Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why we like crises

Hurricane Sandy by EUMETSAT
Hurricane Sandy, a photo by EUMETSAT on Flickr.
First off, here's hoping that things are back to normal for you following Hurricane Sandy.  It's not nice to make light of another's misfortune, and millions are still digging out and cleaning up.  But there's something in this event from which we can all learn about how we think and how we work.

The advantage of knowing ahead of time about an impending storm (literal or figurative) is that you can prepare - with extra water, generators, flashlights, and non-perishable food.  The goal is, of course, to come out of it unscathed, to control the factors you can control to prevent long-term disruption.  If you are one of the early ones to start preparation you get the pick of the bottled water, pumps and generators, and if you wait you stand a chance of missing out on scarce resources.

But there's a part of crisis that humans find attractive (admit it!) and almost enjoyable:  it's novel, an interruption in the same-old same-old.  You don't know how it's going to turn out.  And when it's something big, truly unusual and shared widely like Sandy you can talk about it with almost anyone and they will be able to relate with you.

You also like crises (yes you do) because your body was built for them.  When you are under physical or emotional siege your adrenaline kicks in and heightens your awareness, and it prepares you to fight or flee.  In certain respects it's easier to make decisions in times of crisis because your choices are narrowed and the time frame compressed such that you can't waste days, weeks or months contemplating.  You do whatever you are going to do based on whatever information is available and then find out later whether your decision was good or bad.  Some people like the extra energy and focus that they feel from the adrenaline rush, so much that they intentionally create crises or threats in order to replicate the sensation.

When you are expending energy to handle a crisis you are only doing one thing at a time.  You're cleaning, repairing, pumping water, etc. and the rest of life can wait.  The work related to an incident like a hurricane or blizzard also tends to be physical, with results that are satisfyingly tangible - unlike the workplace for many of you, where the victories can be more difficult to measure.

In addition, in times of crisis you might grant yourself a "snow day," taking the opportunity to stop everything, take a break from all of the striving if it turns out that you are out of real danger, and just BE.  You watch the TV (provided you have power,) and play board games with the kids.   You stay in your pajamas and hang out under a blanket. You can get to all of the daily routine tomorrow.

Today, though,the storm is past for most of you and you're back in the saddle.  Time to throw yesterday over your shoulder and assess your priorities.  Crisis isn't going to make your choices for you today.  You need to be thinking beyond hours or days from now.  The important things aren't necessarily going to be pulling at you to do them.  And unless you want a crisis of another sort on another day, you're going to have to choose your activities for today with the longer view in mind.

Monday, October 29, 2012

When the flood becomes real

Hurricane Irene Run-off in Manchester,NH by Longfinger1
Hurricane Irene Run-off in Manchester,NH,
a photo by 
Longfinger1 on Flickr.
In the famous Bill Cosby monologue, Noah says to God, "Uh, this isn't just a shower,"  as the drops began to fall.  He was arguing with God all along as he reluctantly build the ark, and lost his cool just as the shower turned into a downpour.  He yelled at God in frustration until God replied, "Noah - how long can you tread water??  HAHAHA!"

Sometimes life happens.  Sometimes it seems that life happens particularly when the biggest and most important plans are in place.  Blizzards and labor pains happen at the same time, employees call in sick just when the staff is already short due to vacations, and the emergency home repair arises when the checking account and savings account are about tapped out.

Now the historic Frankenstorm is upon much of the Eastern U.S., and right here, right now, some people look out the window and think, "Uh, this isn't just a shower."  Everything they have been told over the past week has said "Prepare yourselves, this is going to be big."  And they have reacted in varying ways.  Which one of these are you?

  • The seasoned survivor - People with hurricane experience know the drill:  nonperishable food, water, batteries and flashlights, toilet paper, and perhaps some plywood for the windows.  They calmly do their preparation and then keep track of the forecast and current conditions as they develop.
  • The hurricane hero - Certain jobs can't stop for extreme weather, like fire and police protection and health care.  They get even busier.  But certain folks outside the emergency services just can't bring themselves to let go and acknowledge that there are life and health issues that are more important than getting one last memo out.  They place themselves and others at risk because they overestimate the importance of their job and underestimate the potential impact of dangerous conditions on themselves and others.
  • The bunker bob - These folks expect the worst.  They cancel everything at the first flake or drop, excited about the interruption in an otherwise boring schedule, and yearning for some emergency-induced downtime.  They go beyond a healthy respect for crises and go into hiding, literally or figuratively.  And some of them are happy that this intervening crisis gives them a good "reason" to avoid work or rationalize poor results.
  • The informed initiator - With the right information it's not necessary to have experience with every potential contingency to manage risk.  This crowd stays connected to experts and current information and makes judgments based on the data they gather.  They have established criteria in place that help them to make decisions in times of crisis so their emotions don't get the best of them.
It's said that crises and tragedies don't create character - rather, they reveal it.  This is a great time for you to look in the mirror and intentionally choose your behavior.  Stay dry, and stay safe!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Your beliefs may be the best medicine

Add caption

If you're still skeptical of the power of your mind over your body, or if you want to know the science that has been operating around that topic, check out the book The Biology of Belief: Unleashing The Power Of Consciousness, Matter And Miracles by Bruce Lipton, Ph.D.  The book discusses the biological power of the mind - how thoughts can help us do things like walk across hot coals without sustaining burns, and how sugar pills have performed as well as antidepressant medications when patients believed they were, in fact, being dosed with prescriptions for chronic depression.

