Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy Holidays!

As you regular readers might have noticed, I'm taking a bit of a breather from the daily blogging routine. Trying to drink some of my own Kool-Aid on the topic of balance and making conscious choices. So my posting will be likely either
  • sporadic
  • nonexistent, or
  • on wildly different topics

over the next couple of weeks.

Best wishes to you and yours for Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Kwanzaa, and a most prosperous New Year! Now get off your computer and go celebrate!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Stuck? These 8 questions can help

Originally uploaded by iamsmallhall

Have you been feeling stuck? Reliving the same lessons over and over again? Would you like to get unstuck and start making progress?

The end of one year and the beginning of the next is for many of us a time to take stock of the big picture in our lives. And as we go about summarizing this year and planning the coming one the process can reveal one of two major attitudes:

  • “Oh well, another year down the drain. Thank heaven it’s over.” - or –
  • “Yay. A new year and a clean slate on which I can create my future!”

I’ll always advocate the half-full, forward thinking perspective on life, but even if you’re an aficionado of the half-empty position there are a few questions that, if you really consider them and answer them candidly, can help you surge out of the starting gate.

  • What do I want my life to look like and by when?
  • What is important to me right now, and why?
  • Who is important to me right now, and why?
  • On what strengths can I build to become more effective?
  • What habits of thought or behavior do I want to change? (Get specific here. What do I want to start doing, and what do I want to stop doing.)
  • What obstacles have been slowing me down, and what am I going to do about them?
  • What resources do I want or need to put into place to do what I want to do?
  • What are the best next physical steps for me to take to create the life I want, and when am I going to take them?

You'll find it helpful to write your answers to these questions down and put a date on them. First, the process of writing will help you synthesize random thoughts into something more coherent and focused. You don’t have to share your answers with anyone. On the other hand, you might want to choose to discuss them with a loved one or an accountability partner. The only caveat in sharing them is that you are not allowed to replace any “want to” items with “should” items as a result.

Another benefit of written documentation is that it will help you remember what you said, so you will be less likely to get squirrely on yourself later due to faulty memory or temporary frustration. It's relatively easy to make grand predictions about things like "I'm going to sell half a million dollars worth of product next year!" and by July you're so off the mark that you back down and create a number you're more likely to reach given current circumstances. We don't really fool ourselves by changing the number midstream. We simply set ourselves up for not meeting our own expectations.

You can do this. You can get unstuck, but only if you do something different than whatever it is that got you here in the first place.

Monday, December 15, 2008

You see whatever you're looking for

Don Schenck recently had this on his blog...http://www.break.com/index/awareness-test.html.

In case you've ever wondered whether you REALLY sort information according to what you're looking for, this should prove it to you. (Can't believe you wouldn't have been taking my word for it all this time!)

And in case you'd like to check out Don's blog here's the link - http://donv2.blogspot.com/.

Friday, December 12, 2008

PC on sharing your holiday spirit - informal survey

I'd like your feedback today on these two related question:

  • Is it appropriate to sing Christmas carols at community events not billed as Christmas events?

  • Should you send business Christmas cards?

Here's the background for my questions. I was at a community event a few days ago where the opening ritual typically includes a patriotic tune and the Pledge of Allegiance. After the patriotic tune this week the song leader spontaneously burst into "We Wish You A Merry Christmas." Simple enough.

Except wait. The next person on the agenda came to the podium and announced, "Next year I'm going to teach you 'I Have A Little Dreidel.'" He said it with good humor, but whoops! An assumption had been made that we would all be celebrating Christmas. I guess that Jewish gentleman finds a lot of occasions where he has to exercise his wit and choose not to take offense. I think he did a pretty graceful job of calling the situation to everyone's attention without hammering anyone with it.

A similar discussion has arisen regarding holiday cards. Should you and your business demonstrate your faith stance by sending Christmas messages? Is it OK to assume that non-Christians will receive them in the spirit in which they were intended - to spread the joy of the season? Or is it offensive in its presumptuousness? According to adherents.com, Christians only represent 33% of believers worldwide.

