January 27, 2022

Words And Action – The Power Of A Common Language For Productivity (Video Podcast)

In this week's podcast, Todd and Robert discuss the power and importance of having a common language when it comes to your team's productivity.

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Words And Action – The Power Of A Common Language For Productivity (Video Podcast)

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0:00:05.1 Todd Brown: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another Change Your Game with GTD Podcast. My name is Todd Brown, and I’m here as always with Robert Peake.

0:00:13.2 Robert Peake: Hey, Todd.

0:00:16.4 TB: Hey, Robert. Our goal in this podcast series is really to give you some inspiration, hopefully, some education, a little bit of enlightenment about the Getting Things Done methodology and how it can help you to be more productive, be more effective, but also do that in ways that reduce your stress levels, keep your head clear, and allow you to shut off from work when you wanna shut off from work. And Robert, as you and I were talking today about what we were going to talk about, a topic that came up that apparently, you and I both recently had experience of in our client conversations and in our own work had to do with language, the language of productivity. The words that we use, and the importance really of having a common understanding of what words mean in a productive sense. So what comes to mind for you as we sort of kick off the conversation? What do you think is relevant?

0:01:11.4 RP: Well, definitely a hot topic for me as someone who thinks about and works with language a lot as a writer, as a poet, and as a consultant. It’s amazing what a difference a term makes sometimes in terms of people being able to align with… Align with a shared sense of purpose or goal. GTD has its own language, and I think sometimes what occurs to me is that we can potentially get into a bit of inside baseball, a bit of jargon, when we’re talking to each other as fellow practitioners. So one thing that occurs to me is that there’s a great opportunity to get the principles of GTD, understand those, and then make sure as an organization, you’re aligned on what the terms mean and also how we use that to collaborate effectively, having a shared language basically, I guess, is what I’m talking about. And yes, the kind of natal language, whatever first language or whatever language is you speak, human languages are one thing, but also just understanding what we mean when… Do we call it a project? Do we call it an outcome, do we call it a… What is all that? So I think it’s a great topic.

0:02:32.4 RP: I think just as it’s incredibly important that you know why you’re labeling things the way you are for your individual reference systems and that kind of thing, I think it’s equally important to understand why you’re labeling things or flagging things or using the words you’re using to communicate in certain ways with your colleagues, and whether or not… Whether or not they actually know what you’re intending when you say that. So we always look at kinda going slow to go fast, to get kind of some foundation laid and to get things… To get everyone kind of on the same page about what’s going on in order for everyone to then really be more effective, and I think having that shared understanding of what we mean when we say what we say is a really great behavior to front load at the start of a project, at the start of a team alignment, at the start of anything. So yeah, a lot of kinda high-level thoughts there just about the importance of language, the importance of language in individual productivity systems and the importance, especially when we’re communicating with one another. What stands out to you? You’ve recently been doing some work actually with people around the language they use, groups of GTD practitioners and helping them collaborate more about that. What was that like, and what kind of stood out to you from that experience?

0:03:58.8 TB: Yeah, thanks. I think the thing that… As you were talking about it, something that came to mind for me is that before we even get into interpersonal communication, quite often the language that we use in getting things done helps people to broaden their understanding really of what’s helpful in terms of the way things are called, even if I’m just talking about the way that I understand things myself, an example that comes to mind for me is the example of a waiting for situation. As soon as you explain the idea of a waiting for whether you’re doing a coaching or whether you’re doing a seminar, and people sort of get it… And for those of you that maybe aren’t familiar, a waiting for a situation is a situation where either you delegated something and you’re waiting for it to come back, so in other words, you’ve sent an important email, you’re waiting for a response, or you’ve asked someone to deliver a project for you, and you’re waiting for that to happen, or someone’s just promised you something, maybe… Who knows, maybe you’ve ordered something online? Who knows? But anyway, the situation is you’re waiting for the efforts or the results of somebody else’s work, that’s a waiting for.

