Lessons from 2012: Take Back a Day/Week

Non-conformist #3

Back when I was a senior executive in a big company, I had an amazing executive assistant who made a big difference in how my work flowed day to day. She could read me like a book – as they say – and could tell when my frustrations started to build. She guarded my calendar carefully (back in the days before meetings could somehow just pop up on your online calendar) – but most days I was almost zombie-like moving from meeting to meeting.

One particularly frustrating day – one of back to back seemingly endless meetings – she caught me at the end of the day. She’d noticed that one hour meetings on my calendar seemed to take all that time – and that I’d often have no time in between one meeting and the next. A day of this kind of back to back meeting schedule was particularly grating on me.

She had a very simple suggestion: saying to me “Let’s change your minimum meeting time block to 90 minutes instead of an hour.”

So simple. I agreed to give it a try – and a few weeks later noticed the difference it had made in my work day. Most of the time, my meetings ended after an hour or a bit more. Her insight was that, by blocking 90 minutes on my calendar, I’d actually have a bit of “recovery time” in between meetings. It was sorta magical – I had “think time” during the day – a time to reflect, recover and prepare.

Sometimes these simple things make a big difference – in your personal productivity and, perhaps more importantly, how you feel about your work – and, ultimately, your life.

Earlier this year, I decided that I wanted to try to apply a similar idea to my work week. I’m fortunate – being no longer hostage to back to back meetings in a corporate setting – and I usually having quite a bit of flexibility in terms of balancing meetings, calls with clients and prospects, actually working, doing email, etc. But I’ve always noticed the toll that interruptions and, importantly, the context switches they bring actually take on my ability to focus and get things done.

So, I began to block each Friday as a day when I would not schedule meetings, conference calls, etc. I’d just try to protect each Friday as a day for me to get my work done. Obviously, I can’t guarantee being able to do so – clients sometimes want to schedule meetings on Fridays, important internal work requires Friday work sessions, etc. And, of course, there’s always email, Twitter, etc. But I’ve been surprisingly successful in protecting many Fridays in 2012 – so that I could focus on the work at hand. I’ve come to think of Fridays as my “crank day” – cranking on work, not being cranky! And avoiding those externally-imposed context switches which seem to add such a burden and create a hit to productivity. Flow – it’s all about creating a zone where you can focus.

It’s proven to be a very useful personal productivity technique for me – and it’s one of my lessons from 2012 – relearned and reapplied from earlier experience. If you’re in a situation when you can apply it, give this simple idea a try in 2013! Would love to hear if it makes a difference for you!

The Silver Bullet Mindset

In my strategy consulting practice, I’ve come across a pattern that I find interesting. It’s what I’ve come to call “silver bullet thinking” – our desire to find the one right answer for any particular problem.

I think this need for one right answer is something we’re born with – which is then further developed in each of us through the years of education we go through. And, finally, when we go to work in a company, especially a larger company, the decision processes further refine this kind of thinking.

But sometimes the search for the silver bullet leads to the wrong outcome – a premature focus on a particular strategy which then gets organizationally committed, funded, and elevated in importance. In my experience, the larger the company, the more likely this kind of silver bullet thinking will dominate.

Yet, when I’ve worked with smaller, more innovative companies, they are less wed to their silver bullet – and more open to a process of on-going evaluation of the strategy based on the feedback from the market. Ideally, they’re able to pursue a couple of different strategies and test the market response to each in the process.

It seems to take a different, more entrepreneurial mindset for this to happen – and might one of the reasons that executives with big company experience find it so challenging to work in small company settings. Learning to be situational – considering when to stay loose and pursue multiple initial strategies vs. binding the whole organization to a single strategy – the silver bullet – may be one of the key leadership skills required of successful innovators.

Such an Elegant Custom – Writing a Thank You Letter!

While recently going through some old boxes of work-related materials in an early attempt at spring cleaning, I came across an old file of mine containing thank you letters from colleagues and clients of mine back in years at IBM. Finding these letters made me abandon the cleaning process for a while – while I reminisced about the memories the letters brought to mind!

Having started my working life at IBM, I was shaped by the strong culture that was such a core part of the company. The IBM Basic Beliefs (Respect for the Individual, Customer Service, and Excellence) became part of my life in those early years. Especially that first one: Respect for the Individual.

One of the customs inside IBM that was a delight was the practice of just saying thank you. When you became an IBM manager, one of the accoutrements was a set of personal stationery that you used to just say thanks. Sending those letters was an important part of gratitude for me – and receiving them was just a delight.

I had such fun going back through this folder of personal thank you letters that I had received over the years. A practice and a tradition that’s certainly faded a bit in today’s email-based world – but one certainly worth remembering! Gosh, how I also wish I had kept copies of the thank you letters I sent as well!

Saying No! Trying to Stay in the Flow!

One of the things I really find hard to do is to say NO! Yet, I read lots of advice saying that learning how to say no can be very therapeutic. Maybe I need to learn!

At the moment, I’m heads down on a couple of major client projects which happened to coincide just before the holidays and are continuing this month. Don’t get me wrong – the work is great, the projects are very interesting – but my bandwidth for anything else has gone to zero. In fact, it’s gone negative. (I’m cheating a bit by writing this post!)

One of the things I’ve learned about myself is the unusual cost that comes with switching contexts. Dropping out of the “flow”.

I used to think nothing of filling up my calendar with meetings on various subjects – and then wondering, at the end of the day, why I apparently didn’t get any real work done.

