Thursday, April 29, 2010

How does your writing jive with the online environment?

Feather Dip Pen w/ Stars
Originally uploaded by Tom Banwell

Thanks to Rand MacIvor for getting this thought going and to Jim for giving it a twist...

We were talking about coaches and how they appear online, specifically how to separate the "flowers from the weeds."  It can be difficult to look behind somebody's words, or their website, or their online profile and truly discern  or predict the quality of their work.  Rand and I and a band of our online buds talked about credentials, online quote postings, results, etc.

But Jim pointed out to me later that one question went begging in our discussion - the level of writing capability necessary for the effective use of online networking, blogging, tweeting, etc.  Not everyone represents themselves effectively through the written word.

I'll not ask for any judgments on my blog or my book right now, although if you want to give me feedback, I'm fine with hearing it.  Really.  Especially if it's complimentary.  Seriously, though, the decision of where, how often, etc. to present oneself online, and with what material, depends to a huge degree on how well you write, and on how you write.  Here are some examples of the variations:
  • Photo oriented- Rand, for example is a graphics guy.  He can also write, but the core of his work is to represent ideas in pictures.  He adds captions to elaborate on his graphics concept.
  • Video - Some go without any words necessary.  More often, though, I've seen the video mode used to illustrate, to support an idea that's elaborated upon elsewhere online rather than to present the entire idea.  Fair warning - when you link somebody to YouTube you might be sending them out for a hot dog and they'll stay there for the popcorn, ice cream, a brew or two, and forget to come back.  That's the good and the bad of the video link - in my estimation anyway.
  • Newsy  - This is the no-nonsense sharing of things that you have read, heard on the news, or observed with your own eyes.  It lends itself best to short, frequent bursts.  You can't be truly newsy if you're an infrequent poster - someone will have scooped you.
  • Essay - You can develop an idea in more depth, and you don't have to post every hour or two.  This is my favorite mode - take a nugget and blow it up and explore it.
  • Tweet - This is another of the immediate modes - do it often and don't use a lot of words.  This can really help develop conciseness in your writing, or you can do as I do and thank heaven every day for the tinyurl that allows you to link to something bigger.
  • Link oriented - Perhaps you don't like to write, or your brain is fried today and you can't come up with an idea.  So direct readers to other places you like online - YouTube videos, blogs, news articles, etc.  This can be overdone.  Some people don't like to bounce all around, especially if you give a list of ten links without any connection in theme or thought.  But linking to other good online stuff can help keep your material (and your readers' experience) fresh.
  • Quotables - There are notable folks who have great wordsmithing skills, and it can be inspirational, useful (and efficient) to pass them along.  But if you're marketing yourself online you're marketing yourself or your company.  People who read you may want to read YOU and your own thoughts sometimes.  You need to show them that you have some.  A lovely profile photo isn't enough to sell yourself and your services.  Well, perhaps with one or two exceptions!
Consider your style and your pace of composing when you decide how to proceed.  If you can crank 'em out, great.  If you can't, then choose a mode that doesn't require volume to be successful.  Do research if that's what you do.  Cue off of other personalities online if you do that best.  But ultimately you'll present the best package if you know yourself and capitalize on your strengths.  Online marketing is not a once-and-done venture, so you need to choose modes and methods that you can sustain over time.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Do they really want your answer?

A rather lively discussion got going yesterday in my LinkedIn discussion group about the role of a coach.  Two points of view were the crux of the debate:
  • The best coaching (whether you're a coach by profession or a manager working toward a coaching methodology) happens when you ask questions and let the coachee find his or her own answers, versus
  • Sometimes people just want an answer to a question.  They don't want to be facilitated, manipulated, or taken all the way around the mulberry bush to find out.  If you know the answer, they expect you to tell them.
The "questions only" perspective
Some coaches operate from the standpoint that people like their own answers the best - only they can identify their own "right action" to take.  So even if it's a long process, the coach will resist the urge to recommend and will instead ask questions.  They might test assumptions, or act as devil's advocate, or help someone think through the array of potential outcomes from their various choices - but ultimately it's the coachee's (or PBC's - person being coached's) responsibility for the decision.  That way the PBC also is responsible for the outcome, whether positive or negative, of that decision.

Sometimes the PBC genuinely has no idea.  In those cases, where the coach has some content knowledge they might prime the pump with some stories or some options, but ultimately revert to questions to help the PBC weigh the options.  In my experience, the PBC usually does have some idea - they just haven't worked it through far enough or don't feel confident enough sharing it - and the coach can help them give the shred of an idea greater form and substance by asking questions.

The "give an answer" perspective
For some coaches, this is the differentiation between coaching and consulting.  A consultant is often hired to be the Smartie and provide information.  Most of the coaches I know are focused more on developing the potential of the PBC, and believe that giving answers interferes with the development process.

Sometimes, though, coaches with extensive content knowledge get impatient with taking "the long way around" to elicit an answer and give one.  Sometimes coaches think they are being helpful and adding value to the process by dispensing information, tips, etc.  And sometimes it's the PBC that is impatient - "Will you just answer my question?!?!?!"  So in the interest of client satisfaction, the coach accommodates and answers.

