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

COVID-19’s Impact at Home

I had so many other posts planned for this blog, and then COVID-19 happened. My other thoughts on my favorite purchases from Costco (not toilet paper!) and ways I aim to maintain my sanity with busy schedules just don’t matter anymore or aren’t important.

In the course of a week, where we live, we’ve had all activities and events cancelled. No cub scouts, no school, no sports, no libraries, no rec centers, no travel for spring break. My monthly calendar is depressingly bare. Schools have been closed until further notice, and the rumors I’m hearing is that teachers are being told to prepare to distance teach for the rest of the year. Our school year ends in mid-June…..

So, I’m sad about this. I’m sad for my boys who don’t get to go back to school and see their friends. I’m sad for those who are or will soon be directly impacted by this virus, either sick themselves, caring for someone who is sick, or mourning the loss of someone else. I’m sad for those who are losing their jobs because restaurants, schools, and “non-essential” services are closed. And I’m tired.

Thank goodness my husband and I each have jobs that allow us to work from home, and I largely have the flexibility to work whatever hours I want. With the kids home 24/7 and with the new plan to homeschool, I’m not getting up before the sun to crank out a few hours of work. Once I drag myself out of bed, it’s kind of nice because I’m the only one awake in the house and online at that hour, so I get a lot accomplished in that block of time.

Once the kids are up, we move on to getting them ready for the day and starting school work. We’re only one week into homeschooling, and it’s very obvious that I need to do the serious school work in the AM when they are fresh. Then it’s back to work to log some hours during the work day (which typically means I’m on back-to-back calls), making dinner, and winding down for bed. My free time to unwind has evaporated.

My opinion and mood of this entire situation changes frequently, even within one day. I do enjoy spending time with the kids. They think homeschooling is great (yay, I’m doing something right!) and will hopefully look at this time as fun-filled and family focused. They have FaceTimed regularly with family and friends, and we get outside every day.

I miss my friends and going to the bathroom without someone searching or shouting for me. Quarantine for me means being surrounded by people (I love!) constantly. I’m used to significantly more alone time. My husband and I are hanging in there. It’s a change in routine for us, which neither one of us tends to love, but we’re all home and healthy. We haven’t lost sight of what’s most important. Though, I’m going to continue hoping this virus dies out quickly and normalcy returns soon.

Photo Credit: Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Making the Best of Working and Learning from Home

So, this COVID-19 business is taking over all conversation, social media, and the news. It has certainly been the focus of my attention recently because on Friday both of our sons’ schools closed until at least April 10th. Four weeks. That’s four weeks that the kids are home unexpectedly when my husband and I are still slated to be at work.

I know that we’re not unique in this situation and that schools globally are making similar decisions. Really, in many ways, we’re lucky. My husband and I are capable of working from home, and with my part-time schedule, it’s easier to fit in the work hours I need each day while simultaneously keeping the kids alive and educated. I’m fully anticipating it taking 10 hours or more to get 6 hours of actual work done though. Blargh.

This weekend, I took some time to plan out how we’re going to make this work. Mr. 7-year-old and I created a checklist of things to do each day, with a focus on reading and writing and time to fit in whatever academics the teachers eventually email us. Until we hear from the teachers, the boys made lists of topics they want to learn about, like how to stop babies from crying (???) and how marshmallows are made.

With this move to online learning for K-12 kids, a variety of companies are offering discounts and free deals to use their products. Scholastic’s Learn from Home website is one resource we plan on using, and I also downloaded the free 30-day trial of ABC Mouse. The kids tried out ABC Mouse today and loved it! When I asked them why, they mentioned the “fun activities” and “learning path” where you can track your progress and earn digital prizes.

As long as the weather cooperates, I’d like to also get the kids outside every day. I’m keeping a list of what the boys have learned during this “break.” So far, Mr. 7-year-old has learned how to catch a baseball, and Mr. 4-year-old learned how to throw a mean heater!

We’ll see how this whole working and learning from home business goes. I’m sure there will be bumps along the way, but we’ll handle it. I’m such an introvert that it’s going to be strange having people in my space all of the time. Even bathroom breaks don’t see to go uninterrupted. I thought we’d grown out of that phase…..

