Getting Things Done Review

Getting Things Done, By David Allen is an awesome book. Seriously, it revolutionized my productivity and organization. In a growing business (or ANY small business!), the number of items that you have to track grows nearly every week. A thing slipping through the cracks becomes more and more common. I can’t tell you how many business owners have asked me why their business wasn’t growing, or told me that they always feel like they are behind and just can’t get ahead. Many of these problems come from simple disorganization. Many great initiatives are complex projects, if you can’t stay organized with your day to day paperwork and tasks, how can you expect to launch new ideas or businesses?


Enter David Allen!


Mr. Allen has been doing this for a long time, and has lots of guides and systems for almost program you might use. His book has a TON of tips and tricks to help people manage their work flow. He has one main system though, to increase productivity. It breaks down something like this:


Take all the miscellaneous work, papers, notes, ideas, etc and run it through this matrix:



Is it Actionable?


Eliminate it – Trash

Incubate it – Someday/Maybe Lists

Reference it – Add to your filing system


Is it a Multi-Step Task?


Will it Take Less Than 2 Minutes? – Do it!

Delegate it – Add to Waiting For List

Add to your To-Do list


Create a Project Sheet w/ List of Actions


There are a LOT of details to go through to get to this point, of course. The weekly review is a critical time to make sure that everything is captured into your system. Having an inbox to capture everything is critical and so is emptying at least once a week. Taking the time to plan at different levels (Runway, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 feet, etc) allows you to create great projects and see them through to completion.


The system is also very customizable; I have used pieces and parts from all over the place to create my own personal system. There are specific guides for blackberries, for Outlook, Palm systems and more. I highly recommend that you also check out David Allen’s Blog, for ongoing great advice.



I can’t begin to cover all the great advice that David Allen has and his skill at helping you implement it. What I can say is: if you buy this book and actually put in some effort to learn and use the system, you WILL be amazed at how more organized and productive you are. I PROMISE.

A Professional Pants Kicking…

My oh-so brilliant brother pointed out that, while he agreed with many of my points, I tended to still use some of the partisan political language that may lead to some misunderstanding… To that end, he sent me this excellent article from the greatest newspaper on Earth (no exaggeration, it is the only news media I have ever found that is worth following and I read it every week): The Economist. Don’t let the name fool you, while it does have a business and economics tilt, there is a great deal of straight news along with political commentary and reporting.

After reading the article I responded to my brother by saying “Yeah, thats what I said…” albeit I could never have said it with the numerical support and elegant writing that The Economist does.

So check out the article here. And you can see a more detailed (and supported) version of what I was saying…

And although it is not a book, I am going to officially add The Economist magazine to my Business Guru Reading List. You won’t find a better updates or analysis on current events anywhere.

Life Hacker Book Review

I just had the pleasure of finishing my first pass through lifehacker, by Adam Pash and Gina Trapani. While not technically a business book, I have decided to add it to my Business Guru reading list. Business is all about doing things faster, better, cheaper and nothing is more important to a business person than time. Lifehacker is an awesome book and I am certain that everyone will find some tips and trick to make their lives a little easier. The book is so full of different ideas, that I could not possibly give a summary of them all here. But it includes purely technical “hacks” like how to host your own web server from home, to purely work-flow related ones like “how to manage your inbox”.  If you are like me, you have friends that are very tech- and gadget-saavy. But even when you have all the same tools that those folks have (a smart phone, dual monitors, laptops, tablets, etc) but they some always seem to be able to just DO more with them. If you want to learn how they do it, this is the book for you.


One piece of advice I will give, to save you some headaches. I found SO many useful things that it was impossible to do them all. What I did, and I recommend that you do, is to read it with a highlighter and some page flags handy. Pick three or four colors and associate them with a place or type of technology: home, office, phone, desktop, etc. As you read through the book flag things that you think would be useful for you to try and implement. When you are done, go through the book again, but just the flagged sections and make yourself a list in excel. Then you can use this (I am sure massive) list to prioritize items. Many of these tricks require building new habits, and you cannot build too many new habits at one time. You will also find that some will naturally come before others (e.g. it doesn’t do any good to set up a new task system on your outlook if you are going to move to a web-based task and calendar system, even though BOTH sounded like good ideas at the time).


