A man named Hermann Ebbinghaus attempted to illustrate what we’re up against in our battle with remembering with what has become to be known as the forgetting curve. Various academic studies have attempted to quantify the rate at which we forget, yet I believe it’s sufficient to know we’re good at forgetting, and we’re good at forgetting quickly.
It’s natural for our knowledge to degrade unless we give it attention and that natural forgetfulness has certain species-adaptation benefits. But forgetfulness in the workplace can be inefficient, frustrating, embarrassing, perilous, and generally disadvantageous: To be forgetful is to be ineffective.
When we don’t take notes, we forget. Actually we’re likely to forget whether we take notes or not, so it’s more appropriate to say digital notes transfer the burden of remembering to a software application such as Evernote.
Along with our best ideas, digital notes make more accessible the knowledge we’re responsible for knowing, such as what was discussed at last month’s meeting, where the last conversation left off, important deadlines for the budgeting process, and the long list of “working memory” responsibilities all of our jobs include.
As I’ve written elsewhere: “Amid overflowing inboxes, packed-to-the-hilt calendars, and lists of priorities all of equal priority, the healthcare administrator’s job is the same as it ever was: keep things running smoothly, and as different as it will ever be: make change happen.”
And digital notes help to make it possible through strategic forgetting.
Have you been in an interaction (meeting, 1:1 with the boss, annual review for an employee, etc.) and have limited memory of something you wished you recalled more completely?
A note would have helped.
Have you found yourself searching Google for a resource, something you know exists because you’ve used it previously, and found no luck in finding it again?
Have you had a thought during a meeting, in the middle of the night, or in the shower only to forget an important point when it came time to use it?
Has your memory of an influential series of events differed from someone else’s memory of that same series of events?
Strategic forgetting is the practice of transferring the burden of remembering to our digital notes because digital notes are memories stored outside the brain.
Transferring this burden of remembering, writes Building a Second Brain creator Tiago Forte, “allows us to outsource our memory, instead of trying to keep every detail of our work and lives in our heads. It is like having a brilliant collaborator, thought partner, and personal assistant always available, ready to serve up our best ideas at a moment’s notice.”
Imagine arriving at a meeting well-prepared and well-informed on the topic because you’d been collecting information, stored in notes, for the past two weeks, six months, or even ten years—and reviewed that information before the meeting.
Imagine taking notes on the interesting things you read related to your job, or the job you might want to do in the future, and having that information available in the moment you need it.
Imagine taking notes about the thoughts you have, as they come, on whatever it might be, comprising thousands of notes, and then being able to consult them as they’re useful in support of your creativity.
The thing about taking (and collecting) notes is the value notes bring in having them. We (almost always) don’t know what information is going to be valuable until we’ve realized we don’t have it. Then we’re lucky if there’s a trace of a memory at all.
So if you read something and it captures your attention—why not take a note? If you’re already attending a meeting—why not take a note? If you have a thought in the shower—why not take a note?
If you’re already doing the work—why not take a note?
While the details of the February 17, 2016 department staff meeting may or may not be important to you right at this moment, there’s a heck of a good chance that the blog post you read and have been thinking about all day is something that should influence your thinking in the future. Because that’s work, too.
And in my estimation, if you’re already doing the work then it’s worth knowing what you’ve already learned. You just have to remember it.
Once your set-up is complete, you can create little systems to make note collecting easier. “Your job is to collect good ideas,” writes artist Austin Kleon in his book Steal Like an Artist, “The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.” Here’s a guide to do just that.
The point of taking and collecting digital notes is to use them, something we’ll do more and more as our jobs continue to shift toward creative work. So here’s a guide to using and improving notes for the creative (and tactical, too) healthcare administrator work you’re already doing.
Notes are personal, informal, quick and dirty. They are not for public consumption, but for your own personal use, like a leather notebook you keep in your backpack.
Notes are open-ended and never finished. “Taking notes” is a continuous process, in which you can noodle on ideas without an immediate purpose in mind.
Notes have low standards for quality and polish. They are easy to jot down, because it’s fine if they are messy, incomplete, or totally random.
Notes naturally mix diverse types of media. Just like a paper notebook might contain drawings and sketches, quotes and ideas, and even a pasted photo or post-it note, notes naturally combine different kinds of media in one place.
In many ways, at least for me, notes have become a primary work activity, perhaps even the primary work activity.
That’s because our jobs are changing. This Harold Jarche visual representation gets to the point in a straightforward manner: our work is steadily becoming creative work.
It’s creative work in the sense that creativity is required for solution finding when working in complexity. Applying creativity to solve problems in complexity requires skills like intuition, empathy, curiosity, and sensemaking.
Creativity has always been valuable in organizations; but it wasn’t necessary for everyone to be creative because business context changed so infrequently.
Now we’re realizing context, the conditions of a business decision, is always shifting and depending on the setting it has as much to do with an interaction between employee and boss as it does with changing market dynamics.
Responding to market shifts caused by competitors, regulators, cultural shifts, innovation, yes even pandemics, and especially in response to the response of a pandemic, among a multitude of other examples … requires creativity. So does, on an equal level, organizing a team to do their best work, leading a project, navigating bureaucracy, creating a financial model, conducting a training session, leading a staff meeting, and on and on.
This importance of context requires creativity from everyone in order to respond to all the contextual changes happening across the organization, at any given moment, and in any given moment.
So it’s good news that we’re all capable of creativity. And a foundational element of my creative (healthcare administrator) work, and now perhaps becoming a foundational part of yours, are digital notes because digital notes store what’s at the foundation of the creative skills on the right (up above) until we’re ready to use it: input.
Using and Improving Notes
The point of having notes is to use them.
That seems an obvious statement, but using notes, at least for me, has been more of a challenge in changing habits than collecting notes was in establishing one. I’m very good at collecting notes. I’m getting better at using notes.
It sounds trivial, but after decades of starting every knowledge-seeking activity with an innocent search engine search, reminding myself I likely already had what I was looking for was difficult. For certain, there are resources on the internet better than what I have in my notes, but what I already have has been curated for my interests, is likely to meet my contextual needs, and doesn’t contain all the flim-flam of a search-engine-optimized Google search result.
So if you find yourself having the same problem, here’s what worked for me: change your browser’s default search engine to something more useless than Google. That should do the trick.
Once you establish the habit of using your notes, there are at least three reasons to use them: in consultation, in preparation, and in creation.
In consultation is to rediscover what I “know” about a subject. This is as much about reminding myself what was discussed in the committee meeting two weeks ago as it is about refreshing myself on a topical subject in the midst of a team meeting.
In preparation is to prepare for a work activity. Whether it’s a meeting or an interaction, and those two categories cover much of what we do at work, I look to my notes to prepare for knowledge reasons (here’s what I know) and process reasons (here’s how I’m going to do this).
In creation: To inform a creation. It might be a PowerPoint slide deck, financial model, framework, project plan, memo, team development activity, etc., etc., etc., my notes help me in the process of creation.
