Are You Critical Thinkers… or Just Critical?

By: On September 22, 2015

You’ve probably been in a meeting where someone floats an idea that’s imperfect, maybe even half-baby calf
baked. They do it tentatively because they know the thought is emerging like a calf out of the womb, wobbly and likely to crash land onto the floor of the barn. It rests there, helpless, soaked in afterbirth, looking around the room with big brown eyes behind long, innocent eyelashes.

And then someone in the meeting gets up, walks over to that young idea, and smacks it across the face .

We call this critical thinking. We praise it. We hire for it. We promote it into the C-suite. We put it into a group of like-minded leaders and call it a strategy session.

And we wonder why strategy sessions and leadership team meetings often feel sterile, dull, and tense all at the same time.

Maybe it’s because we mix up critical thinking and having a critical spirit. Here’s the difference:

  • That idea might end up in here someday...

    That idea might end up in here someday…

    Critical thinking listens to an idea. It holds the idea up to the light like a gemstone being evaluated by a skilled jeweler. It tests and probes. It tells the truth but with an eye toward discovering potential. When it sees a flaw, its first impulse is to try to polish it, to take what’s good about the idea and improve upon it. It resists the urge to demolish and discard too quickly. Crucially, critical thinking is at least neutral toward the person who brought forth the idea. On good days, it is generous toward that person, perhaps even grateful that they had the courage to bring their idea out into the open. It not only allows the calf to stumble around. It puts its hands under the calf’s shoulders and helps it walk.

  • A critical spirit is different. Rather than focusing on the potential of the idea, it focuses onCynic its flaws, just waiting to pounce on it and destroy it. Worse yet, a critical spirit evaluates the person who brought it forth through the lens of the unfinished idea. Inwardly, a critical spirit says, “I have way too much to do to bother listening to this clown. I never thought she/he was so bright. That half-baked idea just confirmed my suspicions. I can’t wait until they stop yapping so that I can point out the flaws in the idea.” Outwardly, the answer to every question is no. Period. End of story.

Fill the room with critical spirits and you can watch the creative oxygen leave the room. At the very least, no one is really listening. After a little while, no one is really talking either. They’re just waiting for your so-called strategy session to be over so that they can go back to work.

Fill the room with critical thinkers and well, watch out. You can sense the creative energy buzz into the room. There will probably be laughter and curious looks and shy smiles. Confidence will grow in the group’s potential to crack through their collective mental barriers.

If work is a laboratory for the soul, then here’s your next experiment: shift from killing ideas to nurturing them and see what happens.

Noonday SunBe bright.

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Four Temptations of Teams Under Pressure

By: On September 15, 2015

You’ve been in this meeting: Your leadership team is facing a whole bunch of bad news. What seemed like a plausible plan just a few months ago now seems in jeopardy. Maybe worse, it seems like a pipe dream.

You look around the room. The team has the usual characters: the three people you naturally gravitate toward; the guy who rubs everyone the wrong way but doesn’t know it; the little cluster who sees the world very differently from you, who you’ll never get; the peace-maker who is always trying to smooth off the rough edges of any disagreement; the individualist who was never really into this team anyway; the person who must be the smartest person in the room.

You bring your eyes back to the deck placed in front of you by the CFO, whose unenviable job is to communicate in a professional monotone that you, collectively, are screwed. The competition is ramping up. Customers are defecting. Regulators are rattling their keys on the door.

For a moment, you feel yourself slipping into despair, like the Dilbert character who offers to die an hour earlier in exchange for the freedom to skip this meeting.

Right then, stop. Take a deep breath and realize that your team is normal. Under pressure, every team faces four great temptations. It’s your choice whether you give in to them or go another way.

  • It's 70 and stuffy in here...

    It’s 70 and stuffy in here…

    Temptation 1: Denial – It’s easy to turn a blind eye to the realities facing a team under pressure. If you’ve always been successful because of your focus on service or price or innovation or whatever, you double down on that historical strength. You ignore the pressure. Despite the raging storm outside your windows, you make believe it’s sunny and 70. As a leader, you’re tempted to engage in willful denial so that fear doesn’t invade your team. Which leads to…

