Wiser Blog: Ideas and Tips to Be Smarter at Work

Company blog from Wiser, the New York-based startup on a mission to help you and your team get more insight out of less information at work. Ideas, tips & more.

4 Easy Concepts to Make Your Team Smarter

4 Easy Concepts to Make Your Team Smarter

At Wiser, we face all the challenges of any group or company. We have multiple teams that need to coordinate, cooperate, and communicate effectively to help our clients and build our product. We have a mission to fulfill, but our roles compel each of us to prioritize things differently. As the company has grown, we’ve tried to consistently incorporate new ideas to improve our workflow and ease friction. Many of these are simple concepts that have become part of the team’s daily lexicon, things we can quickly reference in the midst of a chat or meeting to help move things forward. In short, they help us communicate faster and more effectively.

Here are a few concepts we’ve been using recently to help make our team smarter.

1. 30% vs. 90% Feedback

We’ve long admired the folks at 42Floors for offering simple but powerful ideas for improving how to get work done. Jason Freedman recently outlined the concept of thirty percent feedback in a blog post that quickly trended on our Wiser feed. The full post is certainly worth a read, but in brief:

When we’re working on a project, it’s crucial to get constructive feedback. Often, however, we aren’t about the kind of feedback we’re seeking. Is our project thirty percent done, and we’re interested in a broad conversation about the direction we’re taking? Or do we consider it ninety percent finished, and need detailed feedback on the little details that will provide a final layer of polish? Clarifying exactly what kind of feedback will be most effective for your stage in the process lets the person reviewing target their comments.

On our team, we find this practice gets the person asking for it the most useful feedback, and allows the person giving their input a clearer sense of how they can help.

2. Checklists

Atul Gawande, a surgeon and journalist, wrote the 2009 bestseller The Checklist Manifesto about how simple checklists can dramatically improve flight safety, medical care, business processes, and other complex team endeavors.

Not surprisingly, we think creating and delivering best-in-class software to high-performing teams and companies is itself a pretty complex endeavor. From testing new product features to preparing for sales calls, we rely heavily on checklists to make sure we’re performing to the best standard as often as we can.

If adhered to, checklists can create added accountability for completing tasks accurately, though Gawande thinks they need an extra element to really be effective. He suggests creating a policy in which any member of a team, even the most junior, can challenge any other member of the team for not adhering to the checklist. Empowering your team to point out when proper processes aren’t being followed helps ensure everyone is held to the same standard and fewer steps are inadvertently skipped. The result is more consistent  execution for your business, flight plan or surgical procedure.

3. Calibrating Feedback

A few weeks ago, Jeff Weiner, CEO at LinkedIn, wrote about how senior people often inadvertently create problems without realizing it by giving casual feedback. He explained:

“[O]ftentimes what I thought was a take-it-or-leave-it remark would create a massively disruptive fire drill. Up until that moment, I had no idea my opinion was being weighted so heavily.”

While Wiser is a much smaller company than LinkedIn, we still notice this dynamic and think Weiner’s prescription for avoiding it is useful, even in the context of cross-functional teams where collaboration rules and traditional hierarchy holds little sway. When reviewing a project, points of feedback that could have outsize impact are qualified in three categories: One person’s opinion, strong suggestion, or mandate.

If someone on the team disagrees with something but doesn’t feel strongly, and their point is being considered by the team, they can qualify it as one person’s opinion. This helps relieve the team of weighing it too carefully. If the disagreement is felt more strongly, the person can qualify that they see their input as a strong suggestion. This most often occurs when they are a stakeholder in the decision, and will feel its impact more directly. Finally, when a manager views an outcome as having a potentially seriously negative effect, they will mandate that their view be followed. This is the so-called “nuclear option” that should be rarely used. In Weiner’s words:

“Issuing mandates when it makes sense can pay huge dividends by enabling the company to avoid prohibitively costly mistakes. However, issue them too often or without the right justification and there is no faster way to signal your lack of trust and demotivate the team. Try to use this category sparingly (if at all).”

4. 5-Why Analysis

The 5-why analysis (or simply, 5-whys) is a concept developed at Toyota to help avoid mistakes and improve processes by uncovering the root cause of a problem. Identifying the root cause of a problem is important because it saves you and your company from wasting time with an ineffective solution by rooting out the false assumptions and other logic traps that very often cause problems. In short, the 5-whys helps increase the odds that the solution you apply will effectively prevent a problem from happening again.

There are many diagrams to help put the 5-whys into practice, but the basic concept is as follows:

  1. Identify the problem.
    e.g. A special database integration we undertook for a Wiser enterprise client took several days longer to complete than we expected, i.e. we missed our deadline.

  2. Review the problem and ask: why did this happen?
    e.g. Because our initial estimate wasn’t accurate.

  3. Review your answer and apply the same question: why?
    e.g. Because we didn’t take into account how long it would take to integrate with their database.

  4. Repeat again: why?
    e.g. Because we thought their database would follow certain standards.

  5. And again: why?
    e.g. Because we didn’t ask the client if their database conformed to our expected standards before we provided the estimate.

In the example above, the root cause we’ve identified is an assumption about the project we undertook that turned out to be false. In this instance, developing a simple set of questions to ask in advance of future integrations will help us provide a much more realistic estimate and thereby hit our deadline.

The 5 steps in the process is an average number of steps typically required to arrive at the root cause of the problem, but more steps can be necessary. For more on the 5-whys, Karn Bulsuk, an Australian-based management consultant, has some great resources on his blog.

Nathaniel Emodi heads up business development at Wiser, the private social newsreader for teams, companies and organizations.

