First off, I don’t really mean evil. I generally enjoy both my work and coworkers (and clients back in the day), but I find that sometimes it gets monotonous. Every project is different, but after almost 15 years in the business, I find many of my opportunities to improve lie in preventing, managing, and resolving conflict as efficiently as possible. I call these solutions my evil tricks because thy make things so easy that it feels a bit evil.
I decided to share a few, not to show you that I’m some two-faced, devious hack, but because they actually help me enjoy work and perform at my highest level. I’d love to hear your thoughts and tricks.
1. Always Take Time to Plan
Everyone, everywhere is being asked to do a lot. I admit that I used to feel a little martyred by the amount that I was doing and often just reacted to new requests without a lot of though. Jumping right into a deliverable is never the right solution. Never. The likelihood that you’ll do it right is close to zero and you’ll end up wasting an incredible amount of time re-doing and re-thinking. After a few years of being shown this lesson again and again, I finally got it.
This doesn’t mean you have to do several weeks of research before cracking open Keynote for a short presentation. But taking the time to put together an outline in email and checking it with your manager or a team member will get you across the finish line with the fewest stumbles. I can’t stress this enough: Rework sucks! Wasting your time is terrible. And wasting the time of your team (or client, manager, etc.) is unacceptable. Don’t be “that person.”
Part of planning is constraining the scope of your deliverable to the boundaries of the available time and budget. But a common practice of people who are natural planners is to use every available minute working on the deliverable. If it’s due on Friday at noon, planning to work on it until 11:00am leaves out some important steps. Leave time for an internal review, proof reading, and whatever else is necessary in your organization.
For instance, I know my manager is busy and asking him to review my work at the last minute puts him in a tough situation. He certainly wants to make sure his team puts out strong work, but he’s got competing priorities. And it’s not good for me either. I need to make sure that he has enough time to review and that I have enough time to make any adjustments he suggests, discuss anything I don’t agree with, and send it back to him so he has the final copy before delivery.
You’re situation could be different, but having a well-communicated plan for the work that has to happen once you finish your draft is essential to effective, efficient delivery.
2. Create an Estimation Formula
A pet peeve of mine is when I ask someone how long something with take and they have either no idea or say that it will take much less time than I expect. My success and yours is based on how well people trust us to be accountable to the things we say we’ll do. If I tell a coworker that I have no idea how long something will take, how can they possibly plan their work that depends on it? And if I tell them a timeframe that’s too short for me to possibly deliver on (or is based on only the best possible scenario), they are likely to be disappointed. Even if my work is great, it’s late and no one trusts me to delivery.
And it goes beyond you as an individual contributor. Your manager makes promises based on the promises you make her. If you give a bad estimate, you make her look bad and that is something she’ll remember. If you’re a manager, your job to is help your team make better estimates and ask questions if something seems off. But if you’re an individual contributor looking to move up, you need to be self-sufficient when it comes to estimating.
The solutions is certainly not “padding” estimates with extra hours, days, and weeks to simply give yourself breathing room. If it feels like lying, it is lying. You need a formula and to create a great one, you need some data. If you happen to be in an organization that tracks time, the data should be easy to get and you can figure out the average number of hours different size projects take. Breaking that down into the smallest increments possible, say “it takes 8 hours to produce a single wireframe page of average complexity,” really makes your estimates reliable and bolsters your trustworthiness.
You may think that estimate for a wireframe is really high. You can make a wireframe of average complexity in 2 hours, right? Sure, but in that 8 hours are the alternative versions you’ll have to do to show error placement or dynamic states, review meetings, and revision passes. Knowing that and having a formula that includes it takes you from sufficient to sophisticated.
3. Distribute Meeting Notes
As a woman I try to keep from doing things that make me feel like a secretary. I want to be the person driving decisions in a meeting, not passively taking note of what others say. For a long time, I never took notes. My memory was so good that I didn’t need them. And when I started needing notes, I made them only for myself. Terrible strategy.