  • Temptation 2: Panic – We should expect action in teams under pressure. But there’s a big difference between action and panic. Panic looks like scattered energy without clear thought. Unless that thought is, “Holy $%#&^$.” There may be a lot of ideas in the team, but most of them are pretty unhelpful.
  • Temptation 3: Retreat to Self Interest –  Under pressure, it’s easy to lose confidence in the team, to believe that no one else has your back. You’re tempted to retreat,  to think If I don’t take care of myself who will? One of the great acts of faith on any team is that the team will watch out for my interests. In this moment, we’re tempted to recant our faith, to implicitly say that we’re unsure anyone else gives a rip about us. And if no one else is going to watch out for me on this team, I’ll have to watch out for myself. So I retreat to my own area of responsibility and hunker down. I know that this won’t help the team succeed. But I’ve given up on the team at this point. Now it’s about self-preservation.
  • Temptation 4: Blame – Put any team under pressure and the natural temptation is to blame others. We blame corporate. We blame regulators. We blame competitors. Yes, we even blame customers. But mostly, we blame each other. If someone else would just do their part, we’d be out of this mess. If we stopped long enough, we’d know that it’s not fair or helpful to be that cranky but that doesn’t stop us.

While bad enough when faced by an individual, these temptations accelerate when they’re in a team. They’re contagious. They gain a momentum all their own. Left unaddressed, they can quickly destroy months and years of hard work in building your team’s momentum.

Like any temptations, these can be avoided but only if they’re replaced with something better.

  • Replace Denial with Reality: It’s not always sunny and 70. Everyone knows that unless you happen to live in southern California, but I have nothing to say about that. Many leaders are worried about stating the truth because they don’t want to spook the troops. But what really gives confidence to your organization is when you acknowledge challenges, even acknowledge failings, and show positive steps forward. That reassures them that your head isn’t in the sand and that you’re fully invested in the solution side of the problems.
  • Replace Panic with Focused Action:  I have a client facing tough times right now. One smart guy on the leadership team has reminded us frequently of the famous scene from Apollo 13 when Gene Kranz, the flight director for the doomed mission, gathers his team and says, “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.” This is what teams need under pressure: structured activities aimed at constructive outcomes to replace the frenetic and random actions of panic.
  • Replace Retreat with Partnership: Scattering is easy and reflexive. It’s also depressing because you know deep down that you’ve given up on the team and on your teammates. You’re not the colleague you’d wish for in tough circumstances. You’re normal, but in a bad way. How much better to look around and ask yourself, who can I help on this team right now? As I do my normal work, how could I do it in a way that brings value and extra energy to the person right next to me in the team? It’s amazing how taking your eyes off yourself can raise your own spirits.
  • Replace Blame with Ownership: Shouting at the wind is easy and therapeutic in the short term. But it’s a dead end in the long run. Sure, you can’t control everything that happens outside your team.  The question is, what can we control or influence? The same applies with blame within the team. I can’t be sure that everyone will own their part of getting the team moving again. But I can be sure that I will do my part.

Just as all of these temptations can spread, so the replacements can build their own kind of momentum.  A few people take ownership. A few others make quiet but useful contributions to the success of others. Denial or exaggeration is replaced by the clarity of the truth. People get to work on useful projects to address the core issues. Spirits slowly start to lift as team members look around and say, “Hey, we’re doing something real and productive together. Maybe we can pull through this!” It’s usually slow and fragile, but the tide can turn.

Ending this post now would be convenient, but trite. The truth is that you may choose to replace these four temptations with the virtues of reality, ownership, partnership, and focused action – and your situation still may not improve. This is the real world we live in. Sometimes best efforts and noble responses yield limited results.

And yet…

If work is about more than results, if it also acts as a sort of laboratory for your soul, wouldn’t you rather walk away from even a circumstantial failure with the clear sense that you had grown as a person?

Wouldn’t you be better prepared to be an exemplary teammate and contributor during the next challenge thrown your way?

Wouldn’t it improve the chances that you would view those on your team as great people on whom you’d call in some future crisis?

Wouldn’t that be worth it?

In that case, even a superficial failure just might provide you with long-term benefit that defies calculation.

Noonday Sun

Be Bright.

Integrity Test

By: On August 11, 2015

CrossroadsI was in a meeting recently where a leadership team was grappling with their long-term direction. They’re doing what many leadership teams must do – trying to discern how to kick-start growth in their business. It complicates things that they work in the healthcare industry where there’s enough upheaval to make anyone feel queasy.

This has led the team to consider all kinds of growth ideas. In this particular meeting, they were exploring an idea about reaching a particular market segment, one that is super price sensitive. For a company that built its reputation on personalized service, this would be a departure.

We had a few outside experts in the room with extensive healthcare experience. As the meeting unfolded, one expert shared what another company had done to grow profitably in this price-sensitive segment. As she shared the details of the business model, it became clear that this other company had achieved its remarkable growth partly be being a li
tle less than forthcoming with customers. Was it downright dishonest? No. But in the immortal words of one of our past presidents, it may have been truthful but not very helpful.