0:05:07.7 TB: And the same in… In a lot of the work that I’ve done, as soon as you explain that idea, not only do people get it straight away, but they also understand I’ve had this in my life for a long time, and I’ve never had a name for it, right, most people. By far, the majority of people say, I just have not had a name for that, and just being able to name it gives them a sense of control over it and the way to handle it practically, that I think is a big upgrade for most people, but to come back to what you were saying. Yeah, I’ve just come back over the last couple of weeks, I was doing some work on the continent with clients face-to-face, first face-to-face work I’ve done in quite a long time. And the environment that I was working was an environment where this organization is using collaborative software, so team-oriented software, things like Microsoft Teams and Asana, and Jira, and things like that, and what was interesting for me was… Well, one of the things that I knew was going to be a topic of conversation was, how do we make sure that these group-oriented tools that we have work effectively with our individual GTD systems? I knew that was gonna be a topic and we spend some time talking about that and then refining that for the individuals in the room, but the other thing that took quite frankly, longer than I anticipated was coming to agreement about what things are gonna be called.

0:06:36.7 TB: We have in GTD this idea of a project, a multi-step outcome that you’re gonna do in the next few months or maybe up to a year. And there was a conversation around, “Okay, well, we have this thing in our collaborative software called… For example, called a ticket, right? They use Jira. So how does a ticket relate to a project or how does a ticket relate to the next action? We have these things in our collaborative software called epics. Is that something that even exists in our GTD systems and how do we refer to them? So it was… As I said, it took us the better part of about an hour and a half by the time we talked through absolutely everything, but the result of that was I think that everybody came out of that with a much clearer understanding not just about… Not just of how their individual system is going to help them, but also about how are they gonna have efficient conversations with each other about how we best make use of this new methodology as part of the bigger jigsaw puzzle that we have to… The bigger productivity jigsaw puzzle that we have to try to complete.

0:07:47.5 TB: So yeah, as you say, quite timely… Does that trigger anything for you in terms of different perspectives?

0:07:54.9 RP: Yeah, no, I think that’s really interesting. And as you talk about these different systems and approaches to managing people’s focus, time and energy, there are… There’s a lot of crossover, right? The waiting for in our world is very similar to what we would call blockers on a Kanban in a kind of scrum-style situation, right? It’s called we can’t progress this until this other thing external to our team basically happens. So it is a kind of universal thing, and I think a lot of the power of GTD is when people start to realize, as you say, this exists, this is reality in terms of work flow and work management, that these kinda things show up and sprints are just time-boxed mini projects, Epics, or actual projects, and how you go into the detail and define those things. The software world is really, I think, done a lot to get clear about language, and partly I think this comes from the fact that programming languages are incredibly precise, right? You can’t just kind of make it up as you go along or write it the way you would write a spoken or written language and hope the compiler is gonna get your jist, right?

0:09:10.9 RP: It’s very prescribed, it’s very specific. As a result, it allows the people in the program world, to collaborate very effectively, and there’s this kind of… This hilarious pie chart, I saw one time, the survey of what are some of the most difficult aspects of programming, and they were talking about object inheritance and structuring design patterns, all these different things, and the overwhelmingly large part of the part of the pie chart said figuring out what to name our variables.


0:09:46.5 RP: And it’s… As a long-term programming background person, that’s absolutely, absolutely true. So I think it’s amazing how powerful language can be. I think it’s no surprise that a lot of these methodologies that really work to focus people in on what’s the goal, where are we headed? That are very effective have evolved in the software world, the ones that are truly flexible enough to work, right, that aren’t so rigid that they end up getting into the Mythical Man-Month and a lot of these other problems with personnel management. And I think one of the most powerful aspects, as you mentioned, is really getting to under scripts with the desired outcome for the rest of us sort of knowledge workers that aren’t in on these sprint planning sessions with our product manager figuring out and voting on what the different features should be…

