I’ll Give You 30 Minutes Back in Your Day With Just Two Mouse Clicks

October 30, 2008

You’ve got Outlook (or some other mail program) open, right?

Click File. Click Exit.

Now go and get some work done. Don’t reopen Outlook for at least three hours. Lather, rinse, repeat.


Context switching is expensive for an operating system: service one program for a bit, save its state, restore the state of a second program — oh, wait, that driver is requesting service, so put everything else on hold for a moment….

Context switching is even more expensive for a human being.

You rarely have to be on email. You’re addicted to it; many of us are.

Wean yourself. Start by turning off the new-mail sound and cursor flash. Then turn off the “toasts” (blue ghosties) that fade in and out of the bottom corner of the screen.

As a next step, put your mail program behind your other windows. Try it for 30 minutes, then for an hour, then for three hours.

If the world hasn’t ended, go for the big step — shut down your mail program.

Want to talk with someone on your hall? Get up and walk to their office. Or pick up the phone. Or simply hold your question for a bit.

I guarantee you’ll get more done. You’ll even feel better about your day, less stressed and rushed, once you get over the awful feeling that the world is going by without you.

It mostly goes by without you anyway. Email is just the illusion of control, of being in the center of things.


The great benefit of Email from the start was its asynchronous nature.

The phone interrupts. Email waits patiently until you are ready.

At least that’s the way it was designed. Do you really want to turn Email into call-waiting? (“I don’t know who’s calling, but they’re more important than you are, which is why I’m putting you on hold to see who it is.”)


What do you do with those 30+ minutes?

You can think. Put in concentrated time on a project. Really analyze a spreadsheet or report. Understand the invariably bogus statistics behind the substitute metrics in your scorecard. Learn more about the industry you’re a part of. Actually talk with your team and your peers. Take a walk. Go home early; play your guitar or play with the kids.

Or how about this: you work about 240 days a year, give or take. Gain 30 minutes a day, and that’s three full weeks a year. What would you give for three extra weeks vacation?

Three extra weeks of vacation without having to move to Europe. Two clicks.

Of course, you have to take that vacation half an hour at a time; on the other hand, you get a bit of vacation every day.

Now it’s time to go play with my kids. I’ll check Email after they go to bed… but not until then.

  — Steve

(After I wrote but before I posted this, the NYTimes published an article about the difficulty of human multitasking.)


Exploring Management Conference

October 24, 2008

Yesterday I had the honor of serving once again as “table coach” for five sessions at the Exploring Management Conference. (A table coach sits at a large table and leads a discussion on a given topic for about 20 minutes; then the attendees change tables and you do it again.)

First, I encourage any experienced manager to do this. If you’re at Microsoft in Redmond, participate in the formal Exploring Management sessions. Otherwise, gather a bunch of folks who wonder about moving into management and have an open, honest discussion about some of the pros and cons — and your experiences with them. You’ll learn as much as those you coach, not just about them but about yourself and your assumptions.

My topic this time was “Tradeoffs: Manager vs. Individual Contributor.” I’ve done considerable coaching on this topic with newer managers working for me.

One day some years ago, a new manager threw himself down on the couch I’ve squeezed into my office and asked, “Why do I feel so bad about my job as manager? I work hard, I like everyone I work with, I even like you, but at the end of the day I feel exhausted and like I haven’t accomplished anything.”

Think about that for a minute. Have you been there?

We came to a realization through coaching. [My coaching technique is to pose clarifying questions to the person I’m working with and help them work out an answer — an answer that I myself may or may not know.]

  • – As an IC, you get a win every day. Tasks are bounded and relatively short. Code a function, contact a customer, prepare a report. Tasks usually have a clear beginning and, more importantly, a clear end, one at which you are present.
  • – Managerial problems beyond the administrative tend to be formless. They drift up on you, you work the levers of influence and coaching, and eventually there is improvement in the situation. You probably spend the same amount of time on a given task/problem, a day or two. But it’s discontinuous time. These tasks often lack a clear point marking the start of your ownership. And they almost never have a clear end, an “aha!” moment. Three weeks or three months later, you may notice the change, the improvement. But by then, a dozen other tasks and problems have drifted down on you.

In other words, a manager spends much of his or her time setting wheels in motion — but at the end of the day, she has dealt far more in moving problems along than in exulting in solutions. Closure is hard to come by.

