How Examining Core Assumptions Can Save Your Company


Why do disruptions drive companies out of business? While it’s easy to blame “innovative technology” or “tough competitors”, most firms hurt themselves by not following early warning signs which challenge core assumptions. Jamaican firms are particularly vulnerable.

Why? As mentioned in prior articles, our companies are overly leader-centric. While this is sometimes a benefit, it’s more often a weakness, especially when the big boss is the sole strategic planner. In such firms there are no real, bottom-up planning retreats – just ad-hoc announcements of the leader’s intent.

While the downsides of this approach are easy to imagine, specific blind spots are hard to detect.

For example, when I lived abroad I used to be a customer of Kodak, Blockbuster, and Blackberry. These were all dominant players, but today, it’s hard to find a trace of these firms or their products. When their industries were disrupted, they just disappeared.

While some point fingers at their aggressive competitors, that’s only a part of the story. In retrospect, they could have anticipated the changes that eventually wiped them out. Their blind spots prevented them from noticing what was happening.

This may be taking place in your industry, to your company.

Fortunately, research shows that in each firm there are usually a few mavericks who see such disruptions coming quite clearly. However, their insights often make little difference. They aren’t invited to retreats, sit-downs with the CEO or board meetings. Without their input, companies fail to see their blind-spots, and don’t tackle underlying business assumptions which are slow-moving, but inexorable. If your company is vulnerable to this mistake, here is an approach which will reduce the risk.

  1. Uncover Core Assumptions

Conduct an exercise in your next retreat to make a list of assumptions that are tightly held, but are not being discussed. They should be pre-requisites for your current strategy to succeed.

Unfortunately, there is no static set of assumptions sitting in an MBA textbook waiting to be copied. You will get better results if you allow your team to flounder as it struggles to uncover them.

I often suggest that teams find companies in their industry worldwide which are using the latest disruptive technology or business model. Look for the ones showing some early success.

Then, conduct a quick poll of your middle managers. Ask “Until what year is our company safe from this particular disruption?” Use the responses to see whether or not there is a wide range of opinions.

Now, perform the same survey, but restrict it to attendees at the last strategic planning retreat. If you don’t find consensus, question the validity of all your firm’s current plans. Furthermore, if your company is leader-centric, and has never conducted a real, participatory retreat, you should be even more concerned. You may be facing a battle for the future.

Use the answers to these questions to come up with a timeline, carrying forward either the average or the median year for planning purposes.

  1. Agree Upon the Timing

Conduct an open discussion with the help of a neutral facilitator, asking: “How will the events leading up to this disruption, according to this timeline, play out?” Allow the sparks to fly as different assumptions arise.

It may be a contentious affair, but it’s better to have this conversation now, when the stakes are low. Even if you fail to achieve perfect agreement due to a lack of data, the disparity in viewpoints will point to the need for a further step.

  1. Name Someone to Monitor or Track Assumptions

If your firm faces a complex set of data, don’t rely on “buck up” methods. Appoint someone with the right background to scan the horizon for breaking information. Better yet, give him/her a budget to do proper research. Empower the individual to sound an alarm as soon as a shift is detected in the data they are collecting.

In other words, look for the early indicators that your intended strategy or business model is in danger of failing. And do whatever it takes to bring this data to the planning team so they can do a rethink. After all, they are the ones who developed the original hypotheses and are in the best position to determine the size of the correction that’s needed.

Following these steps should give you the kind of early warning signs that your strategy and/or business model are likely to fail. It’s not necessarily bad news – just an indication that swift action is required.

This is especially true in leader-centric firms which have relied on the instincts of a single, stubborn individual. Help these strong bosses recognize that their original brilliance needs a dramatic, team-based upgrade if the company is to survive a potentially disruptive future.




On Making Workers Matter


In my line of work, I meet lots of employees who aren’t sure they matter. Logically, they say they should be valuable due to their role, background, responsibilities, pay, etc. Yet, in terms of their emotional experience, they draw a disturbing blank.

It’s no surprise.

For the most part, our society reserves overt acknowledgement for funerals. However, before then, we try to be careful not to “spoil” people with too much praise. “After all”, we argue, “we don’t want it to go their heads.”

While we are busy protecting them from this imaginary affliction, we rob staff of essential facts. They never know whether or not they matter: their presence, performance, attitude, body language, dress, etc. And in the void, they assume the absolute worst.

The Default – “I Don’t Matter”

Slavery relied on the forced acceptance of a lie.  Workers were sub-human, and owners acted to “de-matter” them daily.

Arguably, Jamaica’s history is driven by challenges to this rank, outrageous falsehood. Consider the labor strikes led by protagonists ranging from Sam Sharpe in 1831 to Alexander Bustamante a century later. These protests to overturn the de-mattering of people’s work were powerful enough to catalyse self-rule and independence.