Posted in Blog

Packing Hacks

I was out of town on business last week. I’m still amazed by how much less work it is to pack for myself and not the whole family. I still find packing to be a pain though….a delay in getting me to my destination. As I was preparing to leave, I was reminded of my favorite packing hacks. What am I missing though? What are your hacks? I share mine below for your consideration.

#1. Make a Reusable List

Now that our family uses Cozi, I can put my reusable lists there. For now, everything is still in Excel. I have lists for all kinds of trips: camping, family vacation, business travel, etc. These lists note all the items I have to pack. There’s a spot to check off each item as it’s packed, both when packing to leave and return home.

I also include sections on to-dos, both tasks I can do well beforehand and those that I need to do last minute. Because I’m always interested in others’ details (to get ideas of items I may be missing), below are some of our to-do items before a road trip.

Beforehand:

  • Bathe dog
  • Charge all electronics
  • Get gas
  • Hold mail
  • Notify neighbors/request they hold packages
  • Mow
  • Check car
  • Get cash
  • Fill prescriptions
  • Procure roadtrip snacks
  • Download media

Last-minute items:

  • Pack cooler
  • Fill water bottles
  • Wash final dishes
  • Pack car
  • Turn off electronics (e.g., computers)
  • Ensure doors and windows are locked
  • Set air/heat
  • Close curtains
  • Water plants
  • Take trash out
  • Set house alarm

#2. Minimize Your Luggage

To help reduce the amount of stuff I need to pack, I create outfits all using the same shade. For my last business trip, I mostly wore black. I took a couple of pairs of black pants, multi-colored blazes, a few sweaters/jackets, and then one pair of dress shoes in black. I pair up my clothes and roll up outfits to reduce wrinkles and minimize storage space in my luggage. Works like a charm!

#3. Pack Toiletries the Night Before

By packing my toiletries a day early, I can use them the night and day before I leave. I do this as a way to double check that I’ve packed everything I need. If I go to put on mascara and I don’t have any in my toiletry bag, then I know I forgot it and need it packed. There’s always at least one item that I find I need to add using this system.

Now that I have these packing hacks, I need to think of some ways to make unpacking more enjoyable. Ugh. I’ll pack (which requires fun planning) all day long, but the seemingly pointless task of unpacking always feels like such a burden. I’ll take it though, because unpacking means I’m home!

Posted in Blog

Managing Stress

My work life has been more stressful than normal lately, and I’d be remiss in not acknowledging it here. Working in a project-based world means that sometimes multiple projects surge at once, each simultaneously desiring my attention. All project issues seem to run through me, and many feel like a fire that must be immediately addressed. I recognize that I have a complex about being a bottleneck for getting work done. I like to move ASAP on items others are waiting on from me, adding to my stress level.

The past two weeks in particular have been crazy at work. So many projects need my time, and I’ve been facilitating meetings and preparing for a business trip during normal working hours. I’m a part-time employee, but my projects have needed full-time hours lately. There’s no way I’m getting work done while the kids are awake (and I don’t want to cut into my family time with them anyway). So, I’ve been getting up early and/or staying up late to finish to-do items. I’m exhausted.

How do I manage the stress? Well, it depends on the day, and I’m still not always good at it. Here’s what I’ve found to be the most successful for me.

Talk It Out

Sometimes I just need to vent and let it all out. I need to release the pressure valve and share my stress. My poor husband has been the brunt of it lately. The sweet man wants to help me solve my problems and make the stress go away, which is incredibly kind. My mother is also a Godsend. She listens to my ranting whenever I need it, and it’s very much appreciated. I always feel a bit better just talking about what’s bothering me. It requires me to put the stress into words and ultimately organize my thinking on the issue. Sometimes it leads me to seeing a way out all on my own.

Get Perspective

What has usually helped me is to stop and look out my window. When I do, I see life outside my four walls. My problem doesn’t seem that great when I realize there are others out there with likely more significant challenges than whatever I’m encountering.

I remember doing this a lot at my college library that sat upon a hill overlooking the campus and town. I would be stressing about some test or project, then look up and see people walking around outside the size of ants. They each had their own issues and problems going on too outside of me. If I could think about others and imagine them navigating their lives well (e.g., managing a chronic illness, battling addiction, deciding how to come out as LBGTQ), my stress level would calibrate. If others can handle their stress with grace, so can I.

