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Automating your way to advancement, higher pay, and financial independence

People who feel stressed or too busy to get their jobs done are doing it wrong. Own your time, prioritise, automate your way to getting ahead.
I encounter a lot of permanent staff at client sites who complain about “not having enough time to do their day job”.

A common refrain I hear at barbeques and dinners with friends is how they have to “work at home in the evenings or on the weekends because they can’t get work done at the office”.

These people are doing it wrong.

Focus on the important stuff

Most people with full time jobs spend 40+ hours a week occupied at their workplace. I would contend that much of that time is not actually spent productively working.

Here is the thing. Everyone has the same amount of time. And not everyone is complaining about being overworked. In fact the more senior you are, or the more successful you are, the less busy you are likely to appear.

Why is that? I suggest it is because most people are focussing on the wrong things, trying to do too much.

Instead of doing a great job at a few tasks, they heroically try to do everything. In doing so, they spread themselves too thinly, and end up doing a mediocre job (or worse) at most of what they attempt.

Own your time

Think about it. A meeting request is just that, a request. You don’t have to accept.

Someone else’s emergency, usually of their own making due to piss poor planning, does not have to become yours.

You own your time.

You control your calendar.

Learn to say no.

Learn to focus on the things that are important to you.

Sounds selfish?

It probably is. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing however.

Let me tell you a true story to illustrate my point.

Automation for fun and profit

About a million years ago I started working a freshly minted graduate accountant. I joined a team of four accountants whose main purpose in life was the production of a monthly management accounting pack for the organisation’s executive board.

These experienced accountants appeared to be crazily busy.

Day after day they furiously beavered away, performing their arcane magic over a fiendishly complicated array of interlinked Excel spreadsheets.

Inevitably on the final night before the pack was due to be delivered there would be a huge push, long hours worked, heroic endeavours performed, until eventually out popped a spiral bound booklet of colourful charts, key performance indicators, and simplified tables containing the information that the senior managers apparently required to drive the business.

My first lap through this process left me scratching my head in bewilderment. How would I ever come to grips with something as complicated as producing management reports?

My second lap through the process had me scratching my head in puzzlement. Why was the process so complicated, unwieldy, and error prone? It didn’t need to be.

By the time of my third lap through the process I had deciphered the illusion.
House of cards

The accountants were a bunch of lazy, salary collecting, lifers.

They strove to make themselves appear indispensable to the organisation. This was achieved by making their work overly complicated, and therefore difficult for anyone else to pick up.

Bonuses are usually allocated based upon politics and perception, rather than reality. Periodically being seen to go above and beyond is much more noticeable than a smoothly running reliable machine. Everyone loves a hero! So who do you think receives the bonus?

I approached my line manager with some suggestions for streamlining the process. My line manager went red in the face and told me not to rock the boat. If the team looked busy, then they wouldn’t be given any further work to do. An easy life was a good life apparently.

At the start of month 4 I called bullshit on the whole inefficient process. I went to the big boss and told him that I could automate the production of the board pack. The result would be more reliable, more accurate process that would enable senior management to monitor performance on a daily rather than monthly basis.

The big boss looked at me sceptically. Here was an inexperienced kid full of piss and wind, calling out a successful team of more experienced professionals with a proven delivery track record. He agreed to give me a shot, but noted that if things didn’t work as I’d promised then worrying about producing board packs would no longer be my problem. No pressure!

The existing process took four qualified accountants a whole month to complete. After a week of optimising and automating I reduced the process to a single button click.

I tested. I reconciled. I double and triple checked my new automated process. This had to work!

Once I was satisfied I had created a reliable, repeatable, trustable process I went back to the big boss.

Once again he looked sceptical. How could a hand cranked manual process, that had evolved over years elapsed effort, possibly have been replaced by an automated process in just over a week?

He pushed the button. Magic happened. 25 seconds later the board pack was populated.

The boss didn’t believe it.

He pushed the button again. 25 seconds later the board pack was repopulated.

He printed it out, and quickly did some spot checks against the traditionally produced version.

His brow furrowed.

His lips pursed.

He frowned.

Then his face lit up.

Your numbers are wrong!

He pointed accusingly to a figure that differed in my output.

Their numbers were wrong.” I replied. “They always have been”.

He frowned, and told me to go away.

The next day my line manager called the accountants into a crisis meeting. The big boss had spotted a potentially issue with the board pack, we needed to dig into it immediately.

We dug. And dug. And dug. After four days of backtracking thousands of complicated interwoven formulae the problem was eventually isolated to a simple transposition error. The previous month’s pack was reissued, with an apology to the senior management.

Month 5 came and the manually produced pack was once again laboriously produced. My line manager withheld it for another couple of extra days, notionally for additional quality assurance, but in reality because she was having a sulk about being criticised by senior management.

The day after the pack was published I was called into the big boss’s office.

He opened up my automated version of the pack and clicked the button.

25 seconds later the pack was produced.

He spent 20 excruciating minutes reconciling every figure, chart, and table back to the manually produced version.

They matched!

Then he looked up, and promoted me on the spot.

The rest of the team were made redundant.

Blow everything up!

Life lessons learned

I learned several lessons from this experience, which hold true today:

  1. There is an alarming level of acceptable incompetence in many workplaces. This creates boundless opportunities for anyone who actually wants to do a good job.
  2. Inefficiency and laziness irks me. I have a low tolerance for boredom.
  3. It is possible to carve out the time to learn new skills or add value in almost any job. Focus on activities that add value, while eliminating inefficiencies and automating the automatable elements of the role.
  4. You choose how you will spend your time. You control your own calendar. If you attend lots of time sucking meetings, or are having trouble fitting in your day job around everything else you are doing, then STOP. Reassess your priorities. Learn to say no.
  5. Lastly, you’re more likely to get what you want by asking forgiveness than permission. 
Change is scary, but if you can bring a solution rather than just describing a problem then you will win more often than not.

A paint-by-numbers pattern for a successful career

This initial foray into the accounting world established a pattern that I have successfully deployed throughout my career.

Seek out a challenging problem that interests me. Most people work for 40+ hours per week, if you have to be there anyway then you may as well enjoy how you spend them.

Deliver a reliable solution that genuinely leaves things in a better state than you found them in. This provides a warm fuzzy feeling of achievement, which is at least as important as the money you earn doing the job.

Move on to find the next problem.

With each hop I have increased my experience and knowledge. I have also been able to increase what I charge for my time.

Before long my reputation began to precede me and, rather than my chasing business, people started seeking out my services.

So what?

Following this simple pattern allowed me to achieve financial independence before the age of 40. Like most of the personal finance world, it isn’t rocket science. If I could do it, anyone can.

What are you waiting for?

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