A Creative Approach to Dealing with Email

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We are often flooded with an onslaught of irrelevant data filling our email box. In this day of information overload, we can find ourselves swimming in hundreds of emails that are unrelated to our task at hand. Wading through it not only absorbs our precious time, but it also keeps us from our profitable work that meets our goals and objectives.

A few years ago, I returned from a conference where we had no time allotted to check emails, so I found my mailbox filled with about 1,200 new emails. These were the ones that did not meet the automated filtering system that forwarded most of the mail to other employees while I was out of the office. The stack was deemed to be only answerable by me, but I didn’t have eight hours to properly go through the stack.

I quickly surveyed my associates and asked what they did when there were more emails than time to go through them. One man said to delete them all since the important ones will get a follow-up email. A woman suggested I create a folder, move the emails into it for future consideration, and label the folder with the conference dates. However, she shared how she was still working through the emails from her vacation last year.

The sheer number of unanswered emails was taking a toll on me. The volume of mail increased the number of overwhelming distractions I faced. I could sense that the overload of information was crushing my ability to be creative and come up with simple ideas and solutions. Determining a process for dealing with old emails was mandatory if I wanted my mind freed for important innovative work.

To build the process, I brainstormed the types of emails needing to be addressed:

  1. Irrelevant emails
  2. Project-related emails
  3. Urgent emails
  4. Important emails
  5. Advertisements and advertorials

The most efficient way of handling emails is to only open it once and act on it. The action might be to take steps required by the email, respond to it, review and file it, or delete it. Since taking action is a must when going through emails, I decided to separate the emails before opening.

Delete Ads and Irrelevant Emails

The emails that were clearly an ad or unrelated to my primary function were immediately deleted. I had my mail program reveal the first few lines of each email so I was able to delete items without opening the mail. This allowed me to delete about 300 emails.

File Project Emails

Since the people I work with use a protocol in the email subject line for ease of searching and sorting, I was able to move project files into their appropriate folders for review during my next scheduled project time. Unopened mail that is moved into a folder is still highlighted as not yet having been read, allowing me to know exactly which emails to read first. This action allowed me to schedule about 400 emails to a time slot booked for the project it pertained to.

Take Immediate Action on Urgent Emails

There were about 50 emails requesting my immediate attention, but only seven that actually needed my attentiveness. After taking care of the seven, I made quick decisions on what the remaining required for true next steps. This was important since some people’s urgent matters aren’t my problem. My decisions need to be based on what was urgent for me, not others.

Schedule Important Emails

There were about 100 emails that I’d consider important. I scheduled a handful of 30-minute response blocks of time throughout the week to work on the important items. Some of the emails only required me to assign projects to key players, while others required my time. The goal was to do a little bit every day until all the important items had been handled.

Outside of the above sorting categories, were about 350 emails that needed some action, but may or may not have had any level of importance. I quickly scanned the emails and made immediate decisions on the level of action required. All but about a dozen emails ended up in the trash.

I use the Gmail search engine for my emails because it gives me the most control available. Not only can I search by customer or project, but I can also search by what I don’t want included in the search.

For instance, let’s say I’m searching for legal files under project code TNT, but I don’t want any of Anthony’s emails in the output results. In the search bar, I type: TNT attorney -Anthony. This gives me all coded emails that include the attorney while leaving out all emails with Anthony’s name. The simple use of the minus sign reduced my output results from 1,633 documents down to 5, of which I opened the one I needed.

By maintaining a process for sorting through an overload of emails frees us up to innovate. Instead of eating up hours of our day trying to catch up, we can take relevant action immediately. And, we can open key project emails during project billable times instead of administrative times—making the reading of emails profitable.

© 2019 by CJ Powers

 

 

 

 

 

New Podcast: The Creative You

This week we launched a new free podcast on creativity in business. The episodes will give practical insights and applications that the audience can practice at home and implement at work. Many of the creative tools shared will also work at home and in your community.