Today, de-mattering continues, according to Dr. Kenneth Carter, author of “Why Workers Won’t Work – A Case Study of Jamaica”. Some 65% of employees consider their jobs to be unimportant in relation to the objectives of their organization. Also, 80% of workers report that they are rarely consulted about changes that affect their work.

Most leaders severely underestimate the depth of this sentiment. As a result, they treat subordinates just as they would their management colleagues, arguing “Those people know they matter.” Why does this mistake happen, based on Carter’s research?

The Challenge – New Supervisory Amnesia

Studies show that employees and managers alike give the same high priority to human morale factors: recognition, appreciation, feeling involved, promotion and growth. However, a switch occurs when someone is promoted to become a first-time supervisor.

Now, suddenly, the individual reports a change: workers (i.e. their former colleagues) only want tangible wages, fringe benefits and job security.

How and why this shift happens may be debated, but this new mindset is a definite downgrade. As it occurs, workers are de-humanized and de-mattered. Instead of friendly peers, comrades-in-arms or fellow strugglers, they become the opposition, merely assets or resources.

Furthermore, if you are a new manager, there is a benefit: de-mattering lets you off the hook, relieving you of the obligation to motivate employees.  After all, if there’s no money to give “dem people” what they really want, then you are powerless to make a difference.

Unfortunately, as pervasive as this mindset appears to be, I’m unaware of any training that makes use of this finding. De-mattering is never distinguished as the blight it is on the mindsets of new managers, so it continues to shape behavior, albeit in the background.

The Answer – New Skills

However, there are the exceptions.

The most effective leaders in all spheres of life go out of their way to interact with their people in ways that produce a feeling of “mattering”.

Some hug and kiss their employees or followers. They spend quality time with them, sharing personal details while asking about their families. A handful excels at remembering faces, names, and personal anecdotes. This rare skill gives others the impression of being connected, even after only a brief introduction. (Some use social media to cement this technique.)

Others apply honorifics: “Mr. Plumber”, “Boss-Lady”, “Run Tings”, “Super” or “Captain.” This Jamaican habit is a way of letting ordinary people know they matter. It broadcasts their importance publicly.

Finally, a few give “Brawta” –  inexpensive, thoughtful extras which build relationships beyond transactions. For example, I make a point to encourage clients to be bold in making additional requests of me. I explain that we don’t charge them by the half-hour like lawyers, so added time (within reason) doesn’t create a fresh bill.

Although these are individual tactics which don’t work for everyone, they all have the same effect: they leave other people with a feeling of mattering. The answer for you, a manager, isn’t to copy them blindly but to ask the following questions.

What can I do to grant the experience of mattering to others in my company? What experiments could I try to produce this effect? What personal habits do I need to eliminate which frequently de-matter others?

Don’t be like the majority who under-estimate their power. Compared to other cultures I have worked in, Jamaica is a highly leader-centric society. (It’s a feature expatriates notice quickly.)

The fact that you are being scrutinized grants you an opportunity to alter the way people see themselves. Use it wisely to empower and engage staff by using your daily actions to show people they matter.


Why IT Needs to Produce Chief Transformation Officers


Why is the average Jamaican company stuck in a rut, 5-20 years behind the best global firms? It’s partly because their IT professionals are locked into junior levels in their companies, unable (and incapable) of adding the value needed at the Executive Level.

Product development. Employee engagement. Customer service. Business process improvement. New prospect acquisition.

This is just a short list of the activities which are changing faster than managers of these areas can track. As a result, there’s a growing gap between their departments and those found in best-in-class companies.

Arguably, this is one reason why Cable and Wireless lost control of the mobile market, dropping from a 100% share to less than 50% in just a few years. My podcast interview with Steve Toomey (a former leader in their cellular unit who tried to warn others) reveals that key managers were overly focused on their day-to-day jobs. The busier they became in routine concerns, the further the firm slipped behind, and into trouble.

Individually, they lost the script. Collectively, the company incurred a disaster it still hasn’t recovered from almost two decades later.

What should your firm do to make sure it stays abreast of disruptive technologies in all areas? In most companies, people immediately think of the role of the IT unit. They are the most tech savvy, after all, and Chief Information/Technology Officers should be taking care of these matters. Presumably, they can fit these high-level concerns between hours spent fixing laptops, adjusting printers and resetting passwords.

They can’t. For any number of reasons, most IT Professionals aren’t providing the leadership companies need. Here are some ways to solve the problem.

Fix #1 – Appoint a Chief Transformation Officer (CTO) Armed with Emotional Intelligence

These technologists a rare breed. They have spent hours developing their interpersonal and change management skills, possessing an ability to take projects from concept to completion in agile sprints.

