The 4 Hour Workweek: Empowerment Failure

The last interruption that Tim Ferriss discusses in Chapter 4 of The 4 Hour Workweek is an empowerment failure — an interruption of your work that occurs because you have to wait on approval from someone else. Examples: You’re trying to wrap up a customer support issue but your boss needs to approve the full refund. You’re working on a project but are waiting for client feedback. You’re working on something but you need approval to purchase a piece of software to complete the job.

Tim writes about his personal experience with running a company where most of the email he was receiving was NOT from customers, but from his customer service reps who were asking for approval for different actions — providing refunds, shipping to a different address, etc. Tim sent one email that “immediately turned 200 email per day into fewer than 20 email per week.” The email essentially told his customer service reps to use their discretion and make the customer happy as long as it would cost under $100 to do so. This empowered his customer service reps to use their judgment to respond to customer service situations without having to always come back to Tim.

Empowerment failures go both ways:

  • The person with the power:
    • The problem: Your time is interrupted by approval requests.
    • The solution: Empower the other person to make their own decisions (within limits as necessary).
  • The person looking for approval:
    • The problem: Your completion of tasks is interrupted by needing approval from someone else.
    • The solution: Ask for more freedom/empowerment from the other person. Or, cut down on interactions by using your words wisely in communications.

In my line of work, I’m usually the person looking for approval. Here are a couple of specific situations:

Scenario 1: Client feedback

I have a web site that I’m designing for a client. My old process:

  1. initial screenshot design stage
  2. client feedback
  3. second revisions
  4. more client feedback
  5. third revision
  6. client approval
  7. screenshots of some of the individual pages
  8. client feedback
  9. revisions
  10. more client feedback
  11. more revisions
  12. production stage (where I create the graphics, HTML, and CSS)
  13. site ready for client review

For a very basic site, the design process would just take a few hours. However, it gets spread out over several days as we go back and forth. I am stuck with waiting for the client’s feedback and approval before I can move forward.Of course, I’ll always have a point when I need the client’s feedback. However, I think I can cut some of the steps out.

  1. initial screenshot design stage
  2. request client feedback by providing very specific questions that will help me make more targeted changes
  3. screenshot revision PLUS other page layouts
  4. request client feedback about the original layout and about the other page-specific layouts, again using very specific questions
  5. finalize basic layout and revise other page layouts
  6. confirm client approval of basic layout and request feedback about the page-specific layouts
  7. revise page-specific layouts and build basic HTML/CSS for the base layout
  8. confirm client approval of page-specific layouts
  9. continue production, site ready for final review

By overlapping some of the steps and, more importantly, being more specific in my requests for feedback, I can cut out a lot of the back-and-forth that seems to occur with these types of projects. I can also work on more of the project at one time which overall increases my efficiency.

Scenario 2: Customer support

Occasionally I’ll handle customer support for PixelMill and run into a situation where someone wants to combine orders in a weird way, usually involving a significant discount on one of the products. (“I want the web design from this product but the images from this product.”) I usually have to:

  1. email back the customer to let them know I’m emailing my supervisor
  2. email my supervisor and ask what kind of discount we can provide
  3. email the customer back and offer the deal
  4. wait for the customer to respond, set up the discount, and help the customer complete the order

Short of directly sending the customer to the supervisor which would take me out of the loop :), I can instead have a short conversation with my supervisor to get some general ideas of what kind of discount we can provide while still making a profit and ask for permission to make final decisions the next time this type of situation occurs. Next time, I only have to write half the emails I usually do:

  1. email the customer and offer the deal (cc my supervisor if necessary)
  2. wait for the customer to respond, set up the discount, and help the customer complete the order

If my supervisor is uncomfortable initially, I can add in an initial step:

  1. compose an email with the deal and send it to my supervisor for approval first
  2. email the customer and offer the deal
  3. wait for the customer to respond, set up the discount, and help the customer complete the order

Are you usually the person with the power or the person looking for approval? How do you or could you approach interruptions that com from empowerment failure?
This is my seventh full post with thoughts about The 4 Hour Workweek. View other posts related to The 4 Hour Workweek.


3 thoughts on “The 4 Hour Workweek: Empowerment Failure

  1. I think you may be able to refine your web design process further. When we’re designing for a client, we provide them with the initial design and an interior page(s) from the outset – this would remove a couple of the steps from the way you’re doing it at the moment.

  2. Hi Katy – I love getting outside perspective, so thanks for commenting! Do you offer more than one design option? I usually provide 2-3 design options, so this would be 4-6 screenshots if I provided the initial design and an interior page. I probably won’t know until I try, but I was hesitant to combine too much so that it wouldn’t be a waste of time.

  3. We do 3 designs which usually consist of the Homepage and a Product Page (I build e-commerce websites). I have to admit that as the websites are somewhat template driven the second “page” design is similar to the first but it gives the client an idea of content placement.

    Generally though I’ve found, as a rule, that because an interior page follows much the same format at the homepage – i.e. navigation in the same place for usability, content in the same area – that it’s quite quick to knock up the second one. Or maybe I’m just cheating!

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