Friday, October 31, 2008

Helping, gossiping, and butting in

Gossip Birds
Originally uploaded by Melissa_A

One of the diciest yet most common interpersonal issue is that of differentiating between helping, gossiping, and butting in. Let's illustrate. You've got some "informal" info hot off the press about someone you know who is having a personal crisis. Should you

  1. Contact the person and offer your help?
  2. Track down somebody who can help them?
  3. Spread the word so their other contacts will know what's going on with them?
  4. Stay out of it?

In my experience one person's "helping" may be perceived by another person as butting in. The key here is whether you have either a close personal relationship with the individual or you're in a position of authority who can genuinely do something about the situation. If you have a relationship with them, then perhaps contact them directly and ask whether you can be helpful. Here's the tricky part - if you haven't heard about the situation directly from them you've already been part of what could be considered a gossip chain, and your information might be completely inaccurate or overblown. Proceed with caution and ask questions to make sure you're not coming from left field.

If you think you can help by bringing in an expert your efforts might not be well received if you don't receive direct permission from the person first. There is more than one "right" way to handle a situation, and that person's method might be different from yours, not necessarily wrong. When you place yourself in the expert role without having relationship or authority to put you there you're going into parent ego state, and that's usually going to generate more resistance and/or resentment than it will thanks and/or compliance. The value of the solution will be overridden by the means by which it got to them. In plain terms, this is butting in.

As for spreading the word - what purpose will it serve? Oftentimes the spreader is more concerned about being seen as the person in the know than they are about being helpful. Gossip is often an attempted display of power - "I know what's going on" - or an attempt to influence the outcome by working the informal social network. Anybody who has ever played whisper down the lane knows that information gets distorted going from one person to the next. If you're a highly social person you're interested in what's going on with other people. But gossip is at its worst destructive, at it's best meddling.

Many times it's best to stay out of it and let the situation unfold without giving it more energy by getting yourself or others involved. Sometimes today's crisis fades by tomorrow. Some people express intense feelings that blow by after they've had their rant. They get over it without any intervention. Let the situation stay as small as possible with as few people involved as possible, or you could poison the well at which everybody drinks. Last, there's an old Irish saying that says "Who gossips with you will gossip of you." Consider yourself forewarned.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Process improvement - following the product

When times are tight we start looking for new sources of cash, or to identify financial leaks that we can plug. There's hidden cash in the business and production processes in the vast majority of businesses, including
  • raw materials
  • work in process
  • inventory
  • uncollected or slow accounts receivable
  • as-yet unreleased new products
This sounds great in concept, but sometimes commitment to change is tough to obtain. Some of the resistance I see to process improvement comes from the assumption that if the process isn't working it means that people must not be holding up their end of the deal from a productivity standpoint. In some cases that's true, but in the vast majority the issue is in the process itself.

One step in overhauling a broken process is to look at what the product of the process does. What we find is that a whole lot of the time the product is involved in waiting, being transported, and being stored rather than being worked upon. In the diagram above, only the green cards represent actual work being done on the product. The red cards represent the time the product is waiting. Yellow is transportation, and blue indicates a review step.

In the majority of processes the real work (the green cards here) only comprises a small percentage of the total cycle time. It's during those other steps that time, energy, and often cash and resources are wasted.
  • Unneccessary hand-offs create delays and potential communication glitches
  • Too much time with raw materials in process creates a greater investment (more cash tied up mid-process)
  • Unneeded steps mean slower delivery to customers, which is in some cases a deal breaker in customer loyalty
  • More steps means more potential for errors
  • (fill in the blanks for your own company's situation)

In my experiences helping companies reinvent work processes (both production AND business processes) the product map is the place where, when it's complete, the redesign team sits back on its heels, with the realization hitting smack in the forehead that things are a lot more difficult and complicated and slow than they need to be. It has nothing to do with people working harder or longer hours. It has to do with the tremendous amount of waste within the process itself.

If you're dissatisfied with the processes that are running your business, look beyond the people to the process itself. Look not only at what the people are doing, but what the product is doing to uncover your real opportunities. As the prospectors used to say, there's gold in them thar hills.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Presidential issues - crib notes

I'm sure you haven't been able to miss all of the ads, debates, speeches, and news articles relative to the upcoming Presidential election. But I must admit that I'm astounded to see quotes from prospective voters who don't seem to know much about the actual issues. They're deciding based upon party affiliation, appearance, age, or upon a candidate's position on a single issue.

But just in case you've been too busy to think in detail about the issues - here's a synopsis from my perspective:
  • The Economy - In this area of big concern (admitted by McCain as not being a core strength of his) the differences fall largely upon party lines. Neither candidate was big on providing the bailout to Wall Street, but ultimately McCain believes that enlightened self-interest will help businesses do the right thing. Obama sees a role for government oversight so that self-interest will not overpower ethics and responsibility for the long-term health of citizens and the economy.
  • Taxation - Obama wants to let the tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans expire, and would cut taxes to individuals earning $200,000 or less, creating what he perceives as a fairer distribution of tax responsibility. McCain would extend the current tax policy, viewing middle class tax cuts as "redistributing the wealth" and comparing it to socialism.
  • Foreign policy - Iraq and Afghanistan are the biggest issues here. Obama would like to see us out of Iraq sooner and deploy more troops to Afghanistan to finish the job of finding and ridding the world of Osama binLaden. McCain thinks we need to stay longer in Iraq (indefinite time frame) to make sure things are completely stabilized.
  • Health care - Everybody knows the system is terribly broken, and everybody knows that there stand to be big losers in any significant change - a fact that has prevented beneficial change from happening up until now. McCain has a plan whereby taxpayers will receive a $5,000 tax credit for health insurance costs (less than 1/2 of my family's annual bill.) He also wants to make employer-provided insurance costs taxable as income to employees. Obama wants health care for everyone, with consumers continuing to have choice, but also an opportunity to have government sponsored coverage available.
  • Education - Obama believes that the No Child Left Behind act leaves much improvement still on the table. It needs to be funded properly in order to work. McCain hasn't talked about it much that I've heard.
  • Women's health - McCain's running mate has been vocal in objection to abortion for any reason in any circumstance. Obama views abortion as a privacy issue, to be determined by a woman and her doctor.