The placebo effect (like the sugar pill) creates a belief system that supports health and healing. What this means for our health is that we can think our way into feeling energized, strong and vigorous. Remember the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding? He believed that a little Windex was good for almost anything that ails you. Funny, yes. Absurd, yes. But how much more absurd than choosing to walk over hot coals to prove the power of the mind? Yet hundreds, perhaps thousands of people do that successfully every year.

Dr. Lipton's extensive biological and quantum physics explanations made a great case to prove the mechanics of why positive thinking works, why prayer works in healing.

On the flip side of things the nocebo effect (believing something is wrong will make something wrong) is equally powerful. Lipton cites a story of a man who was diagnosed with esophogeal cancer, which at the time was considered to be a disease close to 100% fatal. He died shortly after receiving the diagnosis. When they did an autopsy of the man they found that he had died WITH cancer but he had not died OF cancer. In fact there was almost no esophogeal cancer in him.

Henry Ford was known to say, "If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right. " If you think you're sick or shy or uncoordinated you'll do the things that reinforce the belief. You'll notice little twinges and creaks and wheezes. You'll focus on the one little stupid thing you said yesterday, or choose to avoid challenging social situations. You'll say no when someone asks you to dance. But it's deeper than that.  Lipton says the cells in your body will back up your thoughts by collaborating to prove what you say to yourself is true.

We won't go into the technical medical explanations here. But if you believe in the power of mind over matter and want some evidence to support your belief, check out this book. Fascinating stuff.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

He makes me so angry!

Angry_Bread_Large by Psycholabs
Angry_Bread_Large, a photo by Psycholabs on Flickr.
Here you go on the familiar dance:  this person shows disrespect for you by being late - again - for your lunch appointment.  This is the umpteenth time this has happened, and you're sick of it!  You only have an hour for lunch, and his lateness means that you will be gulping your food or relegated to eating soup.  You do not like soup.

What do you do about it?

  • Do you leave the restaurant after fifteen minutes and let him wander around looking for you in vain when he finally decides to show up?
  • Do you leave a nasty voice mail or text, reaming him out for his lack of consideration?
  • Do you place your own order and eat lunch, thinking that you will at least be able to eat what you want at a respectable pace, regardless of when he shows up?
  • Do you vow to talk with him about his lateness pattern, and the impact it has on you?
  • Do you decide never to schedule lunch with him again?
Why are you so angry?
Sometimes the actions of the other person have tangible impact, and when the tangible impact creates a detriment to you, you don't like it.  In other instances, though, the behavior itself isn't necessarily damaging - rather it's your assumption about the intention behind the behavior that causes you to become hot under the collar.  For instance, take this "late for lunch" incident.  You may interpret it as:
  • He doesn't respect my time.
  • He thinks he's more important than I am, so that I should be willing to wait for him.
  • He's disorganized and can't manage himself very well.
Your anger revolves around the back story that you have created around the lateness.  But what if your back story isn't accurate?  What if
  • He arrived at the restaurant early, is at another table waiting for you to arrive, and you didn't see him?
  • He left a message at your office saying that a customer issue was causing him to run about 20 minutes behind schedule, but you didn't check messages before you left the office?
  • Any number of reasonable obstacles arose?
The real and imagined stories don't change the incident - that he was late for your lunch date - but they may drastically impact your interpretation of the incident, and your feelings about him.  He didn't make you angry. You made you angry by applying assumptions of intent behind his behavior.

You can only control your own behavior, so if he's consistently or frequently late for lunch, don't set up lunch appointments with him if the timing is an issue for you.  This might sound like a no-brainer, but if you don't change something in how you manage the situation you will be setting yourself up for a repeat performance of this one.  And if that's the case, you will have been a full partner in the anger-eliciting incident.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Climate for collaboration

* GhostWorks SP Collaboration * by pareeerica
* GhostWorks SP Collaboration *,
a photo by 
pareeerica on Flickr.
"Let's do a workshop on team building," the executive suggested.  When asked the purpose of the event, the executive said that he wanted to heighten awareness of all employees to the desirability of working as a team.

The employees to which he referred probably already know.  Many, if not most of them have ingrained habits of thought that say "Two heads are better than one" or "Many hands make light work."  Teamwork and collaboration can't be installed via consciousness-raising exercises.  Sure, these events can serve a purpose to focus attention - for that day or week - on the topic, and they can re-energize a workforce.  But that impact is fleeting.  Once a transgression or  problem pops the balloon of team-oriented sentiment the group is usually back to square one, seeking blame and defending self.

True teamwork and collaboration arise from a combination of mindset, human relations skills...and process and structure that support it.  You as part of the leadership team can provide support for your staff by helping them become more aware of their prevailing attitudes (habits of thought) and can involve them in development experiences that focus on communications and leadership skills.   But that's a shared responsibility between you and them.  You can bring the horses to the stream, but they have to make the decision to bend down and take a sip of what you are offering.

Inside the team experience, a few ingredients work to develop a climate for collaboration.  

