Have you ever had a sudden burst of energy? Not some free-spirited energy that has you feeling like “I feel like doing a wide variety of things today!”, but the kind of energy that is directed towards an interest you may have and is extremely focused? Sometimes I get these types of feelings, and when I do, I’m suddenly inspired and motivated. I’m sure you may have had similar energetic feelings and feelings of inspiration too. Often enough, the challenge with these feelings is knowing how to channel them.
It is not sufficient to acknowledge the feelings and be grateful for such thoughts. While simply acknowledging your feelings is undoubtedly great for your own mental health, the reason we have such feelings is likely because we want to take some action. We feel capable, encouraged and prepared, but sometimes it’s too difficult to take the first step outward and express ourselves. How can we do that?
As I’ve discussed before, taking the first step is hard. Individual context matters a lot in this statement, as similar actions can be hard in different ways for different people. A good first step I take when feeling motivated about something is to write the idea down. I open my notes app on my iPhone and write down whatever thought I might be having at the moment. Lately, I’ve had lots of ideas about blog posts to write, people to talk to, businesses to explore, and products to create at work. Simply writing the ideas down is great for recalling them later.
After you write your thoughts down, maybe they seem too sporadic and not concentrated after all. Take a few moments to refine the idea you’re having. At this point, say your thoughts out loud and see how it sounds. Don’t worry about looking crazy wherever you’re at. I do this a lot and no one has stopped me and openly questioned my sanity. Speaking our mind—even to an audience of one—is great practice and I think we should be open to sharing our ideas more frequently. Sharing them out loud to yourself is step one on that journey.
You might be thinking by now, “I felt really inspired, but now I’ve wasted valuable time and energy writing my thoughts down and refining this great idea that came naturally to me. WTH?” The reasoning behind this sequence of steps: if you’ve taken time to write down your idea, refine it to some concrete level, have said it out loud, and you’re still energized about that idea (aka, you’ve thought it through), it’s time to act! No one ever wants to regret not acting on their ideas, but I bet no one wants to ruin their reputation by taking premature action either.
So, what’s next to do? If you know what action to take, great! Do that. For example, I’m oftentimes inspired to get out in nature and go on a run. There’s not much thought needed there, aside from whether or not to bring headphones. If your idea necessitates that the details are more delicate, such as pitching a new project at your job or investing resources somewhere new, you’re probably better off taking time to think through a few good next steps to take towards your idea.
If at this point you’re asking yourself, “I still like this idea and want to do this, but what’s next?”, you need to find someone who has been there before and can guide you. If you can model out your next moves sequentially, you’re off to a great start! I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that for those individuals who happen to be more creative than others, they're often able to express themselves in a way that is more clear to them and perhaps do so more routinely, so this probably doesn’t apply to them. Think artists, musicians, writers, etc.
A good state of “acting on inspiration” can be when we are able to have an idea that energizes us, and then immediately get into this mindset of action, because we’ve exercised this muscle many times before. Outcomes don’t matter at this moment, simply channeling our energy in a positive manner that represents who we are or who we want to be is success in and of itself.
What do you do when someone on your team has taken time to understand your organization, contributed meaningfully to multiple projects during her tenure, and now has confided in you that she needs your help beginning some new venture in your work group? It might not seem obvious, but if this teammate’s interests, goals, and priorities are aligned with the organization then it makes the decision crystal clear. Help her out and be grateful for the opportunity.
There are a few reasons why you may be reluctant to lend a hand. What about her current work? Does her manager approve of such things? How will she form a new team? To keep it short and to the point: who cares? The justification is that her interests, goals, and priorities are aligned with the organization. There really is not much more explanation needed. When articulated properly (which is key to getting buy-in) it’s hard to argue against something reasonable. That’s not to say the details don’t matter, because they always do. This is less of a “it depends” type of scenario as it relates to your willingness to help your teammate out. You can still support your colleague in her venture, even if it flames out tremendously next month.
In this situation, you become the first stakeholder, and potentially a great evangelist for whatever idea you signed up for. Your job is not necessarily to drive towards the outcome but to enable your teammate to be successful in this journey she is on.
Companies that claim/try to be “innovative” can measure success in this category by simply tracking how many projects they stop over some (relatively short) period. For example, if Company A starts 10 projects at the beginning of year one, and by the end of year one the same 10 projects are ongoing and none have been stopped, I posit that Company A is not innovative.