Two Simple Habits to Become a More Productive Reader

Two Simple Habits to Become a More Productive Reader

Modern professionals spend an inordinate amount of time looking for, reading, and processing information. Just in the last day, you’ve likely read news, reports, research, commentary, and/or blog posts related to your job.

According to a 2012 McKinsey study, the average knowledge worker spends 19% of his week searching for, and gathering, information.1 In a 50-hour work-week, that’s almost 10 hours.

What if you could reduce that time?

There are many different techniques for teaching yourself to read more efficiently. Some of our favorite efficiency experts, like Tim Ferriss and Clay Johnson, have explored such techniques in detail.

We think cultivating two simple and intuitive habits can measurably reduce how much time you spend reading at work.

1. Ask Yourself Why

Let’s face it: we’re adrift in a sea of information. This requires that you first decide what information you consider to be important.

Our first suggestion is an obvious and often overlooked idea: take a moment to consider why you’re reading what you’re reading. Answering the question, “why am I reading this?” before digging in should help clarify your goal(s).

Are you reading something to learn about a topic you’re researching? To keep up with developments in your field? To get background on a potential client or partner you’re scheduled to meet with?

Or are you simply killing time, unsure of what you’re looking for?

Clarifying a goal has been proven to boost performance because it forces you to proceed with purpose. Unless you’re looking for serendipity, or just want to take a break, try stopping yourself before you begin any unnecessary reading. When you realize you don’t, you’ll save your own time.

2. Look for the Information You Need

With your purpose firmly in mind, it’s important to stop reading every word out of a misplaced sense of obedience. Here’s what we mean.

As cited elsewhere, Dr. William G. Perry, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, once ran a test. He asked 1,500 first-year college students to read a 30-page history book chapter in 20 minutes.3 Before they started, Dr. Perry told the group they’d be asked to write a short essay about the chapter when they were finished. 

After the reading, only 1% of the students (15 of the 1,500) were able to write a cogent essay that summarized the chapter’s main theme. Perry learned that the successful students had focused on the chapter’s “Summary” section and the summary blurbs in the margin. He contrasted this goal-driven approach with the majority of students who ploddingly read every word at the expense of their overall purpose.

Dr. Perry called this behavior “obedient purposelessness.” Others may recall the old idiom about missing the forest for the trees.

Sound familiar? I think it’s safe to say we all sometimes succumb to obedient purposelessness. Dr. Perry’s solution was to teach students to “ask themselves what it is they want to get out of a reading assignment, then look around for those points.” This sounds simple, but it works.

Were you tasked with summarizing an important legal document for your team? By all means, please read every word. But are you looking for the gist of a news story, or a few key facts ahead of a client meeting? By following Dr. Perry’s recommendation, you’ll gather what you need, move on, and save time.

Developing these two basic habits should help you trim unproductive reading, focus on what’s important, and read more efficiently.

Notes

[1]  I’ve resorted to a common term here, though the McKinsey report uses “interaction worker”. In a separate HBR blog post, the McKinsey authors defined such workers as “managers, professionals, sales people, and others whose work requires frequent interpersonal interactions, independent judgment, and access to knowledge.”

Nathaniel Emodi heads up business development at Wiser, a web app that helps people find and share more insightful information at work.

5 Places to Get the Best News by Email for Your Industry, Company and Job

Morning News by Francis Luis Mora, San Diego Museum of Art

At Wiser, we’ll be among the first to admit that too much communication happens over email. That’s one of the reasons we’ve built a platform to make information sharing and discovery at work easier with fewer emails. But, as we’ve argued elsewhere, email still has many advantages. A key finding in a recent survey from Quartz confirmed what we’ve long believed at Wiser, namely that an email digest is still the preferred way for professionals to catch up on headlines. Quartz reported that 60% of executives turn to email newsletters most often to find their news, beating out dedicated news websites and apps, social media and print.

We’ve compiled a list of our five favorite ways to get the best news for your industry, company and job delivered directly to your inbox.

1. HappyInbox

We’re big fans of HappyInbox, a new site built to help you discover the best email newsletters. The layout and design of the newsletters are beautiful, and the summary of each helps you quickly figure out if you’ll want to subscribe. While the current listings veer mainly toward tech, design and startups, HappyInbox allows anyone to submit a newsletter for inclusion, which should help address other areas over time.

2. SmartBrief

SmartBrief’s digests are among the very best. The company works with dozens of industry associations, professional societies and companies to produce curated daily newsletters on a wide range of business topics. Each digest summarizes the day’s most important stories, and is free to subscribe to. You can browse different SmartBrief topics by industry, like healthcare, media or tech, a nice way to find what’s most relevant.

3. Newsle

We love Newsle for sending us daily updates when someone in our network makes the news. A free account syncs with your LinkedIn, Facebook or email contacts, so when someone you know appears in an article, you’ll know about it. We also like the separate notifications when a journalist we know writes a story, and the ability to follow public figures as an extra way to keep up with movers and shakers that matter to us.

4. Owler

Are you in a field like investing or professional services that requires you to track companies or competitors? The daily email digests from Owler are a great way to get the latest news on a list of companies you follow. We also like how Owler lists the day’s trending companies, based on funding news, M&A and other events, and even recommends companies we may be interested in following based on those already on our list.

5. Wiser Email Digests

This list would be incomplete without mentioning our own free Wiser email digests. We’ve designed the Wiser digests to give you the best recommendations for your industry, topics and issues of choice, along with a recap of suggested reads from your team. Our recommendations are pulled from thousands of sources and take into account popularity among industry experts, news aggregators and other signals. Get Wiser with a free account for you and your close colleagues, or start a free trial for your whole team or company. 

Posted by Nathaniel Emodi, director of business development.