Minding My Own Business

December 1, 2017

There I was, minding my own business…

Does anything good ever follows that phrase? It always makes me lean in and pay attention. So do phrases like, “Here. Hold my beer.” And, “Got a minute?” They grab my attention. I lean in, watch, listen and sometimes cringe. There is something irresistible about what may come next. And, it’s rarely disappointing. The “guess what!” moments of life can be the most fun.

I’ve tried to create that sense of adventure, moment by moment, in my companies. Sure, we have strategic plans (we call it “strategic positioning”) that rival the best of them. Sure we have a cadence of accountability for results and we measure what we need to. But, it’s the “guess what” that keeps us going. It’s the unknown. The surprise. The “rest of the story.”

Planning is important. Measuring is crucial. Management and accountability and keeping score are powerful and often even comforting. But, it’s the unknown that gets me out of bed and keeps me up at night. It’s the discovery…the adventure…of creating something worthwhile that drives me.

Plan what you can. Prepare for the ups and downs, the successes and failures. But live for the surprises. Celebrate the adventure. The joy of the job is in the unplanned. Leave room to taste, enjoy and celebrate the unexpected.

At first, the unexpected can frustrate. But, hang in there. It is most often the source of the greatest joy. And, the greatest profit.

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I’ve long been intrigued by intentional, repetitive excellence. Sports dynasties fascinate me. Cultural or economic legacies perpetuated from one generation to another inspire. Sustained excellence instructs. Contrast these with dramatically entertaining accidental excellence, where the perfect storm of circumstances conspire with luck, talent and hard work to launch the underdogs to a win.

The contrast makes me wonder about the disciplines and habits of teams that create and sustain excellence. We’ve studied these for years. Here’s part of what we’ve learned:

In our attempt to create intentional excellence, we emulate dynasties of excellence by practicing these five disciplines. We remind one another on the footers of our emails. We write them on the whiteboards before our meetings. We use these five disciplines as a compass and hold one another, regardless of position in our companies, to live up to these behavioral standards. They have gone a long way towards sustained, intentional and measured excellence.

1–Show Up:

The first of our disciplines has two components. One, we show up by fulfilling our promises, even the smallest of them. If the meeting is at 4:00, we show up at 4:00. If we promised an email response by 3:30 on the 4th, we hit send by 3:29. If we say we are going to do something, we make a promise. We show up.
Two, we show up mentally. This is challenging. With a multitude of enticing (or fear-inducing) distractions prancing across our minds and tugging at our senses, we practice the discipline of showing up mentally; of focus. We hold one another accountable for managing the wandering mind. We expect one another to genuinely listen, focus and fully engage. When that appears to not happen, we often ask, “where did you go?” Occasionally, I’ve even been welcomed back into the room when it appears I’ve not shown up with the slightly embarrassing greeting, “Welcome back. How was your time off?”

Showing up is the foundation of the five disciplines of sustained excellence as a team. Without it, the others will not work. It is, by far, the most challenging.

2–Pay Attention:

When we’ve practiced showing up, we are now able to increase awareness of the impact we have on our team members. Paying Attention to the impact our behaviors, words and emotions have on our team is a fundamental element of sustained and intentional excellence.

Frustration, irritation, impatience, pace, energy (or lack of energy), physical posture and specific comments all have an impact on the team. It is likely that our impact is larger than we know. This means that we think about how our words and behavior will be received by the team before and during communication. It means that every behavior, every expression, impacts the team by daring them to be great or distracting them from what matters or discouraging them.
Few of our behaviors on a team have no impact. I’m not suggesting we walk on eggs or become obsessively self-focused and controlled.  That leads to mistrust.  Rather, we are aware that the intended impact we have is sometimes not what actually happens.

Leaders of teams, furthermore, have an outsized impact on the team.
A friend of mine has a refrigerator magnet cartoon image of a frustrated, frazzled looking woman with the phrase, “If Mamma ain’t happy, ain’t NOBODY happy.” True. So true.  It could say the same thing about the Leader.

We also pay attention to our own psychology. Occasionally our over- (or under-) developed sense of self impacts the team negatively. Strengths can become weaknesses. The need for joyful, peaceful and creative relationships (a strength) can manifest itself in manipulative conflict avoidance and triangulation. We pay attention to our impact.