  1. A point of focus or goal - This creates common purpose and helps the group sort relevant from irrelevant input.  A compelling goal or focus can unite even greatly disparate individuals.
  2. Safety for the conversation - The team works best together when they agree upon ground rules or a code of conduct for the time during which they are engaged.  The leader or facilitator may ask the team to self-monitor for compliance to the code of conduct, and the team may agree ahead of time about remedies or penalties for violations.  For instance, some groups have used the yellow penalty flag, throwing it when a violation occurs.  And some groups have funded entire pizza parties from accumulate cash fines for lateness or foul language.
  3. Inclusion - Individuals are on the team for their contributions to the discussion.  However, individual personalities might be less inclined to weigh in verbally unless prompted or directly consulted.  The team leader or facilitator may need to be proactive about slowing down the over-contributors to make room for all participants to be involved.  This is more than an effort to be egalitarian.  It's important to be able to support the team's decisions later when they are being implemented, and it's difficult to assess whether the team has full buy-in unless every individual has had the opportunity to be involved.
  4. Facilitation tools - Tools and techniques such as multi-voting, nominal group technique, criteria screening, brainstorming, etc. - even the use of visual tools like marker boards or easel pads - enable inclusion, and also the progression through the process to the output from the team engagement.
  5. Facilitator - Somebody needs to be responsible for the process, and preferably this role goes to someone who is not also responsible for the outcome of the team process.  The facilitator's role is to keep things moving, to make sure participants are involved, and to know when to apply tools to help these things happen.
  6. Direct connection with authority - Often there are rules in the code of conduct about the behavior of the team members re:  authority levels of the team members like "Rank stays outside the door," or "We use first names here."  It's easy for the authority incumbent in one participant to create caution in other participants.  But it's important for the team to be able to discuss candidly and then make decisions that are actionable.  The senior=most person in the room needs to be a partner in creating a retribution-free environment where even negative or critical comments are fair contributions in the course of making improvements.
  7. Methods for follow-up and action - Even the best-laid plan is worthless if it is not implemented.  The team, with the guidance of the facilitator and chairperson, agrees upon the methods for follow-up.  This is best done in written follow-up that includes individual accountabilities and target dates.  The importance of this final item cannot be overstated, because team process is expensive.  Unless it culminates in action (or informs action like a focus or input group) team process will wind up frustrating participants and eroding future participation.

Monday, October 22, 2012

It's their fault!

Pointing Finger Is Pointing by Adam Crowe
Pointing Finger Is Pointing, a photo by Adam Crowe on Flickr.
No matter the field of conflict, whether company change initiative or political battlefield, the cry you'll hear (or perhaps that you've made) is "It's their fault!"

You might be right.  But more likely your reaction is a defensive one, cropping up out of a desire to protect yourself, your own interests, and your current patterns of behavior.

It is natural for people to resist change.  If you are like many other people, you feel more comfortable with what is known, even if the circumstance or state in which you find yourself isn't all that great.  You have created coping mechanisms and strategies that you use to handle it.  You know what works and what doesn't, so you know what to do.

In times of intense change you don't necessarily know what to do.  Sometimes nobody knows what the "right" action is to take, but they know that it won't work to stand still and do nothing.  When the stakes are high and the threats are big, something needs to be done to rise to the occasion - comfortable or not, scary or not.  That doesn't mean that you're eager to go there.

So here you are in your known place and you are told by some authority figure that you have a problem and need to make a change.  Your first reaction is to think (or to say) "I don't need to change - I'm fine!  That person over there is the one who isn't pulling his weight!"

Your reaction might have some basis in fact.  When big changes are called for, it's because a number of interrelated conditions are converging.  So it's possible, even probable, that more people than you are going to need to implement changes, to step out into the big unknown.

Ultimately, though, you are the only one that you can control.  Your own behavior is a matter of your own choice.  Even if you're the authority figure, you can only directly choose your own actions - you might have a decision to make later if the people from whom you have requested (or demanded) change do not comply, but you can only control yourself.

The end of resistance and the beginning of real change occurs when you ask yourself, "All things being as they are, what can I do to make things better?"  You stop pointing elsewhere and you align your own actions more closely with the results you want.  This might not be easy.  You might have years of habits to overcome.  You might see some experiments fall flat as you figure out what works in this new world that you're living in.  But when you stop pointing at others and start moving yourself forward you will be bearing personal responsibility for creating a better outcome.  That's leadership.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The toughest question ever

Too many choices by carece
Too many choices, a photo by carece on Flickr.
This is the place where the entire journey to greater authenticity and greater alignment starts:  by answering the question "What do you want?"

What, exactly, do you want?  Not what should you want, or what do you deserve to have, but what do you want?  Describe it as specifically as possible so you can connect with it.

One reason that this question can be so confounding to people is that it requires a step back from what is, and time to think about what could be.  It requires separating oneself from assumptions about limitations, what's realistic, and a list of self-imposed vision narrowers that is too long to enumerate here.

The second question is "Why?"  What will it do for you?  Is it a fantasy that takes you away from a current situation that isn't always satisfying, or is it a necessary part of your vision for career, your company, or your life?  The why is tremendously important, because the bigger it is, the more devoted you will become to the pursuit of the thing that you want.  You need to think about this in detail, because if and when the going gets tough in the pursuit of the thing you want it might be tempting to slow down or quit and take an easier path.

