goals

Is it time to play Kill the Company?

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I just finished up Adam Grant’s book Originals (see his website at adamgrant.net) and really like one of the examples he shared for for generating more, original ideas with your team: Kill the Company.

In short, if you want to generate some excitement and energetic thinking, don’t ask your team to envision the future from within, ask them to imagine what your competitor would do, with unlimited funds and opportunity, to kill your company.

There are a lot of factors in play here, and it’s worth reading the book if you want a more complete understanding. It’s an interesting twist though, because it engages our imagination in a different way. It’s hard to imagine the future from what you already know. If you own a car company, and you want to do better, your default is to start with a car. If you want to kill the car company, you begin thinking differently: Driverless? Subscription service instead of ownership? Drone delivery? Bike pods?

How are you going to defeat those competitors who’re out to kill your company?

Take a moment to imagine this from within your organization.

How would someone pinpoint your weaknesses? Overcome them? Do things differently and better?

Now, counter.

I’d love to hear if you’ve tried this in your organization and whether it was successful?

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Tired of all those must-do’s? Try asking this question

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Do you recognize this day?

Wake up (snooze button, anyone?), stumble into the shower, throw some breakfast together (if there’s time), hustle everyone else out the door, dash off to work, forget something halfway down the steps, run through your list of things you must-not-forget-today while you drive to work, dash from meeting to meeting, realize you forgot your lunch on the kitchen counter (probably next to a kid’s homework or a library book you’ve been meaning to return for at least a week now), accumulate three new post-it-notes next to the ones left from yesterday, leave feeling like you’re even further behind than you were when you started.

Dinner? After-school activities? Family? Laundry? Dishes? Bills? Answer your sister’s phone call? Bed? Repeat?

That clutter of must-do’s quickly translates into a heaping serving of resentment topped with fatigue sauce and a sleepless cherry on top, doesn’t it?

But you can’t get out of it. Because you must eat, you must work, you must make sure the kids are okay (and they are, really).

Must. Must. Must.

Or must you?

When we feel put-upon by a lot of external obligations, we feel powerless. Our time is not our own. Our decisions are not our own. That perception of our situation is very strong and very difficult to manage at busy times or moments of transition.

That’s when you can ask this question: Must I? Or can I choose?

There are external forces at work in our lives. Yet we usually have more choices than we realize. The problem is that by the time you arrive at this over-stressed point, you don’t feel like you have the chance to stop and ask. You feel like you don’t have a choice.

There are a lot of choices though. Start with some small ones and build up you choosing muscles. Through practice, you can change your perspective from put-upon to making-decisions.

How?

Start small.

A colleague told me he sits in his car for one minute when he leaves the office. He just sits there. He breathes. It’s a minute of reset.

I tend to stay until the last moment, dash out the door, turn the key, pull out, and drive all in a matter of moments.

His way is better. He’s choosing to regain control over that moment and says it makes a clean break between work and home.

That’s a small step with big payoffs.

Pay attention.

How often do you scarf down your lunch giving it hardly a thought? When your child or partner asks what you ate for lunch and you can’t really remember, that’s a sign that you’re not choosing to eat lunch, you’re just letting it happen. (hopefully!)

Take a moment. Eat lunch. Choose to pay attention.

Focus.

Your mind is scrambling along at a million miles, generating anxious to-do’s while you’re supposedly watching your kid’s sports team. You’re surfing the phone, trying to do something that would take you a fraction of the time on a computer, but you’ve got to multi-task and get that last email out.  Really? Or are you choosing to be absorbed in something that might get a few kudos from people who (you hope) notice how dedicated you are?

Your choice.

Manage your time.

Time management isn’t something you’re born with. Some people have a gift, yes. The rest of us learn it.

Too busy to learn?

Your choice.

The bottom line is, when you start seeing your time as something you choose to use, and seeing yourself as an active participant in your life, your ability to choose well goes way up. Your perspective changes.

That’s a great choice.

Want some more information on time management? Check out these resources:

Why you should do your worst task first today

Psychology Today articles on time management

Make your working hours work for you – Entrepreneur article

Manage your energy, not your time – HBR article

Are you ready to take it to the next level?

Seven things that actually mattered

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Pick a Puddle.