However, their role is more than that of a highly skilled executioner. As strategists, they must help create a culture which tracks every single technology the company can use to transform itself. As such, they can sit down with the board, HR, Operations or Marketing and lay out the future unfolding in industries, organizations, and pertinent functions.

They should help colleagues see the big, global forces which are independent of any company or country. Strong CTO’s go past mere technology and study demographic trends, among others.

This isn’t altogether new. Historically, board members have played a similar role. However, the pace of change combined with their high average age puts them at a significant disadvantage. They need a CTO to translate the emerging world for them.

Fix #2 – Create a Strategic Road-Map

Many successful companies in Jamaica were launched according to a simple formula. A new way of doing business perfected in a developed country was introduced to the island by a foreign company or a returning citizen. The entrepreneur gave birth to a fresh method or technology, successfully implementing the idea within Jamaican culture.

This formula allowed them to leapfrog over older, more established competitors who were unable to react. For example, imagine the first company to bring automobiles to Jamaica. The providers of transportation at the time (i.e. horse and buggies, tram-cars) were inevitably displaced.

Fortunately, your company can take a shortcut. Instead of waiting for a sharp competitor to reveal itself,  empower a CTO. This professional can seek out these changes and help each functional area develop its own 10-20 year road-map. Truth be told, the path to follow already exists in other countries.

For example, a VP of Human Resources must be able to predict what employee engagement will look like in the future. He/she should also understand what happens if a competitor solves this problem first.

Fix #3 – Carve Out Time

Foolishly, many CEO’s simply throw the role of CTO to someone who is already busy. Furthermore, they’ll expect their managers to develop these futuristic skills on their own time, in the “spare moments” between their daily responsibilities.

This approach never works.

Instead, they should use techniques like time-blocking on an individual and group level to dedicate the hours needed. This is just one powerful method executives need to raise the priority of this activity to its game-changing, company-protecting status.

After all, it’s only a matter of time before an entrant armed with new technology enters your industry and disrupts everything. Don’t sit back and watch. Prepare your company now by putting in place the right technologist, at the right level, with the right skills.

How to Forge a Breakthrough Using Cockpit-Quality Communication


After you spend precious time fixing a basic issue of miscommunication, how do you prevent it from recurring? Try borrowing the high standard of dialog used in the aviation industry.

Mistakes take place between executives, managers and staff every day. For example, after a chat with a colleague, you think she understands what you are asking for, only to discover (after the fact) that you were on different pages. The miscue retards progress, dashes expectations, and ruins deadlines.

You can prevent these problems by employing the high-performance communication used by pilots to keep airplanes from crashing.

Cockpit-Quality Communication

Experts have known for some time that most air accidents result from human error. Among the causes are poor-quality conversations between members of the cockpit. For example, flight data recorders show that junior officers frequently defer to their seniors, tempting them into withholding critical requests. To overcome the same kind of “humble” deference we Jamaicans value and practice every day, these aviators must be specially trained. They learn techniques for speaking and listening that overrides their cultural programming. These lessons ultimately translate into better safety.

While, as a manager, you may not be in the business of saving lives, the quality of communication in your firm is enough to separate profits from losses. How can you be proactive to overcome the deference, withholding and confusion that ruins your organization’s culture? One approach is to implement “Razor-Sharp Requests” and “Solid Promises.”

This kind of interaction was first introduced by John Searle, author of “Speech Acts”. He linked conversations with action, talking with doing, in an easy-to-learn way. When firms enact his principles in daily discussions via meetings and email, breakthroughs occur.

Razor-Sharp Requests

In essence, Searle discovered that successful conversations which lead to effective action follow a set process. They start with a spoken or written request, the kind that’s intended to elicit the completion of a task by another. You probably initiate many each day.

Unfortunately, for historical reasons, we Jamaicans frequently make obtuse requests. Whether you blame British colonialism or our history of slavery, the result is the same: we feel as if we’re being rude, brash and “out of order” when we ask for what we want in a manner that’s blunt, clear and direct. To overcome our internal unease, we introduce a lot of noise – unnecessary embellishments and vague hints. While we may think we’re being polite, we actually obscure matters.

However, there’s good news. When stripped to its essentials, all requests are alike.  They are 1) made to another individual, 2) always describe a task, 3) include a deadline, and 4) imply a “condition of satisfaction”, a clear definition of success.

For example: “As a reader of this newspaper column, I ask that you download a copy of my past articles by following the instructions below… within an hour of reading these words.” It’s brash, but transparent.

Now imagine training staff to make such requests in every direction, especially up the chain of command. It could reduce time spent wasted in meetings and on email.

Solid Promises

While you may think you are good at asking for what you want, the proof of the pudding is revealed by your recipient’s response, which should occur in the following three ways.

– Reply #1 is a clear “Yes”, matched by non-verbal behavior.

