Spam. So Good. So Bad.

During World War II, many islands in the South Pacific lived on a salty canned meat-ish product called Spam. The original Spam had nothing to do with junk mail in your inbox. A hunger-induced and acquired taste, affectionately named “mystery meat”, it was slightly more nourishing than dirt and sticks. While visually unappealing, it served a noble purpose: keep people alive when food was in short supply.spam-tin

Today, the need for Spam has disappeared but it is still a staple in the diet of many cultures. Spam sales globally have not slacked even as food supplies and advanced preservatives abound. People eat it for breakfast with eggs and for dinner with rice.

My business partner Donnie (a proud descendant of Guamanian parents) smiles, laughs and eats Spam with delight (and a hint of guilt). He knows it is not good for him. That knowledge does not dampen his evangelistic zeal for the stuff. Admittedly, I also get a little giddy when he makes a feast including the suspicious substance. I enjoy the salty oddity like I’m an Islander. It’s not good for me. I know it. Donnie knows it. Spam, Inc. knows it. No one on the planet thinks Spam is good for them. But we still choose to eat it. It is comforting.

Some workplace cultures have comforting cans of Spam in them as well. Practices, norms, behaviors that were adopted at another time and served a purpose but are no longer necessary. Behaviors and habits that erode the health of the organization but that we keep doing because we like them so much.

What are the Spam cans in your workplace? Perhaps “venting” is one of your Spam cans. Regardless of all common sense and deep research outlining the destructive impacts (to the individual and the team) resulting from a culture where venting is accepted, you like it. So it continues.

Perhaps your Spam can is the “we have it so hard; this job is so stressful” mantra where individuals think that no one else works as hard as they work. Maybe your Spam can is the belief that no one else could do your job. You and your team members are irreplaceable snowflakes of excellence. Perhaps your Spam can is the mindset that Management doesn’t get you, so you must have an adversarial labor/management relationship.

Or, your Spam can is about conflict avoidance. You remember a conflict that went poorly, so you all agreed to keep things tranquil at all costs. Never upset one another because, after all, making everyone happy is your organization’s mission. All of these and more were probably appropriate at one point. They might have been the best you could muster for the season. Now, they are Spam. They remain part of your culture, not because they are correct and good and powerful, but because you like them. At one point, there was someone to blame. He was a hot mess, after all. Now, blaming is just comforting. At one point doing more with less was the right thing to do. Now, it’s just an excuse for not achieving replicable excellence.

What can you do about it? First, share this idea with your team. Bring in a Spam can and serve it up with eggs and rice. Laugh over habits and practices that you all have that are not good for you. Then identify the ones that are not all that funny. Pick one of them. Decide how to stop it. And, stop it. Then, replace it with expectations and behaviors that get you to your mission more effectively. Rather than comforting gossip (called “getting feedback”), learn to communicate directly. Rather than eating the Spam of “common sense,” do the hard work of clarifying expectations. Rather than feasting on the salty goodness of your personality because “that’s just the way I am,” replace with the nourishing meal of humility. Adapt.

You get the idea.

You’ll likely have Spam withdrawals. But it’s worth it. Thanks for reading. Now, I’m going to finish off this pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

Do Park Rangers Dream of Being Accountants?

The alarm sounds at 4:35 in the morning after six days of work. Overtime again. Six-and-a-half hours of sleep feels like three. Why am I doing this? Is it for the money? Or the glory? There is probably not enough of either. Maybe it’s the fame. (Be careful if it’s about the fame. As my dear mother used to say, “No one is designed to be famous.”)

Why do you work? I’m sure you’ve asked yourself this in moments of exasperation or weariness.  Maybe you could become a Park Ranger.  Do Park Rangers ever dream of being Accountants?

Why are you in this specific job? If you are honest with yourself, your first instant thought is probably the answer. Do you work to eat? Do you work to buy fun things? Or to have security? Do you work for other reasons and food on the table is a nice and necessary benefit? Do you work at this job because you do not see any other choices?

Clarifying why you work, and why you work at this job, is crucial. If you are not clear, you will not be as resilient as you could to be. If you are crystal clear about why you are in this job, and if the purpose of this part of your career is beyond money, and if it is worth it to you (worth getting out of bed even on cold, dark days), then you are free. Then you no longer work for money or for the boss or the company but for a purpose worth engaging for.

When we study the most effective and resilient people, we discover that they are all clear about why they choose to engage in this work.  They are keenly aware that it is, after all, a choice they make daily to engage. And their “why” transcends a paycheck. It transcends convenience or comfort.  It makes the daily and weekly challenges worth surmounting.

An Accountant who dreams of being a Park Ranger, or a Park Ranger who daydreams about being an Accountant, will squander her moments, hours, weeks and perhaps years if she does not create clarity about what really matters to her.  Then, a surprising thing happens: she discovers she can move toward what really matters one hour at a time, standing where she is right now.

So, why do you work?

 

The Crib of Transformational Leadership

My Grandson is two. He is, of course, exceptional in every way. He enthralls me. He captures and holds my attention for hours. He knows precisely what he wants at any moment, focuses intensely on it and communicates clearly and efficiently. As with my three children, now adults, I can already see the structure of his personality.

His answer in any given moment is “yes!” His clear “no” merely fosters a refocused, behavioral “yes!” He says “no” to a snack because he wants to play with his motorcycle. He says “no” to a nap so that he can play with his motorcycle. His “no” is how he focuses on the “yes” of the hour. He knows instantly if the new option presented is a distraction from his motorcycle or will contribute to the experience. Offer him a cookie and he will likely say “no” while focusing intensely on the wheels. Offer him book about motorcycles and he may pause to read it with me, all the while keeping an eye on the toy Ducati. This will serve him well in life.

