We have an Autodesk internal newsletter, published monthly, where we discuss the big ideas that are important to our customers and us. It is published by our Corporate Strategy & Engagement (CSE) team of which I am a part. This month's topic was "getting things done." I was asked to contribute an article. So I did. I am now sharing it with It's Alive in the Lab readers.
It's All about Systems
Like most everyone, I like to get stuff done. I get to work at 6:30 am each morning. Since most people show up at around 9:30 am, I can get a lot done in the first 3 hours of my day. I get things done because I have a system. People worry that robots will take their jobs. I have no such worry. Too late. I am already a robot. I have used systems all my life, long before Dilbert cartoonist, Scott Adams, wrote books about systems. Adams' point is that goals are for losers, and systems are for winners. His classic example is that many people want to lose weight, so they pick a goal like lose 10 pounds. Even if they achieve their goal, they are likely to put the weight back on. A better approach is to put a system in place where a person eats healthier and exercises more. With the system in place, the weight will come off, stay off, and other benefits come along for the ride too. Like most people, I get my life advice from cartoonists. So given my focus on systems, what kind of systems do I use that you too might find useful?
Don't Stress on How You Dress
I have a system for getting dressed. Each morning I simply grab the shirt in my closet on the end. I then pick pants to go with the shirt. Done. I place clean shirts at one end of the closet and pull shirts to wear from the other end — that way my apparel rotates. Since the shirts get shuffled in the washing process, they wind up at the end of the closet in a semi-random order. I got the idea years ago from the movie, The Fly, where Albert Einstein was quoted as believing that man had a finite amount of thought, so he wore an identical outfit each day to avoid wasting thought on what to wear. I figured that I didn't have to wear the same thing each day, but I could avoid deciding what to wear. My system offers the benefits of sartorial variety and no thought wasted on deciding what to wear.
Outlook In-box as a To-Do List
The first thing I do each morning is go through my in-box. I try to read each email message once and process it on the spot. Since I am at the office early, I can normally get through my in-box uninterrupted. Anything left in my in-box can be considered a "to-do" list item. I normally have about six. I know Autodesk VP, Brian Mathews, has over 6,000. Brian has a different system. He uses his in-box as a searchable repository. I use mine as a to-do list. Life is about choices.
Outlook Calendar Drives My Day
I rely on my Outlook calendar very heavily. In fact, if someone invites me to a meeting, but doesn't include a reminder, I am screwed. Normally I am heads-down, typing away, with no perception of time. When the meeting reminder pops up, I save my work, and proceed to the meeting. If there's no reminder, I just keep working. So Outlook is indeed the key for everything I do — even something as simple as travel. Since Southwest Airlines allows me to get my boarding pass 24 hours in advance (and not a minute earlier), I schedule a meeting with myself the day before as a reminder. I use the confirmation number as the meeting location. When the alert comes up on my phone, I have everything I need to get my boarding pass. For my direct reports, I put the birthday and anniversary dates on my calendar. I think our team likes that we celebrate these milestones.
For tasks that are large enough, I add them to Outlook as a meeting with myself. This dedicates time for me to work on these tasks, and the reminder prevents anything from falling through the cracks. A side benefit is that people don't schedule meetings with me during these times because they see I am already booked. Score! If I had used the Task List that Office provides, it would not have the same meeting-avoidance effect.
Avoid the Deadline Effect
One of my responsibilities is to author the It's Alive in the Lab blog. Blogs should have at least three posts a week, so they don't go stale, which causes readers to become disinterested. My biggest fear would be to wake up and have to immediately write up something first thing in the morning. Luckily, TypePad (which hosts the blog) has a feature where my blog articles can be written in advance and queued up. During any given week, I normally have that week's articles already queued up and ready to go, which leaves me free to work on the ones for next week. Naturally, if there are newly occurring blog articles that require immediate publication, I can reschedule the queued articles.
At three to five blog posts per week, Autodesk book author, Tom Wujec, once asked me how I could be so prolific. The key is to write first and think later. By that I mean, when I am writing something, I just get everything out of my head and into the computer. Then I go back and edit to have it make sense. It's so much easier to rearrange/cut/paste than it is to ruminate on the perfect way to say something.
Checklists Are the Way to Go
I am a big fan of checklists. As the program manager for technology previews, I have a checklist that I use for adding, updating, retiring, or graduating a technology preview. It's just a spreadsheet that I print out and check off with a pen or pencil (yes, a manual process), but it ensures that everything that has to happen for showcasing our technology happens. I can get interrupted in the middle of working on a technology preview and then pick up right where I left off. As development teams and I work on the previews, the checklist helps us cover all of the bases.
And speaking of spreadsheets, I often use weighted spreadsheets for decision making. Take hiring summer interns, for example. My process is to write up the job description and get it posted. I then create a spreadsheet where each attribute in the job description is a column. I then place a weight on each column, since some attributes are more important than others. Next, I get the resumes and score them by rating each resume from 1 to 10 on each attribute. For example, if the job calls for the ability to write, I take note if the candidate has published a report. If the job requires the ability to present to Carl Bass, I take note if the student was a teaching assistant. Every candidate starts out with a 5 in each column, and then the value goes up or down based on what I glean from the resume. These values get combined into a weighted score. The candidates with the highest scores get phone interviews. The phone interviews ultimately determine if an offer is made or not. This allows me to add some objectivity to the hiring process. For next summer, I will be applying the process to candidates from the CODE2040 program.
Getting Things Done Together
It's great to get things done as an individual professional, but if you're working in an organization, getting things done together is essential. When working with colleagues, I try to envision the project as if I had to do the whole thing by myself. This helps me sequence what needs to be done and get a sense of how long things will take. I then prepare for the worst case scenario as if I had to go it alone. Then as team members bring improvements to the process, come up with better ideas, and take on most of the workload, it makes the project happen sooner and get better results. Take technology previews, for example. Some teams send me an installer and an email. I can create a full technology preview just from that. I am prepared to do that every time. So when other teams send me an installer, a write-up for what the HTML page should look like, the artwork to use for the banner, and videos that can be posted on YouTube, it makes my job seem that much easier. Prepare for the worst but be delighted when you work with the best.
Technology preview participants can tell you that feedback processing goes smoothly, and that's because we all follow a system. An email comes in. A team member group-replies. The customer gets his answer, and the rest of us know that the inquiry was handled. With an almost immediate response, the customer knows that his feedback did not sink into some Autodesk black hole. When a customer posts feedback to a forum, we get an email since we subscribe to the forum. This saves us from having to check the forum for new posts each day. And in turn, one of us can quickly respond. It only takes group-reply and forum-subscription to make this possible. Systems do not have to be difficult to be effective.
To Each His Own
So this is a system that works for me. My Myers-Briggs personally assessment is Introversion-Sensing-Thinking-Judging (ISTJ) as compared to Extraversion-iNtuition-Feeling-Perceiving (ENFP). At a recent offsite, when our team discussed our assessments, and I learned that some teammates prefer "feelings" to ensure that they make decisions to create harmony versus decisions using logical, objective analysis, I couldn't help but ask "Why in the hell would you ever want to do that?" Yes, I am a robot, but it takes all kinds to make a world. What's important is that you pick a system that works for you. Systems provide the consistency and thoroughness that can help anyone accomplish anything from losing weight to being part of a team launching a technology preview for the company.
Sharing what we talk about on the inside is alive in the lab.