At my freshman orientation for college (year omitted!) the university’s president said “Don’t be like ducks, with opportunity rolling off your backs like raindrops. Take advantage.” I thought I got it. I wasn’t going to be that duck. I chased a lot of rain, which was great. For a while.

Looking back, I realized he forgot a key point: Don’t forget to pick a puddle.

If you find your puddle and fill it with the things you care about most, you get the good out of it. Puddles don’t have to be small and limiting. They should have room for the things you’re focused on – family, key career ambitions, personal growth – and they should’t overflow with things that distract you from your integral purpose.

Picking a puddle brings focus. It also means saying “no” to the distractions. The nice-to-have resume builder that you don’t really care about? No, thank you. The I-really-should obligation? Maybe there’s someone out there who actually wants to do that one.

This idea really hit home for me when my kids were little. There were other moms in their preschools who volunteered in the mornings and put together events. I worked. I scrabbled time off to go to the early-afternoon cupcake party or the holiday parade, but every time I passed on the sign-up list I felt like I was letting my kids down or somehow being a second-rate mom. I realized that I had to make peace with this situation or drive myself batty.

So I focused on what I could do. I took good care of my kids. I provided supplies. I attended the events the other parents organized. And I let got of feeling like I wasn’t doing enough to pitch in. Much  of my work has been community-focused, taking time and energy during evenings and weekends. That’s my puddle. My kids’ well-being is my puddle. They didn’t care whether I was being a super-mom in everyone else’s eyes. They just wanted to know that I came to their event and that I cared about them. That was enough.

Be purposeful in your career.

Purposeful is not the same as ambitious. Ambition is great. Positive ambition moves us forward, gives us direction, and helps make the world a better place. Ambition alone can be directionless. It can propel us through choices, through jobs, through decisions yet still leave us hunting for the next gold star or seal of approval.

Purpose depends on understanding what’s important to you and making your decisions with both your short-term satisfaction and your long-term interests in mind.

Purpose helps you shape decisions, see opportunities, and follow a path that may not always be direct or clear, but brings you meaning along the way.

I’ve had friends who went for the higher salary and better title with each promotion only to find themselves making a lot of money, living in a nice house, and wondering how they’d ended up there. They could tell their story – they’d been ambitious and collected all the prizes – but they ended up saying things like “I never thought I’d work in a company that doesn’t really do anything.” or “I just make lots of money for other people and they let me keep some.”

Other people I’ve known have been deliberate about taking only opportunities that delighted them at the moment and are left wondering where all the time and money went.

I’ve done both. Taken jobs because they were safe or necessary. Taken risks because I felt cornered. It wasn’t until I started to develop a better sense of my puddle and my purpose that I could begin to make decisions with some long-term meaning.

For some people, this appears to be easy. They seem to know their purpose and pursue it with great intention. When I listen to my friends, co-workers and family though, I believe that most of us don’t have this kind of singular drive. In a world of endless opportunities and choices, this part of career management is a learned art.

Learning yourself is a good place to start.

Don’t stay in bad relationships.

We’ve all gossiped about someone in a bad relationship. Why doesn’t she leave him? Can’t he see what’s wrong with this situation? Most of us know that it’s really hard to see from the inside what we clearly see (or think we see) from the outside.

We stay for many reasons. We fear failure and loss. We rationalize, we make excuses, we don’t question our story about how we arrived here and why we stay. But our story is just that. It’s a story we tell ourselves about the path we’ve followed, the choices we’ve made, and how they all hang together. The thing to remember is that we are writing that story all the time. When you find yourself stuck, wondering where the love went, it’s time to put on your best-friend-perspective and try to see your situation from the outside.

If a co-worker is consistently egging you into situations you’re not comfortable with, maybe it’s time for a new relationship.

If you’re not feeling fulfilled by the choices you’re making about your time, maybe it’s time to choose differently.

Sometimes we stay because we “owe it to them.” Loyalty is good. But be sure you’re being honest. Loyalty that’s a cover for fear, insecurity, or failure to reflect is not good. It’s fine – admirable – to be loyal, and, like with any good relationship, you will change, you will grow, and you can participate in the relationship to make sure you’re getting what you need out of it. That’s when everybody comes out stronger.

Focus on your strengths and fill in your gaps

There are a lot of people out there who are willing to tell you what your weaknesses are and how to fix them. It’s easy to get sidetracked into a self-bending case of triple-i: Insecurity, inadequacy, inferiority. Don’t go there.