3–Be Authentic:

If we show up mentally, if we fulfill promises and if we are aware of our impact and manage it respectfully, then we earn the opportunity to be authentic. This means that we have no hidden agendas. This means that everyone knows what we think and why we think it. It also means we are more free to learn and change our position. In this context, we can express frustration or joy or confusion or passion and the impact is good. An authentic person is unselfish, not focused on personal gain, transparent, easy to read and reliable. It also means that leaders must authentically practice what they expect the team to habituate.

4–Get Results

Setting high, measurable expectations, and achieving them, is the source of some our greatest joy. We work, after all, to get results.

If you are blessed to be about work that matters, getting results is doubly important. Achieving results is why we are there. It is our purpose. Avoid pathological optimism (a rampant disorder among leaders in many environments) by setting clear, meaningful, impactful and measurable results. When we achieve them, even when we make incremental progress towards achievement, our team will engage on a deep level. Pivot every conversation, every email, every meeting towards results. This discipline is powerful. Evaluate every decision, every hire, every budget, every social media post ruthlessly against this simple question: Does it help us get the results we are after? If it doesn’t, or if it is not the best way, drop it like a hot rock. Keep score of the results where everyone can see. Connect their individual contributions to the results so they can see what and how they invest time and energy to contribute.

5–Have fun

Getting results is fun! Nothing beats scoring, winning, advancing, changing, innovating. It is a blast. More that fun, achieving high impact results create deep joy. Working endlessly for money is soul-deadening. Even hamsters get bored and depressed eventually. Being part of a team that has clear results, authentically engages, selflessly attends to others and fulfills promises is fun!

I look around at our work and, if the fun goes away (for more than a few days), I know something is wrong. Usually, it means we have lost sight of our results. Sometimes it means we are not achieving them.

If your work is not worthy of your life energy, please do yourself, your friends, your family and your team a favor and find other work. It may take a while, but do it. If your work is worthy, lean in, engage and create a legacy of excellence.

 

These five disciplines, when implemented and practiced for several months, work their way into everything you do. They yield direct communication and innovation. They weld the team together and start a flywheel of excellence. These five disciplines create teams that change the world, one corner at a time.

It’s Complicated

November 12, 2017

Complex Problem-Solving Skills

We’ve been here before. We have tried to solve this problem several times. Or, a version of it. We spent time and money and goodwill, created a solution, implemented the plan and moved on to our next challenge. Now it’s back. Or its twin. Or cousin. So, we grit our teeth, listen to more analysis and brace ourselves for another round.
You are good at solving problems. Just look at your record. You’ve been able to overcome all sorts of obstacles and celebrate your way to success. Here’s to you!  Congratulations.

But, what if occasionally your approach to solving problems is, in itself, a problem? You might be facing a complex problem.
A complex problem lives in a sophisticated system and usually results from flawed or outdated mental models. Its structure and power are therefore invisible to the undisciplined eye. It is as if you’ve mowed the symptomatic weeds of the problem but left the underlying roots and soil condition unchanged. The problem morphs and surfaces again.
How do we know if we face a complex problem? Consider the following:
1.) Does the problem live in a system or structure that makes other things work very well?
2.) Has that structure or system been in place for a relatively long time?
3.) Are strong emotions present when talking about the system or structure?
4.) Is it a problem for some but a reward for others?
5.) Are those experiencing the reward in possession of powerful personalities or working in powerful positions?
6.) Are the impacts (positive and negative) difficult to measure?
If most of these are descriptive of your situation, you may have a complex problem. Now, consider these:
1.) What is the larger context in which the problem (system, structure) were created? How has it changed? What is the “age” in which the problem (once a solution) lived and now lives? Thoroughly seek understanding of the context and how it has changed. No problem, challenge or opportunity can be genuinely understood until we deeply understand the age in which it lives. This is critical work.  Resist the temptation to glance and go.
2.) Does the problem arise from underlying mental models (assumptions about what is true, about what works) that have changed? Example: We don’t borrow money to fund expansion. This was true when interest rates were 11% but not when interest rates are equal to the inflation rate (or less).

As these considerations shed light on the complexity of the problem, search for a solution that addresses the root of the problem. Be sure not to rush this step. You have time. Take it.