The punch line of the story was simple: “That company made a ton of money in this segment.”

I sat in the back of the room watching faces, starting with the leader of the business. Curiosity turned to surprise and then to… discomfort? Disgust? It was hard to put a precise word on the facial expressions, but it wasn’t good. It was the same look I see on some face when Donald Trump says how “incredibly proud” he is that he made a lot of money by taking advantage of bankruptcy laws. When someone pulls back the veil on their success and all we
ee is naked ambition, many of us recoil. We ask that person to please grab a towel and cover themselves.

The facial expressions in the leadership team told me one thing for sure. I knew we had stumbled on a core value. People post corporate values on walls all of the time. Usually they’re lies or wishful thinking. You know you’ve hit a true value when you’re willing to walk away from profitable revenue because the business model doesn’t fit with who you are.

My client’s company has a long history of building trusting relationships with clients and partners. They care deeply about serving others. They aren’t naive. They know that a lot of organizations and people are willing to cut corners with the truth. They know that in some cases – like the one they were hearing about in this meeting – those who are willing to make those compromises have an advantage when it comes to generating certain kinds of results. But they can’t bring themselves to conduct business in that way. It would be false. Unlike Donald Trump, results at all costs would cause them discomfort when looking at themselves in the mirror.


This is an Integrity Test. Integrity is about being truthful and upright. It’s about not fudging your expense report even when no one’s looking.


But it’s deeper than that.

Integrity is knowing what you truly stand for. It’s about grasping your real values – not the motivational posters on the wall – and living by them. Even when it costs you. Maybe especially when it costs you.

In a recent Fast Company interview, Rose Marcario, the CEO of Patagonia talked about the ad her company put out during a holiday shopping season several years ago. “Don’t Buy This Jacket,” the ad blared, showing one of their high-end parkas. Of course Patagonia wants people to buy their jackets. But this wasn’t a clever piece of reverse psychology. Instead, the CEO talked about how the ad reflected the company’s core value of asking each person to have as small a footprint as possible on the Earth. That’s why they repair clothing for customers instead of simply offering replacements. That’s why they get behind low Earth-impact causes even when they have no direct benefit to Patagonia.

Ask yourself and your leadership team:

  • What would we stand for, even if it cost us in the marketplace? Usually those deep values come from somewhere in the organization’s history or the personal stories of founding members. I know of a university with roots in a religious tradition that emphasizes humble service. To this day, they’re drawn to preparing students to serve. They can’t help themselves. And I’m thankful for that.
  • When is the last time we took that sort of stand?  When did you reject a path that may have led to superficial success but would have violated your deepest beliefs? Ironically, Donald Trump is probably facing one of these moments right now. Staying true to what appears to be his core values – including achieving results at all costs within the letter of the law – will likely cost him a bona fide shot at the Republican nomination for President. This is integrity of a sort, though I wish Donald would go to the mat for something more noble than being a good Machiavellian.
  • Where can we demonstrate more integrity? There are few things more galvanizing to a team than the tangible expression of deeply held values. Look for those gray areas you’ve been avoiding, the ones that nag at you because you know they don’t really fit with your highest ideals. Search for the scary opportunity that would truly embody your company’s beliefs but carries risk or makes you stick out.

Noonday Sun
Be Bright.

The Secret To A Hopeful Planning Meeting

By: On February 24, 2014

Here’s the situation: You’re sitting in a planning meeting. Your team has brain-dumped a list of great ideas that have been turned into the next wave of initiatives.  They’re inspiring. They’re feasible. They’ve won the prioritization vote. And you leave the meeting feeling defeated, because you know none of these very good ideas will be implemented.

Here’s why: there is too much clutter in the existing system. Today’s work leaves little room for new efforts. So any senior team that wants to create a great organization has to get ready for new initiatives by regularly clearing the decks. That way, you and your staff can feel excited and positive about your planning work because something productive will come of it.

Moon Bridge at Anderson Japanese Gardens

Moon Bridge at Anderson Japanese Gardens – Photo by Jeffrey Anderson

But how do you unclutter cleverly? I decided to ask someone who has been eliminating clutter at a world-class organization for 25 years. His name is Tim Gruner and he’s the head horticulturist at Anderson Japanese Gardens, a jewel of a garden tucked away in Rockford, IL, perennially recognized as one of the top Japanese gardens in the world, and featured in garden guides. (See, for example, 55 Stunning Botanical Gardens to See Before You Die. from Emily Moore at Sproutabl.)

