For decades, James ‘The Amazing’ Randi has offered a ton of cash to anyone who can prove psychic powers. Currently at a million bucks, the prize will go to anyone who can show under experimental conditions, anything resembling telepathy, psychokinesis, paranormal contact with the dead—you name it. (Note that to date, no one has received the money.)

Given that Halloween is fast upon us, I’d like to do some debunking of my own (though true to the spirit of my blog). I’d like to take on what I believe to be nothing short of one of the greatest paranormal cognitive phenomena—a myth nothing short of the business equivalent of Loch Ness: Multi-Tasking!

I will award ONE genuine Halloween Snickers or Hershey bar—your choice—to the first person who can prove the existence of REAL business multi-tasking. Here is how I define multi-tasking:

The big prize awaits if you can prove the existence of multi-tasking. (Image: Mr. Billion/Wikimedia)

The multi-tasker must be able to prove she can solve two intellectual business problems at once. Let me be clear: If you are relaying between the two tasks—say, developing a competitive landscape of the document compliance industry, then switching to developing the financials for a business case, then switching back to the competitive landscape—you DON’T win the candy. Obviously, if you are in a meeting and tuning your boss in and out as you scan your Facebook page, occasionally drifting into your email inbox to respond to some underlings doing your work for you, that wouldn’t qualify either.

To win the loot, you have to be the first person to prove that you can be engaged in at least two intellectual, problem-solving business tasks SIMULTANEOUSLY.

Why? Simple: As I pointed out in my last post, the recession has exacerbated a big problem. Good talent is getting lost in big corporations.  As more and more people get laid off and big companies don’t know what they’re doing from quarter to quarter, those companies are passing more and more responsibility onto people who have neither the skills nor the bandwidth to accommodate the incremental work load.

The employees try to manage their managers’ expectations but what do they hear?

Multi-task! Get it done! Budget your time more effectively! Of course, the implication of all this is that if those employees can’t get it done, then the corporation can easily find someone else to do it. Believable, indeed, given that corporations these days are nothing if not good at firing their own employees and outsourcing to fill the gaps.

Bottom line: All work is incremental. There is no such thing as multi-tasking… unless you can PROVE otherwise.

So, in the spirit of Halloween, let’s tackle the supernatural business dimension, if you will, and see if we can put the multi-tasking myth to rest.

Any takers?

– Mike Raven

 

I’ve never been good at taking care of stuff, particularly other people’s but my own, as well.

Who cares about a calculator, anyway? (Image: Wikimedia)

When I was in high school, my father lent me what was then a fairly advanced (and expensive) scientific calculator.  I crammed it into a deep recess of my backpack because, as my wife would comment years later about similar incidents, I could not be bothered to place it somewhere safe.

When I needed it, I’d pull it out, quickly slam it on the desk, and begin punching the keys. No time to coddle this thing.

When I didn’t have a moment to reach into the crowded, nether-regions of my knapsack for a ruler, I’d use the calculator. Sure, I ticked up the sides of the housing but what did I care? It was all about the job.

And, since I couldn’t be bothered to buy a decent knapsack to begin with or resist stuffing it to overcapacity, two things eventually happened:

(1) The calculator disappeared.  It had apparently slipped through a widening hole in the nylon, and was MIA for 2 days until my math teacher found it.

(2) Upon recovering it, I noticed a full-on lightning-style crack a la Harry Potter had seared through its tiny greenish LED screen.

But, of course, as I learned that we have to pay for things we break and suffer all sorts of indignities even in full payment, I’ve become more selective in what I abuse.  My wife has it right: I can’t be bothered to take care of certain things because I am too busy focusing on others.

I wish I could say I take care of the whole wonderful world of the stuff I touch but I neither can nor wish to.  In business terms, I achieve greater operational efficiencies by taking advantage of what I call the Law of Selective Abuse. We consume, even trash and destroy, some resources liberally so that we can generate some exponentially greater level of value for ourselves (or organization).

