minor configuration change.
  • A letter goes into the post in error because the request to hold it wasn’t seen.

The thing is, it may not always be evident what is behind a query, a message, an email… It may be of no importance. But it could possibly be crucial to someone moving on with a piece of work. I guess you could build a system around determining the priority of each incoming request… But my suspicion is that it will be much easier to have enough slack in your day to allow you to be responsive.

The cost of not being responsive

The smooth flow of information in all directions is critical to the efficient operation of your organisation.

This is true if you are a one-person-band where you outsources some tasks. If you are a junior member of a team or if you are a CEO. So when a part of your organisation is non-responsive, or just tardy, then information is not flowing. Consequently, your business will suffer in ways that are not plainly visible to you.

The Drag of poor responsiveness hurts everyone trying to do their jobs because everyone is dependent on everyone else in the network. Poor network performance in one place, has ripple effects throughout.