Now, it is time to carefully solve the complex problem:

1. Create a goal statement for the solution, including a “so that” bridge. We will A “so that” B. B=the result you will achieve.
2. Look for what can be streamlined or removed structurally. Often complex problems are solved by removing or streamlining the right things and not by adding. Structure is how we have arranged our world to get our work done.  It is the organizational equivalent to the human mind’s habit and discipline structures.
3. Clarify behavioral expectations.  We will do this, not that, so that (result).
4. Create alignment of duties to match the streamlined changes.
5. Test the solution (two or three laps, if possible).  To do this, the solution must be in its most simple, streamlined, lean and elegant form.  It must viable but no more.
6. If the problem remains, look for what simple additions can be made in resources or processes or abilities.
7. Test the solution (two or three laps, if possible).
8. If the problem remains, completely remove the structure related to the problem and redesign with the outcome in mind.  This takes courage as the current structure does not stand alone and likely supports other structures.  And, it might be the ego fuel for a powerful group of people.
9. Iterate the implementation with an obsessive eye to simplicity.
There. Now you’ve begun to solve a complex problem by solving the right problem, in the right way and yielding elegant results. Let the fun begin!

It’s likely you’ve already seen a version of it today. Donna was frustrated with Beth so she talked to Alan. Donna didn’t think anything of it, nor did Alan, but they created the most destructive shape in organizations: the Triangle.
Donna’s frustration is understandable. Beth is underperforming, or she is overstepping, or perhaps she is pontificating in the middle of something about which she has no knowledge. She is annoying. She’s aggravating. She’s agitating. And Donna can’t just let her frustration build so she reaches out to someone who will listen.
Alan is a good coworker. He is a compassionate listener. He’ll help. He’s done it before. A couple of months ago he delicately mentioned some vague problems unnamed people were having with other people on the team and Donna knew exactly what he meant. After that awkward conversation, wherein Alan preserved confidentiality under a veil of ambiguity, the behaviors in question stopped, at least in the group at large. So did the laughter and fun, but Donna guessed that was due to the workload.
So, with a furtive glance about the room, Donna approached Alan and, with a serious and soft tone, expressed her growing frustration with Beth. Alan listened, nodded, asked compassionate questions and reinforced Donna’s right to her feelings. Perhaps he even reinforced the intensity of her feelings.
After the conversation, Donna felt a little better; a little more reassured and focused. So did Alan who, now alone with his thoughts, searched for examples of Beth’s behavior. And found them.
So, you’ve already seen it—if not today, certainly in the last few days. Triangulation is so common as to go unnoticed at work. It might be one of the most common form of communication in many workplaces.
This indirect communication style is destructive on several levels. It begins with the lies I tell myself: I just need to vent. I need perspective. I need understanding. If someone listens to my frustration, it will go away.
It works only if I lie to the listener: I spin the story of Beth’s behavior, and of mine, ever so slightly to emphasize my point. I become an editor of a story “based on real events” rather than a reporter of events as they occurred.
It only works if the listener is willing: He must have time to listen. He must benefit from the conversation in some way (power, acceptance, being in-the-know, superiority or simple entertainment). He must be a willing participant in the assumption that mere conversation about frustration causes it to abate. He must believe that talking about the frustration in this manner gives the frustrated one an edge over the problem; over the Frustrator. And, above all, he must not betray the sacred confidentiality of the Triangle.
Triangles at work, when done well, preserve and focus the frustration, segment teams into smaller groups, pit people against each other, create a running scoreboard of missteps, erode trust and create toxic mistrust. They delay problem solving. They focus attention on the wrong things. All this while making two of the three participants feel slightly better and self-important.
Triangulation is the single most destructive behavior in the workplace.

What if, in the heartbeat between Donna’s first and second sentence, Alan had interrupted with a question? What if Alan had asked, “Excuse me Donna but have you talked directly to Beth about this?” Then, regardless of Donna’s answer, what if Alan had kindly said, “Donna, you need to talk directly to Beth.”
Certainly Donna would have been uncomfortable. She may even try again to tell the story of her righteous cause against Beth. But, what if Alan repeated himself, “Donna, you need to talk to Beth directly. When are you going go do that?” Imagine the outcome: Donna would be frustrated with Alan, or not. She would stand up and go talk to Beth, or not. She would keep her frustration to herself until someone else would listen, or not. Perhaps the next listener would have the same questions of Donna. Perhaps Donna’s frustration would prompt her to talk directly to Beth. Or not.
But the Triangle would be broken. The opportunity for direct communication would be presented and reinforced. The slightly fictional version of Beth’s misdeeds would not spread.
If Beth is truly underperforming, overstepping, meddling or just spreading her unique brand of moodiness, she will hear about it…directly…from the people who care more about the work, the mission, the team than they do about their own feelings.
Hopefully you have the honor and blessing to be about work that matters, with people of integrity and character. If you find yourself in Alan’s position in the Triangle, the vitality of the team and of the work is in your hands. Interrupt the Triangle as it is being formed. Break the Triangle by fostering Direct Communication. Regardless of your position—of Donna or Beth’s relative experience, power, personalities or place–foster Direct Communication. It is never as difficult as we think it will be.
Direct Communication is the single most accurate predictor of a team’s effectiveness.
Watch for it and foster it today.

