Lean, Productivity, Service Improvement

Have Laptop, Will Hustle

I’m going to say something quite privileged right now, but I’m amazed that everyone in work doesn’t have a laptop. Well, let me rephrase that, I’m amazed anyone who has to attend loads of meetings aren’t bought laptops by their employer.  I’m a much more productive employee because I have one with me at all times and I thought I’d share some of my ‘never go to a meeting without a laptop’ tips of productivity in an attempt to persuade everyone to convert. 

1. Get into Stickies

It is essential that in order to get productive you need to make lists, visual lists.  You need to train yourself to get a kick out of making them and completing them. I’m a huge fan of the Stickies function on the Mac which basically enables you to make a series of to do lists on your desktop. Some googling tells me that there are similar stickies available for Windows (apologies but I have been a Mac girl for quite a while now).

A googled image of a Sticky desktop screen, Mine contains much more high powered, important information that simply cannot be disclosed. 

When you are in a meeting and an action arises, if it is something that you can’t start or complete in the meeting (more on that later) you need to list that action on a sticky. The great thing about stickies is that you can collapse them, to just a small line of the heading, which makes it easier for you to bring different lists of tasks in and out of focus and means that you can juggle a lot of them.

I like to have a ‘short term’ task list of things that are a key priority, a ‘medium term list’ which do need to be done but for when there’s more time, and a ‘would be nice…. one day’ long term list.  When actions arise put them in the right sticky as the meeting is happening. I have stickies for family admin too. Stickies for things that I have asked other people for and I’m waiting to hear back from. I have a sticky for important things that I need to think about when managing the Exec MBA. I have a lot of stickies. I review my ‘short term’ list several times a day and dip into other lists when different things crop up. I regularly review all of my lists to see how I’m doing. What’s nice is when things that are on longer term lists have been actioned by you or by others, or are somehow not relevant or needed anymore, you can delete that action and it didn’t require any additional effort by you! Now, that revelation might call into doubt the usefulness of my lists, but I disagree. There is something really satisfying about knowing that you have recognized that something needed to happen which has now been resolved. Such revelations give you a turbo boost of effectiveness energy, well that’s what they do for me anyway. 😀

There are lots of great productivity/organisation websites like Trello, that help you to do the same thing as a sticky, and much more.  The excellent thing about those is that you can share boards/tasks with others, the apps/websites can email you reminders that you need to get things done by this date etc., but they require ‘another step’ in order to interact with them (going on the website, logging in etc.) In order to make the most use of them in team working, all members of the team have to agree to sign up to them and use them, which is a slightly problematic idea (“you WILL work how I work” – although granted you could level that criticism of this blog I suppose 😀) Anyway, I enjoy the simplicity of what are just, in effect, digital post it notes, carried around with you everywhere on your desktop. If I’ve convinced you to try Stickies, you can read more about how to navigate the Sticky app here.

2. Action Tasks in the Meeting

Through the course of conversation when trying to progress different projects, a variety of small actions emerge. If possible, with laptop, I like to do these then and there, or at least start the action then and there as an ‘in draft’ email that remains on your laptop to be finished later. An example of an in-meeting action might be “we need to know whether Sandra has finished that spreadsheet yet”. In which case, in the meeting, just email Sandra.

Hi Sandra,
Just in a meeting with John and Sue (to explain brevity) and we were wondering whether you’ve updated that spreadsheet yet? If so, can you send it over please? 
Thanks

This might seem like such an obvious thing to do, but I only mention it because I don’t think it’s that common.  I don’t get many of these short ‘to the point’ messages other than from a few people that I work a lot with. Perhaps there’s still some kind of expectation that sending emails requires a bit of craft and thought?! That it’s rude to just send an email bluntly asking for something?! (apologies to all those regularly on the end of my to the point requests 😀) I agree that important emails require attention and care, but it slows work down significantly if you have to delicately consider every action or request that you make. I’d rather just keep going. 

I think of emails as tasks, electronic requests for work that needs to be done, so my inbox, is, in itself a to do list. If I get an email, read it and it doesn’t require some kind of action from me, then I file it or delete it straight away so that it leaves my ‘to do’ inbox list. 

Lots of inbox productivity guides suggest maximizing the rules available within email programmes – getting your inbox to automatically file emails when they are received etc. I get how they too could be an effective way of managing huge amounts of emails but, I think it’s a dangerous one.  I know how I work and I can guarantee that the problematic auto filed folder from ‘Finance’ for example would be left to indefinitely languish! 😉

Whilst we’re on productivity guides, I always get tense when experts suggest to only reply to emails on a Thursday, or just do one hour a day at 9am etc. I get that this can be effective way to focus on, particularly the more creative forms of work that require time and considerable thought, but *controversial alert* I actually think it’s quite a ‘self-centred’, dare I suggest ‘arrogant’, approach to working. Such practices basically suggest that ‘my time is more important than yours’. When so much of modern work is achieved through collaboration, it’s not fair to make the rest of the team work to your drum beat. 