My training in usability testing helps me understand what people really mean and not just want they say. My recollection of a meeting is generally something like, “we talked about a plan, most of us seemed to agree, there were some minor and major points of contention that were vaguely articulated and left unresolved, and then we ran out of time.” I find when I ask others about they meeting they are never on that same middle ground as me. The people in support of the plan believe the plan is going forward. And the people with the issues believe the plan is not agreed to. And then we spend weeks in the same meeting until we finally get a breakthrough which is likely due more to exhaustion that agreement.
I’m not sure if most meeting attendees only hear what they want to hear, are bullying others into submission, being passive aggressive, or simply not paying attention. Probably all of the above at one point or another. All I know is that I seem to have a better than average grasp on the the unresolved issues. And rather than just sitting back and waiting for someone else to take responsibility for the issues, I try to document my take on the meeting and distribute it to attendees.
I’m not some selflessly perfect employee. I care about the success of my projects, but I try to take my emotion off the table (see 10.) My reasons for doing this are actually quite self-serving. I hate deja-vu meetings where everyone is finally coming to a realization I had weeks ago. I hate the back-channeling that has to happen between meetings to get everyone’s version of events into the light of date. I just hate all the inefficiency.
And no one assigned me the task or even gave me permission. I use the implied permission of being invited to the meeting to send out a quick recap. I list issues, decisions, and actions and send those out as immediately after the meeting as possible. I’m sure they aren’t always read, but my version of the meeting is at least on the official record and I can point people to them to start resolving issues and getting things done. It also helps me pay close attention instead of reading email… also an important benefit.
4. Assume a “Yes” in Emails
I think I read this in an article someone posted on LinkedIn. Unlike 1-3 which I saw modeled for me by one of my best bosses ever, this was something I never noticed anyone around me doing (though they probably were.) The idea is to assume that the recipient wants to do what you want them to do. You state your request. Take a breath. Imagine they said yes. State the next step. And thank them.
Seem presumptuous? Maybe. But that can always write back and tell you no, but they probably won’t. They’ll probably appreciate your clear, short, positive communication style and silently thank you for not wasting their time with a back and fourth email chain.
So in practice it’s:
We’d love to have your feedback on our documentation. Jane is going to start copying you on drafts and incorporating your feedback into her deliverables.
I’m hoping you can help us out with some of our documentation reviews. Do you think it would be possible for you to comment on Jane’s drafts? If so, I’ll ask her to copy you. We’d really appreciate your feedback and Jane could really benefit from your strong eye for detail.
I’d really like to help, but I have a lot going on at the moment. For starters, I receive nearly 100 emails a day that I have to read and respond to. Please ask Jane to copy me, but I made need to ask Bob to help out as well.
And of course:
That’s fantastic. Thank you so much for your flexibility. Why don’t I set up a meeting with the four of us to discuss the project timing and needs so we’re all on the same page.
There are some caveats. First, never make it seem like a command. In my first made up example, Jane could always reply that she’s too busy and I try to leave room for that. The fact that she’d have to type that in an email and send it to me is the same whether I assume yes or not, it just saves her (and me) the follow up emails. Second, don’t be a bully. If you don’t think the recipient will want to the thing you’re asking, you’ve got to sell your request a bit more. What’s in it for them? Why are they your only hope? How will you make it up to them? Etc. Third, if it’s a big request and/or you know the person will want to do what you’re asking, maybe you shouldn’t ask over email. Just think through the objections and have a call or face to face instead.
5. Say “No” Sometimes
So, in the last section I said that Sally could just say no, right? But Sally, unlike you or, ahem, me, has a problem saying no. In fact, she thinks she’s saying no, but other people don’t take no for an answer. She feels like things are always piling up and she can’t ever focus on long-term goals. Sound familiar? Of course not.
Sally has two choices: live in hell forever or figure out why other people get to say no and she doesn’t. It’s a long road full of introspection, successes, and failures, but it is worth the trip. Everyone has to do things they don’t want to do, but no one should resign themselves to living that way all the time.
