Taming tasks needn’t be taxing

What we do is task-oriented, but sometimes — due to time and budget constraints — there isn’t an overarching project to contain them in, a situation that — for us here at the Octane HQ — often arises in the aftermath of completing a major project, where we make the incremental changes only to discover this weird hinterland between the doing and the planning, and it’s in this ad hoc wilderness of weirdness that we sometimes find a time vampyre lurking, swallowing up precious time.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when a friend had to explain to someone this exact problem, but it’s a pernicious problem in that it’s resilience is in part due to the perception that, in general:

“We’re moving the gain line forward and getting things done, so what’s the problem?”

When we spin up a new task we first need to open at least one application, either running native on a computer or something on the web, and then reappraise ourselves with the instructions and the requirements (sometimes in conflict with each other), and also what we did before — the list goes on.

Sometimes, this time spent preparing needn’t be replicated if we think more about what needs to be done and line the tasks up such that the initial preparation for one is applicable to those other tasks in the sequence.

What remains should be a production line of tasks with a slither of preparation in between (switching to a different set of instructions or files in the same project folder, as an example), where you then get on with the — uh — task at hand.

So, with this in mind, I conjured up an graphic to illustrate this approach, which — I hope — makes sense!


Talking shop … store, booth, garage, and office…

Business networking events aren’t for everyone. For some people, such things are the awkwardness of an office soirée but without the benefit of free alcohol for that bit of Dutch courage, and swapping out the unwelcome overtures of that not-so-special someone who you avoid like the plague for the overt advances of a bunch of salespeople who talk at, over, and through you.

Worse, the dreaded speed networking event — eek!

Choice of venue aside, I’ve found the optimal angle of approach is to ask the other person what it is they do and then wrap their explanation in a contextual proposition of what it is Octane does.

It’s the difference between:

“We help small businesses deal with big business problems.”

… and:

“We’d create a secure web application to manage the life cycle of [Widget X, Gadget Y, Service Z, or Events 1, 2, and 3], and…”

… or:

“We’d look at trimming your workflow down from 7 stages to about 5, or — if possible — 3, and then digitising the whole thing, then…”

… in each instance, continuing with additional, contextual ideas specific to their business, accompanied with essential benefits, such as reducing costs, and improving efficiencies, among others.

While apocryphal, it’s worth mentioning something that Albert Einstein never said because it’s a useful shorthand:

“If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough.”

We often have an intuitive understanding of what we do, but then struggle to articulate that to someone else, so — as I said — context is everything, as is practice.

I often avoid explaining the specifics of what Octane does (because it’s technical and therefore either: 1. confusing; 2. boring; or 3. a combination of 1 and 2) and instead focus on the expected results, and the benefits we would bring to them.

In the end, simplifying the raison d’etre of a product or service isn’t so much a strand of self-promotion or some branch of your marketing strategies as it is the communication of an idea such that its purpose is self evident to someone, whether it’s applicable or relevant to them or not.

Because if someone else understands what you’re capable of accomplishing, then you have the makings of a message that is communicable to others by others, via word of mouth, and fingers to keyboard or touchpad, which could then — in modern parlance — go viral.


Idiocy, bordering on democracy

In business, I avoid certain things, two more than anything else: religion; and politics. However, the implications of exiting the European Union are fast drifting into the shadow of the cloud of debris and chaos created by the British government and its breathtaking ineptitude, which — for once, and this is a rare thing — I find unbelievable, bordering on the surreal.

In the last week or so, I reacted on Facebook to an article shared by the Guardian about Boris Johnson — again — citing the discredited £350 million for the NHS ruse used during the referendum, stirring up an almost spent debate and opening up fractious arguments, to which I responded:

Or, we could have voted to remain and leave things as they were, but then the public wouldn’t have had a chance to pretend they were a suicide cult of economic experts.

… a comment which attracted almost 400 likes.

But the point here is, the public and the politicians between them have zero idea what to do next, in spite of counsel from actual economic experts, from the captains of the industries we risk losing to “foreigners” (a German-made Rolls-Royce is a real prospect, or perhaps of no concern to those who’re not economic nationalists), and that’s something I find as troubling as it is ludicrous.