This goes for more than religion and holidays. Other big topics come under this "what is appropriate?" umbrella - politics, abortion rights, gay marriage - the list goes on and on. So what do you think? Is it better to steer clear of potential controversy, or do you think it's important to speak up (or sing out, or send) according to your values and let the chips fall where they may?

I welcome your comments. I'd like to hear what you think. Happy weekend.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Use buffers to deliver your project on time

Originally uploaded by Erica_Marshall

If there's one phrase we heard over and over when receiving updates on project progress in my prior life as a banker, it was "The date slipped." Slipped? Did it fall on an icy sidewalk? Perhaps the date sneaked by when we weren't looking.

On some projects the date isn't critical - it's more a matter of meeting one's own expectations and maintaining one's credibility. But on some projects (like product development) missing the date can cost millions of dollars and potentially sacrifice first market position - forever.

The challenge in scheduling almost always revolves around team member' accuracy at estimating time necessary for the individual steps within the process. They overestimate (or sandbag if you're feeling cynical) so they feel sure they can hit the date, which means that the project looks interminable from the beginning. In addition, when they have the extra time allowance they tend to succumb to that old "work expands to fill the time allotted" principle. So unnecessary slowness happens, and few of us can afford slowness in this market.

On the flip side - sometimes under pressure to get done quickly (or because of unrealistically optimistic expectations) team members will underestimate the time needed for their step in the process. If this is the case, missing the first due date within the process blows the whole plan.

So here's how to avoid either of these problems:

  1. Estimate a best case AND worst case time frame (optimistic and pessimistic) for each step in the process. For example, step one will take between 3 and 5 days, step two will require 6 to 10 days, and step three will require 1 to 5 days.
  2. Choose the average between best case and worst case and use that to develop your timeline - step one will be 4 days, step 2 will be 8 days, step three will be 3 days - a total process time of 15 days.
  3. Remember the worst-case times from step 1? Add the remainder of the times for the three steps to create your buffer - in this case 1 day was left from step one, 2 days from step two, 2 days from step 3 - and you've got a buffer of 5 days.
  4. Put that buffer on the end of your process time.

When you use the buffer technique you gain several advantages:

  • You manage expectations by acknowledging from the outset that there is going to be variation from the estimates in the timeframes for the individual steps.
  • You'll gain more realistic time estimates.
  • You maintain a reasonable amount of urgency for the completion of each step.
  • You'll have a buffer to share among the steps if you need it and still you should be able to deliver on or before deadline.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Change your life with a green rubber band

Rubber Band
Originally uploaded by Hometown Invasion Tour

Habits of thought are so tenacious because they are automatic. Sometimes we find ourselves in a mood or state of mind, and only if we stop and think can we identify the source of our happiness or discomfort. You can help yourself choose your thoughts by using a simple green rubber band around your wrist, and thereby change the way in which you see your life.

Why a green rubber band? It's to serve as a trigger to remind us of a point in time when we're in a certain state of mind - the kind of state of mind we want to cultivate. Green is an acronym:

G - Give thanks

R - Reject stinking thinking. Snap the rubber band if you feel yourself going there.

E - Engage hearts

E - Excellence is the norm

N - Never, never, never, never, ever, ever, ever give up

Thanks to Mike Mirau at Personnelity for sharing this with me. Have a great day.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

When lack of performance stems from addiction

Most of the time this blog is dedicated to helping people go from good to better. But sometimes there are obstacles that prevent individuals from performing to their potential that are more involved than a coach can address. One of these is substance addiction.

I've seen instances where a leader or loved one was completely puzzled (or hurt) by inconsistency in behavior and later discovered that the "bad" behavior was done under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Sometimes addiction in full swing was only realized after money or valuable property was stolen. Just as is the case with other habits of thought, unless our radar is tuned to signs of addiction we might not see it until either the person has a significant negative incident or we are personally impacted by their actions.