0:10:45.6 RP: It’s amazing to me still how many organizations launch Project TACO. They give it some cute acronym or name or whatever, and then people have on their list, I’m working on Project TACO, and I say, “Well, what’s the actual desired outcome?” And they think about it for a bit, and we sometimes go back and forth a little bit, and it turns out the desired outcome is that their ERP system is fully installed and optimized, and I go, “Why aren’t we just saying that all the time?” You know what? It’s amazing to how better outcomes emerge more quickly in terms of what the next steps are, in terms of who’s got what and who needs to do what, and so forth, when you stop calling it Project TACO, and you start calling it ERP system fully running. So yeah, big, big, big fan of appropriate use of language coming from those two different disciplines, the expressive one of poetry and the very precise one also and a very different way of computer programming so…

0:11:49.3 RP: Yeah, I think it’s important to understand what parts of a software system mapped to what… How you’re gonna use that in your GTD system, Outlook tasks can represent either projects or actions, and I think it’s equally important that what actually goes into that system and what everybody looks at together, too, when they come together to collaborate, is an agreed upon outcome, it’s a really clearly agreed upon outcome with whatever level of detail, too, that you need to put into that about what the stakeholders in the ERP system, for example, all want to be true to make it truly get signed off as a success. But wow, desired outcome. Some people don’t realize that how many they have and haven’t taken the time to define what desired really is, too, what the success state is, but it sure makes a difference to have a long list of success states you’re looking at rather than a long list of code words that you’re constantly mapping and deciphering in your brain. It’s amazing, too, how much people are working on a thing versus working toward an outcome just based on the way that they hold it in terms of language. I don’t know. What do you think?

0:13:07.5 TB: Yeah, as you were talking about that, it takes me back to the one environment where it really was preferable to have projects with names like Project TACO, and that was when I was back… When I was still working on Wall Street, and I spent some time in an M&A department, a mergers and acquisitions department, and all of the projects that were underway and the projects of course, were company X is buying company Y, right? All of those projects had names like Project TACO, Project Rutabaga, Project Reindeer, Project whatever, and that was simply because you did not want it to be generally known that even within the bank, of course, that company X was thinking about buying company Y. So other than that, I’m completely with you. And it is so vanishingly rare that people have really figured out what is our desired outcome, painted a really rich picture when they’re working together on a project of what done looks like. That is… In my experience, there’s a lot of potentially very, very valuable work to be done there, and we’ve talked in the past about… One of the tools that we’ve got in the GTD world that can help us to ensure that we looked at our projects from all of the appropriate and helpful angles, this mechanism or this process that we call the natural planning model, it can help with that.

0:14:25.8 TB: But no, I’m with you completely. It’s a… The other thing that came to mind for me as you were talking about it was I think that another interesting evolution that’s been happening, and this goes… My career spans many decades now. One of the interesting things that’s happened, I think, is that the tools that have been available for planning and the tools that are labeled planning tools have started to embed in them more flexibility, less sort of enhanced structure, and that, I think, has been a very positive thing. I think about early on when I was… Again, when I was first starting my career, the tools that were available, and I’m talking about primarily talking about technical tools that had to do with planning, there were tools like Microsoft Project, which is… Which of course famously had been around for a long time, and other project management tools like that. And of course, if you believe that that’s what planning looks like, right, if I’m gonna buy a new mobile phone, I need to crack up on a Microsoft project file and start to plan it with that sort of structure, then you might have less… You might feel sort of less comfortable with the idea that planning… Planning is…

0:15:43.0 TB: What enough planning names is contingent on the size of the project, who’s on it, and frankly, and this is I think that sort of the wonderful phrase that we use in getting things done, how much planning is necessary? Enough planning to get that thing off your mind, that’s how much planning is necessary. So it then becomes a very personal thing, and of course, here we’re talking primarily about individual planning, although the natural planning model, of course, can be used for teams, but again, getting back to this point about language, I think that if you had said… Back in the day, if you had said, “What’s the relationship between a line item on a Microsoft project line?” I don’t even know what that’s called. Task? I think it might be called a task. Anyway, and what we would call a next action in getting things done, you’d very quickly get to the realization that things that are planned in Microsoft Project typically don’t come anywhere near the level of specificity that the next action has, and that then implies, “Hey, there’s value there.”