Using a note in consultation, in preparation, or in creation happens in the flow of work and in that flow there is also an opportunity to improve a note and make it even better for the next time it is used. It’s called progressive summarization and it’s an exceptional feature of digital notes.
Progressive summarization is a tool to do just what it describes: progressively summarize a note you’ve collected previously, as you’re using the note, so that you can make it even more useful for the next time you use it.
For example, there’s an article I constantly reference because it’s changed the way I think about work. I saved the entire article as a note. I’ve bolded passages, highlighted key ideas, and even summarized it. So when I return to the note, which I do with some level of regularity, it’s easy to find what I’m looking for without having to spend 15-minutes re-reading the article. That’s progressive summarization.
Tiago Forte, inventor of Progressive Summarization and creator of the Building a Second Brain course, describes progressive summarization as “a method for opportunistic compression — summarizing and condensing a piece of information in small spurts, spread across time, in the course of other work, and only doing as much or as little as the information deserves.”
Progressive summarization works through five layers with each layer building on the previous layer.
The first layer is creating the note. That’s easy.
The second layer is bolded key points. The third layer is highlighted best points (which come from the bolded points). The fourth layer is creating a summary of the note in your own words.
And the fifth layer, which in all honesty I haven’t quite figured out yet, is to remix notes. I imagine it to be a mastery-level use of digital notes and something I’ll figure out when it becomes useful to my digital note taking practice.
Progressive summarization doesn’t have to occur all at once. In fact, it shouldn’t. And not every note deserves or requires all layers of progressive summarization—stopping at the bolding layer is common for me and summaries should be reserved for only the most impactful notes.
Notes are intended to be useful. Using progressive summarization to make notes more useful as you’re using them to do the work you’re doing absolves digital note taking from tedium. We’re all too busy for tedium.
More Creativity at Work
At work we commonly depend on our creativity as we write the email, as we compose the thought in a meeting or interaction, and as we create the spreadsheet or presentation. Let’s call it creativity in the moment.
Equally (and perhaps more) important is considered creativity. The creativity that emerges from well thought out preparation, consultation, and creation in thoughtful consideration of context.
I’m not sure that distinction serves all that much importance beyond this: it calls attention to the need for creativity in all moments, in all areas, and by everyone when working in complexity.
Digital notes help us in constantly shifting contexts because digital notes provide a system to collect, process, and remember the information and knowledge required for being creative—and importantly: while we’re being creative in preparation, in consultation, and in creation.
I suspect it’s possible. But not in the way we all suggest to new employees when we tell them their first few weeks on the job are going to be just like … well you know.
At best, at best, if you attempt to drink from a fire hose you’ll only manage to consume a few drops of water because the only sensible way to attempt to drink from a fire hose is to stand to the side of the gushing stream and slurp from the spray.
An onboarding experience that captures a tiny fraction of the whole is not a successful onboarding; nor is capturing a tiny fraction of any of the information we come across in any activity at work, whether we’re a new employee or not.
But that’s just what we’re doing when we attend meetings, webinars, and trainings; when we read articles, books, and emails; when we converse with coworkers, bosses, and employees; when we think of solutions, next steps, and risks; and everything else; and … we don’t take notes.
Digital notes give us the ability to 1) redirect the fire hose of information coming at us all the time into a gigantic collection … tank, where the information is stored until it’s needed and, if it is needed, is findable and 2) collect what we know (knowledge!) in an accessible fashion so it can be used.
And to be findable and usable, digital notes must be collectable.
Little Systems for Collecting Notes
Making digital notes collectable is about implementing little systems to optimize note collecting. This is where the digital in digital note taking makes note taking so much easier. The internet abounds with useful tools, applets, software, subscriptions, and etcetera to make collecting digital notes easier.
Here are two tools and a set of rules to make digital note taking easier for you.
Instapaper Highlights to Evernote
Just about everything I read on the internet is filtered through Instapaper. Instapaper makes it easy to save anything (articles, blog posts, videos) for later consumption. This is helpful for several reasons and most especially because Instapaper has a highlight feature that when paired with a recipe at IFTTT automatically saves those highlights to my Evernote inbox.
IFTTT, also known as If This Then That, is a simple integration service allowing you to connect different services through simple applets. More on that in a moment.
Here’s how to save Instapaper highlights to Evernote:
Save this blog post by using the “Save to Instapaper” plugin or bookmarklet. Visit Instapaper. Highlight this phrase with your cursor. Then click “Highlight.”
Wait for the highlight to appear in Evernote. Voila!
Reading on the internet in this fashion has been helpful to me because I usually add something from what I read to Evernote, I have a searchable archive of everything I’ve saved and archived in Instapaper, and instead of having a hundred open tabs or emailing myself things to read when I have the time, Instapaper provides an inbox of worthy reading when I want to do it.
Entire Articles to Evernote
Sometimes an article I read is so good, or is foundational to my understanding of a topic, or is one I return to again and again, or is something I share over and over that I just want to save the entire piece to Evernote.
So I do using the Evernote Web Clipper plugin. Install it. Click the “Clip to Evernote” button. Look for a moment at the “Options”—the plugin has what it calls “smart filing,” where the software decides which notebook to use for saving the clip. I’m sure this is a helpful feature, but to me it’s proven annoying, so I changed the setting to “Always start in .Inbox.” Click “Save.” Wait for the clip to appear in Evernote.
Most of your notes are bound to be direct entry right into Evernote. I rely on a few simple heuristics for deciding when to take notes. Most of my notes are work related, and I also use notes for things in my personal life.
If something captures my interest or attention, online or IRL (like a book!), it gets a note. Also, if something should capture my interest or attention because of a project I’m working on or something I have responsibility for (e.g., employee documentation, reminders to aid during annual reviews, etc), it gets a note.
Thoughts get a note. These thoughts can range from the thoughts that come while on a run, or in the shower, or when I should be paying attention to something else … to the applied thinking I do in preparation for a meeting, or the individual work as part of a project, or the effort in solving a problem.
Every meeting gets a note. My definition of meetings is broad, so this includes everything that comes by way of a calendar invite, the interactions that aren’t pre-scheduled but amount to what would happen in a meeting if it had been, webinars, trainings, etc.
I use a template for all meeting notes. Each note is dated and titled the same as the meeting in my calendar. I note:
Commitments (Who/What/By When)
Notes (!), this is the meat of the note, often just an attempt to capture what seems important in the moment
Resources; I make note of anything distributed in hard copy form or attach any digital resources
Agenda; if available I copy and paste the agenda
Taking notes about things that capture your attention, the thoughts you have, and the meetings you attend are a good start but may not cover everything you want to take notes about.
For example, in addition to the above, I rely on (and take some notes in this way) notes for reminding me of things I want to be reminded about, skills I’m practicing to improve, and a PDF to read list, among other things.
Finding What Works For You
My digital note taking (and collection) practices have evolved as I’ve found my way into new jobs and experienced the value digital notes provide.
So there’s no right way nor a reason to comprehensively classify all the different types of notes worth collecting. Instead, taking digital notes is about developing and improving the approach that works for you while relying on PARA as your organizing idea.
