Slowing for sold in the workplace

You know that busy supermarket moment when you decide which check-out queue to join? That happened me a while back. The almost full car park that greeted me on arrival was a sure sign that there would be a lengthy wait. Still I had a list, needed the stuff and joined the fray.

Picking the check-out

The supermarket I use most has a long line of checkouts and I've noticed that the longest queues seem to be the ones nearest the exit. Further along the line, away from the exit, queues are a bit shorter so I tend to aim for one of those spots. I noticed on this visit that one of the operators was chatting to her customers as she scanned their purchases. That queue seemed to be moving fairly quickly so I joined it.

Sure enough. She smiled, talked to kids in the line and engaged their frazzled parents. Here's the thing though, she worked smoothly, organising the throughput of items and slowing from time to time to match the shoppers' bagging pace. The result was that payment and packing were completed in neck in neck time. Glad I joined that line as I crossed it to finish in no time.

So what?

Well, so many of us in busy workplaces, feel we have to work harder and faster. The Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius - Faster, Higher, Stronger could apply, couldn't it? However, the check-out operator was going for gold in a different way. She made haste slowly.

What ways could we slow down the conveyor belt of things to do in our workplaces? Pacing processes to match our customers? Finding the time to engage? It is said that regardless of what job we do, we are always negotiating, selling. Are you slowing for sold?

Timpson: Running their business upside down

Needing some extra keys the other day, I called in to a nearby mall to get some cut. The kiosk, Timpson, supplies keys, does shoe repairs and provides other services. The person in charge was friendly, keen to please and offered a money off deal. He then handed me this simple thank you note. I don't recall any service providing me with that before. Sure, you'll see it on a till receipt but nothing quite so upfront as this.

The thank you note included some commonly asked questions about the business. Is it a franchise? No, their outlets are run by colleagues trusted to serve customers in the way they think best. The note goes on...the bosses don't make the rules round here. That's fresh.

Then, in response to the question, Do colleagues get their birthday off? Apparently so and they say it's a great way to say thank you to colleagues.

Reading on, we learn a little bit about this family business... Father, the Chairman and son, the Chief Executive before turning over the note for details on how to claim a Mystery Shopper discount voucher.

To get the voucher, you have to say which outlet you used, say something about the service and provide an email address. That's it - a 10% discount arrives immediately in your inbox. I'll be using mine tomorrow when I bring some shoes along for repair.

So what?

What I like about this is that by handing out a small, thin piece of paper the business has thanked me for my custom, shared its business model and promoted its values: family, collegiality, turning normal practice upside down.

What if you and I were to take our own small piece of paper and do something similar for the service or product that we supply?

Would that be the key to better customer relations and repeat business? And if our business is a little down at heel in these cash-strapped times would that little piece of paper be a simple first step to putting our best foot forward?

Thank you for reading, colleague!

Out of road

Couldn't resist taking this picture. We had arrived at Cairnryan, Scotland and were waiting in the queue to board the evening ferry to Belfast. The satnav was still on and I noticed that we were out of road.
Now there's a metaphor - out of road.
Sometimes when we run out of road, reach the edge, it can feel as if there's nowhere to go but back. This road, the Belfast way, continues on the other side of the North Channel and heads for home.
Next time I feel like I've reached the end of the road, I'll be checking for a bridge, tunnel or ferry.
With or without a satnav.
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Invisibility at work? Restore Rapport and Reappear!

It has happened to me several times along my career and I wonder if it has happened to you.
"It" is a feeling that you just don't seem to be part of the interaction, closely followed by a sense that you might as well not be there.
For some people "It" happens at meetings when the good idea you have just suggested does not get heard and then, when it resurfaces later, someone else gets the credit.  It happens when you get the impression your top executives and managers don't know who you are and could care less!  You feel invisible and it hurts.