One of the hazards associated with giving answers is that you project your own experiences onto the PBC.  There are any number of variables that might give them a different outcome than the one you obtained, so your answer might not be reliable.  In addition, there are other considerations:
  • When you give an answer or recommendation, the PBC doesn't own the action.  That means they are less responsible for the outcome - and feel less successful even if it goes well because they didn't think of it themselves.
  • If your intention in coaching is to help the PBC become an effective independent decision maker and action taker, you lengthen the process every time you choose for them and answer their questions.  You create dependence on you, not independence. This is a trap for many managers looking to increase their effectiveness in delegation.
Obviously there are hybrid situations and exceptions, so you won't hear a definitive "do this, don't do that" from me.  I suppose that tells you something, doesn't it?  But you need to be aware of the ramifications so you can fit your response to the situation.  Hit your internal pause button to make sure you're being intentional about whichever choice you make.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Six steps you can take when you're not ready for big change

Change is not an either/or proposition where you choose to do it or not.  You can choose to overhaul (that's the big C) or you can choose to go forward in a more incremental fashion.  Everything around you is moving, too, and that might create change for you even if you don't choose it (especially, it seems, if you don't choose it.)  For today, though, let's get some ideas on incremental steps to move you forward without pulling an unacceptable level of g-forces:
  1. Do a diagnostic - find out what's really going on in your company.  Like it or not, the people who report to you edit the information they tell you - and some of what they're not saying could make or break your company's performance.  For this purpose I'd recommend D.I.Al.O.G., which is a web-based survey based upon the Organizational Excellence Criteria from NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology.)  You can find out what areas are highest priority for your attention, and you can discover just how different the "worlds" are that various categories of your employees operate in every day.
  2. Read a book - of course nothing will happen unless you do something about what you read.  Knowledge isn't power, applied knowledge is power.  But sometimes the challenge, especially if you're the big Kahuna in the corner office, is that you need fresh ideas.  Of course we'd recommend our book on improving results - and you can order it from Amazon by clicking here or on the image in the right column of this site.  In the world of organizational change, twenty bucks and a few hours are a small investment to make to ensure that you're not wasting money on tactics that are proven not to work.
  3. Get your plan together - I've written recently about the disadvantages of being a random activity generator.  Determine the big outcomes that you want, then even the smallest improvements you make can be done in alignment with your larger intention.
  4. Identify a "hot spot" to be on the top of your list - I'm sure there's a department, or a function, or a process in your company that's giving you heartburn.  Start there, and let the success of that improvement fuel your future efforts.
  5. Start with yourself - It's said that management is cause, and all else is effect.  Improve the cause and you improve the effect.  You, after all, are more invested than anyone else in success as you define it, so you are the only one that doesn't require a sales job (convincing rationale, business case) before you get started.  If you do require a business case to get your motivation up - even more reason to start with yourself.
  6. Test your solution - You don't have to go companywide out of the gate.  If you think that managers, for instance, need to be developed, choose a sample group to go through a process first.  That way you can test the process and the provider and put a smaller investment of time and resources out there to start.  When and if you are convinced that it's demonstrated effectiveness, you can spread it through the rest of your company.
Things won't automatically improve with the passage of time.  "Wait and see" usually means only that you'll see a delay in the accomplishment of the results you want.  You don't have to jump in with both feet.  But put your toe in the water and you just might discover that the water's fine.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Walking a mile in their moccasins

Originally uploaded by PataGata

How different would your life be if you nurtured your empathy for other people, and behaved in accordance with that understanding?  How does that translate to your actions and policies in the workplace?

I read an article this morning about an employee whose father was dying - literally - on a particular morning not too long ago in my town.  When his wife called him to let him know he'd better get to the hospital right away, he requested (and was granted) permission to leave work early and go to the hospital.  He arrived too late - his father had already died.  So he was off work for the next three days as his family grieved and put his father's body to rest.

When he returned to work, the grieving son found out that he had been issued 4 attendance points for missing work during the 3-1/2 days.  The company he was working for (Harley Davidson) was attempting to crack down on attendance policy violations that almost closed the plant he was working in.  That was their rationale for penalizing him for attempting to be present for his father's end and for his family in the aftermath.  By the way, a status of four points earns a written warning, six points a suspension, and eight points termination from employment at the company.

The article said the company agreed to remove three of the attendance points from his record in accordance with their bereavement policy.  But the last point for leaving early (albeit with permission) to be there for his father's last moments is still under appeal.  The article quoted the man's wife saying, "It's only one point, but it's the principle of the thing."

It certainly is the principle of the thing.  Human experiences like birth, illness, marriage, divorce, and death happen every day all around the world.  But they aren't universal, neutral occurrences when they are happening to you.  They become personal, gut-wrenching or joy-inducing - life milestones that leave their mark.  Sure, I completely understand that employers are charged with maintaining discipline and productivity and consistency in how they handle their workers.  But when they miss opportunities like this one to show some empathy, they chip away at one of the biggest contributors to their success - the loyalty of the people who make the widgets (or the bikes, as the case may be.)

C'mon, Harley.  Engage your heart along with your head and walk a mile in this guy's moccasins.  Take that last point off of his attendance record.  Thanks to Mike Argento from the York Daily Record for sharing this story.  'Nuff said.

Friday, April 23, 2010

What do you want?

What do you want?  Really - what is the outcome you would like to see?  That is the ultimate question - not because you always get what you want, and not because greed is good, or because selfishness is a state of mind to which you should necessarily aspire.