Towards the end of June 2016, I was moved to write an update on Facebook, which I gave the provisional title of: “Idiocy, bordering on democracy” because, for the life of me, I could not understand how we’d got ourselves into the mess we were in then, let alone in the here in now.

It appears common sense isn’t so common anymore.

A business case for rare sense

Imagine you are the owner of a business, founded some decades ago, and after a moment of quiet introspection, you discover that it is in rude health — a state of affairs that does not run parallel with the nation within which you live.

But you feel there’s room for improvement, and the decision-making process is where you begin. Here, you choose to economize, and instead of deliberating over decisions, which often takes up a lot of your valuable time, you instead place your faith in what you believe to be an innate talent for making the correct decision the first time of asking.

Excellent.

As time goes on, some of those instinctive decisions begin to cause a few problems, but nothing major. Onwards!

However, due to a commingling of circumstances, you find yourself forced into making a decision without first being in receipt of the facts, exposing you and your business to extreme risk. But, you stick with the “Process” and go with the first decision.

With almost immediate effect, you begin to regret that decision.

24 hours later, the consequences of that decision appears almost foolish and hurried.

36 hours later, a number of clients begin to question your powers of reasoning in addition to the decision itself.

72 hours later, you’ve lost a number of major clients who you’ve had for decades.

You’re now faced with a stark choice:

  1. continue supporting the erroneous decision, in deference to the “Process”, regardless of the consequences, or;
  2. admit that the “Process” is flawed, make amends, and work to re-build the trust you have lost.

For reasons that elude me, we went with option 1, and the cost of that decision appears due much too soon.


An astronomical guide to success

As I’ve said countless times before, talent and hard work alone are insufficient indicators of success. I’ve watched people — gifted, dynamic, vibrant people — forge on with slavish dedication to their art and earn precious little recognition for their labours, with not a scintilla of success to show for it. So what’s missing?

We’re told to work hard and smart and in time we’d reap the rewards for our efforts. Some do, that’s obvious, but not everyone, that’s for sure.

Those who know me best know that I have passion for science, and that’s where I look for guidance when the world begins to sag a bit in the middle, or become worn at the edges. Take care, though, to avoid confirmation bias — seeking things that confirm your beliefs is to risk becoming a stranger to more substantial evidence.

Imagine the complete lack of surprise when I read the findings of three scientists who chose to measure the role of luck in success:

The results of this elucidating simulation, which dovetail with a growing number of studies based on real-world data, strongly suggest that luck and opportunity play an underappreciated role in determining the final level of individual success.

It’s occurred to me, through studious observation of the world, that there are three main driving forces to success, or — in their absence — failure, and I’ve often found it best to characterise these three fundamental forces as an astronomical guide.

Saturn

Saturn is sheer blind luck and nothing else. Nature doesn’t care about whimsical things such as what we consider to be fair, or whether you’re burdened with a staggering and immeasurable talent — if you are, excellent, because you won the genetic lotto, but this is a different game and a new role of the dice.

The thing about luck is, what’s good luck for someone is sometimes bad luck for someone else.

Acting upon good luck (fortune) is sometimes like an art, where:

  1. you have to be both aware of the moment (and sometimes good fortune comes dressed in the ragged garb of the bad);
  2. and be both cognizant and cunning enough to see opportunities in the scenarios created by bad luck and have the guile to turn them into something good for yourself, or perhaps others, too.

Where possible, I avoid trading on the misfortunes of others.

Jupiter

Jupiter is who you know and the extent of their connections. Steve Jobs was an immigrant who was put up for adoption as an infant, which is not the best start in life! However, growing up in California to affluent white caucasian parents with notable mentors such as Andrew Grove, a founding father of Intel, didn’t do the juvenile Jobs much harm.

It’s impossible to replicate the sheer good fortune (Saturn) that Jobs enjoyed, but it is possible to position yourself among influential people and the reap the rewards of that personal and social investment over time.