The good news is that you are not invisible and there are things that you can do straight away to make your presence felt. More about that shortly.  And those hurt feelings?  These suggest to me that you probably are a competent and reliable worker and are a bit annoyed that these qualities are not being affirmed in your workplace by people you like, want to get on with and maybe even want to impress. The simple truth is that those execs are busy people too, with a lot on their minds. It is also true that sometimes for various reasons we can lose rapport with others. Another way of saying this is that sometimes we can become out of sync with the interactions going on around us.

Importance of an external focus
These days when I sense I'm becoming invisible instead of getting annoyed about it, I smile inwardly and hum to myself that old Alison Moyet standard "Invisible".  But the thing about rapport is that you cannot build it by maintaining an internal focus.  So I begin to take stock by first noticing my own physiology.  How am I contributing to my own state? Am I stand-offish? Formal when others aren't?  Then, and this is most important, I check what others are doing by having an external focus. I try to pick up on what others are doing and saying, their body language and vocal tones.. David Molden (2007, p159) points out that the act of "gathering sensory information" about what others are saying and doing in itself is instrumental in building rapport. He refers to the external focus as being in "uptime". Downtime is the opposite and is self-explanatory.
So if we can develop the skill of building rapport (getting in sync) with others it should help us to lose that sense of invisibility and re-appear. 

Ways to build rapport
That external focus is the first practical step. Remember that the simple act of being attuned to the actions of others by noticing them, listening to what they say and how they say it, begins the process of restoring rapport.

Steve Bavister and Amanda Vickers (2004) have several suggestions for building rapport. One of the main methods is matching.  This relies on the observation that since much of what we communicate is carried non-verbally, we can start to build rapport by observing someone's gestures and actions and match them. This needs to be done discretely however and they warn about the difference between matching and mimicking.
They refer to another method as psychogeography. Many with experience of staff appraisals will be familiar with this concept. It refers to sitting side-on with a colleague, removing the possibly confrontational connotations of a face-to-face exchange. However, think of this technique of aligning yourself with another's known position at an upcoming staff or board meeting.

Some may have concerns that attempting to influence people using such techniques is being manipulative. I don't think so. So much of rapport happens naturally, without thinking. Check this out for yourself by taking a look around when you are next in a public space. Engage in a little people-watching and take note of what you see.
If your intention is to improve relationships and communications then surely that is an ethical stance. And that external focus on other people will probably work wonderfully in your work and wider communities.  

Hello there! Where have you been?
Have you found ways of recovering rapport that were particularly helpful? Will you share?

Molden, D (2007) Managing with the power of NLP: Neurolinguistic Programming: A model for better management, 2nd Edition, Pearson Prentice Hall Business. Harlow
Bavister, S and Vickers, A (2004) Teach Yourself NLP, Hodder Education. London

Thank you for sharing

Do you use Google+ ?  I've had it for a while now and didn't really get into it until a few days ago. When it first appeared you had to be given an invite to join up and so I wasn't one of those early adopters.
However, I am rapidly becoming a fan. This morning, last night and yesterday I managed to set up a profile and my middlefocus page. I have linked Blogger to Plus and if it works then this post should automatically appear on my stream and webpage. Seriously. They have made the technology transparent and all that was needed was a bit of patience.
What really impresses me though are the vast numbers of internauts out there who blog and post with show-hows.  I just wanted this post to go to them and say thank you for sharing,.  I'll be followng you and adding you to circles.

Increasing frequency

Reading across some blogs recently it is noticeable that the issue of how often to post is exercising the minds of writers. Some have decided to reduce the number of weekly posts to three and supplementing them with micro blogs on Twitter. The advantages of this are that the blog still retains prominence while readers get a little more space. The big advantage though is that the writer can concentrate on delivering a better quality post. Less is more.

It strikes me that while some are reducing to three well-crafted posts a week, I'll be upping the pace to go someway to meeting them. The new wireless keyboard and mouse combo is working well, Blogsy still delivers the magic on the iPad and the thoughts keep flowing. So I am aiming for two a week on this blog and a weekly post on each of my other two.

