Alagad has been on a real self-improvement kick lately. I don’t intend to conjure images of the self-help section at your local Barnes and Nobel, but perhaps there are parallels. Like any small business, we have experienced challenges and have had to be creative to come up with ways to work through them. As a part of this, I’ve established what I’m calling the Alagad Biz Book Club.
The concept behind the Alagad Biz Book Club is similar to any other book club. We’ll pick books, read them, and then talk about them in a group setting. However, because we’re a business, we’re reading books that relate to running businesses, customer service, or other applicable topics.
We hope that by consciously exposing ourselves to more information outside of the purely technical realm, we can inspire our employees and improve how we do business.
After our group talks I plan to post a review of the book and some feedback on how it may or may not relate to Alagad.
The first book we read was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. My wife, Liz, championed this book. Liz actively participates in Alagad behind the scenes and felt that we could gain some insight from the book.
Her introduction to the seven habits was through a local school that is teaching the children’s version in its curriculum. The goal is to help the school improve teaching, performance, and involvement. Apparently it’s been rather successful.
The language in the book is often, for lack of a better word, “foofy.” What I mean is that many of us found it too touchy-feely for our comfort. I’m not going to dig through the book and quote any specific phrases, but trust me it’s there.
The writing style in the book was a tremendous barrier to most of us in the company and I’m not sure that anyone read it cover to cover. This is true despite the fact that we added extra time for everyone to finish it up. In the end, someone found a website offering a short summary of each chapter. Even the summary is a bit foofy, but it’s much less so.
The premise behind the book is that the author, Steven Covey, has worked for a very long time studying aspects of successful people. Through this study he identified specific behaviors that most successful people exhibit. The book (obviously) goes into great detail about these seven habits. The author categorizes the first three habits into ones you can do without anyone else’s involvement. The second three require cooperation with others. The last is about balance and renewal.
Without further ado, here are the seven habits from the book:
This habit is about essentially making choices. People have free will and get to choose what they want to do. For example, you don’t have to get up and go to work in the morning. This is not being forced upon you. Instead, you choose to get up in the morning and go to work because the alternative is less appealing.
This applies to Alagad as a business because we have a responsibility to make things happen for us and for our clients. We won’t be successful if we simply sit still and hope we magically get clients. Furthermore, when we do have clients, we need to make active choices to provide the best customer service we can. We also need to make the choice to recognize problems and address them so they don’t reoccur.
Begin With the End In Mind
The next habit is essentially about setting goals and knowing where you’re headed. Personally, I’m a big goal person. I write my goals down, figure out how to accomplish them, and then accomplish them. At least, I do that when something is really important to me.
From a business perspective, knowing what you’re trying to accomplish is essential. There’s no way a business can be successful at something if that something is never defined. It’s like shooting in the dark.
Many things fall under this habit including strategic plans, corporate goals and mission, employee development, and more. Honestly, we have a lot of this in Alagad, but not nearly as formally as perhaps we should. As an example, we don’t have a corporate mission statement that crystallizes what we’re trying to do on a day-to-day basis.
Getting back to the book, it points out that if you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish you’re not likely to be successful. Being reminded of this helps us formalize our goals and to be more focused on accomplishing them.
Put First Things First
This specific habit spawned a fairly long conversation in our club meeting. The root of this habit is that you should organize yourself around priorities and execute against them. For example, the phone might be ringing right now or you might have email sitting in your inbox, but if you answer them you might be distracting yourself from your ultimate mission.
The book categorizes tasks by two metrics, urgency and importance. The book goes on to suggest that you work on the most urgent and important tasks first and avoid working on the not urgent and not important tasks.
I think we all recognized that this is something we all fall down on from time to time. It can often be tempting to do the fun or easy work first and leave the dull or difficult work for later. However, if the fun and easy work isn’t as important or urgent then you’re not being terribly effective.
This habit begins the interdependent set of habits. In other words, you can’t apply this habit without the involvement of someone else. It also requires you to think about situations from other people’s perspectives.
The concept of Win-Win is that in any negotiation or conflict you should try to find a way that both sides can feel like they’ve won. This is really about finding compromises.
This section was quite interesting as well because of the different outcomes associated with different scenarios (loose-loose, win-loose, and loose-win). You might think that you’d always want to be a winner and who cares of the other side is as looser, but that puts you in a bad position with the looser in the future. Furthermore, you might be tempted, in the name of providing good customer service put your company in the looser position to allow your client to win. This is aptly called the “doormat” position. IE, you get walked all over.
Finding a win-win requires you to see the situation from the other person’s perspective and to truly understand their concerns. Doing this is easier said than done, especially in business. You don’t always get the full picture from a client and it can be hard to draw it out of them. However, once you know, you can identify everyone’s issues and concerns and determine a result that would be acceptable to everyone as well as ways to achieve them.
Seek First to Understand Then to be Understood
How many times have you been in a situation where someone you were seeking advice from gave you the advice before hearing what your problem was? This can be really frustrating! This habit helps you avoid doing this to other people. The essence of this habit can be boiled down to one word: listen. This is really useful to a professional services company for several reasons.
For example, as a custom software company, Alagad creates custom web applications for our clients. To be able to do this, we need to know what the client needs in great detail. We essentially have to become subject area experts in a short period of time. To do this, we need to be very active listeners and ask leading questions. Not being able to do this will doom a project.
Or, in the event that something goes badly on a project, finding a win-win between you and the client can be difficult. However, just listening to an unhappy customer can sometimes defuse them. There are some people who apply a strategy of trying to keep an unhappy person talking as long as possible because it lets off the steam and eventually the person may realize the problem is not as bad as it seems.
Once you have as much information as you can get, you can start making recommendations and providing your own opinions on the situation.
The last interdependent habit seeks to find a sum greater then its parts. To explain, think about a situation where you may have been debating with someone the best solution to a problem. Oftentimes these debates are not as binary as they seem and there are more than just the obvious solutions. By working with someone else, you can often identify solutions that neither of you championed, but which are better overall.
As a software company, I think Alagad has a leg up on this habit. I say this because the best developers tend to be the ones who are constantly learning and expanding their horizons. They interact with other programmers inside the company and outside and share ideas and learn from others. This creates synergy inside the company and with the community that produces better results overall.
Sharpen the Saw
The final habit is about self-renewal and balance. In the book they tell a story which I’m sure we can all relate to. The story is about a person trying to cut a tree down with a dull saw that isn’t making much progress. Someone asks them why they don’t sharpen their saw. They reply by saying they don’t have time to sharpen the saw because they need to get this tree cut down as soon as possible.
I can relate to this both personally and professionally. There are a lot of times where I skip doing something that would make my job or life easier for the sake of doing my job or living my life.
As an example, developers often get stuck on problems. They spend hours trying to work on something without making much progress. Finally, they throw their hands up in frustration and give up. Then, the next morning, after relaxing and getting some rest, they come back and realize that the solution to the problem is actually very simple and can be implemented in five minutes. So, why all the head-beating? It’s like trying to cut a tree down with a dull saw. I guess the primary challenge is recognizing when the saw is dull.
The moral of the story is that you can’t just apply the six habits to be successful; you also have to take care of yourself and have balance in your life.
The Alagad Take-Away
To most of us here at Alagad, the seven habits seem to be common sense. I mean, why not think win-win? Why not try to find synergy? However, as we discussed the habits I think we all realized that there are places where we could do better with each habit.
In terms of the content and the idea in the book, it’s worth reading. However, I must say that you’ll probably have to work to read the whole book.
The next book we’ll be reading is Drive by Daniel Pink.
If you have any comments on this book or wish to suggest another book, please feel free to comment below!