The Gang of X

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The other day I met a friend of mine who is a bona-fide change agent in her company.

It reminded me of my first change effort as an employee of AT&T Bells Labs. A group of us decided to stop complaining that things should change and do something about it.

We started the “Gang of X” and started meeting, discussing the new Division we wanted to create. It was all quite exciting, and got even more so when we published something like a manifesto for change, outlining the change we wanted to see.

At the time it seemed quite risky, but we were wrong. It really wasn’t.

In time, all the changes we outlined came to pass but not before I left the company to start my own firm. In time, the organization was dissolved when AT&T split into Lucent and AT&T, and the division’s staff was scattered in to the wind.

But the Gang of X was a life-changing event that I don’t regret, even after I got pissed when the changes weren’t happening fast enough.

It helped to lead my to the profession I now have, in which I get to work with change agents of all kinds who share one thing in common — a desire to make a difference.

Building Bridges for Business

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It struck me recently that it is quite difficult for a Jamaican who has never lived abroad to understand the economic potential in Jamaican culture and our island’s beauty.

Also, it is just as hard for a Jamaican living abroad who retains no ties back home whatsoever to take advantage of the benefits they have of being Jamaican.

Enter the Jamaican who chooses to live in both worlds — the larger world outside Jamaica and a life in Jamaica. They are a unique resource, in that they understand two worlds that are quite unique, and an understanding of both worlds makes them quite valuable.

For example, is Trench Town a special resource? Only a few Jamaicans living on the island would agree, but this happens to be the place that I was was asked about the most frequently when I lived in the U.S. Could it be turned into a kind of meccas for lovers of reggae music and Bob Marley?

We are gifted with one of the prettiest countries in the world, yet much of our country remains hidden from tourists the world over who would be stunned at the places that don’t make it to the brochures, some of which don’t even have names. We Jamaicans take the mountains, valleys, waterfalls, fruits, birds, sun — all for granted. And because we can’t see those things with “outsider eyes” we don’t think deeply enough about how to share them with the world.

It’s not an overstatement to state that we Jamaicans who go abroad truly discover the beauty of our country when we get off the plane in Miami, New York or Toronto. All of a sudden a naseberry, a quiet beach and a walk in the mountains in the morning become luxury items.

Enjoying them becomes a matter of working very, very hard, saving a lot of money, and spending it on the little 2 weeks “dem give us” each year that we use to travel home to try to take everything in at once.

Jamaicans who can see both worlds can see opportunities that are invisible to others. This speaks to new ventures that are just waiting to be started, and those of us who are business-minded could do no worse than to take the bull by the horns, and launch them.

Clients I Can’t Work With

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I have found it virtually impossible to work with a certain kind of client — the one that insists that they already know, or his colleague, the one that is afraid of looking like they don’t already know.

The result is the same — a certain lack of progress as they defend their egos against looking bad. With them, things have to start looking VERY bad before they are willing to put results over their personal view of themselves. And there are times when that approach just takes too long to make a difference.

On the opposite side of the coin, however, is the client who is willing to learn at every turn. They make the best clients, and usually become friends. The quest to do good first and foremost, helps us both to put our egos in check, and makes projects flow smoothly and sweetly, such that they hardly feel like work at all.

The Productivity of Jamaican Workers

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A colleague of mine recently shared with me that foreign executives and project managers in the bauxite industry use a factor of 2 to 2.5 when estimating how much labour it takes to get a job done.

In other words, in Jamaica it takes more than twice the same number of man-hours to do the same work as elsewhere, and I imagine that this is referring to mostly manual labour rather than knowledge work.

If true, this is a pretty startling statistic, but it starts to explain why prices here in Jamaica seem to be high for no reason at times. I do know that security costs make up a higher percentage of total costs than in other countries, which makes sense given our high crime rates. That much is plain to see.

What’s not so obvious to see is that we are often using more than twice the workforce needed.

Apparently, the Chinese workers that were here for the World Cup put our own labourers to shame, and in the garment industry in particular, they have shown that they, as it was said “can do de work of two s’maddy” (2 people that is).