Another reason why the question "What do you want?" causes people to retreat is that the third question is then "What goes with it?" or "What's necessary to make it happen?" or "What's in the way?"  If you want to be fit enough to run a marathon, then long training hours go along with it, and you're going to get sweaty.  If you want the great job with the big paycheck, educational credentials and more responsibility go with it.

Some of the items that go along with what you want are obstacles between the states of what is and what can be.  Others might be investments you need to make or trade-offs that you need to accept if you are to have that thing you want.  Are the obstacles, necessary investments and trade-offs big enough to deter you from your "what"?  That depends upon the size and importance of the why.

One last thought - when you define what you want you might not be defining an either/or scenario.  Perhaps your "What" can be in addition to other things that are already in your life.  And if you're really lucky, what you want is already right in front of you.  In that case all you need to do is to recommit and bring yourself to it in full engagement, with both feet on the boat.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Presidential Debate and Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement

Perhaps we should decide to officially designate politics as a sport.  After all, it does come with its own uniform - the power suit and dress shoes - and it does enjoy a designated season.  There are certainly winners and losers, and countless media outlets are doing their best to keep score.

The challenge, of course, in keeping score is that your predispositions about candidates will color your interpretation of who "won" the most points.  Unless there is a major gaffe of some sort, unless you are among the few undecided voters at this point you are likely to cheer for your own team, and stick with them whether this night's game favored them or not.

If you assume that your opinion is not going to be swayed by the substance of the debate, you might as well use it as an opportunity to analyze the arguments that are the most persuasive using the event as an case study.  There will be so many highlights replays of the Presidential debates that even if you went to the kitchen for an adult beverage during a particularly good riff you will be able to see your favorite topic again.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you may recall a diagram based on an essay by Paul Graham titled "How to Disagree".  Graham's concept was supposedly used as a reference for online poker, which calls for extensive bluffing and mental power - and he made the levels of disagreement visual.  This is a great way to break down the debaters' interaction.

 A representation of Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement is pictured here:
Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement, a photo on Flickr originally uploaded by Adam Crowe

According to Graham, argument ranges from name-calling (the least persuasive) to personal attacks, all the way to an actual refutation of the central point being posed by the "opposition." Refutation of the central point is the most persuasive argument.  Of course on the national stage you might not expect one candidate to refer to another as an ass hat, as shown in the illustration above.  But if you listen closely, the name-calling and ad hominem attacks are there, only in slightly more elegant packaging.  They aren't ALL of the conversation, but when tension mounts they tend to leak into the interaction.  

Just like in other sports where the potential for blood and injury is part of the entertainment, if you are watching a debate you might actually be waiting for a good ad hominem attack.  You want to see the gloves thrown down onto the floor and hear the candidates really go at one another.  Those down-in-the-dirt opportunities to cheer or jeer keep you engaged.

Nobody said that politics is a fair sport.  Debates have moderators, but this season has demonstrated that they exhibit varying degrees of tolerance for "unfair" behavior.  Although it doesn't address the issue of who consumed more air time, in your analysis of which argument was the best strategy, this chart will come in handy. The lower down the pyramid the debater is operating, the less likely they are to be fighting fairly. If they are in the pink or orange zone they are attacking the person, not the point of disagreement. When you see a disproportionate amount of personal attacks it's likely that the debater is trying to avoid the main point.  A more effective argument would be to cite evidence (this means facts, not opinions) that support the debater's point of view.

Whether the opposing party accepts the evidence or not is another question. If the evidence contradicts habits of thought held dear by the opposition, even "proof" might not be able to hold sway. And in today's polarized political environment, evidence that is produced by partisan groups, blogs, commentators and certain news channels is best viewed with at least a grain of salt. 

Because the world views of the extreme left and right are so far apart and immovable even in the face of contradictory evidence right now, voters may have to accept that not all disagreements are the same. Some disagreements will (and need to) have winners and losers, but some will ultimately stand as differing opinions that will remain differing.  And in the political world the proof of which arguments "won" will be be exacted at the polls.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Want to be an authority figure?

Authority figure by The Gina
Authority figure, a photo by The Gina on Flickr.
How do you see the role of an authority figure?  Is this person about kicking butt and taking names?  Do they strike fear in the hearts of employees when they make the rounds of the production floor?  Are they known for writing people up and asking questions later?  Do they seem to relish the opportunities to exclaim in their best Trump voice, "You're Fired!"?

Do you want more authority?  Most people want to have a feeling of control over their lives. Whether at work or at home, they like to make decisions about how they are going to invest their time, energy, and money.  Some people are under the impression that if only they had greater authority at work their life would be easier.  Instead of being dictated to, they could be the person who does the dictating.

But a broader span of authority will only take you so far.  The guy (or gal) who becomes all about the company stripes (or bars, clusters, stars, etc.) that he wears isn't going to be as effective as he could be if he were to let go of the authority for a minute.  This is not to say that he should abdicate his responsibilities for the company, but rather that another interpersonal approach is likely to achieve better, more sustainable results with the people in his department.

The authority figure is better off using people power rather than position power to get the job done.  It's the difference between commanding, "Do it because I said so!" (position power) so the person has to do it, and requesting, so that other person chooses to do it because they want to (people power).  Authority (position power) is granted by the company to help to define the scope of decision making.  People power, on the other hand, is earned over time by the relationships the individual builds with the people over which he has authority.