Tim Gruner

Tim Gruner

When you visit Anderson Japanese Gardens during the warm months, you’ll see Tim and his team out in the garden. Most of the time, they’re pruning. To you and me, it just looks like they’re cutting branches and shoots off trees and shrubs. To say we’re missing the point is an understatement.

I interviewed Tim about the art of pruning. Here are the takeaways from that interview with applications to leadership teams.

  • Context Matters: Any world-class garden is designed to create an effect on visitors. For a Japanese garden, that effect is to have humans feel connected to nature through composed scenes.

    • Leadership Application: What effect are you trying to create in customers and employees? What do you want to be famous for? Get clear on that before you start pruning. It provides you with the right mindset – the artistic eye – for the job.

  • What it’s all about (A): At a basic level, pruning keeps the garden alive by avoiding over-crowding. Tim says, “We’d lose this garden within a year if we didn’t prune it.” Individual plants need pruning so that they get enough light to stay healthy.

    • Leadership Application: How do you know if your key projects are healthy? When is the last time you examined them for signs of drift or bloat? The law of entropy applies at work just like in a garden.

  • What it’s all about (B): At a deeper level, pruning helps each plant fit with the rest of the plants around it in the “composition.” No individual plant can be managed on its own but only as it relates to the scene it creates with those around it.

    • Leadership Application: When your senior team prunes work efforts, how much of the conversation centers on how each project fits into the larger picture? Effective leadership teams design the overall work portfolio to achieve a specific strategic goal. So if a company needs to ramp up innovation to respond to a changing environment, they look at the overall weighting of their efforts and ensure that enough of them are focused on exploratory work.

  • What it’s all about (C): At its deepest level, pruning preserves the potential of the garden for future generations. By maintaining individual plants and the overall composition, you have the potential to create extraordinary experiences for people in the future.

    • Leadership Application: What pruning needs to happen now to preserve the potential of your organization for the future?

  • How to learn it: Pruning looks simple but takes years to master. Mastery starts with humility and then continues with observation of skilled pruners, experimentation under supervision, and being comfortable with the risk of mistakes.

    • Leadership Application: How intentionally do you practice the skill of pruning as a senior team? I’m not talking about the reactive cost cuts that come when business turns south or someone tells you that you must cut now. We all know what that sort of reactive exercise feels like. I’m talking about making it an art you master through regular, intentional practice.

Do some pruning before your next planning session so that your brilliant new ideas can be put into action. That way you won’t feel overwhelmed or discouraged. You’ll feel hopeful.

And if all this talk of pruning leaves you needing a Zen moment, grab a cup of green tea and check out this aerial video of Anderson Japanese Gardens shot from a drone by noted photographer Nels Akerlund.

Click below for Tim’s 60-second summary of the essence of pruning – or here for the entire 13-minute interview where Tim dives into the thinking behind pruning at a world-class garden. You’ll never look at workers pruning a garden the same way again.

Be bright.Noonday Sun

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Four Keys To A Successful Breakthrough

By: On November 4, 2013

Light Bulb“I’m worried about where you’re going here!” It had taken the CFO a day and a half to finally burst. He had been watching our planning session proceed, only commenting when his financial expertise seemed relevant. But after the CEO’s description of his expansive vision for the company, the CFO had finally had enough.

“What are you worried about?” Chris the CEO said, a little stunned that his normally taciturn financial sidekick had been so direct.

“You’re telling us all of the beautiful things our organization should be doing. It sounds great on the surface. You call it vision. I think it’s really mission creep.”

I felt a familiar mix of reactions to this exchange. On the one hand, I was rubbing my hands together with anticipation. This moment in the planning process can precede a breakthrough, that moment when we climb beyond superficial solutions and find creative alternatives to deep issues. This company desperately needed a breakthrough. Its market was depressed. Its products were aging. Business as usual could end up badly.

On the other hand, this moment can get messy. Though I’ve never personally experienced labor beyond witnessing the birth of my two sons, the process of a leadership team achieving breakthrough can look like collectively giving birth. There’s pain. There’s pushing. You get stuck for what seems like an eternity.

The whole experience sometimes scares people off. Teams fear getting stuck. The leader fears giving up control. Many teams either avoid the whole chaotic affair or they do a sanitized, superficial version of the process that promises safe outcomes. While tidier, there’s no baby after that approach. Maybe you get to cradle a doll that looks and coos and even pees like a baby. But the real thing comes from the mess.

After the CFO’s outburst, I called a break. I knew what was going through Chris’s mind. He had had private reservations about opening up his strategic planning process to his team, fearing that the group would slam on the brakes when he wanted to go in a different direction.

