September 18, 2020

How to be (not) stupid at work

As a knowledge worker, the main thing I was paid for was my knowledge, experience and expertise. I wasn’t paid for moving files from one folder to another. Or moving data from one Excel sheet to another. I was paid for collecting, collating, researching, analyzing and developing conclusions.

Do you know how some people, when they start a new job, feel like frauds? They feel like they do not deserve to be there. They feel that HR made a hiring mistake. That somehow, you were the one that slipped through the cracks. I felt that way for the better part of my time in management consulting. Who was I to help clients navigate their problems? Who was I to develop organizational strategies for organizations that had been around for many decades?

And along those lines, the one thing I dreaded the most was making a dumb mistake, either in front of colleagues or my client. And if you want to be equally as stupid, please make all the same mistakes I did:

Don’t listen carefully

I can count on my hand, the many times where the client would say something in a conversation (or in previous conversations) and I would ask a question that they had already answered. I mean, my memory was not awful, but there were times where I would completely blank out and only too late realize that the client had already answered my question before.

Harder to catch was when the answer to my question was inferred through their previous responses, but I made that mistake as well. Looking back at it, I thought that I did not do enough deep thinking about what the clients said, and what it meant.

Tip: Ask yourself, after crucial conversations, how does what this person say relate to what I already know? Is it similar? Is it in conflict? What does that mean then?

Multi-task

No matter what project I worked on, there was always a rush to complete the project to meet deadlines. Maybe that says something about the project management on those projects.

The surest way for me to increase my chances of making a mistake and to be inefficient was by multi-task on different projects. Doing the finances for one project, while doing e-learning, while also doing my expenses. Not only would switching tasks take time to get back on track, but multi-tasking ensured that I would do multiple things poorly. Plus, there were times where I may forget about the task I switched away from, thinking that I had completed it when it was just the opposite. I would then scramble to complete that task, often minutes away from the deadline.

Tip: Ask yourself what the cost of switching tasks is. How can you batch similar tasks together so that you can be more efficient?

Don’t think ahead

I have to say that this is one of the tougher mistakes to avoid. It requires thinking ahead. What do I mean? Imagine that the client asks you something, and you say that it is no problem. You say no problem because you want to ensure great customer service and build the relationship. Except when you actually go to do whatever the client asks, you realize that you encounter problems that you did not think ahead of time. For example, the client asks for a module on a piece of software you are installing, but you realize that the module means re-designing the architecture of your software, which is challenging at that point. Sure, there are ways around the problem, or working with the client to resolve any issues, but if you had took the time to think ahead, you would not be in that situation.

Tip: Don’t be afraid to take the time to stop and reflect. What does that actually mean? And then what? And then what? Often times, you may have to think about the five ‘next steps’ to realize what something actually means.

Be unprepared for meetings

I have been in meetings where things did not go well. Maybe the projector was not working. Or a person’s laptop would die and they had critical information to present. In these cases, not only were you wasting your time, worst, you were also wasting other people’s time.

I’ve had clients walk out on meetings because it was not a productive use of time for them. That leaves you feeling great.

Tip: Take a look at your meetings in advance. First, do you even need the meeting? If so, what do you want out of the meeting? How can you make the meetings more productive, not just for you but everyone?

Not putting yourself in another person’s shoes

I can’t point to when I made the transition, but I know that my work transformed into something I was proud of when, before I sent anything over (deliverable, report, e-mail), I asked myself the question “how can I make the receiver’s life easier”.

If I was sending over an e-mail to the client, I would often draft up the e-mail, ask myself this question, and then completely re-format and re-type the e-mail so that the client got what they actually wanted. I have drafted up complete e-mails that can be opened and sent without the client having to type or change anything.

Tip: Think of yourself as part of a factory assembly line. Every person on the assembly line adds ‘value’ in some way. What value are you adding? And how can you increase the value you are adding when things pass through you?

Make careless mistakes by rushing

Typos, wrong calculations, wrong e-mail recipients. These are all mistakes that happen to me when I try to rush through things too quickly.

Back in school, the teacher handed out a test face down and told us, when he said so, to flip over the paper and to do it as quickly as possible. I remember being excited about flipping through and being the first to complete the test because there was a prize for those that finished the fastest.

I flipped over the paper and began right away. There was a list of instructions, numbered 1 – 30. It went from being simple tasks such as filling in blanks and writing your name on the top right hand corner of the page, to complex and absurd, such as standing up and counting down from 10 or punching three holes into the top of your paper.

As I was doing all of these things, there were others around me who were laughing out loud at those doing the absurd things.

Too late, I realized that because we were rushing through, we had not carefully read the instructions at the top of the page. The instructions said to read through each of the instructions, but to not do them. Then, after reading, only do one instruction, which was to put your name on the top right hand corner of the page.

Even after that embarrassing lesson, I still rushed through things as quickly as possible.

Tip: There is a time and place to do things quickly, but there is always time to be careful. Either you rush now, and fix a mistake later, or you take the time now, so that you don’t make the mistake in the first place.

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