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I’ve been lucky enough to work in some high performing teams, and to have led a few as well. Looking back, my impression is that these were relatively rare events, and they’ve become more rare over the years. Maybe because it’s the privilege of the young, and needs that energy – but that’s not how it feels. I certainly wish it happened more, and that I had a reliable recipe for it. More of that later.

The Red Arrows (pictured above) practice for 6 months every year to do those death-defying stunts automatically, knowing that they can depend on their team mates to be in the right place, at the right time, without supervision. Three members of the team are replaced every year, but even after 3 years, when all nine of the starting team have gone, they’re still the Red Arrows, and they’re still a high performing team. The Royal Air Force seem to have a dependable recipe for success.

In this presentation Dan Pink identifies Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose as the three preconditions for better personal performance – I reckon the same is true for team performance. You can get more work out of people – and they will give it willingly – by attending to those 3 needs. No need to give them more money, as long as you pay them enough so that money isn’t an issue.

I don’t have a recipe, but here are a some common qualities that I can name in the best teams I’ve been involved with

  • Spending non-work time together (not necessarily BFFs)
  • A common, agreed and simple purpose
  • Leaving their ego at the door
  • Eager to learn from each other
  • Self-directed
  • Willing to give their discretionary time and energy

When did you last work in a team that was a well-oiled machine?

What makes a high-performing team? Is it chemistry? Can it be learnt?


Here are six techniques I used to coach marathon runners to get from the start line to the finish line, that you can use to move your list from “To Do” to “Done”

  1. Understand your big goal.
  2. Check your motivation.
  3. Give yourself a series of timed check points.
  4. Make some progress.
  5. Use visual cues.
  6. Incorporate rituals.

1. Understand your big goal.

Our big goal is to run 42k in a target time. To get there we need to meet some process goals (like training regularly) and some outcome goals (like hitting 10k at your pace time). Only things which move us to the big goal make it onto the list, anything else is irrelevant. Look at your To Do list and double-check that it relates to the big goal. How do “check email” and “attend weekly meeting” relate to your big goal?

2. Check your motivation.

Why are you doing this? How does it directly relate to you, and who you are? What turns “ought” into “have to”, or a duty into a necessity, for you. If you’re mostly extrinsically motivated, you’ll need some recognition from other people – make sure you get some. Intrinsically motivated people are more interested in mastering a subject, and having control over how they achieve this. Use this motivation to errr.. motivate yourself. Seriously, it’s easy to forget what’s driving you sometimes, don’t get bogged down in the minute to minute, day-to-day stuff, remember why you’re here and use it as a touchstone.

3. Give yourself a series of timed check points

The big goal might be to run 42km in 3 hours 40 minutes, but you need some check points along the way. You need them to check progress according to your time plan, and also to give yourself a pat on the back as you hit these mini goals. It’s important to review how far you’ve come, not just how far you have to go. Don’t actually try patting yourself on the back while you’re running, you’ll probably fall over.

4. Make some progress

Sometimes you just have to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. You’ve hit a wall and run out of mental tricks to motivate yourself. As Winston Churchill once said, “if you’re going through Hell, keep going”. Take a step, then another step. Walk when you get to a drinks station, but don’t stop. Do something, anything, however small, that advances you. Adjust the timing , but keep the momentum, and don’t stop. It takes sooo much effort to get going again.

5. Use visual cues

We looked at a map and turned it into an itinerary. “At 2 hours I’m running past the Berlin Opera house”. “My support group will be cheering me on at 13 miles, I can see my wife waving a banner.”

To Do list - personal kanban

My to do list is a personal Kanban – tasks move through from Backlog to Done

Here’s my visual system for work. It’s called a personal kanban – it’s ridiculously simple. Open tasks sit underneath each heading – I’ve removed them here, because you wouldn’t be able to read my writing so you can’t see my top-secret plans . I’ve found Apps and NagWare like Outlook tasks don’t work for me, because they’re static and a “Done” task just disappears. With this, one task moves from the Backlog column, through Doing, to Done. It feels more dynamic and lets me know what I’ve achieved, as well as what’s to do, which motivates me more. There are never more than five yellow sticky notes under the “Doing” sticky note.