Out in the hall, Chris asked me, “How should I handle this situation?”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “In the end you won’t have to lead a charge in a direction you don’t believe in. But we might just be on the verge of a breakthrough.”

Chris took a deep breath. We agreed that he would listen carefully to his team members, to understand where they were coming from, to try to find that place where their points of view intersected with his.

In other words, to wait for the breakthrough.

After the break, I called the group back together. “I’ve been talking with Chris over the break. Here’s what it looks like to me: Like many visionaries, Chris wants to stretch your organization to achieve more for your customers and stakeholders than we’ve ever even imagined. He sees possibilities. Beyond that, I think he believes that holding pat is actually a risky path, maybe even a slow death.” Chris nodded his head.

“Others in the group are worried that this expanded vision will set unrealistic goals that they will never meet. They’re worried they’re being set up to fail.  You want to succeed. And success means hitting realistic goals.” The CFO and a few others in operational roles gave knowing smiles.

“OK,” I continued. “We’re at a point in the process where it’s time to go for breakthrough. This isn’t on our agenda because you can’t plan for when it will happen. It’s a detour. But if you’re up for it, it could be very productive.”

We dove in to a rigorous and difficult conversation that had an unusual outcome: everybody got a version of what they wanted. Here’s why:

  • The team members vocalized their concerns. They needed coaxing at first. They stumbled around with their thoughts. They trod carefully, aware that they were dangerously close to stepping  on Chris’s toes. To support the process, I took their point of view and agreed with some of what they said, trying to get them to extend their necks further.

  • The leader listened. Chris hung in there on his own vision but he listened to their concerns. He supported their desire to be successful. He avoided the two usual tactics of leaders in this situation: he neither shut people down nor did he shut himself down. Together, they kept digging and waiting and believing that an answer would emerge.

  • They were honest and skillful. This is very different from being honest and unfiltered. If Chris had been unfiltered, I think he would have said that he was about to blow his stack and that he was bound and determined to expand the mission of this organization whether the team liked it or not. If team members had been honest and unfiltered, they would have rolled their eyes and said, “There you go again. You always do this. And it winds up creating messes that we have to clean up.” Neither of those approaches would have been helpful. Instead of being their worst 5-year-old selves, they were their best grown-up selves. That made a difference in how long they could hang in during the mess.

  • The mission was clear and compelling. Though it may have seemed a throw-away exercise at the time, we had spent a good chunk of time earlier in the session talking about why each member of the leadership team chose to work at this organization at this time – besides the chance to earn a paycheck. They had a surprising amount of commonality in motivation. They all wanted what was best for the company and the community it was serving. The mission was important and highly personal to each of them. Most of all, the mission was way bigger than themselves.

Even when you persevere in the labor for a breakthrough, it doesn’t always happen – at least not on schedule. And when you do get a breakthrough, it will need tender care and feeding until that fragile new life is ready to leave the hospital and venture into the big, bad world. But you dramatically increase your chances of seeing that breakthrough burst into life, seemingly out of nothing, when you navigate the mess skillfully like these folks did.

 

Four Alternatives To A Shouting Match

By: On September 17, 2013

You’ve been here: You’re working on a critical issue facing the organization in a cross-functional group. Maybe it’s something important like the freaking future of the company. The work of this group matters not just to the participants, but to many people who weren’t on the invitation list. And then Group Member A puts forward an idea, maybe one that would require Group Member B making some sort of change. Group Member B starts shaking his head before the thought is even on the table.

If this happens once, it’s no big deal. But sometimes it happens again. And again. And again. Over the course of a day, the pattern becomes ingrained. She says black. He says white. She says oil. He says water. Maybe the meeting is supposed to last an hour or a day, but it soon feels like a month-long hostage crisis. It may turn into a shouting match or devolve into a brewing cold war of nasty looks and snarky hallway comments, but you know one thing: nothing creative is going to happen between them and they run the risk of screwing up the atmosphere for everyone else as well.

We live in a country where this lousy way of interacting is not only becoming normal, but people make good money off it. And it’s bad. We have serious, complicated problems that require the constructive friction that comes from listening to each other, stretching our own thinking, and taking productive action. Instead we get Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and almost any comments page on many major news outlets filled with shouters. Shouting is entertaining – in a very Jerry-Springer-toxic way – but it rarely convinces. Shouting just stirs up the people who are already on your side to similarly mindless action. It’s about inciting the mob to riot.

Well, while our organizations – and our country – need plenty of revolution, rioting is rarely the way to build something beautiful. Because shouting and rioting always involve the making of winners and losers, insiders and outsiders. You don’t have to be a PhD in neuroscience to know that the human brain doesn’t do its best creative work with a gun to it. It strikes back. It runs. It shouts. It doesn’t paint a Picasso.