You’ll find what works for you and your note taking needs as you take more notes, of course, which happens to be the point: to understand the value digital note taking provides, you must start collecting (and taking) digital notes so you can start using your digital notes to help you be more effective at work.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if there were something you could start doing at work that would immediately make you more effective at your job?
Good news, because I believe there is: Digital note taking.
A Foundational Work Practice
For most of us, note taking amounts to an activity we do when we attend meetings—we record information we definitely need to know or share, commitments we make, instructions we’re given, and perhaps a few additional thoughts depending on your personal preferences for information capture.
Note taking can be so much more.
If you take your way of capturing notes in a meeting, improve it, and expand the activity to everything else you do at work, digital note taking will help you be more effective at what you do.
That’s because our jobs amount to turning 1) information into 2) knowledge and 3) applying it. That’s it. That’s all of our jobs. And digital note taking can help us with all three.
Taking digital notes is a foundational work practice that will help you think, help you focus, create a record, document your learning, and direct your work.
That’s what note taking has done for me, at least, because digital note taking makes collecting, remembering, and using the enormity of information we consume every day at work … possible.
So if you haven’t already, pay for a digital note-taking app such as Evernote or any of the many other available options and install the application. I use Evernote and recommend it—it’s accessible across operating systems and, for reasons that will become clear, is usable with other components of a digital note taking system.
(Evernote is also accessible via your browser. I prefer the functionality of the desktop and mobile device apps.)
Evernote uses notebooks as its organizing metaphor (think of a notebook like you think of a folder on your computer); the period at the beginning of inbox is important because it will keep the notebook at the top of your notebook list as you add more and more.
Start adding notes to your .Inbox … about everything: thoughts, observations, meetings, employee interactions, highlights from what you read, and any other information that seems relevant.
Taking notes about … everything is likely to be different from your usual approach. This change in behavior, and the comprehensive collection of notes that will follow, is part of what lends digital note taking its utility.
Once you have a few notes, create new notebooks to organize those notes by topic, for instance:
Earlier I mentioned how Evernote uses notebooks instead of folders. This makes setting-up PARA a bit more difficult than it should be because instead of using folders to implement PARA we must create four “stacks” of notebooks. To create a stack requires two notebooks. Here’s how to do it. Once you have two notebooks that fit into one of the PARA categories (an easy work-around: create a nonsense notebook to create a stack, then delete the nonsense notebook and the stack remains). Your set-up should look like this:
Now whenever you create a new note, and that new note doesn’t have a home, create a new folder and add that folder to an existing stack.
Team Staff Meetings and 2021 Strategy Thoughts, as an example, would both be added to the Areas stack. The 1:1 Tools, because the folder contains examples of how to improve 1:1 conversations, would be added to Resources. New Clinic Opening is a project. When any of these folders (and the notes within them) lose their relevance, they are moved to the Archives stack.
An Essential Part of the Job
Taking digital notes is a bit of work, not in a burdensome way, but in a way that it adds an extra task to what you’re already doing. This is a non-trivial reality for an overburdened administrator and, speaking from experience, once I started taking notes it was always tempting to not take notes … for a variety of reasons. However, not taking notes when you should be taking notes defeats the purpose of note taking. The whole reason to take notes is because when you want to use the notes you’ve taken, those notes exist.
In my estimation, a better way to look at digital note taking, which is the view I’ve adopted, is that digital note taking adds significant value to the work we’re already doing. Digital note taking is an essential part of the job because digital notes help us collect, remember, and use … knowledge.
Knowledge is essential to the work we do as knowledge workers in a knowledge economy. The things you know, the knowledge you have, is the stuff you learn from experience and education.
Yet most of us don’t do a very good job collecting our knowledge, not in a systematized fashion anyway; which makes it difficult to remember knowledge; and that all but makes it impossible to use our knowledge.
Make more knowledge more usable by taking digital notes.
I learned about digital notes from Tiago Forte and his Building a Second Brain course. It was very helpful to me and I believe it could be just as helpful for you.
“In your life, you will be evaluated on your output,” shares writer Ted Giola, “Your boss will evaluate you on your output. If you’re a writer like me, the audience will evaluate you on your output.”
But your input is just as important. If you don’t have good input, you cannot maintain good output.
The problem is no one manages your input. The boss never cares about your input. The boss doesn’t care about what books you read. Your boss doesn’t ask you what newspapers you read. The boss doesn’t ask you what movies you saw or what TV shows or what ideas you consume.
The boss may not care about your input, but you should. Because there may be no more important activity to your professional success. I don’t think that’s hyperbole, either.
What we’re talking about when we talk about input are ideas. And our jobs require ideas, specifically for the purposes of applying ideas. How we approach any situation—problem, opportunity, or otherwise—is governed by whatever we think as a possible response. Any response is always a function of the ideas we’re familiar with.
And the ideas we’re familiar with are a function of our input.
Input eventually becomes output through some mystical combination of learning, thinking, and applying. That makes input, the things the boss doesn’t see, vital to our output, the things the boss uses to judge our performance. “Problems of output are often problems of input,” writes author Austin Kleon, “If you’re output isn’t where you want it to be, try working on your input.”
Input are the ideas we are exposed to. Input can come from books, podcasts, movies, research articles, television shows, magazines, blog posts, tweets, presentations, news articles, events, conversations, webinars, experiences, museums, email newsletters, trainings, internet searches, and anything and everything else that might fit into this category. It’s also worth explicitly stating that input comes to all of us through the actual experience of working—from the meetings, emails, projects, initiatives, and the rest.
When we’re exposed to new ideas, which is happening all the time, we’re collecting new stimuli for approaching the problems we’re working on.
New stimuli are especially important in complexity because we’re constantly working on problems and opportunities that are brand spanking new. Their newness is a result of constantly changing … everything—new regulations, new competitors, new employees, new services, new initiatives, new cultural movements, new, new, new …
When every problem is called a new problem, that’s not to say every problem is a problem we’ve never seen before, it means the problem has never been solved in a particular context because context is constantly changing. And it’s not to say the way we do things now isn’t going to work, or that everything we’ve ever known gets tossed out the window, or the training that we attended three weeks ago is useless; it’s to say that in complexity every situation is context-specific and making progress is always a function of your ideas and that mystical combination of learning, thinking, and applying.
Input expose us to ideas that help us formulate novel approaches to the context-specific problems and opportunities we face in complexity. That makes input vital because—and choose any metaphor that makes sense to you—it holds the potential to add stimuli to your brain, ingredients to your pantry, colors to your palette, tools to your toolbox …
“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write,” writes Stephen King in his book On Writing. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” he adds, “There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
Your Input System is a phrase I use to describe all the sources providing ideas to you and, at least in some way, influencing how you do your work and the output you produce.
Since all of life is input, and because conscientiously collecting all that input would be a burdensome existence, my recommendation is to improve and optimize your input system to the extent you feel 1) you can and 2) it helps you work more effectively. The rest is 1) life worth living or 2) noise.
Here are a few thoughts on that.
Input has a way of influencing your output at a subconscious level. That’s good! You also want your input to explicitly influence you consciously—”Hey!, I just attended a webinar on this subject last week!”—and so the most important component of input is its accessibility when you need it.
