Are You a Student or a Learner?

STUDENT LEARNER

As I work closely with many others in my consulting practice, I see a distinct difference between how people approach new situations. Some eagerly jump in, even though they aren’t fully prepared. Others may be willing, but they wait for clear direction, for the path to be cleared, for step by step direction before they will venture into this new territory.

Differences Between Student and Learners

As I observe these two approaches, I see a distinct difference between learners and students.

Students await direction; they rely on a detailed “how to” and “step by step” directions. Learners find the way; they are willing to get messy and are OK with less than perfect first steps.

Students are focused on the external rewards. They ask what it takes to get an A. The want to know what counts toward their final grade and what does not. Learners learn for the sheer sake of learning. They are motivated by an intrinsic desire to learn, to grow, to discover.

Students do what they are told, when they are told. Read this. Do this. Write this. Learners are a bit more unruly. They explore. They get distracted. They dive deep into one area of interest, leaving others behind.

Students want to know “the answer”. Not just any answer, but the “right” answer. Learners spend their time on the questions, and the questions that the first questions give birth to. The bigger the question, the more fun learners have.

Students measure their worth by the teacher’s marks. Learners are willing to challenge the thinking of the teacher. To argue a point. To think more deeply into the topic.

Students strive for perfection. Learners strive for messy attempts that lead them to greater insights.

Students minimize risks by following directions. The clearer the directions, the better. Learners chafe at overly restrictive directions. They revel in the fuzzy boundaries and uncharted territory.

The student is a text book. The learner is a blank journal ready to be filled with insights.

The student associates mastery with passing the test. The learner sees mastery as a continual and deepening practice, with mastery an elusive but worthwhile pursuit.

The Demand for Learners

There are places where being a student is a great approach, such as places of deep technical expertise (like piloting an airplane or preparing tax returns) or jobs where consistent performance to a defined standard is expected. Tasks that are best done in a repeatable process.

Yet the world today is in demand for learners. For in the world today, technical knowledge has an increasingly short half-life. The world demands quick adaptation to a rapidly changing world, one in which known answers are in short supply. It requires deep thinking, comfort with ambiguity and comfort with risk taking.

Today, the biggest risk may not be that you are not smart, but that you can’t learn quickly.

And so, I challenge myself and you, to become even more of a learner. To risk not knowing in the pursuit of knowing more deeply. To abandon the notation of perfect performance and embrace the fun of messy exploration. To tap into that joy of discovery that you had at 5 and discard that fear of appearing foolish that follows you around with adulthood.

If you’d like a companion on your journey, I would be honored to walk by your side. Please know, you can always contact me here or email me at kris@evergreenleadership.com.

What Collaborative Teams Do Differently

I sincerely hope that you’ve had a chance to be a part of at least one highly collaborative team! If you have, my thoughts here will attempt to describe that peak experience and what a collaborative team does differently. If you have not, my goal is to capture the essence of the being on a collaborative team, so that you are more alert for this type of experience.

When you’re a part of this type of team, you contribute meaningfully to something bigger than yourself or anything you could have done alone. You step back in amazement and wonder that, together, big and important work was done. You’ve bonded, often making life-long friendships, with those that worked side by side with you.

That’s not to say that you loved every moment and that there weren’t times of friction and conflict. Often times the task was herculean, the resources scarce, and the work you did far exceeded anything described in your job description. At times you wondered if you could really do what you set out to do.

But, you did it. No, that is not true. In reality, “we” did it. Together, in spite of the daunting task, the team pulled together, did what needed to be done and made it happen. In my experience, collaborative teams I’ve worked with have started green-field manufacturing plants in countries foreigns to us, implemented ERP systems in complex ecosystems, started companies and put together meaningful learning programs with long lasting impact.

What a Truly Collaborative Team Looks Like

I’ve been a part of many teams that did “big” work and hard work that were not collaborative. On these teams, the work got done. We worked hard. We overcame obstacles. But these teams didn’t have the same feel, the same zest and the same spark that others did.

So what makes a collaborative team different, and how do they function? Here is my take, from my experience:

  • Collaborative teams have a laser like focus on the common purpose and why it is important. There was deep clarity about the work of the team and we knew that our work mattered. There were plenty of times that we thought there was no way, no how, that we could do it, but we still showed up every day and worked as if we could.
  • While there was clarity on the purpose, the day to day details about how to achieve the purpose were not well defined. We had the freedom to meet the objective using our own skills, brain power and will. This was not for a lack of skill; it merely reflected that this work was new and different than what had been done before. We were charged to find the way forward.
  • Although everyone on the team had a role, specific expertise and was a responsible for a “part” of the whole, yet everyone pitched in to do whatever was needed. I can’t think of a single, solitary time when I head a fellow team member on one of the teams complain “that this is not MY job”. Our job was to deliver on our mission and everyone’s job was to make that happen.
  • There were not “prima donnas”, but there also weren’t slackers. There were clearly some folks in charge, but leadership flowed naturally depending on the needs of the work in that particular moment. Team members who didn’t contribute or were too “good” to get their hands dirty didn’t last long on these teams.
  • Creative solutions emerged. As these collaborative teams were traversing new ground, we brought a sense of possibility and a lack of constraints that freed us up to do things differently. There was a willingness to listen to new ideas and to take a risk to try them. There were passionately debates about how to proceed, ultimately deciding and getting behind a way forward (that often combined several of the ideas from many different team members).
  • There was a strong sense of team work. Everyone was valued and it showed. We worked hard together, but also got to know each other personally. We socialized together. Traveled together. Knew each other’s families. We supported and helped each other, in and outside of work. We balanced task and team (or relationship). And many, many years later, these people are still some of my closest friends.

