Friday, April 19, 2013

Work Life: Note taking (Take 5 of infinite)

If there was one-skill in the professional world that all workers should have, that skill would be note-taking. It is a skill that practically everyone is capable of doing and helps you live to your potential. It also has additional benefits in the workplace.

Note-taking gives a good first impression to other people. It shows that you are attentive so you keep yourself on their good side. If it is from an virtual meeting, you can "share" your notes with your supervisor, your immediate team, or other people. Although most people won't read it, they will mentally note that you were attentive.

Although I like to share my information with the team, you can also choose to keep your notes private. Personally, I do not like these types of people but the practice has its uses. There are plenty of opportunities that arises where someone needs historical information. If this request is coming from a higher level management, this opportunity could be even more "profitable" for you if you have that information. Even just a reference information like a date or key topic would be beneficial to your status. This practice prevents your managers from taking credit for your work.

Another common activity is the blame-game. Typically, the finger pointing ends up at a low ranking employee. Taking notes could help prevent this activity especially if the other party does not have notes. Even better is if you share the notes or if the notes were in a formal document (i.e. work email, memo, etc.), there is little anyone can refute... unless you actually did make the mistake.

I own up to my mistake and note-taking also helps in that too. Now, I do not have to stress over the blame that I am not responsible for. Second, my notes help define why the mistake happen (note: this does not work very well if you are slacking although possible). Once the mistake is identified, the problem can be corrected if possible. Of course, there are some mistakes that cannot be fully corrected like forgetting to do a task which can be mitigated in other ways that I will not cover here. With this, I command more respect from my coworkers.

Besides the corporate politics, there are also many personal benefits. The more information you know, the easier it is to remember new information. For example, it is easier to remember one new name than two new names. When I invite a new person to our team, remembering the new person's name is easier than the new person remember all of the names in the team. Likewise, I can remember more names if the names are familiar names like Bob, John, or Mary. But names like Vera, Anjie, or Cui will be more difficult. Once I become familiar with the new names, recalling another Vera, Anjie, or Cui will also be easier.

Basically by note-taking and reviewing the notes occasionally, I also indirectly reiterate other information that I have collected. Even when I skim through the notes for a particular information, I reinforce other older information that I came across before. This not only helps me remember the information, this also helps me find the information that I need because I start to remember where information is in my notes. Back to one of the points above, I can now provide information on the spot which is even better than getting back to the person later.

Today, there is nothing particularly wrong with not taking notes because almost no one does. Also, this does not help you against naturally talented people. But good, hard-working people are still hard to come by. Anyone with experience even for the naturally talented people will try to keep you in your team. In the grander scheme (in my opinion), it is more satisfying that I meet my potential than having a higher undeserved status. For example, I want to be promoted because my vision and management skills are greater than my team. At the same time, I have absolutely no problem working under a manager that has a grander vision and better management skills.

The reason that I started was because I was tired of getting blamed or having my team blamed (usually the latter). The team could be my immediate group, the department, or even our company. Customers and clients will try to always blame the vendor because it is most cost effective for the vendor to defend valid and invalid claims. My clients rarely did this because I would often turn around with an email where we discussed that particular term. In many cases, they complained less and more willing to accept our quotes. I even had a client who initiated an offer to my employer just to have me as their primary contact for $30k/year which I barely spent a tenth of my time on. Most clients were around $2k/year, and I've heard they eventually dropped the contract and later changed vendors after I've left that company.

Sorry for the above inflation of my ego but I thought showed the value of having and tracking information. The other reason for taking notes was that I thought my memory was below par, but overtime I found that I just know different kinds of information than most. I find that I retain broader information better than refined information. For example, I can remember processes like SDLC but have difficulty on recalling the last time I watched a movie.

At first, taking notes seemed very tedious. I had to consciously remember to bring a pad and pen then remember to actually take notes. After a certain point, this just becomes second nature. The next difficult part was catching all the information. I like my notes to be complete so this was a personal irritation. Eventually, I found that some information is better than none. It was important though that I noted that the information is not complete (or assume information is not complete in which case mark that information is complete). One reason is that I started to notice that we discuss many of the same topics. Sometimes with different teams so it needs to be iterated. So, I slowly compiled a completed list over several meetings. If not and the information seemed important enough, I will ask a coworker, my boss, or the person who provided the information. I found this to be a great way to create a good friendly relationship too.

Over time, I have found it easier to take notes because I did not have to write everything down because I already knew the topic and already had it in my notes. This then gave me more time to note the things I did not know. So back to the store on remembering names, remember information also became easier as I continued to take notes. 

Oftentimes, people discuss the same topics every other day or every week. We never seem to make any progress because we use the entire time just reiterating the same things we discuss the previous time. I have used my notes to direct meetings to better results by having the information we had from the previous meeting. Also as a result of when I host meetings, my meetings run much smoother and shorter. For example, my current group has a rotation so each of us hosts a meeting every cycle. One of those meetings, I cover in 10-15 minutes while everyone else runs over 30 minutes. The second meeting, I cover within 45 minutes while everyone else does not even complete the list within the allotted 60 minutes.

A phrase that one of my boss uses is, "we need to drive the behavior, not the process." Although we still use process to drive the behavior, the meaning resonates with me where the focus should be that we change why they do it rather than how they do it. What I have noticed is that more people join my meetings and more people are prepared for my meetings. So not only do I save them time, they save me time.

I do still run into some difficulties with taking notes. I have not put much thought into it yet, but I am currently running into the problem that I cannot recall things as quickly as I used to or that I completed missed some information. My current guess is that I am being overloaded. I have much more responsibilities than my coworkers and suddenly was given many new tasks. Although I am coping, the quality is not as good as it was before the changes.

I am not exactly sure why people do not take notes. I think it is because practically no one takes notes so everyone has become "lazy" because the corporate ladder scheme remains the same if everyone takes notes compared to no one takes notes. Especially in the corporate world (as opposed to small/medium sized companies), employees have other priorities outside the workplace like family, friends, etc. Thus, changing behavior causes disruptions that they do not care for because the status quo is sufficient.

Whatever the reason may be, I found that taking notes really helped me personally and professionally. There is probably a saturation point to the amount of notes to take, but I have benefited a lot even just for taking down some information. There are other skills that I have adopted to review and organize my notes which I think are tailored to the way I think so I did not think it was appropriate for this blog. I think this is useful for any profession particularly ones that have audits at any level and jobs that you are constantly being blamed for.