Archive for August, 2012


Symptoms

Symptoms suck, don’t they? If it wasn’t for the vomiting and fever, the flu might not be that bad.

That’s why there are so many over-the-counter medications for symptoms. Seriously, take a walk through a local Walgreens or CVS sometime and take note of what the drugs are all aiming to do for us. Headache relief. Anti-itch creams. Allergy relief. The list is a mile long. Longer, maybe.

But symptoms aren’t the true source, are they? You can take a couple of pills for your headache, but when they wear off later on in the day, your head-ache will return. Pills that cover up the symptoms of your allergies are a temporary fix. The true fix, the one with lasting effect, would be to figure out what you are allergic to and remove it from your presence.

Friction is a lot like sickness. It happens to all of us, it’s never fun to experience, and we almost always notice it through the symptoms that manifest, not the point of friction itself. It’s like seeing the tip of an iceberg in the water; you can be sure there’s much more going on that what you can visibly see.

I spent the first year of my freelance design career managing frustrated client relationships. Every day brought new challenges, such as communication issues that needed cleaned up. My first impression was to find ways to avoid communicating with clients. But I’m a designer, and design is all about communication, so that didn’t seem fair, let alone possible. No, I was spinning my wheels trying to figure out how to remove the symptom of something bigger.

For me, it was learning that client relationships are opportunities to teach and guide the client. I was expecting business owners and hard working entrepreneurs to understand how design works. And that was a mistake, and the true source of the frustration I was feeling. It was my friction.

In the end I did what most experts would recommend: I treated each new project as a chance to educate my client on how the process would work, what their role would be, and what I would take care of in the grand scheme of things. The results were immediate. I fulfilled the role of the hired professional, and the clients learned to trust me and help me, rather than blindly get in the way of their own projects.

You shouldn’t be looking for friction in your business. Not primarily, at least. You should be looking for symptoms of friction. Look for the tasks or people who cause you to feel frustrated and stressed. Look for the metaphorical headaches.

Once you know what hurts, you’ll have a better idea of what it will take to make it better. And that’s how you become frictionless.


Rocks

I have a problem with the way that I build my daily schedule. You see, I give everything a block of time, and plan my day out hour-by-hour the night before. And every day has a small collection of what I like to call “mini-tasks”. Respond to email, log book sales from the day before, record PayPal fees, write checks, invoice clients, and make phone calls.

There are so many of these little mini-tasks each day that I give them the very first hour of my day, usually from 8-9 AM. I do this because nothing feels better than checking off half of the day’s tasks before the first hour is over, and that sense of accomplishment can propel me through the rest of the day. But I’ve begun to notice a pattern in my daily productivity, something that is nagging me in the back of my head.

Every day for the last 6 work days I have gone to bed with the same phone call on my list that I started the day with. It’s nothing major; I am supposed to call the appliance repair shop and have them come out and look at our dishwasher (it’s making a noise like a small outboard motor whenever it’s filling up the machine with water). But when I’m sitting down to send emails and log data for the morning, it is much too early to be calling businesses in town. And so I skip it.

The rest of my day is mapped out like a military exercise, and there are rarely moments between tasks where I remember to do small things like phone calls. And this is bothering me because I keep having to sit down each night and write the words “call about dishwasher” on the next day’s schedule. I’m tired of writing those words. It’s like a rock in your shoe that you can’t seem to shake out or find, but you feel it every time you walk.

I have a very nice system for getting things done, one that had removed a lot of friction from my life and helped me to accomplish more than ever before. But no system is perfect, and sometimes you can tweak all the knobs and create the perfect setup and still have trouble nailing down that one niggling little point. For me, it’s these mini-tasks that need to be done after 9 AM.

What is it for you? What rock is in your shoe right now? Some special exceptions will have to be made for that little item to get taken care of, and I don’t think we can expect to nail them on the first day. But if you see an item move from one day’s task list to another for two or three days, take note of that and look for an alternative solution. Once it’s gone, you’ll find yourself back in a very nice place – on time, on task and headed toward your goals.


Coins

My wife and I have known a couple of friends for years who have been roommates since college. They went to the same grad school, took the same degree path, and work in the same profession. And like any relationship, whether a mere friendship or even a decades-old marriage, it’s amazing to see how two different human beings have learned to live together.

And they aren’t just good at figuring out how to keep the peace in their apartment or maintain conversation. They’ve learned how to better manage laundry. Yeah, I said it; the bane of so many people’s existence: laundry. And to make matters worse, the apartment house that they live in uses a coin-operated laundry set-up. Granted, it’s in the basement of the house so they don’t have to travel far to do this chore, but it is still a pain.

Here’s how the system worked when they moved in eight years ago:

First, my friends would go to the bank and purchase a roll or two of quarters. This is easy if the bank is next door — but it’s not. No, their bank is a couple of miles away, which means driving over. When they have time. And remember.

Then, with quarters in hand, they head to the laundry room in the basement and pay the meter enough to wash their clothing. Usually a lot of money. Which means a lot of trips to the bank. And a lot of trips down the stairs.

Later that month, their landlord empties the laundry coin meter. Then, she rolls the quarters, gets in her car and drives to the bank and deposits the money in her account. She’s made some money, sure, but it has cost her some time, too.

Rinse. Repeat.