The answer to the question, "What do you want?" is so important because it determines your goal, your intention.  This begs the other question, "To what extent is this intention within your sphere of control or influence?"  We all want the economy for example, especially our own little pieces of it, to improve right now.  But even the guys setting policy can't do it alone.  The "What do I want?" question is immediate to you, and once answered, influences the actions you take, at least if you are being authentic - congruent with yourself.

When you ask yourself, "What do I really want?" it's to get beyond the shoulds.  Shoulds are borrowed visions - things you were taught by your parents and other key influencers during your formative years.  Shoulds are the standards that your friends have, or that your neighbors have.  They aren't really yours unless you choose them.

A very wise colleague of mine asked the question years ago, "Are you decision making or problem solving?"  At the time his question didn't have huge meaning for me, but I think it was because I had already made a definitive decision - that of being my own boss - and there was absolutely no going back.  I didn't give myself an escape hatch.  I had answered the original "What do you want?" question, and all the rest became the process of making it happen.

Was it easy?  No.  There was a list of obstacles as long as my arm.  There were people who didn't understand why in the world I would take such a risk.  There were people whose "Good luck!" had an overtone of cynicism that read, "She'll be back."   There were statistics at the time that talked about the failure rate of new businesses.  And of course there was the learning curve of learning to do my craft, do the books, plan how I was going to market - even choosing a name and a logo.  But none of that stopped me because I knew what I wanted.  So I overcame the obstacles and did it.

The biggest thing that is keeping you from creating the life you want to live is your avoidance of the question, "What do you want?"  The next biggest thing is when you have two things that you want, and the two of them are in conflict with one another.  Dr. Vatz, my persuasion professor from college, would probably be astounded to know that more than 30 years after taking his class I still remember him saying, "You can't be both a good daughter and a good date."  Hahahahaha - that was hi-larious as a college student, but you get his point.  At some time you have to decide which you want more.

To do otherwise, to move onward indefinitely with these two conflicting "What do I want?" ideas in your mind is like standing with one foot on the dock and the other foot on the boat.  You can strengthen your leg muscles and get better at holding the boat in place, but sooner or later the boat is going to have enough pull that you're going to have to choose to be one place or the other - or you'll fall into the water.

When you are living with what you don't want for a long enough time -
  • You're likely to become stressed and/or depressed.
  • You're going to complain a lot, and after a while the people who are supportive of you and listen to you are going to get tired of hearing it.
  • You might manifest your upset in emotional weight, excess drinking, etc.
So which weighs more - the thing you want or the obstacles you have to overcome in order to get there?  Only you know the answer to the question.  But sooner or later you are going to have to answer it.  You can always choose to wait until a future date - but that's simply more time that you're choosing to delay in having the life you want to live and the person you want to become.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Do you know your numbers?

I play with numbers!
Originally uploaded by *Vindaloo*

"How's business?" they asked of another business owner at the networking function.  "Not bad, not great," the business owner replied.

"How does your sales activity look so far this month?" the sales manager wanted to know.  "Not enough going on," the salesperson answered, slithering back into his cubicle.

"Have you lost weight?"  the woman asked her friend.  "A little, but I've got a long way to go," her friend answered.

If you find yourself answering with whatever version of "it's alright" or "approximately," you don't know your numbers, and odds are very good that your lack of hard numbers is working against you.

How do you know?  How do you determine what, if anything, you need to change in your approach if you don't measure your results?  How can you possibly feel the full reward of progress if you don't know exactly how much progress you've made?

I know how it is.  People get squirrely about data because data creates accountability.  Funny how the focus tends to be on "someone finding out that I'm not cutting it" rather than "I can show how much progress I've made."  The old negative conditioning leads some of you to treat data like a whipping post - like a squinty-eyed cop staring at you while tapping his night stick against his palm and waiting for you to make one false move .  Some of you have a habit of thought about numbers as an accomplice in exposing you and your weaknesses to people who could pull the rug out from under you.

What would happen if you could suspend your worry about data exposing you and instead focus on the results you want to achieve?  What would be the numbers that would be the most important for you to know right off the top of your head?  Could your numbers relate to
  • Cholesterol or blood sugar levels
  • Percent productivity
  • $ sales last month, or gross profit as a percent of sales
  • Cumulative grade point average
  • Website hit rates
  • Number of followers on Twitter
  • Consecutive days/months/years without alcohol
  • Net promoter rating (customer loyalty)
Hiding from the numbers doesn't change them.  Knowing the numbers, on the other hand, can help you highlight the best opportunities, the best focus for your continuous improvement.  If you have the numbers right now or know where to find them, go look at them.  Listen to what the numbers are telling you.  Then do something about it - celebrate your success or change something to make better results for yourself.

If you don't know your numbers, or if you don't know where to find them, that's your job #1.  Determine what measurements will be most predictive of future success and start tracking them.  You don't need software or a computer.  Use a piece of paper or a sticky note if you have to.  Keep it where you can readily see it.  Then let your numbers be your guide.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Are you in your right mind?

Originally uploaded by vaXzine

One of my all-time favorite gift purchases was a mug for my brother that read, "Hire the left-handed - it's fun to watch them write!"  Yes, this is tongue in cheek discrimination against the southpaw.  Deal with it as I have - my husband and both of my brothers are lefties and they're quite capable of retribution when I get out of hand (no pun intended) busting them about their penmanship or the constant pencil smudges they wear on the edge of their left hand from dragging across the paper over fresh handwriting.