Synthesizing What Collaborative Teams Do Differently

The best I can synthesize what collaborative teams do differently is that they:

  • focus on both TASK and TEAM
  • are highly accountable and get work done
  • achieve big things
  • are creative and innovative in pursuit of accomplishing what they set out to do. At the same time, they nurture relationships
  • respect everyone’s contribution and expect everyone to contribute
  • disagree at times, but only in the pursuit of the shared goal
  • are more fluid in tasks and leadership and idea generation
  • support, challenge, and work hard
  • celebrate successes and the stories of their failures become part of the team lore about the journey

Is Your Team Collaborative?

If you’d like to size up either leadership or team capabilities with collaboration – reach out. We have a great tool for self-assessment.

If you’d like to nurture more collaboration in your work place, let’s talk! Just reach out to me at kris@evergreenleadership.com

What Is Collaboration and Why Is It Needed Today?

True confession….when no less than three different clients this year asked for help on collaboration I experienced a sense of validation and vindication. On no less than three prior occasions, as I was up for a promotion in my earlier careers, I was denied. The reason for not making the cut: “I was TOO collaborative.”

There was no denying I was collaborative. Still am. Always will be. I do my best work side by side with others, dreaming, creating, and then doing. But TOO collaborative? How could that be?

Because of my ability to collaborate, the solutions that emerged to solve business problems were innovative. They stuck. They had deep support from key influencers. Wasn’t that a good thing?

And so, in the past few months I’ve done something else I’m really good at – exploring the concept of collaboration. Reading the current thought leaders (with no less than 6 books consumed). Defining it. Creating content. Facilitating workshops.

Through all this work, I came to a stunning conclusion. It’s an insight that was years in the making, but before I share that, let me share some thoughts on why collaboration such a “hot topic”.

Some Background

At the turn of the 20th century, when new inventions such as telegraphs and telephones and faster forms of transportation enabled the better movement of goods and people, larger and more centralized organizations took shape. It was a time of centralization and with that specialization. It was a time when bigger was better, and it was a time where industry disruption was measured in decades and not days. Where the more efficient you could be, the better the results you realized.

Today we are in the midst of a dramatic and foundational shift. This is due to a myriad of factors: lightning speed communication to anyone just about anywhere, affordable computing power, global connectivity and the emergences of breakthrough ideas faster than they are able to be consumed.

The Implications

Due to that shift, entire industries are disrupted regularly, often from an unforeseen competitor. Who could have imagined that the taxi companies that had big cities locked down would face fierce competition from someone from the suburbs with a Honda Civic, a smart phone and some time on their hands?  Who would have thought that anyone could carry a library full of books on a device that fits in their hand twelve years ago? Do you suspect that the execs at Hilton and Hyatt were planning to be out performed by a scattered network of homeowners and an App? (Interesting note: today AIRBNB exceeds the valuation of Hilton and Hyatt combined in spite of having no “real” properties, only technology and a network of collaborators).

We are in a time when being large may be a liability, when no one leader can know it all, and when fresh ideas and quick time to market is a vital competitive advantage.

We are in a time where collaboration, not competition, is the advantage you need to remain relevant, to be sustainable, to thrive.

The Reality

Yet today many organizations and leaders are stuck in different paradigms: That bigger is better. That the leader is the one that knows all and directs all. That diverse people and ideas are window dressing rather than a true creative and competitive advantage. That leadership resides at the top and that allowing it to surface anywhere else in the organization presents a threat to maintaining order, position and efficiency.

Many are realizing that these “industrial era” beliefs are getting in the way, hindering performance and unsustainable. They realize there needs to be a new way to operate in a world that moves so quickly, that being nimble is more important than being big, and creativity and innovation are crushed in command and control environments. They realize that collaboration is the way forward.

So What Exactly is Collaboration?

That is exactly the question I’ve explored in the last three months. As I often find it helpful to define concepts by what they are not, the chart below both defines and contrasts collaboration to commanding, coordinating, and cooperation. Many are close cousins, but to me, collaboration is defined and differentiated by this:

Collaboration is when a diverse group of people work side by side to co-create a solution to a problem that none of them could have solved on their own. It is marked by a deep sense of trust and respect for all team members and a strong desire by all to achieve a common purpose that matters. It is when purpose is held in higher regard than position. It is messy at times. The exploratory nature of collaboration means it is neither very linear nor very efficient. It is a place of ideas, of experimentation, of possibilities. It is an environment in which individual egos are sublimated and where a sense of camaraderie and team work prevail. It is the fertile ground from which radically new ideas, products and solutions emerge.

My Stunning Conclusion

As I did this deeper dive into collaboration, it suddenly hit me: “they were right – I was too collaborative!” For I realized that, for me, collaboration was an overused strength. Collaboration, by its nature, is inefficient, both in time and resources. It is an amazing leadership style when situations are complex and solutions are unknown. But in many situations, in which decisions need to be made quickly or when the answer is knows – a collaborative approach is inefficient, frustrating for others and wastes precious time and resources. Knowing when to be a leader that fosters collaboration is great, but in my growth areas were to know when to collaborate and when to shift into a different leadership style, more attuned to the situation.

So, in the spirit of helping you become a better leader, here is my summary of “collaboration at a glance”. In subsequent posts, I’ll do deeper dives into collaboration, so a great starting point is understanding where collaboration fits in the range of leadership actions.

Collaboration at a Glance

The Innovation Imperative: Four Things to Foster Innovation in Organizations

This post is an adaptation of remarks given at the International Pet Food Forum at an event hosted by Diana Pet Food

The forces of change surround us and are unrelenting. Back in 1965, Moore predicted that computing power would exponentially increase. Almost 60 years later that still holds true. Fiber optics allow us to move data at amazing speeds and the cost of storage has plummeted from a cool $300K for 1 gig in 1980, to virtually free today. In addition to the accelerating power of the internet, we see an explosion in the speed of change. It may be driven by technology but it touches all that we do.