Everyone is creative, even those who don’t think they are. It’s my hope that The Creative You podcast will help people bring balance to their lives and help them develop the right side of their brain to an equal level as the left side of their brain—after all, no one wants to make lopsided decisions.

My host, Rebecca Boskovic, is the CEO and founder of The Fittest Me, a health studio that focuses on building strength for life. We met at a mutual speaking engagement, noticed the similarities between physical and nutritional health, and logical and creative health, and decided to take advantage of our expertise by hosting each other’s podcast.

Here is the first episode for your enjoyment.

If you’d like to subscribe to the podcast, it is available on iTunes, iPodcast, Spotify, Libsyn, and numerous other platforms. Please feel free to share it with others.

Simple Parameters Drive Creativity

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During the golden age of movies, which took place between 1933-1963 (some would argue it started in 1915, but the box office dollars disagree), The Hayes Motion Picture Code was in place to make sure films were wholesome and moral. I’ve read numerous accounts of directors saying that it was more rewarding to make movies prior to 1963 because the parameters placed on filmmakers by the code forced directors to be more creative—causing the films to be of a higher quality.

In talking with a Broadway producer last year, I learned that the preproduction period never exceeds 12-weeks. The reason is that the 8-12-week parameters are just the right amount of time to ensure excellence on opening day. The period is long enough for the cast to learn their songs, steps, and costume changes, and short enough to not cause anyone to get bored with the show.

Placing these types of soft parameters on projects is enough to drive the creative flow without choking out or overstressing the artists. The heightened creativity increases the entertainment value, which turns into box office dollars during the show’s run.

Unfortunately, if stress stays in play too long, not only does our creativity fail us, but we see negative side effects. According to ULifeline, an online resource for college mental health, “Emotional stress that stays around for weeks or months can weaken the immune system and cause high blood pressure, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and even heart disease. In particular, too much epinephrine can be harmful to your heart. It can change the arteries and how their cells are able to regenerate.”

Unwarranted or unrealistic pressures placed on employees from a boss who doesn’t understand how to encourage innovation leads to catastrophe in the areas of creativity and innovation. However, soft parameters can drive a sense of focus on a project that propels it into an active state that draws the support of the entire team.

Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar, understands that an overly stressed environment destroys the team and honing a quality environment filled with good people drives innovation. In his book, Creativity, Inc. he says, “Find, develop, and support good people, and they, in turn, will find, develop, and own good ideas.”

There is an investment in good people that must be embraced for innovation to excel. Prior to the 1980s, companies never used the lay-offs to balance the budget. Today, employees never know when some form of downsizing will put them out on the streets, making it difficult for a person to innovate. Creativity must be nurtured within companies, which requires companies to allow for failure.

If people are let go because of a mistake, the simple act of watching someone being fired hinders the entire team’s creativity. But if people are treasured and the mistake develops a clear understanding of what doesn’t work, then the team benefits from the practice and empowers others to innovate.

Catmul speaks frankly about employees when he says, “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”

The light pressure of an audience’s need or request drives quality workers to step up their creative game and produce an unexpected thrill. Empowered creatives always come up with a great solution or a better form of the requested innovation.

To have this type of success on your team, implement the following steps:

  • Lay out the simple parameters of the project (allowing complexity to come from the design, not the idea)
  • Embrace failure as a lesson learned for the next steps (never allowing fear into the creative process)
  • Empower the creatives to explore multiple possibilities (never settling for the first idea)
  • Maintain deadlines (without creating added pressure)
  • Wait expectantly for the emerging solution to solidify (the polishing process makes all the difference)
  • AND, remember that products are not finished until its release date (or a few weeks later, but rarely earlier)

A team that understands failure adds to their learning and innovation comes from play, is positioned to create something far better than originally conceived. Their empowerment comes from focused parameters and the freedom to explore. Anything opposing these key elements hinders the team’s ability to innovate.