– Reply #2 is a “No”, or a half-hearted/reluctant response.

– Reply #3 is a counter-offer by the respondent, asking you (the initiator) to accept a variation of your original request. Examples include a change in the task, due date or condition of satisfaction which leads to a new agreement.

Everything else apart from these solid promises is just more noise. Indulging them obscures understanding and fosters errors.

Unfortunately, some Jamaican managers mistakenly believe that once they make a clear request of a subordinate, it must be accepted. They neither listen for one of the above three replies nor notice non-verbal signals.

This habit gets them in trouble, especially when coupled with wishful, optimistic thinking. Their lack of skill leads to the recipient either executing the wrong task or failing to respond altogether.

Multiply these errors across the company’s ranks and the result is a culture of talk, but little action.

Competency Development

The good news is your company can easily attain Cockpit-Quality Communication. When I joined an organization steeped in these methods, I felt clumsy at first. However, I soon learned to look for it in every meeting, coaching discussion or feedback session I attended.

In high-stakes occupations such as aviation and surgery, such “conversations for action” are a must. The cost of not using the technique is simply catastrophic. In like manner, if you are serious about achieving top results, adopt a blend of quality requests and promises to realize your company’s goals.

Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2017, send email to

How CEO’s Optimize Their Time Budgets


If you are a top executive, you face a unique challenge: The weekly demands on your time regularly outstrip 168 hours. Yet, as you know, most CEO’s receive little formal training in time management on their journey to the C-Suite. Fortunately, new research can help close this gap.

Harvard’s Michael Porter and Nitin Nohria recently published the results of a multi-year study of CEO time usage. Their findings can help you allocate time more efficiently, even despite variations by industry, nationality, and tenure.

Four Major Findings

  1. CEO’s schedule a whopping 75% of their working hours. Most of their day is occupied with meetings, translating into precious little time spent alone in blocks of uninterrupted time. Recommended: use your calendar as a tool to carve out quality solo efforts.
  2. CEO’s work, on average, 62.5 hours per week, which include 3.9 hours per day on weekends, and 2.4 hours per day on vacations. They also spend about half their non-working, awake time with family. For many, this pace isn’t sustainable. Given their long days (9.7 hours per weekday) they must be strict to meet their own minimum standards. Recommended: Follow a set schedule on both off-hours, and off-days. Include time-slots to do “nothing.”
  3. CEO’s spend some 43% of their time on their core agenda, and the rest on routine items or unplanned surprises. Recommended: Use your administrative assistant as your partner to ensure that your schedule continually reflects your priorities.
  4. On average, few CEO’s track their time. Sadly, they have no idea how they’re really doing against these average numbers. While they know much about their financial budget, its time equivalent remains a mystery or at best, a vague gut feeling. Recommended: Commit yourself to this commonsense habit, via the use of suitable tracking software.

The CEO’s Two Social Problems

However, applying the researchers’ recommendations isn’t enough. Every CEO I have met faces two ripe areas for improvement which are difficult to tackle: They spend too much of their precious time processing email and attending meetings. Fortunately, these twin problems have a common root.

Case 1: The CEO who replies to every email within five minutes may seem, at first blush, to be “on top of things”. To wiser heads, it’s a clear sign that he’s doing little else but playing an elaborate, wasteful game of email ping pong.

Case 2: The CEO who avoids calling meetings, may think she’s making the most of her time by working on tough problems behind a closed door. However, her lack of communication leaves people guessing about her true priorities, causing a level of infighting she pointedly ignores.

Both of these practices are typically hard to solve. Anyone who has rolled their eyes while suffering through a pointless meeting or email message knows the feeling. The demand on your psyche it creates slowly creeps up, robbing you blind of time and energy. Before you realize it, you have become trapped in a sticky web of social waste.

Furthermore, this all takes place on an open stage. People watch what executives do in meetings and email for hidden cues as to their true, unspoken intentions. As such, they represent far more than personal logistical challenges. They are public performances undertaken by actors who are mostly unaware of their platform. It’s why their unwitting, mixed signals quickly become other people’s marching orders.

Where is the escape?

Launch Improvement Projects

Fact: The average employee spends two hours per day processing email. She also devotes four hours per week preparing for status updates meetings, 67% of which are failures.

However, individual employees who try to solve email or meeting problems frequently fail. There’s just not much a person can do on his/her own if they are part of a wider culture.

Fortunately, the CEO is in a unique place. As the sole person who unifies all employees, he is in a position to affect this kind of change. Therefore, a CEO who fails to launch campaigns to improve these twin evils is allowing productivity to erode.

While specific causes and remedies to these two complex challenges are beyond the scope of this article, there’s a mindset every CEO can initiate immediately. It starts by declaring the truth about this rampant loss of productivity. It continues by creating a series of company-wide games to “Achieve the same results, using far fewer emails and less meeting time.”