You’re not perfect.

But you already knew that.

I remember a favorite teacher telling our class that her job was to help us learn to think. “You need to know how to think and how to find information. You don’t need to memorize the dictionary.”

Find out what you’re really good at and focus on that first. Great with numbers? Master everything you can about budgets, financing, and software. Good at people? Get some experience mediating, leading discussions, and public speaking. Shine.

When you realize you’re not good at something, don’t obsess, just fill in the gaps

You’re the numbers guru but not great at public speaking? Offer to make a budget presentation to your group. Take your strength and use it to support your attempts to fill in your gaps.

Great at leading teams but terrible at meeting deadlines? Get your best performing team together and poll them for suggestions. Then put them in play.

Any change requires discipline, doubling up something that’s easy for you to do with something you need to improve gives you more energy to pull through the tough parts.

Fix. Don’t obsess.

Learn to have difficult conversations

Here’s the exception to “don’t obsess.” If there’s one thing I think we should all obsess over, it’s learning how to have difficult conversations.

Figure out what you fear (confrontation, anger, being wrong, being vulnerable) and find out how to get better at it. There are resources out there. Read them. Learn them. Practice.

This is one skill that you can, and should, master.

It will make you better at everything.

Stuff happens. To everyone.

It’ll happen to you. The thing you didn’t expect that knocks you off your track. It may be temporary, it may be life-altering. It will happen. Probably more than once.

It’s never over.

Keep going.

Ask for help.

It’s probably happening to someone you work with right now.

Give help.

We’re all in this together.

Have a heart

Take a moment to say hello. Notice something. Ask a question. Those people you work with? The ones who annoy you, don’t meet your deadlines, and can’t see what’s completely obvious to anyone who would stop to think for two seconds? There’s probably something good about each and every one of them.

Some of the best conversations I’ve had have been with people I didn’t particularly like at the time. But if you’re willing to set that aside and listen, you may find that they’re only human. They have lives, problems, and people who drive them crazy.

You may be one of them.

You never know when somebody is trying to manage a sick parent in another state, dealing with a rocky marriage, or worried about a kid in trouble.

All you can do is respect them as fellow human beings and try to do your best.

I’ve had the good fortune to know what it’s like to work with people of integrity, to work with a sense of purpose, and to feel compassion and care for the people around me.

I’ve also known what it’s like to be a nameless cog, to be looked down upon, and to feel under-appreciated and unfulfilled. In those circumstances, it’s difficult to bring our best to the table. When I found myself babysitting the monster of all copiers for days on end, shuffling different colored papers in and out of trays and tugging torn bits of confetti from the guts of that toner-laden beast, I was not bringing what I had to offer to the picture.

When I left that job, not knowing what was next, one woman took me aside and said “I’m glad you’re leaving. You’re going to do so much more and when you need a reference, just ask.”

Her confidence gave me hope at a time when I really needed it.

Those are the people we remember.

Maybe if someone had handed me this list years ago, it wouldn’t have meant anything to me, but eventually enough experiences run together and there you have it – your puddle.

If you only change one thing in 2015 this should be it

Whether you’re a resolution-maker or not, it’s hard to escape the lists of suggestions for new tasks, goals, and ideas that sprout this time of the year.

Personally, I love resolutions. I have years worth of left-over lists, some kept, some not.

This year, I’m taking a new approach. I’m making just one resolution that I hope will have a positive impact on others: send fewer emails.

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If I had to name one thing I hate right now, it’s my inbox. Crammed to overflowing with conversations I don’t need to be part of, general announcements, and strings of people trying to figure out when to meet and where, I just about want to rip my hair out when I see that dreaded “unread” number creeping up and up and up.

There are gems of important information in there. Nuggets of real work. But it’s like panning for gold. Backbreaking, endless, tedium that occasionally yields a flake or two of sunshine. And I’m pretty sure the good stuff is buried just downstream.

I’ve had enough.

But if you really aren’t ready or able  to get off email, what are your options?

You can find lots of online wisdom if you google “taking back your inbox” and “how to manage email” but they tend to read like instruction manuals for a better gold panning contraption.

I toyed with this idea last year (way back in 2014), but I didn’t make a focused effort. I dabbled, I deleted, I tried to be disciplined. But I still reverted to typing three cryptic words and hitting send when I was in a hurry. Of course, those hurried emails bounced right back at me, asking for clarification, more information, or sparking a series of conversational notes.

