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Personal Agility: Scrum For Individual Task And Project Management with Michael Alf
We’re going to talk about High Performance in the Digital Age. What does that mean? We’ll find out, but we all know what high performance means and we all know that we’re living in the digital age. Let’s pack those two together and see how we can be more efficient and effective to take back time in this day and age. I have Michael Alf. We’re excited to have him because he’s a personal friend of mine. We met when we took a neuro strategy masterclass together, so we can know and understand all the habits and behaviors that we and everyone else out there is having and how to better shift those behaviors to what we want to have versus what’s automatic. We’ve got that Behavioral Psychology background together.
You’ve been doing so many exciting things. I’ve been hearing about lots of different things you’ve created that we’re going to talk about and you can tell us more about anything else you think that the audience needs to know. Most importantly, you were a successful consultant and CEO, CFO, COO in a number of different companies. You know business, you know what high performance is and how to activate it. You’ve created this program, you’re the Founder of the High Performance in the Digital Age. People will notice that you are not the typical American since you are German. Somehow maybe you even have an Australian accent by living in Australia for as many years as you have. Michael, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Penny. I’m so excited to be here with you. We’ve known each other for so many years. It was hard to stay in touch when I was in Australia and you are somewhere in the US. We tried a couple of times to get together, but somehow that was tough. At the moment, I’m in Berlin, the German capital, the startup capital of Germany and Europe. I’m excited to be here. It’s a lot easier to connect. I’m glad to be here on the show.
It can be at a reasonable hour. You’re like, “Can we meet at 4:00 AM?” I’m like, “No.” I love you but I love my sleep even more. Tell us what we need to know about your background in order for us to understand how you came about to talk about High Performance in the Digital Age?
I’m from Germany and I started my career with the German Armed Forces as an officer during the first ten years. That was my first big block. I finished there as a captain. I joined consulting and spent a lot of years in consulting in Germany, but globally, in global roles and European roles working on strategy, implementation, transformation, outsourcing and development and all the whole stuff. Then ten years ago we said, “We have to move somewhere else. We want to experience that and have something special.” We had an opportunity to move to Melbourne, Australia. We took it at the end of 2008. We went there with consulting companies and then from there, I had an interesting journey, a roller coaster journey in the last couple of years where I tried a lot of things which didn’t work, and some things did work. It was interesting but a lot was around the digital space.
The other thing I’m fascinated about is people and how we behave, what drives us and what motivates us. That’s why I created also my podcast show, the Disciplined Disruption Podcast, at the intersection between digital disruption and personal transformation. The question for me is around how do we prepare for this digital age? How do we change our thinking, our mindset, our approach, our methods that we are using to not only survive but thrive in this digital age? For many, they feel it gets harder. It’s this overwhelm. There’s so much happening and that’s what I want to address with my work.
The more flexibility you want the more structure you need. Click To Tweet I hope you’re going to address this problem when people are attached to their phones. Digital is great and it does accelerate processes and it can definitely make things more efficient and effective, but it’s how we use it. It can be also an obsession and also suck away our attention, our energy, our productivity and so forth. I hope that you can figure something that point first.
I have something for your audience, some tips, five productivity hacks specifically for the digital age and your audience will love it. Maybe not the tips itself, all of them initially because some of them you have to change your behavior and you have to do things differently. When you get the results at the end and you see this improvement and you see, “I get more done. I feel better. I feel less overwhelmed,” it’s worth it.
I always tell people, it’s not just what we do, it’s how we do it. We have to keep that in mind that there is a happy balance.
One good example, a lot of people wake up in the morning and the first thing they do is email purge. They go for all the emails, swipe and kill all the emails or delete all the emails.
Like killing your brain cells as you go across.
I’ll tell my audience in keynotes and in workshops that the problem is that your brain still has to read every single subject line. That means you take energy away in the early morning from things which are not important at all to just delete these emails instead of focusing on what is important in the day and do these email purge, mid-day or something like that and delete all the unnecessary emails.