As the CEO, if you engage a critical mass of your staff in such a goal, it should provide an immediate, positive impact on your time usage. Instead of losing steam in email and meetings, you should be able to create more long blocks of solo, creative problem-solving, plus more time with your family. This should be a welcome start, but it requires all employees to cut away the wasted time and effort inherent in these two practices.

Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2017, send email to

How to Scale Up a New Innovation


Sometimes, good ideas for new products and services include the seeds of their own destruction. How can this problem be discovered and prevented, thereby ensuring the success of your latest, greatest idea?

As a company innovator you are excited. Your original concept has taken off with higher-than-expected sales or conversions. Customers are buying because you uncovered an unmet need before anyone else.

While congratulations are in order, it’s also a dangerous moment because you are entering uncharted waters filled with new obstacles.

They are not coincidental. Your success has bred them. Being ready for them takes real ingenuity, and you must use your imagination to deal with this unique situation. Here is a useful framework.

The Five-Part Model

The Balanced Scorecard is built on the notion that a company’s strategy can be viewed through four distinct perspectives: Financial, Customer, Process and People. While your firm is actually an interconnected
whole, there’s value in viewing it in-depth from these separate angles.

In addition, the PESTER Model offers a fifth “External” perspective. It’s shorthand for Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental and Regulatory/Legal forces which affect every company.

Here’s a way for your planners to use all five dimensions to examine your company’s existing state, and future dangers.

Step 1 – Create a current day snapshot

Together the team develops a joint view of the performance of the business via the five perspectives. This involves far more than looking at a few numbers. It means finding the drivers of today’s successes and failures in a group discussion which includes every stakeholder.

While it’s a challenge to bring all members of your team to common agreement, the effort is necessary for subsequent steps and shouldn’t be rushed. In both technical and emotional dimensions, there must be a meeting
of the minds.

Tip: use layman’s language.

Step 2 – Simulate Future Growth Scenarios

Here, you imagine different kinds of success. For example, contrast hyper and moderate sales increases and their impact. What if the market were to grow in response to your product as it did when Digicel first offered mobile phone service?

As you detail these scenarios find one you are most willing to realize. Then, carefully assign it a future year which takes you just beyond the moment when the current burst of sales is projected to end.

Step 3 – Look for Hurdles in the 5 Dimensions

Now for the creative part. As customers respond where is your system likely to fail first within the five perspectives?

– Financial: Will cash-flow problems develop? Many companies who experience rapid growth wind up with high receivables that run them straight into bankruptcy.

– Customer: Can success bring new competitors into the market offering fresh discounts or features?

– Process: Where would you run into a lack of capacity? Will ad hoc processes begin to break down once volumes increase? The fact is, most new products and services are developed by small, informal teams. They work well in the early days, putting in extra hours at little cost to them and their families. It’s a sacrifice that’s not sustainable.

– People: Where will you see a lack of talent? To develop the initial offering, you probably used well qualified, trusted individuals with a depth of experience. Now, to match new sales volumes, you must hire from the second and third tiers. By definition, they aren’t as productive and need to be trained.

– External: In a highly regulated industry, is it likely that the regulatory rules may change in response to your product? Could the authorities react by limiting the market, reducing your profit-making potential?

While taking these five perspectives are a beginning, my experience tells me that the most difficult topic to discuss is that of leadership. Founders, CEO’s and Chairpersons are often reluctant to craft plans for succession, putting off such uncomfortable issues for others to suffer through. They neither train their replacements, nor make provisions for catastrophes which may render them unable to lead.

There’s also an unwillingness for companies which belong to conglomerates to consider changes driven by their ownership. It’s easy to overlook the fact that in these groups, other people can decide to use a company’s profits (or surpluses in the public sector.) The owners, in the absence of compelling counter-arguments, may simply choose to invest elsewhere, pay dividends or reimburse the group office for the original risk.

Companies which don’t properly consider all these factors expose themselves to rude surprises, thereby jeopardising the enterprise. Fortunately, it’s not expensive to make plans to meet these challenges – they
represent a critical investment that’s well worth the value.





How New Managers Prevent Email Overwhelm


When the excitement of a promotion wears off, newly elevated managers sometimes struggle. Often, they blame their new responsibilities, but this limited view dooms them to failure. Instead, success comes from expanding specific skills which were once suitable but are now inadequate.

Email is a case in point. All of a sudden, as a newly promoted manager, you need to stay late or work on weekends just to keep up with a mountain of discussion threads. When you don’t stay on top of them all, your competence and readiness are quietly questioned.

Given the fact that email takes up 20% of the average manager’s day, the sad truth is that you weren’t trained to analyse your email practices with a view to making improvements. Today, the prevailing notion is that you can learn just as fast as Millennials. They change apps faster than they change their clothing.

