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Boosting Your Processing Power: Using Technology as a Business Tool

Inboxes are clogging with unread emails.  Voice-mailboxes and text are messaging tones causing tinnitus.  Thumbs are cramping from pecking emails on mobile phones.  No wonder it is so easy to become frustrated when the person on the other end sets off our fuses with a confusing message!  By the way, are you reading this on your mobile phone at 2 a.m.?

When technology came along, business leaders saw the time-saving potential of number-crunching computers and near-human intelligence of supercomputers.  What took months to calculate now takes milliseconds for a computer to analyze.  So why do our lives seem to be busier, faster, and more stressful than before?  How do we take control back from technology and enjoy the time between work?  The answer is to reframe how we look at and use technology.

Rather than seeing technology as a 24/7 must-have part of our lives, it can be healthier and more beneficial to view it as a means to helping improve quality of life.  In other words, instead of tying ourselves to the computer monitor or smart-phone screen all day long, it is necessary to draw boundaries around technology use.  There are many tools available, and I have outlined the most common ones that I use to keep organized and connected.

Email and Phone Calls 

As a business leader, it is easy to become tethered to smart-phones and be accessible all day and all night.  But, is it worth it to wake up to read emails immediately, regardless of the urgency?  Aside from the health concerns of not getting enough sleep and the effects on performance from fatigue, it also builds an organizational culture that inhibits proper use of delegation of authority.  Staff become overly reliant on the leader who is always accessible, when it is possible to come up with a solution for medium- or low-priority issues in your absence.

With email inbox rules and smart-phone alert settings (some phones now come with “VIP Alerts”), it is now possible to set up a process where emails with certain urgency levels or subject lines get forwarded to you during your personal time, while others auto-reply with a message that you are away.  Of course, this also requires discussing your boundaries with teammates and staff, so that they are aware of when you will respond and when it is up to them to take initiative.  Also, remember to call people or meet them directly when discussing complicated or personal matters.  Email is a great follow-up tool to confirm what was discussed verbally, but it lacks the tactfulness and quick richness of vocal dialogue.

To-Do Lists

Aside from personal boundary-setting, technology can help you to track your to-do lists, and even share them with others so that they know what is still in queue.  Lists can be therapeutic in a sense as well, because crossing off completed items allows you to see how much you have already finished.  This is especially rewarding when the number of action items seems unending: As you progress, you will see that you are making progress.  Need to generate a status report?  Refer back to your action item list to see what you have accomplished and what is yet to be done.  My personal preference is for Apple’s Reminders app, because it syncs with my phone, home computer, and the iCloud.  That way I receive reminders of all my action items’ due dates on my devices and can check them off wherever I am.

Document Sharing

While I prefer reading printed copies over on-screen documents, it is generally faster (and more environmentally friendly) to view docs on a computer or smart phone.  Sharing documents with teams can cause confusion when emailing different versions back and forth for editing: “Did I include Sally’s changes in that version?  Wait, she sent two.  Ok, now is this the final draft, or is that?  Oops – I forgot that Jack’s email was saved in another folder, and I had not yet incorporated his changes.”

Two of the available options solve this problem: Subversion and the Cloud.  Subversion allows users on the same network to share the same version of documents and includes version control (with locking and unlocking of files) to assist teams collaborating together.  Cloud services offer similar functionality, without requiring everyone to be on the same server.  I use Google Docs/Drive when collaborating with teams as well.  It allows anyone with a Google Account (which can be created from generally any email address) to share documents online.  It also lets you see who made which changes, and multiple users can edit the same document simultaneously.  Google Docs are also accessible via smart phones and tablets with Internet access.

Paper and Pencil

Sometimes good ol’ fashioned paper and pencil (or whiteboard and marker) make for the best technology.  This is especially the case when starting to draft an idea, diagram, or document from scratch.  Mind-mapping, brainstorming, and sketching symbols, words, or phrases help to pull innovative thoughts out of your mind and put them onto paper.  It is easy to edit using paper and pencil, shaping the idea until it looks just right.  Then it is possible to take a photo or recreate the draft electronically to share with others on the team.

When preparing to use technology to help you organize or connect with others, it is important to first understand why you need the tool: what issue or challenge is being addressed?  Then, analyze the different options available and select a medium that is optimal for the identified issue.  Also remember to set some boundaries regarding when, how, and why you will use that tool.  It is wise to use technology to your advantage so long as you remember to take breaks and recharge your own batteries.

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What Can Gardening Teach Us about Leadership?

If you have ever gardened, you might notice some ways that enhancing your green-thumb abilities are similar to working with teams, groups, or organizations.  Gardening requires nurturing, providing needed resources, attention to dangerous environmental phenomena, and timing.  Let us explore these facets of gardening–specifically food crops–as a metaphor for effective leadership.

Before ever planting a seed, a gardener knows that the soil needs tending.  If the soil has the wrong consistency or pH level, then nutrients or compost must be added.  If the soil is too compact, then aerating it will allow the plants to spread roots.  In leadership, this translates to setting up a team for success through proper planning about what followers need in order to grow.  Without setting the stage for a healthy workplace, it will be very difficult for staff to do their job.  But with the proper forethought and attention to what their teams need, leaders set up the organization for success.

Plants, like people, need resources in order to thrive and produce their crops.  Sunlight, water, fertilizer, soil, pollinators, and carbon dioxide are a few of the resources plants need.  Without the right combination of resources (and at the right time), the plants will either produce scrawny food products, or they can die.  Likewise, people and work groups need the right resources in order to be effective.  Think about what resources people in your organization require.  Are they adequate to do the job?  If not, consider what more your organization will be able to produce if it were to have the needed resources to meet organizational goals.  Does this benefit outweigh the current output without these resources?

Mother nature* can provide and cause destruction with seemingly little effort.  One year can be a banner year producing record crop yields, while the next can experience flooding or drought and destroy most plants.  Pests can destroy a field of crops in a short time, if not kept in check (hopefully through natural means!).  In organizations, shifting environmental demands (such as new government regulations) and unexpected phenomena (i.e.: market crashes) can place exorbitant pressure on businesses, forcing them to either adapt or dissolve.  Being resilient enough to shift with the changing environment enables organizations to weather poor markets, or other such storms of doing business.  Effective leaders know when to shift and by how much in order to meet new demands or pressures.

Last in the metaphor is timing.  As eluded to earlier, providing water to plants is necessary; however, too much or too little of this precious life source can bring an early end to the garden.  Organizations, too, can suffer when resources are too excessive or limiting.  Stocking too much product than the market demands can place financial strain on the organization, while not holding enough can anger customers to the point that they become loyal the competition.  Work groups can also suffer when they do not receive the technical, personnel, financial, or other resources that they need to do their job at the right time.  Conducting a resources analysis (what resources are needed, how much, and to whom) is a way for leaders to improve the probability that the organization has the proper resources at the appropriate time.

Learning to lead is a difficult and iterative task, just like gardening.  The first year’s crop might experience hard times as the gardener learns through experience, just as the novice leader might experience difficulty gaining trust and followership from their team.  When all of the facets of effective gardening align–and sometimes with a little luck–the gardener will be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor.  The leader, too, must continue to develop knowledge, skills, and abilities in leadership through practice, feedback, and academic study/training/reading.

*The “forces of mother nature” in this analogy are akin to the forces of sociology.  Neither can be seen, but they have a strong influence on the outcome of a garden or an organization.