The challenge in developing more people power is that relationships require investment up front.  There is no "instant" in relationships.  It may involve the boss doing some self-disclosure or making himself vulnerable by admitting mistakes or shortcomings.  In order to build relationships the boss might have to do regular listening to issues or victories that might otherwise be perceived to be below his pay grade.  Some of the topics might be personal to the employee, and not "important" from the boss's perspective.  But as the time, attention, and energy investment is being made the boss is making deposits to an emotional bank account with that employee.

When the emotional bank accounts are built up, employees bring information and ideas to the boss, because they feel trust and want to contribute.  They are more likely to volunteer, and they are more engaged because they feel important and a part of something big.

A word of caution:  inauthenticity is telegraphed through your nonverbal communication.  If you are just putting time in without paying real attention it will be obvious to the person on the other end of the transaction.  If you are snooping under the guise of relationship building it won't take long for employees to catch a whiff of your methods and start to conceal anything that makes them feel at risk.

If you do a good job of investing in relationship building you won't have to play the authority card nearly as often- you will be able to achieve outstanding results because your employees want to - and because they want to do it for you.  In that scenario everybody wins.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Teamwork - or too many cooks?

Too Many Cooks by spinadelic
Too Many Cooks, a photo by spinadelic on Flickr.
Teams can become the biggest enemy of teamwork.

You read correctly just now.  Companies spout the word "teamwork" as an ideal to be pursued, in some cases much like the "E" word - empowerment - was cast about a number of years ago.  "Empowerment" became an object of derision because it existed in too many speeches and too few real life work settings.  And if not handled correctly, the "T" word will eventually earn equally jaundiced associations.

Teams CAN be a tremendously beneficial vehicle through which to increase employee buy-in and engagement.  They help the company make use of all of its potential corporate IQ by leveraging the brainpower of all of its employees rather than just that of its hallowed few.

But team-based methodology can go wrong, turning meetings into quagmires and decision making processes into fights between the proverbial cats and dogs.  It's possible for teams to disguise bad performance on the part of individuals.  And decisions by committee can result in the organizational equivalent of a mutant rabbit that has sprouted wings, antlers and a scaly tail.

You can avoid the downsides of group decision making by applying a few principles:

  • Clearly define the scope of the team's responsibility.  This team might be together only for the implementation of one project, or it might be a standing group that meets regularly to track, for instance, a dashboard of key performance indicators. If it's a project, clear expectations about the due date or progress time line should be established at the time of the team's formation.
  • Determine and communicate the breadth of its decision making authority.  If you assign a team to solve a problem but give them no authority the team interactions will quickly devolve into gripe sessions - the opposite of what you want.
  • Have the right people in the room.  In general, you need several of categories of people on your team, although one person might fulfill more than one category.
    • The content experts (the ones actually doing the work you're discussing)
    • The resource/idea people (sometimes it helps to have somebody outside the main process to provide fresh information and ideas.
    • The authority (the person whose individual authority can make things happen for the team)
    1. Agree upon decision making process.  Some teams languish awaiting unanimity, and on the other end of the spectrum are teams that vote on every initiative.  You might think that voting is decisive and moves action forward the most efficiently.  But a word of caution:  "No" votes create adversaries to whatever decision the team makes, and build in a win (for the no voters) for the initiative to fail.  Tie breakers are also useful in the case of an even number of team members who might otherwise become deadlocked.
    1. Adequate time. It takes longer for a team to work than it does for an individual.  There is a need for time so that each member's perspectives and information can be aired.  Sometimes there are pockets of disagreement that can be overcome with a bit more discussion rather than pressing forward to a vote before everyone is ready.  In addition, sometimes an educational process is needed for some or most of the team members to help to prepare them for the work at hand.
    1. Assign (or have the team select) leadership responsibilities.  It's also good to separate the role of chairperson (responsibility for work product) from the role of facilitator (responsibility for team process). 
    1. Tend to the relationships as well as the work product.  Effective teamwork is the result of mutual trust, shared goals, and sound process.  Create team ground rules to help to manage the tone and pace of the conversation.  Give team members an opportunity to relate to one another as individuals, not only as squares on the org chart.  When you invest time in relationship building you will create the climate for better negotiation and flexibility later when the team gets down to the work at hand.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Love, legacy, and the borrowed purpose

In the band at the football game,
by JEPoland
What do you want to create for your children?  What will be the legacy that they will carry with them into their adulthood?  Are you intentional about that, about assembling a list of childhood experiences that they will be able to carry in their pockets with them wherever they go?  Have you determined that they will play a particular sport, learn to play an instrument in the high school marching band, go to sleep-away camp and battle the mosquitoes like you did?

To what extent are you trying to direct their activities and influence their choices?  What is your intention in doing so?  There are important ramifications attached to your answer.

