Your Out of Office can be creative

For the last ten years, I have made a big deal about my Out of office message. It would be best if you did too. Why? People are emailing you, and if all they get back is:

Sorry I am out, till date X, but if it is urgent call me

First, you are out; don’t invite people to call you. Second, this is the message people will get while they are not on holiday and this how you entertain them? Give them something they can enjoy while they have to miss you (they are missing you because you are fantastic!).

I included my OoO of this year. Keep in mind: OoO messages are just for colleagues. This is not about being “professional”, though you expose yourself and your company to security risks by letting the world know you are somewhere around the globe and not at home/work.

Enjoy reading mine, and I hope it inspires you to also spark a bit of joy with your Out of Office message.


Hi, you’ve reached Rick’s out-of-office responder.

I’m sorry I’m not here. I’m in the forest taking some rest (did you know there are seven types of rest that every person needs)? I’m even more sorry that you’re stuck in the (home) office while I’m off enjoying nature. Is it raining outside?

📨Why I will reply to your email on the Xth of [Month] (or later)

While most out-of-office responders say I’ll have limited access to email, that’s not true. I cannot do without a proper internet connection though I am not spending my holidays on work emails. I will work on trying to nail some basics, and this is simple but not easy, though it will be good for me (and you) to get some more basics in place.

🙋🏼‍♂️What if you need to have an answer or help right now?

Since I’m not disappearing into the rainforest, I will have my phone firmly by my side, but I’d somewhat not be disturbed unless my house is on fire or you have a great vegan recipe to share.

Are you sure your email cannot wait in my absence instead of emailing me another three times? It really won’t make me respond any faster 😉. If it indeed is an emergency in either [Topic 1] or [Topic 2], feel free to panic, or reach out to anybody in the [Specific Group]. And also, when it is not an emergency, reach out to [List of great people]. Each one of them is fantastic and will be able to answer any of your questions. If your hyper-urgent request is about [Topic 3], consider reaching out to one of the other [More great people].

⛱What am I up to in my holidays?

As I’m off relaxing somewhere lovely, I plan to enjoy some of the Dutch nature we got and read some books. Also, I will keep publishing my weekly newsletter on LinkedIn, are you subscribed? Since some of you already shared with me that you were waiting for the book tips this summer. I share two sets of recommendations: books read, and I know they are great and books I plan to read, and I hope they will be good.

🌟 The five books that were the best reads for me in the past 12 months:

📚 The books I will read during my holidays

Suppose you’ve made it this far. Congratulations! Mostly though, you’ve made it. This is the end. If you’re wondering how you can get back the last few minutes of your life, console yourself with the knowledge that my vacation will be short-lived, and I, too, will be back in the office soon ([Insert date]!), then, it’ll be your turn to go on holiday and perhaps write a nice out of office message.

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Problems need a certain size

If you want to start with a big problem, chop it into smaller parts, making it easier to start. Sometimes working on only minor issues is counterproductive and will hold your progress and impact back.

Everybody says yes to small items

“Can you help me with this small problem”? Everybody will say yes since it is small, so you will likely receive a kind answer even if they do not have time. Will this help you? You get help on the small problem, and solving all minor issues should solve the big problem. Wouldn’t it be better to gain commitment from others to the big problem instead of focusing on the little pests?

People need to think about and commit to big topics

“Can you help me with this huge problem”? Not everybody will say yes. They will only say yes when they can make the time and commit. Your selection of people that can help you is smaller but with a higher commitment. You can still work on the small items, though now you have somebody with you along the whole way who is in it.

Make it more significant for a reality check

You can stay modest and keep your projects small, though what happens if you increase the size 5-fold? Of course, you can be fearful you do not get approval or commitment, though if that is the case, the 1-fold project was terrible as well. It was just small enough to ignore.

Therefore do not be shy in making your project a little bit bigger. Not bigger than needed. Though more significant in the way, you would also make more impact. It might be scary since not everybody will like it, but you want to get the right people interested and create skin in the game.

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How to approach some problems

If you face a problem in a domain you do not know about or have never encountered before. You can solve it. Many issues follow a similar path toward solutions, whether with systems, processes or people.

