Finding the right project to work on is just like getting a new boyfriend: Choosing wisely is half the battle.
Sometimes you can’t say no because it’s an order from the boss, or because your mom already set up the date with that guy’s mom, and it’s imperative that you show up. But other times you can pick who you want to meet, or what projects you want to take on.
The most visible assignments are not always the best ones to get involved in, and the most skilled individuals are not necessarily the ones you want to work with. That’s the biggest lesson I learned in the last ten years of project work.
Instead, here is what really matters:
- Personal Control and Contribution. There is nothing more mind-numbing than working on something where you have little personal control over the outcome and few opportunities to contribute meaningfully. Well-suited projects allow you to wield a certain level of judgment and decision-making freedom.
- Length of Time. Long-term projects invariably come with long-winded office politics and lots of folks to please. If you’d like to leave work at a decent hour each day, best to avoid getting tangled up in this kind of administration. Shorter assignments yield visible results faster. They also don’t have time for scope changes and project management wizardry.
- People. Work with friends. Research has shown that having just one friend in the workplace dramatically increases job satisfaction. Same goes for projects. Everyone at work will be fairly competent (we all passed the interview process, after all). So, choosing your teammates based on skill set won’t matter as much as you think. Seeing a friendly face every day, however, will make a big difference in your workday.
The time we spend at work should be, as much as possible, engaging and joyful. Everyone has a certain amount of control over this by choose our commitments carefully.
I’m in New York for work, and of course, so is the Blizzard.
As 5,000 flights get cancelled, including mine, I narrowly escaped flight carnage by finagling this funky itinery that gets me out of the city before the weather kicks in full force, except that my travel time is now 18 hours.
There’s a pile of work waiting for me; I can’t find an outlet to charge my devices at the airport; I’m walking around in sweat pants and bad hair; I start to feel sorry for myself.
We all experience times of beauty, when everything goes our way. We tackle work with gusto, get home in time for dinner, tell good jokes and feel in control. Then there are the other times, when the beast invades our inner peace: Procrastination, Frustration, Anger, Distress. These sabotaging thoughts that get in the way of us doing our best work.
These non-productive moments are part of us. There is no way to prevent them from invading our minds. But what gets us down doesn’t have to keep us down. A good trick that I use to snap out of a funk is by taking a break to embrace my inner beast.
Here’s my airport formula to wallow a bit and then get back on my feet:
- Fast food value meal – Burger, Coke, fries, the works. I don’t eat fast food except at airports. It’s like eating a vat of delicious frying oil. But I work out, so it’s OK.
- Chocolate. While I carefully deliberated between premium Dark Chocolate Truffle and Milk Chocolate with Almonds, I can’t help but feel good about my career. I am even more selective about how I spend my time at work than I am about choosing candy bars. I love candy bars. So this must mean that I really enjoy my work.
- A trashy gossip magazine, like People Magazine – the more vapid the better. In this case, I took it from another passenger who left it on her seat when she boarded her flight. At that moment, I felt a lot like the vagabonds in the city who smoke other people’s discarded cigarette butts.
I grab an empty table, kick up my feet and spread out my spoils. I’m a mom to a toddler, so I eat fast. The magazine reads even faster since today’s celebrities are all teenagers and I don’t recognize any of them.
Once I feel properly indulged with bad food and celebrity news, the beast is placated. I can then get back to my computer (with greasy fingers) and onto the business at hand.
Hey, we all do things we’re not proud of sometimes. But if these moments can be used to get us back on track, then I say embrace it.
Many years ago I interviewed for an internship. The interviewer asked what I would be if I had to be a household item. I said toilet paper, because everyone takes it for granted when it’s there. But when it is not, we find ourselves in some deep shiitake. But maybe I should have said scotch tape. It’s equally indispensable, but less gross and much more PC for an internship at a public accounting firm.
At work, many process workarounds are “scotch tape” fixes, where an inexpensive and non-invasive solution is applied to prevent a problem from getting worse. While it doesn’t solve the problem, this type of fixes stops the bleeding temporarily.
It’s deliciously tempting to devise small workarounds to everything that’s not working quite right, because it’s an easy and fast way to make do for a just a little while longer. But eventually, and inevitably, this leads to us finding ourselves navigating through processes wrapped up and held together with a lot of tape.