And if you don’t recognize that, you go home miserable, sometimes kick-the-dog, hate-the-job miserable. Or you start doing more and more IC tasks to get those endorphins flowing — which deleverages you and makes your team wonder why you’re micromanaging.

That’s the cost; what does the manager get in return? I got a sense of pride in helping my team grow, and a sense of accomplishment in making progress on larger problems than I would normally see as an IC. But there were many days where I had to think about that consciously.

What’s your experience?

  — Steve

Addressing Economic Woes through Management Innovation

October 22, 2008

One need not read this post to understand the breadth and depth of the economic crisis upon us all. Banks are failing, Wall Street is crumbling, and companies all over the world are evaluating new ways to deal with long term economic hardship.

Gallup polls over the last few years have indicated that approximately 30% of employees are disengaged, with 15% of those, “actively disengaged”.

In 2007, Gary Hamel published a great book titled, “The Future of Management“, which asserts that while technology, employee talent levels, and market diversity, have changed dramatically over the last 100+ years, management techniques have not, and that management, as a discipline, is a ripe area for innovation.

Typically, in hard times, managers will try to squeeze that extra 1% out of inventory, or layoff 10% of the workforce to reduce costs. Rarely do we hear about new management techniques being deployed to extract effort from the 15% who are “actively disengaged”.

If a manager were to experiment with rewards tied to earnings, self managing teams, and innovative ways to reach the Gen X or Gen Y worker, would it lead to a greater economic efficiency than squeezing any more “fat” from the production process, or reducing pay for long time employees?

Often, in times of stress, people revert to what’s worked in the past, but it’s hard to believe that last year companies were running their production lines with a bunch of extra fat, or that they truly employed too many workers or were paying people too much.

Perhaps, instead, it’s time to look at that big, juicy 30% of disengaged workers as a target for improving the economics of the firm.

And guess what, if managers turn things around and engage the disengaged, people will be having more fun too. Work will be a more pleasant place to be, and earnings and morale will rise. As Adrian Gostick, one of the authors of “The Levity Effect” says, “If you’re demanding, you can drive people for a short period, but if you’re fun, you have them for the long haul.”

The Great Place to Work Institute has consistently found that companies that are classified as “great” score unusually high marks from employees on the question “Are you working in a fun environment?” Great companies scored 81% on this, compared to 62% for companies ranked “good”.

If managers can innovate to improve the lives of the managed, then the “fallout” should be a reduction in the percentage of disengaged workers, leading directly to increased productivity, reduced costs, and improved earnings. If all of a sudden, 30% of the workforce starts doing more work, then that must have a positive impact.

It’s at least something to consider instead of the knee-jerk reaction to squeeze harder. Successful companies don’t cost-cut their way to greatness.

The Management Innovation Lab, an offshoot of Hamel’s efforts, defines management innovation as “anything that substantially alters the way in which the work of management is carried out, or significantly modifies customary organizational forms, and, by so doing, advances organisational goals.”

There is a lot of room for interpretation and experimentation. Could Alfred Sloan have predicted the pervasive use of IM (instant messaging) – or when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line, did he anticipate the use of wikis as a way of sharing information between workers? How about texting, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Sharepoint, Twitter, etc? All these new school techniques facilitate more rapid and deeper communication, much in the same way the “organizational memo” of the 1950’s did in that era.

Wouldn’t it be impossible for management styles NOT to be impacted by a change in communication styles and techniques?

Wouldn’t extending an olive branch to these disengaged workers through the application of new and improved management capabilities be a great way to initiate positive change in a challenging economic climate?


Team Morale Is Not an Events-Driven Protocol

October 16, 2008

I think we sometimes try to buy rather than earn morale.

Many companies, Microsoft included, have these things called “morale events.” They often run something like this: Take[1] the team[2] on some activity[3] and then have food[4] at the end.

  1. In other words, they require significant time out of the office, often spent in transport.
  2. In part as a consequence of #1, there are numerous no-shows.
  3. High-tech-industry managers seem to gravitate toward ropes courses, rock climbing, and mini-car racing. My own experience is that mini-golf and bowling work better — everyone is (usually) equally horrible, and we all start laughing at each other.
  4. Catered food at these events is usually very expensive and not terribly good. If you really want food to be a part, take the team out to a restaurant. It doesn’t even have to be a good restaurant; it’s the camaraderie that matters.