So Take Digital Notes and give yourself a chance at 1) remembering what you’ve learned and 2) finding it when you need it. I save almost everything to Evernote and my personal and work devices are set-up to make it easy to collect newly discovered input. Setting up PARA across your digital tools will also be helpful.
Finding ways to collect your input will be helpful in processing that input so it’s worth spending some time thinking about your Collection Mechanisms. Read later apps, note taking apps, email inboxes, and social feeds seem to be the basic tools for making it happen.
Follow people on Twitter or LinkedIn. Send any article you may be interested in reading to Instapaper or Pocket. Sign-up for newsletters. Take digital notes on digital-world experiences: meetings, webinars, podcasts, emails, etc. Take digital notes on real-world interactions: books, meetings, conversations, conferences, trainings you attend, observations from working, and the like.
Input that comes from working, Input at Work—attending meetings, exchanging emails, conversing at the water cooler—is an important source of input as it holds significant influence on the work you do. I believe it’s worth treating it like any other source of input.
Input doesn’t only come to you, it also, at times, must be sought out. So one notable distinction in Your Input System is between Active Input and Passive Input. Active input is input you seek. There will be topics you need to educate yourself on quickly. Those require, for example, finding books that may be helpful, internet searches—the deeper the better, given Google’s decreasing utility with each passing day, calling colleagues, and setting up news alerts for relevant information, among others.
Passive input is input that comes your way, as a result of your interests, and effort to allow passive input to just show up when it does. It’s pulling a book from your anti-library and spending a Saturday afternoon reading, it’s reading through a weekly email newsletter, it’s scrolling your Twitter feed, it’s opening LinkedIn. Passive input requires a more conscientious approach knowing that you may come across something that’s of interest to you for whatever reason. What you do with it—read it now or send it to Instapaper, add it to a watch later playlist on YouTube, etc—is up to you.
A note on Addressing the Filter Bubble. It’s real. Most of the time your filter bubble is okay as long as you are aware of it. In fact, it’s part of what makes Your Input System valuable. But some of what is filtered out could be of interest so it’s something to be aware of and, if you desire, do something about by actively seeking out ideas beyond your filter.
Back inside your filter bubble, leaning on Curation as a powerful winnowing force can help direct your limited attention to input of interest and it works on a number of different levels.
On one level, Your Input System is a curation device for topics that are of interest to you, or may be of interest when discovered. That may be the ultimate goal.
Curation also works by depending on curators. When you find people who always seem to be creating (or have created) things interesting to you, it’s worth following them as their output is likely to continue to appeal to you. The same can be said of publications. Curation can also work at the topic level through something like a Google news alert or hashtags.
One more thing: Validity. The validity, or the extent to which an idea is well-founded and representative of the real word, is critical to good input. You may be astonished to learn how many of the models, frameworks, and methods we use at work which have very little supporting evidence or are used out of context, or both. Then again you may not. In either case, It’s always good to remember the George Box aphorism, “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” and in management and organizations this is extra true.
The thing about input is that with everything else going on at work no one has any time for input. But no one can have the luxury of having no input, at least on a professional level, if you desire any level of career progression. Besides, you’re collecting input all the time, whether you’re intending to or not.
There’s certainly an opportunity to optimize your input and go all out for making your input system the best it can be, but I believe a more managed approach to improving your input system over time is a more sustainable approach. You’re busy so make Your Input System work for you.
A few years ago I started spending time reading a book while at work. Not the whole day. Just a half hour here and there of intentional reading on a work-related topic. It felt … wrong. Especially when people walked past the office and saw what I was up to.
But it helped me … think. It helped me to formulate thoughts on problems we were solving and develop theory to go about working on them. It helped me be a more effective employee, which is what bosses desire, even if their actions don’t always align with that ideal.
My willingness to trade 30-minutes of morning email responding for a chapter in a book that increased my knowledge on a topical subject was good for me and my boss. (And the emails still miraculously received replies.)
When your input system is intended to support your output at work, then it should be okay to make time to collect input while at work. How well we do our jobs is increasingly a result of our ideas and how we apply those ideas to context-specific problems in complexity.
There are two additional points worth highlighting: 1) books are an important component of my input system and 2) my input system is largely framed by topics I’m already interested in and am exploring further.
Input arrives in a variety of ways for me including internet searches (although I find this effort less and less worthwhile as Google succumbs to the SEO-madness every website is optimized for), reading (from a variety of channels), my job (work is an input through meetings, projects, emails, and the rest), conversations with colleagues, as well as email newsletters.
This approach has a way of removing serendipity from my input system, which I generally believe is more of a focusing mechanism than anything, but there are a few ways I’ve found that do allow for serendipitous discovery, even within the confines of my existing interests:
Twitter is my most important input. I say that because I’ve turned Twitter off (logged out, deleted the app) on multiple occasions and I always come back. Some people experience Twitter as an awful place, but I’ve found it to be helpful more often than not. It’s my main source of new topics, new things to read, and it allows me to follow people directly.
People as input: Not everyone I “follow” is on Twitter, but many are and if I’ve started following them because of things they’ve created, they’re generally a good signal of other things I may be interested in. I stay attuned to their output.
Podcasts, especially interview podcasts, are a wonderful combination of people-I-follow and serendipity. Podcasts are a great serendipity subcontracting mechanism because if I like the podcast, I’m likely to enjoy the weekly guest and a long-form interview is a great way to be introduced to new ideas.
Email newsletters, which I briefly mentioned above, are a special blend of serendipity and predictability. They’re effective at following people and subjects and interests and, most importantly, most email newsletters have links links links to things on topic, related to a topic, and often completely off topic.
Events have been a fruitful source of input for me. Talks, presentations, panels, conferences, book readings. They’re a good reason to get out of the house and return with something useful.
Knowing my input system exists (whether I craft it, curate it, improve it or not) has helped to be aware that input can come from anywhere and to have a general orientation toward being open to it.
Do you have an email strategy? What messages do you keep? How do you organize your inbox folders? Can you find what you’re looking for when you need it? What gets deleted?
One of the first things I did the week I started a new job was organize my (empty) inbox in preparation for the email coming my way.
As part of a course taught by Tiago Forte, I learned an organization method that has changed how I use every digital tool that requires organization: email, Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, network drive, a to do app, Evernote, and any other I need to start using that collects information.
It’s called PARA, which is an acronym for:
The system of PARA is meant to “encompass every type of information you might encounter in your work and life,” Tiago writes. And after more than three years of using PARA to keep myself organized, I’m proclaiming its benefits and extolling its virtues, and going even a step beyond to say:
Get organized. It will make you more effective. It will lead to less stress. It will help you make (more) change happen.
PARA “works” because it means every piece of information you create or receive has a place to go and—this is important—is findable when you need it.
One virtue of PARA is its universal applicability. It’s usable across all the digital tools you use in the exact same way, whether they are organization-sponsored or personal to your productivity preferences. Being organized across all the tools I use helps me to be more effective.