My list has nearly 60 items on it, some that have been done, others that will be done as soon as this week and still others that probably won’t be done until I make a decision to invest some significant time and resources. But at the end of it, you will have a timeline or to-do list of personal productivity improvements that will give you an almost endless stream of ways to improve yourself and you productivity, without overloading you. And continuous improvement is what we this blog is all about, right?


So pick up a copy of this book and if nothing else, read the table of contents and flip to a couple things that catch your eye. I promise this book will pay for itself in no time.

How to do Annual Planning for Your Business

As I write this we are having the first cool, cloudy day in a long time, a reminder that winter and year-end will be here before we know it. Now is the time to start thinking about your annual planning process. This can be a difficult project to fit into any busy small business workload, but is absolutely critical to your long term success. Larger companies are at an advantage, as your support staff can help you keep things running on auto-pilot for a couple weeks. For the owners of small business or sole proprietors, this often means giving up weekends vacations to help make more time. Such is the curse of small business!


The good news is that, if you have a well-crafted business plan that you started your business with, the annual planning process can be fairly straightforward. If you do not, you will basically be building your business plan as part of the annual planning. Remember that a business plan is made of two distinct sections: Strategic Planning and Tactical Planning. For annual planning, we add the review of a third piece, your operations manual. I have included a ‘table of contents’ of the pieces that need to be reviewed and/or written as part of your annual plan:


Strategic Planning

  • Vision Statement
  • Mission Statement
  • Value Proposition
  • One (or Two) Year Goals
  • Business Model in Five Years
  • Business Model in 10 Years
  • Business Model in 20 Years
  • Exit Strategy


Tactical Planning

  • Marketing
    • Value Proposition
    • Target Markets and/or Customers
    • Marketing Communications & Methods
    • Products & Pricing
    • Financial
      • Annual Budget
      • Growth Projections
      • Cost & Staffing Projections
      • Operations
        • Scheduling (Revenue Maximization)
        • The Client Experience


Operations Manual

  • Client Acquisition and Service
  • Administration Procedures
  • Marketing



As you can see, if you have your business plan done, annual planning just means you review all these pieces in detail and update them based on the actual results of the year. You could most likely get this done in an afternoon. (Remember when I said you HAD to create a business plan because you wouldn’t have any more time than you do at start of your business to get this stuff down? Well, I told you so!)


For the rest of you, annual planning will mean drafting much of this stuff from scratch. The good news is, because you have been operating your business for some time now, you (should) have focused yourself much better and have a much better idea of what your business is and will continue to look like. So, that being said, let’s begin!


Vision and Mission

These are deceptively simple parts of the process. You would think that writing one or two sentences for each of these items would be easy. It is not. It can, however, be an excellent exercise. Your vision statement reminds you why you are in this particular business. It will typically be a “We will be” type statement. E.g. We will change the face of the widget industry by becoming the largest manufacturer of widgets in the world. As a side note, don’t be afraid to dream big. Even though this planning is done annually, your Vision represents your ultimate end goal. This is your life’s work so don’t sell yourself short. Your mission, on the other hand, is typically “We will do” type statement. E.g. We will produce widgets faster, of higher quality and of lower cost than any current widget manufacturer. These two items are the time for deep thinking. This is you making a promise to yourself and to the world, so make it clear why you are in business!


Value Proposition

I always encourage small business owners to include this idea in their planning. But this is the reality check. If you are going to enter a market (or continue in one) you need to have a clearly defined reason why you will be successful in it. Continuing from our previous example, this will be why you can make widgets faster, cheaper, better. What is unique about you that will allow you to perform your mission and therefore accomplish your vision?