The trick will not only be in increasing frequency but improving quality. Hold me to it, won't you?

Leadership: Looked at the mirror recently?

The driver side wing mirror on my car has a vertical split designed to widen the field of rear view vision and minimise blind spots. It's not 100% foolproof and sometimes other cars travelling alongside can remain hidden. Ever had that experience? Get it once or twice and we quickly learn to make other checks before an important manoeuvre such as a change of direction; it can be dangerous to rely on a single viewpoint.

Workplaces these days often call for decisive actions from middle leaders navigating busy roads ahead. Although speed is of the essence it is still wise to take the time to check and signal our intentions to others likely to be affected by our actions.

We don't have the advantage of a split lens to compensate for our blind spots but we should be aware of those we have. Checking blind spots might mean that we enlist the support of others to critique our latest good idea, pointing out plusses and minuses in our direction of travel.

Checking and checking without moving is like "analysis paralysis" but driving ahead without checking is careless and dangerous. The skill is to develop a judicious mixture of both.

Books and workplace squeeze

My bookshelves are squeezed tight with all sorts of books. Of the non-fiction variety, apart from text books, the majority relate to personal and organisational improvement. Books bristling with brilliant ideas, sometimes opposed to one another. For example one advocates extensive to-do lists another says forget them. The trick is to try out the ideas for oneself and apply them to one's current situation.

I love books that make me think; for me the best "improvement" books are those which stimulate that thinking and leave me to get on with it.

Mark Twain once observed that the person who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the person who cannot read them. I know people have preferred ways of taking in information but it often surprises me that for many people their experience of the Classics is based on film or television.

In the world of effectiveness literature, a variation on Twain's point might be that the person who doesn't apply the learning from books has no advantage over the person who simply reads them.

I heard an "expert" in a radio interview decrying the self-help genre. He argued that all the guidance anyone would ever need was contained in the world's great literature. Of course, he didn't suggest where to start.....but there might be a self-help book for that!

He did have a point. Our busy, squeezed workplaces can sometimes leave us drained and a great way to recharge emotional and physical batteries is to make time and space for books. All types. Fiction introduces us to characters and situations removed from our workaday lives but with whom we can connect aspects of our own experience. Personal effectiveness literature, thoughtfully engaged with, can help us shape up to workplace squeeze.

Bookshelves: they speak volumes.

Like - Comment - Share

A recent report into managing teams made a case for using social networking to keep in touch. That got me thinking. Who would engage with whom? How naturally would people behave? Would workplace colleagues really see themselves as friends?

Let's give this some thought.

Bring to mind someone in your organisation or office with whom you have a good working relationship..Got someone in mind? Think of the last time you were with that person. Recall any exchanges you had. Stop reading and take a minute or two away from this to think about that. I'll be here when you get back.

Hold that thought.

You may have heard of the presupposition that states the belief that we are never not communicating. It holds that even if we don't verbalise what's going on in our heads, our physiology somehow conveys that to others. Now think of that last interaction as a status update on a social media site.

Would you click "Like" or simply scroll on by?

Whether you hit like or not, there is a button to click for comment. Take another moment and think what your comment would be about that interaction. If you have clicked "Like", just what was it you liked? That behaviour they were exhibiting? That attitude they were communicating? What was it that got through to you? If they were personal qualities you liked, are those qualities ones that you recognise in yourself? If not, are they worth acquiring through a process of modelling?

Okay, so you've liked and you've commented. Good. Now would you consider sharing? Would you tell others? Point up the positives?

My guess is that if we were to share each others positive attributes we could make workplaces more friendly, less of a squeeze. Of course we should be aware of and not delete any negative aspects but we should be careful about how we "unlike", comment and share these. Negative talk in an organisation should in my view be counterbalanced by sharing positive feedback. Children in primary schools these days are learning how to do this. They get praise for things done well coupled with suggestions for improvement. Teacher comments on their work are often expressed as "two stars and a wish". The children like to have their work critiqued in this way. You can see the results in their faces and their books.