It’s simple to get started and email is a perfect first step and the ideal proving ground for deliberate organization. Here we go.
Under your Inbox folder in Outlook, create four folders (including the numbers—some tools sort items alphabetically automatically and the numbers ensure the folders are in the correct order):
Each project you work on, or area of responsibility, or resource you collect gets an individual folder under one of those three headings. When a project is ended, a responsibility is concluded, or a resource no longer relevant, the folder is moved to the Archives.
Create a folder in Outlook when you receive the first email on that topic, and not before. PARA is designed to help you organize in your normal workflow and only when necessary.
So when you receive an email from the finance department outlining the 2021 budget process, create a folder under the “1. Projects” folder and title it something like “2021 Budget.” There you go. Now any email you receive from finance, your boss, or whomever you’re collaborating with on the 2021 budget project goes in the “2021 Budget” folder so you can find it when you need it.
Sometimes, of course, your inbox isn’t the best place to keep something—the file is too large, it’s a PowerPoint deck you need to edit and send along, your IT department limits file storage, etc.—and in that case, move the contents of the message to the most appropriate digital tool.
As an example, let’s say the finance department distributed a PowerPoint template for the purposes of presenting your department’s 2021 budget to the executive team. Knowing you’ll need this template in the near future for the purposes outlined in the email, now would be the opportune time to move over to your personal file storage and set it up for use in the PARA System. Create four folders:
And, you probably saw this coming, create a folder under the “1. Projects” folder and title it “2021 Budget.” It should use the exact same name you used for the folder in Outlook. This practice is what lends the system its universality.
Save the PowerPoint template to the just-created folder. You’re well on your way.
It’s here we should cover required definitional clarity around the four folders of PARA. Tiago believes many a productivity challenge is a result of confusion, especially between projects and areas, so I’ll turn to him for explicit definitions:
A project is “a series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline.”
An area of responsibility is “a sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time.”
A resource is “a topic or theme of ongoing interest.”
Archives are “inactive items from the other three categories.”
So “Budget 2021” is definitely a project. It has a deadline, though in some of the organizations I’ve worked for, that deadline may be many months from the first email I received. There are a set of tasks that must be completed to receive approval for your department’s budget.
After approval and the start of the fiscal year, monitoring the budget, on the other hand, is quite decidedly an area. There may be tasks from time to time, such as explaining variances above a certain percentage, but tasks like these don’t amount to a project.
What could amount to a project is a response to something like, and I don’t mean to give you bad dreams with this example, not meeting a departmental revenue goal midway through the year. I’m not sure what that project would be in your world, but a folder like “Plan B – The Increase Revenue Project” probably covers most possibilities.
Differentiating between projects and areas requires a bit of organizational ruthlessness on your part. You’ll probably miss the mark every now and again, but that’s okay, and practice is good.
Deadlines and maintenance usually are the distinguishing characteristics for me.
Another example of distinguishing between projects and areas is in the meetings you attend. If the meeting is a monthly management meeting, or a weekly staff meeting, or a committee meeting, you’re definitely saving items to Areas because these are maintenance meetings, a fact made evident by their perpetuity. Those meetings may cover other Areas (e.g., tips for more effective meeting management) and they may produce Projects.
If you receive a directive with an associated deadline then you’ve likely just started a new project.
If an email, or an attachment to an email, is something you want to keep but doesn’t fit in Projects or Areas, it belongs in Resources. Resources is a broad and all-encompassing catch-all for, as Tiago stated above, “a topic or theme of ongoing interest.” The timeframe of an ongoing interest can extend far, far into the future.
So it’s critical to name folders in the “3. Resources” folder in a way that promotes findability for when you need it. For example, a folder named “Leadership” may seem the most appropriate name, but after a few months, there will be so many resources in the “Leadership” folder, you’re going to be overwhelmed when trying to locate something. Consider going a step further, such as “Crisis Leadership” or “Leadership Myths” or “Leadership and Systems” or …
Not every topic is given a folder in every tool (and this goes for Projects, Areas, and Resources). A topic only requires a folder when there’s something to put in that folder. That way you don’t waste your time needlessly organizing things that don’t exist.
Unique to Resources, at least in my usage, is how different topics are usually organized into different digital tools. In Outlook, for example, Resources generally are related to the goings-on of the organization. It may include things like instructions for accessing different technology systems, shared log-in information (don’t tell IT), and memos from the executive team on of-the-moment topics. My enterprise Box folder (the modern-day version of your network drive) holds a broader array of subjects related to my job responsibilities like strategy documents, research reports, survey results, etc. Evernote—a digital note application—is where I keep everything else: meetings notes, reflections, articles, blog posts, etc., etc., etc.
A bit of an aside: Taking digital notes, whether in Evernote or Microsoft’s OneNote or some other digital tool, was such a productivity enhancing breakthrough that I am going to write about it more completely in a future post. I’m not even a productivity guru—and much prefer the notion of effectiveness over productivity—but it’s life changing and I can’t recommend it enough.
Continuing the aside: You know all of those shared files on your team? And how you never can find what you’re looking for? Well digital notes are very helpful in this scenario because you can save the URL of the file in Box, Dropbox, or on your network drive into a personal note to have an easy way to find what you need and it’s within your complete control.
So what about all those printed materials you receive at in-person meetings? If you have a file cabinet, you could PARA them in physical form. I’ve never done it. I imagine it requires a lot of effort. But if it works for you, go for it. The best option, in my opinion, is to get the file in a digital format. Ask the meeting organizer for a digital copy or scan the file and convert it into a PDF.
An alternative option, and I use this in combination with the digital format advice just above, is to create a pile on my desk of the printed materials that I’m not interested in converting or won’t convert because the loss of fidelity is too high. I put the date and the name of the meeting (or wherever I received it) in the upper right-hand corner of the material. At the end of a month or quarter—I place the entire pile into a tan file folder and label the folder with the date range of the contents. I can find what I need when I need it.
This is where everything goes when it’s no longer in use. I prefer to archive over deleting. Your email storage restrictions may require more deleting, or if you think something could be helpful in the future, moving the contents of a folder to other digital tools may be worthy.
The point of the Archives is to hang on to things in the event something from a Project, Area, or Resource makes a comeback and, instead of starting over, you have the opportunity to start from where you last ended. Or perhaps there’s some work from a previous year that could inform what you’re working on this year. You just never know. That’s the reason to hang on to digital things. You may need it again and you can put it where you don’t see it and where other people don’t see it, so there should be no fears of being labeled a pack-rat.
Getting Started and/or Reorganizing
You’re unlikely to be starting a new job with a fresh and brand new inbox like me. Don’t let that deter you from making the jump.
Create the four PARA folders in your Inbox, right now, or on Monday when you’d rather do anything than respond to what’s in your inbox, or any other moment this week when you have ten free minutes.
Done? Great. Start using them for the emails in your inbox as you read the emails in your inbox. Create folders under the appropriate folder for each Project, Area, and Resource as you go. Move the message as you need.
