Working out workflows

Right now there’s a couple of workflow projects I’m tinkering with, in the hope of not just getting more done, but more of what I want done.

Leaving the the laptop at home

I haven’t managed to do it yet, but this is about trying to use my iPad as a laptop replacement. My backpack is ridiculously heavy, and while it is a small triumph of The North Face baggage engineering the temptation is always to fill all of the useful little pockets so that I am never without everything I might possibly need to establish a mobile office. Travelling light is definitely not my style.

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The ROI of personal networks (especially LinkedIn)

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Image: An email from LinkedIn prompting me to tell my network what I’m up to…

Yesterday I had a conversation with someone who told me that over the past year that had learned how to use LinkedIn and that they reckoned that they could directly attribute several hundred thousand pounds of profit to it. Not vaguely, not hypothetically – they knew exactly which items on their balance sheet were the result of doing things because of and through that social network tool.

They were a fiftysomething avowedly non-techie businessperson in a service industry and I found their account of their experience very useful, as it had the fresh perspective of someone outside of the connected world I most live in.

They were of course highly successful in their field already, and implicitly understood the importance of personal networks in business.

Their nightmare scenario in business was missing out on an opportunity because they weren’t in the right place at the right time, that they weren’t front of mind when someone in their sector was pulling together a short-list for a contract or similar. What Twitter was doing was helping them to increase both their presence and profile in their personal network and their ability to listen to the needs of their connections and contacts.

These were some of the points they related which stuck with me…

  • Paying attention to what is happening: They weren’t a compulsive checker of what was happening on their LinkedIn account, they used a weekly email update to see who was doing new things, connecting with someone else, saying interesting things or asking for help on status updates.

  • Light-touch presence: They update their status every now and again, but had grasped that in LinkedIn less can often be more. I agree with this, which is why I don’t connect Linkedin to Twitter. In Twitter I am much more chatty, and when the mood takes me update several times a day or even hour. In LinkedIn that’s not useful – I leave status updates there only when something significant has happened, or I am travelling somewhere that I think I might meet others from my network or I am looking for input on a particular project or issue. They also mentioned that changing their photograph or updating their profile details every few months was a useful way of keeping (sociologists would call that a phatic expression – the online equivalent of waving as you pass or saying “hi” briefly).
  • Being useful to their network: As well as answering obvious business opportunities, they stressed the importance of connecting others who would be useful to one another, when they spotted an opportunity. This connecting behaviour is a classic networking approach, and one that leaves everyone feeling positive toward one another. Often it can also result in direct or indirect commercial benefits for the connector.

LinkedIn is a productivity, networking super-charger: It’s not just about LinkedIn, of course – it is about understanding your personal networks and how to behave, to be useful in them. Tools like Linkedin accelerate and augment our ability to successfully work with our networks, in them, through them. But the real, underlying superskill as I’m calling it at the moment, is all about networks.

Designing your workflow: the ultimate New Year’s resolution

Many of the ways we work could do with being rethought.

This post is about how I’m thinking about re-designing mine, and how we could all benefit from thinking more deeply about how we design our work, and from comparing notes with one another.

Re-designing workflow

We might think that this is self-evident, since things should always be improving upon systems, approaches and methods. The rise of the social web toolset – all those lovely social network, web services and search engines – gives this extra urgency. We can do things faster, better, bigger if we use the new tools we’ve been playing and working with over the past few years.

Part of what I was driving at with my last post was not overly focusing on the platforms when we’re thinking about the web, what it means, how to respond as individuals, organisations and whole industries. When you’re planning a marketing or media programme, this means not thinking that Facebook page = social media strategy. When it comes to the personal end of business life, our own individual working days, it means not blogging, Tweeting, bookmarking and hanging out in LinkedIn without thinking about how these things fit into our workflows.

Workflow, according to my trusty Mac dictionary is:

the sequence of industrial, administrative, or other processes through which a piece of work passes from initiation to completion.

The most famous work-flow in the world?

This diagram is from the book Getting Things Done by David Allen, and many of you will be very familiar with it. It describes a system for, well, getting things done and it is designed to take away the worry that things won’t get done, to provide complete system for processing tasks.

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For many people, including myself until recently, this is the only designed workflow they have – and really I often only use this in a fragmented way (i.e. bits of it, some of the time).

The exception is, of course, project managers, who are trained to understand how complex work gets done and to make sure it happens. I love working with good project managers, for the sense of control, transparency and security they bring to projects. Most of my career was spent away from such skills, however, and it was only in recent times at iCrossing that got to experience how great working with project management systems and professionals was.

Stopping. Thinking. And starting with ends in mind…

I’ll doubtless return to stuff-we-can-learn-from-project-managers in a later post or two. For now, though, let’s think about how much more effectively we can work if we stop just piling into tasks, throwing ourselves with brute force at stuff that needs to be done and break things down a little.

Very often I’ve been guilty of starting at the end of a piece of work, rather than starting with the end in mind. What I mean by that is if I have a presentation to write I will open up Keynote or Powerpoint and start to write it, there and then.