6. Incorporate rituals

If you can make anything a habit, you don’t have to think about it. Marathoners will wear the same running shoes and use the same energy drinks or gels. They also run through the same check list before a long run or a race. Some runners have mantras that they will use to get into the right state.  They choose what to incorporate into their rituals. Some serving suggestions for you:

  • Make a review of your To Do list the night before,
  • Rehearse the first 5 minutes when you brush your teeth.
  • Remind yourself of your bigger goal before you start the day
  • Get one of the items on your list done before you dive into your email.
  • When you have your first coffee or tea, use that time to reflect on progress to date.

Feel free to make your own up, and let me know how you did.




No one interrupts a sprinter at work

No work interruptions 

Are work interruptions what work is today? I was coaching someone recently who was having a problem with “disjointedness”. Every time she started a piece of work – usually one that she needed a good run at, her work was interrupted by the usual suspects: Email. Phone calls. Colleagues. It’s how we work today. Work is a series of interruptions to what we’re supposed to be doing.

The solution was absurdly simple. I’ll come to that in a moment.

I did some digging into what effect these diversions have, and was gobsmacked by what I read in this paper – Fragmented Work, which also features in a more user friendly New York Times article here. Both were written in 2005, and I’m guessing things have only got worse in the last 8 years, but here’s what they saw in 1,000 hours of observing Homo Cubiculus.

Average time until interrupted – 11 minutes

Time to restart the task – 25 minutes

Time to get back to where you where – 8 minutes

This is staggering. 11 minutes of productive work. Then 33 minutes on hold. Then THREE minutes (because it took you 8 minutes to get back to where you were) of productive work before you get interrupted again. Rinse and repeat from 9 to 5.  Sisyphus was in a similar line of work. It’s no wonder we feel disjointed.

It gets worse. It’s only a theory, but it feels true to me, that there are two types of schedule: Managing and Making. Managers work in one hour blocks of time, it’s seldom that they need to spend a whole day at one task. Makers, on the other hand, need to get immersed on their work to get in flow. Makers write computer code, they draft contracts, they put bid documents together – they do stuff that takes more than an hour at a stretch to complete. An interruption to a Maker can ruin their whole day.

This is serious shit. It doesn’t even include the self-imposed diversions, or the myth of multi-tasking, to which the same “restart” rules apply. It doesn’t take account of a person’s Time Perspective either. Present Hedonists are renowned for their ability to be diverted from a goal by pretty much any temptation put in front of them, even before cats and You Tube double-teamed them.

How does the coaching story end?

We agreed she try a “sprint” of 45 minutes, free of any distraction, using a desk toy (a stress ball, appropriately enough) to signal to her colleagues that she shouldn’t be interrupted. Email notifications off. Phones diverted to voice mail. Work for 45 minutes, then stop and reflect for a few minutes at the end, to note where the external diversions came from, and what to adjust next time. Anyone can be unavailable for 45 minutes without the business collapsing.

What she found was that colleagues in the immediate vicinity got the signal and cooperated. It was harder to put off more senior people, because their status seems to give them priority. Everyone was sceptical that it would work at all. These are all interesting observations. They tell us how a culture will tend to hold habits in place, however much an individual worker wants to change, and that Time Management is a systemic problem, rather than one person’s.

But look at the benefits:

  1. She stops the disjointedness and has more control  over her work. So she’s happier.
  2. Productivity for that 45 minute sprint went up by 75%.
  3. Doing this twice a day, five days a week, effectively gives her company an extra working day. Everyone’s happy.

Please tell me why isn’t everybody doing this? It’s embarrassingly simple. Why can’t everyone just concentrate for 45 minutes on one task, without interruptions?









