Category Archives: kaizen

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Tips for growing as a sketchnoter

New to sketchnoting? Aside from reading Mike Rohde’s The Sketchnote Handbook (see my sketchnote of it!) and Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin, how else can you grow your skills? Here are some ideas from how I keep working on improving my sketchnoting. Hope you find them useful!

Click on the image for a larger version of the sketchnote.

20121216 Growing as a sketchnoter

Feel free to share this! You can credit it as (c) 2012 Sacha Chua under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada licence.

Check out my other sketchnotes and visual book notes. Want me to sketchnote your event? Know of any interesting tech / business talks coming up? I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks to Tamara Paton for the nudge to share this. =)

Sketchnote and got tips to share? Curious and have questions to ask? Comment below!

Delegation: How I hire and manage my virtual team

I’ve been helping other people get started with their own experiments in delegation, and one of them asked me how I manage my team in oDesk. Here’s how I do it.

Setting expectations

I like thinking of oDesk contracts as mini-experiments. It’s not about hiring amazing people – as in the regular job market, amazing people usually have their plates full of work and don’t have to look for more (aside from word of mouth). Each hire is an experiment involving the process and the person. If it works out, wonderful; I’ll keep them on as long as I can find work for them to do. If it doesn’t – and there have been some gigs that were just not a good fit – well, it’s only a small experiment.

I like taking notes so that I can hire people again for other things. Many people move on from oDesk after some time, though, so I haven’t always been able to go back and rehire people who have worked out. I try to focus on developing good processes instead of relying only on hiring good people, though, so I don’t mind turnover so much. I sometimes have to refer to my notes to remember whom to send tasks to, though!

Someday I might graduate to having one or two assistants with more time dedicated to my tasks. In the meantime, this patchwork of assistants requires a little bit more oversight.

Posting a job ad

I usually post my job ads for as-needed work, 1-3 months, < 10 hours a week. This gives me the flexibility to experiment on a low-commitment basis.

In addition to describing my requirements, I also ask that job applications show their attention to detail by beginning and ending their cover letter with an unusual keyword, such as “blue”. This makes it super-easy to filter out people who are indiscriminately applying to job posts or who don’t read the requirements all the way through. Many people put in the first keyword, and a few remember to put in the last keyword as well.

I often ask people to include a sample of their relevant work in their cover letter, and to describe their experience (especially for skills that are optional but useful). I detest the scammy practice of asking people to do unpaid work as part of their application, so I only ask for existing work samples.

Stephan Spencer (one of my delegation role models) uses a riddle in his job application / interview process as a way of testing people’s thinking. He spins one of the classic riddles into something that’s not easily Googleable, so he can see if people can figure things out on their own.

Here are some job posts I’ve used:

Filtering people

As mentioned, I use attention to detail as one of my quick filters for applications.

I usually also search and filter by 4.0+ rating, > 100 hours on oDesk, but I’ll look at the reviews even for people with lower rating if I like their profile. I’ll occasionally take a chance on people who are new to oDesk – everyone’s got to start somewhere – with the expectation that I’ll need to teach them a little more about working with me or using oDesk to file time.

It’s always a treat to find good people in the Philippines because I’m from there as well, so the shared cultural background makes interviewing and working a little bit easier.

Inviting specific people

When I come across interesting people’s profiles, I save their profile in oDesk or Evernote (Evernote is easier to browse/search). After I post the job, I invite them to participate. There are so many good people looking for work, though, so I don’t often do this.

I occasionally create private job posts and invite specific people to them. I more often post public job posts even though I invite specific people to them, because you never know what kind of awesome talent is out there.

Interviewing applicants

I want to confirm that people understand the job requirements, find out how much they meet the requirements, and – also important – learn more about their other skills and their career goals so that I can come up with more tasks that fit them.

I use ScheduleOnce to schedule Skype interviews. The timezone difference and the interface turn out to be useful filters for attention to detail and willingness to deal with unknown tools. For virtual assistant positions, communication skills and trust are key, so I like talking to people first.