So we find ourselves in an environment in which disruption is the steady state. All you must do is flip through your smart phone to see the casualties. Go to a movie theater? No just stream it. Buy a video camera? No thanks – I have my phone. Buy a flashlight for an emergency? Nope, just have your phone handy. If you were a flashlight manufacturer not that long ago, would you have guessed that AT&T and Apple were going to be competitive threats?

This it is NOT business as usual.

Examples abound. We know that 88% of the companies on the Fortune 500 list in 1955 no longer exist today: Blockbuster, Kodak, Borders, Sears (Sear’s Tower – the original mail order biz), Blackberry and more. 50 years ago, if you made it onto the Fortune 500 list, you were likely to stay there for 75 years. Now the average duration is 15 years and declining. And the big players today – Google, Uber and Facebook are barely teenagers in a human lifespan, yet they dominate.

The differentiator – an imperative to INNOVATE.

A quick look at Fast Companies Most Innovative Companies of 201list tells the tale.  The most innovative companies are also disproportionately the most profitable, the fastest growing, and the most likely to bump out a longstanding company from the Fortune 500 list. Leading the pack: Apple, followed by Netflix, Square, Amazon, Patagonia, CVS and Spotify. Certainly an interesting mix – with one common denominator: innovation as a core competency.

Today the race is being won by those who can rethink the market, ride these forces of exponential change – and create something nimble, agile, and adaptable. And in today’s world – that equates to sustainability. Blockbuster went bust – but Netflix is killing it. Borders is boarded up- but Amazon, which started as a book seller, now allows anyone to set up a storefront and sell virtually anything. Amazon Web Services, which grew out of the company’s own e-commerce infrastructure needs, has become a $13 billion business.

In the Industrial Era, organizations of the late 1800’s  through the 20th century, bigger was better. Stability was key. Companies competed by sheer size – the goal was to crush their competition. Bureaucracy flourished. Org charts calcified the organization into neat little boxes and standardization, consistency and minimizing disruption were the primary focus.

And now, here we are. In an entirely new world. We are in an age where our industrial era organizations simply don’t work. Where we need new models, new skills and new ways of working. Where small and nimble is a competitive advantage. Where tried and true products are passé. Where speed matters. Where it’s imperative to innovate.

Now, innovation is a HUGE topic – and a deep one. So for this post I’d like to share with you four ways organizations are fostering innovation.

Top performing organizations in the 21st century:

  • Treat innovation as a business process
  • Foster the skill of creativity
  • Connect with their customers
  •  Collaborate

Each of these are big topics, so for the sake of brevity I’ll provide a brief description and some questions to consider for each.

Innovation as a Business Process.

There is a process to innovation, in spite of the belief by some that innovating is a “loosey goosey” thing somebody does in R&D. Just ask IDEO. Smart companies know the process and incorporate it into all the other processes we know so well: Finance, Accounting, HR, Sales…  Innovation is not isolated nor the sole function of the forgotten folks in R&D. It is embedded in the organization, provided resources and a path from innovation to production.

We can no longer afford to sort the world into the “business types” (think rational, linear, predictable) and the “creatives” (think intuitive, edgy, and free flowing). Innovative companies don’t exhort their employees to innovate; they have structures in place, resources identified, and processes to follow. Just as accounting, HR, engineering and operations are defined – so can innovation.

You might ask:

  • Where does innovation happen in your company (if at all)?
  • Are there dedicated resources for innovation?
  • Who is your company is charged to innovate?
  • What was the last innovation your company implemented?
  • What is in your innovation pipeline?

CREATIVITY AS A SKILL

It took me 5 long years to get my MBA at the Krannert School of Management. I spent 14 years in a Fortune 200 company. And at no time in no way did the notion of creating something important in business get much attention. It was not taught, even though it is a process that can be taught. It was not encouraged, measured, or rewarded.

I think that we’d all agree that the many business geniuses are terribly creative – from Henry Ford to Steve Jobs to Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos. Our problem is not embracing creativity at the top. The problem is that we’ve driven creativity out of the middle ranks by such a strong focus on left-brained business management. Management by the numbers and a sole focus on short-term financials. We’re out of balance. We need to find ways to balance the creative with the effective management – and do it quickly.

We need to think of creativity as a business skill needed throughout the organization. Skills that are used every day by everyone, not just at the top. Not just when we are in crisis. Not just the folks in the R&D department. We need to learn the process of creating and create organizational structures that foster creativity. Period.

You might ask:

  • Who is charged to be creative in your organization?
  • Are the skills of creativity seen as a core competency? Taught? Supported?
  • What happens when creative ideas emerge?
  • Are there process in place to:
    • Generate many ideas, rather than a few
    • Test those ideas in the market
    • Vet those ideas thoroughly
    • Move the best ideas into your day-to-day operations
  • Diversity fuels creativity. How are diverse people, ideas, cultures and perspectives encouraged?
  • Creativity requires space, time, and freedom to dream. Is your organization so focused on productivity that there is no time to create?

CONNECT

It seems that the more high tech we become, the more high touch we crave. One size does not fit all any longer. Consumers want personalized. They want to be understood. To be connected with on an emotional level.

In all areas of business today – connecting with those that we provide goods and services to is critical. The creativity needed in today’s business world is not random, not just “edgy” for the sake of “edginess” – but creative innovations that speak to a need. It is not creativity for the sake of creating alone – but creating based on connection with your current customers, your future customers, and perhaps customers you can’t even imagine right now.

