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Chronicles from a Caribbean Cubicle


The Gang of X

The other day I met a friend of mine who is a bona-fide change agent in her company.

It reminded me of my first change effort as an employee of AT&T Bells Labs. A group of us decided to stop complaining that things should change and do something about it.

We started the "Gang of X" and started meeting, discussing the new Division we wanted to create. It was all quite exciting, and got even more so when we published something like a manifesto for change, outlining the change we wanted to see.

At the time it seemed quite risky, but we were wrong. It really wasn't.

In time, all the changes we outlined came to pass but not before I left the company to start my own firm. In time, the organization was dissolved when AT&T split into Lucent and AT&T, and the division's staff was scattered in to the wind.

But the Gang of X was a life-changing event that I don't regret, even after I got pissed when the changes weren't happening fast enough.

It helped to lead my to the profession I now have, in which I get to work with change agents of all kinds who share one thing in common -- a desire to make a difference.


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Building Bridges for Business

It struck me recently that it is quite difficult for a Jamaican who has never lived abroad to understand the economic potential in Jamaican culture and our island's beauty.

Also, it is just as hard for a Jamaican living abroad who retains no ties back home whatsoever to take advantage of the benefits they have of being Jamaican.

Enter the Jamaican who chooses to live in both worlds -- the larger world outside Jamaica and a life in Jamaica. They are a unique resource, in that they understand two worlds that are quite unique, and an understanding of both worlds makes them quite valuable.

For example, is Trench Town a special resource? Only a few Jamaicans living on the island would agree, but this happens to be the place that I was was asked about the most frequently when I lived in the U.S. Could it be turned into a kind of meccas for lovers of reggae music and Bob Marley?

We are gifted with one of the prettiest countries in the world, yet much of our country remains hidden from tourists the world over who would be stunned at the places that don't make it to the brochures, some of which don't even have names. We Jamaicans take the mountains, valleys, waterfalls, fruits, birds, sun -- all for granted. And because we can't see those things with "outsider eyes" we don't think deeply enough about how to share them with the world.

It's not an overstatement to state that we Jamaicans who go abroad truly discover the beauty of our country when we get off the plane in Miami, New York or Toronto. All of a sudden a naseberry, a quiet beach and a walk in the mountains in the morning become luxury items.

Enjoying them becomes a matter of working very, very hard, saving a lot of money, and spending it on the little 2 weeks "dem give us" each year that we use to travel home to try to take everything in at once.

Jamaicans who can see both worlds can see opportunities that are invisible to others. This speaks to new ventures that are just waiting to be started, and those of us who are business-minded could do no worse than to take the bull by the horns, and launch them.

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Clients I Can't Work With

I have found it virtually impossible to work with a certain kind of client -- the one that insists that they already know, or his colleague, the one that is afraid of looking like they don't already know.

The result is the same -- a certain lack of progress as they defend their egos against looking bad. With them, things have to start looking VERY bad before they are willing to put results over their personal view of themselves. And there are times when that approach just takes too long to make a difference.

On the opposite side of the coin, however, is the client who is willing to learn at every turn. They make the best clients, and usually become friends. The quest to do good first and foremost, helps us both to put our egos in check, and makes projects flow smoothly and sweetly, such that they hardly feel like work at all.


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The Productivity of Jamaican Workers

A colleague of mine recently shared with me that foreign executives and project managers in the bauxite industry use a factor of 2 to 2.5 when estimating how much labour it takes to get a job done.

In other words, in Jamaica it takes more than twice the same number of man-hours to do the same work as elsewhere, and I imagine that this is referring to mostly manual labour rather than knowledge work.

If true, this is a pretty startling statistic, but it starts to explain why prices here in Jamaica seem to be high for no reason at times. I do know that security costs make up a higher percentage of total costs than in other countries, which makes sense given our high crime rates. That much is plain to see.

What's not so obvious to see is that we are often using more than twice the workforce needed.

