Wednesday, December 19, 2012

When greatness beckons

Did Barack Obama visit “the dark night of his soul” in the aftermath of the Newtown Connecticut mass killing of innocent children? That the time is now to do something?

Crises can bring out the best in a leader aided by circumstances opening the way.  “Moments of greatness” as Robert E. Quinn from the University of Michigan asserts come infrequently to leaders. Most of the time, leaders operate in a normal state staying within their comfort zones, allowing external forces to direct their behaviours and experiences. But, “the fundamental state of leadership (greatness) shows up when leaders don’t copy anyone”. They “draw on their own fundamental values and capabilities, operating in a frame of mind that is true to them”.

President Obama has a rare opportunity to change the destructive gun culture that sets America significantly apart from other developed nations.

Will he take up the mantle of greatness? Not for its sake but for the innocent lives that will be saved. What a legacy if he does.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Personal kanban for getting a grip on overwhelm

I love post-it notes because they allow me maximum flexibility to move my “to-dos” around without the confines of linearity. I can stick them in my pocket. Paste them around my desk or on my door as constant reminders of what I have to do or should remember. They reduce my mind overload and give me the illusion that I am organized and progressing.

However, they too can become oppressive once the post-its reach epic proportions and are scattered everywhere. Most discouraging are aged post-its that never seem to go away.

I tried giving up on the post-its by using a single focus booklet entitled “To-Dos” organized by level of priority and life/work category. I also experimented with using post-its and notes on Outlook. But my organizational framework wasn’t workable – still not enough sense of progress and that which was realistic to accomplish.

So, when I came across Jim Benson’s “personal kanban” idea for work flow which included post-its and relative simplicity, I was intrigued. Taking a page out of Japanese manufacturing, Kanban, meaning “sign card”, tells me what is doable within a given time-frame.

Here’s how it works:

Ready (my options): the tasks, each on a post-it, of what I want to do

Doing (my limit): the tasks I believe I can accomplish in a day

Done (my progress): a dynamic list of work completed

There are more rewards for my brain with this work flow process because I physically move post-its along the continuum. I certainly derive some satisfaction the other ways too – throwing or crossing out!

Scaled up, it’s a great tool for teams grappling with those projects that never give enough satisfaction while the journey unfolds.

Check out the “I Love Lucy” clip in the article by David Zax on Benson’s method. It is hilarious!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

What does squeezing a ball in your left hand have to do with “getting out of your head?”

“Pressure” is not a welcome activity always. We can go one of two ways: choke or rise to the occasion. It’s a delicate balance which can be toppled even among seasoned veterans if we become discombobulated for some reason. That is, if our minds get the better of us.

So enters the term “getting out of our heads” as an antidote to crashing or freezing or whatever behaviour is manifested when we are unsure of ourselves. But how do you do it? Nice in theory; however, hard to implement when faced with a situation that evokes panic or distraction or uncertainty.

The sustainable path to building a “cool head” is well-known: meditation, yoga, saying daily gratitudes, deep breathing, exercise of any kind and deliberate practice in your domain of expertise (becoming a chess master, so to speak). These all grow strong and automated neural connections in your brain so you don’t have to think for long if at all when faced with uncertainty or an over the top schedule fraught with soft issues. The trick is “to get out of your head” and just do it!  Squeezing a ball in your left hand, horse-whispering and acting lessons can help.

Squeezing a ball:
According to David McGinn in a September 21, 2012 article in the Globe and Mail, German researchers discovered that Olympic athletes in complex, accuracy sports could improve choking under pressure by squeezing a ball in or clenching their left fist before competing. They theorize that the motor activity activates automated behaviours in the right side of the athletes’ brains which control movement, enabling the brain to ignore thought.  Put another way, the squeezing action dampens down conscious rumination.

The proviso though is that this does not likely apply to lefties.

Horses are very intuitive. Imagine then trying to tune into them to obtain their cooperation. Leaders taking “training” at Lisa Arie’s 3-day boot camp learn how to get off their pedestal, walk in the shoes of another and let their instincts have a chance. A bonus is becoming entirely relaxed once they learn “to get out of their heads”, to become CEO horse-whisperers. As tapping into intuition enables better decision-making, the practical benefits are obvious.