Great questions to ask about your ability to connect include:

  • How often do you interact with the people that use your goods and services?
  • Is that time spent merely trying to sell them (or service) what you already have or is it talking and listening and observing what they need?
  • How much do you use human centered design in your organization?
  • To what extent do you focus on your WHY rather than your features and benefits?
  • People connect emotionally. To what extent do you communicate and connect emotionally as well as rationally?
  • How “whole brained” are you? Do you rely on sheer left-brain (logical/rational/linear) or also use right-brained thinking (intuitive/non-linear/emergent).

COLLABORATE

If you recall, I mentioned that competition was the order of the day in industrial era organizations. As I worked for 13 + years in a Fortune 200 company – collaboration was at best frowned upon, and most often discouraged. It was discouraged both inside and outside the organization for fear of giving up information or ideas, or perhaps enabling someone else to take advantage of us or do better than us. Go to a conference? No way – we have training inside! Invite other departments to help solve a problem? No way – it will signal that we don’t have all the answers. Collaborate with a sister division with a new customer? Unheard of – what if their numbers are better than ours.

Now in hindsight, it seems a bit ridiculous. But it was real. And it IS real. In so many of the organizations I work with, people are tightly bound into their functional “silos”. Unable to see across the company as a bigger picture. Each functional area only out for the benefit of their own. Truly the parts more important than the whole.

21st century organizations know that even if they could be self-sustaining, that doing so would take way too long and would take too many resources. They know that knowledge is growing so quickly that they can’t be an expert in it all – so they find ways to collaborate with the expertise they need.

Emerging Networks

Networks are emerging much like the way we organize ourselves – a bit messier, a lot less linear, and a whole lot more powerful. A great case study is Airbnb, who has taken collaboration to an entirely new level. Tech innovation and the power of networks has propelled Airbnb to surpass the valuation of Hilton and Hyatt COMBINED. That valuation in spite of the fact that Airbnb owns no property or real estate. Airbnb’s valuation is based on its ability to innovate, its network, and its ability to connect with people who either have space to rent or need to rent space.

Questions about Collaboration

Collaboration fuels new ideas and it requires diversity. Collaboration can share the costs and rewards of bringing new products and services to market, yet requires discarding our ego’s desire to know it all and control it all. Collaboration can provide us quick access to resources and as such, shortens the time to do something innovative. But it also requires us to leave behind some of our old thinking about competition, control and certainty.

Some questions to ponder about collaboration:

  • Are employees in your organization encouraged to interact and collaborate across functions?
  • To what extent are employees encouraged to get outside the walls of the business and forge relationships with those outside?
  • Are there strategic partners you collaborate with?
  • How much internal competition exists? Within departments? Across departments and functional units?
  • How is collaboration nurtured? Supported? Encouraged?

Responding to today’s environment requires us to think about business in a different light. Where innovation exists alongside optimization. Where business skills and thinking are a blend of left and right brained activity. Where we get comfortable with the joy of creating, the emotion of connecting, and the powerful output of networks and collaborations.

These forces of change are not abating any time soon, so we are faced with the imperative choice to innovate or to stagnate. To change or die.

I know what side I’m on!

Five Networks Every Leader Needs

As I speak to leadership groups and mention the value of networking, I invariably get a brave soul or two who raises their hands to make these points:

  • I’m an introvert. HELP!
  • I hate networking events. They seem like a waste of time. You meet a lot of people, none of whom remember you for more than a millisecond.
  • Networking just seems like a way to promote yourself and get others to do things for you.
  • I have lots of work to do. I don’t have time for this stuff.

And I remember the time I thought the same thoughts and had the same questions. And how, over time, I’ve done a complete shift in how I view networking and my own network. For I now know:

  • That my network is one of my most valuable assets
  • That your network either pulls you up or keeps you down
  • That networks are about reciprocity, about giving as much as receiving

The Impact of Networks

Proof positive: When I began consulting in 2004, my network was weak. Perhaps even pathetic. 50 names. Mostly from the employer I has spent the last 13 years with. Some of whom I was not certain they would remember me. Not a great way to start.

Yet over time, I have an amazing network. It is wide and deep and filled with the most amazing people. To get to that point, I had to learn the art of networking and creating professional relationships that are not prescribed and defined by an organization chart. I had to figure out how to connect with people who would meet with me, help me, work with me and refer me because they wanted to, not because their boss said they had to.

In today’s hyper-connected and fast changing world leaders need deep and rich networks. Inside and outside of their organization. To stay abreast of new trends. To meet the people who can help them with a problem or a project. To find top talent. To stay current. To work cross-functionally. To work creatively. And ultimately to do better work, to access resources, to learn, to grow and to be a better person.

Making the Right Connections

But you need to know that networking is a two way street. You give before you receive. You share and others will share in return. You teach and others will teach you what they can. You support and others will support you.

It is true that what you give, you also receive. Not one for one. But in a bigger, more wondrous way.

And I’ve found that the more successful the person, the more likely they are to ask what they can do for me. And believe me, it’s not an aberration – it happens time and time and time again.

I’ve also learned that powerful networks don’t just happen. They take time. They take effort. And they take some strategic focus. In this post, I’d like help you build a network as rich as the one I have.

Yet your network should not be measured by how many contacts you have, how many business cards are stacked on your desk or how many LinkedIn connections you’ve amassed.

It is measured by how many of the RIGHT connections you make and your skill at making those connections valuable, for the other person and then for you. Now you might think that the RIGHT connections are those with potential clients or customers or the “right” people who will promote you in your organization. In reality, the most vibrant networks have different people in them.