Apparently, the Chinese workers that were here for the World Cup put our own labourers to shame, and in the garment industry in particular, they have shown that they, as it was said "can do de work of two s'maddy" (2 people that is).

I guess the colloquial wisdom in this case matches the actual measurements of bauxite-industry managers...


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Recession and Productivity

Talk of a recession in the U.S. is now fully underway.

In the Caribbean, we have just begun to talk about the fact that when a recession hits the U.S., the after-effects are felt here. As if the increase in oil prices were not enough, we can also expect to see a drop in tourist visits and a decrease in average tourist spending. This affects our bottom-line in Jamaica and other countries in the region that are dependent on the tourist industry as the biggest earner of foreign exchange.

If a recession is to come to the region, then we can expect to see redundancies as companies cut their payrolls to keep their costs in line with a reduction in business.

It's a good time for employees to start to think about a strategy to make themselves invaluable to their employers. An employee would do well to find ways to do more with less, as the chances are good that their managers are going to be turning to them to ask them to do just that.

If a redundancy is announced, it's likely that the least productive employees are the ones that are at the greatest risk. In turn, the most productive ones will be assuming the workload of those that are laid off.

While most managers won't give their employees anything new to deal with the extra load, the smart ones will start now to give them tools, training and alternatives that help them get the job done.

For example, elance, the outsourcing service, offers an excellent value for money, and now would be a good time to get used to using the service. Also, Framework's NewHabits-NewGoals productivity programme would be an alternative for professionals looking to boost their ability to deal with more each day.

It also might be a good time to buy that extra memory for the laptop, or to set up work-at-home arrangements wherever possible -- all in favour of boosting productivity.

The current estimates say that a recession won't be felt here in the region until 9-12 months from now, so there is still ample time to prepare.

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Managing the Exploding Inbox

The following article was carried in the Sunday Gleaner today (with some edits) :

Here is the original article:

It’s one of those issues that everyone complains about – “my Email Inbox has 500 items.” The retort draws a quick response -- “Oh yeah, that’s nothing… mine has 5,000!”

Email explosion is one of the favourite things that Caribbean professionals across the region bemoan, but feel they can do little about. They suffer as they watch the size of their Inbox grow, and devote weekends, public holidays and even vacation days to getting rid of the monster. Once they do so, there is a feeling of relief as order returns to their tired psyches.

However, a month later it’s back.

Some try the trick of periodically copying all their messages to a bottomless folder, returning their Inbox to ground zero. Others simply delete everything, deciding that anything that’s in there is probably not valuable, and “if it’s really important, they can call.”

On the other side of each email, however, is someone who genuinely wants a response of some kind. The sender waits, while forming an unfavourable opinion of the person that has not replied. Cleaning shop by deleting emails en masse is risky business.

What can be done to address this problem that most will admit is not going away, and is likely to only get worse?

Face the Unproductive Facts

The first insight is the hardest to swallow: an overflowing Inbox is a sign of weak time management and productivity skills.

It’s not due to “those people” who won’t give us a break. It’s not that we are “bad at email.” It’s also not God’s fault for refusing to give us more hours in the day.

Recent research by Framework Consulting shows that an overflowing Inbox is a sign that the user probably has not learned, and is definitely not using, the best time management practices. Their Inbox is only reflecting the results of the habits they are using.

The solution? It turns out that a complex set of skills must be mastered in order to produce the Holy Grail of professional productivity – a perpetually empty Inbox.

That is no trick. A perpetually empty Inbox is not one that is blocked from other users, and does not come from changing an email address, job, country or computer. Instead, it is one that involves the skilful handling of email as soon as it arrives.

How is this accomplished?

The 11 Fundamentals

An empty Inbox is not created overnight. Instead, it involves the steady application of a set of habits that must practised continuously, like a forward defensive stroke or a scale in C major.

Of the 11 fundamentals, we have found that 7 of them are critical to properly manage email. These seven practices comprise the core of all complete time management systems, and once they are each mastered to a high enough level, the empty inbox is a natural outcome. When any of them is missing, the result is Inbox overload.

