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A single room with a single book

3 Apr

“A book is a physical object with special attraction that has been, is, and always will be the same.”

Koshiyuki Morioka, quoted by odditycentral.com

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There’s a bookshop in Japan that only sells one book. Or more precisely, multiple copies of one book, with a different title chosen each week. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, it’s brilliant. So on a recent trip to Tokyo I took the time to seek out Morioka Shoten, a single room with a single book, quietly inhabiting a ground floor room of the Suzuki Building on a Ginza backstreet.

Simplicity can get complicated

If you’ve ever worked on any aspect of product development, or if you’ve ever tried to explain the ‘rules’ for the use of articles in the English language, then you’ll know just how difficult it is to keep something simple. A clear vision, sharp focus and zero compromise is essential if you are going to keep your idea on track. It’s perhaps no surprise then that Morioka Shoten was born from the vision of one man, Koshiyuki Morioka.

A little help from your friends

However, Mr Morioka didn’t go it alone with this venture. On a single sheet of paper he outlined his vision at an event where Masamichi Toyama was speaking. Mr Toyama is the President and CEO of Smiles, which ‘turns the whimsical into real business’, and whose corporate philosophy translates as follows:

“We seek to find new value in things that in our hectic day-to-day lives, are taken for granted and ultimately overlooked. To polish this carefully, to bring this value to even one more person – that’s the kind of thought behind our corporate philosophy.”

Mr Toyama decided to invest, and the ‘single room with a single book’ was brought in to being with help from Tokyo and London-based design engineers, Takram.

Multiple layers of simplicity

Takram helped to develop the brand and are responsible for the logo, a simple rhombic shape representing both an open book and a single, small room. This really is minimalism at its finest. Even the date on which the bookshop was first opened, the 5th of May 2015 (or 5.5.15) suggests a desire for every aspect of this venture to be ‘just so’. The whole concept embodies the idea of ‘slow reading’ and what is beautifully described by Takram as ‘blissed conversation between readers and authors’.

The book is the star

Whilst it’s easy to get carried away with the design aspects of Morioka Shoten, it’s immediately evident as you walk into the room that it’s the book that sits centre stage. The concrete floor and plain white walls mean that the focus of your attention is on the narrow table in the middle of the room, showcasing the chosen title. This is complemented by a small selection of related artwork and a beautiful cabinet of drawers acting as a desk and counter. But perhaps most importantly of all, the author is there too. Because rather than just a place where you can buy a book, this is where books develop into conversations, into art and and into new ideas. Events are held most evenings and the author is encouraged to spend as much time in the bookshop as possible during the week that their book is showcased. On my short visit I met not only Mr Morioka and the author and artist, Atsumi, but also the Editor of a Tokyo-based fashion magazine and the designer of the lampshade that hangs at one end of the room. Oh, and his adorable baby. This is a place for people to meet, for the beauty of printed books to be appreciated, for art to be enjoyed, and for ideas to be nurtured.

We need more of this.

We must stop meeting like this

15 Feb

Meeting

Keeping it brief

I worked in a police station for a couple of years. Not as a police officer, but it was a public-facing role, so I’d often attend the briefings at the start of each shift. These briefings were short, direct and focused. Everyone listened. There was always an opportunity to ask questions, but ask something stupid or obvious, and you faced the ridicule of your colleagues. Questions were rare. If you wanted more information, you could usually find it in a report.

The Japanese art of anti-meeting

Fast-forward a few years, and I found myself in my first teaching job in Japan, at my first weekly teachers’ meeting. I was bursting with ideas and opinions, but no matter how tentatively or respectfully I framed my comments, no-one seemed in the slightest bit interested. It took me another week or two to realise that these weren’t really meetings, they were briefings. You sat, listened and agreed. There was no agreeing to disagree. No serious discussion. The only real amusement to be had was to treat these ‘meetings’ like a game of poker and try to establish who really agreed with the decisions that were being communicated.

Meeting overload

Now working for an international publisher, having just one meeting a week is a distant dream. I spend an average of two hours a day in meetings. That’s 25% of my working week. And given that a meeting generally requires more than one person to be present, I’m sure I’m not a unique case. Many of these meetings are useful and necessary. Many others are not.