The Five Networks that Leaders Need

Let me share the five categories of people you want in your network:

  1. Connectors – There are people in this world who love nothing better than connecting the right people together. They have a wide network. They have an intuition that tells them that you need to meet person “X”. They love to make introductions. Pay attention when they connect you with someone – they most likely are right! And know who they are so that when you are wondering “Who can help me with this?” – your connectors know exactly who you should reach out
  2. Advocates – Everyone needs people in their network that sing their praises. Who know what you do (or your team or company) and are witness to how well you do it. Who can be called on to be a reference for you, but who also spontaneously let’s others know they really need to talk to you because you are fabulous at what you do. Treasure these folks! And be an advocate for others.
  3. Allies – You’ll want to have a network that includes people who support the work you do and at times even want to work with you. They may have similar or complementary skills. They often share your world view and can help you advance the work you are undertaking. These are people you love to do work with.
  4. Supporters – These are the folks who raise you up; your rainy day friends and colleagues. They affirm you and support you emotionally. They provide unconditional positive regard. They cheer you on. And since leadership can be a lonely endeavor, you’ll want a few supporters on your side.
  5. Challengers – As opposed to your supporters, challengers cause you to think differently and deeper and better. They call you out. They provide unvarnished, but helpful feedback. They often are ahead of you in some way – and they encourage you to come up to the place they are. They can challenge your professionally or personally. But they raise the bar for you and cause discomfort – the kind that comes with growth. It’s easy to dismiss or avoid them. Instead treasure them – as they do what so few others have the courage to do.

A rich network that works for you will have a mix of all five categories. And not in equal measure, as advocates are most likely rarer (yet often more valuable).  And there are not neat little boxes. At times someone might challenge you mightily and then be your best working partner as an ally.

What is the Strength of Your Network?

In evaluating the strength of your network ask:

  • In what ways am I showing up for those in my network? Am I willing to advocate? Connect? Support? Challenge?
  • What is the mix of individuals I have in my active network? Am I missing some categories?
  • Am I spending too much time in my comfort zone (most likely supporters or allies)?
  • What can I do to build my network? To reach out? To help someone else?

Thinking about your network with this lens answers ALL the objections I listed at the beginning of this post:

  • One does not have to be an introvert to cultivate these relationships, for they are neither superficial nor totally social.
  • These networks are not developed at networking events; they are nurtured one action at a time.
  • The strength of your network is more about what you do for others, rather than what they do for you. It is about giving and knowing that others will give, when needed or asked, in return.
  • We all need advocates and connectors. You may do great work – but it won’t go farther than that if no one knows.

Leadership today is about connection – and collaboration – and networks. There are no great “stand alone” leaders. If you are going to reach your goals, you need a network – and with most things of value, that takes time.

If you want to enhance strong and deep relationships within your leadership team, talk to us about our leadership circles which do this by design (in addition to developing relevant leadership skills). We also custom design and facilitate leadership retreats where deep connections can be formed.

 

Why Embracing Failure is the Wrong Message

Face it: Failure stinks. No one I know likes it. And even the most successful and creative people I know, don’t celebrate things that turned out poorly.

Yet a mantra that has emerged in the last five years is to “celebrate” failure. Really? Celebrate?

While I get, on some level, the reasoning to encourage people to take a risk and actually “do something” or to even possibly do “something big” – the notion of celebrating failure is not, what I believe, is in anyone’s best interest.

Working in and with organizations, I fully recognize the great extents to which people will take to avoid looking “less than” or “foolish” or “incapable”. I also fully recognize the games that are played (some with intention and some unconsciously) to garner the coveted raise or promotion and at times, survive the latest reorganization.

Anything “less than” often is hidden, buried, ignored or rationalized away. I’ve seen multi-million projects that were abject failures be allowed to linger on, all to avoid embarrassment. I’ve seen amazing amounts of money, time and effort be put into a failing project in an attempt to prop it enough to get it over the finish line, only to declare “done” and then allow it to wither away.

And so celebrating failure can then become one more excuse. One more “I only did what you were encouraging me to do” lament as performance is reviewed.

I totally understand that vibrant organizations need innovation and creativity more than ever, and that innovation and new ideas are inherent with risk. Some will make it. Most will not.

Removing Detrimental Organizational Behaviors

Given that, there are certain behaviors that are detrimental to organizational sustainability today. These include:

  • The inability to see or seek new opportunities
  • Playing it safe individual behaviors that undermine the whole
  • Only taking on small, safe, or incremental projects
  • Failing to learn quickly with feedback from initial attempts
  • Avoiding solid analysis of the results of a “less than” effort due to embarrassment

Adding Healthy Organizational Behaviors

Rather than celebrating failure, I suspect what is truly needed is a host of healthy behaviors that include:

  • Contributing new ideas, which are by design, unpolished, unproven and risky
  • The willingness to step outside comfort zones and try new things
  • The deep understanding that innovation is experimental – and that each small failure brings you closer to a success
  • Persistence in the face of obstacles
  • Transparency about what worked and what didn’t
  • Meaningful and deep learning from current misses that enables faster and better attempts in the future
  • Comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty

And so, let’s celebrate creativity and contributing new ideas. Let’s celebrate experimentation, observation and rapid learning. Let’s celebrate bold steps forward into the ambiguous unknown future. Let’s celebrate persistence and pivots and progress.

And when we fail, we celebrate picking ourselves up, reflecting on what happened, and starting anew – smarter, more resilient and more likely to succeed this time around.

How to Tend Your Team’s Fire and Not Get Burned

I’m part of a leadership body for a volunteer organization which has been in a turmoil over a variety of issues, some big, some small. I’ve witnessed the typical human tendencies when conflict erupts:

  • Some are ready for the good fight, armed with their verbal barbs
  • Others are fleeing, scurrying as quickly as they can to resign, to check out, to lay low
  • And sides are forming everywhere as those that feel strongly about the issues seek out and recruit others who share their views

It’s been a rich learning for me, both in seeing how conflict moves through a body of people who have so much in common and in determining how to best show leadership when a group is fracturing over issues that are complex and divisive.

