Since starting Alpha UMi, I have been on a steady growth curve. Some of my on-the-job training has come from learning how to develop and sell for the marketplace, some has been how to raise funds and communicate with shareholders, and some has come from interfacing with my employees and learning how to be the best leader I can be.
I’ve also gotten the equivalent of another degree doing research to support our programs.
I love learning. I believe it is what contributed to my early desire to change jobs – to get exposure to a new challenge which would force me to grow. Later in my career, I used that desire to fuel my energies through different positions at IBM and then as a consultant which allowed me to change focus and clients but not destroy my resume with hundreds of short-term employers.
It’s also what has gotten me thought the demands of a small-business start-up and the changes needed to survive the pandemic.
I’ve had to take a much more hands-on role over the past two years with our curriculum development. I’ve loved researching to create new webinars, workshops, programs, and talks. But the most satisfying has been when I’ve found research that supports the best practices I developed for myself in the decades that I’ve been a highly productive engineer. It’s been a constant validation of self.
We have been updating our online curriculum. We periodically do this for all our training products to stay on top of the research and what’s happening in the business world. So much has changed in the past two years, and new research and insights are emerging daily. Yesterday I started a deep dive into a workshop we call task management. This is a topic we originally addressed in conjunction with time management in a workshop we called productivity. The first time I reviewed it, four years ago, I was critical of what I was reading and voiced my complaints to my researchers.
They had embraced the research that showed multitasking was a performance killer. Multitasking is doing two things at once. For example, you shouldn’t text while driving. Or you shouldn’t listen to music while working. You should focus on one task at a time. While I embrace the no texting while driving since I can’t control each of my eyes independently, I had issue with the notion that it was a productivity killer to do two things at once, like listening to a conversation over Zoom while doing emails.
I objected to their concept that multitasking was bad. From my perspective, it was the only way to work. I had never known another way. I could not conceive of not being able to do two things at the same time. It was then I found out that I was part of the 2.5% of the general population who are called supertaskers.
Research from the Universities of Utah and Colorado found that supertaskers’ performance is not diminished when executing multiple tasks. It seems that super taskers can juggle multiple tasks because their brains are wired for more efficiency.
My team told me that they had observed my way of work for well over a year and that just watching me was exhausting.
That was eye opening for me — to learn that my brain was so different. In my engineering work, I knew from experience that I could complete most tasks in less than half the time it would take someone else to accomplish the same work. In fact, when I was developing cost estimates, I had to be careful to multiply my estimates by 3 to 4 or more to be able to appropriately capture the cost of the work to be done and the time to do it. I would use the larger numbers for larger teams based on my experience.
I’ve learned from my research, which supported what I had observed, that managing communication across a large team takes a tremendous amount of effort and contributes to the greater length of time associated with task completion by larger teams. It’s one of the reasons that large companies find it difficult to be agile and develop disruptive product lines. Many have adopted a practice of buying innovative small companies rather than trying to create this environment internally. They just can’t work fast enough. It also helps to explain the $70 hammer or $300 toilet seat in government applications.
Today I received another validation. In my consulting career, I always strove to have two clients at a time. I adopted this practice when I had young children. Having two clients meant that if I needed time to be a volunteer reading mom at the elementary school, or take time to chaperone a school trip, my clients always assumed I was working for the other client. This was acceptable. Thirty years ago, working in a male-dominated environment, there wasn’t much support for volunteering to build young people’s reading skills or experience bases if there was ‘real work’ to be done. So, I always had two clients and I never offered an explanation except that “I’ve got a commitment that day” if I was doing volunteer work.
But there was another benefit from having two clients and two different set of tasks and focus areas. When I would get stuck on one task, I would put it aside and work on the other client’s work for a while. When I hit a wall on that one, I’d go back to the first task, and would find that the problem that caused me to get stuck wasn’t a problem after all, and I’d be able to move past that block.
Today, researchers call that task management. They have found that taking a break from a task when you are stuck, and engaging your mind in a different way, will refresh your brain. When you return to that task, your brain will be looking at the problem from a different perspective due to the work you just had your brain focusing on, and that will often give you the different insight you need to move past the problem. Evidently this technique was also employed by Darwin and Einstein which contributed to their incredible contribution to science.
At times I also learn new things. One of my favorites is the 5-minute technique. If you find yourself procrastinating about getting a task started or completed, tell yourself that you are just going to spend 5 minutes on it. And then sit down and spend those 5 minutes on the task. There is something about telling your brain that it’s a short task that will allow you to think about the task differently and get into it. Of course, at that point, once your brain is cranking and you feel like you are getting things done, that five minutes becomes 30 and you will have made real progress. This technique has been a game changer for me.
Sometimes its new techniques, and sometimes it’s validation of my best practices or insights on why my rules of thumb have worked, but there is always something new to take away in the areas of leadership and soft skill development.