You can’t buy morale any more than you can buy morals. (I can’t tell you how many times in my 16 years here I’ve been invited to “moral” events.)

The best morale events I’ve ever been involved with have been cheap or free. Getting the team together for late-afternoon beer and cookies, for example, is cheap and effective. (Don’t cater it; buy and expense the beer if that’s allowed.)

Giving out $6 lunch or $3 espresso cards is also effective; have a bunch handy and award them generously for even minor above-and-beyond acts. (Obviously this particular item works best when the team is in one place.)

The best morale event I ever held, according to my team, was taking them out for an afternoon on my sailboat and letting them all take turns on the wheel. Yes, I’m lucky to have had a big sailboat, but the point is that I used “available materials” to come up with a fun, inexpensive (for Microsoft) event. Even as that particular team grew, they continued to look back fondly on that afternoon.

But I think the four biggest morale boosters are free:

  1. Trusting your team. There are many right ways to do something; it doesn’t have to be your way.
  2. Listening with respect, always, no matter how frazzled you are.
  3. Saying “thank you for your work” and “well done” regularly and at least some of the time in public.
  4. Telling your team the truth rather than trying to build your status by information-hiding.

I won’t pretend I have always practiced what I preach; I certainly screw it up at least as often as most of us. But I know that when I am open and honest, when I praise solid work, when I have trusted them, my teams have responded very well.

So now that times are tough and money is tight, consider how to build team morale. Sometimes constraints are a blessing in disguise.

  — Steve 


Exploring Management, The Event

October 7, 2008

One of the goals of ChannelMEC is to provide some transparency into the management pipeline here at Microsoft — to discuss the roadmap to becoming a manager, and to share our collective experiences. As part of this roadmap, Microsoft offers a program called the Exploring Management Program, facilitated by the Management Development Group (MDG). Here’s a quick overview of the program:

The Exploring Management Program (EMP) is focused on developing an intentional pipeline of potential managers across Microsoft. The EMP focuses on exploring the manager role at Microsoft. The program provides opportunities for participants to develop managerial skills and to make an informed decision about whether to pursue a management career. The EMP is a 12 – 18 month program that contains a sequence of on-the-job learning activities, opportunities to learn from others, and formal learning events within the rhythm of the business.

Program Outcomes

Upon completion of this program, participants will have:

  • Gained an in-depth and realistic preview of the role of a manager at Microsoft.
  • Built a network of exploring management peers and Microsoft managers.
  • Used the provided tools to hold ongoing discussions with their manager regarding a management career path.
  • Completed a self-assessment with their manager to determine their managerial readiness.
  • Completed a development plan to use to explore management and to develop managerial skills.
  • Made an informed decision, with their manager, on whether or not to pursue a management career path.

As program participants explore the Management Career Path, the program provides an opportunity to investigate the Management Career Stage Profiles (CSPs) defined for management roles in each profession to see how their current role and skills might align. In November 2008, newly revised CSPs will be available which will more accurately reflect the scope, impact, and complexities of the manager role at Microsoft. These new CPSs will be introduced and used throughout the EMP.


Participants in this program have:

  • Been a full-time Microsoft employee for at least six months.
  • Achieved or exceeded commitments in their last performance review.
  • Never been a manager (with at least one FTE report) at Microsoft.
  • Not attended previous Exploring Management Conferences.
  • An interest in pursuing a manager role within 12–18 months, and in becoming a great manager.
  • In the opinion of their current manager, demonstrated management capability in their current role.
  • The endorsement of his her manager.

Program participation begins by attending an Exploring Management Conference. Within Puget Sound, managers self-nominate themselves and their managers decide whether or not to approve their nomination based on the program requirements. In the U.S. Field and International, managers directly nominate participants to the program.

I was able to participate in the Conference this past week, led by MDG’s Leah Wedul, who focuses on the pre-manager space. My role in the event was as a “table coach” — a group of current managers who share their experiences on a number of topics important to prospective managers, such as making the IC to Manager transition, how to develop your team, and so forth. It’s also a great opportunity for the participants to network, and just ask questions. The event is newly redesigned — instead of a single, huge event twice a year off-campus, the new format is to hold weekly events on campus for a month, allowing more people to attend. In October, there will be 4 different one-day events.

I thoroughly enjoyed participating, and will be coaching again the last week of this month. For those interested in attending, there will be another event held next spring — so be sure to self-nominate and start discussing this event with your manager.