Goals Planning

This area is a little more customizable. The only two pieces that are NOT optional are the one year goals and the exit strategy. You can create as many stops along the way as you think your business will need. Remember, planning goals is still strategic, it is not tactical. But goals are the first area of planning where numbers come into play. Start with your goals for the upcoming year and make a list. Goals will typically relate directly to revenue or profitability, but not always. Some common goals I have seen are:

  • Increase revenue by 20%
  • Sign up 10 new clients
  • Increase profit margin by 10%
  • Launch a new product
  • Expand into a new geographic area
  • Launch a new marketing campaign
  • Create an operations manual
  • Sell my business

You can always have more than one goal, in fact, I typically recommend that clients have at least two, but no more than four. You can have more than this only if you have multiple people who are going to be helping you accomplish them.


The other critical piece of this puzzle is the exit strategy. This should be a pretty simple piece to figure out, but you need to have some idea of how and when you want to exit the business. Do you want to extract enough cash to retire on? If so, how much do you need? Do you want to sell your business to someone? Do you want to pass the business on to someone? All of these questions will change how you build and run your business so it is important to know where you are headed. You do not need a detailed plan here. It could be as simple as “I want my son to continue my business”.


You can also do planning for interim steps. Once you have this year’s goals, and he end point in mind, it might be helpful to imagine what the intermediary steps look like. This will be different for everyone. But include things like expansion to other locations, hiring more staff, more products or even new businesses altogether. Take this time to put on paper what you think those steps will be and how long it will take to get there. While your one year goals need to be specific and measurable, these goals can be more vague. The further out you are going, the less definitive they can be. It is critical, though, to at least have an idea of where you are heading. Without it, you won’t go anywhere!


Be sure to tune in later, when we move on from our strategic planning to our tactical planning and projects.

More Kicking in More Pants

This is a follow-up/extension of my last blog post Education and Economics. A couple years ago, a young man named William Kamkwamba received a lot of attention for the very cool windmill he built at his home in Africa. There are a two TED talks featuring him, his first and his second interview. But I think that best interview is the one he did on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.


I want to make some very important points, so we are going to do an interactive type blog post here, ready? Ok, go watch the Jon Stewart video now and remember what the lines are that struck you the most.


All Done? Ok, let’s break this thing down. Most people I talk to hear the story and think, ‘oh, how neat! Isn’t he clever’? First things first… if that video doesn’t inspire and also scare the shit out of you, then you missed the point.  I want to walk you through what I think are the most important points/comments that he made.


Built a windmill at the age of 14

Ok, we haven’t even started yet and he is already awesome. Can you even get your 14 year old to finish their baking soda volcano for science class without your help? Yes? Great, if they can build by themselves ANYTHING that requires a dynamo, you don’t have to read this blog post.


Oh, by the way, he did it during a FAMINE that forced him to drop out of school.

How many of you have had to do ANYTHING while at the same time wondering if your family was going to starve to death? Imagine the kind of dedication, optimism, and perseverance that that would require. It puts the work ethic of nearly every American (myself included!) I have met to shame.


He couldn’t read English very well, so he taught himself mostly from the pictures

Really? He taught himself about electromagnetics with pictures? How many college graduates do you know that could do that? This is a guy who had to drop out of school and then decided to go to the lirary to educate himself. How many Americans do you know would voluntarily learn a new skill with no prodding or some sort of bribe? In fact, one of the key drivers of the sustained unemployment is that many of the unemployed have antiquated or non-existent skill sets. And no one can figure how to fix that problem! Really? The US Government can’t figure out how to solve this problem but an African boy with an elementary education did? COME ON PEOPLE!


Do you think if you took your 14 year old out of school he would say “I want to learn more, mom! I’m going to the library!”?



Out of materials he found

Ok, so we forget about the age thing, the famine thing and the lack of education thing (which is a BIG consolation to us). Assume you are pretty clever and dedicated; you have the plans, (which are probably step by step you found on Google, which is cheating, but we will let it slide). Now you have to find the parts. So you go to Amazon, EBay, who knows what else to buy the things you need. Oh wait? No internet? No supplies of any sort? So I have to understand the ideas well enough to look at SCRAPS and find things that will fill the purpose I need. That requires creativity and ingenuity beyond what most of have even dreamt about, I think. And don’t even get me started, on the circuit breaker he built to fix the problem of power surges in his house…


The basic story is amazing enough. But after watching it a few times, I started to realize there was an even more amazing thing here than the core story. And it was William’s mentality and belief system. Let’s take a couple quotes and look at them:


“At the time I wasn’t reading English very well, so most of the time I was using diagrams”

What he says here is not nearly as amazing to me as what he DOESN’T say. Which is “oh poor me, look how hard this was for me!” He just did what it took to get the job done, and doesn’t think that he should get extra attention stretching himself. What an amazing concept.