Doing real work – for me – means blocking the calendar, closing the door, shutting down email and other distractions and then, most of the time, just writing – or thinking first and then writing.

Anyway, this is just a bit of a rant on my feeling tonight behind the power curve – having to say “NO” more often than I’d like to non-project interruptions – but realizing that’s probably best and, frankly, something I need to get better at. Hope friends understand!

How do you deal with saying NO?

Our New Book: Payments Systems in the U.S.

I’m delighted to announce the availability of my new book Payments Systems in the U.S. – co-authored with my Glenbrook partner Carol Coye Benson.

Payments Systems in the US - Benson and Loftesness

My “day job” is being a payments strategy consultant for Glenbrook Partners, a payments consulting firm that Carol, our partner Allen Weinberg and I established almost ten years ago. We’ve since grown to nine partners who cover the full range of electronic payments.

Five years ago, Carol and I collaborated to launch the first of the Glenbrook Payments Boot Camps – an educational program for payments professionals. Our Payments Boot Camp program has become very successful – with over 4,000 people having attended one of our Payments Boot Camps to date.

About a year ago, Carol took the lead on developing the idea for a book that would distill the essence of payments systems in the U.S. We collaborated on writing it – and are now very proud that it’s been published!

If you’re looking to learn more about how the payments systems in the U.S. are put together, this book is for you. It’s written in an easy to read style – giving you just the right level of information to be “smart” about payments!

Click here to order from Amazon.com!

Enjoying Nancy Duarte’s New Book: resonate

I’m a big fan of Nancy Duarte and the amazing work that she and her team at Duarte Design perform to help make presentations into something we can really enjoy. Being just up the road in Silicon Valley, I was fortunate to be able to attend one of her workshops (taught with Garr Reynolds) about 15 months ago – and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

resonate by Nancy Duarte

Nancy’s first book, published about two years ago, was slide:ology. In the preface to her new book, resonate, she notes that the new book is actually a prequel to the first – having realized that first you need to figure out the story you’re telling – and THEN you can create the most effective slides to tell that story.

I ordered the book on Friday and received it yesterday. Just finished a first pass skim to get a sense for what’s inside – and, I must say, it’s quite the “tour de force” about visual storytelling. I enjoyed her conclusion to the opening introduction:

“The future isn’t just a place you’ll go; it’s a place you will invent. Your ability to shape your future depends on how well you communicate where you want to be when you get there.”

Some of the case studies are particularly compelling – including the Steve Jobs’ 2007 keynote introducing the iPhone and Pastor John Ortberg’s storytelling from the pulpit. Lots more too!

If you enjoyed slide:ology or Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen, you’ll enjoy resonate as well. Highly recommended!

(Note: Amazon.com affiliate links included above)

Adding Some White Space Back into Your LIfe!

See this post on zenhabits about adding a bit of white space in your life. Slow food comes to mind. Just chilling on a weekend with a great book in a big overstuff chair. A quiet walk along the ocean. Just driving with the radio – and cell phone – off. That kind of thing.

Way back when I was a busy executive with a seemingly endless stream of meetings being dropped on my calendar by others, I finally made a change that worked well for me in adding back in a bit of white space during a busy work day.

I asked my assistant to only schedule meetings on my calendar that lasted at least 90 minutes. Of course the default meeting is an hour – but often it’s not quite long enough. If you are booked back to back, you’ll be in a catchup frenzy all day.

By switching to the 90 minute meeting minimum, I often had some white space remaining at the end of my meetings – to just do some thinking or, heaven forbid, return phone calls!

Which reminds me, this blog’s design could sure use some white space! It’s on my list – one of these days a redesign will pop!

The End of Management

Alan Murray writing in the Wall St. Journal:

“The big companies Mr. Christensen studied failed, not necessarily because they didn’t see the coming innovations, but because they failed to adequately invest in those innovations. To avoid this problem, the people who control large pools of capital need to act more like venture capitalists, and less like corporate finance departments. They need to make lots of bets, not just a few big ones, and they need to be willing to cut their losses.”

Where’s Your Office?

My friend Chris Gulker has exactly the right idea – he’s moved his world HQ for the month of May to France – to Ameugny to be exact.

As I’m sitting this afternoon at SFO waiting for a weather-delayed flight (not exactly my idea fo a great office location!), I’m very envious. At least no one around me is wearing a mask – or exhibiting any flu-like symptoms! Trying to remain positive…!

Yours Truly Cranking Away at My MacBook Pro

Carol Coye Benson, one of my partners who manages our Glenbrook Payments Boot Camp program, hired a local professional photographer (Damon Tarver) to come into our session two weeks ago in Santa Clara. Tonight, she sent along the photos – wow, Damon did a wonderful job!

One of his pictures captured me in a very typical pose – cranking away on my MacBook Pro, probably updating either Payments News or this blog in real-time! This particular photo came from his EOS-1D Mark II shot at f/2.8, 165mm focal length at 1/100 shutter speed.


As an aside, he was a Canon shooter like me – with Canon EOS 1’s – both an EOS-1D Mark II and an EOS-1D Mark III. I had fun talking to him at our wine and cheese reception (we do this at the end of the first day of the Boot Camp to unwind and let everyone get to know each other).

The Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens that he used to shoot me is truly an amazing lens – see my Rick Steves’ Iran photos for more examples.

Turns out we are both sort of lusting after the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM Zoom to round out our lens kits!