The company may be adding revenue and have introduced new products to the market, but they're clearly not taking big enough risks and learning good lessons from trying something new or different. There is the possibility that Company A just doesn’t know when to call it quits, which is a terrible problem to have and is probably the subject for a future post. I’m certainly not speaking about any type of work that requires multiple years to execute on and complete, like building a skyscraper in Chicago. There’s little room to take risk with such projects, but you can certainly be creative and new in terms of architectural design, fixtures, and décor.
What I’m proposing is starting new projects where the outcome is uncertain, and success is determined by many things being executed properly. In these environments, we do not know all the variables in play, but were seeking to understand them. Because of this notion, you should help anyone you’re able to tolerate start up their new idea if asked. Of course, you should feel some level of passion about the idea as well!
I’m making assumptions about one’s ability to think rationally and not “bet the farm” on some half-baked idea. This is why typical employees have financial controls and added layers of approval in most cases. I also think it is imperative to have such conversations with your manager, especially if you relate to this hypothetical friend I've been referring to. If you have an idea for something new that aligns well with your organization, and your boss doesn’t approve or want to help you even in the smallest of ways, it is time to find a new boss.
As an engineer it seems second nature to always be thinking of ways to do things more efficiently: faster, cheaper, using less energy, etc. Sometimes it’s daunting, like during the weekly meal planning session. And other times its exhilarating, like when launching a new product or writing a new blog post. Most of us probably know one or many friends or colleagues that appear to be super-efficient at all times, and when I see or meet these people, I think to myself (or out loud) “how does she do it?”
While I don’t claim to be an efficiency machine, I have encountered many of these types of people. I’m not speaking of the type of person who works 12 hours in a day to get their regular work done. That’s the opposite of efficient, and if that’s you, I hope I can give you some inspiration with this short story.
In the spring of 2010 I was attending the US Army Airborne School in Fort Benning, Georgia. This school in particular is unique in that practically all US military special operations troops are required to learn how to jump out of airplanes using static lines here before they get advanced training with high-altitude, low-opening (HALO) parachuting. During my time there, the training was about 15 days in duration. One of the benefits of Airborne School is that all the students from all the different military services are grouped together, so as a non-commando I was naturally placed in a group that consisted of US Air Force instructors who taught at the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) school, as well as recon Marines from the US Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC), among others.
The training day began around 5:30am with physical training: calisthenics, cardiovascular exercises, pull ups, and sometimes “learning to fall”. By the time we were finished working out, we had a short period of time to get ready for the rest of our training day, to include eating breakfast. One special attribute of airborne school is that you have to run everywhere you go, and training included some night time jumps, so you could theoretically be “at work” from 5:30am well into the night. We did get to break for lunch, however. This training was exhausting, but at least we had weekends off.
I quickly settled into a routine: workout, shower, get changed, eat, then line up to go to training with my platoon. If I managed my time well, I could get a few moments of rest in my bunk before lining up. After a few days in this routine I noticed some of the recon Marines in the room a few doors down were consistently getting some good rest time before lining up. One of those Marines stood by me in my squad, so I asked him how he managed to get those extra minutes in before the day began. His response: skip the morning shower. This may sound shocking and gross, but this answer is, in hindsight, the quintessential response from someone who is extremely efficient. You can’t do everything you need to do, and you need to prioritize the things you value more so than those things you don’t.
Showering in the military, at least in training environments, is oftentimes so inefficient, that sometimes there are built-in efficiencies to get the recruits moving (two-minute time limits, soaping up before you enter the shower, etc.). Airborne school was no different: too few showers and too many people made having a nice shower a scarce resource. These Marines noticed, decided they didn’t care about this perceived luxury, and prioritized what is arguably the most important resource during military training: rest! Their justification was that it didn’t matter how good you smelled or how clean your hair was when you’re about to go run around all day, roll through the grass, and jump in rock pits, just to close the day out by showering again before bed.
They were so correct.
I, as well as many others I knew, quickly adapted our thinking after learning of this secret, and reprioritized our goals. The routine was now workout, change clothes (just changing uniforms and probably adding some deodorant), eat, rest, line up for the day’s training.
None of these super-efficient friends or colleagues we all know are doing “everything”. We all make sacrifices to achieve our goals, and we either consciously or subconsciously prioritize our goals for any given day, task, etc. At the time of this writing, I’m reminded that I’m only able to share these thoughts as my 16-month old is taking her afternoon nap, and I’m giving up accomplishing other things to transcribe these thoughts.
