Train Your Brain

If you’ve read my book, The 100: Building Blocks for Business Leadership, or just read my posts here from time to time, you know I highly value work-life balance. In fact, that’s the topic of the very first chapter in The 100. Achieving balance means working efficiently, having discipline and knowing how to prioritize and focus.

A recent special edition of Harvard Business Review (sort of an HBR “Best of”) includes an intriguing article, ‘Train Your Brain to Focus” by Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore (co-authors of the book, Organize Your Life, Organize Your Mind: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time).

I read it with relish and indulged in a bit of guilty pleasure when some of my own long-held views were validated by research. Chiefly, multi-tasking is a myth. Sure, you can try to do multiple things at once, but there’s a price. As Hammerness and Moore report “. . . (multi-tasking) makes us more likely to make mistakes and miss important information and cues, and less likely to retain information in our working memory, which impairs problem solving and creativity.”

So when you tell your kids to turn off the video games while doing their homework, you’re not being a curmudgeon – you’re teaching them an important lesson in training their brains to focus. When it comes to your team, you can insist on distraction-free meetings—ban laptops, mobile phones, tablets and other gadgets. They might resist, but when creativity and thoughtful input increases you’ll know you’re on the right track.

Easy enough, right? Sure, when you control all the variables. But life often throws us—and our employees—curveballs: events that trigger emotions like anxiety, sadness, anger and more. Functional brain images reveal that these negative emotions make it extremely difficult to solve problems or do other cognitive work.

But the authors offer a useful exercise to help keep our brains on task when negativity threatens to derail our focus and it’s as easy as A-B-C. They advise:

  1. Awareness of your options. You can stop what you’re doing and address the distraction, or you can let it go.
  2. Breathe deeply and consider your options.
  3. Choose thoughtfully: stop or go?

Only a monster boss would expect any employee to keep cranking when a loved  dies or similarly devastating news is received. But less drastic negative events can be managed, the authors argue, by taking the time to decide how to react, versus simply reacting.

I also appreciated their practical advice to start meetings with a bit of humor (not that I’d ever tell a joke myself of course!). Turns out “positive emotions improve everyone’s brain function, leading to better teamwork and problem solving.”

Who knew?

Next time: Avoiding the Downside of Too Much Focus

Live your values and others may follow

If you pay attention to the political news, it’s easy to believe that disrespectful dialog has replaced baseball as the national pastime. While I’m a firm believer in the power of debate and discussion to generate better decisions, I do not believe what’s happening in D.C. is productive.

All people, and business leaders, must stand up for what’s right. Problem is, many business people – me included – do not like to take stands because we do not wish to risk offending others (including customers, potential customers and even employees).

But standing up for what’s right without being offensive is possible: we’ve seen it done countless times on television by the imitable Fred Rogers. We all remember Mister Rogers as the gentle, affable man who created “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on PBS.

Fred Rogers was as warm as his famous cardigan sweaters, but he didn’t shy away from controversy. He tackled complex social issues and was a strong advocate for anti-discrimination and equal rights. This was highlighted in the recent documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” which recounts the episode when he soaked his feet alongside an African-American police officer in a kiddie pool. This was controversial because segregation was still widespread in America at the time.

Fred Rogers did not give fiery speeches (but he did testify before Congress on behalf of funding public television for children), he just did the right thing and led by example. So, I have a modest proposal for my fellow citizens and business leaders: let your actions speak for you.

My company uses technology to help clients achieve important business objectives. But we also dedicate resources (time and dollars) supporting non-profit organizations focused on the common good. From volunteerism, employee matching gifts and student scholarships, to starting the Intertech Foundation, our philanthropic efforts allow us to speak up through action for positive community values: compassion, opportunity and education.

Most recently the Intertech Foundation became a philanthropic supporter of a local children’s hospice named Crescent Cove. I liked Crescent Cove because we’d be making an impact in the community where we lived and they’re the first nonprofit in the Twin Cities to offer hospice services for kids. In the past, we’ve also supported the local Ronald McDonald House.