I say the same thing. It’s an energy suck. It makes you reactive first thing in the morning and be on point. There are other ways also technologically so that you shouldn’t have to go through them, swipe, and get them out. There are lots of different things that you can do with filters and stuff to make your life easier as well.
That’s a very simple but very effective tip people should try out. Try it out for a week, it’s always a nice one. I know from working with my clients also in the coaching space and the high-performance area, sometimes it’s hard even a week, but this is something you have to bring up the energy because the results and the return you get is it makes you feel a lot better and it makes such a huge difference. That’s one big tip, which I have in terms of the digital age and what you can do around that.
Our audience will do that. I want you to check in and let us know how it went. Take one week and do that for one week and see the difference that it makes. The first day might be hard and it might create more stress because you’re detoxifying, you’re addicted. Face it, you are addicted. One week, take the challenge. Thank you, Michael. We’ll do that. Tell us more about what is a high performance to you?
It’s like you can always improve because your circumstances change. Therefore, things work differently and you have to apply in different ways and so on. Clarity is the same thing. You might have a certain level of clarity now. Let’s say you’ll get promoted tomorrow, then suddenly your clarity is gone. You have to start all over again. It’s on every level you can look around and look at those six high performance habits and see how you can improve them. What I did then is I used that as a foundation. Think about back to the smartphone. The smartphone operates with a simple spec. You have an operating system, your iOS or your Android, you have applications, your email program, your browser and you have the user, so yourself.
That’s a very simple three-part stack. What I did is I use the stack analogy and use that for your personal operating model. How do you operate yourself? The operating system is basically this high performance. This high performance is the foundation. It’s your operating system. Think about how often you upgrade your operating system on your smartphone on a regular basis? The reason is that otherwise, it doesn’t work. It’s not functioning enough or it’s not performing well. The same applies to the high performance in your own world. That’s how it works. On top of that sits all this digital stuff and the digital elements you need to look at. In principle, it’s the simple framework and it works well because it addresses the need for high performance and then it looks at the digital age, what else is required?
What are those things in the digital age? What else is required?
There are three components from my perspective that make it up. The first one is digital literacy. We all have to learn and embrace all this new stuff, IoT, artificial intelligence, Blockchain, Infinite Computing, Industry 4.0. Whatever it is, you need to understand what’s happening in your industry, in your world and need to learn that. You have to have this constant learning much more than in the past. There’s a lot of talk about it, but it becomes more and more critical that you stay up-to-date. The second one is path clarity. What I mean by path clarity is a short-term half clarity because things are changing so quickly. It’s around understanding what are your three top projects at the moment and how do you get there.
You simplify. You only have three projects in your life and you focus on those three projects. You create this clarity, how you move forward in these three projects. You block out everything else because you will have overwhelm. It’s unavoidable. There’s so much coming upon us. Overwhelm is the new normal as I say. The question then is, “What do you do?” If you know that overwhelm is normal, you then accept it and focus on what is most important. That’s the second one. The third one, which is nice into the productivity discussion is what I call a personal agility. A lot of people talk about Agile and Scrum, but we need to start with ourselves because when we don’t understand how Agile works and how we think in a more agile way, then an organization can’t do that.
If you can’t do it personally, how are you going to do it collectively?
That’s the whole purpose of it. The idea of that is you start with yourself, you create your own personal agility. One way how I do it is if using the Agile approach or the Scrum approach for your personal productivity. I break it down and apply that to the productivity. You might have to-do lists or whatever it is, but I basically use the Scrum approach, which is in principle the core element is a Scrum board, so it’s a whiteboard.
Overwhelm is the new normal. Click To Tweet There are a lot of people who don’t know what Scrum is. Let’s back up. We’re going to go into more detail in that third area on the personal agility. For the people who aren’t familiar with it, what is Scrum at a high level and why should we care?
