Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Your Plate That’s Full of Stuff to Do? Break It.

On second thought, don't break it. Trade it in for a different kind of plate - I'll explain.

Plates are flat but we put our projects, with different dimensions, priorities and timelines, onto the same surface. They can mingle together like the turkey gravy, cranberry sauce and mashed sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving. While putting those together on one fork may not be tragic, dropping projects onto the same pile can create confusion, delay and lost opportunities.  

Using the “plate” for our to-dos is a two-dimensional fix for our four-dimensional problems. We need tiers, like those multilevel plates stacked with petits fours, little cookies and tiny tarts that we see on the buffet line. This metaphor only takes us so far, though. We won’t be successful if all we do is group seemingly like projects into different stacks. This is about how to first think about the assignments.

It’s a given that all assignments require us to operate in both the trenches and the wide-open skies. Vision and execution are sometimes difficult to balance but the big picture is not mutually exclusive of paying attention to the details.

With all that as the backdrop, I offer a top-line approach to evaluating what’s on your plate – the 4 R’s of Realigning Workload:

1.     Risk – potential impact of doing, not doing
2.     Range – short, medium, long term issues and influences
3.     Requirements – data, time, money, personnel
4.     Return on investment – financial, reputation, safety/security

Perspective and flexibility are crucial to finding success with this or any other methodology. The values placed on any of these components may depend on where you are in the organization, your responsibilities and their scope, and what you have to lose or gain. In addition, the way we approach various projects will require different combinations of thinking processes along a spectrum from concrete and narrow to critical and analytical to inspired and visionary.

In fast-paced environments, we’re often driven more by deadlines than the importance of the task or issue. Using the 4 R’s, we can make more informed decisions and apply resources more effectively. So let’s not be too put-off by a little process; it’s not a dirty word. Discipline is needed in finding creative solutions to our challenges and opportunities.

Between posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Find the Courage to Ask and Receive

The Surprising Power of Questions, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, is great but not surprising. It’s well accepted that asking questions “spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds rapport and trust among team members. And it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards.”

So, if asking questions is so important and productive why aren’t people more inquisitive? Why don’t more leaders create a culture of questions?

The HBR authors share some answers including egocentricity, apathy, overconfidence and not understanding the value of good questions.  But the most important reason, from my internal and external consulting experiences, is fear: Fear of the answer; fear of being wrong; fear of looking foolish; fear of having wasted time and money, fear of having to spend time and money, and fear of losing power.

It’s not only learning to embrace the question that’s important, it’s learning to embrace the answer.

Yes, we need the courage to ask, to have the inquisitiveness to learn more, and to take the initiative to interact with our stakeholders. But we need the courage and ability to put the organizational needs above our own; we need to identify the anxieties and work our way through with an “eye on the prize.” Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Fear has come into play when I’ve been asked to help fix a problem concerning corporate or brand reputation. The expectation is the delivery of a new public relations program, story placements, or an advertising campaign. It’s the “stuff” of communications and marketing that is wanted. Unfortunately, there is often less of an interest in first determining the issues – asking and answering the questions – underpinning the problem. Leaders must not be intimidated by what research might uncover.

Future leaders must also learn to question; it’s an essential element in a mentoring relationship. Good mentors know this, even in legend. When the future King Arthur asked, “Would you mind if I asked you a question?” Merlyn answered, “It is what I am for.”

In the workplace, we need to open to Q&A from those above, below and beside us. But seeking questions and answers is also of personal importance. There’s no way to fix or foster a relationship unless one is open to an exchange, and hearing and acting on the information.

I’ll end it here with some questions: Was this helpful? How do we move this forward? How have you found success in this arena? What other articles, resources on this subject have you found valuable? When have you encouraged others to seek questions and answers? I welcome your answers.

Between posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Bits and Blocks – AI of a Different Sort

The AI here is Adopting Incrementalism. We continue to talk about “moonshot” projects and “complete and total” geopolitical victories. Don’t get me wrong. We need big ideas and bold moves. Some situations require a black-or-white, all-or-nothing outcome. But most advances come in smaller bits and blocks, each building on the last.

Freakonomics Radio rebroadcasted In Praise of Incrementalism the other week. It was first out in 2016 and worth a listen. Ed Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard, had a couple of memorable lines:

“…once we start thinking that there’s a silver bullet, … we lose the fact that we need to be working day by day, over decades, to affect change.”