I also want to answer any questions they have. Contractors take on some risk whenever they accept a contract, as there have been quite a few employers who have scammed them into unpaid work or feedback blackmail. I want to give them the opportunity to make sure I’m not crazy, too. =)

I’m working on improving my interview process. In particular, I’m going to start asking people to tell me a story about the time they were wrong about something or the time that they argued with someone. Talking to my mom about her HR issues (and now, sorting through my own!), I’m beginning to realize the importance of understanding people’s conflict/disagreement resolution strategy and whether they can maintain calm and respect under stress.

For straightforward tasks like transcription, I might hire someone without ever talking to them in real-time, because I can “interview” them in the process of them working on their first paid task.

Hiring and onboarding

After we answer each other’s questions satisfactorily, I go ahead and set up the contract. For virtual assistants who will be communicating with other people on my behalf, I’ll set up a Google Apps account. LastPass makes it easy to share and revoke passwords, and I’ve also started the habit of keeping track of who has access to which accounts in order to simplify offboarding them when I end the contract and onboarding a replacement.

I usually keep the job post open until the person has satisfactorily completed their first task and we’re happy with the time/process. That way, if I need to hire someone else, I can choose from the pool of applicants that I’ve already shortlisted. Depending on whether I have tasks that can be broken down and done in parallel (ex: data entry), I might hire several people with the understanding that I’ll choose one or two going forward.

Coordinating

I send most tasks by e-mail because that’s the most convenient for me. I use Skype or Google Hangout to explain tasks in more detail. Since Skype tends to perform badly when I’m out and about, I also give assistants my cellphone number. I’ve been trying to get people set up using my VOIP phone so that they can call me, but we haven’t sorted that out yet. The easiest way might be for me to fund a company Skype account and have them call me with that.

I don’t want to require people to shift their timezone / sleeping habits – some of my friends have done overnight shiftwork before, and it really messes up one’s social life. Since my virtual assistants have access to my calendar, they can either use that to directly book me or use ScheduleOnce to find a time that works with their schedule.

I try to remember to specify due date and time budget (ex: spend a maximum of 2 hours on this, then send me whatever you have so that we can make sure you’re on the right track). The due date typically works, although I don’t think anyone’s been paying attention to the time specifications yet. I might revisit the Four Hour Work-week’s templates for getting these things communicated.

I hate the idea of tasks falling through the cracks especially if assistants get preoccupied with other things, so I’ve been experimenting with project-management applications like Trello or Asana. I want to be able to see what tasks I’ve assigned to people, what’s waiting for a response, and what’s done. One of my assistants just updated her Trello board – hooray! I gave her a bonus to recognize her initiative. =) We’ll give that maybe six months of trying before I even think of introducing a different tool. We’ll see how this goes!

Rewards and recognition

In addition to the automatic billing that oDesk takes care of, I like catching people doing something good and giving them an unexpected bonus. I always explain why I give the bonus. For example, I’m impressed when people take the initiative and when they submit excellent and timely work, especially if this is my first time working with them.

People don’t often negotiate with me for a raise, probably because my contracts tend to be shorter-term. As a client, though, I like being different by proactively giving people raises – I occasionally check my contractors’ profiles to see if they’ve raised their rates, and I’ll raise them during our existing contract because it’s good to reward good people.

I also take notes on people’s career goals and personal interests, and I try to tailor the tasks to fit them.

Dealing with miscommunication and disputes

As the employer, the buck stops with me. If someone didn’t complete something to my satisfaction, it might be because I didn’t sufficiently communicate the requirements, didn’t invest enough time in oversight or training, didn’t filter enough for skills/fit, and so on. Each mistake is a learning opportunity.

Typical mistakes and how I’m learning to deal with them:

I didn’t specify the level of detail I wanted, so I get back a War and Peace epic equivalent when I wanted Hemingway-short summaries.

  • Share the big picture (Why do I want this? What will I use it for?).
  • Provide sample output.
  • Give a time budget, so that people get back to me after 2-4 hours instead of spending two days on a task. (Still working on getting people to follow this…)

People promise to work on something, but end up not doing it. It happens; people can be over-optimistic about their time.