Insurance companies have to wrestle with this concept all the time. Think moral hazard. How often do you floor a rental car? How often do you floor your own? When you sheath a DVD you’re about to return to Netflix or pre-chapter-11 Blockbuster, do you carefully slide it into its case or smush your oily fingers all over its neat concentric lines like a perp getting fingerprinted?

Moral hazard, indeed! (Image via Wikimedia)

Now, what if the resources we were trashing in the name of operational efficiency and productivity were our own people, our own employees? Yikes.

The analogy works well. Heading into this latest recession, companies carried a lot of infrastructure (i.e., a full knapsack). Lots of people, lots of expensive but outdated software implementations, lots of real estate and equipment, and lots of projects and even businesses that in many large corporations, couldn’t really be accounted for.

Then, witness the collapse of financial services companies: This not only limited borrowing power but also eroded revenues from what was one of the largest customer segments for many large businesses. Bye bye better knapsack.

If we look at just one thing in an organization/knapsack, just one employee (i.e., calculator), what do we find? A few things:

(1)    The organization tosses that employee about much like my knapsack did that calculator. The employee is not likely to land in any part of the organization for very long. Why? It won’t stop to take the time to figure out what to do with her.

(2)    While she is working on the project of the day/month, the organization will burn through her. She will be over- and mis-utilized because the org can’t find the resources it needs to get the job done; instead, it will use what it has handy. As the org continues to lay people off, it will find that it has fewer and fewer people with the talent to get that job done. In that case, the org continues to task that calculator with lots of stuff she can do, lots of stuff she can’t really do, and lots of stuff there’s no way she can do. It will all wear her down, even beat her down. But the org will continue to do it. Why? All in the name of getting the job done, quarter by quarter. (And, yes, a candle CAN burn at both ends for quite a long time as this video clip demonstrates).

(3)    Eventually, the employee will slip through the cracks and get lost. Best-case scenario, she is tasked poorly. Worst-case, she gets canned before she has a chance to (continue to) demonstrate value.

What happens to the employee in this picture? We’ve already talked a bit about that in previous posts about employee engagement. When we’re lost, we lack purpose. When we lack purpose, when we have no meaningful objective within an organization, when those objectives keep shifting, we become sick.

But what happens DURING the selective abuse? What happens when someone keeps ‘punching our keys?’ What happens when the company keeps wanting more and more from us—more and more of our time, more and more of our life? What happens when companies try to ramp up productivity by spreading more work around fewer employees who may or may not have the skills necessary to handle all that work? And just how do those employees suddenly find the physical bandwidth to handle that work? How do they defy space and time?

Stay tuned… Coming soon to a blog near you…

But in the meantime, questions of the day: Is this you? Are you the calculator? Have you been burned out? Have you seen any of this happen to friends?

Thanks for reading!

-Mike Raven

Over the last few days, I have never felt more useful at work.  My boss, his boss, a couple of SVPs, and the CEO himself all wanted something only my team and I could provide. Put that together with the fact that we had just 48 hours to get it done, a mandate to sweep across the organization and pull whatever talent we needed, and a material, meaningful, and well-understood PURPOSE driving everything we were doing, and what do we get? An OPPORTUNITY! A real, honest-to-goodness, authentic opportunity to make a difference. And, you know, that’s all I—and tell me if I’m wrong–most of us really want.

(“One man CAN make a difference, Michael”)

When I am working hard for something I can believe in, for people with the power to make use of what I do, then I am needed. And when I am needed, I am in control. All of the fear, angst, and anxiety I talked about in previous posts, melts away, leaving me with a renewed clarity of vision and purpose.  When I have all these things, I am in modern org buzzspeak, ‘engaged.’

If you’re working for a big company, then you’ve probably had to take an engagement survey at some point, maybe at lots of points.  Now more than ever, large companies want to move the needle on productivity: they have to show their shareholders they can eke out greater revenue per employee quarterly. The thinking is that if you cut your labor force by 20%, then you’ve upped your productivity by 25% automatically, right?  Hey, even better, why not halve the workforce?  The moment you do it, you end up with a 100% productivity boost, right?