Before you touch anything, you should ensure that the problem is not something supposed to be like its current state. Also, who is telling you that there is a problem? Is somebody part of the problem, or do they have nothing to do with it?

The easiest way to ‘solve’ a problem is when you can qualify it as not a problem. The second most straightforward approach is finding an expert who can help you. If you are slightly less lucky, there are still some standard approaches you can follow.

Turning it off and on again?

Can you (and should you) turn it off and on again? In some cases, this is literal, as a system or bringing a process back to a neutral state. Or, when it comes to people, is there a way you can start with a clean slate?

Is the problem unique?

Is this a one-of-a-kind problem? Or can you reproduce the problem, and when you reproduce it, can it be replicated elsewhere in a different environment? If the problem is not unique, you can likely do a proper analysis and comparison. If it is more erratic, solutions might be more challenging to find. However, you might look at a one-off occurrence that should make the problem smaller (hopefully).

Step by Step

Can you break the problem into smaller pieces where you can review each step’s input and output? With people, it can be validating decisions and statements. With processes, you can check what data is coming in and going out.

Use this whenever there is a manual or process description that you could guide through this process. There is no need to rely on your memory or assumptions. Just follow that guide and see if it delivers the results it promises.

It still does not work?

No worries, you did not know the solution in the first place, so do not feel wrong about this. At least you learned something about it while you were working on it. Maybe if you start again, you see the problem in a different context.

Though perhaps it was not your problem to solve. That happens. Of course, you can stick with it for longer to make it work, though sometimes the best thing you can do is share your findings and share it with somebody else who wants to look at it.

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How to keep it simple

The easiest thing to do is to make things complex. There is no skill required to make something difficult to understand and handle. Many illustrious people of the past have said they would have created a better or shorter letter, sermon or paper if they had more time since simplifying cost time.

If you don’t have that time, how can you keep things as simple as possible? Besides accepting that ideas do not have to be great, they should not suck.

Think and keep it concrete

Concrete language helps people, especially novices, understand new concepts. Abstraction is the luxury of the expert. If you’ve got to teach an idea to a room full of people, and you aren’t certain what they know, concreteness is the only safe language.

Chip Heath

Always spend more time understanding the problem than working on it when your time is limited. If you don’t know what you are working on and why you are working on it, the chances of keeping it simple (and valuable) are slim.

Ockham’s razor

The explanation that requires the fewest assumptions is usually correct. When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. Keep it obvious and simple, do not overthink or over-engineer and do not make unnecessary assumptions.

Create constraints

One value [from Amazon], frugality, is defined as Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and invention. There are no extra points for growing head count, budget size, or fixed expenses.

Ben Horowitz

If you have less time, money, and resources, you cannot afford to make things complex since you cannot maintain them. Not giving yourself the tools to complicate things and constraining yourself might be the most effortless protection from complexity.

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Champion ideas

The hardest part of creativity and coming up with ideas is the next step: finding a way to bring ideas to life. Whenever you got a big idea, they feel unlikely, risky and counterintuitive. Somebody needs to be the one carrying the torch.

If you have an idea that you genuinely think is good, don’t let some idiot talk you out of it. Now that doesn’t mean that every wild notion you come up with is gonna be genius. But if there is something that you feel is good, something you want to do, something that means something to you, try to do it. 

Stan Lee

What to do when championing ideas

First of all, the goal of bringing an idea to life is all about learning. As soon as success is your most significant driver, your risk appetite will disappear and learning drops to zero. Whenever you focus on learning or simply the joy of doing it, championing becomes easier

Also, avoid groups. Don’t avoid groups to collaborate, though avoid groups when validating your ideas. A few studies show that groups tend to agree with the majority opinion, even when wrong. If your idea feels unlikely, don’t spend your energy on the people that need convincing. Invest it into those who are already interested.

The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.

John Maynard Keynes

Try out the cornerstones of your ideas. The more you experiment, the less you become constrained by old ideas. The less you have constraints. The wider the imagination becomes, the more likely it will become to bring your ‘unlikely’ idea to life.