If you’re making progress, and your inbox is emptied—because, really, that’s the point: move stuff out of your inbox and into folders where there is more context and can become usable—address the existing folders (if you have any) by moving them to one of the four PARA headings, deleting them, or moving individual messages into the appropriate folder.
You’re going to be tempted, because I know I was, to make modifications to the system. Most of those didn’t work out for me, so my advice is to strictly use the PARA approach, at least as you’re getting started.
Also: if it feels daunting to reorganize everything in Outlook right at this moment, don’t do it. Start with the new four PARA folders and go from there.
To be sure, going from there means committing to the process of organizing new emails into one of the four PARA folders, moving the relevant contents of a message to another digital tool like a network drive folder (also organized using PARA), or deleting the message altogether. Not doing so reduces the benefit of being organized because those frustrations of being unable to find something will persist.
Additionally, “going from there” also means organizing the folders that feel too daunting to organize now when you “touch” them in the future. As you’re in this transition state, commit to organizing the folders and emails “outside” of PARA into PARA as you use them. This approach allows you to chop up one daunting task into many little manageable tasks as you go.
I believe being organized, whatever your organizational method, is essential to being more effective at work and making (more) change happen.
I also believe being organized requires getting organized. That’s a basic fact with a deeper truth: being organized requires you give your organizational system thought.
A lot of us, at least for me, become “organized” as a result of the people we work with, the social norms of the department we work in, a system that just develops, and any number of other factors that can be labeled as happenstance. I’ve found it helpful to be more deliberate in how I work.
In Tiago’s introductory blog post about PARA he helps us get started with the thoughtfulness required to become organized: “Imagine for a moment the perfect organizational system. One that supported and enhanced the work you do, telling you exactly where to put a piece of information, and exactly where to find it when you needed it.
“This system would have to be,” he explains:
universal, encompassing any conceivable kind of information from any source
flexible, able to work with any project or activity you take on, now and in the future
simple, not requiring any time-consuming maintenance, cataloguing, tagging, or reorganizing beyond a bare minimum
actionable, integrating seamlessly with task management and project management methods
cross-platform, able to be used with any application, now existing or yet to be developed
outcome-oriented, structuring information in a way that supports the delivery of valuable work
modular, allowing different levels of detail to be hidden or revealed, depending on the needs of the current task
opportunistic, in the good sense, taking advantage of work already being performed, instead of requiring dedicated overhead time
I’m not saying these must be your organizing principles, but they’re a heckuva good start, and they’ve worked wonders in my world. To me (and certainly for me), an organizing system exists not for the sake of being organized, but for the purpose of improved effectiveness.
Being more effective comes as a result of making (more) change happen, which occurs through productive action, which comes by improved thinking and learning, which is made possible by … being organized.
That’s my set of dominoes, anyway. I think they’ll work for you, too.
Just like that. And while there’s a chance we’ll return to our regular ways of doing things, there’s a greater likelihood this experience is going to lead to a very different work environment than the one we knew at the end of February 2020.
While COVID-19 is going to be seen as the catalyst, it’s more likely COVID-19 and the pandemic have made visible a reality that’s been with us for some time: We work (and more importantly live) in complexity.
Here’s the bottom line: Figuring out complexity for yourself is really the only way I’ve found to understand complexity, and COVID-19 is as practical an introduction to complexity as there is.
What’s most important to know about complexity in this moment, for the context of navigating the next few weeks, is this:
Complexity produces surprise. It’s not always an extreme surprise like COVID-19, it can be smaller surprises, too: an upset patient, an employee calling out sick, a reorganization, a new regulation, a reaction from a colleague you weren’t expecting—any unexpected event, whether it rates astonishing or not. Often, a surprise leads to another surprise, etc, etc.
Because of surprise, a linear, rule-following, always do it this way approach will not be as effective as you might hope and, in fact, could make the situation worse. (The approach is called command and control management. It’s how we’ve learned to work and is, more or less, how we’ve worked until just a few weeks ago. Now everything seems different because it is different.)
As a result, our normal relationship with cause and effect is tossed aside. While we usually expect a certain outcome when we take a defined action, in complexity cause and effect relationships can’t be determined until after the fact. So you may be certain your idea is the idea that will solve a particular problem, but we won’t know for sure until the problem has been solved.
Getting introduced to complexity through something like COVID-19 can be a disorienting experience. It feels like things are crazy, because in fact they are, but it doesn’t mean the situation isn’t logical.
A lot of smart people have done (and are doing) a lot of smart thinking about complexity. So let’s lean on them and learn from them in this moment and in the next few weeks. They’ve used their prior experiences with constant surprise—from the extreme to the teensy-weensy—to develop models to navigate this apparent-to-them and new-to-us reality. We can use them in figuring out what to work on, taking action, and learning from all the change.
Figuring Out What to Work On
Perhaps you’ve heard of agile software development. The idea emerged from frustration with what is known as waterfall software development. Using a waterfall method to develop software in a complex environment is a recipe for useless software because waterfall requires high levels of certainty when, in complexity, certainty only exists after the fact.
The folks who authored the agile software manifesto knew this and prioritized testing ideas of certainty in a responsive manner by creating software based on four values, known as the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. Here it is:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
“That is,” wrote the manifesto’s authors, “while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”
The issue with waterfall is it’s slow and rigid. Sometimes slow and rigid is the right approach. In a complex context, however, flexibility and responsiveness are of higher value because requirements are changing faster than software can be written using a waterfall method.
An agile approach welcomes constant change because the development team knows this is the reality of the environment. Things change. How fast they change isn’t so important as working in a way that acknowledges things are always changing.
So perhaps you and your team find yourselves in a situation of trying to figure out what is worthy of being worked on and what you should just let go, at least for the time being. Consider using an interpretation of the manifesto as a way to guide you in making those decisions.
Then deliver on customer (broadly speaking) needs without falling back on your usual waterfall-like processes. Focus on being helpful in the moment by starting with a blank work plan. What do they need now? What are they going to need in the very near future?
As you work, concentrate on the people you’re working with and your interactions with them over holding true to your usual tools or processes, commit to creating services or products they can use now, collaborate with each other closely (but more than six feet!) rather than disappearing for some time only to reemerge with something misfit for whatever changed in the interim, and respond to what’s different today rather than staying committed to an outdated plan—even if that plan was created last week.
If it seems like it might make more sense to throw your entire annual work plan out the window and commit to helping in the moment, you’re probably right. So do it.
The way to solve problems in complexity, or move in the direction of problem solving, is through an approach the Cynefin framework calls Probe, Sense, Respond.
A probe is an action, one guided by knowledge and experience, and it’s used to get started. When it’s impossible to know what will solve a problem, we’re left to try things we have good reason to believe will solve the problem.
The thing about working in complexity is it’s not entirely clear what the best next step is. That’s a function of being unable to connect cause and effect prior to moving forward. It’s one thing to think something is the right action, it’s an entirely different thing to know it’s the right action. Experience can only help you in deciding what to attempt, not in ensuring what you attempt will be successful. So we probe.
Then we sense, which is another word for learning, and what we’re looking for is the effect a probe has on the problem. Did it solve it? Did it make it worse? Did it help us identify another problem? Did it move us toward solving the problem?
