Out of Overload

A Guide for Technical Managers

Chapter 1
An Introduction

Missed Opportunity
The Old Days

The Ideal
The Stumbling Block
Countermeasures

Ability to Think
Daily Cycles
Opportunity Management

If itís any comfort, there are very real reasons why youíre in overload. New technologies have exploded, with each change bringing its own jargon and standards. In addition, these technologies reinvent themselves every year, throwing out everything you were just starting to understand.

If todayís technology was a car, the clutch, brake, and gas pedals would change position every year. And youíd be the valet.

Granted, some new tools allow you to be more efficient. CAD systems, software design tools, and communication advances have reduced the time from concept to product. Unfortunately, for each process streamlined, a wave of new projects surfaced. Projects can be completed more quickly, but our ability to handle multiple missions has stayed the same. The natural lulls between projects has disappeared. Every time gap is filled.

The natural ebb and flow of projects has been replaced with flow, flow, flow. Recovery and catch up times are gone. Most technical managers are in full overload.

The Impact

Overload reduces your ability to perform. In overload, the rate at which you absorb information decreases and may even stop; your decisions become narrow and limited; and your ability to handle complex projects goes down. As your efficiency drops, fewer things get done. Itís not like you donít know that new products are important, and of course on-going education is important. You simply canít get to them.

Ironically, if you're disciplined, your long term situation may be worse. Your raw determination to focus on high priority items may keep critical operations afloat. Although itís difficult to fault that result, it also means that speculative, experimental projects never get off the ground. Their lack of immediate impact gets them tagged with a low priority. New opportunities donít have a chance.

Missed Opportunity

On the positive side, todayís rapid technical change has introduced a wealth of opportunity. Entire industries spring up in a couple of years. Individuals and companies who have been in the right place, at the right time, with the right preparation, have made millions.

Therein lies the twist. Those who are diligently working through their assigned projects and are struggling to pull out of overload have little chance of responding to these opportunities. The same goes for organizations. Those companies who focus on their immediate customer needs and monthly sales fluctuations can seldom respond to market changes quickly. The nimble get the easy pickín projects; the plodders end up with the low-profit, demanding products.

For many individuals, opportunity revolves around salary. A portion of the technical workforce, maybe as much as half, could be making 80% more if their skill sets were different. Thatís the type of training you can pick up if you have the time and energy. Itís also the type of thing you never get to if youíre in overload.

The high end payoff for individuals involves small projects. Ask any technologist about the little utilities they would consider useful, and youíll get pages of items. Not every idea will be practical, but a certain percent will turn up in the marketplace: a security monitor, a break time scheduler for retail clerks, an address/zip code mapping utility, back-ups over the Internet, etc. Allowing the "mad scientist" in every technical person the freedom to experiment opens the path to opportunity.

Even if you donít want to run your own big business, letting someone buy you out for a few million has a certain ring to it. If youíre in overload, you have no time and no chance.

The impact of these omissions is most visible in organizations. Ask any engineer about the ones that got away, and theyíll come up with ratios of effort to return that are staggering.

For example:

The software team could see it coming. The delivery application came up on every request list, but no single customer made it a high priority. Tony wished he could have someone build the framework; they'd be positioned to respond when a concrete proposal surfaced. With the priority of the other projects, no resource was available.

The push for the application came in with more force than anyone had guessed -- a 60 million dollar opportunity. Tonyís group went through a flurry of activity, but the contract went to another company before a decent design was completed. They just couldnít get it done fast enough. Adding salt to the wound, the project that had consumed his resources for the last six months was awarded an extension of $40K. With a ratio difference of 150 to 1, the loss hurt.

The opportunity in organizations is the practical path for most technologists. Not everyone has the freedom or resources to attempt a business start-up, much less build the knowledge teams and infrastructure to make the venture successful. Organizations offer stability.

This doesnít mean that organizations are opportunity dead zones. Far from it. Most companies already have the right mix of resources, even if theyíre scattered. If the products are related to new technologies, raw opportunity exists -- it's a matter of getting yourself involved and pushing forward. Working on a creative team in an expanding industry can be very exciting. With todayís stock and profit sharing options, it can also be very profitable.

The Old Days

Not that long ago, priority lists dominated organizational thinking. Unfortunately, they arenít very well suited to high technology situations.

How can prioritizing your things-to-do be bad? Business has organized itself around A-B-C to-do lists for 40 years. Well, theyíre not all bad. If you have 10 equally difficult tasks to handle over the next hour, it makes sense to start with the most important. Working on the board presentation should get itself ahead of rearranging the book shelves.

With the mega rate of technical change, however, things are seldom that linear. Those borderline ideas that were yesterdayís "C" items are todayís keys to a new product. What would have been discarded years ago, now needs to be explored and nurtured.

In addition, priority lists are largely passive. They do a great job of collecting and organizing tasks that are thrown in your direction, but they arenít geared to eliciting insight and vision. Priority lists are at the other end of the spectrum -- they generate action. Once youíve targeted the top priority items, thereís an overpowering urge to get going on them. And to give them credit, a well organized things-to-do list will get a whole lot of tasks done.

The old "A-B-C" list simply doesnít facilitate the multi-dimensional organization or the insight required by todayís technical environment. It's too linear. A good priority list may get you through the week, but it wonít propel your operation to new heights.

The Ideal

In a perfect world, what would multi-dimensional organizational system look like? It would include three areas:

1. A way to handle multiple missions.
2. An accelerated learning system.
3. An opportunity management system.

When fully implemented, these areas will enable you to coordinate a wide range of projects and mandates. Youíll be able to structure your learning in a way that information seems to flow into your head. And most importantly, youíll start generating the insights that produce real opportunities.