Whoever you support, please, please vote next Tuesday. This could be the most important election of your lifetime.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The importance of saving face

Saving face is a social concept where an individual wants to preserve a good image, even under bad circumstances. It has broad application here in the US, but it's particularly important in cultures that are high-context. From Wikipedia:

High context culture (and the contrasting ‘low context culture’) are terms presented by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture. It refers to a culture’s tendency to cater towards in-groups, an in-group being a group that has similar experiences and expectations, from which inferences are drawn. In a high context culture, many things are left unsaid, letting the culture explain.

Cultures that are high context are typically low in racial diversity and slow to change. Examples include many Asian cultures and native cultures, where tradition is highly valued and the interests of the group are considered more important that the interests of the individual.

How does saving face impact you? Here are several examples:

  • When was the last time that you negotiated for something big when the two parties were fairly far apart in position? Was your negotiation successful? If so it probably had to do with one or both parties giving up something in order to get something else. That enables both negotiators to leave the transaction feeling as though they "won" in some way.

  • Sometimes punishment has been made public specifically to cause a loss of face. The person losing face feels embarrassed and ashamed. The intention is to deter future infractions by this person so they can avoid losing face again in the future. Public punishment (like the stocks used in Colonial days) also serves to prevent would-be first-time violators from engaging in improper or illegal activities.
  • The desire to save face can also lead to self-destructive actions like over-spending. When people want to "keep up with the Joneses" what they're doing is trying to demonstrate that they are just as prosperous and successful as the next guy. In many Victorian-era homes you'll find elaborate moldings and architectural details on the first (public) floor, but much simpler decor upstairs in the areas not subject to public scrutiny.
  • Saving face in teens might mean engaging in high-risk behavior so as not to appear "under the thumb" of one's parents. Conformity at this point in development is very important to teenagers, so knowing the crowd with which a teen runs (personally - not from a distance) is crucial to a parent's ability to assess the level of risk their child might be taking.

The lesson for us here is two-part.

  1. Acknowledge the behavior we're engaging in that's simply face-saving, and determine whether we're helping ourselves or harming ourselves by doing it. If it's detrimental to us in the long run we owe it to ourselves to stop, and to replace it with something else that's more consistent with our goals.
  2. When we're interacting with others, their feeling of saving face is important. We don't really win by shaming or humiliating. The goal is not to energize enemies, but rather to build alliances, so finding ways to emerge with a win-win becomes a really important interpersonal skill.

Monday, October 27, 2008

After the crisis - learning something

Rear View Mirror
Originally uploaded by unwiredadventures

When we're smack-dab in the middle of a crisis, whether work or personal, we're devoting all of our energy to the process of getting through it. We're making decisions, sometimes very quickly, and the adrenaline is running high.

Once we're through the crisis, though, it's best not to move on too quickly. I know that we want to heave a big sigh and plop into the easy chair, but that's not the most productive next step. Let's stop while we're still close enough to get a clear picture and think what we can learn from whatever happened - sort of a look in the rear-view mirror to identify -

  • What caused the crisis?
  • Was it preventable or nonpreventable?
  • If preventable, could I/we have prevented it (and if so, how?)
  • Are we satisfied with how we handled it once it struck?
  • If not, how would we change how we handle similar future situations?
  • Are there patterns that are repeating (the existence of conditions or behaviors conducive to the crisis happening again?)
  • Is it important to interrupt the patterns that we can influence or control?
  • How big are the stakes?

Sometimes we don't gather the full learning from a crisis because we're so relieved to have it over with that we just want to turn our heads in another direction and get on with our lives. That's understandable. Crises consume a lot of emotional energy and time, and it's not fun to relive them.

But what's that old saying about "fool me once, shame on you - fool me twice, shame on me?" If I don't stop and think, for example, "I need to have a larger amount of quick cash on hand" after a financial emergency (and then follow through and take action to correct it,) I'm complicit in creating tomorrow's potential repeat performance.

If your crisis was so draining that you're not certain you can view it clearly, or if you're not sure what the different methods for prevention or handling might be, this might be a good time to bring in a third party to help you talk through it. They can help you by asking you questions that might not be coming to the forefront of your mind. And they can challenge you by asking you to stretch your thinking and test your preconceived notions.

The crisis you just came through might just be one of the best learning experiences you'll have, if you'll allow the learning to take place. You might not believe it right now, but trust me on this one.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Choosing to see what's beautiful

It's autumn in the northeast U.S., and this weekend is supposed to be the peak of the leaf color. I always look forward to this time of year - the vivid reds, golds, and oranges of the leaves, that slightly musty dried smell in the woods, and the ever-present crows sounding like they're laughing at something.