The stereotype of the addict shows someone with poor grooming slouching on a street corner, or a hoodlum hanging out trying to sell or buy crack cocaine. But recent news has covered the expansion of addiction to legal drugs being used in an illegal manner, Oxycontin (oxycodone) in particular. Prescribed for pain by a physician, Oxycontin is highly addictive. Physicians who prescribe Oxycontin for pain are trying to minimize the dose and minimize the time a patient takes it specifically because of its high risk of addiction.

The perceived benefit to a "recreational" illegal user is that, because it is a prescribed substance, the user knows exactly what amount of Oxy they're taking. It's a "reliable high" without some of the risks of street drugs like heroin, which are sold in varying strengths that you can only discover once you've used them (sometimes with disastrous results.) The consistency of dose doesn't make Oxy any less addictive.

From the National Alcohol Substance Abuse Information Center:

Addiction does begin with drug abuse when an individual makes a conscious
choice to use drugs, but addiction is not just "a lot of drug use." Recent
scientific research provides overwhelming evidence that not only does drug
addiction interfere with normal brain functioning creating powerful feelings of
pleasure, but they also have long-term effects on brain metabolism and activity.
At some point, changes occur in the brain that can turn drug abuse into
addiction, a chronic, relapsing illness. Those people with a drug addiction
suffer from a compulsive drug craving and usage and cannot quit by themselves.
Treatment for drug addiction is necessary to end this compulsive behavior.

If you are concerned about someone who you think might have addiction problems, or if you are concerned about your own behavior, check out this website for information about symptoms, intervention, and treatment options:

Information is your ally in these situations, because you might already be enabling someone whose behavior has now become so familiar to you that you don't see the addiction. You might be the person who helps them take the first steps toward kicking their addiction. This is no time for standing on the sidelines.

Monday, December 8, 2008

What are you going to change?

Changing colors!
Originally uploaded by swaheel

This guy has it built right in - he started out green sitting in a bush, then once he moved to his current setting he changed colors to match. Yes, we can put on a jacket or wear a mask at Halloween, but wouldn't it be great if we could change the rest of ourselves as readily as he changes his colors?

This year is drawing near to its close. Have you achieved the results you wanted (or even planned) to achieve? If not, what are you going to change?

  • Your plan? I don't mean that you'll cave on your aspirations, but are you going to approach your goal differently? Are you going to plan more thoroughly?
  • Your attitudes? What are the assumptions and/or unwritten rules that are influencing the way in which you think? Are they valid right now, or do you need to rethink them given recent events?
  • Your habits? It's what you do that gets the results. What things are you doing right now that have actually interfered with your progress? What new habits do you need to incorporate to go where you need to go?
  • Your environment? We tend to adapt to the environment around us, not exactly changing color like a chameleon, but we conform in our thinking, our behavior, even in how we dress. Is your current environment consistent with the person you want to be, or do you need to change something?

Many people view change like a four-letter word. They don't like it because it makes them feel uncomfortable. Is that the case with you? Because if the answer is "yes" then I'd like to make a suggestion: look in your mirror and ask yourself whether you'd rather change and get the results you want, or stick with what you feel comfortable with already and fight the same battles all over again.

Don't kid yourself, because fundamental change takes focus, has occasional setbacks, and consumes energy. If it's important enough to you though, you can do it.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Why management by exception doesn't work

I've heard many employees say over the years, "I only ever hear from my boss when I mess up." Unfortunately, that's all too common. We are all busy, so it's easy to take the "No news is good news" approach to leadership - management by exception.

When we only have our radar tuned to fix mistakes or improve what we see as "broken" workers we create several consequences:
  • We build the perception in ourselves and in others that way more is going wrong than really is going wrong (as a percent of the whole work product.)
  • We create a negative work climate where seeing the boss approach is the equivalent of the childhood trip to the principal's office.
  • We, in effect, treat our employees like machinery rather than as people when we have only "malfunction or repair" reasons to communicate with them.
  • We neglect developing our potential star performers because we're investing so much time with the people who aren't cutting it.
  • Telling someone what not to do doesn't help them know what they SHOULD do to perform better. So we could wind up wasting time and resources identifying the same mistake over and over again without ever remedying the situation.
I'll never forget my older daughter's kindergarten teacher, standing in the middle of a mass of wriggling, chattering 5-year-olds and saying, "Boy, I really like the way Carla is sitting quietly in her seat!" The kids scrambled to imitate Carla's behavior so they could also receive positive recognition from Mrs. Brenner. She identified the desired behavior and helped the children see the model.