© 2019 CJ Powers

 

The Layered Big Picture Guides Innovation

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I was consulting at a Fortune 100 company when the Vice President asked if I understood the big picture. He didn’t care about the details needing to be fleshed out. He trusted my expertise to handle those details, but conditionally—if I convinced him that I understood his endgame.

He clarified his view by explaining that he worked at the 50,000-foot level and seldom put his feet on the ground. He hated being involved in the minutia of a project and preferred to leave it to management’s ability that kept the troops in line. Unfortunately, his stance placed a foothold of problems within his organization.

That’s not to say executives need to get their hands dirty, especially since most people hate management looking over their shoulders as they work. However, without a snapshot of understanding from all layers of a project, there is no way for the executive to learn if key players at each level received and understood the project’s true message and vision.

There are two ways of developing a useful big picture. The first is to place a visionary in each department that is capable of translating the executive’s vision into one easily understood by those at the 10,000-foot and ground levels. The second is to have interactive meetings with the executives and managers at each level to clarify the ongoing vision and how it’s being transformed into products and services.

Before deciding which of the two methods, or a combination of methods, is right for the company, we have to understand the importance of each layer. The executive who thinks one layer is more important than another, will not be able to create the type of business growth that can endure. The growth spirts will eventually fizzle with its high turnover due to good employees not wanting to stay in unimportant roles and departments.

I worked for a Fortune 100 company that had 165,000 employees when I started. I was laid-off when the roster dropped to 26,000 employees. The atmosphere suggested that salespeople were gods, computer programmers were heroes, and engineers were a dime a dozen. These hard delineations stopped the flow of knowledge and communications between silos, forcing people to work in isolation.

Sadly, it was the lack of support for the engineers and the total empowerment of the “above the law” salespeople that caused the company’s crash. Within six months, the stock went from $86.00 to $0.50 per share. Few saw the tragedy coming and therefore only a handful of people were able to shift their 401K investments to something more stable. Thousands of people lost their retirement savings.

I also worked for a Fortune 100 start-up division where communication across departments was a weekly exercise. Everyone was considered important to the process including the RFP proposal writers who at some companies are considered the rock bottom on the importance scale.

In this case, the team was highly valued for its ability to wordsmith and customize documents/presentations to meet the criteria that funded deals. The division broke the $100 million mark in the first year, instantly making the new division a company asset and a recognized force in the industry.

The teams that respected the value of other teams, were empowered to try new things and explore solutions never before considered in the marketplace. The VPs participated in all weekly meetings to make sure the new ideas flowed in line with the executive vision for the division.

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

jacket illustration: © Disney • Pixar

Pixar co-founder, Ed Catmull, says, “When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless.” He goes on to say in his book Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration that communication should not follow the business hierarchy, but be open to all in order to facilitate progress.

Giving access to everyone, for everyone, allows all employees to own their layer of the vision and empowers the entire company with an understanding of how each area of the business impacts the others. This structure brings insight to those who are capable of innovation based on cross-department combinatory play, which feeds additional innovation.

While I don’t believe in the “open door” policies, which pulls people away from their work in an untimely manner, I strongly believe in access to everyone when it comes to communication and understanding how the vision impacts all project layers and departments. The proper flow of communication and the consideration of other departments when making decisions always empowers innovation.

Therefore, it’s prudent for employees to understand how all departments matter to the vision of the company. With each person having the big picture and understanding each layer of the vision, they will be empowered to innovate, pushing the company to move forward with ideas that will change the marketplace.

© 2019 by CJ Powers

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Creating a 3-Second Business Report

During my time in the Fortune 100 world, I was tasked to create a report that helped everyone know where the business was at. I was given no further structure or parameters, and I had no idea what each reader would consider important. The only thing I knew was that the report had to be useful for the reader or it would just be shoved into a stack of unread papers.

I actually knew one other thing—the development of the right report would take creativity.