(Here, Donald Trump shows us HIS attempt to drive productivity)

Well, not exactly.  The math is right but in the longer term (maybe by next quarter), when a workforce is decimated, people scramble for the hills. They don’t work, partly because they don’t know whom or even what to work for, anymore.  Think sailboat here: You can throw some things overboard to gain speed but if the weight you happen to toss consists of your sail and rudder, you’re as good as lost.

Traditional sailboat, Mozambique

Hold on to that sail! (Image: Steve Evans, Bangalore, India)

So, companies drop some weight and find they’re not seeing the gains their consultants promised them.  They figure something must be wrong with their employees. The wrinkle is that large companies are so out of touch with their employees, so disconnected from what it takes to excite and drive them, that they have to hire more consultants to tell them they have a problem with… drumroll please… EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT.

The consultants administer surveys, they pinpoint managers with ‘engagement gaps,’ and the managers in turn do what anyone would do in their situation: coach their employees to answer the questions in such a way that the managers don’t get hammered on the next ‘engagement pulse survey.’ Duh.

Managers, listen up. If you want to enhance engagement, it’s pretty simple: Give employees a chance to work on something meaningful, for meaningful people, and for a meaningful, transparent purpose, and they will be engaged. Oh, and one other thing, you might want to stop firing them so much.

In the next post, I’ll look at what we can do to STAY engaged (and not merely by the companies we work for).

Thanks for reading, and I would love to get your reactions to this…

-Mike Raven

Two stories.

The first occurred yesterday. I walked into a meeting with our head of operational marketing. He’d been asked to lead what I thought was a critical initiative aimed at understanding and segmenting the needs of the largest portion of our installed customer base.  The last reorg had shifted my responsibilities elsewhere so even though I’d had a great deal of experience with this sort of customer segmentation, I couldn’t be anything more than his armchair-general at best.

When I heard how few resources he’d been assigned, how little background research had been done, and how ambiguous his objectives were, I made an impassioned pitch for a reboot of the project plan. “You’re set up to fail, Pete,” I told him. “You’re going to need…” and I laid out everything in excruciating detail.

Running Out the Clock

Running Out the Clock (Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

He shut the door, looked me in the eye and said, “Mike, this is a run-out-the-clock situation.”

He continued, “By the time they realize this thing’s a loser, IF they ever do, we’ll be two or three reorgs in the future, and I’ll probably be working for someone else. This thing was dead on arrival.“

A ‘reorg’ or company reorganization, for those who haven’t had the first-hand pleasure of experiencing one, is where a company decides to move some people around and some people out. While each is certainly oodles of fun on its own, they’re tons more of a hoot when a few of them are strung together 2-3 months apart.  My fellow geeks out there will appreciate the following analogy: If you’ve ever seen that episode of Battlestar Galactica where a ship keeps jumping through space and the colonial president, Laura Roslin, is forced into a trance during each jump, it’s a little like that. The only real difference is that during a reorg, pretty much everyone including management is thrown into a fog.

Though I couldn’t find a clip of the BSG scene I referenced in this post, I did find one of the best jumps of the series. Take a look…

The fact is that Pete was spot-on.  Not only couldn’t I argue with him but I had to admit that I’d been playing the same game for longer than most. And while you might think it’s liberating to be able to zip fluidly from one puck to another, always changing the game just before you’re about to lose any one particular volley, think again: any game you’re not committed to winning is one depressing waste of time.

Second story.

I was sailing up the steps at work when from the top of the flight of stairs, I heard, “Whoo-hooo!” It was Nancy, one of our senior leaders from HR, who was also giving me two thumbs up.  When I reached the top, she clarified, “I haven’t seen YOU in a while. You look GREAT!”

Nancy?

