Posted in Blog

How Do You Move from Thinking Operationally to Strategically?

A colleague recently asked me this question, and I’ve been reflecting on my answer. It’s a good one that I’ve never asked someone else before nor thought about conscientiously.

I feel like my comfort zone, especially in this shelter-in-place time with no childcare while working from home, is to just focus on daily operations. Make a reasonable to-do list of the work that has to be done today and get it done. But, my role on projects and as a consultant is to be strategic and support my clients in developing and delivering on a strategy every day. I need to see the forest and the trees. How do I make sure the strategy isn’t forgotten?

First, let me define how I use the terms operationally and strategically in this context. Operations is the trees, the work that needs to get done now for the deliverable that’s coming due soon. It may include teamwork, doing the work myself, or collaborating with others, but it is focused on keeping the project moving forward. Strategy relates to the forest and thinking about the big picture, like ensuring the project team is solving the real problem, involving the right people, and anticipating how to overcome obstacles.

Now, some strategic work is built into project management tasks. Just the act of creating a project plan with a work breakdown structure, schedule, budget, staffing plan, etc. leads to the need for a strategy. It’s also not uncommon to analyze financial reports, create risk mitigation plans, and make adjustments based on what is learned throughout the project, which may cause you to tweak your larger plans.

Here are some concrete ways I’ve expanded beyond daily operations to think more strategically about my work. These tiny, regular habits have impacted how I approach all of my work.

Tip 1: Schedule Time for It on Your Calendar

I set aside 30 minutes a week on a Friday afternoon to schedule my work to dos for the next week. I block out time in my calendar to focus on major deliverables across projects and schedule meetings with people I know I need to coordinate with to improve the work. Although this practice is rather tactical, it’s also at this time that I’m asking myself what to anticipate for each project, what risks exist that may throw off the plan, and what can I do to mitigate any risks.

Tip 2: Delegate

Delegation is an age-old tip, but I had to make this practice a daily part of my work processes for it to occur more often. I’ve done this by adding “What can you delegate?” to my daily to-do list. By asking myself this question, I’ve added a forcing mechanism that allows me to support other’s professional development, offload work that I really shouldn’t be doing at my level anymore (even if I’ve done it before for years), and frees up my brain for more strategic work.

To delegate, though, you need someone who is available to take on the work. That’s not always easy if you don’t have people who report directly to you, so it comes from fostering relationships on your project teams to understand everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, figure out what their professional development goals are and how you can support them, and then build a network you can access over time. The bonus is that this network can also help you find professional development opportunities too.

Tip 3: Constantly Communicate and Connect Others

I’ve made it a habit every time I finish a meeting, read an email, or conclude a phone call to think about what I learned and who else needs to have the information. I’m trying to think about how information relates to each other, how the people connected to the project work together, and what impacts there will be based on what I just learned.

Now, I’m certainly not trying to overload people’s inboxes with unnecessary information. Instead, I’m trying to connect people. For example, if we’re updating a training course that’s based on a policy we’re rewriting, then I need to make sure the training team knows when the policy changes. If I suspect more changes late in the development cycle, then I need to make sure leadership knows of the risks and impacts and come up with a plan to help mitigate the risks.

Alternatively, if I’m in a meeting and learn about a new innovation another project has adopted, I’m thinking about how it will benefit my other clients. I then have to add items to my to-do list to make sure I follow-up on those thoughts or they will escape my brain, never to be thought about again. I live and die by what’s on my to-do list.

I think it’s important to conclude that during this turbulent time in our work lives and careers, that it may be difficult or impossible to think about long-term strategy in the same way or as frequently. But, if you want to add more strategic thought to your work, then I suggest developing tiny, regular habits like these examples I provided. They don’t have to be the same habits because they have to work for you, your workflow, and your needs. Once they become habits, though, you won’t have to think twice about it.

Photo by Anastasia Petrova on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: Stringing My Kids Along

We have exhausted all options for exploring our neighborhood recently in an attempt to get outside and get some fresh air during our shelter-in-place order here. The plus side is that the kids have gotten a lot of time to ride bikes. Mr. 7 year old joined the ranks of children who learned to ride without training wheels. My social media feed has been exploding with kids with this new found confidence on two wheels — a benefit to this situation. I love seeing people share such good news!

Mr. 4 year old has been loving his trike because he can power slide. (That’s his dad coming through.) The downside is that hills are difficult, causing him to jump off and push. When I walk with the kids, I want to walk….not run…not stroll…walk. So, my solution was to get a long ribbon and tie it around the front of Mr. 4 year old’s trike when we go up hills or when he gets too tired. I still get to walk, Mr. 4 year old gets to ride, and we can keep up with Mr. 7 year old. Win, win, win!

Posted in Blog

An Update on Rewarding Kids with Marbles

Back in February, my husband and I introduced the kids to a new way to reinforce good behavior. In short, it works like this. Good behavior is rewarded with a marble, which is equivalent to five minutes of screen time. Poor choices cost the kids marbles.