  • Set earlier deadlines than I need, and give myself leeway to try someone else or do it myself.
  • Follow up. Then follow up again. If necessary, take the task back.

I get the output back and think I should probably have done it myself instead (skills, background knowledge, whatever).

  • Breathe.
  • See the value in a first draft and alternative perspectives. Focus on the good.
  • Remember the additional benefits of this delegation experiment – it’s not just about saving time, it’s also about learning how to give instructions and work with other people.

I find that some steps are missing.

  • Consider whether the steps are truly necessary.
  • Review the process and flesh out the steps. Explain why the steps matter.
  • Turn the process into a checklist. Add the checklist to my e-mail templates if needed.
  • Keep a closer eye on tasks, at least until the process is sorted out

An assistant is uncommunicative / unreachable.

  • I take back any tasks needed.
  • I follow up to see what’s going on. Life happens, and people sometimes need support and understanding to get through rough spots.
  • If they’ve become too busy to work on my tasks or they’ve gone AWOL, I shrug that off as a cost of doing business, and pick up the threads from there.

For chronic mistakes: If I get along with the person, I might give them different kinds of tasks instead. I might end the contract, but be open to hiring them again in the future. If I feel really uncomfortable, I end the contract and resolve not to hire them again, which has happened in a couple of cases. That’s also a good prompt to go back and think about how I can improve my hiring and training processes.

Ways to improve

I sometimes get distracted by other things I’m working on, so I end up not sitting down and investing in delegating tasks. I’ve attempted to address that by giving people 10-25% discretionary time for learning things and brainstorming other ways they can help me, but assistants seem to be reluctant to take this self-directed time, so I may need to tweak how I communicate it. Maybe I should turn it into a formal task, or establish a weekly wask – “I want to give you at least 5 hours of work each week, and if I don’t, please use one hour to brainstorm ways you can help me and send me a note.” Hmm…

Another tip from one of my role models was to involve assistants in your weekly review so that they can help you with your big picture. One of my assistants has a long-term career interest in HR, so I’ve just invited her to set up a weekly one-hour meeting with me where we can review what I’m working on and what I’m planning to do next. Maybe she can help me brainstorm what and how to delegate. I think that would be great, and possibly more useful than the discretionary time idea (at least for starters, until people get a better sense of the big picture and trust that I won’t blow up at them for learning something.)

What else would you like to know about how I delegate? Do you have any tips that can help me do this better?

Sketchnote reflection: conference intensity

Still a little tired from two intense days of sketchnoting: 62 2-minute pitches from Sunday’s AngelHack Toronto, and then a 12-hour sprint involving 33 talks and 11 startup demos for Monday’s Lean Startup Day. Focused listening is tough – squeezing through hundreds of people to find a seat at AngelHackTO, straining to hear pitches despite the back-of-room chatter competing with weak sound; dealing with a quick succession of topics with a livestream that shows only brief glimpses of slides; tweeting with one hand while drawing with the other.

Although I had to shift writing positions a few times, my hands didn’t cramp up once. The breaks were just enough time for me to shake out any tiredness, drink some water, dash to the facilities, munch my way through three energy bars and a sandwich, and answer questions from curious onlookers. After the conference and a short time at Quantified Self Toronto’s pub night, I gratefully slid into the quiet of solitude, and I slept for eleven hours once I got home.

It was intense work, but worth it. Visually summarizing the pitches and talks during the event itself meant that the sketchnotes could be part of the conversation instead of an afterthought, and people appreciated it both here and elsewhere.