  • To build a platform of knowledge - There is a such thing as cultural literacy and being able to relate to other people in the community and around the world.  Some of the things you make sure happen for your kids now are going to have an impact on how effective and flexible they will be able to be later.  Music and language are easier to learn when a person is younger.  Travel teaches geography like no book can do - and if Grampa is to be believed, a car trip does it better than a plane trip does.
  • Because they want to do it -  Some parents say "you will be involved in one sport per season" and then give their child room to decide what the sport will be.  Their child might flit from soccer to baseball to lacrosse to basketball to swimming, or they might find one passion and stick with it.  This creates the opening for life lessons about what it means to quit, or how commitments are important even if you find that you don't like something.  It gives the child the chance to stretch his or her decision making muscles.  In order to use this method fully, the parent has to release himself or herself from expectations about performance and their own opinions about focus as a requirement for excellence.  If you say you are going to let them drive, then let them drive.
  • Unfinished business - Sometimes a parent applies pressure for a child to fulfill a dream or to achieve a goal that the parent found elusive himself or herself.  When the child becomes an all-star quarterback or homecoming queen the parent's enjoyment goes beyond their child's accomplishment.  The parent feels as if he or she owns a part of the achievement.  Success is to be shared, and a child's success is to be celebrated, but what if the child can't throw a football and is not homecoming queen material?  Parents chasing their own unfinished business can create unreachable expectations for their child, and leave the child feeling inadequate.  The feelings of being "not enough" for parental expectations can last long into adulthood and color many dimensions of adult life.
  • Misplaced conformity -  When the family legend is that all of its members are doctors, lawyers, engineers, musicians, etc. pressure is placed upon the child to follow a predetermined path, to adopt a borrowed purpose.  It may validly be known that this family is genetically predisposed to have hands, ears, or brains that possess certain strengths.  The child may be convinced or pressured to go to the "family university" to fulfill the legacy or pursue the course of study that his or her parents specify.  The child may indeed enter the family business, a source of relief for business owners looking for a viable exit strategy when they are ready to retire.  But the price of this approach is paid later, when the child comes to the recognition that he or she doesn't really like or is not suited to that career.  Commitment and performance in the job will be compromised.  And thousands of dollars (and potentially years of career dissatisfaction) will have been wasted.
Parents have good intentions.  They want the best for their children.  But there's a balance to be struck between helping children learn discipline and perseverance, and taking away their ability to be self-directed. It takes practice to learn to choose well.  "Wasting" a Spring on baseball or learning to play the accordion may pay dividends in the future adult's understanding of his or her own strengths and weaknesses.  And the grand experiments of childhood may lead him or her to a true lifelong passion.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Handling the plateaus

Black Mesa Rainbow - New Mexico by isaac.borrego
Black Mesa Rainbow - New Mexico,
a photo by 
isaac.borrego on Flickr.
In a culture where speed and instant results are highly valued, the plateau is a position that can create consternation.  There might be a beautiful view of the progress made to date if one were to simply turn around and take a moment to celebrate, but many don't take the opportunity to do so.  Instead they see only the expanse of flatness ahead. 

Plateaus can serve useful purposes when you can let go and truly be there in them:

  • They can be a time of reflection.  The skills, behaviors and attitudes that got you here might not be the same things that will get you to your next station, but there might be successful strategies that you have already used that will help you on the next leg of your journey.  You need not throw out all of your experience.  Just choose to learn from it and apply whatever makes sense given where you are right now.
  • They create space for recharging and renewal.  A steady uphill climb consumes physical, mental, and emotional resources.  At some point you need to have an opportunity to restore yourself and rebuild your capacity for the next phase.  It's OK to slow down a bit to catch your breath - it will be difficult to sustain a breakneck pace indefinitely.
  • They present the opportunity for choice and change of course.  When you're humping up the mountain you have one goal in mind:  to reach the top.  But once you're up there on the top of the mesa you can see in many directions.  The flatness of the immediate hike enables you to look around and make a conscious choice about the direction of the next stage of your journey.  
  • They enable you to re-tool.  You don't necessarily have time to learn new techniques when you're in the midst of an intense climb.  But when the turf is flat you can experiment with new methods that will serve you well as you embark on the next leg.  This goes beyond rest.  This is about becoming better so you can successfully face the challenges that lie ahead.
It can be difficult, frustrating, to be on the plateau, in that place where you feel like the caterpillar in the chrysalis.  You aren't a caterpillar any more and yet you are not yet a butterfly.  But the transition and the transformation take time.  If you were to break out today you might not yet be ready to fly.  

Give yourself the opportunity to prepare.  Give yourself the space to rest and build your reserves of energy for the future.  Look back.  Look ahead.  Choose your next direction.  Tool yourself up.  And before you know it you'll leave the plateau, glad that you had the opportunity to spend some time there.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Does your plan have one of these shortcomings?

Can you keep it?
Can you keep it? -
a photo on Flickr by Fortuguada
On the day after Election Day the thoughts of many will turn to 2014, and the prospects for business.  Even though some companies have a formalized plan in place for the next 2-3 years, if you have not it's not too late to set a thoughtful course for the future.