Screw It! Let’s Do It!

October 5, 2017

Sir Richard Branson’s famous statement reflects Virgin’s visionary and innovative ethos. At some point, analysis of opportunity or of challenge can yield no more information. At some point the value of continued analysis of key metrics, leading and lagging measures, top and bottom line numbers, history and trends diminishes. It’s then that such effort becomes a liability.
While famous for the sentiment, Branson and others like him, do not invoke it as a way to screw up courage to plunge off a cliff and create an airplane on the way down. Rather, it is an admission that analysis of the past and present is only part of the way leaders create the future. Many high impact leaders—actually all of the ones I’ve worked with over the past three decades—are informed by what has been (analysis) but compelled by what they imagine should be (vision).
What captures your imagination? Does your mind wander to what could be? What should be? Is your imagination rich with the creative flights that inspire? If so, how big is your imagination? Do you imagine what could be—what should be—for yourself, your family and friends, your neighborhood or workgroup? Your city?
At what point does your imagination lose traction? At what point do you give up on the dream? Some imagine a better next week for themselves alone and stop there. Some for their family and stop. Few think beyond that. Almost as if approaching a vast precipice, some look briefly into the future and become disoriented, retreating to the comfort of now. Some look beyond their immediate group and let their dream grow and grow until they cannot see around it. With each expansion they are more inspired and energized. As the imagination grows into a dream, then a compelling technicolor virtual reality, every decision today takes on new significance. Every decision is considered in light of the vision, the idea, the imagined future. Every hour is spent in the light, or shade, of the one thing that should—that must—become reality.
Not any people get to experience this way of living. But the ones who do are those who rewrite the rules by which everyone else plays. Conscious creators of the future, they reset the defaults of culture and economics and society by which all others unconsciously live.
Notice the next time you imagine what should be. Notice the point at which you talk yourself out of expanding the vision. Why did you do that? What cognitive reflex is revealed? Write it down. Study your self-imposed constraints. Overcome just one of them (not enough time; not enough money; never-been-done-before; lack of expertise) and you will quickly get to the place where, “Screw it! Let’s do it!” moves you too.

It’s All in the Details

October 21, 2016

 

“The devil is in the details, but so is salvation.”  –Admiral Rickover, father of the Nuclear Navy

My early memories are of detail orientation.  My parents, aunts and uncles paid attention to details.  Referring to a broken axle on a fully loaded four horse trailer beside a country highway in Idaho, my favorite uncle Marv said, “It’s all in the details.  Even the big stuff is just details.”  He laughed and got to work.  I unloaded the horses and watched as he set about the repairs.  He was right of course.  It’s all details. It’s all small stuff.  Maybe even the big stuff is just a pile of little things.

A challenge leaders and managers face is knowing which details need our attention.  Which of the little things are truly just little things, insignificant and transitory?  A leader confides that she should have paid more attention or another that he should have addressed a problem sooner.  Some regret that an opportunity was missed that could have been addressed.

How should a leader decide what small things need attention?  There are a lot of them, after all.  How can one tell if a small thing matters?

Most often this theme comes up in the context of team performance and cultural fit.  For example, when a new direction is determined, a new role created or a new team member added and a “small behavior” occurs resulting in raised eyebrows or missed expectations, how should a leader respond?  Watch and wait?  Look for patterns to develop over a period of time?

When experiencing one of these small things, the effective leader usually takes AIM at three things: 1.) Does the team member know?  Is she aware?  2.) If the missed expectation, the small behavior, continues for a month or intensifies, what will it impact?  3.)  What does the missed expectation or behavior mean to others on the team and in this context?

This same model works for challenges and opportunities.  Awareness: Are others aware of this opportunity or challenge so that you have a larger context?  Impact: What will the impact of taking or missing this opportunity be on the mission?  Meaning: What does this challenge or opportunity mean in light of our other priorities an in our context?