“Ok, if you are saying I am crazy, then I am crazy. But there is this picture in this book of a windmill and someone, somewhere made it, it didn’t fall out of the sky”

Holy cow. He saw a picture and thought, “If someone else did this then I can too”. Did he ask what supplies, time or education the other person had? NO! If someone else did it, I can to. This reminds me of a phrase that my good friend Patrick uses all the time ‘no excuses, play like a champion!’. We have entire generations people who think nothing of saying “Well I would or could but…insert lame excuses which really boil down to laziness here…


“Yes I want to go to college, but I am working on my SATs so I can”

Really? If an American DID pull this off, he would parlay it into a scholarship anywhere. THIS guy, however, doesn’t use take advantage of what he has done and still follows the rules of everyone else to get into college.


“I had never seen a computer or heard of the internet… what kind of animal is Google?… ok, let’s Google windmills…. Where was this Google all this time?!”

All I am going to say is: imagine if this kid had had a freaking IPad with 4G.


I never get tired of watching this video. It continually amazed me. And here is the connection to my other blog post about how we ruined our country by being spoiled and taking advantage of all the productivity and wealth we have. Think he is an exception? Sure, he probably is. Like, one in a million? Ok. There are 4 BILLION PEOPLE in the developing world. That means there are four thousand more people like him. Think about how many brand new Fortune 500 companies we could get out of that! And that is just the geniuses. Most of us aren’t a genius! So I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are still very special and are 1 in 1,000. That is four MILLION PEOPLE. That could do the same thing you can, if given half a chance (and considering some of them are STARVING, would do it for a whole lot less!).


This is like quantum physics. If it doesn’t change the way you see the world, then you simply don’t understand it. So seriously. Watch this video and be afraid, be very afraid. And then start working HARD!

Education & Economics: A Kick in the Pants

I just read an article on Seth Godin’s blog about the education system in the US. It was an excellent article that ties into a book I am reading called Endgame by John Maulding. I am not reviewing this book for the blog, but I was struck by how these two pieces work together. An idea that I have thought about (and tried to explain) for some time now began to crystallize.

Here is a summary of Seth’s piece:

  • At the turn of the century, industrialists were outraged that Congress was going to outlaw child labor. “We can’t afford to hire adult workers,” they said.
  • Congress sold this plan to them by explaining that they would end up getting more compliant and productive workers after they have gone to school, because school teaches them to sit in rows and do as they are told.
  • Large scale education was built on creating people that work well inside the system, not creating scholars.
  • There are two types of jobs in the world. In tradable jobs , you are instructed to do something that can be done anywhere, like designing cars or answering phones. Non-tradable jobs must be done in place, like preparing food or performing services.
  • While service jobs are great, we need to have both in our economy, but from 1990 to 2008, the US economy only created 600,000 tradable jobs.
  • If you perform a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, then they can find someone cheaper than you to do it.
  • Despite this, the school systems are churning out millions of kids looking for jobs where someone tells them exactly what to do.

Contrast that to the main tenets in the Maulding book (remember, the Maulding book is an entire book on economics, so paraphrasing is not easy nor is it inclusive). Maulding writes about the staggering amount of debt that we as US citizens are now responsible for, both individual and government debt. The level of debt is not sustainable and must be paid down.

To pay it down, we either have to increase productivity (which can ONLY be done by new technology, like the internet, or by increasing population) or decrease consumption. This does NOT just mean cuts in government spending. What it means is that a larger portion of our GDP will be consumed by debt reduction, which means it is NOT available for investment or consumption. This puts a significant drag on our economy, which will most likely lead to a sustained period of decreased consumption (read: standard of living) for most Americans. Period. That’s it. There is no other choice!