A couple of decades ago, Jeff Sutherland looked at all the projects and how long typically the projects were going, IT projects, infrastructure projects, everything. When you think about large projects, developing a new bridge or a new car or a software system, the big things, he said, “That can’t be,” then he developed the Scrum Approach.
It can’t be because there’s a statistic that it was over 30%. It was closer to 50% of those projects fail. How do these massive investments fail? That’s my remembrance of it.
It’s in this high 30% plus up to 70%, especially for the large projects. It’s quite massive. It’s millions of dollars getting lost there. He said, “I have to solve this problem.” He came up with this new approach, Scrum approach, and developed that. That has started in the software development space. When you look at the Silicon Valley, venture capitalists would typically not invest into a startup if it wasn’t run in Agile. That shows you how powerful this methodology is because that’s the standard. Interestingly, Silicon Valley is ahead. They use that everywhere, but it’s coming now around the world. Here in Berlin, almost every organization is looking into Agile-Scrum, I’ll put that the same. Using that and trying to educate the board, the leadership, and everybody else to understand how that works because it’s a very different approach to thinking.
I’d like to highlight what I understand it, you tell me if it’s correct and why everybody needs to think about this because it is a different level of thinking and I always say that it’s about thinking and acting more strategically. Traditionally, in large project planning, they spend a lot of time planning out all the way to the end of the project. These Gantt charts were so out of hand. They spend more time updating the Gantt charts for everything that changes, as things do in a project and they’re less flexible. There were so much time and resource. If I understand and remember correctly, Jeff Sutherland would say, “It’s over-planning.” This Agile-Scrum method, the way that I understand it is more like rapid prototyping. It’s a short-term type of planning and just improving the communication and also, the way that you manage any particular task. Did I understand that and explain that in a fair way?
That’s very true. It’s moving away from what is called a waterfall. You do one step after the other and when something goes wrong you have to go all the way back to the beginning. The problem when you have a $10 million project, then it gets very expensive when you have problems after $7 million and you have to go all the way back. Agile tries to instill more flexibility in an approach but in a structured way and most people miss that part.
The most important part is you’ve got to have structure.
The more flexibility you have, the more structure you need, which is counterintuitive.
The more flexibility you have, the more structure you need or the more flexibility you want to have, the more structure you need.
It’s because you open up what people want and how people are doing it, but therefore you need a frame to bring it together. Otherwise, we have anarchy.
Can you imagine if you want to have a glass of water, but you pour it and it’s all over the place. It’s a container to make sure that you’re directed and moving forward in the direction you want to go in.
That’s a beautiful visual. I’ll continue on that because when you have the water and you drink water, that’s the maximum flexibility because it’s fluid. Therefore, it needs a container. When you have the water in the form of ice, that is far less flexibility, therefore you don’t need a container.
You don’t need as much structure. The ice may still spill over, but that structure is going to depend on how fluid it is.
That’s what most people underestimate. They think Agile means chaotic. I always ask people and say, “Do you think you are Agile?” and Agile doesn’t mean that when your boss says right today and left tomorrow, you do right and left. That’s following your boss and that’s another topic. Agile is about achieving key milestones in a very efficient and effective way through a very nice and simple process. What I did, I use this process, which was used to develop software, to simplify and strip out everything, which is not necessary and leave the core of it, the benefits of it and apply that to your personal productivity. That’s the idea of that program.
Tell us about the structures that are in place. Tell us a little bit about how it works and what the structures are that are there to support us.
There are a couple of challenges we all have. One is think about how many things you have on the go. Everyone has so many things in their head going on, juggling all these balls. Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to think about it anymore? That’s one what this does. It has this so-called backlog and basically, everything you think about goes in there. The beauty is the moment it is on this backlog, it is out of your brain, so you have a free capacity up there.
That’s like David Allen who talks about, “Get it down on paper.”