Some of the most effective thinkers, leaders and managers I’ve known also essentially fast forward “little things” into a future context.  They imagine the little things tomorrow, next week, next month.  That “time travel” and amplification helps her stress test the small thing and make wise decisions now.

If uncle Marv had listened to the little noise the Ranch King 4 Horse Trailer made on the last trip, when it was empty and given it the right meaning, we would not have spent a full day alongside Highway 20 on the way to Sun Valley, Idaho tending to nervous horses.

I wonder what Admiral Rickover would have thought when he heard the groaning of the axle.  If everything is a small thing, and if not all small things matter, practice the AIM approach and think like Rickover:  The salvation is in the details.

Time to Worry

January 24, 2015

Are you a worrier?  Do you often have a chain of thoughts and images, usually negative and a little difficult to control in the moment?  Worry (Davey and Wells, 2006) is an attempt to engage in mental problem-solving on an issue whose outcome is uncertain and which contains the possibility of negative outcomes.  Worry is a version of the fear process.

Some recent studies suggest that 40% of adults worry at least once per day and over half of adults report that when they worry the process lasts between five and 60 minutes.  In our research, we discovered that, of those studied in organizational life, middle managers worry the most, reporting twice as much daily worry as front line workers and ten times as much as the most senior in the organization.  Furthermore, when we asked the worriers what the worry produced, 100% of those surveyed reported that little or no value came from the exercise.

I do not consider myself a chronic worrier, until I am.  I do not think of myself as a ruminator, until I do.   Then, with the same characteristic gusto that fuels every facet of my life, I dive into the cold river of worry with the enthusiasm and focus of a bungee-diver who’s lost a bet.

I have increased the complexity and scope of my responsibilities in the past several years.  As owner of or investor in several thriving enterprises, many people look to me for leadership.  Like the slow advance of a glacier, or like the changing of the seasons, I transitioned from simply having a lot to do, to needing to manage time with exceptional skill and then beyond that state to an intentional, deliberative focus on simplification so that I can create opportunity and have impact.  And, I am more resilient than ever; I have more joy in my life and work than ever and rarely feel the frenetic, gibbon-like distraction that could come with such a season of life.  How did I get here?

A few years ago, in the middle of a protracted storm of complexity calling for twelve hour days, seven days a week for months, I found myself saying “I don’t have time to worry about that.”  A business partner asked, “Well, when will you have time?”  Even though the tone was thick with sarcasm, the question struck me in a good way.

I answered in characteristic fashion, inserting my own dose of sarcasm, “Let me check my calendar.  It looks like I have time to worry about that next Tuesday from 2:30 to 2:45.”  We both laughed.  But, it was true.  As he turned and walked away he said, “Put it on your calendar then.”  So I did.

The result of the sparring was startling.  When my mind flitted to the topic, rather than polish the stone of worry, I thought, “I’m not worrying about that now.  It’s on my calendar for next Tuesday.  I’ll worry about it then.”  I took the mental freedom to move on and think about something else.

When Tuesday at 2:30 approached my calendar reminded me with a cheerful chirp that it was time to worry about the topic.  At precisely 2:30, as with all of my other calendared commitments (read “ALL of my commitments” as I live by the rule, “If it is not in my calendar, it is not in my heart”), I focused on the issue at hand.  In a matter of minutes, I had defined the root of the problem, identified a desired result, engaged two people in a plan and taken the first step.  At 2:45 my iPhone alarm chimed again and I was off to the next challenge of the day.

Thus began my now well-practiced habit of “Scheduling My Worry.”  I now schedule worry about anything that shows up a second time in my thoughts.  And, I have learned some things.  By scheduling my worry, I actually address the underlying cause rather than obsessively polishing the stone over and over.  By scheduling my worry, I discipline myself to think about moving from emotion to action.   And, I arrive at the appointed time often having unraveled the riddle without conscious, focused thought; my mind somehow gathering insight along the way without the emotional baggage.

Here are some tips that make scheduling my worry a productive discipline.  First, don’t schedule it too far in advance.  I rarely schedule out more than a week.  Second, literally create an entry on your calendar.  If others have access to your calendar, as is true with mine, and if the theme is a sensitive one, just enter a code word: SMW=Promotions, or SMW=C.D. performance.  Third, don’t give yourself a lot of time to worry.  I shoot for 15 minutes.  Fourth, stand up during this time.  Seated worrying yields a sense of powerlessness.  Fifth, take action immediately as a result of the scheduled worry.