Next time you’re in the room and you can see the hot or cold shouting match brewing, you could try a few things: Start with yourself and the role you’re playing in this made-for-Wolf-Blitzer moment. How are you contributing to the shouting? Are you one of the shouters? Are you the host purposely throwing them into the cage to fight for sport? Are you an audience member alternately thinking “Oooh!” and “Ewww!”? Are you in the crowd, but just trying to keep your head down?

  • If you’re one of the shouters, stop and breathe. Ask yourself a question that your crazy-talk-show-guest brain can’t easily answer. Like, “What positive outcome might this other person be trying to accomplish?” or “What legitimate point might this person have?” Note: it’s hard to do this if you’ve convinced yourself that the other person is a total creep who could never even think of doing something noble. If that’s your mindset, it might be time to change the channel. Will you really get what you want by playing that tape over and over in your head?

  • If you’re the host of the show, take away the rewards for shouting. Move the conversation away from the shouters. Gently, but firmly, tell the shouters – privately if possible – “We have really important work to do here. Your input is important – but the way you’re giving it right now, and particularly how you’re interacting with Member B over there is hurting our chances of getting that work done.”

  • If you’re one of the audience members, at the very least starve the shouters from any reinforcement. Deflect their snark-tank comments on break. Refuse to be drawn into the personal aspects of the attack. Ask a question that might shock them back into thinking like a grown up, noble human. Something like, “You and I both want to get somewhere on this issue. What do you think the group needs right now if we’re going to get a good outcome?” Draw their mind from attack to service of the common good.

  • If you’re tempted to just keep your head down, ask yourself whether that’s really the best option. How does this scene play out if people like you sit on their hands? Are there others like you in the room? Could you band together and try to influence the conversation to a more productive place? Sure, intervention implies risk and may not be worth it if the powers that be desperately want a chair-heaving shouting match. But is it worth it to stay silent?

If we all rejected shouting as a change strategy – to leave the room when it’s happening, or even better to turn down the volume on the rancor and turn up the volume on the underlying legitimate issues – we’d get more done. And we all know that there is more than enough to do.

Be bright.Noonday Sun

 

If You Do Your Best Work Under Pressure, You’re Not Alone

By: On February 13, 2013

I was trying to pray this morning and all I could get in my mind was what happened last night. My wife and I were doing a 30-minute talk for a group of about 150 people. Being the super-organized person she is, my wife had outlined the talk for us noting where she would speak and what points I would cover. Most sections of the outline had clear talking points and examples.

One section earmarked for me basically said, “Do that thing you do here.” I had received the outline a week ago. She had dutifully shown me that section so that I could prepare.

I mulled that section over during the week. I sat at my desk. I took it with me in the backpack of my mind on a run. I drove around with it.

Nothing. Zip. Nada.

Then it happened. The host of the evening had already introduced us and the participants were doing a 10-minute group exercise. Suddenly, the ideas flowed. I scribbled furiously on the back of the carefully-printed-by-my-wife notes. Then we walked up and did the talk. My sections went OK, but the part of the talk I scribbled out just before game time was clearly my best.

I wish I could say that this was unusual. But here’s the truth. I need work and the pressure it creates. Desperately. Maybe you do too. Here’s why for me:

  • I need to eat. Duh. Work that adds value gets paid for. Then you eat. But that’s not all…
  • There’s actually some decent stuff inside of me. And I’ll bet there’s cool stuff inside of you too. But it’s buried inside me like a deep oil field that doesn’t do anyone any good until it sees the light of day. Work fracks the good stuff free. Work shapes it. Occasionally, work makes it beautiful or brilliant or useful.

I wish my work process was neater and less nerve-wracking. Waiting for inspiration to hit me frustrates me, similar to the feeling I get watching my teenage son who apparently isn’t happy unless he has his daily panic caused by staying in bed until the last possible minute and almost missing his school bus. I wish I could spell out a predictable and pedestrian pattern that has produced my best ideas. I’d probably become a millionaire and sell a gajillion books and be featured on TED which is my personal fantasy since that’s my name after all.

Prepare to be disappointed.