I guess the colloquial wisdom in this case matches the actual measurements of bauxite-industry managers…

Recession and Productivity

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Talk of a recession in the U.S. is now fully underway.

In the Caribbean, we have just begun to talk about the fact that when a recession hits the U.S., the after-effects are felt here. As if the increase in oil prices were not enough, we can also expect to see a drop in tourist visits and a decrease in average tourist spending. This affects our bottom-line in Jamaica and other countries in the region that are dependent on the tourist industry as the biggest earner of foreign exchange.

If a recession is to come to the region, then we can expect to see redundancies as companies cut their payrolls to keep their costs in line with a reduction in business.

It’s a good time for employees to start to think about a strategy to make themselves invaluable to their employers. An employee would do well to find ways to do more with less, as the chances are good that their managers are going to be turning to them to ask them to do just that.

If a redundancy is announced, it’s likely that the least productive employees are the ones that are at the greatest risk. In turn, the most productive ones will be assuming the workload of those that are laid off.

While most managers won’t give their employees anything new to deal with the extra load, the smart ones will start now to give them tools, training and alternatives that help them get the job done.

For example, elance, the outsourcing service, offers an excellent value for money, and now would be a good time to get used to using the service. Also, Framework’s NewHabits-NewGoals productivity programme would be an alternative for professionals looking to boost their ability to deal with more each day.

It also might be a good time to buy that extra memory for the laptop, or to set up work-at-home arrangements wherever possible — all in favour of boosting productivity.

The current estimates say that a recession won’t be felt here in the region until 9-12 months from now, so there is still ample time to prepare.

Managing the Exploding Inbox

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The following article was carried in the Sunday Gleaner today (with some edits) :

Here is the original article:
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It’s one of those issues that everyone complains about – “my Email Inbox has 500 items.” The retort draws a quick response — “Oh yeah, that’s nothing… mine has 5,000!”

Email explosion is one of the favourite things that Caribbean professionals across the region bemoan, but feel they can do little about. They suffer as they watch the size of their Inbox grow, and devote weekends, public holidays and even vacation days to getting rid of the monster. Once they do so, there is a feeling of relief as order returns to their tired psyches.

However, a month later it’s back.

Some try the trick of periodically copying all their messages to a bottomless folder, returning their Inbox to ground zero. Others simply delete everything, deciding that anything that’s in there is probably not valuable, and “if it’s really important, they can call.”

On the other side of each email, however, is someone who genuinely wants a response of some kind. The sender waits, while forming an unfavourable opinion of the person that has not replied. Cleaning shop by deleting emails en masse is risky business.

What can be done to address this problem that most will admit is not going away, and is likely to only get worse?

Face the Unproductive Facts

The first insight is the hardest to swallow: an overflowing Inbox is a sign of weak time management and productivity skills.

It’s not due to “those people” who won’t give us a break. It’s not that we are “bad at email.” It’s also not God’s fault for refusing to give us more hours in the day.

Recent research by Framework Consulting shows that an overflowing Inbox is a sign that the user probably has not learned, and is definitely not using, the best time management practices. Their Inbox is only reflecting the results of the habits they are using.

The solution? It turns out that a complex set of skills must be mastered in order to produce the Holy Grail of professional productivity – a perpetually empty Inbox.

That is no trick. A perpetually empty Inbox is not one that is blocked from other users, and does not come from changing an email address, job, country or computer. Instead, it is one that involves the skilful handling of email as soon as it arrives.

How is this accomplished?

The 11 Fundamentals

An empty Inbox is not created overnight. Instead, it involves the steady application of a set of habits that must practised continuously, like a forward defensive stroke or a scale in C major.

Of the 11 fundamentals, we have found that 7 of them are critical to properly manage email. These seven practices comprise the core of all complete time management systems, and once they are each mastered to a high enough level, the empty inbox is a natural outcome. When any of them is missing, the result is Inbox overload.

Here are the 7 core practices essential to proper email management.