0:16:54.8 TB: What getting things done is saying is that in order for us to be most effective and most efficient as individuals and as members of teams, we really need to think this down to the level of very practical, visible, physical… What do I do next, right? And that’s not something that’s gonna be stored in a Microsoft project file, so the flexibility of the tools has meant that we can think about planning in different ways, and as I said, I think that has also engendered different words, using different words as we talk about what productivity means, what planning means.

0:17:29.6 RP: Absolutely right. Yeah, yeah, and it’s interesting, as you’re talking about the different tools, it occurs to me that as things have become more complex in a way, the tools have become more simple or more generic, more applicable to a broad range of styles, but the thinking has to become more sophisticated then in relation to that, and I think that’s where mapping the language of GTD and a core understanding of how to manage your individual commitments well to the tool can be really, really powerful. When I think of organizations where they’re really leveraging the power of the shared language of GTD, obviously at David Allen Company, we had that experience in here, at Next Action Associates as well. So I’m thinking about simple things like our use of a Trello board for a scrum where we can come into the tool, and some people had never really used the tool that way before at all, and were asking, “Okay. What represents a project?” Well, the card itself represents the project, the columns will represent the status of that project, we’re looking at. Where are we gonna put… Keep track of the flow of next actions and who kinda has a ball?

0:18:44.3 RP: Well, let’s do that in the comments, where are we gonna keep track of who owns that? Okay, well, let’s use the assigning a person to do that, and very, very quickly with a fairly generic tool that uses terminology like cards and columns and whatever, we go into that and we say, “Right, how do we use this to track those critical components of who owns it what’s the next step? What is the overall desired outcome, and what is the kind of relative state of play? So we can immediately take a generic tool and with common language, make it a sophisticated tool that’s perfectly adapted to our needs, whereas you know the Microsoft Project Gantt chart, good luck. Restructuring that guy to be anything other than a waterfall-style flow of timeline about how the project should go, and if you’re off track from this idealized model, then obviously someone’s doing something wrong and needs to be told off?

0:19:41.6 RP: So yeah, we need more and more flexibility, but as we get more and more flexibility, we’re also getting really enough rope to get really tangled up, and so I think that’s where more and more language and methodology and thought process really starts to win the day. I don’t know what you think?

0:20:00.4 TB: No, I think that’s great. That’s a really nice way to put it. I am reflecting on the fact that that in the span of our sort of professional careers, the world has changed an awful lot, and I love this idea that in a sense, as the tools have gotten simpler, the onus has come back on us to use the tools in the most effective way, right? And the tools… And many of the tools are quite simple in the sense that you don’t need a three-day training course to learn how to use the core functions of something like Trello or Planner or whatever, so it becomes a little bit more important that we use them in… That we bring the sophistication, if you will, in terms of the mental processes, the inner personal processes that we use in order to make the most of the tool, because I think if you’d asked me at the beginning of my career, if that’s the way the world was trending, I would have said, Well, yeah, probably were going in the direction of more specificity, Microsoft Project on steroids. I don’t know exactly what that even would have looked like.

0:21:08.3 TB: Some sort of an implant that lets you know when you’re going and you’re going over budget or you’re causing impact on the project because someone else is dependent on your efforts and then they’re not gonna be able to get home on time. But yeah, I would have been way wrong on that, but no, but I think we’ve come overall to a really good place generally, and I think that GTD slots… It’s one of these things. The fact that you and I have been doing this podcast series for as long as we have, and we find that this is ever green. If you’re interested in talking about productivity, if you’re interested in thinking about how do I make sure I’m focused on the right stuff, keeping my head clear, getting home in time to read bedtime stories, there’s a huge amount here for you on this, I think this… Today’s conversation as you had further proof of that. Look, we’re drawing to an end here, sadly. Let’s just… Maybe in the interest of giving folks some practical next steps. So if they say, “Okay, kinda got it. I think… I agree. Language is kind of important.” What would you say would be a good place to start? What would you recommend that people do as a first step to sort of get to the point where they feel like they’ve maybe made some improvements for themselves and for their teams in the way that they’re using language around all this?