Their landlord did this for years. YEARS. Until my friends moved in. And after getting a tour of how the laundry worked, they offered the landlord a suggestion. Are you ready for this? Because the amount of friction they were about to eliminate is staggering. This was their idea:

They would go to the bank the first time and get all the quarters they need. They will pay the meters and wash their clothing. And at the end of the month the landlord will fetch the coins, add them up and then GIVE THEM BACK. Of course, the amount of money she collects will get added to that month’s rent, and my friends just make their check out for rent+coins. They still only write one check, and the landlord still gets all her money. No more trips to the bank. No more rolling quarters. No more gas and time and frustration and friction. Easy, obvious and mind-bogglingly simple.

What’s my point? I’m not sure, honestly. But this story illustrates one of the big pillars of the frictionless lifestyle: observe. By just paying attention to the frustrating situations and systems in their new apartment, my friends removed something that would have become a monthly — or even weekly — source of stress for them. Just by observing how it all works and then recommending a small adjustment to the process.

How many opportunities like this do we pass up in our lives each day? How many rough spots in our workflow at our desk to we simple ignore because we’re too busy “getting things done”?

Stop and look for “coins”. Always be observing. Always consider your methods and systems to be works in progress, not set in stone. Observe, reflect on it and then experiment with solutions. That’s how you become frictionless.


Distance

When you run your own business you have a very simple premise to work within: make money. I know, that seems obvious to say, but sometimes it’s important to lay down the basics first. So, just keep that in mind — you want to move money from your client’s bank account into your own.

Here is where friction becomes real. When you are trying your hardest to convince a potential client or customer that they should give you their money, it’s important to remove anything that might result in a “no”. In the sales world, your goal would be called ‘closing the sale’. And friction can stop that money dead in its tracks. The more distance between the money and you, the lower your chances of earning it.

So, as a freelancer looking to smoothly move money from the client to yourself in exchange for the awesome services you provide, you need to get incredibly good at removing the friction that can easily creep in. And there are two places to focus on that can dramatically decrease between you and a ‘closed sale’.

First, look at your processes. If it’s a pain in the butt for the client to get their project rolling, because you have three firms to fill out, two documents to sign and an hour of phone interviews to go through, they are going to walk away. Clients, even those who understand the complexity of what it is you do, want an experience as close to a grocery store checkout as possible. Every hurdle, every hoop and every “before we can begin” is an instance of friction.

Tighten your process. Use one form to capture everything. Make the requirements as unobtrusive as possible. Don’t require things like faxing in documents. Stop, think, and ask yourself if you would find your required steps frustrating of the tables were turned. Frustration is a sign of friction.

Second, refine your communication. Clients don’t have a lot of time, so the more concise and clear you can be, the less likely it will be that you frustrate them. I use short, simple lists to set the expectations from the start, and my clients can use them as a checklist to work from.

Setting expectations clearly from the beginning can remove doubts the client might have about working with you. If they feel you are confident, clear and professional, they are more likely to sign on.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t about deception. I’m not asking you to fool these potential clients with scripts and fancy forms. I’m simply reminding you of how easy it is for friction to creep into the way we manage new clients, and how beneficial it can be to take a step back and review our processes and communication.

Being mindful can go a long way toward being profitable. Just be sure that the money doesn’t have that far to travel.


MacGyver

I grew up in the late Seventies and early Eighties, neck deep in that gorgeous, textured, naive culture. I played with legos and G.I. Joe toys. I collected comic books and baseball cards. And once week I say down in front of my parent’s television and watched with barely containable excitement as my favorite TV show in the universe started up.

MacGyver. Hell yeah.

This guy could do anything. International spy. Rescue operations. Humanitarian work. Hockey. In one episode he might be flying a fighter jet over Afghanistan, and the next week would show him helping homeless girl get back into school. It was always fun to watch and never ceased to be my creative juices flowing. And at the center of it all was that pocket knife.

MacGyver carried a Swiss Army knife with him everywhere he went. That little red tool had everything he needed to get the job done. And as a major fan, I of course had my own Swiss Army knife in my pocket. I wasn’t breaking out of reactor containment cores or building crossbows with coat hangers, but I was prepared for it nonetheless.

Fast forward to yesterday, when a friend of mine pulled me aside. He runs a wildly successful business, and like so many of us who work out tails off, he encounters friction constantly. It’s a lot of the typical stuff you’d recognize: failure to capture ideas, problems moving information from place to place, trouble communicating the concepts he dreams up, etc. We all experience the same kinds of friction daily.

He had pulled me aside to give me something. But as he thought about where he had put it, he realized that it was at home, in his wife’s car. He sighed and then told me he would have to scan it into his computer when he got home and then send it over. I thought it was a photo for some new design project, but he shook his head.

“It’s a sketch. Of a new PowerPoint slide layout I want to try,” he said.

My mind did some fast math at that point: no need for high quality resolution + not a design asset + just a sketch = remove the friction!

“Just take a photo of it with your iPhone when you get home and text it to me,” I told him.

The relief that washed over his face was amazing. He was anticipating, at the end of a hectic and stressful day, that he would need to find the time and energy to dig out the scanner, get it working, and manage to get a scan of that sketch over to me (I realize that for some of you this sounds like a simple task and not in need of a better solution, but remember just how unfriendly a lot of technology is to the majority of people these days). But I had offered him a simple, frictionless solution and that made all the difference in the world.

There’s only one MacGyver, but all of use have the tools with us to remove friction in those moments of frustration. Don’t look at your phone as a phone. Look at it as a Swiss Army knife, ready to solve a multitude of problems when the need arises.

Stay hopeful. Be creative. And get rid of that friction.