It's the weekend - slow down and notice the details all around you that show you that the world is beautiful and life is wonderful. It's wonderful no matter what your stock value is. It's wonderful even if your family is noisy. Everything that's bothering you right now is only an inconvenience. You can choose to focus on what's wrong, but for today, or for this weekend, focus on what's right.

Look at something as simple as the bark on a tree. Look at it up close, and in low light and you'll see stunning light and shadow, moss and variations in texture. Usually it's just the brown stuff holding up a tree, but right now it's the Grand Canyon, carved by wind and moisture and cast into dramatic relief by the movement of the sun.

Those of you who aren't really into the aesthetics of it all can frame what I'm saying in your own world. What IS right about your job, about your lifestyle? What is right about your relationships? What is right about the action you're taking? Blow it up really big in your mind and let the rightness fill your entire sightline.

We can all use a mental break from the craziness that surrounds us lately. But it won't be as effective if you just let your brain blankly buzz, like when you're letting TV wash over you, as it will be to actively engage the thoughts that give you greater peace of mind.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Is it all about the packaging?

medusa packaging
Originally uploaded by baking with medusa

Such controversy in the news yesterday over the $150,000 the Republican National Party invested in clothing, hair, and accessories for Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her family! It hasn't been that long since similar uproar was caused by Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards' $400 haircut. Different scale, of course, but the same uproar. Is it frivolous to invest such time, energy, and money in the packaging?

I suppose it partly depends upon who's paying for it. I might not be too thrilled to know that my tax dollars or hard-earned contributions are being used for such window dressing. But if it's their own money, who really cares?

Well, we do care whether the package looks good for us to buy. Whether we're shopping for deodorant or for a president the packaging talks to us. It suggests answers for our questions like:

  • Is this a bargain product or a premium product?
  • Does it match me and my lifestyle?
  • Will my friends approve of it?
  • Is it smart and up to date?
  • Would I mind paying extra for the packaging even if the product inside isn't all that special?

When the packaging is applied to people (whether it's accurately representing or not) we draw conclusions about educational and economic status, attractiveness, intelligence, individualism, creativity, and a host of other criteria. Sometimes we jump to conclusions that aren't fair and aren't accurate - like "blondes have more fun" or "men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses."

If you want to be President you need to look like the President - it's simple as that. If you want to be perceived as approachable, dress to relate rather than to intimidate. Socially it's way more complicated now that the white shirt, tie and suit aren't the universal standard for men and dresses, gloves and hats aren't the mandate for every well-turned-out woman. If you want your packaging to work in your favor you match yourself to the situation.

For some, personal packaging is an opportunity to express aesthetic ideals. For others it's no big deal - it's all about function. But when it comes down to it, our packaging does communicate to other people before we even open our mouths - we ignore it at our own peril. If you want to manage your message, managing the packaging is part of the equation.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

.Is this the problem or a symptom?

...worrying symptoms
Originally uploaded by the3robbers

Imagine that you discover a rash on your forearm - it's bumpy, red, and a bit itchy. You grab some cortisone cream out of the medicine cabinet, apply it to the rash, and before long the rash is gone. Once the rash has disappeared you stop using the cortisone cream - and lo and behold, the rash comes back.

The problem here is that you haven't cured the disease, only treated the symptom. That's why the rash keeps coming back. Until you figure out the underlying root cause you'll be treating symptoms indefinitely.

In this situation you recognized a problem and you treated it. Would you have been so willing had someone else spotted it and recommended treatment? Maybe it would be no big deal if the treatment were something as simple as cortisone cream. But what if the treatment were a little more intimidating, like surgery or immobility, or an application of leeches? Perhaps you'd think twice or thrice before agreeing to the solution.

People issues show up in symptoms as well, like

  • reduced productivity
  • lack of communication
  • lack of teamwork
  • overactive grapevine
  • turf protection behavior
  • big conflicts over small stuff

Some of the challenges in dealing with the people problems are that

  • It's sometimes difficult to determine the root cause (the disease)
  • They come and go, sometimes without treatment
  • We're not sure they're curable
  • The patient isn't willing
  • We're not convinced that they're as important as production
  • They are messy, and don't always respond to the same treatment
  • They don't clear up very fast

We want results improvement now, not three months from now, and we sometimes assume that everyone should already know about the basic blocking and tackling of being interpersonally effective. We assume that if someone is well educated and/or socially well heeled that they already know what to do. Even if they do know what to do to be effective in theoretical terms they don't consistently do it.

The fact is that we all have different degrees of clarity in perceiving people issues, different levels of motivation to handle them proactively, and different styles in dealing with them. These differences transcend education, age, socioeconomic status, gender, you name the demographic.

We can be more effective in curing the disease, if you will, when we engage the patient(s) in uncovering it, then involve them in a comprehensive treatment plan. We can help them become more self-aware so they can identify the causes (attitudes, assumptions, etc.) behind their behavior. We can enhance and/or reinforce their skills in dealing with people. And we can help them identify more clearly the goals behind their interaction.

We can't fire someone, or call them on the carpet, or move them to another department and expect that the symptoms will go away for long. The people issues are bigger than that - they are systemic, with multiple points of influence. So we need to get under the surface in order to achieve lasting improvement.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Beware Painting with a Broad Brush

Broad Brush
Originally uploaded by supereric

When we try to make sense of our world we tend to categorize and generalize. This is a flower, this is a car, this is a pencil, etc. Then as we get to know the items better we can draw a finer point on it - this is a hibiscus, this is a Camaro, this is an Executive Choice #2.