All three of these guys are creative sorts - two are musicians and one is into visual art.  Research says that it's the result of being right brain dominant, although I suspect that two of the three engage both sides of their brain regularly.  (No, dear, I'm not telling you that you're only using half of your brain.  Well, maybe I am, but there's no need to feel offended.)

In case you didn't already know, your brain's right and left hemispheres operate the body parts on the opposite side - the right hemisphere runs the left side of your body and the left runs the right.  When it comes to thinking, the left and right sides of the brain fulfill different functions:  the left side is responsible for logic and sequential processing, and the right side is emotional, creative, getting-from-a-to-c-without-going-through-b oriented.  The left hemisphere analyzes, the right hemisphere conceptualizes.

Brain dominance (left vs. right hemisphere) will have an impact on your learning style and the means by which you approach tasks or develop your skills.  For example, there are pianists who are outstanding technicians (left brain) and those whose strength is interpretation (right brain.)  There are cooks who follow exact recipes (left brain) and those who dump ingredients in until it tastes right (right brain.)

Neither brain dominance is "better" than the other, although there are roles that are conducive to one or the other dominance.  I would, for instance, rather work with a left-brained accountant.

Having dominance in one hemisphere doesn't mean the complete absence of activity in the other.  And there are individuals who have "double dominance," or substantial back and forth, between their left and right hemispheres.  If you'd like to find out your brain dominance, you can take an online assessment here.  Who knows - you might discover that you are in your right mind after all!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

If you can't say something nice...

Originally uploaded by pl.acid

"If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me." - Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Story after story is in the news right now about the level of violent verbal imagery being used by public and private figures in communication, and about the potential ramifications it holds in the form of a real or imagined call to real violent action.  Heck, I've written about it before in the past few weeks.  It's fun, it's entertaining to have something not nice to say.  Back in Rush Limbaugh's early "ditto" days a local radio executive said to me, "I know he's way out there, but whether people like him or not it's good radio."

I suppose good radio or good TV is defined by whether it attracts listener/viewer ratings, and thereby generates advertising revenue - at least in the eyes of broadcast executives.  But isn't there a different definition of "good media" than whether it serves the profitmaking purposes of its owners?

People who have a public forum through which to express their views have, in my opinion, a special responsibility to be judicious.  Obviously, many of the folks scrabbling for ratings right now don't agree with me, choosing instead to spout "factually challenged" paragraph after paragraph, exclamation points firmly attached.  They demonize those who disagree with them, and reach with emotional hooks to attach follower fish to their boats.

While it may be more colorful, more entertaining, to morph people into archetypical enemies - whether it's true or not - this kind of behavior has consequences.  Some of them are intended, like stimulating callers to call in and writers to write emails and tweets.  That's free content and helps the broadcast media balance its books.  But there are unintended consequences out there as well, and I'm convinced that we have not seen all of them yet.

What I'm concerned about are the people out there who aren't finding out the facts for themselves, and who are allowing themselves to be whipped up into a lather about "those people," whoever those people are.  Out there is someone waiting for an excuse to demonstrate his (or her) loyalty to the Tea Party, or to Glenn Beck, or to some partisan group by instigating some act of destruction and/or violence.  They will try to paste a patriotic label on it, but in fact it will be no more than domestic terrorism, designed to incite fear in the hearts of people who disagree with the perpetrator and his ilk.

When someone is using an emotional tug to try to pull you to their point of view, proceed with caution.  The emotional appeal is cheap motivation - in many cases it's manipulation intended only to generate a visceral fight or flight response from you.  When that instinctual response kicks in, your logical processing disengages.  And when you lose your logical processing you play right into the hands of the person or the group that has neatly packaged (albeit flawed) information ready for you to consume.  It's like the old movies where the wizard puts someone into a trance, their eyes get hazy and they say, "I am in your power," as their arms reach out in front of them and they walk forward, unseeing.

Remember in the old days of the county fairs, when they used to have sideshows?  "The ape girl, the ape girl, she's alive, she's real...."  It used to be that people would line up to see people who had disfigurements or animals born with two heads.  Sideshows appeal to our lower nature.  Our enjoyment of them relies on our ability to disengage our compassion, our willingness to let our morbid curiosity overtake our empathy for another person. 

Some of these media figures right now are the sideshow of the new milennium - Glenn, Sarah, Rush, Michelle and company.  They stand the most to gain in all of this, not our country - when we, like the generations before us, are willing to stoop low, tune in and turn out just to feel a little better about ourselves and our insignificant little lives.  We're on the lookout for somebody worse off than us, more wrong than we are, somebody to blame.  We're funding the sideshow.  There's something wrong about that.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The benefits of setting a course

Yes, I know you're busy.  You're up early in the morning, snagging your cup of coffee or tea on the run, checking your email in the car (even though you know it's not very safe,) and you're on the go and plugged in until you collapse into a chair late in the evening.  I know you're busy, but where are you going, and what does all of this activity have to do with it?

If you're like many people, these various and sundry activities are conditioned behaviors - depending upon the source you consult, it's estimated that almost 90% of your daily activities are done on autopilot.  You are a creature of habit.  The question that often goes begging in all of this busyness is, "Why are you doing whatever it is that you're doing?"  Are you a random activity generator, or have you set a course for your work and your life?

If you're new in your business or in your role, you might be experimenting right now.  You might be testing tactics, collecting data to find out what works and what doesn't work.  But there comes a point where the tests become habits, and before you know it you're 3 miles offshore, paddling hard against the tide but not knowing where you're going.