Everyone with whom I have shared this discipline has reported that this is one of the most freeing and empowering exercises they have ever attempted.  Try it.

I’m off; I have a 2:30 commitment.

My first car was a 1959 blue and white (and rust) Ford Country Wagon.  Its 292 cubic inch Thunderbird V-8 and Fordomatic 4-speed automatic transmission (with overdrive!) moved the hulk from zero to 60 in about (wait for it….wait for it) 14 seconds, all while consuming copious amounts of regular gas!  Go ahead, feel the experience.  Pause and count to 14. Now imagine this 4000 lb car, complete with steel dash, massive bench seats, AM radio blaring through one dash board speaker, cracked windshield and leaky exhaust, driven by a sophomore. 

I just called it “Blue.” It had seen better days.  A lot of them.  On cold Eastern Washington mornings, Blue would only start with the help of starter fluid: that highly flammable (implied: very exciting) mist sprayed into the open carburetor creating a beach-ball sized super nova under the hood.  It was clearly a two-man job.  I still have my eyebrows, so I will leave the rest of the starter fluid story for others to tell.   

Driving Blue was an adventure.  She would shift randomly from fourth to first at high speeds, pop into neutral, and stall in busy intersections.  Thankfully, her mass would propel her through the intersection and safely down the block.  That is, if I paid particular attention to the steering and brakes.  Both systems were so loose that my driving skills soon matched those of a ferry captain.  In a strong current.  And wind. 

An intentional left turn across an oncoming lane was to be avoided at all cost.  The steering wheel had no effect until I moved it nearly 180 degrees; the brakes, after waking up to my panicked foot pumps, would slow her down quite smoothly, even if gradually. 

At speeds in excess of 35, the thumping front wheels fought each other, each choosing a different rut to explore.  Thankfully, the tires were so bare that, when one got traction, the other was forced to cooperate. 

I loved that car!   Mostly because I thought that is what cars were supposed to be.  And hey, it was better than walking. 

Then, in my Junior year, my mother brought home a 1969 Corvette.  What a difference ten years of automotive development made!   She tossed me the keys, told me how to remove the T-Top, grinned, hopped in the passenger seat and said, “Drive it like you stole it!” 

What an amazing ride.  When I touched…touched!…the pedals, the car responded.  When I touched the steering wheel, the car leaned into the corners.  Then, when I actually pushed on the gas pedal, the 6-barrel carburetor opened up and turned gasoline into pure joy.  One Corvette drive and my dysfunctional relationship with Blue changed from love/hate to just hate.  

In the last 25 years I have experienced many organizations like good ol’ Blue.  Lots of power, lots of resources but no clarity or alignment.  The similarities are striking:  Like Blue, these enterprises start and stop slowly, make a lot of noise, wander all over the road and stall when approaching crucial intersections.  Like Blue, they burn through excessive amounts of resources (including the passion of those who work there) with merely average results.

Effective enterprises are clear about where they are going (and where they are not going).  They are tightly aligned; every element of the organization exists to support the trip.  Every element—every person—works together to propel the enterprise to its clearly described goal.  Lack of alignment, or misalignment, is addressed quickly. 

Fully aligned organizations, focused on clear goals, are a magnet for human investment.  In our enterprises, once we solve basic money questions, we look for ways to invest our passion.  Most of us, especially if we are the right people for job, are eager to spend our time and energy on something that lasts and about which we can be proud.  While this is not rocket science, it is surprising how often leaders forget it. 

Create clarity.  Ensure alignment.  Unleash passion.  Pay attention to how often you burn through more resources than expected, how often you are fighting to go straight ahead while someone else wants to turn left, how often you stall at crucial moments.  Don’t assume clarity exists.  Check for it:  Why are we here?  Where are we going?  What will the result of our arrival be?  Check for alignment:  Are we pulling against each other?  Are two people doing what no one should be?  Are we missing opportunities?  Are we learning ‘the hard way?’  When we create both clarity and alignment, we unleash passion.  That’s pure joy.  

As a young boy, I was a bit of a line-stepper, crossing the boundaries of propriety with reckless glee and incurring my mother’s favored mode of discipline: a deep sigh followed by the Question.  She had a virtual rolodex of questions accessible for any situation.  As different as they were, her Questions all one thing in common: proceed with caution!