This technique isn't only effective with children - it works with adults too. Long-term, sustainable motivation comes from inside - from our attitudes, our habits of thought. What that means is that our employees are motivated in the same way. We can't change their attitudes, but we can create an environment where positive, productive habits of thought are easier to sustain. Positive attitudes lead to more effective work behaviors which lead to better results.

Here's my challenge for you for today: Keep track of the number of times where you criticize or focus on errors. Also keep a tally of the number of times that you compliment or otherwise reinforce what's right about someone's performance. You could even choose to keep this "Plus" and "Minus" data for how you're thinking about yourself. See where your predominant attention and feedback is focused. Once you have some data ask yourself this question: "How is that affecting the results that I'm getting?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

It's an individual journey - and sometimes it's not yours

Did you ever sit in the movies and think (or even shout) "Don't go in there!" or "Don't open that door!" You hear the music getting more and more edgy, the lighting and camera angles becoming more extreme. You know what's coming because you've seen it before. You might not know exactly what's behind that door, but you want the other person to benefit from your insights. But at the movies, no matter what you say or even if you jump out of your seat, that person is going to do what the script says they are going to do. You might as well save your breath, because that person has to find out for themselves.

In life as parents and/or concerned friends, colleagues, etc. we see situations around us all the time that we recognize from our own experience. We've handled them well and know what to do, or perhaps we've bumbled terribly and have the scars to prove our knowledge of what doesn't work. Either way, when we see somebody walking off what seems to be a short pier, or into a fog we feel the need to pull them back, to shake them and say, "Don't go in there!" or "Don't open that door!" It's just like in the movies, when you can see what might happen to them, only more intense because you have an emotional investment in the relationship and in their well-being.

But sometimes it's an individual journey - and it's not ours but rather theirs to travel. They have to make their own choices, they have to process their own pain, they have to make their own mistakes. We often can't change their mind. And perhaps we shouldn't try, because when they choose for themselves only they are accountable for the results. When we get involved we share the accountability for what happens as an outgrowth of our influence.

Because we can only see from our own myopic perspective we might not know the lesson they need to learn from this - it could be about independence or it could be about finding a different type of partnership. It could be about responsibility or it could be about putting oneself first for a change. Again, it's their lesson, not ours, and we can't sit in for them or change the syllabus.

It's hard when you think you can see something coming - hard to bite one's tongue and let the chips fall where they may. It's tough to stand by when nobody can tell what's obscured by the fog right now, or how deep the water is at the end of the dock that a loved one is approaching. But they need to do it - they need to make their own choices. Then later, if they need us to, we pick them up and dust them off and help them get ready for their next adventure.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Two great free things

Of course you know that I'm always looking out for you...here are two opportunities that you can take advantage of without parting with one nickel.

First great free thing

When I was reading The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch I found out about the Alice project at Carnegie Mellon. Alice is a software program that helps develop short 3-d animations, and it's specifically designed to get kids interested in computer science and programming. Randy Pausch calls it a head fake - you're think you're learning something (like doing videos) but actually you're learning another (basic Java programming.)

There's a format for middle schoolers as well as one for high school and college students. Each is downloadable free from http://www.alice.org/. We checked out the middle school version this past weekend with our 12-year-old and all of us thought it was really cool. For the non-techies like me there's a very user-friendly tutorial. Of course my daughter jumped right in - don't need no stinkin' tutorials! Or so she thinks.

Second great free thing

Have you ever wondered what all the fuss about coaching is about? Wonder whether you or someone who reports to you might benefit from having one? Don't get what the difference is between a life coach and a business coach? The difference between a coach and a counselor? Not sure what criteria to use to determine whether a particular coach is worth the investment?