This year, I’m getting serious.

My resolution to send fewer emails is based on these goals:

  • Contribute less to the mess.
    • Do I need to say this? Does it offer new, relevant, or helpful information? Or am I contributing to an e-conversation that would be better handled in person?
  • Don’t pass the buck.
    • Am I sending this email as a placeholder? To let someone know I’m on it? Or to send responsibility to someone else just to get a task out of my inbox? Is there a better way to complete it now?
  • Be clear.
    • Am I writing with a sense of purpose and clarity? Am I being complete but not overly wordy? 
  • Pick up the phone
    • Will this email generate questions and additional emails that I could handle with a phone call now? Is there an emotion involved that will come through better on the phone?
  • Walk down the hall.
    • Is this an opportunity to interact, make a connection, complete the task and get moving? 

I’m hoping that this one goal – fewer sent emails – will open up some space for the working and thinking we all crave. That’s where the real gold lies.

Here’s wishing you fewer emails and better communications for 2015.

Are the many messages of perfection preventing you from achieving one thing?

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It happens every year. December comes immediately after Thanksgiving and bam! 

Holidays.

You’d think I’d know this by now. After all, the holiday season apparently begins sometime in early October with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannauka and everything else tossed in a potentially stress-inducing fiesta.

Leading this ever-advancing tide of pressure are the many perfection messages:

Have a hassle-free holiday

Make the perfect holiday meal

Decorations you can do on a dime

In that moment when I realize the year is almost over, I typically react in one of two ways. Sometimes the barrage is a challenge – I’m going to take this season by storm! – and out come the notepads, smartphones, and the determination to micromanage the heck out of the next few weeks.

At other times, it’s all the reason I need to crawl back under the covers and pretend none of it’s happening.

Either way, the idea that there’s some perfect person out there floating through the stress in a cloud of peppermint-scented-calm is enough to make me throw up my hands.

I can’t do a perfect holiday.

I can’t do a perfect work-place, either.

Thinking about seasonal stress got me to thinking about how we tend to see stress as an absolute (stress vs. calm) year-round. This mindset can cause conflict because it focuses us on a given solution (no stress) without letting us consider where our focus belongs.

Those perfection messages reinforce this notion that it’s an all-or-nothing situation. Either you’re a stressed out mess or not. And there are so many opportunities to feel behind or lacking.

Either you’re a stressed-out mess or you’re calm, organized, filing those emails as they pop up, managing your time to the maximum, and networking after hours. Then you’ll set some new year goals and you’ll be on your way. But really, no matter how on-top of things you are, the pendulum swings back and forth because life happens.

 

We are surrounded by the many. Many ways to improve, many ways to succeed. We are told everyone has the potential to be President, run a start-up, make a million (over and over), and be happy. And it’s all supposed to be easy a la “ten simple steps and you can be the leader” or “want to succeed? just do this”

This season, I’m looking for a way to reduce the many mindset and be open to focusing on one area at a time.

For instance, there are three events that all have holiday significance to me and- the calendar gods must be crazy – this year they’re all on the same weekend. I began trying to figure out which one we could do on Friday – Saturday – Sunday – all in the name of holiday spirit. Then a little voice in my head said just pick one.

One is a realistic goal.

With one, I can still do some of the normal things that make a weekend work for me. Like buy milk.

One got me thinking.

When I have a head full of to-do’s, it’s helps to dump them all down on one piece of paper and then choose one place to start.

When my day is overloaded, it helps to pick one think to accomplish that day and do it first.

When I need to have a difficult conversation with someone, it helps to pick one point of focus instead of trying to address all the problems in a single conversation.

One is about focus.

As someone who tends towards the page of goals, I don’t think this will be easy for me, but I’ve experimented in small ways and the Holidays provide another sanity-saving opportunity to experiment with one.

Are you a one or many person? What have you learned and what would you share?

 

Lost is a good place to start

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If you don’t know where you are, or you’re not sure where you’re going, your navigation software isn’t going to get you there.

Most of us have something we’re supposed to be figuring out. Maybe it’s a career path or a difficult family situation. The searching can be frustrating and sometimes lead to shoving the whole project into our mental closet for sometime later when I have more time to deal with this.