Part of thriving professionally is being able to execute and make an impact at work. Both are hard to do when we have to stumble through small but frequent workarounds throughout the day in order to get things done.
How much metaphorical scotch tape is keeping you from doing your best work? Here are some indicators of taped together stuff that are perhaps ripe for more permanent solutions, for the sake of maintaining your team’s professional standards as well as your own workplace sanity:
- The same kind of fire drills that happen over and over again
- Extra work and documentation created and maintained solely to satisfy compliance or audit
- Ongoing checklists and reports that have to be compiled manually
- Having to choose between form and substance. Having to choose form over substance
- An incredible amount of “heads down” work that is borderline administrative in nature
So, even if it ain’t completely broken, sometimes it is better to just skip the easy temporary fix and choose an enduring solution instead.
Remember my Chicago friend who offered his Excel mini-course a while back?
Well, he’s part of The ALLynx Group, and they’re finally unveiling the full length version, which will teach a combination of technical Excel application skills and career development soft skills. It’s a really interesting approach and is essentially a body of coursework that teaches Excel for the purpose of accelerating, or Excel-erating (!), your career.
Think you know enough about spreadsheets to be dangerous at work? Try this test to find out.
If you pop in BOM-LYNX in the promo code when registering, you’ll get $250 dollars off the course, which will make this course $50 — the equivalent of lunch for a week.
Pretty awesome, right?
I bet you brushed your teeth and washed your face this morning. How did that come about?
Your mouth is minty fresh today thanks to years of reinforcement by mom and dad – day after day of monitoring,
nagging reminding and correcting while you were growing up.
The Accounting Department needs the same thing. Good practices don’t come by chance and cannot be instituted overnight. They are deliberately selected, and then built bit by bit (read: slowly) one on top of another, monitored and tweaked through time.
This is precisely why transformation projects typically fail – too much too soon. While everything may look good on paper, forcing lots of changes all at once instinctively activates our “fight or flight” response. That means we start strong. We get into survival mode, bite the bullet and rise to the challenge. But after the project is over, the realization sets in that the department lacks the support to sustain these changes. Then our hard-earned progress back slides and employees become demoralized.
As we go into next year’s planning activities, take care to avoid overambitious undertakings. In fact, chant this before planning meetings: “2013 is NOT the year that we will finally (insert master plan here).” Rather, focus on something as small as freeing up the staff for a few hours a month to reflect as a group and make small improvements.
Small ideas are easy to implement, easy to sustain and build massive momentum for bigger changes.
Success, even a small one, is contagious.
Look around your accounting department.
Do you see lots of paper reports?
Did you ever stop to wonder…. are these paper reports useful and functional?
How much time does it take to review them? How many trees are consumed to produce all of this paper? How much ink is used to print the reports? How much office space is utilized (and rent paid) for the storage of these paper reports?
You get the point.
I was recently working with a client that had been printing and saving a hard copy detailed sales transaction report of at least 1,000 pages (nearly two boxes) each month. Two senior accountants would each spend around 16 hours during the month-end close process to review the paper detail, identify unusual items – and IF there was still enough time in the close calendar – research, document, and possibly correct erroneous transactions.
Needless to say, this was a very frustrating experience for all involved.
As part of this company’s project to accelerate their month-end close, the Assistant Controller met with the IT department and requested a change in the delivery method of this report. Rather than printing a hard copy on paper, he wanted the information exported to Excel and delivered to a shared folder. This was not a significant effort for the already overworked IT department as the report was already being produced. In fact, it made life easier as IT no longer had to tie up a printer for several hours each month!
And guess what?
These senior accountants could now use basic Excel features to identify unusual transactions for them. By simply adding a few columns and utilizing the sort functionality, the report quickly calculated and identified the material transactions that the accountants should focus upon. This was a transformation of the accountants’ time from slowly and clumsily identifying potentially unusual items to efficiently resolving and correcting significant errors in the same month.
32 hours per month and perhaps 1-1/2 trees per year*
…and most importantly, more accurate and timely financial results from a happier staff. This improvement was accomplished very quickly and at virtually no time or cost to the IT department.
Now it’s your turn. Look at all of the paper reports that your department uses or prepares each month. And ask yourself…do you really need it? If not, stop producing it. If yes, would it be more efficient to have the report delivered and saved to an excel spreadsheet?
*On average, one tree can produce 8,000 to 100,000 sheets of paper.