What helped me with this was having lots of recruiters email me about jobs. They weren’t necessarily jobs I wanted, but they were routine enough for me to feel more fearless. We’ve lived through rough economic times and getting fired is horrible even in the best economy. Fear of being seen as “not a team player” held me back for a long time. So, with the fear removed, I started practicing saying no.
It’s hard. You can’t just say you’re busy — everyone is busy. You can’t ask your boss to pick your priorities for you (unless you want to be where you are forever), but you do have to prioritize. And you simply cannot waffle between yes and no or you’ll lose credibility. Saying no is an evil trick that relies on you having a lot of the other tricks mastered.
To say no, people have to trust you. You have to be delivering on your commitments routinely so no one questions your commitment or work ethic.
You also need to be able to show what your priorities are where you are in terms of your currently planned work. After you clearly say no, state the tradeoffs. The no has to benefit the organization more than saying yes and you have to communicate that.
And if your no never works, think about leaving. Even if you don’t take a job right away, the feeling of being valued and desirable by another organization might help you feel more confident. And that can be magic.
6. Put Meetings on the Calendar
Whining about your calendar is so over. I’ve been a fairly booked up person for as long as I can remember and you just have to find the Zen in it. But just like confidence might be the magic ingredient for successfully saying no, control over meeting times helps with the whole Zen calendar thing.
Most of the meetings on my calendar are things I put there. Whether they are holding spots for me to do actual sit-down-and-focus work or conversations with other people, I am generally the person to blame. This helps me on so many levels.
First, I don’t feel trapped by others. The minute someone starts talking about getting together, I offer to set up the appointment. This puts me in control of the time, location, and allows me to factor in any time I need to prep or move things around to accommodate it. No one is going to take my needs into consideration more than me.
Second, I can’t add other people, reschedule, or cancel without having to ask someone else. Sure it means I get the “can you please add Sally” or “can we do 3pm instead of 4” emails, but I’d much rather deal with those than have to ask and wait for someone else. Control freak? You bet.
Third, I’m proactive about getting things on the calendar. Since I don’t want someone else to do it, I make a point of getting things scheduled quickly. I hate it when I ask for a status on someone and I’m told, “well, Sally said she’d set up a meeting but I haven’t seen the invite yet, I’ll ping her and see what’s up.” So much inefficiency. Why wait for Sally? Why let her inefficiency make you look inefficient? Just put the damn meeting on the schedule.
Last, I get to have time for “real work.” Back at UPS, they used to have management classes all about using a day planner. That was out by my time, but the behavior that stuck was using the calendar to create time for work. So, I often schedule an hour or two a day that allows me to get a big block of work done. Sometimes I have to move it, but again, I’m in control of what that trade off is and can plan around it.
7. Choose One Person a Day to be Extra Nice To
This is not a “how to win friends and influence people,” kind of thing. It’s self-serving, but not because I want other people to owe me one. It’s really just a way I’ve tried to incorporate my philosophy in life to my work life. That is, “Life is tough and people should be nicer.”
And I don’t necessarily get this done every day, but I do look for opportunities. Sometimes, it means listening to a coworker about a problem I can’t solve, but can just empathize about. Sometimes, it’s sending a nice note to someone thanking them for their work. Sometimes, it’s actually doing some unplanned work to help someone else with theirs. Whatever it is, I make an effort to be nice.
It can feel forced at first, but the more you do it, the more normal it becomes. I know doing these things doesn’t mean I great person, but I do hope every one in a while someone else’s day is made a little brighter.
8. Provide Status Updates Before You’re Asked
If you’re a project manager, you have routine status reports and know the value of this. What you want is to be showing progress and preventing countless questions from countless stakeholders all trying to get a handle on what’s going on. You also want to make sure that you know where you stand at regular intervals.
There rest of us have a lot to learn from project managers. The very worst thing in the world is to be asked the status of something and not know. It happens, of course, because you’re busy working and not tracking your work to your plan everyday. But the message it sends is that you don’t understand the larger organizational picture and how you fit into it.