Leaders as Fire Tenders

The image that has emerged for me is “fire tender”. Leaders are always responsible for generating energy (or heat) as they engage the hearts and efforts of others in moving toward a common, shared and worthwhile goal.

In thinking about that energy and momentum as “heat” generated by a “fire”, I recalled that fire takes three elements: Fuel, Oxygen and a source of Heat.

As a leader, your Fuel includes the resources within your reach. It can be your own energy or the energy of others. Seed money is fuel as is the common vision of the purpose of the group you are leading.

The second element needed is Oxygen. This is the environment you create and your ability to allow others to “air” their thoughts. Some leaders are too stifling and don’t allow enough air into the situation. These restrictive leaders dampen (or totally extinguish) the energy others bring. On the other extreme are the leaders that either fan the fire or allow others to do so without restraint, creating increasingly uncontrollable situation in which the fire burns out of control.

The third element needed is a source of Heat. Your leadership and direction can spark energy and the fire. And in times of conflict, the friction between various points of view creates the heat that starts the fire.

As a leader, you want the energy of the fire, the passion that moves people toward a goal, and the friction between what is and what could be. Yet the energy you are firing up does require tending. For too hot a fire and your people and organization burn out of control. Burn too fast and resources are consumed too quickly. And when the fire is too hot, people either get burned or burn out.

On the other hand, too little fire and teams burn too cool. Leaders that are too cool are overly controlled and fearful to tap into the heat. They smother or drown the fire, apprehensive about unleashing the energy, emotion and fervor it brings. Groups with a too cool leader are lethargic and uninspired. People here don’t burn out, they check out.

Harnessing the Power of Fire

As a leader, the key is to manage the energy so that your organizational fires burns neither too hot nor too cool. The image is a controlled fire. One with light and heat, but with mechanisms in place to control the burn. That requires you to create sparks – to ignite the possibility before you. You need to provide enough fuel to feed the fire, and your fuel can be people or vision or higher purpose or clear direction. As a leader tending a controlled fire, you’ll need to enable air to circulate, to create openness and a free flow of the right amount of air (or input from others) to start the fire and keep it burning. And you also need to create some fire walls, norms that contain the energy so that it is helpful and not hurtful.

Equally as a leader fire tender, you instinctively know when you need to step in to cool things down because the fire is burning too hot. At those times you might need to slow things down a bit, stop adding more fuel, manage the energy of the group to get things to a more manageable level.

The converse is knowing when you need to stoke the fire. When things are running too cool, you might need to create a spark, to add more fuel or to blow gently so as to find those embers that can reignite with just a bit of attention from you.

I’ve seen leaders panic when their team catches fire. They step in and immediately pour cold water on what has emerged, drowning it rather than tending it carefully. At times this is because it was “not their idea”. Other times it is because the light and energy threatens the status quo. And at other times they are afraid of brilliance of the light they might create.

Man’s early discovery of how to control fire was one of the biggest breakthroughs in the advancement of human civilization. As noted in Wikipedia:

The control of fire by early humans was a turning point in the cultural aspect of human evolutionFire provided a source of warmth, protection, improvement on hunting and a method for cooking food. These cultural advancements allowed for human geographic dispersal, cultural innovations, and changes to diet and behavior. Additionally, creating fire allowed the expansion of human activity to proceed into the dark and colder hours of the evening.

So too, can your ability as a leader to tend to and control the fire in your organization can be a turning point. Harnessing the power of that fire, rather than being afraid of it, can provide energy, engagement and innovation. Being willing to stoke the fire and create a spark can enliven and refocus your team. Managing the fire so that its warmth, light and energy are helpful and not raging out of control is important. Perhaps your most important role as a leader!

Ten Gifts Great Leaders Give

I’ve worked with great leaders, mediocre leaders and one or two really poor leaders. I’ve done my work, to the best of my ability, with all of them. I’ve learned from all of them. Yet in reflecting back, the really great leaders gave me many great gifts.

These are gifts that last over time. They are not very tangible, but are always present. They’re gifts that altered the way I saw myself, or my situation, or the world around me – gifts that stuck, that keep on giving.

I am eternally blessed by and grateful for these gifts:

  1. Confidence in my abilities, my potential, my judgement and my integrity
  2. Wisdom by sharing freely their truths, experiences and knowledge
  3. Mentoring & coaching to guide me to a better place, always challenging, at times seeing more in me than I could see myself
  4. Opportunities to test my skills and to learn new ones, ones that pushed me further than I was comfortable with at the time
  5. Support for when I failed myself or others
  6. Unconditional Respect even at my worst times
  7. Perspective & Vision, especially when I wallowed in my narrow view of the situation
  8. Courage to do the things that are right, but not necessarily easy
  9. Focus on Results insisting that I follow through, do what I was charged to do and to find ways to overcome the inevitable obstacles
  10. Navigation through the organization, helping me learn how these people in this place get work done

My challenge to each reader is this: rather than giving “things” this year, which of these ten gifts might you give at work? At home?  In your community?

Need a New Planning System for 2018? Mine Might Inspire You to Create Your Own.

In the past two days, I’ve had two separate requests to share my planning system. So here goes. Warning: This is not for the faint of heart!

I do believe many of us are searching for some “magic” – the one system that provides us focus, keeps us organized and helps us achieve all that we set out to do. And there are more than enough people who will claim they have the system for you. I smile as I think about the Franklin Covey folks who sold very expensive planning systems that were so complicated that it took a full day of training to learn how to use it and one had to purchase $200 worth of binders, paper and accessories.