Self explanatory really and in my experience works for adults too. Try it at your next feedback session.

Like? Comment? Share?


Blogsy: an APP-reciation

For several months now I have been using an iPad app, Blogsy, to write and publish posts for each of my three blogs on Blogger. In fact it is so straightforward to use that the app has become my start and end place for posts. That's because it holds the profile details for my various accounts and I can choose the one I want to post to from a single platform. I also like being able to work offline in draft mode and flick to publish when ready. Inserting pictures from the iPad's camera roll is straightforward and has meant that several pictures have been the stimulus for the post.

The other evening I hit a snag. I had taken a picture that I wanted to comment and when I launched the app nothing happened. Should I delete it and reinstall? It isn't an expensive purchase and I decided that's what I would do if I couldn't get it going. It didn't come to that though. What did happen was a fast and friendly exchange with the developer that left me wanting to share my APP- reciation.

Not being able to find an obvious solution in the extensive help files on the website I emailed my query. I got a reply a few minutes later requesting a bit more information and suggesting two possible scenarios. The second one described the issue perfectly and that's how I responded. I also complimented the speed of reply and pointed out that I was writing from Belfast and that it was after midnight. Moments later another reply with the solution and a "wow, love the time zone difference thing!" The time for my correspondent was 8.15am and the office was not yet open. I let him know the solution worked, thanked him for his attention and let him know that I would spread the word. I thought that would be that. It wasn't. Back came another mail expressing thanks for the feedback and encouraging me to get some great sleep now!

Wow! I've never had a potential negative turned to such a positive before. Do you think I'll stay with this company and use its products? You bet.

One more thing. My correspondent? He is the founder and CEO of the company. He gets to work early. He sorts out technical queries and he loves the time zone difference thing. If you have an iPad, check out the app here. Me, I'm off to get some great sleep now.

Exerting more pressure

My old computer has been shows signs of age for a while but rather than replace it I thought it would be a good idea to tweak its capabilities. I uninstalled no longer used and unwanted programs, removed several from the start menu and the system tray and sure enough, it operated much more quickly.

The insides of computers are uncharted terrain as far as I'm concerned but I figured why not upgrade some of the hardware? If something goes wrong, I reasoned, then I'll get a new computer. If it works then I'll have learned something new. The RAM was the place to start, and doubling the memory capacity the selected project.

A helpful computer magazine provided details of a website that could check the computer memory remotely and would also suggest components that would be compatible with the machine. Neat, service with a sale in mind. This was duly undertaken and a quick look at the instructions revealed that I had to be sure to work in a static-free environment, removing plastic bags and papers from around my desk top. To be on the safe side, I bought a computer toolkit. This comes with earthing devices and non magnetic screwdrivers so I felt well prepared for the job and proceeded with some confidence that I could follow the steps to a satisfactory conclusion.

For such a large box, the circuitry inside was very compact. I vacuumed out the accumulated dust and fluff of the past six years wondering how it had got there and in doing that found It easy to see where the new chip should be added.

I added the component, bolted everything back together and switched on. Sure enough it started okay but when I checked the properties @ My Computer the memory had not changed....not by as much as a kilobyte.

Now it had taken years for me to get to this technological first but only seconds to decide to unplug everything and reinstall the component. Minutes later, I switched on again only to find that this time the computer wouldn't boot at all. Helpfully the instructions suggested that if this happened I was to remove and install the component exerting more pressure until it clicked into place. Around 30 pounds of pressure. So, opened now for the third time - getting used to this - and with the mother board bending under the pressure it was a relief to hear the clicks that announced the additional RAM was securely in place.

Seconds later, the computer rebooted, came the reassuring confirmation that the memory capacity was now doubled. Simply by exerting more pressure.