Here’s how it actually works:

  • Someone knows me and asks me to help solve a problem. This problem usually involves wrangling a group of skeptical Type A executives through a creative planning practice to help them decide a little thing called their future. Cue the screeching monkeys.
  • I say yes. It’s not like I don’t know how to do it – that would be malpractice – but I’m honestly going to have to figure out how to do it this time.  Because every case, while having similarities to past situations, is a bit different. It’s a bit of live at the improv. Don’t tell me you don’t do this. You do. And I’m glad you do. If we all only did the things we’ve done 1000 times before – and in the same way we did in the past –  we’d never do anything new. For that matter, we wouldn’t do anything. Except maybe eat and sleep. Which, if you can get paid to do, I say go for it.
  • Get yourselves organized!!I sit with the problem. I schedule time and work on it. I puzzle. I write notes on post-it notes and slap them on my office window secretly hoping they’ll arrange themselves in proper order like a flock of migrating geese mysteriously drawn home.
  • I struggle. I mull. I take a run. Time ticks by. I scribble in my iPad.
  • Just in time (usually), the inspiration comes. I get an idea that will crack the case this time.
  • I show up and do the work. It (usually) goes well.

I often have my most useful ideas when I’m pressing into a new arena. Those ideas have “happened” on airplanes, in the shower (too often), on runs (which is why I now carry a digital voice recorder when I run), and probably many places I now forget because I had no way to record the ideas. But one thing is certain: I only get these ideas if my mind is tuned to the How Can I Best Serve These Folks channel. If I’m on the I Don’t Want Have an Epic Fail and Look Stupid channel, I might as well fold up shop and go home. Nothing good is coming out of that.

When I told her I might blog this, my wife said, “You’re going to admit that?!?” Bless her. I think she gets ideas and inspirations through a neater, more predictable process like someone putting a quarter in a gumball machine. A coin goes in and out comes a ball of sugary goodness. The only question is what color it will be.

My process is more like plastic extrusion – pressure, heat, and smoke. And I’m not ashamed of it for a simple reason: I’m not being lazy. I’m not even procrastinating. I show up for all of those frustrating meetings with myself days and weeks before the lights go on. If I didn’t, I’d accuse myself of being slipshod and I’d fire myself.

But I can’t afford to do that because I need the work.

It’s Time To Pick a Good Fight

By: On January 22, 2013

Time for a good fight?

“I don’t like my new boss,” my friend said a while back over lunch. “We don’t fight enough.”

You what?!?!

I was taken a little off-guard by my friend’s comment. He’s a senior executive who had just started reporting to a new CEO.  Hey,  complaints about new bosses aren’t unusual. But my friend doesn’t seem to be one who picks fights for fun. I was intrigued.

“Listen,” he said, “with our old CEO, we worked through big decisions and had fierce debates. I don’t feel like we’re doing real work if we don’t fight every now and then.”

I think my friend is onto something. Leadership teams ought to be grappling with big issues and tough decisions like where to spend resources, what hill to climb next, and how to get there.  If you’re not fighting every now and then, you’re probably lying to each other too much.

So why do some leadership teams either avoid conflict altogether or do themselves huge damage by doing conflict poorly? And what can leaders do to navigate teams through conflict safely and productively?

Lord knows it’s scary to tell the truth, but you’ve got to. I could tell you more, but I thought I’d show you instead… so click here to check out a brief self-guided tour through the Forest of Conflict.

Then think: is it time to pick a good fight?

Six Ways To Effectively Lead a Planning Session

By: On November 5, 2012

Ever seen leaders play one of these roles at a planning meeting?

  • The Lecturer – In meeting 1, you’re locked in a planning session and the leader is controlling everything.  She says too much and says it too strongly. The rest of the leadership team starts to wonder why they even showed up. They politely go along, acting like they agree even when they have reservations.  It’s a charade. Everyone is just waiting for it to be over so that they can get back to real work.
  • The Passive Enigma – In meeting 2, you’re locked in a planning session and the leader is strangely passive.  You know he has opinions. You hear them in private all of the time. But in an effort to “not dominate the conversation,” the leader has completely zipped and padlocked his lips.  The rest of the group politely fills the air-time, but you wonder when you will find out what’s really going to happen. And you wonder who stole the real boss and sent the mannequin.


Leaders face a dilemma when they involve their teams in planning.  I hear their confusion almost every time I lead a planning session. They quietly approach me just as we’re about to roll and say things like:

  • “OK, I’m going to try hard not to say anything today.”
  • “What role should I play today?”
  • “Don’t let me dominate the meeting.”
  • “Where should I sit?” (My personal favorite.)


Their dilemma is understandable. On the one hand, who wants to be that domineering boss who monopolizes the session and chokes the creativity of the team? On the other hand, who wants to be the lame boss who allows chaos to swamp a valuable planning session?

Here’s the advice I almost always give to leaders: Ask yourself, “What does this session need right now?”