It's time to stop the random activity.  Take a pause in the action and think about where you want to be.  Define your desired destination.  Here's what can happen when you set your course:
  • You can better choose activities that have been proven to move you in the right direction.
  • You can opt out of activities that don't get you there - that consume energy and other resources without contributing to your progress.
  • You will be better able to identify opportunities arising in your peripheral vision that align with your course.
  • You can more easily find allies and crew members once they (and you) know where you're going.  They can be attracted to sign onto the voyage.
  • You'll know what to talk about - the treasure that awaits at your destination, the distance between here and there, the obstacles to be overcome on the way, provisions that need to be gathered, etc.
  • You and your crew members will have a shared goal upon which to focus, instead of focusing on the quirks, petty annoyances and foibles of one another. 
No plan accounts for every single contingency, although a well thought-out plan can diffuse the distraction power of many, if not most, of them.  A plan does not prevent external events that are out of your control or influence from happening.  A plan is not a guarantee of success.  But a lack of a defined course is close to a guarantee of a shortfall in results.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Eliciting more than the church answer

Burnside Church, Wairarapa, New Zealand,
10 December 2005
Originally uploaded by PhillipC

Before you ask whatever question you're about to ask, ask this one of yourself:  "Do I really want to know their answer?"  Are you willing to hear whatever it is they have to tell you, or would you prefer the "church answer" - the bland, inoffensive, if not completely accurate one?

If one of the biggest obstacles in the improvement of performance or the improvement of relationships is the reluctance to speak the truth as you see it,  next to that is the fear of hearing the real deal from the other person.  It's easier to wallpaper over the cracks in the wall - at least for now.

But you know, eventually the cracks will show, even through the wallpaper.  The structural weaknesses will threaten the building.  And by then you will have invested more time, energy, emotion and other resources.  Your potential for loss will be even greater than it is right now.

What would happen if you created the space for that other person to tell you things that you didn't want to hear?  Can you be open enough to ask them to keep the bad news coming?  You might find that, paradoxically, hearing the non-church answer from them will not harm your relationship - it will improve it by increasing your ability to trust their word.  Your calm and receptivity to their input will enhance their confidence that you can share authentically with one another in order to solve problems.

Just for today, give them more than the church answer - and ask for more than that, too.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Is service inherent in purpose?

Originally uploaded by KEKPhotos

I've been following a LinkedIn Leaders Cafe discussion started by Dr. Richard Norris from the UK that asks respondents to describe their purpose in one word.  I suppose that you could call your purpose your really big reason for doing whatever it is you do - your really big, all-encompassing intention in your life.  In the more than 50 responses over the last 4 days, a substantial number of discussion participants cited "service" as their purpose.

I suppose you'd be unlikely to argue with me about the interdependence of people - we rely upon one another for the tangible and intangible gifts in our lives.  Is there any other reason to exist than to be helpful to our fellow man and our planet?

Should service be an assumed position in purpose? 

If you'd answer "yes" -
Then how do you serve?  Purpose supplies focus, and purpose calls for the use of skills and talents.  What do you call forth that is uniquely you that adds value to the world?  What gifts do you cultivate for the benefit of humankind?  What difference would it make in your life, and in your contribution, if you were to embark on an intention to make those gifts as big and productive as they can be?  Not from a place of ego, but from a place of service and contribution.

If you'd answer "no" -
Do you believe that you are independent of others, or do you believe that your life's work is simply not wrapped up in service to other people - that its focus is somewhere else?  If your call to purpose doesn't come from other people, from whom does your call come?  Is it from God?  Does it matter whether or not the fruits of your actions are shared with others?

Whatever you focus on expands, so if you focus on your purpose your actions will become more purposeful and your contribution greater.  You will grow in alignment with your reason for being.  Yes, I know, there are no real answers in this post, and it's by design.  The discovery of your purpose can't be delegated to somebody else - you have to be the one to know it, to find it. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Pressure and the decision balloon

Originally uploaded by Lars Preben Sørsdahl

Press on a balloon and it bounces away from you.  Press really hard and it flies away from you.  Press with a concentration on a tiny point - and pop! the balloon breaks, with shards of rubber flying and splashes of water drenching anyone standing too close to it.

Decisions in which you have a vested interest can work in a similar fashion.  When you want something to turn out in a specific way in order to get closer to the achievement of a goal, it's tempting to apply pressure, to persuade, to push.  When you're invested in the outcome of someone else's decision process you might not even realize your actions as pressure - they might feel like enthusiasm.  But to the other party they are experienced as pressure.

If I feel you coming at me, if I notice that you're getting energized about a decision I'm about to make, my warning bells start to sound.  This partly comes from my assumption (albeit possibly incorrect) that there must be a win in here for you, and that your win must mean a loss for me.  Whether my assumption about win/loss is correct or not, I'll behave on the basis of how I feel.  So when you advance, I'll retreat.  I may make a "no" decision, or I may make no decision at all (a de facto "no" decision.)

In his book titled Goal Free Living, Stephen M. Shapiro talks about the importance of detachment in having more of the life you want now.  When you are detached, you're not worried or intense about achieving a specific outcome.  You're not striving to push, or even nudge the balloon to go in a particular direction.

It's easier to detach when you have an abundance mindset.  This isn't your only opportunity for a relationship, for money, etc.  When you cultivate an attitude that there is plenty out there for everyone, you don't need to grasp at this particular one in front of you, whatever it is.