Here are the 7 core practices essential to proper email management.

  1. Capturing: using the email Inbox for temporary storage only, and for quick emptying. Messages are downloaded from a server only upon request.
  2. Emptying: moving messages out of the Inbox to other folders as soon as it’s practical
  3. Tossing: permanently deleting emails that won’t be acted on
  4. Acting Now: taking immediate action on messages that require 5 minutes or less to be completed
  5. Storing: placing information from messages in different folders for future retrieval
  6. Scheduling: using messages to create appointments for solo or group work e.g. to block out time for an interview, or time to review a document
  7. Listing: taking information from messages and adding them to lists for later action e.g. a list of items to be covered in a meeting agenda

Perhaps the biggest change that most professionals can make immediately is turn off the ability of their email programme to download messages automatically. Instead, in order to “Capture” properly, they must manually download email at pre-appointed times, while disciplining themselves to rarely, if ever, check email at other times.

None of these practices are easy to implement, especially as they are simply not taught in schools. Most of us put together a time management system without guidance in time to pass our 11+ examinations, and we are stuck with our creations that were meant for an age when email wasn’t invented.

The advent of email, with its 24 hour demands, means that we must all “up our game.” Instead of relying on home-grown approaches that were incomplete and ill-informed, we as professionals must take the next step to deliberately design our own time management systems. Using the 7 core practices as building blocks is just a start. A perpetually empty Inbox is a powerful milestone to accomplish.


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Opening a Business in Jamaica

I can finally say that I have made it through a critical process -- that of opening up, and registering a business in Jamaica.

The entire process was a daunting one, and I can understand why they say that we have one of the most inefficient tax systems in the world. I have been putting off this post, because I needed to recover a bit from the whole thing so that I could write with some perspective.

The first step is to register the company, and that took several months due to a variety of glitches, some caused by me and the way in which I was trying to set things up. I eventually settled on creating a company that is entirely owned by a U.S. company that I own.

The paperwork was fairly straight-forward, and I used a local company called Profits and Dividends to get this step done. The end-result of this activity (which cost some US$700 or so) was to receive the Registration papers for the company and a company stamp.

In essence this was the simplest step.

The next steps were all necessary in order to have even a single employee. They need to be done with some precision, due to the fact that they all involve travel around Kingston from one office to another, and it's quite easy to get turned back from the office in order to retrieve a single paper that was forgotten. As my wife said, just bring everything that you think might be needed with you in a briefcase .

  1. The first stop was the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) office in New Kingston, at 18 Ripon Road, off Oxford Road.

    You need to bring all your company registration documents plus a full copy. Also have a personal Taxpayer Registration Number (TRN) and driver's licence handy for each of the steps. Fill out the NIS form for the business, and for all the employees in the business if they have never been registered.

    Get the slip, and the letter that indicate that you are registered.

  2. Visit the Tax Office some time between the 3rd and 25th of the month to avoid the end of month rush. Sign up for a Business TRN. Bring a copy of the registration. The wait for this to be completed is about 5 minutes.

  3. Once completed, stay at the Tax Office to register for General Consumption Tax (GCT) payments.

  4. If a Tax Compliance Certificate (TCC) is needed, then a visit to National Housing Trust (NHT) and the Tax Office are needed. These are used to clear items from customs and are good for six months.
What makes the process difficult is the movement back and forth during working hours from one office to another. I haven't actually paid payroll taxes yet, so that will be another bit of excitement, to be sure.


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FirstCuts Issue 19: The New Responsibility

Follow this link to read the latest issue of FirstCuts:
FirstCuts 19: The New Responsibility

Also, this month's publication is also available via audio podcast: http://fwconsulting.podomatic.com

After you have had a listen, or a read, do come back here to leave a comment or question.


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Time Management Programme Interview

Recently, I was interviewed by Amitabh Sharma of the Sunday Gleaner here in Jamaica, regarding the (then) upcoming NewHabits-NewGoals pilot, for an article entitled 'Effective Time Management'.