For instance:

  • Ask questions: If you see a team member who hasn’t contributed for a while – and who you know has strong opinions or good ideas – draw them out. Ask a simple question like, “Sherry, we haven’t heard from you on this issue and I’m pretty sure you have ideas about it. Would you share your thoughts?”
  • Provide boundaries: If the team is straying into an area that you know is going to be a waste of time or if they’re debating something that has already been decided, provide boundaries. “Gang, I appreciate the conversation. Something you don’t know is that we’ve already decided as an organization not to pursue that market. So let’s redirect our conversation over to these other issues that are still open for debate.”
  • Draw out differences: There should be differences of opinion on your team. Instead of allowing them to lurk beneath the surface, get them on the table and crystallize them for all to see. “I’m hearing three different points of view on this topic. Let me see if I can articulate them and then we’ll debate the merits of each.”
  • Enforce ground rules: In any contact sport like planning meetings, fouls will be committed. Part of the leader’s job is to be sure that the team plays the game fairly. “OK, I just want to remind everyone that it’s fine to disagree. But we cannot allow disagreement to get personal or to let disagreement stop us from getting to a solution that we’re all committed to acting on. So Rob and Gina, let’s try that conversation again and see if we can get to a better outcome.”
  • Manage tempo: It’s an art to know when to slow down the conversation and dig into a topic, and when to call time and get the group to move forward. As a leader, you often have a better read on that call than most. “Alright, it sounds to me like we need to close on this issue. Here’s what I think we need to do…”
  • Let it run: Sometimes, the best thing to do is… nothing.  The team is wrestling with an important issue and they’re doing it well. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it’s taking time. No, you’re not quite sure where it will land. But it’s a substantive topic worth the effort. Sit back. Watch. Ask yourself, “What does this situation need?” And if it needs precisely nothing, then give it happily.


All of these options look like active engagement and guidance without domination.  That’s probably what the session needs most from you.

Four Rules For Pushing the Envelope

By: On October 22, 2012

Unless you’re a sailboat racing nut, you may have missed the story about the dramatic capsizing of Team Oracle’s 72-foot catamaran in San Francisco Bay. Sailboat racing isn’t my thing, but my friend and strategic facilitation colleague, Linda Lindquist-Bishop – a world-class sailboat racer herself – passed on the story and a few dramatic pictures like the one below.

 

 

Click here for more pictures and here for video of the capsize.

Remarkably, none of the 14 crew members on board were seriously injured in this crash. But while remarkable, it’s probably not dumb luck. Listen to what team leader James Spithill says he was thinking about as the stern started to flip over the bow.

You’re 70 feet in the air. My biggest concern is there are a lot more of your teammates on board (than on the smaller 45-foot catamarans). And really, until you know everyone is accounted for and safe, that’s probably the worst part of the experience.

Maybe Spithill’s mindset explains this account from crew member Jonathan MacBeth of what he heard just as the boat started to flip.

The last thing I heard before we went over, and it became evident we were going to go over, was Jimmy (Spithill) yelling out, “Make sure you have an eye on your mates.”

Spithill points out that sailboat racers at the highest level have to push boundaries and accidents like this – while never preferable – can happen.

However, the most important thing is everyone is safe and sound and we got the boat and components back to shore. Now we have to learn from it. No doubt it’s a setback in our program, but there is no doubt the team will bounce back from it and not let it affect us.

Click here to read the excellent AP story on this incident.

So for those of us who aren’t planning to jump on a 70-foot catamaran and drive it close to – or past – its limits in freezing water and high winds, what does this mean? A few rules occur to me:

  • Rule #1: If you’re pushing the limits in your line of work, accidents will happen. This applies to start-ups, innovative growth ventures, and trailblazing code-writers as much as sailboat racers.
  • Rule #2: If you’re pushing limits, you’d better have a recovery plan in place for all possible failures you can foresee. Not doing so is just plain dumb. Not rehearsing those recovery plans with your team would also be dumb since we all resort to instinctive/rehearsed behavior in crises.
  • Rule #3: No matter how good your recovery plans, you’d better invest in getting your team on the same page and actually wanting to have each other’s backs. When your stern is flipping over your bow and people are clinging to nets 40+ feet in the air, you can’t fake watching out for each other. You either really “have an eye on your mates” or you don’t. And it’s too late to have a discussion about that.
  • Rule #4: If you’re pushing limits and stuff happens, the important thing is to learn fast and not let it derail the team from your ultimate purpose.

What other rules would you add?

PS If you’re in a “safe harbor” kind of role/organization, why not pass this on to friends who are in boundary-pushing roles and ask for their input?

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