Also, in most cases, my issue that was causing me stress would not really matter in the grand scheme of things. It’s not until I stopped and gained perspective that I would see this.

Acknowledge the Good

My job is demanding and sometimes high stress. I don’t have slow days at the office. I’ve never been watching the clock waiting for the day to end. I’m always too busy. Every half-hour of my time is being billed to my clients, so I’m focused and dedicated to make those charges worthwhile.

But, when I step back and think about it. My job has several perks.

  • I work from home whenever I want (i.e., every day).
  • I have flexibility on when I work, as long as I get my work done well and on time. If I want to take a date lunch with my husband during his lunch hour, I can. If I want to volunteer at my son’s school for the afternoon, I can. No big deal.
  • I am well compensated.
  • The work itself of creating learning products for clients is of reasonably difficulty and interesting.
  • I have some really great team members and now friends I work with.

And, on top of my good career, I have a wonderful family. I have two adorable kids who are tons of fun, our senior pup, and a strong marriage to my middle-school sweetheart (!!). I have much to be thankful for.

Okay, I feel better having written this post. Perhaps it, in and of itself, served as a mindfulness exercise. I may need to re-read it each morning as I head into a long workweek of travel and full-day workshops.

Here’s to a reduced-stress workweek!

Photo by nikko macaspac on Unsplash

Posted in Blog

Down to Brass Tacks on Managing Work To Dos

There are tons of articles and books out there talking about managing your time, setting priorities, and delegating your work. I often finish reading and think that it’s great to hear in theory, but how does the author actually stay organized. What apps, tools, and tricks are they using that I could leverage? This post is a bit of a reaction to that. Here’s my down-in-the-weeds look at what I’m doing on a weekly and daily basis to stay organized at work.

My job can be hectic. I have multiple projects with various clients and project teams that all have different requirements, standards, and deadlines. My day can range from facilitating working group meetings and pitching work to clients to writing storyboards for an online instruction and editing a curriculum plan. There is always a lot to do. I’m never bored at work. 

I’ve tackled my work to do-list a variety of ways over the years. I’ve used my email inbox as a list of tasks, emailing myself things to do. I’ve used apps like Todoist, which I liked, to track every task I need to do. I have teams that use Trello, a good project management tool. But, for my individual to dos, I’ve found nothing more satisfying than paper and pen.

Currently, every Friday afternoon, I make a list of every project I’m on and note the tasks for each project that need to be on my radar. I list key deadlines and, if I think the list is too overwhelming, I estimate how much time each task will take to complete. If my estimate of hours is greater than my available working hours, then I know I have a problem. Then, I either need to delegate or shift priorities. 

It’s at this time that I calendar block too. For example, if I know I’m going to need to write or edit, I dedicate a chuck of time on my calendar to this focused work. With this strategy, my project teams will see my calendar is full and not schedule a meeting then.

Simultaneously, while I’m looking at my calendar, I check for conflicts or meetings coming up that I need to prep for. Here I may find that I need to add some tasks to my to-do list or block prep time on my calendar.

Once I have my master to-do list Friday afternoon, I set my goals for Monday. This way, I can start immediately Monday morning with a plan.

The key here is to keep the list of goals short. I definitely don’t allow more than 3 items. I’ll likely get more than my goals done in a day, but my I feel accomplished if my goals are met. I’ll probably have a future post just on setting daily goals.

Another piece of notebook paper is used to capture daily goals.

I also realize, especially now as a senior manager, that a big part of my job is supporting my teams. This role often means I’m responding to “fires” as they occur, which can’t be planned. The only element of fires I can plan for is the fact that I know they will happen….regularly. So, I try to leave room in my calendar for them to work themselves in.  As my week progresses, new to dos are added to the master list and accomplished ones are crossed off. I always have a current running list of project tasks. 

Every day ends with a review of what I accomplished and how much time each task took me and then the creation of a plan for the next day. 

I recognize that my system isn’t the only system out there, but it works well for me in my current position. What apps, tools, or tricks do you use to stay focused and organized at work?