When I call a meeting, I think carefully about what I want to achieve, who needs to be there and if a face-to-face meeting is really necessary. I’m respectful of people’s time and will always circulate an agenda in advance so as not to spring surprises on anyone. I haven’t been trained to do this, it just seems like common sense. However, after (okay, to be completely honest, during) a particularly unproductive and painful meeting I was required to attend recently, I decided to Google good meeting practices to see if anyone had positioned themselves as an expert on the subject. No surprise, I guess, that quite a few (thousand) people have. Sifting through all the ‘5 steps to awesome meetings’ nonsense, I came across this little gem in the Harvard Business Review: Make Every Meeting Matter

Don’t always have a meeting

Many of the points made in this short HBR article are blindingly obvious, yet the problem in my experience is that the blindingly obvious is regularly missed. Meetings all too often become the lazy, default reaction to a problem or challenge, and almost become an excuse not to get on with addressing an issue. Why think something through yourself if you can pass your problems on to a group of other people to discuss (and rarely solve)?

Perhaps one of the most useful suggestions made in this article is ‘don’t always have a meeting’. Meetings are not the only way to collaborate or to distribute information. And if what you really want to do is simply discuss something, then go and have a discussion. A chat over coffee may well be what you need, not a windowless room full of people wondering why they’re there.

“If you can consistently have good, productive meetings then your company is going to perform better.”
Frances A. Micale, Not Another Meeting! A Practical Guide for Facilitating Effective Meetings (Oasis, 2002)

Think it through

To conclude, if you want an informal chat with someone, arrange an informal chat. Don’t call it a meeting and then bring in half a dozen other people just in case they might have something to add. And if a meeting is necessary, then so is an agenda. Just because you’ve been mulling something over for days, doesn’t mean I have. I’m useless at mind reading and I don’t like surprises. Every hour spent in a meeting is an hour that’s not spent doing other work, so make sure there’s a purpose to the meeting and some tangible outcomes. In short, please, please, think before you meet.

Watch out, it’s the Grammar Police!

6 Aug

I shared this in a few different places recently:

To me, at first glance, it seemed harmless. The world’s cutest grammar police politely pointing out celebrities’ grammar mistakes on Twitter and improving their own knowledge of English in their process. Yes, there may be an element of poking fun, but I can’t imagine Daniel Radcliffe crying himself to sleep because Gabriel from Brazil spotted he’d made an error with his tenses:

Gabriel

The only thing that irritated me slightly was that the promo video had clearly been put together by a school that knew a thing or two about self-promotion. But hey, it’s a cut-throat world out there for language schools, so who can blame them for a bit savvy marketing? They’ve actually done such a good job that the story’s been picked up by the media as far afield as Australia, and I’m sure it hasn’t done any harm to student numbers at Red Balloon schools in Brazil.

With media attention, however, comes the inevitable backlash. There are, as far as I can see, two key reasons why these pint-sized grammar police, or more precisely, the teachers encouraging them, have upset a number of people. These criticims have appeared in a number of places, including a LinkedIn group where I posted the above YouTube video:

1. You make a grammatical error on Twitter. Who cares? There are times when grammar matters, and there are times when it doesn’t. With its immediacy and 140-character limit, Twitter is clearly a place where grammar rules and careful spelling are likely to take a back seat. So it’s wrong to nurture grammar cops who insist that grammar must always adhere to prescribed ‘standards’.

2. Teaching children that unsolicited criticism is acceptable is not a great life lesson. Or in other words, no one likes a smart arse. As a six year old, pointing out an adult’s poor grasp of grammar could, maybe, in the right place and at the right time, be quite funny. But is a public forum like Twitter the right place? Continue dishing out opinions in that way as an adult and you’ll find yourself very short on friends.

So are these fair criticisms? They certainly made me think again about whether or not the video I’d shared was really a bit of harmless fun. And I’m no fan of prescriptivism when it comes to grammar, so my feeling is that there well may be a case for questioning what these young students are being taught indirectly.

