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 it 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. 

The Gift of Constraints

August 29, 2011

Look at your watch. Do you have enough time to read 467 more words? If the time crunch is just one of the constraints you are experiencing, perhaps this will help.
Significant constraints in time, money, energy and workforce–especially when protracted–are among the most valuable gifts any leader can receive. When slight or moderate constraints happen, your well-developed management skills suffice in meeting the challenge. When the necessity of five percent increases in work or five percent decreases in resources occur, most of us use incremental approaches to managing these changes. We rely on current practices and systems to eke out efficiencies, and we are a little better at doing what we currently do.
But when constraints in resources are significant, simple across-the-board cuts fail, and a different approach is required. In fact, when there simply isn’t enough to do what we have been doing, even with greater efficiencies, effective (and courageous) leaders recognize the gift they’ve been given: the gift of clarity.
If you and your organization are experiencing considerable resource constraints and continuing increases in justifiable need, stop trying to manage your way out of the storm by increasing efficiencies or by sharing the burden across the organization. Rather, gather the courage and key stakeholders and create crystal clarity about your values, mission and purpose. Work to understand the “why” behind your organization until you can use that understanding to gain wisdom about what matters and what doesn’t. Then, with all the passion that spawned your organization in the first place all those years ago, courageously align resources to accomplish one clear and compelling purpose. Nothing else.
Why does your organization exist? If your answer includes “and,” keep thinking. If your answer includes something that others can do, keep thinking. If your answer maintains the status quo and if it isn’t compelling to you, keep thinking. When you hit (again) upon the heart of your purpose, when you want to jump out of bed in the morning to accomplish that purpose, when you can’t help telling others about it and lighting a fire in them too, you’ve hit upon the gift.
Armed with compelling clarity, realigning your resources will be more than a stop-gap exercise fraught with no-win solutions.
All effective leaders have their greatest impact during times like these. When sharpening pencils and balancing budgets and spreading around the pain equally only make things worse; when “doing more with less” is no longer an option; when cutting out doughnuts and coffee for the staff and shopping for cheaper paper towels are an old exercise in futility, recognize the gift of constraints. Roll up your sleeves, take a deep breath and jump in and Lead.
All effective leaders see some part of the possible future with clarity and compellingly describe it to us so that we are compelled by it too. And we will change almost anything to get to that future.

Bozo the Clown

February 28, 2011

Remember the Bozo the Clown punching bag that your parents bought you as a child?  I certainly do.  They could have given me a Superman or Batman punching bag but opted for the Bozo, setting me on a clear path for life…but that’s for another post. 

I’ve always been impressed by Leaders who are resilient.  They, much like Bozo, know the difference between what matters and what doesn’t.  The few things that matter are like Bozo’s foundation: that bag of sand that he had around his feet.  The rest, while it has a certain structure, doesn’t matter much; like the rest of the Bozo toy.  When you’re feeling frazzled just ask, “What really matters?”  Take the time to answer it. 

Effective Leaders are resilient under pressure.  They know what matters and it serves as their solid foundation.  With everything else, they flex.  And they smile.  When punched around by circumstances (or by people), they flex, smile and return to an upright position. 

As a Leader, do you know what matters?  Are you utterly clear about the purpose of your organization?  Are you utterly focused on your mission?  Do you make every decision based on the impact it will have on the mission?  Every decision.  Not “most” decisons; not “strategic decisions.”  Every decision.  This is the key to resilience. 

Resilient Leaders also think differently about time.  They think backwards about time.  In the mind of the Resilient Leader the mission is accomplished, the vision complete.  Today, therefore, is lived in the context of a new potential future.  Resilience comes when today’s experience (difficult or delightful) occurs in the context of a nearly certain vision. 

So, here’s a quick Resilience Quiz:

  1. Do you know the clear purpose of your endeavor?
  2. Can the three people with whom you work most closely communicate that purpose with the same passion as you?
  3. Does that purpose compel you? 
  4. Have you willingly sacrificed something of significance for that purpose?
  5. Have others? 

Yes to all:  You are one resilient Bozo.  🙂 

Next time: Resilient Leaders Create Resilient Organizations.

With widespread economic uncertainty the report from the workplace that I hear most often is “We’re afraid.”  People use other words of course, and they don’t scream and run out of the room or slap co-workers and punch out delivery men but the message is loud and clear.    

Fear at work creates some predictable reactions.  When we are afraid we shut down and shrink, strike out and protect or simply lock up and stare hoping momentum will carry us through the day.  We suppose each reaction will decrease fear and increase security.  But what if those reactions actually made us less secure in the workplace?  What if our habitual responses to fear actually made us less valuable and therefore less secure in the workplace; somehow less relevant?

Since the social contracts around work have changed and since our value in any work enterprise is a function of how quickly we adapt and learn to get results, we need a new way of thinking and responding in the face of uncertainty; a new way of approaching work. 

For generations, the most secure people in the workplace were those who had deep knowledge about a specific area; they had expertise.  Their security came from ever deepening expertise in a specific arena.  But what if the arena in which they developed expertise changed in value?  What if it was not needed as much any more?  

Now, since we are engaged in “doing a better job” rather than “doing a job,” our value comes from our ability to develop new expertise in new arenas…quickly.  The most indispensable person at work is the one whose can learn and adapt, get comfortable, get good and do it again…with a smile.    Security comes from constantly gaining expertise.  Security comes from change.  News flash, huh?  

The surprise to some, especially those frozen in fear, is that individuals with the greatest value to the enterprise are not those with static expertise (deep expertise gained in a defined and specific arena) but rather with dynamic expertise (expertise gained again and again in parallel or ancillary or developing arenas).  Learning Curve Mountain Climbers.  People who climb the mountain of the new arena “because it’s there.”  People who learn for the thrill of learning.  

A person with static expertise is good at a specific set of skills in a specific arena.  A person with dynamic expertise is good at getting good at things. 

Ponder these questions: 

Are you good at getting good at things? 

Do you know how you learn? 

Under what circumstances do you learn the most quickly? 

If you are a leader of people, do you know how they best learn?  

Do you know what each individual needs to get good at doing?  

What are the three competencies and skills that your groups need to demonstrate now?  What about next year? 

Answering these questions and then moving away from static to dynamic expertise will make a profound difference in the quality of your enterprise.  And, fear will first be defined, then be focused, and then fade into productive action.

Every Effective Leader is skilled at two things:  Creating Clarity and Creating Alignment.  Do these well and everything else falls into place. 

Clarity is created when everyone knows the focus, the purpose, the result.  It is created when everyone can answer why we are doing this, why we are here and can identify the result we are after.  What is the one purpose of this meeting, this project, this task, this company or organization?  Effective leaders know that great impact comes from disciplined focus on one thing over time.

Alignment follows Clarity.  Alignment is created when every activity, every decision, every choice and every investment is made to get us to the one clear result.  Creating Alignment requires discipline.  Aligning all we do to get to the clear outcome means that we say “yes” to one thing and “no” to dozens of things. 

How clear are the people you lead?  Do they know what you are all trying to accomplish?

How aligned are your efforts?  Are all your investments of time and energy pointed in the same direction?

Here’s some “Rocket Surgery” (to quote our former President): How do you know if people are clear about what you are trying to achieve in the meeting, in the project, in the department?  Ask.  How do you know if people are aligned?  Ask.  You will be surprised at what you hear.