It is leadership

Ideas cannot win on their own. They need a voice. They need a hearing. Above all, they must be backed by people willing to live by them.

Bari Weiss

Championing ideas is leadership. You do not have to be a “leader” in a matrix organisation to do it, but you need to be a leader for your idea. Your actions will create a ripple effect around you and might inspire others to bring great ideas forward.

Leadership drives excellent ideas forward and opens the door for innovation. Groupthink and consensus are the anti-conception for ideas and innovation.

There is beauty in small numbers

What does success look like when you create content online? Are more views better? Do you need a minimum amount of likes before a piece of content is good? Or, when it comes to presenting an idea at your workplace: does everybody needs to like and share their praise with you?

No. It is up to you what success looks like. Bigger is not better. The focus on bigger can distract you from focusing on the essential things that produce success in the first place.

Without creation no views

The essential part is that you produce. Since when you put nothing out there, there is no success possible. However, if you only get two views, is that good? That is entirely up to you. I am already happy with less than a handful of likes of a post on LinkedIn. I can be pleased about that because there are always at minimum 1 or 2 people that I value a lot. Mission accomplished.

Are big numbers in your control?

For most of us, getting many feedback, likes, and views is often a combination of many happy accidents. It is not something we can do consistently because we lack audience numbers. If it is hard to do is consistent, there is a risk it will be a demotivator and will shut down your creative pursuit. It doesn’t imply you should not aim for the stars and not be ambitious. You should, though, focus on the essential elements of success. Getting ten or a thousand views or a million views is not that different if you have no clue who is viewing and if they appreciate the content.

Relevance over volume

Getting a few likes or views from people I care deeply about is more valuable for me than having tens of thousands of views from strangers. It feels good to have a significant number next to your name, though does it matter?

I chose for myself that just a few likes, views, and interactions from people I value are good enough. The other 999.998 views are just an excellent bonus.

Be kind to yourself when setting goals. Be ambitious. However, focus on the essential elements of your success within your control and grow these. Everything else is a bonus.

Inspire 1 or 2 people in good way. You inspire the world.

Nirmal Purja
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Open up for creativity

Creativity is more about being not embarrassed than having great ideas. Creativity for me is starting somewhere, and from there, it flows, and you need to let it flow. You do not know what will come out and where you will end up. The more ideas you can produce, the higher the chance some are highly useful.

Embarrassment is a learned disease. It can be cured. It’s about willingness to fail. We prescribe so much and say things like, ‘‘Creativity opens you up to brand-new worlds.’’ It doesn’t open anything up to brand-new worlds. You don’t know what it opens you up to. It’s not a line from A to B. It’s a line from A to strawberry pizza. 

Mo Willems

Practical tips to open up

It is always easy to say about anything you need to let go, trust the process and do it. Here are three simple tips on how to open up more for creativity:

1. Go for volume

The odds of producing an influential or successful idea are a positive function of the total number of ideas generated.

Dean Simonton

More ideas are better. There is, in this stage, no need to focus on quality. Quantity is the most predictable path to quality. Therefore push yourself to generate as much as possible to increase your chances of success later.

2. Invert

Invert. Always Invert.

Carl Jacobi

The best way to gain clarity about a problem is to address it backwards. Either by starting at the end or by making it worse first. Especially when you make it worse, you can then invert it again and make it better.

3. Begin, let others finish it

Stop halfway (or at a third or a quarter) of an idea and give it to somebody else so they can build upon it and finish it. It might not end up as the idea you had expected, though most likely, the outcome was not expected by anyone. Do this a few times and mix ideas to come to a new one.

Of course, there are plenty of other methods to stimulate your creativity. The most important thing to remember is that when you feel you cannot create any more ideas, that is where the natural creativity begins, and you generate the value.

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Don’t ask questions

You should not ask questions if it matters what the answer is. We are taught early on that asking questions is a great way to learn new things and to progress and it is true. However, if you make your questions too open, you might end up somewhere you do not want to go. Do not open for questions just to be polite and have other’s people voices heard, open up for questions when there is a real need to get answers.

Imagine you did an outstanding presentation to a group of people on how you think you should approach a specific project. And to be kind and inclusive, you decide to ask the question:

So, what should we do next?