There are of course always those who will argue that Twitter (and digital communication in general) is responsible for declining standards in written English, and that this is bad. However, quite apart from the ‘language evolves’ counter-argument, I think most people are perfectly comfortable moving from one form of written communication to another. To form the opinion that a person firing off a Tweet and not worrying about spelling and apostrophes can’t in a different setting write a professional, grammatically correct email is to assume most people are stupid. And that’s a pretty sad view of the world.

However, to suggest that the teachers at Red Balloon have this same world view  is reading far too much into what I’m sure they just saw as a fun way of engaging young kids in English grammar. It would therefore be grossly unfair to write them off as hardcore, blinkered prescriptivists.

On top of this, in the same way that I believe the majority of adults can move comfortably between formal and more ‘relaxed’ attitudes to written grammar, I have faith in the intelligence and common sense of (most) kids.  This reassures me that the the grammar cops from Brazil understand the difference between classroom activities and real life, and that they will not strut around Rio de Janeiro spouting unsolicited criticism at those who cross their paths. In fact, for their sake, I very much hope they don’t. On the contrary, I strongly suspect that their controversial, temporary status as the Twitter grammar police will have no adverse effects on them and they will all grow up to be balanced, polite and well-mannered individuals (more than likely with an excellent grasp of English grammar).

Time for some Twitter training?

3 Mar

“Our aim is to get the basics right and provide a service which is punctual and reliable, clean and safe.
Our vision is ‘A great journey every day.'”

FirstCapitalConnect.co.uk

“Crap old trains, complete disregard for passengers and lack of interest in employing any staff.
Now give us your money.”

FirstCRapitalConnect.co.uk

Picture this. You’re standing on a freezing cold, wet train platform, waiting for the train that takes you to work. It’s late. Again. 20% of your take-home salary is spent on your annual rail ticket, but most of the train carriages are old and poorly maintained, you rarely get a seat and the service is regularly delayed or cancelled. Station announcements are unreliable, so you follow your train operator’s official Twitter account to keep yourself updated. You look at your phone and you see this:

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Well meant perhaps, but might rub you up the wrong way, right? And like this customer, you might feel like Tweeting a response:

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Probably best for the official First Capital Connect Tweeter to leave it there. But that’s really not their style:

FCC_9.3

Welcome to Britain, welcome to First Capital Connect (FirstCC) trains and welcome to their curious Twitter account, @FirstCC. You may well see no problem with the Twitter exchange above, but bear with me, there will be more on that later. First, some context. For those not familiar with the British train system, since the rail network was privatised in 1993, there has been a number of private Train Operating Companies (TOCs) operating on the various different routes. Most of these are franchises, let by the government. Inevitably, some of the TOCs operate better services than others. In a recent customer survey, Virgin were ranked top. FirstCC, who are responsible for getting many people to and from work in London, came bottom of the heap. Now I could blog extensively about the failings of rail privatisation, and the misery of using FirstCC trains, but what caught my attention recently was the way in which FirstCC are attempting to communicate with customers through Twitter. Any organisation considering, or already using social media for Customer Services or Marketing Communications, could learn a lot from the @FirstCC account. Here’s why.

Injecting personality

If you search online for advice on using Twitter for business purposes you’ll no doubt be advised to keep Tweets professional, but not robotic. A bit of personality helps. FirstCC Tweeters have taken this advice on board, using their first names and having distinct personalities. Recently, we’ve been treated to the sarcastic one:

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And the condescending one:

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And perhaps unsurprisingly, this injection of ‘personality’ irritates some customers:

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Keeping it professional

I’m not suggesting that helpful and professional advice isn’t provided by @FirstCC, it is, and the Twitter team clearly care about what they’re doing. For every condescending remark there are many helpful ones, and at present it seems to be one of the better ways in which FirstCC are effectively communicating details of their many delays and bus replacement services. However, the inclination to respond inappropriately and engage in debate really isn’t what passengers need. Arguably, if a passenger is unhappy about their train being cancelled, there’s going to be little that someone on Twitter account can do about it. All that can really be asked of them is to provide the most up-to-date information, and leave it at that. Winding up disgruntled customers simply isn’t necessary and detracts from the more helpful responses:

FCC_12

Giving accurate information

Time and again I’ve found that the frustration caused by cancelled and delayed trains in Britain is multiplied by either no communication at all or a series of conflicting messages.  It’s not at all unusual for a departures board to display one thing, a station announcement to state another and the National Rail website to give no indication at all of any problems. Sadly, the FirstCC Twitter account just seems to be adding to the confusion at times, and presumbably through no fault of their own. It’s simply that the internal communications at FirstCC appear to be in as much of a mess as the exernal, therefore making customers feel as though they’re being deceived:

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A difficult job

It can’t be easy working for any form of Customer Services in an organisation that causes as much frustration and misery as FirstCC. And I would never condone the verbal abuse of a member of staff, whether they’re standing on a train platform or Tweeting from cyber space. At the same time, I would never condescend or argue with a customer. Abusive Tweets from passengers are, quite rightly, ignored (most of the time), yet general moans and groans that do not require a response  are regularly responded to with unnecessary remarks by the @FirstCC Tweeters.

Ultimately, most passengers, myself included, would simply like clean, punctual trains, with helpful, polite staff, all at a reasonable price. You know, like they have in many other first-world countries. FirstCC are not to blame for all the problems with our decrepit rail system, they are, however, operating their franchise with absolute contempt for the passengers who have no choice but to use the trains to get to and from work. As one Tweeter put it, every day travelling on FirstCC feels like legislated mugging.

Now whilst I don’t feel qualified to give FirstCC advice on the steps they need to take to improve their service (though I suspect a complete change of senior management would be a good start), what I do have is a solid understanding of the power – and the dangers – of Twitter. And right now, @FirstCC are playing a very dangerous game. Perhaps they’ve just decided that customer dissatisfaction can’t get any worse, so they’ll do what they like, but I really don’t think that’s the case. Those operating the @FirstCC Twitter account do provide useful information and are going some way towards addressing FirstCC’s terrible reputation for communicating with passengers. Whilst adding a bit of personality to these Tweets is fine, the sarcasm and winding up of customers is not, particularly when yet another delayed train is preventing thousands of commuters from getting home to their families.

Lessons learnt

FirstCC do have published ‘Twitter Rules of Engagement‘ and have clearly thought through their Twitter policy. In fact, it seems they’re doing many things right, though – at the risk of coming across as miserable – I would question the need for FirstCC Tweeters to ‘entertain’, as it’s exactly this kind of quirkiness that most long-suffering passengers could do without:

“People often use Twitter to tell us when they’ve been helped (or entertained!) by one of the First Capital Connect team. Including #FCCthanks in your tweet will help us to pass your gratitude to the person who’s earned it.”

www.firstcapitalconnect.co.uk/plan-your-journey/travel-tools/fcc-twitter/

If there’s anything other organisations can learn from @FirstCC it’s that cheeky and sarcastic comments are no more acceptable on Twitter than they would be in an old-fashioned letter of apology or at the end of a telephone. The immediacy of Twitter means that when being used for complaints – as the @FirstCC account so often is – the customer is likely to be right in the middle of an unsatisfactory situation, when emotions can run high. They are not sitting at home after the incident, putting together a reasoned letter or email to Customer Services. It may be easy for FirstCC staff to call for a ‘constructive look’ at a situation when they’re Tweeting from their desks, but that’s not quite so easy for the passenger to do when they’ve paid £5,000 for their season ticket and find themselves standing on a cold platform wondering when (and if) their dirty, over-crowded train is going to arrive. For the sake of the @FirstCC Twitter team, I sincerely hope it’s only delays and cancellations they find themselves apologising for in the future.

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Thanks to @rtfirstcc which enabled me to pull together these examples with so little effort.

If you’re interested in why First Capital Connect ought to be ashamed of themsleves, this site, put together by one of their many unhappy customers, is a good place to start: www.firstcrapitalconnect.co.uk

I’ve tried to contact every Tweeter featured above to let them know I’ve featured them on this blog post, but if I’ve missed anyone or, having read this, you’d rather I removed your Tweets, just let me know through this blog or Twitter. I’m not short of other examples to use!