What would happen in your next interaction if the outcome didn't matter so much to you?  Would you relax into it?  Would you talk less and listen more?  Would you engage more authentically with the other person, and find a path and pace that is co-created with them?

Just for today, notice where you're feeling overly invested in a specific outcome.  Detach from the outcome and attach to the moment, to the process.  See whether that balloon comes to you on its own.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The fish knows your best next step

One of the most common issues that prevents individuals or teams from taking action is the feeling that the problem is just too big.  They don't think they can get their arms around it, so they avoid it - perhaps thinking that at some point it will all go away.

There is a way, however, to bring the problem down to size and determine the best next step:  use a Fishbone Diagram (Ishikawa diagram) to determine the root cause, and plan actions to address the root cause.

When teams are involved in process improvement, tons of opinions are tossed out onto the table, and the sheer volume of perspectives can create challenges.  Again, the fishbone to the rescue - it is designed to document divergent ideas first, and only after the ideas are down  do you start to narrow your focus from the trivial many to the significant few.

The first step in creating a fishbone is to determine what the problem is, or in other words the effect that these contributors are having.  Perhaps the problem is that you have too many errors in the processing of a common document, for example. 

Once you have documented the effect (the problem) your next step is to look at each of the five "bones" on the fish and determine what factors in each of these categories is a contributing cause of the problem.  The categories are:
  • People - who they are, their attitudes, skills, etc.
  • Methods - processes, training, consistent procedures, policies
  • Materials - consumables, could also be data
  • Equipment - this should be fairly self-explanatory
  • Environment - the work setting, the overall economic environment or external conditions
As you go through each of the five fishbone categories you're asking the question, "In what way are ________contributing to the problem?"  List all answers that come to mind.  Remember - this isn't the time to edit or evaluate.  Not yet.

Once you have completed the fishbone, go back and determine what you think the ROOT cause or causes are.  (NOW you're evaluating!)  You're determining the places in which your efforts can yield the biggest payoffs - go after the highest leverage targets and resolve those.  In some cases there are individual entries on a particular "bone" that you can address.  Sometimes there are enough, for example, methods-related issues that there might be one solution that addresses several at once.

If you want a different result, you need to do something differently.  And you need to do something - it's not going to go away.  If anything it might get bigger if you don't handle it now.  Break it down first to find the most important cause or causes, then have at it.  The fishbone knows.

Monday, April 12, 2010

My agenda, your agenda, our agenda

Originally uploaded by
Love, Christine Hale

Fifteen managers pack up their briefcases and start heading out of the conference room.  "Boy, that isn't what I thought we were supposed to be covering today," mutters one as he stuffs a folder into his case.  "I had all sorts of data on the prospective new locations ready to go and we didn't even touch on it."

"I feel you, man," his colleage replies.  "I was really put on the spot when he asked about progress on the Windemere project.  He didn't tell me he was going to expect an update today.  I didn't want to just make something up, but I didn't want to look stupid, either.  So I tap danced as best I could."

These two managers and their colleagues are locked into an ineffective meeting system.  Nobody receives an agenda ahead of the meeting, so they don't know what information to prepare.  There is no process to add their items to the agenda if there is something they want to bring to the attention of the group.  There is no written agenda distributed at all.  Often the meetings drift off into the tall weeds over some disagreement or discussion that prevents them from discussing the real issues at hand.  And even when a decision is made, nothing seems to happen afterward.  Next month they come back and talk some more.

Compounding the problem is the fact that half of the group is located at least a two-hour drive away.  Travel time included, they shoot an entire day for a meeting that goes nowhere.  What's an effective leader to do?
  1. Determine what the function of the group is, and what general areas the meetings are supposed to cover.  (Is it for disseminating information, generating ideas, making decisions, presenting proposals, etc.?)
  2. Provide a process for members of the group to add items to the agenda.  This can include a vetting or filtering process to keep irrelevant items off or to manage the timing, but a process to integrate them into this meeting will save time in phone tag and extra meetings.
  3. Send an advance copy of the agenda to all involved parties.  When they have an opportunity to prepare, the leader will get better information and the participants will come into the meeting with less anxiety. 
  4. Distribute a written agenda at the meeting, and whenever possible include expected timeframes for the topics.  This will help keep the discussion on track.
  5. Assign someone to keep notes, and establish a process for assigning next steps on each topic before moving on to the next.
  6. Follow up after the meeting with written documentation on who agreed to do what on the task list generated in the meeting.
These tips aren't rocket science - they are the things that most leaders know they should do, but that they don't consistently do.  If you aren't satisfied with the productivity and the outcomes from your meetings, check here for ideas to implement in order to improve.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Do you recognize this puppy?

Puppy by Jeff Koons
Originally uploaded by anttiaura

This puppy (his official name is "Puppy") now lives permanently at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, although he spent some time at Rockefeller Center in New York City.  And his "daddy," world-reknowned artist Jeff Koons, was born and raised right here in York, PA.  My home town. 

Yesterday York, PA was named the "cultural capital of Pennsylvania" for the day by Gov. Ed Rendell, who presided over the Governor's Awards for the Arts in Pennsylvania ceremony.  And if there's one message that I got from listening to the stories of accomplished artists, patrons of the arts, and arts groups, it would be this - that something big and incredible can happen, and it can start with you.