As a business owner, we take leaps into the unknown — educated risks, but risks nonetheless. I’d been working from a home office for a while and decided to make the next great leap by taking an office at the Digital Media Centre in Barnsley, a decision that has proved to be a success on multiple fronts: formidable talent; genuine personalities; and access to opportunities that would otherwise be beyond reach.

When I think about the work I’ve had over the almost two decades Octane Interactive Limited has been trading, word-of-mouth marketing has been by far the greatest source of clients.

However, like Jobs, position and connections are one thing, but there is another component which is essential if you wish to make the most of these giants of success…

Pluto

Out there in the vast ink black reaches of space, nestled amongst the debris of the surplus parts to a once proto Solar System, mingling in and almost obscured by the Kuiper belt, a vast ring of shattered rock and ice beyond the orbit of Neptune, is the diminutive “planetoid” Pluto, the embodiment of what you know and what you’re good at — a mere speck compared to Saturn and Jupiter.

Often such things as talent, intelligence, hard work, diligence, and so forth are worthless in isolation — Vincent van Gogh is but one example of a constellation of artists that failed to shine during the fleeting period of their own lifetime. However, if you choose to bring your personal Pluto into orbit of those giant engines of success, Saturn and Jupiter, then you increase the chances of good things happening.

When I moved into the Digital Media Centre, I had access to a network of influential, talented, and knowledgeable people — something that’s difficult to replicate. As an example, when I go for a coffee from the resident barista, there’s a chance of bumping into someone new and interesting and starting a conversation … you get the idea.

Is there a connection between word-of-mouth marketing and Steve Jobs? Unless you are and continue to be good — if not excellent — at what you do, who you know and the fortune you court are without value, because neither are sustainable drivers of success over the long-term without the talent to build upon.

In fairness to his biological parents, it wasn’t chance that the infant Jobs found himself on the shores of the United States of America, the land of opportunities, though at the time no-one could have predicted he would become the creative titan we knew him to have been.

Conclusion

Watch for the waxing and the waning of Saturn (the ebb and flow of chance) and Jupiter (the dynamic motion of people in the social and professional networks you move amongst).

Cultivate an open mind, be aware of chance, be ruthless, nurture self confidence, harness cunning, have a big heart, but ahead of everything else, love what you do with a passion.


The 20-80 rule

You’ve heard about the 80-20 rule. What about the 20-80 rule? I’m guessing not.

Some time after a running a marketing campaign, which attracted a scant few new clients, we ran into difficulties with one particular new client.

Now, it’s worth prefacing this with an explanation about their particular circumstances. Having spent a large four-figure sum on a major overhaul to their website, in the end, there was almost nothing to show for it. Worse, due to some naivete on their own part — and I didn’t get a complete picture of things — there was no legal recourse.

I came along to “firefight”, which had been about 75% of the work Octane had been doing since 2001; clearing up the chaos caused by a number of web design agencies who seemed to be popping up like mushrooms between 2000-2006 who either failed to do the job or had no intention of doing so.

As you’d imagine, the budget was tight and the profit margin became razor thin. Complicating things further was the clash of personalities, which — for me at least — manifest itself in a fundamental lack of appreciation for the task at hand, its scale, and the challenge of accomplishing much of what had been asked of the previous web designers but on a fraction of the budget.

I didn’t have either the time or the patience for capturing the Moon and putting it on a lollipop stick for a fraction of the price, deliverable by last week. At the same time, a number of other clients had been growing more vocal and more difficult to deal with.

In fairness, these were hard times, but we weren’t doing great either. I came to a realisation — that 20% of the clients were responsible for 80% of the problems we were having, such as:

  • poor lines of communication;
  • late or non payment (I took two clients to court and won both claims);
  • high-maintenance support requirements, but an unwillingness to pay for the service;
  • difficult and obstructive personnel;
  • unethical and immoral business practices.

… the list went on.

It was a difficult a decision to make (not so much where there was a lack of morals and ethics), and more so given the economic climate, but I made the decision to cut that 20% loose, and — over time — reaped the rewards, the most immediate benefit was that we had more time and resources to deal with the work coming from the remaining 80% of the client base.

Photograph from Pixabay.