It takes time for us to go beyond the obvious, and it also takes willingness. Sometimes it seems easier to paint with a broad brush, to draw conclusions with the smallest amount of real data. And when we're stressed and feeling threatened, we're either thinking so quickly that we don't invest the time in knowing the full picture, or we're too worried about protecting ourselves to risk being left with our backs exposed.

So we find ourselves polarizing - taking one extreme perspective or another - and lumping people and situations into big categories that often don't do them any justice. For instance:

  • If there was an affair, it must have been the woman's fault.
  • If they're a Republican (or a Democrat, Libertarian, etc.) they must be a moron.
  • If they're poor they must be lazy.
  • If they're wealthy they must have gotten there by climbing over other people.
  • If they're dressed like that they must be a criminal.
  • If they're Muslim they must be a terrorist.
  • If they question our government policies they must be un-American.

Hel-lo! How can these perspectives be helping us, or protecting us? And how would WE like it if somebody else put US in one of these pigeonholes? We'd feel angry and/or frustrated, because we'd know they were wrong. Unfortunately, they're probably already doing it.

Perception is reality - not that it's accurate, but that people will behave in alignment with their attitudes and perceptions. If I believe someone is not to be trusted I'm going to behave in the way that's consistent with not trusting. Even if I'm terribly wrong.

What would our world be like if we stopped breaking our legs jumping to conclusions? What if we put the broad brush of stereotypes and archetypes away? What would happen if we would really believe that there's enough for everybody, and that in order for one person to win another person doesn't necessarily have to lose?

My thinking is that we'd create much greater opportunity to find peace and common ground, and ways to help the world work for everybody.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The end of the picnic season

Are you looking a bit closer at your grocery and gas receipts lately? Postponing or cancelling vacations because your portfolio has taken a serious hit in the past few weeks? I guess it's the end of picnic season.
We've known it's been coming. We knew in our heart of hearts that the signs were there for us - our own casual spending and borrowing patterns, and those of our companies and our government as well. But we tried to ignore them, thinking that if we just kept on the picnic season could go on indefinitely. We were wrong.
For some of us this is the first time we've truly considered that tomorrow might not be better than yesterday, and we're not liking that thought. We've never really economized, never thought seriously about combining trips in the car to save gas. But now we're here, preparing to pay the piper for yesterday's dance.
If this picnic season is like all of the others, it will get colder before the trees green up again and the meadow is ready for us to return. Who knows - the bitter wind of this winter might knock a couple of the tables down before we see them again.
But we will do what we need to do to endure the winter. We'll pile on sweaters and turn the thermostat down. We'll spend less time spending and more time with our kids, just being. Perhaps we'll rediscover those important things that tend to hide behind the veil of busy schedules, fat bank accounts and warm credit cards.
And ultimately spring will cycle back. It might be March for some of us, or for some it might take until May, or even June, for the sun to prepare the meadow. But picnic season, although perhaps different from the last one, will return.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Triage for your company (or your career)

The tough part about coping with the seeming daily stream of negative economic news is that it tends to paralyze us. Many of us stand gaping, legs feeling like lead while the world appears to be spinning out of control. Of course that method of handling devastating news can only be temporary, or our inaction will compound the effects on our business until we've sealed our fate.

We don't have to wring our hands and stand by, watching. We can act.

At Summit we're taking a sort-of health care approach to helping business owners and keypersons in our community to get the lead out and get moving to control what they can and influence what they can about their results. We're helping them perform Triage Planning.

TRIAGE is defined on as:

  1. the process of sorting victims, as of a battle or disaster, to determine priority in order to increase the number of survivors.

  2. the determination of priorities for action in an emergency.

  3. of, pertaining to, or performing the task of triage: a triage officer.

  4. to act on or in by triage: to triage a crisis

A local top executive told us yesterday that his company's revenues are expected to be down from $60 million to $45 million this year. Down by 25%. "I think it makes sense, Jim, to rapidly reassess our strategic plan. We need to go to the mountain as a leadership team to appraise our external environment and our internal flexibility to respond to this shift in the economy. We need to do it now!”

A client company whose industry was seeing the downturn before many of the rest of us developed and implemented a triage plan about 6 months ago. While the industry is still reeling, he's seeing some tangible benefit from the tactics he developed during his triage planning process.

We're doing a Triage Planning Teleconference Tuesday, October 28th at 11 a.m. EDT to discuss exactly what triage planning is and how it can get your company off the dime - no matter what the surrounding business climate looks like. Join us and other business leaders who aren't willing to settle for any result, but who are determined to invent their own future.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Six reasons why you might not be getting the results you want

It's been a crazy week - thought you might enjoy this post from my Peak Performance blog archives:

During the coaching process I talk to a lot of people who are frustrated about their seeming inability to achieve their goals. Some of these goals are work related and some are personal, but I have seen some common denominators that apply in either situation. Take a look at these and see whether any apply to you.
  1. It's not REALLY what you want. Every time we have the opportunity to take action toward our goal or do something else our mind makes a decision about which is more attractive. If you're not attracted toward working on your goal, consider whether it's a SHOULD rather than a WANT TO. "Want to" will win over the long haul, whereas "should" will generate tension and/or dissatisfaction (or lack of action) in the same time frame.
  2. Prior habits are fighting you. These habits might be ways of thinking (I'm not a salesperson) or ways of behaving (being consistently late for appointments.) It's estimated that 88% of our daily behavior is conditioned, meaning we're operating on autopilot and not really choosing. It takes a process of taking ourselves off "auto" and onto "manual" until new habits are formed.
  3. Too many things are competing for your attention. If this result is really important set a SMART (specific, measurable, achievable yet realistically high, time-deadline stated) goal and then plan it out in detail. You want to include the rewards if you hit it and the consequences if you don't, the obstacles that are blocking you, possible solutions, specific action steps and target dates. Then use your plan to help you prioritize this goal against others on your plate right now. At some point there will be an inevitable choice to make between competing goals - for instance, either you put this chunk of money into savings or you use it to buy a new car. The money will go one place or the other, but not both.
  4. There might be additional skills or knowledge that you need. Buy a book, take a class, talk to an expert - do whatever method works for you, but without the foundation you need you will lack confidence to take action and/or spend more time in trial and error mode than is necessary.
  5. Somebody or something outside of you is holding you back. There are things you can control, and things you can influence, and things totally out of your power to change. Focus your energy on the things you can control or influence and throw the rest over your shoulder.
  6. You haven't taken action. DO something. Anything. Sometimes there is no way of knowing whether a particular action step will work. Tom Peters says "test and measure." I agree. Don't let dueling egos stop you - get out there and move your hands and feet. The rules of physics say that a body in motion stays in motion, so the momentum of taking action will pull you forward. Will it work? The proof, as the old salt says, is in the pudding.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A little birdie told me...

Originally uploaded by BrianScott

Have you been anywhere close to a TV or newspaper or magazine over the past weeks? If you were to listen to and accept the innuendo and outright fabrications intended to influence voters you'd draw the conclusion that anyone and everyone is going to raise taxes, some candidates are terrorists, and that some go nowhere without their moose guns. C'mon now...just how gullible do they think we are?

Unfortunately, it appears that we're more gullible than I'd like to think. We're such a busy (and sometimes lazy) crowd that sometimes it's just easier and more efficient to digest the prechewed food of somebody else's opinion rather than find out the real deal on our own. We'll sometimes jump to conclusions without stopping to consider whether the data being whispered in our ears is accurate or just another in a series of distortions (unintentional or intentional.)

If we're truly going to be leaders in our decision making we need to consider

  • Is this information verifiable directly by me? If not, can I find the same information from two or more reliable sources?
  • Does the person sharing this information have a vested interest in the outcome?
  • Does this person have the expertise and/or credentials to make their information credible?

Distortion, exaggeration and innuendo can certainly reshape the argument in our favor when we're the sender. That's why these big guns are pulled out when the stakes are high. They have been known to work. Our words can transform a business lunch that we witnessed into an illicit love affair, or a chance meeting on the sidewalk into a rendezvous with a terrorist. Not-so-secrets are dangerous business.

When we're the consumers of the little birdies' messages we don't have to take them at face value, and when the stakes are high we absolutely shouldn't. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated, and if we allow ourselves to take the easy way out and be sucked into the innacuracy vortex today we'll see it again on the next go-around.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Changing faces - art, the workplace, and transformation

Bian Lian (Face-Changing)
Originally uploaded by hkdigit

Bian Lian (Face-Changing) is a form of Chinese performance art where the actor changes masks in quick succession, sometimes multiple times in a second. In traditional Sichuan opera the changes were used to reflect changes in emotions - red representing anger and black representing extreme fury, for example.

Now in Bian Lian the speed of the transformation has become part of the art, where a sweep of the sleeve or a turn of the head seems to magically transform the face. With today's technology (according to Wikipedia) the masks are constructed of layers of silk, sometimes 20 layers deep, which can be peeled easily as the transformation is made.

In reality it would be wonderful (maybe) if we could transform ourselves with equal grace, speed and apparent magic. I suppose that we would all choose to change to more desirable behavior with the switch of a mask. But in the workplace there isn't a magic mask to help with the transformation. It's hard work.

Perhaps it's better that we can't change that rapidly. We have so much going on around us already that if the people around us were shifting second by second we wouldn't have a sound basis upon which to create communication or relationships. Others' responses would be fleeting and unpredictable and we'd be racing to change our own masks to meet the shifting needs of our interactions with them.

I've been asked already, "Just how much can a person transform themselves?" Sometimes the questions stems from the hope that a difficult person can become less of an obstacle. Other times the question comes from a concern not about changing, but rather about being changed - as though someone can drag us against our will into a new way of being.

I'm convinced that in the end we're like ice cream. Some of us are plain vanilla, which means that we can add chips, swirls or nuts (no pun intended) and broaden our appeal pretty easily. Some of us are chocolate - a little bit more distinctive flavor at the get-go, but still able to dress up with chunks of peanut butter or marshmallows. Others of us are pistachio, and we're limited to that flavor - but we can become the best pistachio ice cream out there, and we have our devoted fans.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Overhauling your workspace

I found this in my prior blog, Peak Performance - from the coach's desk and thought the topic was well worth repeating... enjoy!