My system has evolved over time and is a bit non-traditional. Yet, it works for me and it has, over time, enabled me to get and stay focused on the most important things, to track progress and to guide my activities over time. Because of this process, I feel like I continue to lead a richer and more fulfilling life and that the non-essential trivia continues to drop away.

I truly believe that “No One” size fits all. I’ve seen others do really well with other systems that when I tried them, left me uninspired, overwhelmed and doomed to fail.  I’m not suggesting this will work for everyone. But I do suspect that you might do as I did, experiment with one of two of the elements and see if they work for you. If they do, great. If not, it was only an experiment.

A few disclaimers about some of my philosophical underpinnings:

  • The plan is the beginning. Execution is essential. The plan is the path and the work is taking steps, day after day, on that path. After we dream big, we need to take those scary steps forward. Again. And again. And again.
  • Keeping things front and center is critical. Part of execution is a realistic assessment of where you are and how your actions are contributing to the results you get. Mark progress. Reflect on what is working and what is not. Adjust real time.
  • Think big about your life. Why not? Your whole life. Not just work. Think about your life over time. Never doubt that you can do amazing things – but know that you must first dream and then do.

Warning: My planning approach is non-traditional in that it is:

  • Tiered – It starts with big, long range life goals and translates them into day to day actions
  • Visual – Images speak to me in ways that words cannot. This is a system that uses both your right and your left brain.
  • Eclectic – An eclectic combination of techniques I’ve learned here and there that, when combined for me, have enabled me create a vibrant and creative life
  • Integrated – My goal is that my work and my life flow seamlessly together. I strive to look at my life as a whole that includes my professional work, my health and well-being, my relationships, my spirituality, my development, my space and my leisure.

The Process

  1. Annually: Day of Discernment

Once a year I create a day of solitude in nature for myself. I find a place that is “off the grid” so that I’m not tempted to surf the web, text or do email. I find a place in nature – cabins in the woods are my favorite although water front works as well. And for a full 24 hours I relax, reflect, journal, hike, rest and plan in solitude. In this time I make an honest assessment of what is working in my life, what is not and where I am currently. I then dream of what could be; of what I’d like to create in my life. Always key themes emerge – and these are noted and honed over the time away. I then identify core intentions for the coming year. I call these HEART goals.

While I don’t have a rigid schedule on these expeditions, I’ve found that review and reflection tend to fill the first few hours. I’ll then break for a hike or meditation and then come back to finding my key themes. I’ll then break again – and often this is about bed time. After sleeping I’m usually getting more clarity on both themes and goals and I’ll capture them in words with a future visualization (see tools below) and a vision board. Again, I’ll break to enjoy the outdoors and let things settle – and upon my return I’ll create my visual intention book and yearly calendar (see tools below).

My primary focus on days of discernment are to be in flow. As such, there is not a rigid schedule. I’ll have burst of inspiration. I’ll take a nap. I’ll hit a wall and spend more time outside. I trust that I’ll get done what I need to with the time I have. More often than not, I find I accomplish more than I had ever imagined. Yet there have been times where I’ve not gotten to complete clarity – and I merely commit to continuing the work at home.

Ideally, after 24 to 48 hours (OK- sometimes I stay two nights), I walk away with these things (see tools below):

  • Vison board
  • Future visualization
  • Visual yearly calendar
  • Visual intention book
  1. Quarterly: Half day of Assessment

Once a quarter, I set aside a few hours to reflect. I note progress I’ve made, what I’ve learned and any shifts I need to make as things have unfolded. Again I move from higher level intentions to more granular goals. If I’m crisper on my vision for myself, I often create a small vision board for the quarter. I update my white board that lists big projects, outcomes and action steps for each one. I look at financials and also calendar out bigger blocks of time for bigger projects.

  1. Weekly: 20 Minutes of Must Dos

At the beginning of each week, I create a list of “must do’s” for the week. When I do this, I look ahead to the next 3-4 weeks to determine what I need to work on this week to be ready for a future week.  This list is a list of deliverables that I need to complete in the course of the week. It is not a “granular” task list, so things like paying the bills or returning a call would not make this list. It includes things like: Prepare workshop. Submit XYZ proposal. Put together plan for Project X. Each of these items has any number of subtasks under them, which show up in my daily list.

  1. Daily: 2 Minutes of Touch / Work the Plan

Remember that Visual Intention Book? I begin each work day by picking it up and paging through it. If I’ve done something toward that intention, I note it. If I’ve not advanced that intention, I make a mental note that I might need more focus there. Just the simple action of taking 2 to 3 minutes to pick the book up, page through it and make notes is a great focusing action.

Daily I create a work plan. I use a simple note pad that is 4” X 8”. I’ll put my list of appointments at the top and then my list of “to do’s” on the bottom. This is where the granular tasks show up, to make the call, pay the bill, submit the invoice. I like this size, because generally I find that I can accomplish what fits on this size of paper. My goal is to get things done off this list – and not to carry them over from day to day.

Once I have my list of “to do’s” – I’ll prioritize them in order of importance, listing them as 1,2,3, etc. and I tackle them in that order. This enables me to ensure the most important things get done and also eliminates the wasted time wondering what I should do next. I’ll lump together some of the administrative, less than 10 minute tasks, so that several tasks on my list might all be #6 – they are batched for efficiency. One of the last tasks I do every day is to create to “to do” list for the following day, so that I know what is going to happen and in what order.

I’ve included instructions and photos of each of the tools I use below. And I’ll repeat: This works for me. It may not work for you. But I will leave you with the thought that due to the process, I’ve managed to get the things that are most important to me done, with focus and a sense of grace.