And finally, my intention has been to present a balanced view and I would welcome feedback on this blog post from anyone at First Capital Connect.

Coffee shop comedowns

1 Feb

When I go out to eat or drink, I always favour bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants with character. The food and drink is of course important, but if I can enjoy that with professional service in a beautiful or interesting building, taking in a fantastic view or soaking up a friendly, lively atmosphere, then I will happily pay a premium for doing so.

So when I developed a serious taste for coffee a year or two ago, I started to seek out the independent coffee shops near where I lived. I dabbled in tea shops too, but quickly discovered that doilies and frills are really not my thing. Unfortunately I found that whilst lots of places can produce good coffee, finding a coffee shop that met my exacting standards – and I really am hard to please at times – wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I always seemed to be let down by something; ultra slow service, dirty seats and tables, lipstick stained coffee cups, children running riot. As I said, I’m hard to please. I got so desperate a few months ago that I wandered in to a Costa.

costa

I say wandered in, but I was actually lured in by the massive biscuits I could see through the window. One of the aspects of coffee drinking I enjoy is the accompanying food – biscotti, cake, pastries, and of course, because I live in England, a nice biscuit. However, no sooner had I selected my sweet coffee accompaniment (a giant custard cream) than I realised I’d made a mistake. To be fair, the coffee was okay, it was everything else that was awful. Filthy floor, cheap chairs covered in crumbs, tables left uncleared, sultry staff, newspaper racks with half of yesterday’s Daily Mail and a two day old Sun for your reading pleasure, and to top it off, sanitised Bob Marley cover versions being piped through some tinny speakers. Not even a big biscuit could make up for this miserable coffee experience. I vowed never to return.

Giant custard cream

Big biscuits are not enough

Then towards the end of last year a few things piqued my interest in Costa. The first was this advert:


It appeared Costa were re-inventing themselves, showing a playful, creative side. Then I started seeing articles in various marketing magazines, like this one:

Marketing

It seemed pretty clear that at a time when decent coffee was starting to flood in to the UK, Costa were trying to differentiate themselves through their staff, or what they would call baristas.  Because Costa, with its big custard creams, represents such an authentic Italian experience, right? Anyway, pretentious use of barista aside, could this investment in staff mean not only an improvement in service, but also clean tables and chairs, and regularly swept floors? Staff can’t do a lot about soul-less buildings and head-office approved easy listening, but a well run chain cafe is better than a badly run chain cafe.

And then Costa opened a new coffee shop between the train station and the office where I work. So a couple of weeks ago I gave them a second chance.

The people in charge of the Costa chain clearly aren’t stupid. The new branch I visited is in a freshly developed area close to a major train station with very little competition, lots of new student accommodation and plenty of nearby offices. Not surprisingly, it was quite busy when I visited. And whoever was managing this Costa had decided that the best way to make the most of this prime location and huge demand was to have two members of staff on duty. That’s one to take the money and one to make the coffee. No one to clear tables, no one to sweep the floor, no-one to re-stock the fridge, in short, no-one to care. I selected an excessively chilled sandwich from the three on offer, got in line and waited. When I reached the money taker, a dripping wet tray was retrieved and a plate was thrown on top for me to put my packaged sandwich on. Coffee was ordered, and quickly made, and that was that. The staff were efficient, but miserable and clearly over-worked. You can probably guess how the experience went from there. I couldn’t find a clear table, so cleared one myself, and ate my bland, cold sandwich, drank my coffee, tried not to listen to Jack Johnson, and left. This time REALLY vowing never to return.

Now I realise a bad lunch experience isn’t the end of the world, but all of this reminded me that far too often there is a huge gap between the marketing hype and the reality of goods and services we receive. I don’t blame the staff in Costa. I’d be just as miserable as them if I was dropped into a busy lunchtime shift with not a manager in sight. If a company puts their staff at the centre of a marketing push, they really ought to start investing in those staff and giving them a reason, or reasons, to care. Some will argue that with minimum wage you’ll always get minimum effort. I’m not convinced by that. There are more ways to motivate people than with money, and one of those is creating a pleasant and supportive working environment. Personally, if being a customer in Costa is such a grim experience, I imagine that working there is several times worse.