If you have any of these questions, then join us Thursday, December 11 at 1 p.m. EST for a teleclass titled "Are You Coachable?" Simply click this link to sign up. Deadline for registration is December 9 and seats are limited.

Consider these your early Christmas presents. If you've been good, that is.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Book Review - The Last Lecture

I recently finished reading The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch for book club. First, I'll admit that I procrastinated a bit because I didn't want to be bummed out by a book about a dying man. Second, pancreatic cancer has hit my family in several ways in the past few years, so I was concerned that it might hit a bit close to home.

No worries. This was uplifting and inspiring reading. Randy Pausch decided that he wasn't going to spend his last few months dying - he was going to spend them living. He wanted to do a last lecture at Carnegie Mellon University (where he worked) to communicate what he felt was really important. In particular he wanted to create memories for his children and a legacy of the things he valued to pass on to them.

The legacy he wanted for his family wasn't material. It was a support system of older cousins that would do special things with his children (like he did with his nieces and nephews in his single days.) He wanted his kids to know his basic operating principles for life. He wanted them to have pictures and videos of themselves playing with their dad so they could know the depth of his love for them, even if their memories of him were fuzzy or blank (the oldest of the three was only six years old when he died.) He wanted their mom to know just how much she was a treasured partner to him, in hopes that it would help her be strong when she was parenting alone.

I can't imagine what it would be like to be in Pausch's shoes, or in his wife Jai's shoes for that matter. I would hope that I could be that upbeat through it all, especially when the treatment possibilities shrank to nil and it became clear that death was inevitable. It was evident in the book that cheerfulness was not a coat that Randy Pausch put on to help other people feel more comfortable. It was really him.

Randy Pausch's experience really puts a face on the concept that we choose whether we define our circumstances or allow ourselves to be defined by them. He said that we've all received a death sentence just by virtue of living. Why then should we stop ourselves from living life to its fullest? He viewed his cancer as a gift that allowed him to put his ducks in a row, to say what he wanted to say to his family, and to prepare before he had to leave them. Not everybody has that chance.

The Last Lecture was well worth the read, and well worth passing along to the important people in your life.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Can you really be "Switzerland?"

a burden of badges
Originally uploaded by cooliceblue

There are times when we feel the expectation to take sides - that we choose one over the other. We can't support everybody and everything. Our electoral system works that way, and so does our judicial system. Either we vote for someone or we vote for their opponent; we find the defendant guilty or not guilty. It's one or the other. But interpersonally sometimes it seems as though we're better off being "Switzerland," staying out of it and staying neutral to the best of our abilities. That way we won't burn bridges that we might want to cross sometime later.

When a colleague gets fired or a friend separates from a spouse we'll never know the whole story. Even if we want to choose a side we don't have enough information to "fairly" judge who should receive our moral support. So we're left using other criteria to decide who to gang up on - whether we've known one spouse longer, or whether we like the terminated colleague.

Some situations following these conflicts require that a choice be made. I can send a Christmas card to both of the estranged parties, but I probably don't want them both to be over at my house on New Year's Eve - at least not when the wound is fresh.

If we choose not to be Switzerland and decide to join one or the other's "team" we run the risk that later they'll be back together and we will have become the force against which they unite. They will be in the position of choosing their alliances and we will now become one of the choices.

Is it actually easier not to try to be Switzerland? Would we spare ourselves uncomfortable conversations and awkward silences avoiding the touchy subjects? Perhaps we could more easily stick with whomever our primarly loyalties lie and have a great time dishing the dirt with them about the other guy. It's said that men are known by their enemies as well as by their friends. Do we want to be defined in that way?

I guess it's actually easier being Switzerland when you're not tremendously invested emotionally in the situation. Is it better to detach from it all and stand by, an uninvolved observer to the conflict?

I'm curious what you might think about this subject. What are the situations where you've chosen specifically to be "Switzerland" - or have unrepentantly chosen sides?