It’s the sort of thing that presentation experts like Carmine Gallo say you absolutely shouldn’t do, but there you go. They tell us not to put quotes or long sets of bullet points into presentations either, but our reaction is to nod wisely, tell each other about it and then do it anyway, because it feels easier than building a presentation the right way.

Toward the end of this year I started applying a combination of workflow design, Getting Things Done (a.k.a. GTD) and the Pomodoro technique to tasks like writing a presentation. In the past writing a presentation on a new topic could fill a week or more of my time, as I wrote bits, went off on tangents. Working like this, the deadline acted like the music being turned off in a game of musical statues – as it hit it was time to tidy up, polish the slides and head to lectern hoping for the best.

This way of working was a bit like making a new recipe for a dinner party without all of the ingredients being prepared or even knowing if I have everything I need. Even though I am lucky enough to have a small, well stocked supermarket next to my house nipping in there two or three times during the course of cooking will cost me a lot of time, disrupt my concentration, waste time that could have been spent perfecting the recipe, adding little touches that would make it great.

I plotted out how I wanted the presentation preparation to progress and the tools I’d need: four Pomodoros (4 x 25 minutes) to gather new research on the topic (I had a lot of insights already, just needed some specifics on a new niche), two for crafting the story (distilling the insights and ordering them into a rough narrative), four for designing the slides in Keynote and two for curating the presentation. It looked a bit like this:

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Under the bad old way of doing things it was the curating that suffered most, that is ordering the research into notes for a blog post, posting the slides on SlideShare and Tweeting them so that people could take a look. It used to be that I would post the slides to SlideShare and my blog sometimes days later or not at all. With the new approach, I’d not only done things faster but I was able to Tweet a link to the slides at a conference (using the correct hashtag, of course) as I went on stage to present or immediately afterwards – just at the point where that information would be most useful to the most people.

Sharing workflows

When I wrote about Howard Rheingold’s workflow for writing his book (see How Howard does it: attention master at work) I loved the way that the different social web and other tools fitted into what called “turning information into knowledge”. Recently, David Wilcox left a couple of really interesting comments, and a simple, brilliant idea:

Create a simple showcase where people can share the pathways they use on mobile and desktop devices – for example, to find and store information, and turn it into knowledge.

It would be great to see something like this take flight – I’m looking forward to chatting to David about the idea. My personal first law of web services – “if you think of something you want it probably already exists” – may come into play here. Let us know if you’ve seen anything that would be useful.

How Beth does it

Here’s an example of the sort of workflow that is useful to share. Beth Kanter is a well-respected blogger about social media and Not For Profit organisations. In a post I serendiptously came across in my Google Reader yesterday, Beth talked about her “system for online learning” and how social media tools featured in it.

Naturally you should take a look and read it for yourself, but here is a diagram she uses to summarise her system (which we could also call a workflow, for the purposes of this post):

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Some of the things I really liked about Beth’s post and her approach:

  • She differentiates between specific tasks with and an end point and ongoing listening or “scanning”, but both types of workflow have focus and defined outputs / benefits.
  • Her “circle of the wise” approach (in turn learned from Vicki Davis) – having a maximum of 12 bloggers she always listens to – is a great way of filtering her network and creating helpful limits on her reading list (I have a similar folder in my feed reader called “Friends” that does this for me).

The ultimate New Year’s work resolution?

I’m writing this on New Year’s Eve. This year for me is going to be about re-desigining workflows, my own for sure, but also the broader topic. I’m pretty sure this is going to be a major theme for my new book. More to come soon…

In the meantime here’s a new Year resolution many of us could benefit from: “Think more about how to work smarter”.

If you take a little time out of the day to think about how you are approaching tasks, especially complex knowledge work you’ll probably be able to very quickly sketch out a better way of doing it. Maybe some of the directionless use of tools like Twitter and reading blog posts, might be tuned so that it supports other work or just becomes more effective.

How Howard does it: attention master at work

This is a great video in which Howard Rheingold (using Screenr, an interesting Twitter screencasting tool) explains his process, his workflow, for gathering information and putting it to work (or turning information into knowledge as he says).
The simple five-minute walkthrough is very useful to me personally, as I am thinking about both how I process information / knowledge and how to define and explain these processes and the digital literacies involved to others. Howard teaches digital media at Stanford and urges his students to use these tools as part of their work – so he has some strong insights to offer (to say the least).
There is so much information out there, in Twitter streams, in Google, in Delicious, in email in Facebook, in the articles that we read online, that the challenges for knowledge workers are becoming acute, specifically:
  • Attention: How do you focus on relevant things and not get distracted by the endless fascinating things being discussed in your social networks. Or as Howard has explained it before, how do you learn to switch from diffuse attention, where you are open to your network’s inputs and focused attention where you hone in on the thinking and effort around a single task, such as writing a report or chapter of a book. (The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr expands on issues around how we pay attention online and in deep thinking/reading long-form text, by the way – more to come on this from soon.)
  • Creating value / knowledge: Twitter for example, is wonderful. But you could spend all your time playing the game that is Twitter, collecting and sharing links with your ever-expanding network without ever turning the links into working knowledge, adding your perspective.
Blogging, for me, is one tactic for refining information into knowledge in this way (which is partly why I get twitchy if I don’t write a post for a long time). The discipline of switching my attention to creating a post and not diving back into the Twitter stream hunting for new hits of exciting information, is a way of of re-stating what I have learned in my own words.
That act of writing, reporting and analysising (even briefly) that both really understanding what I am reading and connecting it with other ideas, creating my own perspective. Sometimes that perspective adds value in my network, sometimes it just helps me understand things better (usually you don’t know which it will be – usefulness in networks is hard to predict).

