Keeping it simple

Dec 17, 2008 by

Note: This post was originally published on the Nonprofit Congress blog on 10/24/08.

Flickr image: tootdood

Have you ever noticed that some of the skills that make people great leaders, thinkers, strategists, or event managers are often those that are the most simple and basic? At least they seem that way to me. But then again, even the simplest of tasks can be difficult to master.

If there is one thing I’m good at, it’s observing and emulating people I admire – no, not copying or plagiarizing, but paying attention to what they do that is great and then trying to do that thing myself. Two of the simplest skills that I’ve tried to master based on my observations are preparation and follow up. “Tried” is the operative word in that sentence. As I’ve been reflecting on these skills, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve done successfully and what I still need to work on.

Preparation

Get ready for something before it happens, practice, gather relevant information and be prepared to present it. Seems pretty easy right? And yet, how many trainings, meetings, and presentations have you sat through where it felt like the lead person didn’t know what he or she was talking about? Life is short and it’s a waste of time to sit there being confused or worse, really annoyed.

I’ve tried to address this professionally by setting aside time before meetings to get my head and information together. Depending on the scope of the meeting, I sometimes spend up to an hour going over my previous notes, drafting a basic agenda, and listing all the relevant topics for discussion. Once the meeting begins, I check off the items as we go over them and keep notes about everything we discuss (see the follow up section below for more details). This is always helpful, but since I started coordinating the 2009 Nonprofit Congress, it’s become even more necessary and important: I have 3 to 5 meetings every week on the various elements of the event planning process (not including meetings on everything else) and without preparing for each and every one, I would be extremely confused by the end of the week.

One of the other ways I get prepared is by blocking off Friday afternoons. After a full week of meetings, emails, phone calls, etc., I need a way to process all the information and compile it in one place. I spend Friday afternoon going through my email from the week (and once a month I go through ALL the email in my inbox) and cleaning it out. I try to answer, file or delete each message, or add the follow up item to my task list for the following week. I also clean off my (really messy) desk and file things or add the action items to my task list. The last thing I do before I leave is print off my task list – which I keep in Outlook – highlight those that need to be done and then number them in order of importance. Sometimes I’m at work until 8pm doing all this, but it’s so very worth it when my mind is clear throughout the weekend and I know exactly what I need to do on Monday morning.

So where can I improve? Going through everything on Friday is helpful, but oftentimes things I worked through on Monday need to be dealt with before the end of the week (or the following week). I may need to look at taking some time on Wednesday to review things on a smaller scale, so I can be prepared for the second part of the week. Sometimes, I don’t anticipate things properly and don’t bring the correct documents or paperwork to meetings – of course, I often bring too much, but that’s another issue. I think I need to look broader in my preparation phase to other issues that could come up, so I’m prepared to deal with them on the spot.

Follow up

Once again, something that seems simple, but that so many people fail to practice properly. How many times have you had to bug someone repeatedly because they didn’t follow up with you on something you asked for? We’re all busy, but sometimes a simple email letting you know it will be late would be nice.

As I’m taking notes for a meeting I put a little box next to any action item that I need to do and a big arrow next to any item someone else is responsible for. That helps me see very quickly on each page of notes (I sometimes have 10 pages at the end of a week) what I need to follow up on and what I need others’ help with.

I also follow up with pretty much anyone I meet with after the fact (immediately afterward if possible) with an email laying out what we talked about and the action steps that need to be taken. Ever since I started working on the 2009 Nonprofit Congress, I’ve also begun keeping a paper copy of those emails sorted into folders so that I can refer back later. It uses up paper, but it saves me a lot of time when I need to follow up with coworkers about stuff. I also use Outlook to ‘assign’ tasks on specific items to other people. They can then respond with a status update about that task and/or let me know when it’s completed.

Do I still screw it up occasionally (or frequently)? You bet. I’m not always consistent with the follow up and then I have to kick myself for not doing something I know I should. I don’t always respond on time, which can slow things down. And sometimes I don’t share information if I’m not sure it’s relevant to someone else, which again muddies up the procedure. I think full disclosure is probably better than half and prioritizing which things to circle back to would help.

Of course, I could also accept that I’m human, that I’m never going to get it all right and stop obsessing. But what would be the fun in that? 🙂