Efficiency is all about perspective. The areas in our work and in our lives that we seek to prioritize are the areas in which we need to find and create new efficiencies. Doing so will allow us to do more faster, cheaper, while using less energy, and will lead us to success in these areas that we truly value and deeply care about.
When we begin a new project or work-item, it’s easy to conflate the goal(s), get overexcited on the concept, or overcommit to our stakeholders entirely. If that sounds like you or anyone you know, keep reading. For many reasons, our individual and/or our team’s initial expectations can oftentimes run counter to the reality that we will deliver upon project completion. No one wants this to happen. Most of us want to deliver what we set out to do, and to do so in a realistic manner. This is why deliberately managing expectations for any new project is a great idea.
Setting your project Objectives and Key Results
Objectives and Key Results, or OKRs, is a very powerful goal-setting tool, and when used correctly, can help you on the journey in your project. OKRs have been strongly evangelized by venture capitalist John Doerr, who introduced them at Google in the early 2000s. The concept has taken off and has been considered a strong contributor to the company’s longterm success.
As the name suggests the meaning, the objective is the what we want to deliver or have a first version of once the project is over. For example, if I am a restaurant owner and I’ve noticed a consistent decline in revenue recently, a good objective for me could be to “find, experiment with, and implement a new revenue stream”. objectives should be large and should require considerable amount of effort over your defined timeframe. You can and should have multiple objectives at the same time, but in the restaurant owner example, maybe this is the biggest and most relevant project to tackle, therefore it should have undivided attention paid to it.
Key Results are what you will receive once having met the stated objective. We should have a few key results for each objective. Considering our objective of “find, experiment with, and implement a new revenue stream”, some key results could be as follows: a) test two or three potential new businesses; b) grow revenue by 17 percent year-over-year; and c) achieve a profit margin of 30 percent on the new business. While these are made up key results here, they provide good context: all results are clearly stated, quantifiable, and specific to my business.
Break down components of work
Once we’ve stated our OKRs, we can begin to break down the work. Because we know what our key results should be, we focus on accomplishing those! We know we wanted to test two-to-three new revenue streams, but in order to test them we need to identify some new areas to enter into. Given our main business is a brick and mortar restaurant, it is logical to stay in the food industry. We could test the following ideas: 1) a new food truck concept with only our best sellers as options; and 2) package our best selling products for retail distribution through a wholesale channel. These sound like good experiments, and other restaurants have businesses like these as well.
Now that we know what we want to explore, we just need to do it. To be very clear, we’ve gone from having three key results, broken the first one down, and now we’re working towards completing it. We don’t need to get into the details of how we start the new business, but each of those subsequent tasks is to be broken down and fully understood. If at any point we’re doing something that doesn’t relate to the key result and doesn’t lead to the objective, we need to stop and re-evaluate where we’re at currently. Once we’ve tested each of the two business ideas, we will have satisfied the first key result, and hopefully we will know the margins associated with that business as well, thus satisfying the last key result. The point of emphasis here is to have individual components related to the objective broken down, such that we can keep tasks small and manageable, which will keep us moving forward.
Get feedback regularly and often
We’ll never know if we’re on track to accomplish our objective if we don’t stop to check in. You cannot expect what you do not inspect. This should be straight forward, and suggests the practice of following up with those on our team (possibly following up with ourselves) to make sure we’re making progress in the right direction. This can be weekly or bi-weekly, but any longer than that and you risk diverging too far from the true path we’re on. Feedback should come from the stakeholders you’re seeking to satisfy. In our restaurant example, the owner is a stakeholder, her family, the customers, and the employees. All those opinions and insights are valuable at some level, and we should actively be seeking counsel at the interval that makes sense to us, but not longer than every two weeks.
While work is typically ongoing, we are never really “done”, but we can certainly be in a state of “project completed”. Once we’ve met our objectives, we’re done in this sense. That’s it. We knew from the beginning what we set out to do, because we described the results we wanted to achieve. Hopefully we hit them in our allotted time, but if not, we have valuable information that should suggest how to proceed. If we fall short on our key results, for example, the profit margin is only 10 percent, we know that we have some choices to make around sourcing materials or raising costs for the customer, among other choices. This is fine, and should suggest the next project, where the objective could be about “raising the profit margin for the food truck business from 10 to 30 percent”. And we repeat the process.
By setting OKRs, breaking down large pieces of the project into manageable components, getting feedback from our stakeholders as we go, and knowing when to be done, we can manage our expectations for any project going forward and accomplish more in the long run.