  1. Capturing: using the email Inbox for temporary storage only, and for quick emptying. Messages are downloaded from a server only upon request.
  2. Emptying: moving messages out of the Inbox to other folders as soon as it’s practical
  3. Tossing: permanently deleting emails that won’t be acted on
  4. Acting Now: taking immediate action on messages that require 5 minutes or less to be completed
  5. Storing: placing information from messages in different folders for future retrieval
  6. Scheduling: using messages to create appointments for solo or group work e.g. to block out time for an interview, or time to review a document
  7. Listing: taking information from messages and adding them to lists for later action e.g. a list of items to be covered in a meeting agenda

Perhaps the biggest change that most professionals can make immediately is turn off the ability of their email programme to download messages automatically. Instead, in order to “Capture” properly, they must manually download email at pre-appointed times, while disciplining themselves to rarely, if ever, check email at other times.

None of these practices are easy to implement, especially as they are simply not taught in schools. Most of us put together a time management system without guidance in time to pass our 11+ examinations, and we are stuck with our creations that were meant for an age when email wasn’t invented.

The advent of email, with its 24 hour demands, means that we must all “up our game.” Instead of relying on home-grown approaches that were incomplete and ill-informed, we as professionals must take the next step to deliberately design our own time management systems. Using the 7 core practices as building blocks is just a start. A perpetually empty Inbox is a powerful milestone to accomplish.

Opening a Business in Jamaica

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I can finally say that I have made it through a critical process — that of opening up, and registering a business in Jamaica.

The entire process was a daunting one, and I can understand why they say that we have one of the most inefficient tax systems in the world. I have been putting off this post, because I needed to recover a bit from the whole thing so that I could write with some perspective.

The first step is to register the company, and that took several months due to a variety of glitches, some caused by me and the way in which I was trying to set things up. I eventually settled on creating a company that is entirely owned by a U.S. company that I own.

The paperwork was fairly straight-forward, and I used a local company called Profits and Dividends to get this step done. The end-result of this activity (which cost some US$700 or so) was to receive the Registration papers for the company and a company stamp.

In essence this was the simplest step.

The next steps were all necessary in order to have even a single employee. They need to be done with some precision, due to the fact that they all involve travel around Kingston from one office to another, and it’s quite easy to get turned back from the office in order to retrieve a single paper that was forgotten. As my wife said, just bring everything that you think might be needed with you in a briefcase .

  1. The first stop was the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) office in New Kingston, at 18 Ripon Road, off Oxford Road.

    You need to bring all your company registration documents plus a full copy. Also have a personal Taxpayer Registration Number (TRN) and driver’s licence handy for each of the steps. Fill out the NIS form for the business, and for all the employees in the business if they have never been registered.

    Get the slip, and the letter that indicate that you are registered.

  2. Visit the Tax Office some time between the 3rd and 25th of the month to avoid the end of month rush. Sign up for a Business TRN. Bring a copy of the registration. The wait for this to be completed is about 5 minutes.
  3. Once completed, stay at the Tax Office to register for General Consumption Tax (GCT) payments.
  4. If a Tax Compliance Certificate (TCC) is needed, then a visit to National Housing Trust (NHT) and the Tax Office are needed. These are used to clear items from customs and are good for six months.

What makes the process difficult is the movement back and forth during working hours from one office to another. I haven’t actually paid payroll taxes yet, so that will be another bit of excitement, to be sure.

Unreturned Calls

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One thing I have noticed about doing business in Jamaica is that professionals seem much less likely to return phone calls than in the U.S.

I have decided that this largely comes from a lack of competence, rather than an intention to do malice or harm. How can I tell?

Well, it seems that it shows itself when the person is finally met face-to-face, at which point profuse apologies are made. There are just many more people who are incapable of handling the volume of stuff they have coming at them, and the skills they are using are just not adequate.

In general, the productivity of the average professional is lower than that of their counterpart in the U.S. It isn’t even the case that people work harder in the U.S. — although they do work longer hours in general. I attribute the difference to a lack of role models to demonstrate good habits more than anything else.

I really do believe it just comes down to a skill difference, and that can easily be overcome with the right training, coaching and mentoring.