Anyway, my Costa mis-adventures are soon going to fade into distant memories, as I’ve found two wonderful alternatives for my coffee fixes. The first is Hot Numbers. Great coffee, good music, lovely building, friendly atmosphere, delicious cakes and just as importantly, a well managed business with staff who smile and care:

And if all else fails, then I’ll stay at home where at least any mess is my own, the music will be good and I can invite who I like. This experience can be enhanced with tasty coffee from Tim Peaks, fronted by the brilliant Tim Burgess who serves up daily breakfast bangers via Twitter (@Tim_Burgess) and coffee with biscotti at the delightful timpeaks.com. With all of that on offer, I’ll happily for-go the giant custard creams.

timpeaks

Cheers Tim!

Always in beta

19 Jan

“The relentless digitisation of products, services and communications is a journey away from linear, one-way, interruption, frequency and inflexibility.”

Neil Perkin
Founder, Only Dead Fish
http://neilperkin.typepad.com/only_dead_fish/

I recently discovered ‘Only Dead Fish’. That may not sound like a good thing, but I assure you it is. ‘Only Dead Fish’ is a digital and media consultancy business founded by Neil Perkin. Reading Perkin’s blog, and specifically looking through a presentation on ‘agile planning’ that he posted back in 2011, I was struck by how relevant it was to the work I do – and I’m sure many others who’ve engaged with it feel the same way, no matter what industry they work in. It was one of those moments when the ideas and approaches that I employ every day, but have never fully thought through, are presented in an enlightening and coherent way, reassuring me that what I’m doing does make sense, and encouraging me to embrace the opportunities presented by a world – driven by new, digital technology – that’s forever changing and evolving.

Traditional approaches to marketing involve auditing, planning, implementing, measuring, analysing, and, well you get the idea. It’s a cyclical process, in the sense that your measuring and anlaysing feeds into your future planning, but it’s fairly rigid. Once you’ve done your research, put together a strategy and have a plan, you pretty much stick to it. In my previous life as a teacher, there was a similar approach. After assessing the needs of a class (or more commonly the requirements of the school syllabus – the two weren’t always 100% compatible) I’d put together an overarching plan for a period of time, plus specific plans for each lesson. But as all teachers know, lessons don’t always go to plan. And if it looks like the lesson is starting to fall flat on its face, you need to adapt to the needs of the class, you need to be flexible. You need to be agile.

Perkin describes agile planning as ‘a set of guiding principles’ as opposed to a ‘process’. There are seven of these:

1. Ideas from anywhere

I particularly like this one and it’s what made me stick with Perkins’ 91-slide presentation. It’s the idea that organisations should encourage employees to connect with one another, there needs to be a flow of ideas. People should not be placed in silos. (I couldn’t agree more!)

2. Users at the centre

We should observe our customers in context. We should challenge questions and find the problems that need to be solved.

3. Not a single solution, but lots of choices

Create and curate choice.

4. Test and learn

Design with vision and optimise with feedback. Advantage comes from responsiveness and adaptability, rather than scale.

5. ‘Always on’ marketing

Less emphasis on campaigns, and more on continuous communication. Be useful, interesting, entertaining and playful, and build a culture of experimentation, not planning. (For me this is the toughest one as it can involve battles if an organisation doesn’t fully embrace experimentation. However, some things are definitely worth fighting for!)

6. Smart collection and reapplication of data

Use data to deliver a better user experience.

7. Free your mind (and your budget)

Detailed plans are the enemy of adaptability.

freeyourmind

Before I saw this being referred to as ‘agile planning’ I’d always thought of it simply as ‘flexibility’. Planning is good. It helps me to think things through, to allocate resources, and sometimes even more importantly, having a detailed written plan – that follows rigid guidelines – reassures those above me in the heirarchy that I know what I’m doing. However, with digital products and digital marketing and communications, detailed plans are fast becoming a huge waste of time. Yes, of course we still need clear objectives and a well thought through strategy that we can communicate to those we work with. It’s the concept of a campaign plan, with clear start and end dates, that I think is being fast replaced by an ongoing and more agile approach.