This could easily be Nancy. Really. (Image: Stefano Valle / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

A bit embarrassed and more than a little hesitant to have any body-focused conversation with someone from HR, I chirped a weak, “Thanks.”

Then came the stump question: “What’s your secret?”

“Uh, uh…” Secret? “Well, it’s not exactly a…”

She cut in, “Last time I saw you was when? About a year and a half ago? You were looking better back then but you’re looking fabulous now. You must be doing SOMETHING right. What is it?”

I couldn’t answer that question. All that kept racing through my mind was that there wasn’t A single secret and that those things weren’t really secrets at all. I was doing a whole bunch of things, hundreds of which had been percolating in my head for years, and all of which could be grasped and used by anyone wanting to get healthier.

But though I couldn’t throw down a top-10 list a la Letterman, I knew that all these tips, insights, ideas, and reflections amounted to my own 50-pound weight loss, a much healthier body, a happier calmer mind, and continuous, sustained improvement over the last two years in a wildly volatile corporate environment at a Fortune 500.

And that is where the stories mesh. While I can’t seem to find my game let alone succeed at it in a company that lost its mojo and market at about the same time we skidded into a recession, I have found something else—a different game, a different passion, if you will.  Despite the multiple rounds of layoffs, the reorgs, the job shifts, the ever-expanding vacuum in which I and dozens of others like me float every day as we search for purpose within the chaos—despite all these things, I am still here surviving and with a passion for, of all things, myself.

Poet, Walt Whitman, 1872

Certainly, Walt Whitman knew a thing or two about the self. Check out his poem, 'Song of Myself.'

It was that realization that ultimately prompted this blog. I’ve learned a lot over the last few years about taking care of myself, about staying healthy in spite of all the very unhealthy things going on around me.  Yes, it’s hard to watch your colleagues drop like flies in waves of downsizing scarcely understood even by those who wield the axes. But what’s harder is the anxiety—anxiety triggered not merely by the recurring realization that you may be the next contestant thrown off the island but by the realization that you may NOT be, that you’ll have to continue to fool yourself into thinking that what you’re doing matters (or ever mattered).

So, what matters? You. I. Our selves. If we’re going to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous [corporate] fortune, we’re going to have to take care of ourselves. Yes, that may sound a little trite but triteness doesn’t make it any more obvious or achievable.

I’ve tucked away a ton of thoughts, reflections, and insights that have helped me get and stay fit both physically and mentally. My plan is to share them here so we can all consider and discuss them in terms that are the most meaningful to all of us.

Some caveats: I don’t have a degree in anything related to physical or mental health.  I’m not a doctor or a dietitian. If you like some of the tips in this blog and want to try to make use of them in your own life, please do so in full consideration of your own personal life conditions and medical circumstances. I’m also not an expert in exercise, nutrition, meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, or organizational psychology so please evaluate everything you read here rigorously and intellectually. I don’t KNOW anything, really.

BUT, neither do a lot of so-called experts.  The science around nutrition and exercise is evolving and so a voice from 25 years of well-reasoned, highly reflective personal experience may not be such a bad thing. Moreover, the fact that I know I know nothing, may be our greatest asset in the struggle to stay healthy: the more questions we ask, the better.

Finally, though I’m not a doctor, I’m not a slacker either. I’ve got an MBA from Dartmouth (Tuck School), a Master’s in English from Stanford, and a 10+-year record of doing high-level strategy work for Fortune 500s. So, while none of this qualifies me to tell anyone what will work for them, it does qualify me to tell you what has worked for me.

In that spirit, I’ll be blogging to share the stuff that has worked for me, that has helped me lose weight, keep it off, feel better, and find some peace, despite the odds.

I would very much welcome and appreciate any and all comments from any and all readers, the hope being that the more we learn from each other, the better.

Talk to you all soon,

Mike Raven

Image Credits:

‘This could easily be Nancy” (Image: Stefano Valle / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

“Running Out the Clock” (Image: Salvatore Vuono/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net)