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Unreturned Calls

One thing I have noticed about doing business in Jamaica is that professionals seem much less likely to return phone calls than in the U.S.

I have decided that this largely comes from a lack of competence, rather than an intention to do malice or harm. How can I tell?

Well, it seems that it shows itself when the person is finally met face-to-face, at which point profuse apologies are made. There are just many more people who are incapable of handling the volume of stuff they have coming at them, and the skills they are using are just not adequate.

In general, the productivity of the average professional is lower than that of their counterpart in the U.S. It isn't even the case that people work harder in the U.S. -- although they do work longer hours in general. I attribute the difference to a lack of role models to demonstrate good habits more than anything else.

I really do believe it just comes down to a skill difference, and that can easily be overcome with the right training, coaching and mentoring.

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Cancel cards prior to death

This came from an email that is making the rounds in South Africa.

Note to self: 'Cancel credit cards prior to death!

Be sure and cancel your credit cards before you die! This is so priceless and so easy to see happening - customer service, being what it is today!

A lady died this past January, and ABSA bank billed her for February and March for their annual service charges on her credit card, and then added late fees and interest on the monthly charge. The balance had been R0.00, now it's somewhere around R60.00.

A family member placed a call to the ABSA Bank:

Family Member:
'I am calling to tell you that she died in January.'

'The account was never closed and the late fees and charges still apply.'

Family Member:
'Maybe, you should turn it over to collections.'

'Since it is two months past due, it already has been.'

Family Member:
So, what will they do when they find out she is dead?'

'Either report her account to the frauds division or report her to the credit bureau, maybe both!'

Family Member:
'Do you think God will be mad at her?'

'Excuse me?'

Family Member:
'Did you just get what I was telling you . . . The part about her being dead?'

'Sir, you'll have to speak to my supervisor.'

The supervisor gets on the phone.

Family Member:
'I'm calling to tell you, she died in January.'

'The account was never closed and the late fees and charges still apply.'

Family Member:
'You mean you want to collect from her estate?'

(Stammer) 'Are you her lawyer?'

Family Member:
'No, I'm her great nephew.'
(Lawyer info given)

'Could you fax us a certificate of death?'

Family Member:
'Sure.' ( fax number is given )

After they get the fax:

'Our system just isn't set up for death. I don't know what more I can do to help.'

Family Member:
'Well, if you figure it out, great! If not, you could just keep billing her. I don't think she will care.'

'Well, the late fees and charges do still apply.'

Family Member:
'Would you like her new billing address?'

'That might help.'

Family Member:
' XXXXXX Cemetery, 1249 XXXX Rd, Plot Number 1049.'

'Sir, that's a cemetery!'

Family Member:
'Well, what do you do with dead people on your planet?'

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Weak Networking Skills in the Caribbean

What does it mean to say that a Caribbean manager has "weak networking skills"?

Does it mean that he or she is not charming and charismatic? Does not speak well? Does not follow-through? Is unwilling to take risks? How would you measure the ultimate result --a working, Caribbean network-- and the skill that it takes to build one?

First of all, it might be useful to distinguish what a Caribbean network is, versus a local network. For an island-dweller, a local network is one that ends where the sea starts.

For example, a Jamaican with only local "contacts" would know very few professionals outside their home country, in other countries in the region. A Caribbean network, by contrast, is one that reaches into several Caribbean islands.

Also, a well-built network would have more than mere acquaintances, or a list of names that someone has met "once at a party". The quality of these contacts would be built on more than just having a name and address. It would also include a professional impression, or personal brand -- something that is known about the person that sets them apart from other professionals. They may not be recognized on the street, but their ideas or accomplishments are are known by the persons in the network.

After all, anyone can build a list of key names and addresses from the Yellow Pages. A real network has more than just contact information (although this information must be included).

Someone with weak networking skills would be able to see it in the results -- a "local" network would be evidence. So would a network that does very little of the personal branding that a network is designed to use.