“The more that you just think that the right answer… will magically fix anything, the less that you actually pay attention to what really matters, which is the nit and grit of everyday decision-making, of everyday governance.”

This prompted me to review a few thoughts of my own on this subject going back to 2011. It started with a general revulsion of mutual exclusivity. We don’t need a divide between big ideas and incremental steps; we need vision and execution, large goals and little objectives, and short-range and long-term views.

Public relations and advertising agencies never receive RFPs for little ideas. Boards of Directors don’t select CEOs for their promises of small improvements. Politicians don’t get elected on a platform of incremental steps. We’re conditioned to expect the big idea, to go big or go home, to swing for a home run, to throw the Hail Mary for a touchdown. But that’s not the way to solve most large and complex problems.

It’s worth remembering our country is nothing but a timeline of incremental advances. Many in the Continental Congress wanted to abolish slavery, while others insisted it remain. There would be no United States of America unless they could agree. So, the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution in 1787 were compromises. They were steps. We had to wait and fight nearly a hundred years for the Emancipation Proclamation and then another hundred for the Civil Rights Act.

This applies beyond our politics and social ills. In the world of medicine, for example, Cy Stein, M.D., Ph.D. and Chair of Medical Oncology at City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center said, "One advance leads to another. Although the advance might be incremental, it's a step beyond. If we are only interested in revolutionary therapies, patients will miss out on the improvements in care that smaller advances offer.”

This holds for the humanities, too. Friedrich Nietzsche said, "Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration... shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects... All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering."

Some may feel incrementalism is akin to settling – a poor compromise.  Well, we’ve all heard Voltaire’s “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” And legend can teach us, too. When order was collapsing in Camelot, King Arthur (according to T.H. White) said, “Merlyn approved of the Round Table. Evidently, it was a good thing at the time. It must have been a step. Now we must think of making the next one.”

Small strides can sometimes add up to a completed marathon. We should embrace and celebrate the completion of each step along the way.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Don’t Hold That Thought

OK, yes, you can hold onto a thought. But don’t hold off on thinking.

We should care that people do not spend enough time thinking. We tend to focus on the actions, the tactics, before thinking about the strategies and objectives they’re supposed to support. What passes for thinking is often unfocused busywork, a churning of un-prioritized activities.

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of one of the best pieces of advice he ever received about strategic thinking; it was from former President Bill Clinton. The president said, “Scheduling.” In a Stanford Graduate School of Business seminar a few years ago, Mr. Blair talked about how he both used and passed along this tidbit. “Where’s your thinking time? Where am I going? What am I trying to do? You have to create the space to be thinking strategically all the time,” he said.

It’s another example of how process and creativity are not mutually exclusive. As a fan of the Arthurian legends, I was taken aback by a comment made in The Once and Future King about the king’s style of thinking toward the end of his life: “The old man had always been a dutiful thinker, never an inspired one.” Again, it was a poor characterization and sets up a false choice. We need both varieties. A dutiful thinker is one who is habitually observing, searching for solutions, and attempting to anticipate the future.

The creative spark is precious but dutiful thinking, steady and stepwise – hand-in-hand with research and analysis – is a virtue of its own. Sometimes we can get to the goal line in one play. More often, though, progress is made in important, incremental steps that ultimately add up to the win.

Friedrich Nietzsche observed the interplay of thinking behaviors in 1878. "Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration... shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects... All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering."

There are many ways to think and in any number of combinations, including:

And now we can add “unsafe thinking” to the list. In a new book by the same name, Jonah Sachs places the “unsafe” label on what is actually an amalgamation of vision, bold moves, measured risks and follow-through. I don’t think Sachs is lobbying for ideas that are literally unsafe. Unsafe is clever and attention getting in the same way the profiles in the book showcase inspired, double take moments created by smart thinkers.

Smart thinkers and good leaders also ask probing questions and seek a variety of inputs. But some, especially in the public relations, marketing and advertising realms, seek seclusion so they can develop “the big idea” on their own. Then, they present their campaigns as a fait accompli like Athena bursting out of Zeus’s head fully armored and ready for battle.

While there is a clear need for individual thought, creativity is no one’s personal domain. You want and need exceptional thinkers but they must know how to leverage a team. Beyond using other minds to reality check, pressure test and sharpen concepts, we should be accessing ideas from across the organization. If not, we risk wasting, alienating and demoralizing a most precious resource.

I invite you to follow me here and on Twitter @pauloestreicher.