Wouldn't it be great if we could simply exert more pressure to make things easier? Take a chance to get past those mental blocks and upgrade the circuitry of our lives? And isn't it helpful to know that others have been there before? Some have even written instructions.

I think I'll upgrade the disc drive next. The inner workings are much less of a mystery now and there are always how to guides.

But I'll still be mindful of that static!

Checked your workplace settings recently?

Like most smart phones mine has a built in camera. Recently I made some adjustments to the settings and the result was that my pictures were not as good as they used to be. I decided to look at them again and it was then that I noticed a check box that allows you to reset to default factory settings. Now I figure that the folks in the factory know a great deal more than I do about what the optimal settings are for a great picture so I restored to the default positions. Result? Brighter, sharper, more pleasing pictures.
This got me thinking about settings in the workplace. What maybe worked well a few years ago probably need adjusting now. Or perhaps we need to return to previous settings: honesty, integrity, service. Taking the camera as analogy I wondered how sharp my own settings are these days. Sharp? Am I up to date with what's going in my area? Or is my picture blurred or distorted in some way? How sharp would I look if someone were to take a picture right now? Poised and alert? Or tired and jaded?
The ISO settings on a camera determine speed and responsiveness to light. So how do I respond? Quickly or slowly? In the gloom of an economic uncertainty can I turn my lens to light from other sources? The "optimalist" effect.
The camera on my phone has a zoom function. So how do I focus on challenges at work? In detailed close-up or zoomed out to the big picture? Do I use the flexibility of the zoom function or treat it as a fixed focus which only sees the challenge from a single perspective?
There is a feature that I rarely use. You know the timer button on the camera that allows you to delay taking the picture so that you can move to be in it. This brings to mind terms used in NLP; associated and dissociated. In the first you you form a picture of your experience as if seeing it through your own eyes. In the second you experience it by seeing yourself in the picture. Association can be great if your experience is a positive one. Less so if it isn't. The ability to dissociate and see yourself in the picture may allow you to become more resourceful by zooming out from a negative experience to gain more information, insight and even objectivity into what's going on.
Allocating time and space to recalibrate settings is an important skill in today's workplace squeeze. Take a moment to consider your own settings? What is working well for you? What could you adjust, replace or tweak? What one thing do you do really well and could you upload and share that picture to appropriate people in your workplace? What would you like to set as your new default positions?
Got a picture of that? So do I. Worth a thousand words, isn't it?

Opting for trust in the workplace

This picture was taken in a gallery of the Roman Baths in Bath and shows a tombstone of an Optio in the Roman army. An Optio was a soldier chosen by the Centurion to assist with the smooth running and discipline of the 100 strong cohort. They acted as a second in command and their task was to work with the rank and file legionnaires to ensure that orders of the day were carried out. The role was a responsible one and Optios could expect to be paid twice as much as an ordinary soldier.
The picture shows the Optio holding a scroll, perhaps containing commands, and a staff. Looking at the ancient artefact I made a connection to organisational life today and wondered if 21st century middle managers are the new Optios? Their bundle of papers tucked underarm a symbol of today's orders of the day? The centuries have taken their toll on the tombstone and the head has not survived. Another link with today as so many aspects of organisational life can appear to have us running around headless.
Optios were an essential part of the Roman organisational machine, and it is interesting that they were chosen on the basis of trust. Optio is formed from the Latin word optare meaning to choose and you can see here the origins of the word options or choices. It struck me that many organisations these days are opting to remove the role of middlemanagers. Some contend that modern business systems and technology ensure that communication is effective and staff are well briefed on organisational expectations. Well, perhaps we still have a way to go. Meantime, we might reflect on the artefact's message. It is this; Optios were chosen on the basis of trust.
Stephen Covey deals with trust and trustworthiness in his Principle Centred Leadership where he makes the point that we must strive to become trustworthy so that we can be trusted. This in turn leads to empowerment and alignment. It seems to me that today's middle leaders should manage the business of trust.
Trust: a valuable attribute in any organisation and one for which the Romans did not mind paying double.