However, even these twenty-somethings struggle when they experience a boom in email volume. Like everyone else, they blame their circumstances, a grave mistake.

It leads companies to launch projects to cut the number of messages people are receiving. Unfortunately, this rarely makes a difference as two recent, counter-intuitive studies explain: overwhelm isn’t caused by the number of messages we receive.

The first research, by Mary Czerwinski and her team at Microsoft show that the more time you spend checking messages, the less productive and more stressed you feel. Some firms have noticed this effect, leading them to curtail email in favour of other channels such as Instant Messaging or Whatsapp.

The second study shows why these efforts are in vain.

A paper by Victoria Bellotti and her XEROX research colleagues shows that it’s not the volume of email that makes us anxious and ineffective, but the number of unresolved tasks that are buried in these messages.  For example, if you routinely receive 1000 messages per day and a high percentage are newsletters or spam which require no action on your part, your peace of mind isn’t affected. On the other hand, if you receive five high-impact emails per day which spur 30 new tasks, you are more likely to feel pressured.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the Zeigarnik Effect: the mental weight of these incomplete tasks. You can’t complete them all at once – that would be impossible to do as a newly promoted manager. Instead, you must manage them effectively, thereby relieving your subconscious mind of its role as Reminder-in-Chief, disrupting sleep, conversations, and quiet moments of prayer or meditation.

How do you take care of these unwanted disruptions, keep your peace of mind and avoid overwhelm in your new position?

  1. Handle email as an all-out sprint

In this paradigm, you must think of email differently. Instead of fitting it in between meetings or other activities at your leisure, do the opposite. Schedule two or three times each day to get through your Inbox as fast as possible in standalone, focused efforts. These sprints need total concentration. Execute them ruthlessly, punting protracted responses until later – you are in “emptying mode”, not “execution mode”.

This is also no space for distractions. Cut them all out and ignore the smartphone. Treat this time slot as the single most important recurring activity you perform each day that should only be interrupted if there’s a bonafide emergency.

  1. Get your own training

Unfortunately, few Human Resource departments are bastions of high tech efficiency. Most have little to do with employee productivity in its modern sense and therefore don’t offer new managers the kind of training required to manage email overwhelm.

On your own, cobble together the fresh skills you need, using a combination of resources such my past columns.

  1. Manage other people’s deliverables as your own

Complicated email threads involving several people, plus weeks of going back and forth, reveal that you are totally dependent on others to do their part. Unfortunately, some of them can’t be trusted.

While most new managers continue to store email in their Inbox, highlighting important ones for later, you shouldn’t. Eventually, you will be buried by unresolved tasks which require a follow-up, but get lost in these threads.

Instead, you must strip out these tasks and manage them elsewhere. This usually means picking up a task management software and learning the self-taught behaviours required to make them work.

The good news is that if you follow these prescriptions, your subconscious mind may reward you. Its endless pinging should stop and overwhelm will disappear.

But be vigilant: your next promotion may cause you to revisit all your methods just to maintain your peace of mind. Consider it to be the price of success in the modern workplace.

How to Prevent Biased Interviews


What’s wrong with holding interviews? Plenty, it turns out. Most companies rely on a series of informal chats with several prospects that ends with a hiring decision. However, there’s strong evidence that this approach needs to be retired in favour of better techniques proven by scientific research.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell.

Interviews are filled with biases. In North America, studies have shown that during the average unstructured interview, the person hired is more likely to be tall, slim, good looking and speak in a deep voice. According to psychologists like Dr. Ron Friedman:

– Tall people tend to be evaluated as having better leadership skills. Decades of research show a relationship between height and salary at every age.

– Hiring professionals shown a picture of a heavy-set woman are more likely to describe her as lazy than other women by 21%.

– Good-looking people are thought to be more competent, intelligent and qualified.

– People with deeper voices are thought to have greater strength, integrity, and trustworthiness.

Here in Jamaica, it’s likely that skin colour, perceived class, and speech patterns are also invisible determinants. It probably helps to have browner skin, Upper St. Andrew pedigree and all the H’s properly pronounced.

Apparently, this judgement takes place in the first ten seconds of a conversation. The interviewer instantly decides what kind of person he/she is dealing with and slightly alters the questions accordingly. This isn’t random but an unconscious, powerful effort to confirm some initial, unwitting bias.

A few disagree, arguing that they are entirely fair and non-judgemental: their gut instincts and intuition are impeccable. They even share anecdotes which prove their superiority. This article is not for them. It’s for the rest of us who suspect that hidden tendencies are always embedded in interviews, requiring us to find provably better techniques.

If You Are the Interviewer

Here is a simple improvement to make: ask each person the same set of questions.