Past, Present, Future

Time Perspectives

The Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory that we use in our Time Intelligence Report has two distinct flavours of the Past, Positive and Negative.

As concepts they’re self-explanatory. Is your past something you look back on fondly, or do you have bad memories of growing up? The surprising part is how powerfully having a positive past can affect your outlook in the present and the future.

Being positive about your past is a predictor of resilience and optimism. Martin Seligman, the principal founder of Positive Psychology discovered that an optimistic explanatory style was key to persistence. Believing that things will turn out well, despite setbacks, predicts success at school, in college and in work. In his book “Learned Optimism“, Seligman tells how he and his team successfully predicted US election results (primary and presidential) purely by analysing candidates’ speeches. The more they spoke of hope for the future, the more optimistic they were, the better chance they had of being elected.

Past positive people will get nostalgic about the good old days. They will surround themselves with photographs and souvenirs to prompt these good memories, and are the repositories of family stories and anecdotes. It’s possible to strengthen the positive links your past by keeping a gratitude diary, or just bringing to mind some good things that have happened, at the end of each day.

It’s common these days to assume that a tendency to think about the past is inevitably a bad thing – anyone “stuck in the past” will slow down our progress towards the future. They won’t be of any use looking backwards wearing their rose-tinted spectacles. The surprising truth is that those are the people you need when things start to go wrong on your project. Their roots go deep and they will suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, then bounce back.

Next time we’ll have a look at Past Negative.

Gears of Industry

What does working smarter mean for you? What does working harder mean, come to that?

I first heard this tagline about 10 years ago. In the UK, BT used it in an advert to sell technology. It’s an attractive proposition, isn’t it?

But I don’t believe that working smarter necessarily involves technology. Too often the technology increases the workload, rather than supports it. As anyone who has been on the receiving end of SAP can testify.

Working smarter, for me, means things require less effort.

That means understanding what drives the individuals in the team. And harnessing that drive so that it synchronises with the company’s goals, and moves everybody a little further forward to a common goal.

I’m curious what other people think.

If you spend 4 hours a week in meetings, 2 hours 39 minutes of that is wasted time.

Put another way, in a one hour meeting of six people, four man-hours are wasted.

If Time really was Money, meetings would be the first place you would look to cut these losses. Instead we put up with them as part of working life.  So you accept the meeting invite, go along and do some emails at the same time. And so does the person next to you. In virtual meetings it’s even easier to multi-task undetected.

As a hard-pressed individual, you feel like you’re winning back time for yourself – it’s good time management. But as a team, you’re wasting a whole lot more.


So what’s the solution? Be purposeful about meetings. You need to make best use of that scarce resource – Time.

1) Don’t use meetings just to pass information. Think of those man -hours as if it was Money – is a meeting the best use of that resource?

2) Send out an agenda with the meeting invitation – state an objective, which should be restated before the meeting and reviewed at the end. This allows people to decide if they need to be there and you can check whether it was successful.

3) Keep it short. Just because Outlook works in 1 hour chunks doesn’t mean you have to. How about 45 minutes, which is about as long as you will hold people’s attention. Or 30 minutes?

4) Write and issue short notes. These should follow the agenda, summarise the decisions and list any open points. Anyone who couldn’t make the meeting can read the notes instead.




Poor time management is seen as an individual’s problem, but the fix normally involves sending them on a cookie-cutter course about organising, to-do lists and prioritising. And maybe learning how to say “No” if there’s time at the end.

These courses don’t work, because they treat the symptoms, rather than the root causes. And all of the symptoms require the same treatment – their patented remedy, applied to just one person.

There are two problems:

  • Time Management is really about self-management, it’s about psychology. It starts from the inside, how you are hard-wired to relate to time. Are you Future, Past or Present orientated?
  • We all work within organisations and interact with customers, suppliers, partners and colleagues, making demands on each other’s time.

We cannot subdue time by behaviour change. Lack of time, is a cultural, systemic problem that no amount of self-organisation will solve.

It’s complicated.