The Stumbling Block

The biggest stumbling block is subtle: youíre in overload. Giving you any additional work, even if itís a worthwhile task like learning to handle complexity, stands a good chance of pushing you further into overload.

As you spend more time on your organization and improvement, your available time shrinks and there's a sense that your immediate situation is getting worse. With less time, that's probably true. The natural reaction is to withdraw. Youíll stop developing the new practices that will get you out of overload. Itís Catch 22. Youíll be right back were you started.

The more time it takes for a program to unfold, the greater the chance you will drop the system. In fact, this delay dooms most traditional approaches. Prioritizing and working up a plan for a complex operation takes time.

For example:

Bill admitted that it didn't make sense, but he couldn't help repeating it, "I'm too busy to improve my efficiency."

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Anne had a drawer full of half finished plans. She could slice out some time, but there was never enough to complete an entire process.

Even using an automated tool to model your workflow and information requirements takes time to implement. Any prolonged effort drastically increases the possibility you will drop the program and go back to your old practices. And, since this regression will reduce your immediate work load, it will feel like the right move. You will be all the more locked into your old behavior.

All is not lost, however. By recognizing the dilemma you introduce the possibility of countermeasures. Knowing the enemy is lying in ambush shifts the advantage to you.

Countermeasures

Two principles provide a counter to your lack of time.

1. Build the strategy on small steps.
2. Prepare for backsliding.

In addition, once you use the system a while, youíll also be able to apply these principals to other systems of planning and workflow analysis. The new crop of automated management systems have the potential for handling a great deal of complexity, but their implementation is so difficult it diminishes the entire program.

1. Build the strategy on small steps.

Ten minutes in the morning and afternoon is less demanding than a full week of planning. Most techniques can be broken down into small sessions.

Short sessions, however, require a couple of mental adjustments.

First, you must accept the fact that the system will take time. It is not an instant fix. In your current condition, you donít have the free time to implement everything in one shot. Although several processes take ten minutes and produce quick results, many others will need to evolve over weeks or months; the changes will be gradual. Try to be patient and give the system a chance to work.

Next, itís important to notice that your situation is getting better. When shifts are gradual, you can slip into the impression that nothing is changing. To that end, throughout the process youíll be asked to note specific changes. This is not a trivial request. Your ability to notice and appreciate your improvements is a key step, both in moving forward and in understanding how best to fit the suggestions to your personal style.

2. Prepare for backsliding.

The system is built on the premise that you will backslide. Youíll get so overloaded during hectic periods that youíll stop following the procedures you set up. Thatís okay. At every point in the program youíll be given an easy way to "get back on the horse."

Youíll also learn a "life line" technique that allows you to keep contact with the system even on the worst of days. Thereís even a "life line" to the "life line" for those truly nasty weeks.

Although this is far from ideal, the system recognizes that you may only look at these techniques once. You might spend twenty minutes browsing through the ideas and then put it aside for study later. In your state of overload, there is a chance youíll never get back to it. This is a tricky one. How can a system adjust to the fact that it might be ignored?

The answer involves presenting you with ideas you canít help but remember. A couple of the core principles are so filled with common sense, and so obvious, that theyíll stick in your mind. Whether itís two weeks, or two months, or two years later, theyíll keep popping up. Even if you put off learning the entire system indefinitely, these concepts will continue to serve you. (This is covered in the Core Skills section following the Quick Start Guide.)

Youíre in Overload

It would be misleading to say itís easy to implement the entire system. Some processes will take a while before they completely mesh with your daily routines. To get you moving on the techniques that make the most sense for your situation, a Quick Start Guide is provided (Chapter 2). It will help you move forward immediately.

Although the Quick Start Guide will get you going, you need to remember that youíre in overload. Give yourself room to grow and experiment. You wonít be perfect, and youíll have lapses. If you acknowledge your overload situation, you can adjust for it.

An Overview

Understanding the scope of the overload techniques will help you step through the sections. The Quick Start Guide will make more sense with this overview.

The system focuses on three areas:

1. Your ability to think.
2. Your adjustment to daily cycles.
3. Your response to opportunity.

1. Ability to Think

Clear thinking leads to good decisions, creative insights, and an ability to recognize opportunity. Overload clouds your thinking process. After a while, there are simply too many events to juggle, too many items to recall.

An entire section of techniques focus on clearing your mind by using alternatives for remembering and storing information.

2. Daily Cycles

Your alertness and ability to concentrate fluctuates throughout the day. If you shape your activities to coincide with the ideal concentration times, your effectiveness will rise.

Some tasks, like in-depth technical study, have an inherent flow thatís similar to your daily cycles. Youíll learn how to leverage these into accelerated learning practices.

3. Opportunity Management

Opportunities come in spurts. For the longest time, there may be nothing. Then itís a wave of new tools, micro-capabilities, chips, operating systems. At that point, all the players scramble. However, a select few somehow anticipate the opportunity and are up to speed with knowledge and products. They managed to be in the right place at the right time. Their competitors say it was "dumb luck."

The sections on opportunity management walk through ways to cultivate insights that lead to a head start on new technologies.

The system attacks overload on every front: how you carry information in your head; how you leverage your daily energy flow; and how you prepare for opportunity. It does this with a sensitivity to the fact you are in overload. The result should be a smooth transition to improved workflow and increased vision.


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