Then we respond, which is the amplification or dampening of the probe’s effect and deciding what to do next.
It sounds like how a clinician treats a patient, doesn’t it? Exactly.
The entire practice of diagnosis is probe, sense, and respond—a series of actions uncovering additional information and help a provider make a diagnosis. Treatment works similarly. A provider decides on a course of treatment, senses whether a patient responds to the treatment (a good thing) or reacts to the treatment (a bad thing), and decides what to do next, if anything.
We effectively already work this way, too. It’s just that we haven’t realized it quite yet.
We’re fairly competent at recognizing when what we’re doing isn’t working and naturally adjust course as a result. But we can make it easier for ourselves and our colleagues by adopting a Probe, Sense, Response mental model because, after all, we spend most of our time working in complexity.
Here’s an example some of you may have experienced for the first time recently: working from home. If you’ve never worked from home before and were suddenly thrust into a work-from-home environment, figuring out how to do it happened (and likely still happening) through a series of probes. As you worked from the kitchen table, or outside on the patio, or around the needs of your children, you sensed what was working for you and what wasn’t. Then you adjusted your practices to be more productive.
We’ve all been in a different work environment for some years, COVID-19 has provided the collective rite of passage for realizing it. It’s going to take time and probes to figure out how to work effectively in it. In perpetuity. Because it will continue to change.
So try new ideas, learn from them, and adjust those ideas based on what you find. The only way to be successful in a complex environment is to use this Probe, Sense, Respond approach.
One of my favorite quotes about complexity is from Harold Jarche. It’s so good: “Work is learning and learning is the work.”
He captures the essence of working in complexity with those eight words.
I think it can be easy to believe learning is superfluous in a crisis or always-on-the-verge-of crisis situation like COVID-19, but the reality is you have no choice but to learn in order to navigate a complex environment. Learning is the job.
Constantly being oriented to learning as we work, though, is a new concept for most of us. Learning isn’t something (that can be) left to the Learning and Development departments, or conferences, or even books for that matter. It’s those things and other traditional learning activities as well as the interactions you have with others and the day-to-day activities of your job that lead to learning, now and always.
Perhaps you’ve been introduced to the 70-20-10 rule from the Center for Creative Leadership. It posits 10 percent of our learning happens as a result of coursework and training, 20 percent as a result of our relationships, and 70 percent from the work we do. The rule gets misinterpreted and misapplied far too often in my opinion so I hesitate to even write about it; but the lesson to draw on is how much of our learning happens as a result of just … working.
And that’s where Harold Jarche’s Seek > Sense > Share framework can help us. Because it’s critical to make meaning of what we learn if we’re to learn as much from it as we can.
Seeking is the activity of collecting information. We do it a lot of different ways, from the information we gather as we work as well as what we read, watch, and listen to. It comes from personal experience and the experiences of others. “Seeking is finding things out and keeping up to date,” writes Jarche.
Sensing is the activity of giving information meaning and using it. It’s turning information into knowledge, in a way. It’s reflection. It’s doing. It’s doing and reflection. It’s putting into practice what we learn.
Sharing is just that: what we do to share what we’ve learned with a broader audience—whether with our employees or colleagues or on social media. Acts of sharing help us further our understanding of our learning and create opportunities to collaborate and learn from others.
Sensing is the most difficult of the three, according to Jarche. I agree. But it’s also a natural activity and one we can do with more conscientiousness. It’s keeping track of new learning. It’s an awareness of adjustment. It’s thinking. And doing. And then thinking some more. It’s working (i.e., learning) intentionally and adapting as you continue to learn.
The opportunity is to be deliberate. To craft your information sources. To spend time thinking before and after doing. To take the time and effort to share while understanding your learning continues as a result.
But for now I recommend starting with work journaling. Here are three questions to answer at the end of each work day as we move through the next weeks:
What stood out today?
What did I learn today?
What do I want to do differently tomorrow? What do I want to try tomorrow?
Complexity requires us to take a different approach to work. Doing so requires becoming comfortable with new mental models. The three described here can be helpful. Know there are many more.
This whole situation feels like a gigantic reset. And I think that’s okay because it can be a gigantic reset. It’s a burning platform to do the work of rethinking work, including the delivery of healthcare services, we’ve been needing to do for several decades—some of that work is already happening, while much of it will happen in the near future.
I’d write something here about it not being easy, but that’s really not the case. The experience we’re going through, the psychological toll of COVID-19, the failure of current systems, the overburdened EDs and ICUs, the transition, is what isn’t easy. At the end of this we’re going to do anything required not to let it happen again. The change will be relatively straightforward.
Also: You wouldn’t want to know the true cost of all the wasted effort that comes from budget measures becoming targets
Also: There’s a better way to budget
Our department is having a terrific year. But the organization isn’t meeting its budget target for an important revenue driver. With a quarter left in the fiscal year, there’s now frenetic energy around achieving an outcome that, absent a miracle, we’re probably not going to achieve. My staff is exhausted. I’m a little tired, too. What should I do?
You, your staff, and I all know it’d likely be more productive to direct the organization’s response to the next fiscal year. So there’s a reason behind the reason the reaction to the poor budget performance is coming at this late stage—what do you think it is?
Your hypothesis is where I’d direct my attention. There’s some corporate theater playing out. Find where you can be a supporting actor beneficial to your longer-term interests and give the part your best shot.
You’re (probably) going to have to do what you have to do over the next three months, as far as the organization response goes. I’ll mention the importance of constructively voicing your concerns if you feel it appropriate.
The more consequential management task is that of your employees’ energy levels. You noted they’re already exhausted—why is that? Your department is having a great year and everyone is tired?
I’m wary of what that forecasts for the next twelve months. Consider having honest conversations regarding the momentary kabuki. It’s better than ignoring what everyone is seeing and feeling.
It’s time for the opening curtain on addressing the issues contributing to your collective departmental weariness. Of all the challenges you’re facing, it’s one that can swiftly ruin the show.
One last thing: This situation is going to play out again and again in your organization (and all the others) while the industry vacillates between fee-for-service and value-based forms of reimbursement. It’s a classic systems issue.
That system is the budget.
The way organizations budget is by creating forecasts. In those forecasts are absolute measures that represent assumptions, such as the budget target for the important revenue driver you mention. Our jobs are to manage against those absolute measures.
Those absolute measures, informed by the past but often not all that well informed by the moment, have a tendency to encourage short-term decision making at the expense of longer-term organizational priorities. It can result in wasted effort—as you’re experiencing—and wasted resources, when unallocated budget dollars are used in a year-end spending spree for superfluous needs. It can also lead to more calamitous consequences like missed competitive opportunities and unethical behavior.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Goodhart’s Law? It states: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure,” is how Marilyn Strathern put it.
The budget problem is a problem worth solving (especially as it’s one of the most important challenges influencing negative organizational outcomes), although it may be a problem for future you when you’re in charge rather than attempting a reformation from the middle of the organization at this moment.