In work, as in all aspects of life, no matter how much we plan, it’s the unplanned that will either delight and surprise us, or knock us sideways, and we need to embrace this. Organisations that accept that we are always in beta, always experimenting, will be able to react quickly to new opportunities. Let’s stop wasting time on detailed plans and just get stuck in, or as a certain sportswear company would say, Just Do It.

“While we are in here bullshitting about strategy, something is happening out there.”

Gary Humel
US Management Expert

Let’s make Lists

6 Jan

checklist

I love lists. Both at work and in my day-to-day life, writing ‘to do’ lists means that I get things done. Without lists I’d flap around this world like a moth in a room full of lightbulbs. I would go as far as to say that lists changed my life. There are three main reasons for this (listed below):

1. Nothing is forgotten. Lists help me to get things done simply by reminding me of what needs doing and when.

2. Prioritisation. Urgent tasks are dealt with when they need to be, and non-urgent tasks can always be juggled or moved to a later date.

3. Focus. Perhaps most importantly, lists help me to think clearly, to focus on the job at hand. They take tasks out of my head and to a place that I know I can refer to at any time, meaning that I only ever need to concern myself with the present.

I used to write lists on scraps of paper and post-it notes, but the funny little Astrid character below – looks like a thumb torn off by a piece of agricultural machinery but I think he’s supposed to be an octopus – has changed all that. With this free app, all my personal lists are now stored on my Android phone, complete with dates and reminders.

astrid2

At work I have Lotus Notes and another set of lists in the Task Manager, which also sit in my Lotus Calendar. And to top it off, because I couldn’t live without lovely stationery, I usually carry a notebook and pencil, not just for list making but also for noting down books I come across, recommended films and new music, plus useful quotes, articles, websites – essentially anything that I would previously have stored in my head and then forgotten about within 24 hours.

None of this, I’m sure, will come as news to any other list advocates out there. Lists rock.

Taking it up a notch is the checklist. I’ve never felt the need for checklists in my personal life. For me, it’s sufficient to have a ‘go shopping’ reminder, there’s no need to then break it down into ‘write a shopping list, check supermarket opening times, pick up wallet, pick up car keys,  prepare topic for till-based small talk, etc’. However, checklists at work are another matter. Marketing, like many other professions, often involves following set procedures. This is not to say that flexibility, agility and creative thinking aren’t important – they very much are – but there are basics in the lifetime of a project that must always be covered, and checklists help to ensure nothing gets missed. They’re not just for new staff either. Experience can lead to over-confidence and things getting overlooked. People working in teams can easily skip tasks by making assumptions about what others are doing. Checklists – if implemented and followed correctly – ensure that everything is covered.

I didn’t realise the true value of checklists until a friend gave me a book in a pub. It was handed over with words something along the lines of “I’m halfway through this and I’m done. It’s boring and repetitive. You’ll probably like it.” I read it and loved it. It was Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Checklist-Manifesto-Things-Right/dp/1846683149/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1357419031&sr=8-1

To be fair to my friend, the book could safely have been reduced to half the number of pages and still got its point across. However, Gawande deals primarily with the value of checklists in the medical profession, breaking complex procedures into simple steps, and if convincing surgeons that checklists save lives means hammering the point home somewhat repetitively, then who am I (or my dismissive friend) to object? The book also brings in examples from the aviation and construction industries, and whilst marketing of ELT materials doesn’t get a mention, I’ve no doubt Gawande could rattle out a chapter or two on that if called upon to do so. Gawande found that even when presented with the evidence of improved performance, people are often resistant to implementing checklists in the workplace because they’re considered time-consuming, patronising and/or impractical. So, it’s all about careful implementation and adaptation, trial and error, monitoring and improving. A bottom up rather than top down approach. And it’s worth it. Checklists save lives.

As a marketer, I’m rarely called upon to save lives, but that hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for lists and checklists, and the value they can bring. If you’re not a list lover already, I recommend you grab a pen and paper, your phone, your tablet or whatever takes your fancy and start writing lists. I hope you’ll be converted and find a new level of productivity. Or at the very least, learn to savour the joy of ticking off completed tasks and feeling that you’ve achieved something each and every day.

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