As I said, controversial opinion there and I know how problematic it is to demand super quick email response times, how pressured it can make people feel, but this is 2019.  The ‘robots’ are here already and humans have to prove their worth every day. It’s not ok to sit on an email that could be swiftly dealt with, that you know someone needs an answer to in order to help their work progress.  

I get that some people take the ‘just wait young padawan.. things have a way of working themselves out’ approach to dealing with work issues that arrive. And yes, often if I have been debating something tricky, mulling it over, something will happen that will make the situation better, better than it would have been if I had stomped in with my big feet. But the problem with this approach is that you get a reputation of ‘non-responsiveness’ – which again, can work for you, it means that people ask you less things, but I don’t want to be that sort of colleague. I want to be a reliable, responsive one.  

Anyone who has heard me talk about lean before will know that it took me a long time to realise that the fundamental objective is to get things done quicker. When thinking about this in this context, ‘email ping pong’ is a reality of current working practices – so don’t take ages to hit the ball back because the game will become tedious, take an eternity and the players lose the will to live.  

3. Make Meetings Active

I’ve lost count of the number of meetings that I’ve been in where we decide that we need to another meeting to progress the thing that we are currently talking about. As I get older and increasingly brusque, I like to say something like ‘can’t we just do that now?’ Once the frowns have subsided, in order to achieve some instant action, with only your trusted laptop companion and a projector adaptor (thanks Macs) you can skip to the end and get what needs to be decided done there and then (subject to a projector also being present naturally).

It can take a bit of guts to seize control of the meeting, plug your laptop into the nearest projector, turn on and collaborate, but most people go along with it, happy to turn the meeting into something more productive.  

So once you have plugged in your laptop, you are about to do some live typing on screen in response to the group’s conversation. In order to pull this off you’ll need to:

  1. Be a good typist – preferably a touch typist because this means that you are able to engage the group in eye contact as well as write down what people are saying
  2. Be confident in your typing ability. It doesn’t work if you make loads of errors and become flustered when doing so
  3. Have great office skills, quick formatting ability, flexibility with fonts etc. (to keep the text readable) ability to manipulate screen size, again to maximise group visibility
  4. Continually aim for succinctness and brevity of expression and outcome
  5. Shut down your inbox and messages for fear of the whole group seeing messages of love (or hate) from your husband

This approach works well when creating documents which would otherwise have been created by one person, passed around and amended at length, either that or largely ignored and never read.  It also works well when deciding project plans and ways forward, agreeing next steps and timelines.  Shuffle discussions around in powerpoint shapes or via cut and pastes as people talk about things.  Whether in Word, Powerpoint or Excel, it’s amazing how much richer the discussion is if it’s documented live and visually shared with the group in real time. It also helps you out massively because the outcome of the meeting is created IN the meeting.  It will probably have to be tidied up a bit, but not too much, or else the group will become detached from the thing that ‘they’ have created in the meeting space, together. 

Even if screen projecting from your laptop is just used to document actions that arise as the meeting progresses in a live ‘to do list’ ‘WHO does WHAT by WHEN’  you’ll be so impressed with the effect that live documenting the meeting in this way has on the group’s productivity.

So there we have it, hopefully a sound justification as to why laptops are essential modern working tools. That’s not to say that laptop ownership is perfect of course.  The downsides of laptop ownership are as follows:

  • The propensity to zone out of meetings and get on with other work (let’s face it though, this can often be an excellent outcome – people do know that you are working on other things however, which is rude – you can’t get away from that. For the most part though, I can work on lots of different things and keep an ear out for items of relevance in a meeting so I defend myself when I say that I can achieve both things. So there!)
  • A passion for your laptop means that you are often the self-elected secretary of the discussion – so eager are you to move the group’s thinking on via active and effective facilitation, your thoughts and opinions are sometimes automatically sacrificed on the altar of progress. Beware of this. Indeed I was once wisely warned that women should never make notes in a meeting for fear of perpetually subjecting yourself to servant status. 

That said, live documentation of meetings, shared with the group is a skill and I take pride in knowing that the meeting has made more progress with my input than without it. So as long as you are commanding and confident in your typing, I think that you can get away with dodging the servant label and just be seen as amazingly useful.  

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