Another quick one is to phrase queries in specific terms that relate to actual events versus general what-if’s. For example, discard questions like “Share what you would do if you came across a difficult customer”. Instead, use the simpler “Tell me about a time you dealt with a difficult customer.” Unfortunately, research shows that 81% of people lie during interviews in their attempts to appear impressive. This technique is a great separator of future fantasy from factual, past-based reality.

However, the best approach is to treat the entire affair as an audition. In other words, find ways for interviewees to demonstrate their abilities in real time. It’s the ideal way to compare actual performance in critical skills with other prospects.

For example, musicians trying to join an orchestra or band should play a given piece on their instrument. Draftees in NFL and NBA try-outs (known as “Combines”) actually perform physical drills on the field.

In the corporate world, Google and other tech companies ask prospects to write code. McKinsey & Co. famously poses an unstructured problem for the prospect to reveal their best methods. Some companies require individuals to work alongside a team for a day. Other firms prompt them for solutions to case studies relevant to actual projects.

If you find yourself unable to craft such interviews, try using audio and videotape recordings. Ask each prospect to perform a typical task. Then, review the recording as a team to undertake an impartial comparison.

Unfortunately, most companies don’t bother. The creative challenge is too much, so they use no more than a nebulous test: “If mi spirit tek to dem or not.”

If You Are the Interviewee

On the other side of the table, you can turn the conversation into more of an audition.

Start by being prepared to show them your intentions. With whatever information you have, walk in with a mid-term plan of action to address the key issues.

As you share your plan, and its underlying assumptions, ask the interviewers to correct your data and add new facts. Use clarifying questions to uncover the true meaning, then adjust your plan in the moment based on this new input. Doing so reveals the flexible approach you take to solving difficult problems using scarce data. It’s as if they are looking over the shoulder of a composer masterfully creating a new melody.

In this way, you transform the conversation from a pre-prejudiced chat into a real-time, problem-solving session.  Plus, you learn something about your new manager’s level of expertise, engagement and EQ.

As you may imagine, in such a scenario, both sides win. The biased, old-style interview is replaced by an experience which produces fresh information everyone needs.


Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2017, send email to



When Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals Produce Poor Performance


If you lead an organization you may have asked yourself: what is the effect of setting big goals? Most leaders know that such objectives can be empowering in some circumstances but produce the opposite result in others. If so, some recent research might help the next time you sit down with a subordinate to set performance targets.

The management bestseller “Built to Last” by James Collins and Jerry Porras coined a phrase that is now used widely: BHAG, a “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal.”

Most Jamaican executives have heard the term in the past and try to use stretch goals to awaken their organization from stale, static patterns. Once enlivened, breakthroughs become possible.

As a result, managers who have accepted the idea, encourage employees to commit to difficult goals.

Some push hard, using the force of their personality to get direct reports to acquiesce. Sales managers, for example, try to inspire their people to leave their comfort zones to accomplish big revenue targets, sometimes refusing to take “No” for an answer. Their occasional success leads them to repeat the tactic as often as they can, especially with fresh recruits.

However, new studies show that there are actually two different kinds of goals which should be set. Gary Latham from the University of Toronto has studied the question for the past three decades, concluding that it’s easy to set goals which end up doing more harm than good. Here are the strategies he recommends to avoid this problem.

Strategy 1 – Create targets which are not too hard, but not too easy
Scientists call it the Goldilocks Effect. The most effective goals need to be challenging enough to get someone’s attention, but not so difficult that they believe it’s impossible and therefore give up. Leaders must calibrate targets carefully.
For example, in the 1930’s, Manley and Bustamante didn’t immediately strive for the objective of complete independence. While they probably saw it as the ultimate objective, they took their time. The Jamaican people were shepherded through a long struggle which started with earning the right to form trade unions. It continued through the formation of political parties and the fight for Universal Adult Suffrage which eventually led to self-rule.
In retrospect, their strategy of taking one step at a time was probably best. It’s a lesson for all managers who want employees to produce extraordinary results, and it happens to be supported by empirical research. Don’t ask for “too much, too soon” or its opposite: “too little, too late”.

Strategy 2 – Distinguish outcomes from learning
In Latham’s work, he further distinguishes between “outcome targets” and “learning goals”. The former relate to end-results, such as a salesperson’s total sales per month. They are easy to understand and define because in the end, measurable accomplishment counts the most in any business.
However, managers are not usually aware of his major finding: outcome targets are only suitable for employees who have mastered their jobs.
By contrast, most employees are still developing critical abilities. His research recommends a different approach for this cohort: the use of “learning goals.” These are defined as targets which are linked to the acquisition of new knowledge or skills. They focus employees on “discovering, mastering, or implementing effective strategies, processes, or procedures necessary to perform a task.”
For example, new salespeople barely understand their product, the market, or required sales tactics. They should concentrate on setting learning goals related to mastering the fundamentals of their specific craft.
Latham’s work shows that managers who fail to make the distinction court failure, producing frustration and anxiety. In the worst case, people end up blaming themselves, then quitting, experiencing a drop in self-esteem. They have no idea that their manager should have explored an alternative.