0:22:23.8 RP: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think I’m a big fan of opening up those kind of conversations, situationally as they arise, so that you can start to align in real practical ways that start to pay off and the biggest place I see opportunities for language alignment are in meetings. Just for example… Well, the meeting, we just had. Prior to this podcast, we came together and you opened up your agendas waiting for me, I opened up my agendas waiting for… We know exactly what we were gonna do. We were gonna sift out and find what did we need to talk about in those few minutes, so you can start with that, with one-to-one saying, “Hey, I’m keeping this waiting for list, and do you have one for me,” and if not, you could start that and we could start to kind of collaborate in that way, or in bigger meetings, starting to say, “Hey, let’s take the last five minutes and let’s talk about desired outcomes as a result of this conversation,” just that, just, “I wanna talk about desired outcomes, what is our desired outcome here?” So starting to pepper that in, not only to asking yourself that, which you will be doing as a GTD practitioner, but starting to ask other people, and I don’t think really anyone would be offended by the question, “What do you want to be true here, what would be ideal for you?”

0:23:43.1 RP: Most of the time, they’re glad you asked it. It’s like, “Wow, you actually… You actually care. Rather than just working on this, you wanna help me achieve the goal.” So starting to ask those good questions, starting to bring those into meetings and conversations in a kinda natural way, I think is a great way to kinda lay some ground work and then as people see that working, it’s always a good option… A good time to potentially slip them the book as well. What do you think, Todd, in terms of practical, practical entry points to improving language?

0:24:18.2 TB: Yeah, I think I really love your idea of making it situational rather than scheduling a meeting where you say, “Okay, we’re gonna agree what everything means, I’m gonna start on page one of the dictionary, making a way through… All the way through.” I love the idea of just sort of addressing these things as they’re situationally coming up. That seems much more organic in some ways, more sustainable and more humane in way that’s not putting too fine a point on it. I would agree with what you said. I think, for me, if we think about… If we think about what GTD brings to the table and how it helps us, overall, I think that we… It’s sort of a layer of the methodology that we don’t talk about directly, but it is the fact that it is bringing a suggested language to the table and saying, “Okay, here’s the definition of a project, here’s a definition of a waiting for, here’s a definition of something that we call some day maybe, here’s a definition of something that we call an agenda, just to pick a few examples. And that I think can be the beginning… So whether you agree with that, whether you wanna call your projects, projects, maybe you wanna call them something else, call them… Because you think the word project means something else to me, it’s… A project is something with a team and it takes three years and it has a budget and as a steering committee.

0:25:34.7 TB: Fine, and maybe for your GTD purposes, you’re gonna call it an outcome or you’re gonna call it a GTD project, or you’ll call it something else, so the words themselves can vary, but what’s really important and what’s really important, I think, for you as an individual practitioner and also for you, as you’re interacting with other people, if you wanna make those interactions as effective as possible, is that you come to some, again, some understandings that are shared, shared with yourself as it were, but when it comes to your own program productivity and then shared to… Shared with other people in order to get the most out of your relationships and your productive efforts with them.

0:26:14.1 TB: Folks, thank you very much for being with us for this Change Your Game with GTD Podcast. As always, please do hit like and subscribe, if you’d like to be notified when new additions of this come out. We always, as we say quite regularly, we always do like to take requests, so if there’s anything you’d like to be hearing us talk about, please do let us know. For now, bye for me, bye from Robert, and we’ll look forward to seeing you next time.

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