This week…Can YOU See The Wooden Trees?

Can you see the wooden trees…?

An effective manager is one who can see both the wood AND the trees
- anon

A few weeks ago I met an account manager who had recently switched jobs and he was telling me that the thing he liked most about his new company (my client) was that people still talked to each other and there wasn’t much e-mail.

He’d come from a place where it wasn’t uncommon to receive 100+ e-mails a day. I know how he feels as my last few weeks have seen email flying in from all over the place and several projects all needing immediate attention right now.

In fact, I've had to rely on my favourite technique for dealing with overwhelm:

Learning to chunk appropriately

More on “chunking” in a moment but first, here’s a couple of practical reminders for the chronically overwhelmed:

You can’t do everything

Although many people know about the 80:20 rule and sort of understand it, there are only a few managers who have fully grasped it’s meaning. Used properly, an 80:20 approach to your life means that you could work only 3 days a week and still be more effective than you are now.

It’s all about ruthlessly concentrating on the 20% that brings you 80% of your results. And that means NOT doing 80% of what you do now.

What you are looking for are the big levers, the actions or activities that can deliver the best results. A typical example is a manager who spend 3 hours doing email (an 80% i.e. low value activity) and neglects to enthuse, motivate and connect with his people (a 20% i.e. high value activity). You can achieve far more, with more impact, in half an hour spent with your people than all day spent with your inbox.

Do the most important thing by 10.30am

I like to play a game in my head on the way to the office each morning. It’s called “What’s the most important thing I've got to do today?” and my challenge is to get it done by 10.30am.

It varies, some days it is “send an invoice to X” or “write next weeks coaching tip” and other days it is things like “make sure I talk to X about Y” or “set up that strategic piece of networking”. I know that if I have done it or a big chunk of it by 10.30am then I have moved my business forward. If not then I spend the rest of the day chasing my tail.

Learning to chunk appropriately

You can think about almost anything at almost any level of detail. Take trees for instance. You can consider the concept of trees at all these levels:

Learning to move up and down these levels is a key skill for managing challenges. We each have a natural preference for level of detail we thrive on and I bet you know people who are much more or much less into detail than you are.

A good way to feel overwhelmed is to consider your life at the highest level “I've got too much to do” but you’ll notice that once you begin to get more specific about what it is you've too much of (chunk down a bit), then the feeling of overwhelm goes away. Even a simple step like writing a to-do list is a way of chunking down.

Why? Because you can only be overwhelmed by everything. Once you start to get more specific it is no longer “everything” and the task becomes manageable again.

You can use this technique to:

Eat Elephants

Do you have any elephants on your desk? Big, fat problems that just sit there and you don’t know where to start?

How do you eat an elephant? A piece at a time. Chunk down and get more specific on the problem until you find a nice, juicy manageable piece and then do it. Then find the next piece and so on. The key is to start soon (now is good) and do your key piece before 10.30am.

To move down on a problem, ask yourself…

  1. What are examples of this?
  2. What specifically?
  3. What will this get for me or allow me to do?

Manage your career

Learning to chunk up or handle a more strategic, less detailed view is a major route to promotion. Consider, for example, the amount of detail handled by a General v. a private soldier and who gets paid the most. Or between you and your ultimate boss - who has the best grasp of the detail about your role and who is paid the most?

There is almost a law that the bigger chunk size you can handle, the more you will be paid - it’s mostly an inverse relationship. Note that this is NOT about handling even more detail or working 7 days a week, it’s about being able to manage the wider view.

Of course, that’s not the whole story because the real skill is being flexible enough to chunk up and chunk down when you need to - being able to move easily between lichen level and plantation level (the helicopter view) as the need arises.

On the whole though it’s a good idea to always seek to delegate the detail and get comfortable with managing the bigger picture. So if you are a lichen level person then practice thinking about things from the bark level and so on until you can zip up and down the levels naturally.

To move up on a problem, ask yourself…

  1. What is that an example of?
  2. For what purpose…?
  3. What is my intention here?

Manage your boss

Another useful skill lies in recognising the chunk size that your boss is comfortable with and delivering information only in this chunk size.

If they want detail, it’s no good being vague and conceptual - you have to deliver detail. If they want a broad brush view, then delivering detail will just result in them thinking you are a nerdy geek with a narrow focus.

Give them what they want. To really impress with your creativity, you can also practice chunking sideways on a problem by asking yourself questions beginning with “How else could I?”

Chunking Example: “I've got too much e-mail”

To chunk up for a wider perspective you could ask these questions:

  1. What is all this incoming mail an example of?
  2. What is my purpose in having so much mail? For what purpose?

To chunk down for a more detailed perspective you could ask these questions:

  1. What is an example of “too much mail”?
  2. Which mail, specifically, is “too much”?
  3. What will dealing with this problem get for me or allow me to do?

To move sideways for lateral thinking, you could ask:

  1. How else could I manage to communicate with people (other than e-mail)?

Have fun with the wood n' trees!