Strategy 3 – Shifting Expectations
The above finding indicates a level of nuance most organizations don’t realize. Instead, those who employ salespeople often kick off the year with over-the-top “Rah Rah” sessions. They are entertaining but do little more than produce hype.
What’s a better choice if you are a manager? Skip the use of such blunt, short-term instruments, and train yourself to understand the two different kinds of targets. With this skill, you can set learning goals, look for the early warning signs of employee maturity, then shift your approach to targeting outcomes at just the right moment.
If you commit yourself to developing these surgical skills, you won’t get stuck on the one-size-fits-all thinking which permeates companies and demotivates employees. Instead, it may be the key to moving each of your direct reports to higher levels of performance.

Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2017, send email to

Why employees need the power to say no


This week, I created a video summary of the column.




Should an employee be granted the right to turn down a manager’s request to focus on a given task, thereby dropping everything else? And is it better to have a reporting relationship based on obedience or its opposite: independent choice? While there are no easy answers, the times are changing and so must leaders in your company.


Fortunately, managers who believe that their job is to do all the thinking while employees solely follow instructions are becoming rare. Yet, when the pressure is on, many managers become bossy. In the heat of the moment they give orders, and expect them to be followed without question. Resorting to anger they issue threats, stirring up fear in the hearts of others.

The worst rely on this tactic exclusively. Better managers initially start off being nice then turn into monsters later, arguing that people take advantage of the softer approach and therefore deserve this treatment.

They point to their personal experience as proof, which science supports. However, studies also show that this dominating technique has severe limits. While it gets action started, should it be a manager’s preferred tactic?


New research demonstrates otherwise.


A recent study led by Rom Schrift at the University of Pennsylvania shows that experimental subjects persisted longer in a task when they had the option to say “No.” It revealed that when they were granted a degree of autonomy, they performed better than others who weren’t given the same choice.

If you are a manager, it’s not hard to see why. In general, intrinsic motivation is a far better tool than its counterpart. In other words, you must give employees the option of saying “No” if you want them to perform at their best, especially if the task at hand involves more than a quick, physical action.

Let’s consider the extreme: what about the person at the bottom of your pyramid who is a simple laborer? I invite you to question your assumptions around this example from three angles.

  1. Should simple workers be in your firm at all?

A contractor once shared with me that his industry is the only one in which a convict can leave prison today, and tomorrow be hired to take orders on an active construction site. The consequence? Poor quality work, indiscipline, random departures and theft.

While this tactic guarantees a low wage bill, it simultaneously creates greater problems.

Unfortunately, this mindset of hiring “mere” workers pervades companies of all kinds.

Try a different one: even the simplest role expands in complexity when the person who performs it has some autonomy to produce superior results. Therefore, all potential hires have the capacity to make up their own minds, becoming better contributors over time.

Armed with this mindset, abolish the notion of a “simple” laborer.

  1. Should employees be calendar-trained?

Too many managers try to be omnipotent, believing that they can keep track of every employee’s calendar. In other words, they don’t trust staff to prioritize their work without being directed.

The solution isn’t to make an effort to become omniscient. Instead, managers need to train their workers to use better time management skills so that their calendar actually reflects the work they are doing from one hour to the next.

In habitual practice, the opposite is true. Most smartphone calendars are only used to track people’s appointments. All other tasks are left to memory – a sign of weak skills.

By contrast, employees with superior abilities are always looking at real-life trade-offs between activities. To make these difficult decisions, they realize they must use their calendar as a point of coordination. As such, their “No” is a reflection of a tough call, rather than a whim.

  1. Should managers be retrained?

As a manager, it’s tempting to jump in, give orders and negate your employee’s choices. Instead, when the impulse hits, restrain yourself. Have a conversation that looks more like an inquiry into priorities, than a demand for immediate obedience.

Why is this important?

Here in the Caribbean, our workers are sensitive: highly reactive to small slights which they take personally. The sad reality is that it only takes a single, harsh interaction to demote a newly hired eager-beaver. In the quint of an eye, they join the ranks of other sullen victims who only go through the motions. This coping mechanism got us through slavery, and the fact that it won’t change soon means that managers must un-learn the habit of routinely negating an employee’s “No.”

These three recommendations have a magical benefit: they grant employees the opportunity to say “No” in a way that keeps them motivated and productive. Take this power away and you risk miring your company in mediocrity.


Francis Wade is the author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, a keynote speaker and a management consultant. Missed a column? To receive a free download with articles from 2010-2017, send email to
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