micro learning

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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Do you think “Because” when you should ask “Why?”

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I talked to a friend of mine who is in the construction phase of her dream life. Literally. She’s building a farm from the ground up and it’s full of space for start-up farmers, heritage animals, and other yet-to-be-imagined ventures.

She then went on to talk about the challenges of beginning this new venture. Coming from the corporate world, where petty cash is accounted for and everyone gets “the rules,” she was stunned to realize that people would steal tools, that cash would go missing, and that the rules weren’t as black and white as before.

Her father was a general contractor and she was marveling at his ability to come home day after day with love and respect for his family.

“I had no idea what he was dealing with at work, he was just there for us,” she said.

She asked her dad how he did it and he said “it’s not about you. These people have their own lives, they’re not trying to hurt you. They’re trying to take care of their families. They’re trying to get by. Just put your systems in place and don’t take it personally.”

She said it was a turning point. She’s never been so nonjudgmental about the people around her before.

It’s easy to make assumptions.

We think we know why people do or say things in a certain way, but if we ask them, we are often surprised.

Yet we resist.

Someone asked me why I thought a particular individual was asking for information.

  • Was he trying to make this person look bad?
  • Was he being nosy?
  • Was he trying to second guess this person’s decision?

With this story fresh on my mind, a thousand (or at least a few) other, alternate, explanations sprang to mind while they were talking.

We don’t know.

We’re quick to assume it’s about us. Something we said, something we fear, something we did.

In this case, what we did know was easy to state. And we could ask a question  – “Is there something else you’d like to know that I can help you with?”

When we let go of our stories about why we think people are doing things, we’re able to ask the Why question. And often, it turns out, it’s not all about us.

I think this home-grown lesson will stick with me for quite a while.

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.

Live Your Dreams – a check-in

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I came across an article in the May issue of Yoga Journal (How Yoga Can Help You Love Your Job) that was probably one of the best work-related pieces I’ve read in a while.  It was a response to the “What if I don’t love my job” angst that seemed not only to fit the magazine’s readers who might be looking for a strong connection between meaning and their daily activities but it also fits one of the recurring themes seems so pervasive it’s hard to notice any more.  Live Your Dreams.

As the article points out, it would be nice if we could all rely on the universe to provide once we’d embraced our true destiny, but I’ve got these bills sitting on my desk in a messy pile next to my computer and these kids who need things like clothing, food, and the occasional weird rubber bracelets or “awesome” socks.  So what to do?

I love my work, I’m not in a soul-sucking-situation where I can feel time smothering me like molasses (I’ve been there, I’d recognize it for sure) but there are moments when we all look up and think “This is it?  Is this what I’m meant to do?”  I think people are wired to search for the big picture – some sort of meaning beyond themselves.  At least most of us.

The article had one of the most elegant responses – the meaning is in the doing.  Think about that for a moment.  You bring your core self to the task, doing it in a way that is consistent with your values and your larger self.  The implication?  You let go of the results.

Whiplash anyone?

I think of doing good work as getting to the “end.”  You know, A+, success, smiles, check that one off the list.

I had to think about that one for a few minutes.  I had to think hard.

My work is not predictable – even if I do my best in the execution, the end result is usually up for grabs.  Letting go of the notion that a “failure” is still the result of good work does not come naturally.  I’m still trying this one on – tentatively – and thinking that if I can’t just pick up and live my dreams a la Hollywood, maybe I can give it a shot at the micro-level.

We’ll see how it goes.

The Busy Badge

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Earlier this week I heard a co-worker say something surprising.

“In my old department, we used to have a scheduled time once a week when the entire department shut down, we were all in our offices, and we caught up on our professional reading, did some training, or something to improve our skills.  No email, no phone calls, just learning time.”

Confession – the first image that popped into my mind was a Mad Men scene – you know, someone (probably a partner) stretched out on a fabulous mod sofa, thoughtfully swirling some amber liquid (not diet coke) in a short glass.  Close the department?  For two whole hours?  To learn? Can you imagine your co-workers’ reactions?

Of course, it’s really not that absurd, when you think about it.  I don’t know about you, but I do most of my learning in micro-bits.  Teeny-tiny-tweets, email digests (and yes, I usually only read the half of the summary that shows up on my smart phone), scans of articles and news while I eat my lunch.  It’s not real learning.  And yet the idea of shutting down for two hours sounds, well, decadent if not downright drinking-at-work unacceptable!

I think part of that reaction is a sort of peer-pressure.  We’re all so “busy”.  I’d be willing to bet if you work in an office you can’t make it through a day (or even an hour) without engaging in the “I’m so busy!!”  conversation, right?  Busy is a badge of honor.  It’s a symbol of power, importance, desirability. Busy is the new norm.  But I’m not sure that’s a good thing.  We have so much information at our fingertips – literally – and yet we have a hard time finding time to make good use of it.

I’m not sure I can yet imagine how we could all reclaim that dedicated time to think, learn, get better at what we do, but maybe it starts with small steps.  Like carving out a few more minutes to finish that article or read that whole email digest.  Trade a little busy for better?