It’s really worked out so far! We were struggling for months to get Mr. 4 year old to stay in his room after bedtime, and that problem has resolved itself. (It may be in part because he’s home 24/7 now and typically doesn’t nap in the afternoons anymore either.) It has helped them adjust to new routines as we’ve shifted to homeschooling and pick up more chores around the house. If they want TV time and don’t have enough marbles, they will ask for things to do to earn them. I’ve had my windows cleaned, dishes done, laundry folded and put away, and many books read to me.

Although we started out rewarding pretty much every good behavior we were shaping in the kids, we have started incrementally awarding marbles now. For instance, the kids started out getting a marble every time they cleared their own spot at the table. Now that the habit’s formed, they don’t get a marble for that anymore. But, my boys are clever, and they have started clearing the entire table. If they do that without asking for a marble, we’ll award one.

There were a few unintended consequences that have amused me though.

  1. The kids are exceptionally good at counting by fives now.
  2. My husband is as generous as Oprah. “You get a marble! And you get a marble! And you get a marble!”
  3. Both kids have learned about negative numbers when they lose marbles they haven’t yet earned. Mr. 7 year old has started saying, “Ah man, I’m in the pit!”
  4. The kids were willing to, as they say, “waste their marbles” as soon as they earned them. We had to start enforcing that they had at least three marbles before they could “cash them in” and have 15 minutes of screen time.

I’m excited that we’ve found a currency that matters to the kids. (I was all about raking in the money as a kid, but I can adapt to screen time instead.) We’ll be sticking with this system for the foreseeable future.

Photo by Crissy Jarvis on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Friday Favs: Netflix’s Middleditch and Schwartz

I haven’t been writing for the blog much lately with the pandemic’s shelter-in-place order in effect, mainly because it’s hard to find the time (or more so the energy) to write when I’m dual-hatting my career and homeschooling two little kids. I’m literally on the run from 6am when my alarm goes off so I can log into work before everyone else wakes up to 8pm when the kids are in bed. Then, I’m toast and out of power. Sometimes I muster up the energy for additional work after tucking the kids in, but it’s low-key items….trying to place online orders, catching up on the kids’ school emails (never ending!), getting organized for the next day, etc.

My husband understands our need to reset and unwind on the regular though, and he found this great Netflix special for us this week that I loved. I was in tears laughing through Middleditch and Schwartz, a Netflix comedy special featuring Thomas Middleditch (best known for his role in Silicon Valley) and Ben Schwartz (from Parks and Rec and the voice of Sonic).

It’s an improv special showing the pair onstage delivering their performance to a theatre full of people (soooo 2019). There is no script. Middleditch and Schwartz walk onstage, provide a quick intro, and then ask the audience for a prompt based on an event coming up. They pick a random person’s suggestion from the audience, have a few minute discussion with them about the scenario, and then start the skit.

Middleditch and Schwartz play everyone and switch roles regularly. It’s hilarious to see the diversity of the characters, the well-crafted jokes they build in real time, and the confusion that mounts as they add people to the scene. My only gripe is that only three episodes were released.

If you need a break from the 24/7 news cycle or just a good laugh, check it out and let me know what you think.

Photo by Claire P on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

March 2020 Book Recs

Oh my goodness, it feels like everyone under the sun is catching up on their reading during this pandemic. I always have a long holds list with my library so books stagger in about once a week for me to read. I thoughtfully add books to my holds list but forget what they’re about by the time they are available for me to read. It’s a surprise and gift every time I start a new book, which I just love.

Lately, though, the books have been rolling in. Holds that were for more than six months are now down to a number of weeks. I’m glad to see folks are making use of this downtime to stay home, read, and flatten the curve.

Below are the nine books I read in March with a quick few sentence review of each.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg is a book I read to the kids that I loved reading as a little girl. It’s a story written in 1967 of a brother and sister who run away from home and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. While there, they stumble upon a mystery and try to figure out who the artist is who created the museum’s newest statue of an angel. I enjoyed it as an adult as much as I did as a kid.

Next up was Washington Goes to War, which was recommended to me by a co-worker. I don’t often pick up a non-fiction book outside of the pop psychology category, but this was an interesting read since we live in the DC metro area. It is about David Brinkley’s knowledge and information about war-time Washington, DC around the time of World World II. I read it wishing it was more heavily cited though.

March also included another book recommended by a co-worker: The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande. This book could have been significantly shorter, or maybe that it’s that I’m already onboard with the idea of making checklists so I didn’t need a lot of convincing. There were many stories throughout that I’d already heard, like Sully’s “Miracle on the Hudson.”

I turned it around with a much lighter read next with Casey McQuiston’s Red, White, & Royal Blue. This book was said to be similar to the Crazy Rich Asians series, which I loved. I wouldn’t say it was as good as Crazy Rich Asians, but it was a fun, light-hearted read that I enjoyed. It’s a romantic comedy where the First Son of the United States falls in love with the Prince of Wales.

Jenn McKinlay’s Buried to the Brim was my next read. It was the sixth book (and last) in the Hat Shop Mystery series. These are fun, easy reads that are corny and cheesy. I liken it to a Hallmark Christmas movie. I know exactly what I’m getting when I start the book, and it scratches the itch. It’s about a pair of cousins who own a hat shop together in London, make friends, flirt with romance, and always stumble upon a murder mystery.