You put your fate and that of the project in the goodwill of the people. Since they can now define what will happen next since you asked them, you might have a preference, but that preference is now almost off the table since you asked them what to do next. If the answer is not what you expected, you need to juggle a lot to get it to your original preference.

If you want to narrow it down, you, of course, close some options and ask

Out of options A, B and C, what do you think is the one to pick?

And there you are again, putting your fate into the hands of others. Not as horrible as the previous question, now at least you know the options, but you probably do not love options A, B and C equally. If your group goes for option A and you wanted option C, well, start your stakeholder management already to get where you originally wanted to be.

If you care a lot about the answer, do not give people the option to change it. If instead of your question, you will tell them:

These are the five next steps and this is your role I see.

What happens is that you might have a conversation on the direction, and you might also get some suggestions in case they would change something. However, it is still all in your hands, and you can decide what happens next. Hint: intelligent people always listen, even when they think they are right.

Summary

Don’t ask questions if you have a strong feeling about the answer. Ask questions when you either do not care what the answer should be or/and when you need others to provide input and impact what happens next based on their response.

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Trust your ideas (but still kill them)

Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.

David Allen

This quote is the core of the “Getting Things Done” (GTD) work-life management system. And the suggestion is to put the ideas you have on lists. Such lists give you a clear mind, and you can follow up on your thoughts whenever you are ready.

However, there is a caveat to putting everything in lists and leaving it there. Such lists are often giving you the hope that your idea was good. Since you captured it, it exists, and because it exists, it probably is good. If these ideas were so extremely significant, you would be working on them right now. You might say: “But I cannot work on everything right now”. No, therefore, you choose to work on better ideas.

Kill your darlings

Maybe when you are not working on your better ideas, you are making not the right decisions. To know whether you are working on the right ideas, the Review in GTD plays such an important role. Making lists is one thing. To get the list clean, clear, and current is of equal importance.

Having those items in the list produces shame that you are not working on them. And of course, you will promise that you will work on those ideas next time.

Conviction in our ideas is dangerous not only because it leaves us vulnerable to false positives, but also because it stops us from generating the requisite variety to reach our creative potential.

Adam Grant

If you cling to ideas and keep them on your list forever, you are not helping yourself. Be ruthless when reviewing your lists.

The Canary in Coal Mine

Your recurring ideas are a canary in the coal mine. Either you are prioritizing the wrong ideas to work on, or you are too invested in ideas that are not important. Either way, you need to revisit this, determine the root cause, and see what this canary tells you (sometimes, you need to say to the canary, “shut up” because it is not the idea to work on at all).

Good ideas resurface. Important ideas do not resurface. They are always there. Ideas are cheap. Throwing one away does not cost you anything.

The ones that survive and bring value are either the good ones or the ones that are too important to ignore. Trust your review process to find the ones you should be working on and make it happen.

Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.

Jerzy Gregorek
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Sometimes an idea should just not suck

Knowing what an idea should not be, is, in many cases, easier and more practical than figuring out what the perfect idea would be. Especially since what is the end of perfection, what type of perfection is good enough?

Moving forward with ideas is all about knowing what is good enough. And to establish your level of acceptance of good enough, it is sometimes the easiest to define what you want to stay away from.

It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.

Charlie Munger

It might be obvious, but not being stupid is a viable strategy. Like chess, grandmasters often win by not losing, and an easy way to get rich is not to go bankrupt (when others do). Figure out what makes your idea not stupid, and you are halfway there.

Are the actions you need to do to bring your idea to life reversible? Move forward full speed. If it doesn’t work, you can go back and choose a different path or different view. If the actions are irreversible, consider making your idea smaller into reversible chunks so you can experiment care-free.

Most notably with every idea: get real. The issue is not having a list of ideas. It is about having good ideas. Go out and test your ideas in reality. If it doesn’t work: find a new concept to work on. The best way to come to high-quality ideas is by having a lot of them and getting them in touch with reality.

Choose quantity over quality.

Not stupid over being intelligent.

Finally: take action. The more you practice, the more you learn, the closer you reach your goal.

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