Who Is Bob

Regular readers will know that in a previous role I was responsible for running a major global financial system for a FTSE10 company. The system was big; we had some 2,000 users in over 100 countries. It was also crucial, as it was used to close and report the corporate accounts.

The process of closing the accounts was a major global effort that took place every month, there were literally thousands of people involved; loading data, running reports, correcting data, signing off… it was a mammoth effort, and of course with all of those people involved there were countless different ways of working and working preferences.

This is where Bob came in.

Occasionally, I would get a request from someone out in the world who wanted something changed. Something that they thought would be simple to adjust, but that would make their lives marginally easier. Maybe swapping the columns on a report, so they could paste it into a local Excel sheet without manipulation, or changing the sort order so that their subtotals worked better.

In short, these were requests for a change to a report that was used by hundreds of people, specifically to make this one individual’s day marginally easier.

This is the Bob from Accounts Problem.

What If Bob Had a Great Idea?

Now, the thing is, Bob’s idea might be brilliant. It might solve an issue that has been bubbling under the surface for a while that we haven’t been able to fix, Bob’s idea needs to be heard, which is why we have governance.

Governance forums look at the requests that are coming through, weigh up the benefits and the costs, and decide whether an idea goes into development or not. If Bob’s idea turns out to be remarkable, then maybe it’s something we want to pursue.

Maybe everyone out there is struggling with pasting the report into the same template? Maybe they all need their subtotals in the same order as Bob?

So, we developed Governance Boards to give ideas a fair hearing, but what happens if all 2,000 users submit an idea? There needed to be something to stop everyone just throwing in any idea that they had.

There needed to be a barrier to entry.

The Pain in the Ass (PitA) Barrier

The PitA barrier is there to stop everyone submitting an idea and expecting it to be heard; it is a cost of entry, a requirement, or series of requirements that an individual must meet before they can make it to Governance.

It might look like a form to fill in, or a slide template; it could be a process that they need to follow, including reviews and approvals; it could be the need to come to the Governance session and put their idea forward in person.

Whatever it is, it is there to slow people down; to put a natural limit on how many people will come forward with ideas.

That said, you need to set the barrier just right; too low and no one will be deterred, too high and good ideas might die on the vine.

If you get it right though, you can rest easy knowing that if someone’s idea is of such limited value that they can’t motivate themselves over the PitA barrier, then it’s highly unlikely to be of significant value to anyone else. As such, it very probably doesn’t warrant discussion at a governance forum.

Personal Governance

So, how does all this apply to you, as an individual?

I’ve written here before about Personal Governance; ultimately, you have numerous Bobs who are wanting your attention. There will be people that you work with who will want you to do work with (or for) them, that offers very little benefit to you or the wider organisation.

These are nice to have requests that add almost no value and pull people away from the high-value work that they are employed to deliver.

Having Personal Governance allows us to ensure that we’re focussing on what matters most; to us and to the wider organisation, it means that we should be Doing Less, Achieving More.

But wouldn’t it be enjoyable if we could stop Bob from asking in the first place?

Your Own PitA Barrier

Obviously, you can’t ask people to fill in a form, but you probably shouldn’t be doing everything off the back of ambiguous emails, either, so where is the middle ground?

Questions, specifically, Genuine Questions.

  • When do you need that for?
  • How does this fit with the strategy?
  • Can you help me understand the value?

These are Genuine Questions that you can ask anyone who is asking you to perform a piece of work. If you ask them from a place of wanting to understand they will help you to get a feel for how best to prioritise the work, they will drive your Personal Governance.

Ask, Listen, Respond.

However, as simple as these questions may seem; poorly thought out or badly defined requests will fail to answer them. Typically, when someone is asking a nice to have of you, they won’t even bother to attempt to answer a question, they will simply take their request elsewhere, somewhere that isn’t a Pain in the Ass.

As Cal Newport says in his recent book A world without Email, “If slightly increasing friction drastically reduces the requests made on your time and attention, then most of these requests are not vital to your organisations operation in the first place.”.

But I Don’t want to be a Pain in the Ass!

OK, don’t then, just say yes to every request and never go home!

The reality is that someone will always be upset that you’re not doing the thing they think you should be doing.

If you try to please everyone, then you will fail, and so someone out there will always think that you’re a Pain in the Ass, even if you’re trying desperately not to be one. So, isn’t it easier to embrace that, and get to spend time doing the things that you enjoy outside of work, rather than try to please everyone, and work yourself directly to burn out?

As with everything, there are rules to this, though:

  • Don’t be an actual Ass — Remember that this is about making sure you’re doing the right things. You can be direct without being rude; you can ask your questions without being condescending. Be polite and respectful always.
  • You’re not trying to avoid work — You’re trying to understand the requirement. If you use this to weasel out of everything that you’re asked to do, then you should expect to get fired, and you’d deserve it.
  • If you get good answers to your questions, then do the work — You may not agree, but that’s not the point, if you’re really asking Genuine Questions, then you should be open to being convinced.

Remember that the barrier is there to limit your exposure to low-value work, not to get you out of work altogether.

There will always be a Bob

You can’t get away from Bob, he will always be there, even if you’re running your own business you’ll come across the occasional Bob. So, the onus will always be on you to control your flow of work.

Using genuine questions to create a PitA barrier isn’t avoiding work, it makes sure that low-value work goes elsewhere and allows you to focus on doing the right things, rather than trying to do all the things.

Set a bar for prospective work to get over before you’ll engage with it, just be careful how you refer to it in public.

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