While not a slapper, my mother occasionally turned to her Question of Last Resort, “How would you like your face slapped?!”  As a young boy, I learned that question, along with many others, were not to be answered…aloud.  Oh, I answered them in my thoughts, but not aloud.  “Gently, please.”

“Who do you think you are?” was another favorite; the last word carried wide-eyed emphasis.  On occasion, my sarcastic tongue got the best of me and I answered her which prompted another Question from mom (see above).

As humorous as this is to me in hindsight, the question, “Who do you think you are?” has ripened and developed over the years for me.  I’ve come to call this the “context” question.  And over time the “Who do you think you are?” Question my Mother posed has transformed into the “Connect First; Content Second” mental tool.  Who are you to me?  It’s the question most of us ask when we are given advice or instruction or criticism.  It’s a great question.  We set the context with people (Who am I to you?) by connecting with them.  It’s only out of that connection that the context of the content is accurately established.

I’ve observed that the most effective communicators “connect first” and communicate the “content second.”  They slow their pace, ask questions, stop, stoop and stay in the world of their audience (of one or of a thousand).  Only after “connecting” do they offer their “content.”  So, the next time you are asked to speak to a group of people (large or small), remember to “connect first” and express “content second.”

It is said that the number one fear of the American public is “speaking in public.”  Whether this is an urban legend or scientific fact, it is not a stretch to agree that most people react to requests to speak with barely contained terror, hands tensing, eyes darting for the exit.  If you are one of those people, or if you find yourself less than your best, practice the “Connect first, content second” tool.  Take time before, and in the first few moments of, the presentation to get into the world of the listener or audience.  Get curious.  If I connect with you, the content we share will be much less about me and more about how it applies to you.

Like my mother, everyone is asking, “Who do you think you are?”  This is especially true when we dare to stand up and advise, instruct or inform.  Connect with people and answer the question.  I’m in this with you.  I’m someone who is interested in you.  I’m someone who respects you and your experience.  Once we answer the “context” question by connecting with people, the “content” of what we communicate is more meaningful.

Thanks to my Mother, I’ve learned that some questions, although perplexing, are worth answering.  So one final question, “What were you thinking???”

 

Time Travel

July 9, 2013

July 9, 2013

I have the pleasure of working with people who live in different time zones than I.  Although the differences make for slight complications of calendaring, especially with phone calls, and the occasional “good morning” greeting to someone well in to their afternoon, the differences are usually slight enough that they result chuckles or schedule shuffles.  This reality has created a discipline in our company: we always think, “What time zone is he in?” 

A while ago, I was speaking with the CEO of a large organization who, new to the enterprise, had completed a round of conversations with employees many of whom expressed deep frustration stemming from a long standing parking problem.  The organization is located in the urban core of Seattle, Washington in a neighborhood that is unsafe after dark.  Night shift employees often had to park several blocks away and walk to work.  Their complaints, well founded, were brought to the previous, and now the new, CEO both of whom agreed that the problem was significant and promised to address it. 

My new-CEO friend recounted the conversations with night shift employees and, with a smile, described the solution: a new employee parking garage on yet-to-be-purchased property adjacent to the company.  He leaned back, patted the binder containing the strategic plan and changed the subject as if to say, “Check! Done! Next?” 

I thought again of the idea of Time Zones.  The CEO was literally living in a time zone in his mind that was at least two years into the future.  The night shift employees were living in the “now” time zone.  And, conflict developed. 

Sometimes our conflict at work or outside of work arises not from a difference in philosophy or values or even strategic direction.  Rather, many of our conflicts occur because in the mind of one person this is not a problem.  He or she is in another time zone where the problem has been solved or hasn’t occurred at all.  Like my friend the CEO, because the parking garage plan was made and approved, the safety concerns of the employees had also been addressed.  And he was correct; fast-forward two or three years and “problem solved.”  But not from the perspective of the employees.

Additionally, some people dwell in the past, literally in a “yesterday” time zone.  They view today’s problems through the lens of old slights, oversights and offenses and can’t move on.  In a conversation with a frustrated small group of public safety professionals, I asked, “When did this occur?”   I expected to hear “last Tuesday” but was surprised to hear a passionate “Six years ago!”

Just as with my phone appointments to the other coast, I’ve made it a discipline to listen for and confirm the “time zone” that the other party lives in by asking “When do you expect that will be done?”  Or, “When did that happen?”  And, “What is going on right now?”  We’ve significantly improved our ability to solve the right problem, to take advantage of the right opportunity, by paying attention to the differences in time zones.