Perhaps any plan is preferable to no plan, but when it comes down to it, many business owners invest time, energy, thought, and money in creating plans that don't yield the results they want.  Here are some of the plans that tend not to work effectively:
  • The vision-only plan.  This plan articulates the owner's dream for the company.  It speaks in hearts and flowers about becoming the provider of choice for the products and services it provides.  It sometimes talks about geographic expansion, or of being on the leading edge of technology.  But it stops short of developing specific, measurable action steps to fulfill its intentions.  It becomes, in effect, a castle in the clouds.
  • The tactics-only plan.  This plan (commonly called the business plan) is often developed in tandem with the annual budget process.  It focuses on the activities for the next year (calendar or fiscal.)  But it doesn't reach beyond the limited view of the near-term.  So the boots on the ground in the company or organization don't understand why they are doing what they are doing.  They have no context of a longer-term intention or direction.  So they are likely to make decisions that look good in the short term without considering their ultimate ramifications.
  • The "super-secret stuff" plan.  This is the work of art that is locked securely in a file cabinet so no unauthorized people can see it.  There are understandable circumstances in which these plans are developed:  In a closely held business, owners often don't want to share the intimate personal details behind the business, so they keep their plans to themselves.  In any size company, there may be strategies or tactics in the plan that are better not shared beyond a limited audience, but usually there are other components in the plan that can only be accomplished with all hands on deck.
What a plan needs is, in effect, a ladder to connect the boots on the ground with the castle in the clouds.  You can create that beautiful vision for the future of the company and the grand purpose that galvanizes employees and gives them the sense of doing something significant.  But then make the connection to tactics - even down to specific departmental or individual accountabilities that will take the company from point A closer to point B as defined in the plan.  When you do this well you can, in effect, achieve your plan one person at a time.

Don't be concerned about a fancy wrapper - rather than a leather binding, display your plan one sheet of paper (highlights, of course) that can live under the glass on an employee's desktop, or on a bulletin board in their work space.  Make it easy to access and it will have greater relevance to day-to-day activities.  The plan summary format also makes it easier for you to communicate on multiple occasions, keeping the message clear and consistent..

Make it measurable.  Your staff will be encouraged by visible progress up the rungs of the ladder.  This might seem a bit scary if you're not used to making performance measurable and public inside your company.  But what's more important to you - feeling comfortable or achieving success?  I'm betting that the people who work with you can help you reach that castle, and more quickly than you thought possible.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Shouting to nobody

Shout by Grayce Pedulla Dillon
Shout, a photo by Grayce Pedulla Dillon on Flickr.
The late Leo Buscaglia said, "I have a very strong feeling that the opposite of love is not hate -- it's apathy. It's not giving a damn." 

There's an awful lot of shouting going on right now, on television and radio, and in social media.  People are ventilating about their political (and other) views to whomever is watching, listening, or following.

It can feel awfully freeing to "let 'em have it!" with ad hominem insults and the latest product of the mill o'punditry.  But is it accomplishing anything?  Likely no, it's not.

What is the goal in shouting, anyway?  Are you thinking that your argument will change someone's mind?  Chances are that if they have already formulated an opinion you won't change it.  When you  develop a perspective, intentionally or unintentionally, you filter some information in and some information out.  You seek patterns and evidence that are consistent and reinforcing to your point of view.  The same goes for the person who can't see what's blazingly obvious to you - they are filtering out some of the evidence that you find compelling because it doesn't fit with their worldview.

Yes, there's a lot of recreational shouting back and forth going on.  If you are receiving shouts in return, are you enjoying countering their arguments, however thinly presented?  (Of course that assumes there are actual arguments and not simply rants and insults!)  Recreational arguing can be informative.  It can help you to clarify your own position as you hear contrary perspectives.  You might even be presented with new information that's important for you to know.

But not everyone enjoys the process of shouting back and forth.  If you go on long enough on the same theme, with ears closed and mouth stridently open, people are going to stop listening. You might find yourself shouting to nobody. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How long has it been?

Elapsing Time by kyllwtr
Elapsing Time, a photo by kyllwtr on Flickr.
How is it that a week-long summer vacation can fly by, and yet one day in a meeting can seem to drag on forever? How is it that your order in a restaurant can take an eternity to fill even though your server is running around like the proverbial beheaded chicken?

Yes, it's old news that it's all relative.  Speedy turnaround in your book might be 24 hours - which might be half the response time (or double) that of the person expecting it from you.  Small businesses all over raise their eyebrows at the pace of decision making in their large company clients.  When you own your own operation you decide to do something at 10 a.m. and it can be done by noon - or by the end of the day.  Inside a corporate behemoth, layers of decision making and red tape can make it difficult to choose to change brands of toilet tissue and implement the decision within the same quarter.  And while the decision mill is grinding, the little guy stands waiting for an answer, tapping his toe, his very existence riding on whether the deal is a thumbs up or thumbs down.  Time in this instance is the relative perception of due process versus the speed of a glacier.

The misunderstandings arising as a result of these different perceptions of timeliness create stress, errors, misaligned priorities and a host of other problems.  But some of these issues are preventable by taking a few steps when communicating about work assignments and delivery dates:

When you are giving the instructions

  1. Describe the task in specific terms so the scope is understood by all parties.  It's difficult to impossible to set a timeline for a task that has not been clearly defined.  Test yourself on your specificity by asking "What is a successful result or output?"  Then provide background information and resources necessary for the task to be completed.  Otherwise you will lose turnaround time as the individual has to hunt for the items that he or she needs to do the job.
  2. Prioritize.  Ask the individual about what else is on his or her plate of work right now.  Provide clarification about  how this task is to be prioritized among the existing list.  Does it preempt something that's already on there, or is it to be done after the other projects are complete?  If you want the individual to learn to do more of his or her own prioritization - and in alignment with company goals -  it is also important for you to identify reasons why you are placing it above other things that may already be in progress.  If you do not do this you are setting the individual up to fail.
  3. Be specific about a target date.  Without a timeline that is defined and agreed upon you have no valid basis upon which to hold the other person accountable for meeting it.
  4. Arrange for periodic check-in conversations to update progress if the project includes multiple action steps.  Otherwise you may become unnecessarily impatient for the arrival of the final work product, not knowing that certain benchmarks have been met and that steady progress is being made.  In addition, if you are communicating regularly with the individual, you can help the person become unstuck if he or she is having difficulty with a particular step in the project.  
When you are receiving the instructions
  1. Make sure you understand the task in specific terms, along with timeline.  If there is information you need to know, or if there are additional resources required to complete the task, now is the time to request them.
  2. Ask for clarity about priorities.  Assuming that you already have a full plate, it's important to satisfy your #1 customer - your boss - by placing your focus and energy in the area(s) that he or she see as the most important.  You may need to list the items that are currently on your plate, because they won't be aware of the day-to-day activities you already do to get the rest of your job done.  A project or task assigned out of context creates a performance risk for you, so to manage that you have to involve them in the prioritization process.
  3. Plan the project, and if it's a large one with multiple steps share your plan.  Incorporate benchmarks (progress evaluation dates) so you can demonstrate movement toward the completion of the total project.  Step 2 above will help you to establish timelines that are more doable given your total workload.  Expect that there will be pressure to speed it up, and opposing pressure to slow it down.  The project itself determines whether you are the one who wants more speed, or whether your boss will be calling for that.
  4. Keep your boss posted as you progress.  Because the boss isn't inside your head, and may not be in physical proximity either, your progress will appear be slower on your project in his or her mind than it is from your perspective.  They can't see everything that you're doing - on this project, and on the rest of the items you juggle on a daily basis.  Even if you are stalled on the project for some reason, let them know.  They may be able to remove obstacles or add resources, but even if they can't it's certain that they will be wondering why the project has not yet been delivered.  Being proactive about providing information helps you manage the conversation - and their perceptions about your work performance.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Maintaining growing conditions

Hothouse II by Hal Goodtree
Hothouse II, a photo by Hal Goodtree on Flickr.
Conventional wisdom said that you invest the most you can in buying a house, because that's the asset that is going to appreciate in value.  A car - well, it will decline in worth by the time you drive it off the lot, it'll acquire dings and scratches, and you'll be replacing it in a few years.  Stock values rise and fall on a daily, even hourly, basis, and part of the bet you make when you buy them is that the rising will be bigger than the falling.  Many people lost on that bet in 2008, and some of them have not yet recovered.

The economic conditions of the past few years have challenged the fundamental assumption of real estate as the best, guaranteed-to-grow asset as market values plunged during the Great Recession.  But there's another one, an investment that helps itself increase in value, that you may be overlooking.  Every person you hire can - and should - increase in value to your business over time, providing that you are maintaining proper growing conditions.

If these folks were plants instead of people and you relied upon them for a good harvest, you would do things like:

  • Create a suitable temperature in which they can thrive.  Often this means warming them up a bit under a cold frame or greenhouse, but sometimes what's needed is to let some heat out instead.
  • Give them sunlight, but take their species into account.  Some plants love full sun, but some others are burned around the edges or fade when they are in too bright an environment.
  • Water them a bit every day.  They have varying needs for moisture, but the more important point is that you can't dump a bucket on them on one day and expect that to hold them for a month or two or longer.  They can only absorb a bit at a time.  The rest of the bucket will run off or, if it pools at the plant's base, cause their roots to rot, drowning them with too much of a good thing.
  • Fertilize them from time to time.  Soil that supports the same crop year after year becomes depleted in certain nutrients.  You might not have to add so much to the soil if you rotate the crops - one plant leaves behind substances beneficial to another variety of plant.
The people in your company can grow themselves to some extent.  If you are not creating and maintaining proper growing conditions you are placing a disproportionate amount of responsibility on them, and this is your investment to nurture. They need:
  • Purpose, and an understanding of where they fit into the big scheme.
  • Performance expectations that are communicated at the beginning and then reinforced over time.
  • Training and development processes.  They can do some of this for themselves, but it's in your best interest to make sure they have what you need them to have.
  • The opportunity to participate in decision-making about their work.  When you, in effect, expect them to check their brains at the door and follow orders you aren't helping them to grow.  Not to mention that your decisions about their work are missing some of the most important information - that of the persons who really know what's going on there.
  • Freedom from fear.  Although few people go to work in the morning saying, "How can I muck up the works today?" everybody makes a mistake from time to time.  Sure, the same mistake made twenty times is an issue, but what about the learning process that you would miss if nobody tried anything new for fear of being chopped off at the knees verbally by their boss?
  • Fair compensation.  If employees are constantly distracted with problems revolving around their fundamental safety and security it is difficult for them to focus fully on their work.  The amount you choose to pay them, and the health care to which they have access through their job, can make the difference between a human asset that appreciates, or one that has a difficult time thriving.
Individuals have responsibility for their own growth and development over time.  But you are responsible to  create the climate in which this is more likely to happen for the largest potential proportion of your staff.