Since Leonardo Da Vinci popped into my mind as a great creative, I decided to use one of his techniques to brainstorm a palatable solution. Da Vinci made a chart that included a number of variations to play with the possibilities, hoping to find the right combination of choices. The key parameters were written down like column headings and all related ideas that flowed from each one were placed in its column.

Within a few minutes, I had a chart worthy of exploring. It looked something like this:

My Boss

Her Boss The Team

The Division

Objective 1 Budget Weekly Objective Monthly Objective
Objective 2 Bonus Criteria Monthly Objective Quarterly Objective
Stretch Goal Stretch Goal Quarterly Objective Yearly Objective
Personal Goal Head Count Resources Budget
Bonus Criteria Back Office Support

I next randomly circled variations and considered each for inclusion in my report. It looked something like these:

IMG_7110

IMG_7111

I also played with the idea of using two from one column and three from another, but to keep the report simple I settled on selecting only one factor from each column.

It didn’t take long to figure out that my boss’ bonus criteria matched her boss’ stretch goal, which immediately became an entry in my report. I also learned from experimenting with the potential selections and a calculator that the Team’s weekly objective was 2% of the boss’ bonus criteria and her boss’ stretch goal. In other words, one measurement could let everyone know exactly where they stood once a week.

Here is the dashboard report that I created to be on everyone’s desk when they got in each Monday morning:

Screen Shot 2019-06-25 at 8.35.10 AM

The above report diagram was colored in each week so the reader would know at a glance where they stood. The 100% Goal represented the boss’ bonus criteria, her boss’ stretch goal, and the accomplishment of all the team’s weekly objectives.

Since everyone could read the report within three seconds, it was referenced daily. This new reading activity shifted the perspective of every employee on the team and drove obtainment over the 100% threshold year after year. All thanks to Da Vinci’s creative exercise of randomly selecting variations from a table of possibilities.

Maybe it’s time to use creativity and rethink your reports.

© 2019 by CJ Powers

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Visual Practice Leads to Innovation

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I reviewed several hundred movie posters yesterday to remember which movies stirred something within me. I wanted to create a list of 20 films and then study the movies to learn what the directors had done to capture my heart with their story.

However, flipping through the pictures not only reignited those past feelings, but it also sparked my imagination with ideas worth keeping for future innovations. The experience also gave me the idea to share those steps with you. They are simple enough that a monkey can do it—sort of.

Did you know that track lighting was invented as a result of a monkey picture?

Back in the early 1960s, the designer who came up with the idea for track lighting while working at Lightolier, was browsing through a National Geographic magazine and spotted a picture of a monkey. He allowed the visual stimulus of the incredible photograph to play around in his head. He imagined the monkey running around inside a house moving lights to where ever it was needed. That imagery of moveable lighting led to the invention of track lighting.

We can use the same techniques to spark our imagination in four steps.

BROWSE IMAGES

Scanning through images in newspapers, magazines, and online is an easy way to spark an emotion. When you find a few that grab your attention or interest, set them to the side for the next step. I like to skim through Pinterest and then capture the images that stir me into one of my boards.

WRITE DESCRIPTIONS

Pull out a piece of paper or open a WORD document and write out good descriptions of the image. You can write in prose or bullet points. Try to use strong verbs to describe as much as you can as it relates to why you were stirred by the image. Make a good selection of your words to clarify the action within the image and the feelings it exudes.

MAKE CONNECTIONS

Review the problem or challenge at work that you are facing. Glance through the pictures and descriptions you’ve written. Then force yourself to find any correlations that are possible. It’s okay to stretch yourself in this step. The key is to not ever limit your connections with made up rules in your head.

BRAINSTORM IDEAS

Make a list of possible considerations based on the correlations you’ve discovered. Play with the ideas in your head, expanding them creatively to things you would not normally consider. Then determine the top three ideas worth looking into for its business potential.