One idea from the budget reformation that may help you now is that of relative measurement. Rather than using a yes-or-no absolute measure which can contribute to untoward behavior, a relative measure compares performance—against a previous time period or group of competitors, for example—resulting in a more holistic approach to achieving business outcomes.
Rather than pursuing a revenue goal at all costs, decision makers are encouraged to pursue a revenue goal in the context of other things that support long-term business success like energized employees, collaborating across departments, longer-term competitive interests, and (especially relevant to healthcare reimbursement) business model transformation.
Relative measures are one way to make the annual performance planning and review process better for everyone involved. Compare individual employee performance this year against their performance last year and you’re promoting learning and development and taking a step toward a better culture.
And since most organizations don’t work on the work nearly as much as they should, we get invited to more meetings because they’re an easy solution for when we need more coordination, cooperation, and collaboration.
Coordinating, cooperating, and collaborating do a good job summarizing what we do all day, don’t they?
While all of us are begging for fewer meetings so we can actually get some work done, for at least one person at each meeting you attend, that meeting is how they are getting their work done. Meetings are (probably) how you get work done, too.
That means meetings are (almost certainly) not the problem and there are (almost certainly) broader organization challenges creating the need for more and more and more meetings.
So while meetings receive our ire because they prevent us from getting done what we need to get done, they are an available tool—often the available tool—for the increasing coordination, cooperation, and collaboration our jobs require.
Meetings are what you make them. It’s true that meeting leaders carry significant responsibility for making sure good meetings happen. It’s also true that meeting attendees carry significant responsibility for making sure good meetings happen.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself before and after your next meeting as an attendee. Being intentional about your responsibilities will help you make (more) change happen.
It’s easy to take for granted the professional development that comes with, well … just working.
Take your first job, for instance. It was perfectly acceptable to learn the skills of working while you worked. Your employer accepted that as an entry-level employee there would be a period of learning before you were, as they say, up to speed.
Why step off the accelerator?
Are you ever skilled enough at running meetings, having difficult conversations, managing projects, collaborating with colleagues, or anything else important to you and your continuing development as a professional?
Yet for many of us, it becomes comfortable to amble along throughout our careers rarely working to become really good at skills core to the performance of our jobs in a conscientious way.
The OK Plateau
This is the OK Plateau.
And for just about all of your skills, it’s where you are.
The OK Plateau, so named by Joshua Foer, is the phase of learning where a skill becomes automatic. It’s the final phase of a skill acquisition framework proposed by psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner in 1967. They called it the autonomous phase and it’s the phase of learning where you’re using a skill and not thinking much about it.
Driving is a good example. You probably didn’t think much about your driving skills the last time you drove a car. That’s the autonomous phase.
But there was a time when you thought quite a lot about developing those skills.
That’s called the cognitive phase and it’s the first stage of skill development. You were developing knowledge and learning the explicit skills of driving: understanding road signs, the purpose of a turn signal, what the accelerator does, and the like.
The middle stage, associative, is the phase of applying your knowledge to develop a skill. It’s practice. It’s what you were doing when you first got behind the wheel and continued to do until you became so comfortable with driving that you stopped thinking much about the activity.
And once you were using the skill and not thinking much about it, you were on the OK Plateau.
The OK Plateau is a decidedly okay place to be. A skill that sits on the OK Plateau is one that has no obvious reason for any further improvement. It’s the place of competence. It’s good enough.
And being good enough at the set of skills required to do your job was good enough for nearly a hundred years.
Then it changed.
Working in Complexity
That’s not quite right. It’s been changing. It’s going to continue to change.
And that’s the point.
At the center of the change is our increasing awareness of complexity and, as it happens, working in a complex environment is starkly different than working in a complicated environment.
A complicated environment is predictable. So when a problem occurs you know exactly what to do. And if you’ve been working long enough, you probably have the knowledge required to solve the problem. That’s the work approach we’ve been using for the last decade.
In complexity, however, there is constant surprise. A problem in complexity is always new. It may share characteristics with previous problems, but something about it makes it different than any other problem that has been solved before. So when a problem occurs in a complex environment, no one knows exactly what the solution is, it must be figured out through action. Complexity requires a different approach to work altogether.
That approach is learning while working and more specifically: learning from doing.
It’s learning that can only happen as a result of applying new knowledge in practice. We try a course of action, we learn as a result of that activity, and then figure out what to do next.
In other words: practice.
But it isn’t just practice for the sake of practice, it’s practice for the purpose of pursuing mastery.
I define mastery as doing your job so damn well that other people take notice of your capabilities.
And managing new problems in complexity is what you’re going to be doing for the rest of your long and brilliant career.
Taking Control of Your Career
The constant flow of new problems means intentionally getting better at the work you do isn’t just a good professional practice, it’s becoming a necessity.
And contrary to any belief you may have about “being developed,” the only person who can develop you is you.
Coaches, mentors, teachers, peers, bosses, and other social influences can be helpful, to be certain, but their assistance often misses the same essential step to learning that conferences, trainings, books, articles, and most other professional development activities miss, too: putting new knowledge into practice.
Work practice is a way to use all those new knowledge opportunities for what they are: starting points for trying a course of action.
Because to learn or improve a skill, it’s not enough to think it, you have to do it. Often over and over, getting a little better each time. That’s practice. A purposeful, focused, and systematic effort that requires preparation and self-reflection.
Sounds a little like the work you already do, doesn’t it?
Practicing at work gives you an intentional approach to learning from the work while you do the work.
And if you’re already doing the work, why not make it work for you, too?
Pursuing mastery through practice by applying new knowledge in practice is how you consistently learn and improve the skills required to manage new problems in complexity and make change happen in your career, your organization, and the industry.
Through seven lessons, each intended to be completed in under 15 minutes, you’ll learn:
Why our growing awareness of complexity and the dynamic work environment it creates demands a constant orientation toward learning
The theoretical foundation and practical importance of practice as a professional development activity, and
An evidence-based practice process and how to make practice a part of your daily work routine
After completing Work Practice, you’ll be using a purposeful, focused, and systematic approach to improving the professional skills important to you, all by spending a few minutes before doing the work and a few minutes after.
Florida State University professor Anders Ericsson’s research backs up the premise: deliberate practice will make you better at the work you do.
Here’s what he writes in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, “In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way. If you practice something for a few hundred hours, you will almost certainly see great improvement—but you have only scratched the surface. You can keep going and going and going, getting better and better and better. How much you improve is up to you.”
Does it sound unprofessional? It’s not because it’s required! There isn’t another way to work in complexity, which is discussed in the first lesson sent directly to your inbox following your purchase. Try, Learn, Adapt is all we have. In fact, treating complex problems as if they were complicated problems is only likely to make them worse.
Who could argue with a purposeful, focused, and systematic approach to work that includes preparation and self-reflection, anyway? Not anyone I want to work with.
Work Practice uses existing professional development efforts as the starting points they are, introduces a systematic process for moving off the OK Plateau for the skills we care about, and uses the most important professional development opportunity all of us participate in every hour of our work days: the work itself, all in the effort to improve the skills necessary for making change happen in your career, your organization, and the industry while you work.