When we get a status request from our boss, we generally grumble and stop what we’re working on to get it done. The general feeling of people is, “I can’t possibly get all my work done and do all these status reports.” (So factor that into your estimate.) Your boss is probably asking because someone is asking her or she thinks someone might ask her soon and doesn’t want to have no answer.
Why wait for that? If your organization doesn’t mandate a format, choose one that’s low effort (like exporting a To Do list from a productivity app) and commit (on your calendar) to doing to at regular intervals. At the very least, if you’ve recently crossed a major milestone, send out a communication about it so you don’t get lots and lots of emails asking for a status.
Unless you have to, don’t commit to a schedule that’s too frequent for you to comfortably keep up. Simply try to anticipate the needs of your manager and colleagues and address them without them asking.
9. Remove Your Emotion From Your Communication
I used to be a product/project manager (surprise, surprise!) in addition to an interaction designer. While I loved the control it gave me, it’s also a job filled with stress, broken promises, and having to take the fall for other peoples’ failings. From the outside observer, I appeared good at it, but I will admit that I was a mess of anger and anxiety.
Despite my love – hate relationship with the job itself, I knew it was a great learning opportunity. And the primary lesson was that my feelings came out in my communications with others – even email – and if they were negative, they negatively impacted my team.
And, of course, this one still bites me from time to time. We’re emotional animals and sometimes we get fired up. The big picture of your emotional state is what really affects people. Some thing to avoid are:
- Getting so wrapped up in an issue or project emotionally that you can’t focus on anything else (and are visibly distracted in meetings, etc.)
- Sending long, scrawling emails at the wee hours of the morning showing that you aren’t able to relax and let it go — even at home.
- Replying all in an email thread in order to call attention to someone’s shortcomings instead of addressing and individual directly.
- Running around like your hair’s on fire and snapping at others who aren’t as emotionally infected in the issue.
- Repeatedly pointing out that people are going to need to be more committed or work more hours to meet your expectations instead of motivating them to do so on their own.
- Telling people how busy you are all.the.time.
Being too cool and calm all the time is not good either. You shouldn’t seem impervious to the problems that naturally arise at work, but you should be able to rise above them. Or at the very least, appear to do so.
10. Use Your Superpower in Negotiations
I’ve seen good negotiators and I’ve seen bad negotiators. But mainly, I’ve seen really bad negotiators who think they’re good. And those people have typically been the ones to offer me advice over the years. I’ve taken their input with a whole shaker of salt, but I’ve also done my best to learn along the way.
I took a few management and organizational theory and communication classes back in school, so I’ve always known the basic tenet that a successful negotiation means both sides win. But, in real life, I find that most people go into a negotiation unwilling to give up anything and expecting the other side to cave. If that works for you, congratulations, you’re an asshole. And no matter how successful you get, that will always be true.
My discipline requires that I’m able to understand and address people’s needs using a variety of research methods. One of my favorite is the one-on-one interview. And often I get people to tell me things they shouldn’t and later don’t even remember telling me. I’m not doing it maliciously, but I am able to get people talking.
So, when I realized that I needed to be a better negotiator, I naturally used that skill. Not to dig up dirt, but to truly understand what the issues and concerns of the other party are. This doesn’t necessarily work with complete strangers (or car dealers), but with people I already have a working relationship with, I find this to be the best strategy.
Once I understand the other side, I share mine. I try to make it as unemotional as possible, but I do try to explain what I need to walk away with meet my objectives. After a few, “What if we tried,” or “Could we move a few dates,” I can usually find the common ground.
This honest approach doesn’t always make my manager happy. Generally, I think people above me want me to be a bit more ruthless and force my point of view onto others. I have no problem selling an idea I believe in and engaging in arguments of fact in order to get change someone’s mind. But I won’t ignore the other side completely.
I could never be happy doing that, so I’ve adapted a negotiating style that’s successful without compromising my values.