Jeff Koons, the puppy-daddy, won the Distinguished Arts Award.  He is listed in ARTSNews in the top ten most expensive living artists, with some works in his Celebration series (most notably his balloon dog) selling for prices up to $5 million.

Bluegrass legend Del McCoury won the Artist of the Year.  Yep - Del grew up in York too, working on the family farm, and he still maintains property here.  The Del McCoury Band is in the Grand Ole Opry, and has earned numerous awards, including a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album and McCoury himself won 3 consecutive Male Vocalist of the Year awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association.  He's celebrating 50 years of music making.  Incredible.

For residents in York, PA, the accomplishments of two other native sons are at least as significant - the Patron Award winners Louis J. Appell, Jr. and Arthur J. Glatfelter.  Both successful local businessmen have contributed substantial resources in the form of ideas and financial backing for the city's "cultural and social renaissance."  Glatfelter spearheaded the formation of the Cultural Alliance of York, a national leader among more than sixty united arts funds, and raising more than $1 million annually to support York arts organizations.  Appell has chaired a number of cultural and arts boards in York - he was integral to the restoration and update of the Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center, was a founding supporter of the Cultural Alliance and has sponsored the York Murals program and preservation programs of the York Heritage Trust.

At the awards ceremony Gov. Rendell talked about the significance of the arts as an economic engine in Pennsylvania.  He cited the development of the Avenue of the Arts as a linchpin in the revitalization of the city of Philadelphia, where there are now residences valued at $7.5 million - a statistic unimaginable in the not-too-distant past.

Performances by local teens reminded the audience at the awards ceremony that the future of our cultural existence is being built now through our arts education in schools, and in the community resources made available to our children.  All four of these honorees started out here.  And as Louis Appell so aptly said, "We look forward to the future when another genius will emerge from among us."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Is "good enough" enough?

There's a seeming contradiction that runs throughout business and also in our personal lives:

Good is the enemy of best - on the other hand, if you wait to be perfect you'll never get anything done

A first attempt at decorating a cake isn't going to look like the thirtieth.  Experience in selecting and using the materials, additional training, different tools, more creative ideas on the part of a seasoned decorator will combine to create more and more beautiful cakes over time.

Part of the trap of perfectionism is the underlying assumption that you'll only have one shot at being wonderful, and in the vast majority of instances that assumption is completely false.  If you find yourself hesitating because whatever you're working on isn't perfect yet, think about whether this is a one-shot deal, or whether in reality you'll have the opportunity to do continuous improvement.  Keep this immediate project in perspective -  you'll have other projects, other chances to build a track record even if this one in front of you isn't your lifetime masterwork. 

Sure, you've been told over and over again that you only have one chance to make a first impression, but are you carrying that "only one chance" mindset into parts of your work and your life where it's not applicable?  Is it truly better to wait to produce the perfect something, or is it better to produce something that can be improved?  The first, perfectionist mindset results in no cake at all, while the second, "good enough" mindset results in a cake that, while it might not be completely beautiful in its decoration, is on the table to be served, tastes good and fills the stomach.

A second piece of the perfectionist mindset is that there is actually a concept of "perfect," that there is only one right answer.  Is a "perfect" wedding cake only allowed to be white cake decorated in all white?  Who says so?  So what if the bride wants chocolate cake with raspberry between the layers, and so what if the happy couple wants to construct a tiered structure out of peanut butter cupcakes instead of a traditional pile of round layers?  You might have an idea of what is "perfect" for you, but unless you're the only consumer of whatever it is you're producing you're creating far more restrictive criteria than you need to succeed.  You might even be ignoring the criteria of your customers (the most important criteria) in the pursuit of your own definition of perfection.

If you're leading other people and struggling with delegating, consider whether this perfectionist view might be one of your attitudinal obstacles.  The person you're trying to develop might not do it exactly right the first time - or they might do a fine job of it, just not exactly the way you would do it.  If you are willing to accept that in many cases "good enough" is enough, you may find that you feel a lot less stress, create less of it in other people, and open the door for more opportunities for the accomplishment of real results.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Are goals blocking your happiness?

Closed for business
Originally uploaded by maistora

"I just won't be happy until I have an iPod Touch!"  (or fill in your own child's acquisition desire du jour)  Doesn't this sound so absurd that it makes you smile?  Well, perhaps after you squash the urge to wring your dear child's neck?  "I want, I want, I want - and I won't be happy until I get it, whatever it is!"

The idea that goals might block a person from experiencing the fullness of life seemed a bit counterintuitive to me.  After all, one of the ways that I've described myself for the past 20 years is that I'm in the goal achievement business - my role has been to help individuals and companies define and achieve their goals more consistently, more quickly, and with less stress and strain.  I've helped them gain clarity on what they want, and then go get it, whatever it is.

Yes, the idea seemed a bit contradictory to me - until I looked at it from the perspective of the opening paragraph.  I didn't come to this realization on my own.  I was recommended to read a book titled, "Goal-Free Living - How to Have the Life You Want Now!" by Stephen M. Shapiro.  His premise is that goals cause us to live for the future rather than living in the present.  Shapiro says that you're doing the same thing the child does when you say "I'll be happy when I live in this kind of house, or make this amount of money, or wear this size of clothes, or get married, or get divorced."

