Archive for Productivity

Mindmapping as a memory tool

InnovationThis image is a simple mindmap I created several years ago for an innovation project I led.

It does a good job of capturing a lot of information in a simple format. The actual map contained links to several of the sources, which made it even more useful, but it also had a stong visual impact on the audience, and helped us focus on what was important. Read More→

How To Experience Abject Failure

I know when I’m beat. I know how to cut my losses and get out. There’s a lot to be said for perseverance, but even more for not throwing good money after bad. What am I talking about? My outsourcing attempts with GetFriday.com. My God, what a disaster.

After 2 1/2 months I had exactly one – that’s 1 – single success with GetFriday. Every other task I assigned was a miserable failure. Even after getting a replacement PA who was, supposedly, experienced in web search and basic web skills I could not get even marginally relevant results when I asked for search data on specific topics.

Worse, when it became clear to me that this wasn’t going to work out it took nearly an act of Congress to get them to cancel my account. The entire affair was a disaster.

What I learned is simple – if this is the best the Eur-Asian nations can offer then we are in no danger of being overrun by a low-wage workforce. They demonstrated a lack of understanding, competence, response, and adaptability that was hard to comprehend.

I went so far as to start running my task descriptions by two of my colleagues to try and ensure I was being both clear and reasonable in my requests. The results I got were still stunningly inept.

In fairness, most of my colleagues asked the very basic question, “Well, what did you expect?” I don’t know, maybe something a little above abject incompetence? How about someone with enough self awareness to recognize when they did not understand a task and ask for clarification until they did?

If you read my experience with BellSouth tech support from 2006 you’ll see my GetFriday experience is neither my first encounter with such incompetence, nor is it any real surprise. I suspect the cultural and language barriers between a third-world workforce and US-based expectations are just too great to overcome. Or maybe it is something else. I do not know.

What I do know is that from now on I will stick with North American (and possibly European) sources for anything I want done. Given my experiences I do not think there is any non-repetitive task requiring foresight, intuition, or judgment that can be effectively outsourced to a third-world workforce. It may well be that if you can 100% script an activity, and spend enough time to get the workforce to actually read the script, and have enough patience for them to practice and fail repeatedly until they get it right, that you might eventually have some success.

But as a small business my tasks are not repetitive. At least not now. And they do require thinking – which entails all those things mentioned above. The third-world is simply not the place to get these things done.

Outsourcing The Big Tasks

It’s been a while since I updated my outsourcing efforts. I’ve been head-down in trying to get my major task — bookkeeping and accounting — under control. I have been trying to find the right solution for this for over five (5) years.

I am, apparently, unique in my requirements. I just fired my second accountant for failure to help me do what I need. But I can’t imagine that I am alone in what I want. I have a small service business. I am a consultant. I travel extensively. I am a sole operator. I have no employees. I need, and have needed, someone to help me setup a bookkeeping and record keeping system that I can understand, that meets all the requirements of the government for taxes, and for which I can outsource the day-to-day tasks of data entry, filing, etc.

Because I focus on my clients I do a very poor job of keeping my own paperwork in order. Oh, I invoice everything right on schedule. After all, I don’t get paid unless I do. And my client and project records are first-rate – that’s what I get paid to do. But taking time to do my own data entry, organization, filing, etc on anything like a regular basis just never seems to be a priority until there is a crisis. So I repeatedly end up at the end of the year with boxes and piles and stacks of stuff all over the place. And I know, I know, I am not alone in this.

So why is there apparently no one who offers this kind of service? How in the world do all the freelancers and free agents survive? Do they just do like me and spend two months a year under incredible stress trying to get it all together and spend the other 10 months dreading the process? Maybe. But I am done with that.

Previously, my VA helped me locate a very nice young lady with a nearby Staffing Solutions business. Christi has turned out to be a very good find. She took on the first part of my organization project and did a good job. We are now moving to the second phase – getting an accounting system established. For that I have gone through a rather strenuous research and screening process to locate an accountant who specializes in doing what I need.

For this I found the people at Intuit to be invaluable. I started with an online chat with a sales rep there, who gave my name to one of their sales advisors. Kelly turned out to be great. She helped me understand my options, the limitations of each, and what I needed to be looking for. She also made herself available to answer any additional questions and volunteered to help my (former) accountant setup my new system using QuickBooks Online Edition.

When that didn’t work out she helped me locate several more that were certified QuickBooks Advisors. That’s when I began my interview and screening process. I found two that were very helpful and knowledgeable. Both took the time to explain what they do, how they do it, and  talk to me about my particular needs and the limitations therein. This past week I selected a provider to get started. He is former consultant who worked much as I do now, so he understands (I hope) my requirements better than my previous providers.

This next Friday we will meet – me, Christi, and the accountant – to go over the setup and processes for getting all the data in and keeping everything up to date. Of course, I still have to get all the back data entered, and that will be a challenge. But Christi is going to tackle that as soon as we’re ready. This feels like progress.

I am also on my second Virtual Assistant. As mentioned previously, I’m using GetFriday – an India-based service that provides virtual assistant services. My first VA simply did not have the skills – either technically or language – to meet my needs. GetFriday was good about getting me a replacement as soon as I asked. I spoke with Venkat on the phone  prior to his assignment to make sure I was comfortable with his English and we are  working through some early tasks to see how it goes.

Working with a VA is as much a learning experience for me as it is for them. It is a challenge for someone like me who has done everything alone for so many years. Finding the right tasks, communicating them clearly, doling them out in the right amount, etc, are all things I’m having to learn.