"Help! I'm being buried by my office!" is the cry of a number of folks I know lately. In some cases they are over-busy, some of them are in transition, and some have creative minds for whom out of sight is out of mind. All of them realize that having too much stuff is getting in the way of their productivity and their ability to think clearly. Here are some ideas to consider if your office is eating you alive:

For the Over-Busy
In the classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey talks about the balance that needs to be struck between production and production capacity. You can only drive, drive, drive the car for so long before it won't move because it needs fuel or an oil change. If you're focused on production so heavily that you're not building in organization time it will catch up with you.
  • Create slots of inviolable me-time at least weekly - for some people the very beginning or end of the day works to help them have peace of mind and a greater sense of control over their work. Close the door and turn off the ringer on your phone, and let people know only to interrupt you during your me-time if the building is burning down.
  • File papers right away. Create a place for them to go. One person I know has a "pending" file for items awaiting action from other people. Consider making a "read" file where you put anything that you want to see but don't need to see immediately. You can take your read file with you to help you make use of down-time between appointments.
  • If you manage people or interact with certain colleagues routinely set up a tablet where you keep a page for each of them. As you think of non-urgent things you need to discuss with them don't interrupt your work flow to track them down, rather write the items down and cover all of them during a regularly scheduled face to face.
  • Consider dumping one non-essential activity that's taking your schedule over the top of manageability. Volunteerism is a very important community service, but it's more important for you to be able to keep your word and follow through effectively than it is to give halfhearted effort in more venues. Use the time you get back for capacity building activities. Pass a task along to someone for whom it can be a challenge or a developmental process. In this way you're building their capacity for the future, which helps you have more flexibility.

For Folks in Transition
It's likely that you have accumulated stuff from your prior life. If you've determined that you're going to have a new career identity part of the transition is letting go of the unrelated accoutrements of your prior career.

  • If you have an entire office to redo and are feeling overwhelmed by the scope of the job make a commitment to yourself to spend a finite period of time (1-2 hours) working on it. You'll probably be surprised how much progress you have made, and you'll be so pumped about it that you'll want to commit another block of time until it's done.
  • Be ruthless about how much you really need to keep. It's the same principle that wardrobe consultants use - if you haven't referred to it in the past _______timeframe let it go.
  • If you're a book addict like me you can donate the ones you don't use anymore to a Book Nook fundraiser for a local charity, or give them to people you know will be able to use them. If the thought of permanently separating from them makes you want to hyperventilate you might want to consider the value you can provide by lending them. A friend of mine actually puts a library card in the back of the book she lends to help remind herself and the borrower. She keeps a recipe-sized file box with the cards of the outstanding books. In the meantime her office is rid of a substantial amount of paper.
  • Even if you're not there yet reinvent your space around who you want to be.

For the Creative Minds
You might not be a person who can be productive having nothing but your current task on your desk. I know a guy who just can't concentrate that way because he's constantly thinking about what essential task might be hiding in his desk drawer. There are multitudes of readily visible storage systems out there now - take a look at whether any of them can work for you.

  • Visible need not mean disorganized. Stand-up file boxes can be right at your fingertips but won't dump file contents on the floor if you happen to graze them with an elbow, unlike the desktop stack of folders you have now. Some of the file boxes available now are clear plastic or wire mesh, making it easy to see what you have.
  • If you have bookshelves or can install shelving you're in luck. Check out for ideas on shelving and baskets and bins you can use to hold samples and other stuff in an organized fashion. Label them so you know what you have on hand at a glance. You might also want to consider shelves with glass doors, so you can see what you have, but it's neatly contained.
  • If you have a home office consider rigging the closet with shelving. You can keep the doors open while you're working if you need to see what's there, then you can just close the doors if you need to have the space looking tidy quickly for client meetings or overnight guests.
  • I will confess right here that I'm a packrat and this post is partly for me - I hate to dispose of things that might have a future use. I have to set aside time and make myself get organized, and especially have to work at dumping the nonessentials. But the day goes more smoothly and I attract clients more effectively when my uncluttered office is reflected in my uncluttered brain.

I hope some of these ideas will work for you.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Giant Step toward credibility - give specifics

When asked what's she's doing, my 12-year-old's stock answer is either "something" or "nothing." I'm sure that any one of you parents out there will agree that those answers aren't satisfactory - she's not building her credibility when she does that. Yet sometimes we try to get away with a similar answer. For example:

  • "We're going to maximize shareholder return" - There are about a thousand ways to skin that cat, some that I as a shareholder will like, and some strategies that I might oppose.
  • "Sorry - I already have plans." - That will wash with a new acquaintance who doesn't necessarily have a right to know what you're doing with your time, but don't try it with your spouse unless you want to start a brouhaha!
  • "We're going to work with our allies." - Are we going to meet with them to develop a joint initiative, or are we going to decide what we're doing and then practically strong-arm them into following?

The real reasons for believing or not believing, for following or not following, are found in the specifics of the message - not in the broad rhetoric. Who wouldn't want mom and apple pie - unless they find out that mom would have to be bound and blindfolded and the apples we're using for the pie were the last apples from the last tree? I know, a strange example, but the point is that the real investment is often hidden behind smoke and mirrors. We don't give details because the details would get us into trouble if people knew them.

Details convince your audience that you really do know the path to take to get there. Details inspire trust and confidence.

When you don't give specifics you communicate more than just the message that you don't know how you're going to do it. Sometimes you communicate that you don't think your audience is smart enough to understand your strategy. In effect you're saying, "Trust me - it's a little over your head for me to tell you more, but I know what I'm doing." For some audiences, that second interpretation of the glittering generalities is the more deadly one for you. If they feel like they're being patronized they'll resist you, either actively (through protest) or passively (through inaction.)