In the video, Howard talks about various stages in this example process of turning information into knowledge. How I heard them was…
  • Tuning his network to get useful information: His Twitter network is tuned to topics he is interested in (multiple topics might be focused with Twitter lists, of course) and he uses Twitter searches to find new inputs.
  • Collecting/curating information: Useful sources of information are stored as annotated bookmarks in his Diigo / Delicious databases.
  • Refining the information in his own databases: Devonthink, a desktop personal database,?is put to work to categorise and combine bookmarks and documents, snippets of information. He is making sense of it, turning links and articles into personal, working knowledge.
  • Turning the information into knowledge: Howard describes the whole process as being about turning information into knowledge. In this case, he is writing a book about attention (which I can’t wait to read) – the Devonthink data informs his writing in the Scrivener application (which helps authors combine notes and draft manuscript elements in a clever way).

We need to be aware of how our own workflow/thinking processes work, for the simple reason that they are new, evolving, emerging. There are no neat sets of productivity tools available with a training course – we hack together our personal collections of tools and behaviours (I don’t use Devonthink for instance, and have done no more than dabble in things like Diigo and Scrivener, that Howard mentions as key elements of his process) that work for us.

Image (cc) RuffLife

To keep working effectively we need to be able to critically reflect on our own behaviours and adjust them. With practice it gets easier to do this. I think of the stages of the process like a kind of graphic equaliser – I’ll tinker with the levels as I go along, but as I get better at it I know there are pre-set patterns that will work best for different types of work: writing a speech may require little collecting from the network, but a focus on refining the information I have already collected my Delicious and my blog, whereas writing my new book will require tuning my network, interrogating it for new data and connections.

: : Note to self: One useful exercise we might carry out to examine our own processes and practices would be to turn on a screencasting tool and capture how we browse and what we do with what we find.

A gaming layer on reading (and everything else for that matter)

Prompted by a lot of people (Rockjimford and Matt Bagwell especially) I finally got around to watching the Seth Prietbatsch TEDx talk about building a gaming layer over the world.

His central conceit is that the last ten years were about building a social layer on the world with the web. This has now been achieved and is called Facebook, whether you like it or not.

Now you can argue with his premise that the social layer is all done and belongs to Zuckerberg (I’d tend to disagree, on balance) but what Mr Prietbatsch does have is a fascinating lens through which to view the way the world works: it’s all a game. It’s status, appointments and other dynamics that keep the world moving, keep us doing things. And he wants to play with that (and help businesses literally game our gaming instincts).

Paranoia fans who enjoyed and are currently enjoying the corporatisation of our social networks are going to have a lot of fun with this stuff…

Prietbatsch’s own company is a location-based gaming service, called SCVNGR. It comes on like Foursquare but more fun (sets you challenges to complete in various locations) and next-big-thing fans are already putting it forward as the new plaything of edgy marketers everywhere…

You can see some of Prietbatsch’s world-is-all-games logic in a new service called Readness. It connects your Facebook, Twitter and Google Reader profiles and then sets about building gaming dynamics into the way you read.

Since the way many people (including myself, on occasion) read their RSS feeds and links from Twitter in a bit of a compulsive way, gaming ideas like ranking your reading habits against friends, leveling up and going on quests sound like they could work well.

Naturally, there’s a concern if you’re going for quantitative gathering/sharing behaviours there may not be a lot of digesting/reflecting going on, but it’s an interesting idea nonetheless.

There’s definitely something in using playful, game-type ideas to help us in our daily work. Think GTD with a leaderboard. In a way, the life-saving (in my case*) Pomodoro technique with its got-to-get-don-in-25-minutes mechanic is game-like.

Here’s a video introduction to the Readness service…

Anyway, Prietbastch’s game-thinking has really stuck in my head. We shall speak more of this!

(* If the definition of life-saving can include getting documents written on time.)

Life is like a boxed board game…

Kindle previews are my new Amazon wishlist

The Kindle app on the iPad is really working well for me.A feature it took me longer than it should have to become useful though is the preview. Instead of building a pile of business books on my desk which I will only read some of, or stacking them up in Amazon Wishlist, now I order the previews. It sends you the first 25 pages or so of whatever book you like. In workflow terms it kind of works like an Instapaper for browsing books… wonderful. (iBooks does the same thing, but the range of books there is quite limited at the moment – though doubtless it will get better.)

This morning I’ve stashed previews of Charlene Li’s book on leadership and the below book “Superconnect” (about networks of all things)…

Posted via email from Antony’s posterous