In addition to keeping you future focused, having a continuous string of goals can be like looking through the scope on a hunting rifle - the objects you see in the crosshairs are clearly defined, but you don't see the opportunities on the periphery of that intense focus.  You might be seeing a crystal-clear view of nothing but (what appears to be) empty woods, yet off to your left is a 12-point buck that's standing and watching you looking intently elsewhere, missing your chance at a prize.

Perhaps a more generalized direction, rather than a specific route, might be in order to increase the happiness in your life.  Your path to a joyful, enriched life might not be a straight line.  Sure, there are situations where you're going from here to there, and a plan will help you get there.  But other times if you're paying attention right here, right now instead of way down the line at your desired destination - you'll see an interesting side path that you want to follow.  What will happen if you don't take it?  What might happen if you do?

There are certain choices in life that are permanent - but a whole lot more choices that aren't forever.  Anymore you can have a tattoo removed if you realize later that you don't want that ink under your skin.  In many, many areas of life you can make another choice later.  You can take a year off to be with your children.  You can take a pay cut to work for a nonprofit whose mission is important to you.  You can change your career path to make a more sane daily existence for yourself and your family.

When I was a kid my family used to go on long car trips.  My dad liked to drive, we wanted to explore lots of new places during our annual 2-week vacation, and for five of us the expense of flying was prohibitive.  I remember the discussions on those car trips about whether to take the Interstate or to take a more scenic route.  Those of us in the back seat usually voted (like we really had votes!) for the Interstate, because that would get us to tonight's hotel swimming pool the fastest.  Our goal in the back seat was quite clearly defined.

But had we stuck solely to the Interstate we would have missed, the parks, the historical sites, the museums, the amusement parks, and the Grand Canyon, for heaven's sake!  If we had flown instead of driven to our destinations we might not even know how we got there, much less had the opportunity to see things along the way!  Perhaps there is something to be said for taking the scenic route.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Do you have the blue flame?

Blue Flames
Originally uploaded by Erik Page Photography

A friend and colleague of mine leans over toward my husband and I at the coffee shop and says under his breath, "I can see that guy's blue flame from here!"  That's not an insult - that's a compliment of the highest order from him.  To have the blue flame means to have the fire of enthusiasm and motivation that drives you to take action to achieve results.  We look over at the young man at the counter and don't see any literal blue flame shooting out of him - what we see is meticulous grooming, a smile, a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step (which is moving at a quick tempo, by the way).

Our friend started a business literally from a box under the bed and grew it to INC 500 status in 6 years, so he knows from personal experience what blue flames are all about.  He used to hire for them - and occasionally had to fire for the lack of them.  He could train his sales staff to know products, and he could develop their skills in being customer-focused and managing their territories efficiently.  But he couldn't create a blue flame where there was none.  He could encourage one, though - turn one that was burning slowly like a pilot light into one more reminiscent of stage 2 of a rocket launch. 

Some people seem naturally to operate at a higher energy level than others, but everyone has something about which they can develop a blue flame.  Every person you know has something about which they are passionate.  There are things that they do despite the fact that they're not being paid, and there are actions they take in spite of obstacles that might otherwise seem insurmountable.  Look behind the energy, the commitment, the talent, the action-orientation - and you'll see the blue flame.

Do you have one right now?  Are you pursuing your passion?  Or have you intentionally turned the flame down to focus on more "practical" matters?  If you're ignoring your blue flame you're ignoring the thing that may be your finest contribution.  You may be turning your back on your greatest gifts.  Moreover, you may be making a false assumption that there's no place for that passion in your life - that it's an either/or proposition.  More likely, if you look closely and don't jump to conclusions you may be able to see that instead of either/or it's more like yes/and.

If you don't know where to look for your missing blue flame, look at the paragraphs above.  Consider what you like to do, what you're good at doing and what you choose to do even in the face of adversity or opposition.  Your blue flame might be hidden there.  If you're not sure whether that's "it," try adding more of it into your daily or weekly schedule, and then see what happens to your energy level.  If you notice a surge in your enthusiasm, you've fanned your blue flame.  And when your blue flame is burning strongly it carries over into the rest of your life, bringing warmth and light to everything it touches.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Leader's Prayer

Let me stand
Supported firmly by the foundation of my values
And in the greater purpose that calls me forth
Let me stand for the uncompromising truth
That compels me to stretch beyond
My prior expectations for myself and my contribution

Let me see
The distant hills that are my destination, our destination
The lessons of the tall old pines that grow fruitful even after fire
Let me see the effect of the river that, over time,
Can cut and mold a landscape
Even while flowing softly and serenely through a verdant valley.

Let me speak
In words that cascade like diamonds
Onto someone's shoulders, enriching them
Let me speak in tones that wrap
Like fur, warming and soothing
On skin that has been scarred and roughened by conflict.

Let me serve
With head bowed in humility
Because I know my gifts are truly not my own
Let me serve especially in times
When I am not yet ready
And in places that call for skills I have yet to discover.

Let me shake hands
With brothers and sisters everywhere
Knowing that we share our humanity if not our opinions
Let me shake hands
And look the other directly in the eye
And see the dignity and the noble intent within them.

Let me celebrate
The abundance that is already before me
That I did not create, but that has been given to me
Let me celebrate
The glimmers that light the next steps on the path
And show me that the impossible just might not be so.

Let me step out, step up
And shake the clots of mud off of my shoes
To respond to the call of the world
Let me step out, step up
And in my own way, by whatever means I can
To make a mark, a signpost for the ones who come after me.