Every time I sketch an event, I learn something. Here’s what worked well:

  • I set up custom templates before the event. MaRS wanted partner logos on the template, so I created that PNG beforehand, and I added a light grid from my own drawing templates. This meant that the sketchnotes were consistently branded.
  • I saved my sketchnotes using Autodesk’s automatic numbering feature and a shared Dropbox folder. This came in really handy during the Lean Startup Day conference, as the talks were quick with very few breaks in between. Automatic numbering meant that I didn’t have to spend time changing the filename, while using Dropbox meant that my files were synchronized with my phone and easy to publish on the web.
  • I switched devices instead of switching screens. One of the advantages of using an all-digital workflow is that I can publish my sketchnotes during the event itself. My tablet PC is great for drawing, but switching windows and sharing notes on Twitter is hard when it’s in tablet mode. By saving the files in Dropbox and synchronizing with my phone, I could avoid switching applications – my tablet PC was dedicated for drawing, while the phone was great for posting links to Twitter.
  • Dropbox also made it easy to update files. If I wanted to correct an image, I could simply save a new version. The old links would continue to work seamlessly. This was much better than my previous workflow of using Twitpic or WordPress – replacing old images is so much easier now.
  • I kept the clutter off my blog. When covering single talks, I’ll often publish the sketchnotes directly to my blog. I didn’t want to post twenty separate entries for a conference, though! Using Dropbox+Twitter allowed me to publish sketchnotes immediately without cluttering up my blog. At the end of the event, I created a blog post recap with all the sketchnotes for easy access.
  • I stocked up on supplies. I tucked a few Clif bars and two water bottles into my backpack, and they came in really handy during the conference. Concentration makes me hungry!
  • I added some light shading. Using Autodesk Sketchbook Pro 6.0.1’s new Color Puck, I picked a shade that was related to the logo colours. Whenever I had time, I added subtle shading on a different layer. (Ex: panel) It was fun, and I’m looking forward to revisiting past sketchnotes and using that technique.
  • I set aside a day for recovery. Introvert overload – energy management required! =)

Here’s how I’m thinking of making things even better next time:

  • I might be able to automate the Dropbox > Twitter publishing process with WappWolf, if I can figure out how to add some information without needing to type it in using my laptop.
  • Alternatively, I can use an external keyboard (or even dust off my Twiddler!) in order to speed up data entry while I’m in tablet mode.
  • I can see if there’s a way to use Microsoft Powerpoint’s Photo Album feature to insert high-resolution images instead of having them downsampled. Inserting them one by one and changing the “Compress Pictures” setting to use the document resolution seems to work, though. You can see or download the results on Slideshare.
  • I can identify frequently-used nouns and build a visual thesaurus so that I’m not drawing boxes all over the place.

Next on my sketchnoting calendar: today’s talk by Dan Roam on “Blah Blah Blah”, the Wednesday lectures on Entrepreneurship 101, and next week’s book club on “Best Practices are Stupid”. People tell me these sketchnotes are valuable. I’m getting better and better at making them!

Business card kaizen

I’m nearly out of business cards, so it’s time to think about how I want to redesign them. Business cards are nowhere near the heart of a business (sales! service!), but I like paying attention to the little things that can help me connect better with other people.

What do I use my business cards for? What do I want my business cards to do? Business cards are ostensibly so that people can get in touch with you. Many people tell me they’re terrible at following up with people after events. The only ones who seem to do so are the ones who collect business cards so that they can add you to their mailing list! I find it helpful to completely ignore the original purpose of business cards and take the initiative of following up with people myself. This works out much better than trusting that people will e-mail me or call me afterwards.

If I’m not giving people business cards in order for them to follow up with me, what benefit do I get from carrying around and giving out these little pieces of paper?

People usually exchange business cards in the middle or towards the end of a conversation. My business cards are good at adding an extra "bump" to the conversation – an additional spark of interest. People often remark on my picture and the keywords I use ("Tell me more about what an Enterprise 2.0 consultant does…" "Oh, what have you written?" "Ooh, storyteller. What’s with that?" "Oh, look, geek! Me too!"). Here’s where those conversations go:

  • Picture: This helps me communicate that I care about helping people remember. I usually commiserate about the post-conference blur of going through a stack of business cards and not remembering who’s who. Some people recognize me better from the picture, because it’s the same avatar I use on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I sometimes point out that one of the reasons I cropped that picture so tightly is that the picture will always be current even if I change hairstyles, which makes people laugh — and communicates that I think about little details like that. Because most people see photos only on business cards for real estate agents, I also joke about that. (Hmm, maybe I should play with that some more – a real estate agent, but for the brain!)
  • Keywords: This is excellent for helping people remember and for expanding the conversation topics. The keywords trigger memories of the conversation. Because I’m interested in diverse things, keywords also help me find other topics of common interest. My current card reads "Enterprise 2.0 consultant, author, storyteller, geek." I’m thinking of changing this to "Entrepreneurial experimenter, sketchnote artist, tech geek." Or maybe "Experimental entrepreneur, sketchnote communicator, tech geek"? Visual communicator? What do you think?
    Hmm – if I leave it blank and use a matte surface, or use a carefully-positioned sticker instead of printing the title, I can change the title easily as I try things out. Maybe I can even ask for feedback!

I want my next set of business cards to continue sending those messages: I care about helping you remember me and continue the conversation, and I’m sure that conversation will be interesting.

Elements for the business card:

Possible additions: 2D barcode? Maybe – handy way to encode e-mail address, maybe vCard information. Takes up space, not sure if people use them.

I’d like to add a sketchnote similar to the one I have on my Twitter profile, but with a white background and more colours. This might be a good use of the back of the business card. It’ll be pretty sparse, so people can still use the back of the business card to write notes. My goal there would be to have an instant, portable demonstration of what I do, instead of fiddling with my smartphone or waiting for people to check out my website. Hmm, even maybe Moo’s Printfinity – I think that having unique designs on each card would make it even more fun to give out cards. I should try converting my sketchnotes to 1039×697 and printing them at 300dpi to see what they look like at that scale.

Frills: Raised print? Foil accents? Don’t need them. A heavier card stock would be nice. Rounded corners are tempting – they feel more modern, and the business card doesn’t get as worn in the pocket. It does break some people’s hack of dog-earing various corners of the business cards in order to remember to follow-up, though. Still possible, just harder.


Layout: I’ll continue with the horizontal layout, standard US business card size. I noticed that when I’m scanning business cards, vertical ones make me frown a little. Since I can’t stash oversized business cards and postcards in my business card holder, they’re harder to keep track of, and I don’t want other people to deal with the same issues. I’m definitely going with my own design. Like stock photography, template business cards are obviously template business cards, and I want to hack my cards so much more. =)

Number: I ordered 500 cards on March 25, 2008, which was around 4 years ago. I’d been using them more than IBM business cards even when I was at IBM, so it’s not like they were sitting in drawers. I’ve also used print-your-own business cards in order to test different concepts, such as putting networking tips on the back of the card or recommending favourite networking-related books for cards to give out after a presentation.

I’d like to replace my business cards in one year, because I’ll learn even more about business card design by then. I might even know more about what kind of business I’d like to explore! I should probably order 100 or 250 cards. I’ll be paying slightly more per card and more in shipping, so I should make sure that I’m learning a lot of things that I can fold into a my next design.

Slowly growing!

Process: Keeping notes of conversations

Process - keeping notes of conversations

I’m starting to use Evernote for more of my little notes, such as the follow-up notes after conversations. I like the way it can auto-title notes based on the current calendar event, and the search can pull in business card images as well as text snippets.

Thinking about a visual process library

I had a good conversation with Craig Flynn and Ian Garmaise over bowls of ramen at Kenzo. We talked about visual communication and business practices. Craig has been doing a lot of consulting and training based on Toyota management practices, and he’s interested in helping people improve their visual communication skills.

One of the tools Craig mentioned was the feedback or suggestion sheet – a single sheet of paper that describes how things currently are, how they can be improved, and other notes. The company might compile hundreds or of these sheets. A decision-maker would then review them, spending about ten seconds each to classify the suggestion as relevant, irrelevant, something to do right away, something to investigate later, and so on.

Craig talked about how his descriptions were more complicated and less elegant than the ones that his mentor made, and how he was learning to make his descriptions clearer and more visual.

Ten seconds is an interesting limit. My sketchnotes let me review meetups and books quickly (see my Evernote notebook or the slideshow on my blog). I can apply Craig’s idea to that process library I’ve been thinking of building for a while.

Process - Process review

Might be an excellent way to practice!