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary was a romance with well-developed characters. It’s about two people who work opposite shifts so they decide to cut their expenses and share an apartment. Although they don’t meet before sharing the flat, they start to learn about each other through notes that they leave each other.

I’d been waiting some time to read Celeste Ng’s family drama Everything I Never Told You. It is about how a Chinese American family relates to each other before and after the parent’s eldest and favorite child Lydia is found dead. The dynamics between all characters is explored in an engaging and thoughtful way. It was a moving read. I highly recommend it.

Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age was tough for me to pick up and finish because I disliked two of the three main characters. We certainly weren’t supposed to like them, even though they often thought their hearts were in the right place. The novel explores race and privilege with Alix Chamberlain, an upper-class woman who is used to getting what she wants, and her babysitter Emira Tucker. I actually think the book was a great read. Some reviewers complain about the ending, but I thought it was realistic, which is what has this book stand out from the others in this genre.

Last but not least was a classic. I introduced the boys, mostly Mr. 7-year-old, to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. We are planning to work our way through the series, so what better time than a pandemic to get started!

Posted in Blog

Friday Fav: Video Chats and Parties

Apps like Zoom, Facebook messenger, Skype, and Facetime have been a lifesaver for me the past few weeks. They have kept me and my family sane by connecting us with families and friends. The kids can have play dates, I can have virtual happy hours, school sessions occur, and my work gets done.

I think many of us were familiar with these tools and used them in various ways, but perhaps not as frequently or with the same groups of people. Now they are often the best way to share and communicate with others.

If you haven’t already connected your young kids to their friends and young family, I recommend giving it a try. I can’t follow Mr. 7-year-old’s conversation about Pokemon or whatever video game, but his friends and cousins can and seem to love catching up. I’ve seen kids playing video games together online, somehow playing hide and seek, connecting via Facebook Messenger for kids, and separately but somehow together having Bakugan battles.

Relatives can read stories, play board games (with the kids taking their turn for them), and sing songs. Sometimes just giving the kids a new audience is all they need to lift their moods (and give mom and dad a few minute reprieve).

My husband even uses such tech for online DnD sessions. We are all finding our way online to stay connected to each other. I hope you are too.

Photo Credit to Sergey Zolkin from Unsplased

Posted in Blog

“You Do You” – My Motto for the Latest (and Every) Parenting War

I see it starting now: another great debate for parents to fall into camps regarding how to “best” raise their children. When schools starting closing a couple of weeks ago, it started. There have been articles all over my newsfeeds claiming how parents should approach homeschooling their kids during the coronavirus shutdown.

One side of the divide is to just focus on play and not worry about educational activities. Teachers are professionals, and they will catch students up when they return to school. Focus on making family memories and having kids feel safe and emotionally secure during this turbulent time. Academics will come later.

The other side of the spectrum includes a focus on academics. There are articles advocating color-coded schedules, sharing lesson plans, and talking about the benefits of creating academic structure. These parents have scoured the Internet for educational activities to keep their children on track academically. They may come across as too rigid and inflexible during this unprecedented time.

I just want to put this out there now, before the flames of this debate ignite, that parents need to do what works for them. Find what your normal looks like right now. We’re all battling different needs, ranging from the needs of others (kids/parents/employees/employers/etc.) to our needs (don’t forget about yourself).

Ultimately, come up with something that works for you and your family. Give yourself some grace. Recognize that what may work for you this week isn’t necessary going to work for you in a month. Try to roll with it.

I think many of these articles touting how to handle this situation are trying to offer support. If you’re overwhelming yourself searching for ways to educate your kids or up late at night thinking of ways to teach Timmy how to grasp common core math, then cut yourself some slack. On the other hand, if you’re unsure of what you can do to support your kids so they’re not watching TV or playing video games all day every day, there are articles offering ideas and schedules for your consideration.

Although my personality certainly leads toward structure in an effort to save my sanity, I’m trying to be flexible and follow my children’s needs. I typically work in some activity or lesson (requiring very little prep and low stress) with my kids sometime between 8am and 10am every Monday through Friday. (Support from my kids’ schools is now rolling in and supplementing whatever I plan for the day.) One day this week Mr. 4-year-old wouldn’t have it. He took off to build a train track instead. I let him go, called it a STEM activity, and focused on supporting Mr. 7-year-old one-on-one instead. Last Friday, I wanted my house cleaned. It’s irrational and not REALLY necessary, but I wanted it done. So, we spent 30 minutes working on schoolwork and then worked as a team to tackle the cleaning to-dos.

Ultimately, each day I’m trying to focus on being present with the kids sneaking educational activities into play. I’m trying to take Mr. 7-year-old’s advice that he wrote on our driveway earlier this week: HAVE FUN! I think, from the kids’ perspectives anyway, that it’s working. Mr. 7-year-old notes in his homeschool journal almost every day that he’s happy. That’s success enough for me right now.