Acting Lessons:
Jacqueline McClintock, who passed away recently, was renowned for her coaching of actors, such a Naomi Watts, Alex Baldwin, Gregory Peck, and Diane Keaton to name a few. She learned her techniques from an equally famous acting coach, Sanford Meisner who encouraged actors “to get out of their heads” in order to do the job well. He wanted them to stop thinking about what they were doing, become more “in the moment, “spontaneous” much like comedians must do to succeed.

McClintock reinforced this by not listening to what actors were saying but instead listening to whether they were genuine – whether they meant what they were saying.

Albert Einstein once lamented that we had sacrificed our sacred gift of intuitiveness in service to our conscious thoughts. Many decades later, his words still resonate - the workplace reinforces conscious rumination to a fault.  We have some work to do and in the process we might all relax a little more and gain more trust in each other.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Take a read break

I’ve been an avid reader forever probably because my mother is. As a young child, I couldn’t help notice she perpetually had her nose in books. To this day she is the same. For comfort and a break from the stresses of life, books were and are her escape. Is there something in this for any of us whether leaders, managers or members of the vital teams that power all organizations?

Various research sources indicate that vast and deep reading helps us to connect disparate ideas thereby adding to the creative journey. For example, I’ve been told that when I am in front of groups as a facilitator-teacher, I seem to effortlessly pull out stories and all manner of peripheral and supporting information on the fly, depending on the direction of the class discussion. I don't even know what I know until a trigger comment from someone. Then, I have to watch that I don't lose my audience by deviating too long from where we were on the agenda! At the least reading broadens my thinking and helps me “entertain”.

But there is a real benefit to reading that it often overlooked – its stress-reducing power. According to John Coleman’s August 15, 2012 HBR blog, “For those who want to lead, read”, six minutes of reading can reduce stress by 68%.

Now that’s an attractor in today’s far too fast-paced work environments! But it all depends on what one is reading, doesn’t it? Heavy duty reports don’t qualify.

So all you managers out there, take out your novel and set an example that reading breaks - fiction or non-fiction - contribute to productivity not the other way around. Water cooler gatherings have finally gained respectability as they help social cohesion, innovation, employee engagement and well-being. Now it's time to put read breaks of any kind in that same category.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Want to motivate your team? Build high performance? Don't skip one important detail.

Every time I read the latest statistics from Gallup and McKinsey or whomever on employee engagement my eyes glaze over. I used to write the information down for reference when doing talks or teaching. I don’t anymore because it’s the same old, same old. Lots of people in most organizations are not engaged. The further down the organization, the worse it gets. I always get an earful when working with front line employees (yes, I know, there is always another side to their stories). The beat goes on.

But, here and there, employees are inspired to do their best. Take the paramedics that attended to my husband this month when he had a dizzy spell, fell off a stool. In the moment, they did what they had to do and eventually took my husband to hospital emergency for further checking. In the end, it was a case of low blood pressure from his meds.

What I found most unusual was the extent to which the senior paramedic checked in with me between other ambulance trips on my husband’s status. It was then that we talked about his job. This was a motivated guy who had recently finished a year of advanced training. I still shake my head at his degree of interaction with our family. I’m not used to this caring customer service in general!

Annual surveys of the best organizations to work for show that there are many great companies young and old. Southwest Airlines is a perennial winner. Newer tech companies due to their start-up mentality often get the nod. Small is helpful as a rule because of the family-like atmosphere. The more complicated and big the tougher it is for leaders to keep the culture engaging and exciting.

If you are in a big, complex organization and want to motivate your team what can you do? Certainly “leading by values” is a good way. Herb Kelleher, Southwest’s founder, makes a point of mentioning values such as “leaning toward the customer” (his insistence) as a must. Founders do set the tone. But when the organization is older with thousands of employees and the newness of a company’s reason for existence has long receded in memory, how do you keep the founder’s spirit going?

One factor always pops up by various authors on the subject – purpose (why am I here to do what?). That’s the first one mentioned by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner in their new book “The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations”.  People are motivated by what is rewarding not what is rewarded. Knowing why they come to work every day – purpose – speaks to the rewarding part.