The ability to say yes to one thing while saying no to many other good things is a powerful fundamental skill. Highly effective leaders practice this powerful move.

But not all leaders can do this. Nor can all two year olds. Many, surrounded by new, bright, attractive options, say yes to each and create a growing stack half-tried or untouched opportunities that yield disappointment, tears and tantrums. Two year olds do this, too.

In my decades of closely studying high impact leaders I’ve concluded that the ability to say no so that they can say yes is what separates the doers from the talkers, the innovators from the doers, the transformers from the innovators.

My Grandson is learning this skill from his crib and at the knees of focused and disciplined parents. But this fundamental can be learned at any age. We can learn to begin each day with a powerful yes to the one important thing, a conscious no to those distractions that do not advance our one, leveraged goal. We can respond to every request, every distraction, every emergency, every opportunity with a brief pause, a polite “Let me think about that,” and a quick assessment. Will saying yes to this good thing result in delaying the best thing? If so, say no.

Important goals require few yeses and many nos. My Grandson has this skill. It serves him well. It will serve you, too.

A Bias For Action

When data abounds, and information is free, knowledge is often obscured. Even vast piles of information do not naturally result in understanding. When data are measured and information connected then knowledge results. But knowing isn’t enough. Applied knowledge is wisdom. Wisdom is knowing how and when to act.

If I’m frank with myself, there are themes about which I have wisdom (data plus information plus knowledge applied in a context) that have not resulted in the change I desire or in accomplishment of the goal I’ve set. Why? Why do we not do what we know we should do? This is at the root of the broader question: Why does the change not occur?

Many of us have a mental model that more compellingly packaged knowledge will result in sustained change. We hop on the change wheel at the “Know More” spot, hope to Feel Motivated, then wait for the action to follow. I call this a Bias for Knowledge.
It doesn’t work. So, we energize ourselves through internal and external motivational tools, looking to change how we feel before acting hoping that our emotions will spur action. I call this a Bias for Feelings. Neither of these biases work.

However, those who actually change, and sustain it, have developed a Bias for Action.

A Bias for Action is, on one level, unnatural. Since our brain is primarily a survival system, it defaults to the pathways requiring the least energy. Why run when you can walk? Why walk when you can sit? Why sit when you can lay down, or lay down when you can sleep? Why move when you can plan to move? Why plan to move when you can think more about what makes an effective plan? Why think when you can daydream? You get the idea. It is more natural to think than to act.

As I write this, I am miles above the Rockies on a flight from Seattle to Miami. The seats are comfortable and luxurious (thank you Alaska Airlines for the upgrade for first class). The Starbucks coffee is wonderfully aromatic and hot. The headphones block out a loud talker behind me. The view below is stunning. I thought: I need to write. My default, however, is to continue to stare mindlessly out the window (for the entire flight).

Over the years, I’ve developed a bias for action. Instead of staring out the window, within two or three seconds of the thought, and before my survival mechanisms could override my conscious thought, I reached into my European Shoulder Bag, grabbed the iPad Pro, opened it up to this page and began to write. That action took 10 seconds. That is a bias for action. I only have a few seconds following an idea in which to act before the survival system in my brain overrides the decision system. Even when the action is something I want to accomplish, and even when it is directly related to my goals, the pauses after the idea give rise to my brain’s survival instinct.

When any change is required, it calls for a bias for action. Whether in a meeting or an email, whether in a phone call or a conversation, develop a bias for action. Take a step. Take the step immediately. If we do not take the first small step, we will put the noble goal on a growing heap of hopes and dreams never to be seen again. The someday pile buries most organizations and teams.

Take action. It doesn’t have to be dramatic, sweeping, strategic action. Just action. A small step. Move. Make the call. Write the email. Put it on your calendar. Open it. Close it. Approach the individual and ask the question. Whenever you think of something that needs to be done in support of a goal, take action. Now. A small action jump starts the momentum of our mind and body.

You are thinking of something right now that you want or need to accomplish. Stop reading and take action. Regardless of what you feel like, take action. Now. You can come back to this post in a couple of minutes. This simple discipline is what separates intentionally effective people from those who have accidental effectiveness.

Welcome back.

Here’s the fun news: It doesn’t get easier as time goes on. We are hard-wired to use the least amount of mental and physical energy at every moment. Overcoming that mental default , while not complicated or protracted in its intensity, will require the same amount of will power (which we possess in limited supply) now as it will later. This is a discipline. And like all disciplines, it only takes a few seconds to trigger. It is a disciplined choice to develop a bias for action.

Here’s the good news: The choice takes mere seconds. Just move. If it’s difficult–even if it’s very, very difficult—the struggle will only last a few seconds.

Once, when I was a teenager, I complained about how difficult something was to my Uncle Marv. He laughed, said it wouldn’t last long and added, “Boy, you could stand on your head in a pile of hot horse manure for a minute if you needed to. Nothing lasts as long as we think it will. So, get on with it.”

Over the years, as I debated with myself in the two seconds following an impulse to act on a goal, I’ve found myself recalling Uncle Marv’s words with a chuckle. And I move.

So…  Why are you just sitting there?

Minding My Own Business

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.

5 Disciplines of High Impact Teams

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

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!