For every person that is receiving government payments (like unemployment insurance) that money has to come out of other businesses and individuals in the form of taxes, which means even LESS money is available for consumption and investment. We all have to work much harder, to make LESS MONEY. (Note that “less money” does not necessarily mean fewer physical dollars; it could very well mean that our dollars just buy less stuff).

See the connection, yet?

I admit it can be tenuous. But here it is: we trained generations of people to think that if they did what they were told, they would be taken care of. We created the entitlement mentality.

On the flip side of that, the people in charge assumed, “if the people do what they are told, we HAVE to compensate them.” This created the system we live in now, where we just assume that if we suit up and show up, we will be able to afford 50″ HDTVs, gadgets of all types, whatever kind of food we want whenever we want, vacations, cars, etc, etc, etc.

American workers have been chronically overpaid. Disagree? The debt we have as a country is proof of that. How does an individual rack up debt? They spend more than they make. Expand that idea to a country. We consumed more goods and services than we produced as a country and we funded the shortfall with borrowing. But now we have to pay it back and to do so, we have to cut consumption. But at the same time the developing economies are getting stronger and more productive which means by definition, their citizens will be able to buy more and more, while we buy less and less.

If you think that the last two years have been really tough, you ain’t seen nothing yet! How many people do you know that are actually living worse than they were a few years ago? How much REAL belt tightening have you seen? There is more, MUCH more to come. And the education system failed us by not giving us the tools to do something about it for ourselves.

How many of the unemployed that you know (and we all know some!) have taken it upon themselves to increase their skill set or educate themselves further? This is a personal pet peeve: Unemployment is something like 12% in California where I live and I still struggle to find decent employees at a reasonable wage, and I am not hiring for minimum wage jobs!

My premise is this: If you want to continue to live in the manner you have become accustomed to, you have to work harder and longer than you ever have. As soon as a few people start accepting this fact, they will start taking the jobs they thought they were too good for or that didn’t pay enough. This will start the downward spiral of wages and along with it, standards of living. It may take a decade or more, but once it starts, it will be a decade like none of us has ever seen. And it has barely even begun …

Good to Great Book Review

Good to Great, by Jim Collins is the “prequel” to his other very popular book “Built to Last”. It was one of the first books I read when I was charged with running the day to day operations of my company and helping to actually create the strategy and structure of our business. It is an extremely well written book for two reasons: 1. It is very well researched and most of the ideas are based on the real actions of successful companies and 2. It does not SEEM overly complex. Mr. Collins does a great job of breaking down the findings of his research into some straight forward topics that are sure to be useful for almost anyone. I think in this book review I am going to try to something different. I am going to actually give a synopsis of the book, enough that can get the main ideas without having to read it.


Jim Collins breaks down the six characteristics of companies that went from good to great into three areas: Disciplined People, Disciplined Thought, and Disciplined Action. Each area has two traits that the good to great companies all exhibited in some way or form.


Disciplined People

The first step in building a good to great company involves getting the right leadership and the right human capital.


Level 5 Leadership

The good to great companies were not, typically, headed by famous, headline grabbing CEOs or other visionaries. He found that most good to great (GTG) companies had leaders that were “a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will”. I found this the most personally challenging part of the book to implement personally. Becoming a “level 5 leader” is not easy. You have to take responsibility for all failures and little, if any, credit for success. At the same time, you are constantly grooming the other people in your organization to take your place. While it may seem that “training your replacement” is a great way to put yourself out of the job, Jim Collins found that every organization that had a level 5 leader grew better and better as the leader was able to step out of their current roles to focus on newer, better, and bigger things. But it takes someone very special to say to themselves “What I do can easily be replicated by someone else in my organization”.


First Who… The What

This is one of the easier concepts to grasp and anyone who has hired before will understand how intuitive this is. The basic premise is, hire the smartest people you can find, even if you don’t always have a clear job role for them to fill. Instead of creating a strategy or vision and trying to hire the people to make that work, GTG companies “got the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off”. Only then do they decide exactly where to drive the bus. I cannot encourage people to follow this advice enough. I recently told one of my managers to hire someone, even though the manager said “I don’t think we have enough work for them to do? Why are we hiring them?” Several weeks later, we already are wondering how we ever got along without that person. In a dynamic organization there will ALWAYS be work to do for a smart, hard-working, self-starter.