So, let’s be kind and inclusive. Better yet, let’s use our personal and professional actions to create the world we want to see for future generations – one that provides a place for everyone to belong and contribute. Who knows, it might even be good for business!

Top 2018 Posts, Articles, and Resources

Below are my top five resources and posts for 2018:

The 100 Downloads:  A set of 30 templates, checklists, and other tools that support ideas in my book The 100.

Software Development: Being Agile:  Written as a part of a series on software development, this piece covers the benefits of Agile and Scrum.

Father’s Day:  On Father’s Day this year, I wrote a testament to my dad as a father and man.

Getting Curious Gets Results:  Inspired by a Harvard Business Review article, here are thoughts on how curiosity can improve our business and our lives.

How CEOs Manage Time:  Also inspired by a Harvard Business Review article, I share my $0.02 on how to effectively manage time/life.

Below are my top five articles in other publications for 2018:

Strategic philanthropy: Giving back means paying it forward in ways that matter, Minnesota Business Magazine

How to cultivate a work culture that works for everyone, The Business Journals

How to cultivate winning client-consultant relationships, Upsize Magazine

5 ways to increase workplace flow — and happiness, The Business Journals

How to focus your resources on achieving your goals, The Business Journals

Software Development: Making Software Development Centers Work

Last time I shared a bit about the concept of Development Centers for software development. Because we effectively use this model at my firm – we call it “The Intertech Way” – I thought I would share the best practices for making it work.

The fundamental criteria for an effective Dev Center model is using defined methodology (and following it, of course!). I recommend several levels of leadership to ensure that the younger professionals (think of them as apprentices) are supported at every project level and, most importantly, that clients or end users (if you are interested in using the Dev Center model within your corporate IT department) receive quality software on time and within budget. Levels of accountability within your Dev Center might look like this:

  • Delivery Manager to ensure a standard process is followed on all projects and that quality standards have been met before project delivery.
  • Director of Consulting to ensure that each apprentice is paired with a dedicated senior professional
  • Dev Center Manager to mentor, help bolster technical skills, and to ensure all apprentices can operate at a consistently high technical level.

Maybe you will want a slightly different organizational structure in your Dev Center, but the key is to ensure you have more than simply a senior professional paired with an apprentice. The other roles are necessary to ensuring that younger team members develop consistency in their skills and the overall process they use to make software. We have found this model is working well and consistently results in turnkey solutions.

When I began this series of posts on the perils and challenges of software development, I lamented the high level of failed IT projects and my theory that offshore development is largely to blame. I noted that instead of providing a cheap, fast turnkey solution, offshore software projects frequently are bedeviled by poor management, confusion about team roles, and quality standards well below what U.S. companies (and consumers) expect. (In fairness to lower-paid offshore IT professionals, language barriers, and time zone and cultural differences are tough hurdles to overcome.)

And yet many are holding tight to the offshore model hoping to save money. Ironically, instead of cost savings, we’re now seeing costs shift from the actual development work to the writing of requirements and quality assurance – and development takes longer because of the time lag in communication when team members are located around in the world and in different time zones. Also, not surprisingly, people writing such detailed requirements must be more advanced (i.e., expensive) to anticipate issues a lesser-skilled developer might face during a project.

The only true benefit with off-shore development is that it forces business leaders to think holistically about what they expect from an application on the front end. That helps to prevent costly changes in mid-stream. But the negatives of off-shore development still outweigh the benefits.

I’m convinced that guided learning and mentoring, in the matrixed leadership approach I described above, allows younger developers to be exposed to every aspect of a project (a good way to build your department’s expertise) while providing the guidance from deeply experienced IT professionals – and the level of accountability necessary for quality outcomes. With an offshore model or a completely outsourced model, however, there is no accountability at the individual level where it matters most.