It feels safe to know exactly where we’re going next, but when the path isn’t clear, the not-knowing can stop us from even taking the first step.

The Adjacent Possible

The adjacent possible is an idea borrowed from the work of theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman and it is, basically, the concept that evolution happens at the edges of what is already happening. We can’t see ten or twelve steps down the evolutionary path, but we often can see around the edges of what we already know.

The idea is similar to what we do when we want to achieve a reach goal. If you’ve never been a runner but you decide to run a marathon, you probably won’t start by heading out for a 20-mile run. The first step is probably a jog around the block. With that first outing, you’ve stepped into the adjacent possible. With each step outward, you’re expanding your possibilities. 5K? 10K? Half-marathon? Marathon? Triathlon?

A lot of our work is more complicated than laying out a marathon training program because the variables are unpredictable. The Economy. Our co-workers. Changing work-place environments. Changing family situations. In many cases, we leap to a possibility’s fully-formed future and it seems unattainable (I could never do that) or we get overwhelmed by the things that could happen along the way (There’s no way to figure this out) and we stop.

Using the adjacent possible as a guide, and a mind-map as your guidebook, we can break a stretch into attainable possibilities. Notice I didn’t say “break it into steps.” More on that in a moment.

The Unattainable Goal

A single-celled organism didn’t become a Zebra overnight so if you want to be a Zebra, it helps to think backward. What’s in the world around your zebra?

Maybe you want a top-ranking position but you feel like your qualifications aren’t there yet and your experience isn’t sufficient. What would be close to your goal?

This is where a mind-map can come in handy. Jotting down all the experiences and skills that might be hovering around your goal gives you a world from which to map back to where you are now. Take a few of those next-to-your-goal ideas and map them out. You’re essentially after a treasure map, in reverse, leading to where you are today. When your backward mapping begins to contain experiences and skills you already have, you’ve have a map of pathways from today to your future goal.

Once done, it could look something like this:

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The interesting thing about this map is that it will not show you a single path but a web of ways in which you might get to your goal. And the interesting thing about working towards our long-range goals is that both the path and the goal tend to change with time. So hanging onto that map and revisiting it to add new ideas and possibilities is a good idea. After all, each time you change your world, the adjacent possible changes with it.

The Unpredictable Goal

All goals are unpredictable but some are more wild and hairy than others. Our culture tends to reinforce the idea that success and progress are linear, measurable, and easy to map out. We want to list a series of steps, take them one-by-one and- voila! -results achieved. Everywhere we turn, we are bombarded by info graphics, predictive models, and performance measures. They can be very helpful but they can also create a sense of risk-aversion if you want to work towards something less numeric and harder to see. Something out there in the soup of future possibilities.

Let’s imagine a hurricane. When meteorologist are predicting where a hurricane will land, they use the cone of uncertainty.

As the storm moves closer, their prediction is more accurate until we have landfall in real time. When you’re working toward an unpredictable goal, you’re pretty far off shore, and your cone is wide. The same exercise above, mapping out the adjacent possibilities, can help. In this case, however, you may be after a particular result – better customer service – and the path you establish could bring in new information that causes your target (your landfall) to shift. If you’ve mapped out a wide range of possibilities for your program, you can keep your eye on the main goal (landfall: improved customer feedback) and be flexible along the way (implementing new ideas that come from your feedback loop).

Your new cone/map of uncertainty might look like this:

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The Missing Ingredient

All these exercises require the one thing that seems to be in shortest supply for everyone I talk with. Time.

We all rush around, checking email and feeling hounded by deadlines and the list of things you didn’t get don yesterday or the day before. Shoving our ideas into the corner is easier than setting aside the time to actually deal with them.

In order to do this, you have to find a way that works for you. (check out Gretchen Rubin’s video on forming habits by being true to your nature – it’s liberating)

Maybe this mind-mapping exercise doesn’t sound like fun in which case it might be your “frog” and you could try doing it first today.

Or maybe you relish the opportunity to daydream and doodle a little and you wouldn’t mind getting up early or spending your lunch hour alone someplace, undisturbed.

If you’re feeling like you don’t have the time at all, think for a moment about all the minutes you’ve already spent thinking about the fact that you’re not dealing with this nagging thing, and maybe the ultimate cost-savings will help you find the motivation to pull out your pen and get busy mapping.

You might find a treasure somewhere along the way.