It’s also different in that my project work is conducted with a team of highly-skilled specialists and we all work to a common methodology. That means we all know what the other is doing, how it’s done, etc. That’s just not the case when you start using a VA. The type of tasks, and the level to which they can be done, are different. I want my VA to do all those sorts of routine, mundane, non-client tasks that must be done, but which I have neither the time nor inclination to do.

This might be keeping up with my personal calendar, sending reminders to me about friend/family things, or doing preliminary research on new car models for my daughter. It could be all kinds of stuff. I’m still learning.

No More Slogging

I was discussing the 4–hour Workweek principle of Efficiency vs Effectiveness with a colleague today. Efficiency is doing as many things as possible within a given time – more often called being productive. It’s what we’re trained to do since grade school. It’s what all the time management programs are designed around. It’s what we all think of when we start looking at the pile of things on our desks and wonder how we’ll get them all done.

Efficiency creates slogging — slogging through all the crap we do on a daily basis without really assessing whether what we’re doing is the very best use of time and energy. I am a slogger. So is my colleague. Nose to the grindstone. Dedicated. Hard worker. All these phrases are associated with sloggers. We’re taught from an early age that getting everything done is important. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Yada yada yada. This is just not true. Here are two truisms from Tim Ferris:

  • Doing something unimportant well does not make it important.
  • Requiring a lot of time does not make a task important.

Slogging also leads to wasting time. Are you checking e-mail 50–100 times a day? Why? Probably because you feel like you need to respond to things immediately. Do you answer every phone call? Why? Probably because you feel compelled to respond to every inquiry. But every time I check e-mail, or answer the phone, or do anything that distracts me from doing the one important thing I lose 30–45 minutes of time just getting my head back into the important thing. By that time some new interruption has probably occurred and the cycle starts over. At the end of the day lots of unimportant things have been completed, but the one important thing is still sitting there, waiting. And waiting. And so I slog through the night to get it done.

Corporate people are great sloggers. They spend their entire day going to pointless meetings, answering e-mails, and returning phone calls. Then they either come in early, stay late, or come in on weekends to do the important things that only they can do. And the more “productivity” goes up, the more they slog.

Effectiveness is doing the right thing, the one important thing, and only that thing. It requires taking a hard look at everything you do and asking yourself one question — “If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I feel like it was a good day?” If the answer is no, don’t do it. Just move on to something else. Find the one thing that will make it a good day. If there is time left when you’re finished find something else and ask the same question again.

Truly effective people never have more than two or three things on their To-Do list, and each of those things is significant. Everything else gets ignored or delegated. Virgin brand billionaire Richard Branson has reportedly said that everything he needs to do to run his empire can be accomplished in 30 minutes a day. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I do know that people like Branson have a fundamentally different view of the world than most folks, and they don’t slog their way through life.

Slogging creates stress. Effectiveness creates freedom. Slogging is like Brownian motion – random movement that doesn’t get you anywhere. Effectiveness is what creates meaningful output. And meaningful output — e.g. accomplishment — is what creates success.

Here’s my new motto — No More Slogging.

I Am So Happy

Since August of 2004 I have used a custom Linux firewall in my network. The firewall was built by Bob Toxen, author of Real World Linux Security, and it worked flawlessly for more than two years. When I first got it I had servers in my office and felt I needed the extra protection of a professional firewall. If you need top-notch security I can confidently recommend Bob. But I don’t need enterprise-level security anymore. I never did, really. And, while I felt quite safe behind the firewall, it’s safety had a cost in complexity that I don’t want anymore.

I no longer have any application servers running in my office. I have my basic file servers, but nothing fancy. So my firewall needs are pretty basic and today’s inexpensive, commercial firewalls are vastly improved over what was available just two years ago. I bought a little Netgear FVS124G Firewall/VPN/Router a couple of months ago for $125. I’ve had it laying around the office for a while because I knew it would take a good half-day to get the whole network changed over and tested. But today I set it up. And what a relief! I’m finally able to fix some niggling problems I’ve been living with forever.

First, I finally was able to clear and prioritize the ports for my VoIP adapter, assigning it top-level QoS ranking. After 2.5 years of having to shutdown my e-mail client and carefully monitor all UL/DL traffic on my LAN while making phone calls, I finally can ignore all that and just talk on the phone. Damn! That feels good. I made a phone call tonight while simultaneously listening to streaming audio and checking e-mail. It worked flawlessly.

I also started configuring the Netgear VPN. I haven’t been able to do this before, because I just didn’t have the expertise on Linux and it wasn’t nearly important enough to pay someone to figure it out for me. So I waited. But the Netgear setup looks pretty simple and straightforward. I’ll be testing it over the next few weeks as I have some travel to do. I look forward to being able to have seamless access to my home computers, and to being able to pop-up unexpectedly on my kids computers.

The other really cool thing the FVS124G has is two WAN ports with three modes of operation – fail-over, load balancing, and dedicated. This lets me have both a DSL and a cable-modem connection running simultaneously, with the router sharing the bandwidth between them. With my office at my house, and my connectivity subject to the vagaries of cheap-ass residential service from telco and cable monopolies, this sort of flexibility is priceless. The only feature I miss, and I could have it if I bought just a little more expensive unit, is the DMZ. I like to put an open wireless router on the DMZ so visitors can logon without hassle and I don’t have to worry about my LAN. But I’ll get that next time.

I avoid doing this sort of geek stuff much anymore – I just don’t have the time and it always seems to take me 2x, or 3x, as long as it should. But today I didn’t have any problems and the little Netgear is working flawlessly. Between the VoIP fix, the dual connections, and the simple VPN I’m in my own little nerd heaven. I know it’s not much to you real geeks. But for me it’s about as good as it gets .