Positive attitude

Earlier this month we took a trip to Amsterdam and arrived to find daytime temperatures rising to minus 7C. The planned for boat trip was a non-starter as the city's canals were frozen solid. You might think that in the face of such chill people would stay indoors but that did not appear to be the case.
The streets were busy with shoppers, wrapped up warm against the cold and getting on with their daily routine.
People of all ages, shapes and sizes made their way onto the frozen canals and whether skiing or walking took the ice in their stride.
It struck me that "getting on with it" and "making the most of things" is an attitude worth fostering. As economies make shaky steps towards recovering their balance, we need more of that canal attitude that is capable of turning a minus temperature into a plus.

Reading Instructions

If at first you don't succeed, read the instructions!
There's an old story about instructions given on an examination question and answer paper. Just before the start of the examination students were told to read carefully the instructions on the front of the booklet and then turn it over and begin.  After a series of DOs and DONTs, the very last instruction on the page said, "Do not write anything on this answer booklet."  It turned out that very few students adhered to that instruction and spent the next hour or so filling in their responses to questions that were not needed.  Sometimes in a rush to get things done, we can be a bit like those students and provide answers to questions that are not required.  The speed of email and the expectation of a quick return may lead us into a hasty response where we provide too much or irrelevant material. Often what is needed, if at all, is something more considered.
Workplace squeeze:
I've learnt to recognise email messaging as a potential workplace squeeze and check first to see if I am the sender's intended first recipient or just simply cc'd for information. If the message is principally for me then I scan quickly for any actions and requests.  If these can be provided in a few minutes, in a turn of my trusty sand timer, then I'll deal with them then and there. That's a tip from David Allen's Getting Things Done although he sets the limit at two minutes. If I cannot deal with it in 2 to 3 minutes, then I'll slide the message into an action box in my email system and fix an appropriate time to deal with it.  When I get to it, I'll double check that I've covered the inputs required leaving out any additional, not immediately relevant, material. In examination terms, this is similar to advice given to students to answer the question as set, which may not be the one they had been expecting and had prepared earlier.  Of course that takes time and that's a commodity in short supply these days.  However investing a little time to communicate effectively saves time in the long run. This reminds me of an anecdote attributed to  Blaise Pascal.  He reportedly apologised for writing a long letter as he didn't have the time to write a short one.
Now, what was that question?

One, Two, 3 X 5

In these days of electronic devices, with their apps and software that help you get and stay organised there is still a place for pencil, pen and paper. So along with my smartphone and iPad, I still find that the simple 3x5 index card has many practical uses.  There is a quality about paper that I love. I still have notes from decades ago and there is something about the feel, firmness and flexibility of paper that has outlived the old, large and small floppy discs and CD-roms of the early digital age.  3x5s will probably still be around when memory sticks and micro cards have moved on to their next stage of development.
I like to use 3x5 cards to capture and organise thoughts; make notes for talks and presentations; to carry with me as to-do lists and to file details of and from books - their original purpose of course was to index library catalogues.
I also like to use them to send notes to friends and colleagues. Heavy enough to sit on a desk they are great for short notes and personal messages and they can be popped into a small envelope to keep messages private.  I find it useful to keep some in the car in case I need to leave someone a note that I called when they were out.
3x5 cards are of a size that makes them handy to keep in a pocket, purse or wallet.  Their discreet size makes them practical when giving a speech as they look a lot less intimidating for an audience than walking forward with a bundle of A4 sheets.  When using them for a speech I do like to make sure that they remain in the proper order so numbering is essential.  Sometimes I couple them with a treasury tag, a much used device from yesteryear but now mostly used to keep batches of computer print-out paper together.
So here's a thumbs up, or more appropriately an index finger, for the 3x5 card!