Whenever I run through this process I always gain insights that are useful. The connections are many times abstract, but they are present and become fuel for my imagination, driving my next steps of innovation.

As I finished looking through the movie posters, I suddenly realized that all the posters I selected were about a specific story concept. The protagonist decided to be himself regardless of the system demands placed on him and when he got to the end of his rope with failure imminent, his friends stepped in and empowered his success.

I hope this article empowers the success of your next innovation.

© 2019 by CJ Powers

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The Creativity of Burning Ice—What Doesn’t Come Next

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My first winter campout was filled with contrasting activities that saved my life. Pitching a canvas tent in three inches of snow seemed odd and the packing of snow around the base of the tent felt counterintuitive, yet it was a great insulator that kept me warm inside.

The freezing night air suggested I wear every piece of clothing that I brought to bed, but my scoutmaster recommended we sleep in our underwear. My sleeping bag did the trick in keeping me warm in my shorts, while my roommate hardly slept in his layers of clothing because he shook all night from his sweat trying to freeze.

The next night included a hazing ritual for those who braved the winter camping experience. One at a time, we were taken from seclusion to the bonfire area for the testing of our manhood (something that would not be allowed today). When it was my turn, I was told that if I screamed from the pain, I would fail the test.

I was taken to a fire pit that was two feet wide and six feet in length. I felt the heat rising from the bed of hot coals and was instructed to take off my boots and socks. After blindfolding me, I was turned around a few times and then instructed to walk across the hot coals to prove myself manly. Being a teen raised by a cop and a teacher, I figured the scouts couldn’t afford a lawsuit, so I decided that the spinning around was to disorient me. I assumed that I was no longer in front of the coals.

I willingly took a bold step forward and felt my feet on the hot searing coals. I was blocked by onlookers from turning back, so I moved quickly across the hot embers. Once my feet hit the ground, I turned back as I pulled off my blindfold and watched the guys cheering as they pointed down to the long pit of ice I had crossed.

My eyes, having seen the hot coals, coupled with my mind knowing what comes next, connected with the extreme temperature change felt by my feet moving from the ground to the ice. This caused my mind to interpret the contrasting temperature to be hot rather than cold. My senses had been fooled.

When our mind thinks it knows what comes next, we are naturally biased based on our previous experiences. This bias reduces our creative ability, surrendering our thoughts to the logical side of our brain. To increase our creativity, we must learn how to explore what does not come next.

School taught us that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. When we engage our creativity, we find that this rule can kick in by immediately bringing to mind the opposite of our initial thoughts. If we think about things that make us feel hot, the contrasting items that make us cold subconsciously pop into our mind as well.

This natural phenomenon can help us ponder alternative solutions for a problem at work. By exploring the various contexts that arise, we are able to consider things that can expand our perspective. Contemplating things that are not directly connected to the obvious next steps, opens our mind to a new world of possibilities and solutions that would otherwise never be considered.

After the invention of the small 9” television screen that was mounted in the huge box to hold all of its tubes, who would have thought that we could carry a portable 9” television built into our flat tablets or phones?

Only by exploring the things that don’t come next can we find uncommon solutions that change the face of our market. To be a company that innovates, the workers must learn how to explore what doesn’t come next to spark new perspectives and ideas.

A simple exercise that you can do right now is called “What’s Not Next.”

Consider what you are doing right now. You probably know without much thought what you’ll be doing next (after reading this article). However, the exercise asks you to consider the opposite—what you will not do next. Explore the possibilities and consider any correlation to what you are currently doing.

Then ask yourself how what doesn’t come next impacts what does come next.

This exercise forces you to be open-minded and allows you to strengthen your creativity by changing your perspective. By picking arbitrary times throughout the week to explore this exercise, you will expand your ability to switch perspectives more rapidly and increase your ability to solve problems caused by a changing marketplace.

© 2019 by CJ Powers
Please consider helping me offset the costs of publication, as I work on my next book The Creative You. Your support is welcome.

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