Start with yourself. Create your own personal agility. Click To Tweet There’s a process in between how you process these items. In the end, there’s another fascinating thing. Have you ever had a Friday where you looked back at the week and said, “I was so busy, but I didn’t get anything done?”
Not me, but I’m sure somebody else out there.
We all have these Fridays. Wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of this forever? That’s what this program does. One of the big problems is the moment we complete something, be it small or big, it’s forgotten.
We forget it totally. It’s ridiculous. We’re so hard on ourselves. We do not even recognize our successes when we have them.
This is another key element component. What you do, you collect all your achievements in a week and at the end of the week, you say, “I did that. I completed this letter. I did this proposal.” It felt like I wasn’t doing anything but I look at my list now and it’s pretty impressive. I could have been better, but I was quite good even if I feel it’s different. It’s such a huge difference and it gives you this great feeling when you move into the weekend.
We’re very much in alignment in that context. Somebody that we both know, we work together on a regular basis and coach each other and whatnot. We started to put together this process of collecting our wins and going through our wins because of the same reason that is why do we have to be defeated at the end of every day or the end of the week? Psychology tells us we delete, distort and generalize things because that’s the way we process. We have to remind ourselves of all the great things that we did as opposed to focusing on what we didn’t do. We get to do both. We get to focus on what we did do and feel good about it and then say, “Here’s what I can do next week.” I love that. That’s systematized in your program that helps people to put that as a regular habit and practice in place because that is so valuable.
That’s the power of that. That’s one element which can lead to this personal agility, which is so critical in our world that we learn these skills and this different way of thinking and seeing what is necessary. That framework and that’s what is high performance in the digital age. When you maintain your high performance, master that, and you look at those three components, digital literacy, path clarity and personal agility, you are in an excellent path into the future.
When you maintain your high performance and master that, you are in excellent path into the future. Click To Tweet Thank you for sharing that because everybody could take away that tip for themselves. Those are a couple of good nuggets that they can put into practice right away. You have also a system that can support somebody. Sometimes we know we’re not so good at doing it on our own and sometimes we need to have systems, coaches and people that support us so that we stick by our intention and follow through because that is somewhat challenging. What I’m understanding is that our habits are what make the difference between high performance. We’ve got to balance those from what we need on the high-performance side together with the digital age and what’s happening in our current environment so that we can stay current and even proactive, and at the same time not overwhelm ourselves but to stay focused on the key objectives. Thank you so much, Michael, for being here. I know you said you had a gift and you might have some other places that people can check out this high-performance program. Where can they go to do that?
What I have is the Five Productivity Hacks for the Digital Age and you just go to Content.MichaelAlf.com/productivity_hacks. Just download the Five Productivity Hacks. You can find out more on my website, MichaelAlf.com. I suggest you download the Productivity Hacks because they will help you and you can implement them and then let me know how you go and if you want to have any further discussion.
You also have this six-week program that helps people sell online to build these habits. Is that right?
If that’s of interest, you go to ThePersonalProductivityProgram.com. It’s a simple straightforward, six-week program where you learn exactly step by step this methodology, you apply that to yourself. The beauty is the ideas that you get into action, using the framework as quickly as possible, which is already in week two and you learn by doing but by guided doing, which is the best way to learn.
Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you, Penny. It was great to see you again and be with you on the show. You are doing great work here.
Thank you and I appreciate it. For all of you who were here and interested in high performance, thank you for being here, but even more importantly, put your money where your mouth is. If you want to be a high performer because there’s always another level wherever you are now. Think about Karate, there are multiple levels of black belt. Wherever you are, there’s potential to grow. Hold yourself accountable. Get a buddy, get a coaching program, do Michael’s program. It’s only six weeks. What could be different? What if you took this and in six weeks you could take back time and be able to spend more time with other things that are important to you or to focus and put that effort towards reaching your milestones faster. That’s what I want for you is to be able to take back time.
- Michael Alf
- Disciplined Disruption Podcast
- High Performance Institute
- Scrum Approach