The Tools

Future Visualization:

Write a story that takes place one year from now in the present tense. You are writing a story that assumes you have already achieved your vision.

  • For example, you might start with: It is (insert the date a year from now) and I am (insert where you are and what you are doing).
  • Stay in the present tense. Write as if all that you envision is actually occurring.
  • Do not constrain yourself to what you believe is possible, based on today. Write about what you would like to have happen, even though you cannot see today how that might happen.
  • Stay in the realm of possibility and positivity.
  • The goal is to create a future story that is real to you. Spend your time dreaming, describing, and capturing. Spend no time editing or improving your writing – this is for your eyes only.
  • Try to get at least 2 full pages of narrative.

Vision Board:

Detailed instructions can be found here. I’ve done big poster sized ones and ones on 8 ½ X 11 paper. All you need is the base (heavy stock paper), glue, magazines, scissors and some colorful markers.

Visual Yearly Calendar:

Post it makes a great wall sized calendar system. I lay out the upcoming year and block big things like vacations, project deliverables & deadlines, big events and travel. It becomes very easy to spot areas where you are over-booked. It enables you, in advance, to block time for some of the “non-work” things in advance.

Visual Intention Book:

Craft stores and Amazon (of course) sells white blank books for less than $2.00. I use these to identify eight core intentions for the year. I design a cover using glue and magazine images (those more talented might draw). I then list my overarching intentions and devote two pages to each intention. I add images as appropriate but am careful to keep lots of room for writing, as this is the book I touch daily and note the progress I make.

Some examples of intentions I include are Collaborations, Give Back, Health & Happiness, Writing, Speaking, Travel and Growing my Business. This is a book that I touch daily and I mark all progress toward my intention with a very brief note (date and a word or two). This keeps my primary focus areas front and center – and allows me to both celebrate progress and get back on track if I am neglecting one area.

Quarterly White Board:
This is more traditional approach. I have a large white board in line of sight with my desk that lists major projects and what needs to happen in this quarter for each of them. Every quarter I assess, wipe it clean and start again! 

Weekly List:

At the beginning of every week, I create a list of the key outcomes for the week. These are not detailed tasks – but deliverables. A presentation, a proposal, a workshop delivered. Typically I’ll have no more than 5 of these “bigger” weekly outcomes.

Daily Priorities:

A simple list of appointments and tasks. I list appointments at the top and list tasks as they pop into my head. At the beginning of the day, I review the list and order them, beginning with the most important. I then tackle them in that order.


Which of these different processes and tools will you try to use for 2018? 

A Simple Daily Practice That Can Change Your Life

In this week of Thanksgiving, I want to share a practice that I began long ago that has dramatically improved my mood, my well-being and my life. It takes less than 10 minutes a day and requires less than $10 in materials. The most challenging part of the practice is that it requires practice. You must work and have discipline to do it day in and day out, regardless of your state of mind, your fatigue or your busyness.

The practice is that of a Gratitude Journal. A daily practice of pausing to reflect on your day and your life and noting 3 to 5 things that you are grateful for. Don’t let the word “journal” dissuade you. This is not writing an essay. This is not crafting eloquent prose. This is reviewing your current situation and jotting down just a few things you are grateful for. This is a bullet list. This is merely paying attention.

I must admit, when I starting my Gratitude Journal practice seventeen years ago, I had a tough time identifying anything I was grateful for. My job sucked. I was so busy I ended the day in exhaustion. I had a well-honed eye to spot the flaws in everything, and I do mean everything.

Yet I stayed with it. Day after day. Noting what I could. That I made it through the day. That the meeting wasn’t as bad as I expected. That the weather was sunny.

After about a week, I realized that if I was going to be serious about this, I was going to need a different tactic. And so, I resolved to actively pay attention, all day long, for things that I could note in my journal. As they say, what you seek you shall find. And I did.

I would make mental notes all day. About the flowers in my garden. My children’s hugs. A problem well solved at work. Lunch with a friend. Good food. A warm house.

Over time I began to see things through a different lens. I began to see all the abundance around me. All the things I’d taken for granted. Housing. Work. Family. Friends. Books. Music. Love. Laughter. The things that really mattered.

I also began to see patterns. I noted that things that brought me the most joy were the simple things. Flowers on my table. A family meal. A good book. Once I saw the patterns, I was able to focus on doing more of the things that I was grateful for. And my days became richer. More content. More blessed.

Cultivating Gratitude

There are scientists who study gratitude. Up until the 1990’s research about mental health and human psychology began to shift from studying dysfunction to understanding optimal mental health and high performance. This is called positive psychology. Multiple academic studies show us that gratitude can be learned and cultivated. And those that have a grateful mindset and express appreciation to others experience:

  • Increased levels of well-being and life satisfaction
  • More happiness
  • Better energy
  • More optimism
  • Less depression
  • Improved health, specifically lower blood pressure
  • Higher levels of control of their environment
  • More personal growth
  • Higher sense of purpose
  • Better ability to deal with difficulties
  • Fewer negative coping strategies (think drugs, alcohol, and other harmful habits)
  • Better sleep
  • Increased longevity

There are so many reasons that a gratitude journal is a practice worth establishing. Here are some that resonate with me:

When I practice gratitude, I am more keenly aware of what I value. The more I know and the more I notice, the more stability and balance I have in tough times.

Gratitude enables you to create a more balanced worldview. Our lives are filled with a mix of good and bad, sadness and joy. This path is not one of being Pollyanna – nor is it one of being an Eeyore….it is one of balance.

Innovation, creativity and envisioning are more likely to happen or to occur more easily in the higher emotional states that accompany gratitude.

And so, I encourage each of you to begin a practice of gratitude. It is a practice, but with practice comes proficiency and with proficiency a cascade of benefits.

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