But, everyone starts from the same place, with no network to speak of. That's ground zero.

What would be the essential skills to develop in order to become a good networker?

Skill #1: Personal Branding
A good networker is able to think of themselves as a brand, and of their strengths as specific attributes to be emphasized. They also know that they must brand themselves around the areas that they have a true passion about.

Skill #2: Time Management
While everyone claims to understand how to network, few do the things that they know they should be doing. The common complaint I hear is -- "I don't have enough time."

Skill #3: Internet Relationship Building
This has nothing to do with a skill at a particular technology. Instead, it means understanding how relationships are created and sustained in cyber-space between working colleagues, sellers and buyers, writers and readers, Facebook friends, members of a discussion list and between people who make up different groups on the net.

Someone who is very weak at this skill would insist that "I have to see them face to face in order to trust them, or to do business with them." The world has changed vastly from that restrictive way of doing business, and someone who is not good at building internet relationships will simply be cut off from a great deal of business.

Skill #4: Technology Shortcuts
The cost of trying to build regional working relationships is just too high, and the cost of using the internet is too low to ignore as the alternative.

The cost and time of air travel and communication across the Caribbean region makes it expensive to use these methods to build relationships. A round -trip flight between the 2 largest economies, Trinidad and Jamaica, takes some 12 hours in the air, plus 8 hours to be transfer from airport to home or office. That's 20 hours, at least. The flight costs between US$350 and US$500.

A phone call for an hour costs some US$16. By contrast, Skype can be used to make an internet phone call for free.

The cost of sending a Christmas card from Trinidad to Jamaica is approximately US$0.90. The cost of an e-card or email is free.

These shortcuts are vital to use in order to break the barrier that these costs have created.

Skill #5: Having a Message, Getting It Out
Weak networkers are unskilled at getting their message out to the region. The weakest networkers, however, haven't even developed a message to send. They have not spent the time to find something unique to say, so even when they are given the opportunity to speak, or write publicly the little they have to say is pedestrian, and routine.

The best networkers are also not concerned about "people stealing their stuff",which would result in them keeping their messages to themselves -- hoarded someplace on their hard-drive. They use multiple channels to get their messages out to other professionals across the region.

Skill #6: Being Persistent and Regular
Weaker networkers may do all of the above things, but they only do them once. When nothing happens, they stop. The best networkers have found ways to continue to be motivated, knowing that they are building an asset for the long-term, rather than just a short-term opportunity. They continue to use their networking skills to expand their authentic interests. If for example, they have an interest in orchids, they merely expand that interest to the orchids of other Caribbean countries. They make friends in the other countries who share the interest, and get to know their friends as well. In this way, they stay interested.

Also, they find ways to make regular contact, ensuring that their messages reach the people who are in their network on a regular basis. They simply refuse to "drop off the radar". For some professionals, the challenge they have is managing their time in order to do these activities. For others, they just don't know that they should be doing these things.

Skill #7: Demonstrating an Interest in Other People
While some people have the gift of being charismatic, this is not really a skill related to networking. Neither is looking the part, or being well-spoken, or being smart. Much more important than these attributes is the ability to be authentically interested in other people, and what they are interested in themselves. This takes a level of awareness and commitment, plus some insight into the unique nature of human beings.

In conversation, the networker knows that people who feel as if they are being heard, and appreciated, are much more likely to enjoy the conversation than those who are subject to the networker's jokes, brilliance or resume. Giving others the gift of one's attention when the networker is tired, distracted or bored is a skill worth learning, by itself.

Weak networkers just cannot be bothered.


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Launching CaribHRForum's website

As I mentioned in a post 2 days ago, I have been working on upgrading CaribHRForum (original page) -- the networking service for Caribbean HR Professionals.

The website has been launched and can be seen at http://caribhrforum.com/wordpress.

Feedback on the site can be shared on the page itself, or here on this blog.

I believe that CaribHRForum is a first in the region in many ways -- if not, do let me know!

FYI -- CaribHRForum is sponsored by Framework Consulting.


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