Disciplined Thought

Once you have the right people on the bus and the right person driving it, the next step is to decide where you want to go.


Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith)

Jim found an unwavering faith that GTG companies would succeed in the end. It was built into the culture and everyone assumed that they would triumph eventually. At the same time, the leaders had to not create a culture where anyone who was not triumphant would be ridiculed. On the road to triumph, they made many mistakes and had to confront those mistakes. The idea I found the most powerful was his take on motivation. You should not spend time trying to motivate people. If you have the right people on the bus, they will be self-motivated. Your job is to not to de-motivate them by ignoring the challenges they face, not supporting them, and by playing the “blame-game”.


The Hedgehog Concept

If you read nothing else in this book, I HIGHLY recommend picking up just this one chapter. The Hedgehog Concept was the single best idea that I pulled from this. I think it is particularly powerful for small businesses that get confused and overwhelmed by the day to day operations of pleasing customers. Many of my clients would benefit greatly from taking the time to ask themselves three questions and then turn down business that didn’t fit the result:

  1. What are you deeply passionate about?
  2. What can you be the best in the world at?
  3. What drives your economic engine?

Jim illustrates the concept with these three questions being circles (like a Venn Diagram) and the area where all three overlap is where your business should be focused. The concept goes much deeper than that and I cannot do it justice here, but suffice it to say, if you are struggling with your strategic planning (or haven’t ever DONE it!) this chapter will walk you through the ins and outs of asking and answering these questions in such a way as to give your business powerful purpose.


Disciplined Action

Once you have the right people and the right plan, it is time to put it into action!


Culture of Discipline

This is another great idea that can be VERY scary for small business owners. The idea behind a culture of discipline is that if you have the right people and you have instilled in them your “Hedgehog Concept” and shown them that you are not afraid to “confront the brutal facts” you will not need bureaucracy or heavy handed controls to monitor their performance. They will simply know what needs to be done, do it, and come get you if they (or something) gets screwed up! This can be very scary for entrepreneurs because they have a tendency to want to micromanage everything. After all, they created this company so they know how to do any part of it better than anyone else! While this may be true in absolute terms, you will never be able to grow if you can’t instill a sense of ownership and entrepreneurial spirit in your staff.


Technology Accelerators

This is one area where the small business folks have an advantage! Jim Collins found that almost all GTG companies leveraged technology to accelerate their transition from good to great. He did NOT find any evidence that technology was a leading or driving cause. The GTG companies were pioneers in using “select” technologies, to accelerate and support a change in place. Large companies often have a much harder time finding and implementing technology to accelerate change. Small companies can find many useful technological items that can make a BIG difference in day to day operations. The key here is to think about the strategy first, then do some research to see if there is new technology available to accelerate what you are trying to accomplish with you strategy.


The ending idea that I also found very enlightening is that most of the GTG companies did not make a big deal out of their transition from good to great. The CEO did not announce one day “we are going to go from good to great!” and then have it happen. In fact, the companies that had big splashy initiatives tended to be the ones that went from great to good or from good to bad. This is a very interesting point: you cannot force this to happen. If you act in a certain way, day after day, momentum builds and good things happen (the Fly Wheel as Jim calls it). If you don’t make good choices day in and day out, you kill momentum and nothing great gets accomplished (the Doom Loop). This is great advice for ALL Americans. We are the KINGS of the get rich quick, lose weight with a pill, and one click to solve all your problems strategies. What Mr. Collins found was that, more often than not, a series of small, intelligent choices and a LOT of hard work is how most of these companies went from Good to Great!


That is all I have to say about this book. I hope you enjoyed my meandering through the main ideas and found it a useful “Cliff Notes”. I encourage anyone who is charged with creating and fulfilling a vision in their company, and needs other people to help them do it, to pick up a copy of this book and check it out!