Perhaps it's too early to give specifics because you don't have enough information to do so. Then say it's too early to get specific because you need xyz information! If you can't give specifics because it would be a strategic or security risk, then say so. If you're evaluating a couple of options right now, tell them what the options are.

Credibility is earned in many ways - by walking your talk, by standing for values even when it's inconvenient - but giving specifics right here and right now is a choice that's finite and doable. If you have the guts to do it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Saga Of The Disappearing Obama Yard Sign

Obama Yard Sign
Originally uploaded by kevin.myrick

This isn't a post about my political views, although it won't take a rocket scientist to figure them out. This is about teaching children values, and about parents teaming up to make sure our kids understand the ramifications of their actions.

I was sitting at swim practice watching my 5-year-old do lap after lap of backstroke when my cellphone rang. "Mom! You'll never believe what happened!" (It was my 12-year-old.) "Some kids were walking past our house and one of them took our Obama sign, and then they ran away!"

My daughter, ever the observant one, caught them in the act from a second-story window and sent my husband outside to investigate: "Dad. Go out in the yard. Now!" My husband dashed out to investigate, and was able to see the group of young teens. As he called them over to him three boys turned tail and ran away.

My husband and the two girls in the group walked back to their parents' house, where the girls' dad and he had a chat. Of course the names of the culprits were revealed. The boys had tossed their jackets in the girls' yard earlier in the evening, so the dads decided that my husband would confiscate the jackets and return them to the boys when

  • the sign was returned and
  • their parents were notified of what went on.

My daughter received a phone call from the boys saying they'd replace our sign. (Later the original sign part was returned without the frame, looking like it had been crumpled into a tiny ball and sat upon.)

A little while later two of the boys (who didn't actually take the sign, but who ran away from the scene) came to the door accompanied by their father, who assured my husband that they would be punished for their involvement in the situation. They were contrite and my husband returned their jackets to them.

The morning after the jacket belonging to the swiper is still in the back of my husband's car. He will be happy to return it to the boy as soon as he, the boy, and the boy's parents have a chat.

I don't think these kids will be stealing yard signs again any time soon. At least not in my neighborhood.

Monday, October 6, 2008

How far can you see?

How distant is the future toward which you're planning? Ten years? Five years? Twenty years? One business quarter? End of day today?

This is the time of year when it makes sense to talk about the ant and the grasshopper. The ant is plugging away, working and storing food for winter. The grasshopper, on the other hand, is lollygagging around, enjoying the warm days right now. The upshot of the tale is that the ant survives due to his preparation for the future and the grasshopper does not because he did not think beyond the immediate.

The challenge when you look further ahead is that it's a little more difficult to account for all of the potential contingencies. Many factors might change that will have an impact on whether or not you achieve your vision. For some personality types, another challenge is that it's harder to maintain the motivation to continue when you won't see the ultimate outcome for a long time. Goodness, if you plan your vision in the way some Asian companies have, you might not even see your results at all - they're intended for your children to see, or your children's children. The vision is 25 years or more in the future.

In our current environment of publicly held companies the job of the CEO is to provide shareholder value and increase the stock price. Oftentimes the pull of the shareholder agenda is so strong that it means that the CEO is operating on a quarter-by-quarter basis, with a very short view. The very structure of the company creates an obstacle to the process of making decisions that have the longer-term good of the corporation in mind. If he or she doesn't get results right now the CEO will be out the door before you can say "sub-prime mortgage." And then the next passenger in the revolving door will have his or her chance at a quick return.

Of course the fallout from all of this is that the impact of today's short-term decisions might create a short term uptick in results but create huge risks for the long term. It doesn't take a lot of effort to come up with examples, both business and personal:

  • Today's chocolate cake can lead to 10 more pounds within 6 months
  • Issuance of subprime mortgages to boost interest revenue, leading to foreclosures and loss of capital
  • Purchasing a gadget on credit today, creating debt repayment stress just when income gets tight three months from now
  • Driving a gas guzzling vehicle today, which contributes to tomorrow's fuel shortage
  • Failure to study each week means the final will require cramming

The business cycle gets quicker and quicker, such that many of my client companies aren't planning beyond 24-36 months. It's understandable in that competitive conditions are changing so rapidly that adaptability is key to survive, much less thrive.

But without vision, that longer term view, the business can find itself reacting right now and regretting it later. It takes courage to take the turtle's path - slow and steady.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Sarah, we all put our pants on

How To Put On Your Pants
Originally uploaded by Brendan Vail

one leg at a time...

What do we really want to know about our country's future leaders? Do we want to know the scope of their knowledge, their experience, their qualifications for the job before we elect them? Or is it more important to us that we find out that they are just like us and therefore trustworthy, understandable and accessible?

Sarah, your argument that we should elect a woman because she makes repeated statements about how she is a hockey mom and a maverick does nothing to show me your substance. Conversely, it creates doubts (not like I didn't have them before, so MORE doubts) about whether there really IS substance behind the blinking, winking and head tilting. Don't try to flirt with American citizens through the television when you're vying for the second most powerful position in the world! And don't patronize us as though we can't see through it. How insulting.

Somehow perky isn't the profile I'd choose. Human, yes - perky, no. If I wanted to see the humanity of the candidates during last night's debate I saw more of the genuine article in Joe Biden when he talked about the impact of losing a wife and daughters, and then not being certain that even a son would survive. Real emotion, not flippant self-promotion. Obviously I'm a woman, but I'll be happy to say that women don't have the corner on parenthood, or empathy, or perspective.

Sarah, I'm not naive enough to assert that personality doesn't sell. Of course a personable leader can help grease the skids when negotiations are tough, or when citizens need to hear some calming words. But we don't need a ceremonial leader. We can't afford one who has to practice for a month before being able to articulate clearly about his or her position on issues.

For the pundits to say that you did a good job in the debates because you didn't pull out your moose rifle holds you to a standard way lower than I expect from my leader. Let me hear specifics. Answer my questions rather than talk about whatever you've rehearsed that you would tell me.

Humanity can coexist with intellect, and intellect need not be sacrificed in order to elect a human being. I understand that sometimes it's difficult to believe that someone with a high profile and awe-inspiring career achievements deals with the same problems that we of the nation's rank and file do. But I for one do not want us to risk electing another ineffective leader in order to choose someone "just like me." I want somebody better than me - smarter, more experienced, with awesome judgment, with visionary thinking. And sorry, Sarah. That isn't even close to being you.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

What are your criteria for choosing a leader?

Fair warning - this post has my personal opinion splashed all over it, and if you're a Sarah Palin fan you might want to stop right here.

I've been around the business community long enough to see it drastically change its views about women in leadership positions. I've also been around long enough to remember one particular joke:

Q: You have a position to fill and you've received resumes for two women
candidates. One is highly educated but has little job experience. The other has
only a high school education but has worked in your industry in progressively
responsible positions for 10 years. Which do you hire?

A: The one with the bigger b____.

Ha. Ha.

I'd love to believe that this kind of thinking is now obsolete, but our current presidential campaign has left me with questions about whether our culture has really progressed beyond that old joke. I'm wondering whether we're acting it out instead. So that's why I want to hear from you - what are your criteria for choosing a leader?
  • Education?
  • Job experience?
  • Charisma?
  • No nonsense?
  • Pragmatism?
  • Diplomacy?
  • Intelligence?
  • Gender?
  • Ethnicity?
  • Similar values to yours?
  • Bipartisanship?
  • Partisanship?

Just what are they? In my mind the profile of the best leader is situational. In times of crisis or upheaval (like now) you look for someone who can call the shots without flinching, who has personal knowledge to enhance the input he or she will receive from support staff, and you look for someone who knows what's going on. You look for someone who listens before he or she makes the call, then they make it. At the time they need to make it. You look for someone who can cross the aisle to get real work done. You look for someone who can be respected both at home and abroad because of the value they bring to the table.

Sarah Palin doesn't meet any of my criteria. I'm blown away when some of my women neighbors tell me they back her because it's time that there is a woman in the White House. Watching her interviews is like watching a train wreck - you don't want to see the carnage, but you can't look away.

Even if you completely ignore her inability to answer questions about the fundamentals of the job for which she is campaigning, she is no representative for womens issues or womens concerns. Just one example - when she was mayor of Wasilla, AK, Palin's administration was charging rape victims for the rape kits used to investigate their crimes. Making rape victims pay to help catch their attackers! Here's the USA Today article if you want to read more...

If we really want cute in our Vice President (heaven forbid that that's our biggest concern) we'd get a better package if we recruited Tina Fey instead. As Ellen Goodman wrote in a recent column,

"After all, Sarah Palin may yet be the fulfillment of an old feminist
prophecy that Texan Sissy Farenthold once described with her tongue firmly
planted in her cheek. We will have achieved equality the day mediocre women take
their place beside mediocre men. Check that one off the to-do list."

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Efficiency and effectiveness in training

Originally uploaded by narendra

This guy is carrying three things at one time, and that seems to be what we expect our employees to do too. When it comes to developing their skills there is no really good time - either we're so busy that we can't spare them from production in order to train them, or when work is slower and we have the time we are reluctant to part with the cash.

There have been a couple of results from this - we might look for the magic bullet half-day or one-day workshop to help them instantly, or we might investigate methods like e-learning so they can learn on demand, any time of the day or night. Another result of this mindset, and also of the "training as a nice-to-do" perspective, is that some companies wait until things blow up before they take action. They view training, particularly that which revolves around people skills, as a remedial activity rather than a preventative one.

Life and the work climate would be so much easier if we didn't have to deal with crises. When the people issues blow up they can have residual impact for weeks, even months or longer depending upon their intensity. A manager told me recently that she can't even begin to estimate how many hours of productivity she has lost handling one particularly sticky employee situation.

This isn't to say you should jump into the first training lifeboat - look for efficiency and effectiveness in what you're providing to your staff. Just be sure that you're looking at both sides of the equation.

  • Efficiency - the extent to which the process minimizes the use of resources.
  • Effectiveness - the extent to which the process achieves the desired results.

If we were to focus only on efficiency we'd be engaging in activities we used to see on TV, where people would sleep with headphones on, playing training content so our subconscious would absorb it while we caught up on our ZZZ's. I've seen a surge in teleclasses and e-learning to reduce the cost of time and travel.

If we were to focus only on effectiveness we'd be investing whatever hours and dollars were necessary to achieve the results we wanted. Could be that the return wouldn't justify the investment.

If, on the other hand, we're going to be wise we want to look for the ROI and determine exactly what outcomes we're looking for before we spring for training. The key is the extent to which participants are going to APPLY whatever they've learned. We're looking for positive behavior change that improves results. We're looking for a process that builds practice and application right in. That's not just training - that's development. And that can create positive, sustainable change in our companies.