The best place to re-engage is at the team level. That’s where the real work gets done. The paramedics know they want to save lives whenever possible. Every leader/manager has more control over a team than the whole organization. Motivate a team and the infectiousness begins to rub off elsewhere as peers talk. Southwest’s fundamental success is due to teamwork.

Yes, there is much more to great teamwork than being pumped up by its purpose. Every day, every hour relating matters as the journey unfolds. Infrastructure to support team success matters. However, without a clear team purpose, the tasks at hand have no context for action.  

Don’t skip purpose – having the team openly determine the why of being together.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Subtle dynamics of teams make or break their greatness

As in a gentle Marine boot camp, I was madly climbing my way up to the top and over a “rope” mountain when the person behind me asked for help. My “boss”, who was much bigger than me, was having trouble. Naturally I reached out and provided a helping hand despite my angst toward him. Did this make any difference to our relationship in the long run? Not one iota.

We were attending one of those company retreats focused on making us a better team by putting us through a bunch of trust exercises (falling out of a tree to be caught/saved by my colleagues below, for example). Sound familiar? If only building a stronger team were so simple. But, at the least it was fun.

Back in those days, we had a bird’s eye view of teaming. Now, we have a better view from the ground.  With the aid of technology and because of technology and more research, we are able to sharpen our understanding of the inner workings of teams – for better or worse. The subtle human drivers of team basics such as having a clear goal, mutual accountability for the work product, diverse thinking and domain skills, etc., are now becoming clearer. These drivers are like the glue that binds the team basics.

Three such drivers caught my attention recently:

When culture and conflict don’t mix and a subtler approach is better

As teams become less mono- and more multi-cultural, conflict becomes a more sensitive issue. Erin Meyer’s research at INSEAD in France revealed subtle undertones in teams with a mix of cultures. While people from a French background typically view openly arguing as a means to uncovering hidden contradictions and to stimulating thinking, people from Asian countries consider such confrontation to be rude. This can also apply to certain personality types – introverts as less likely to embrace “conflict” than extroverts.

What can a team do to go with the flow of different ways of “doing” conflict”?

-If you are the team leader, consult with “quiet” members before a meeting.

-Enable people to prepare their thinking in advance of a meeting (for example a series of three questions on the matter at hand).

-Refrain from saying “I disagree” and replace with “could you tell me more about that?”

When the “how” of team communication matters more than “substance”

Alex “Sandy” Pentland of MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab captures how people communicate in real time using electronic sensors in the form of sociometric badges. He has found that when building a great team smart people matter less than we have thought and non-verbals count much more. These include tone of voice, gesturing, how one faces others in a group and how much people talk and listen. 

What do members of great teams do?

-Talk with each other many times during the day – a dozen or so exchanges per working hour. Call it ongoing consultation.

-Talk and listen to each other in equal measure, equally. Teams with dominant members, teams within teams, and those that either talk or listen but don’t do both are far less productive.

-Engage in frequent informal communication. Such “water cooler” conversations foster camaraderie and the exchange of valuable ideas. The best teams spend about half their time outside of formal meetings communicating.

-Go outside the team environment to explore for ideas and information. Like bees seeking pollen, outside sources do aid team results.

When work-life balance strategies “made by the team”pay off

In her book Sleeping with Your Smart Phone: How to Break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work, Leslie Perlow describes how a team at the Boston Consulting Company (BCG) confronted the dangers of burnout. The team set a simple, modest goal: each team member would get a planned night off each week (PTO or “predictable time off”).

That single intention fostered conversations that may never have happened and those led to greater team altruism and empathy, higher job satisfaction and team member retention and better client satisfaction ratings. Looking out for one another engendered trust, a vital electrical current in any team.

This “reimagining” of work yielded a continuous flow of benefits for the team. Better conversations and new connections grew out of a goal to include personal needs in getting the job done.

If my boss and I had known these simple yet powerful ways to build great teams, would we have added more value at the retreat and thereafter back at the office? Probably. In looking back, at the least, I can be more forgiving of myself and my boss for not connecting. We did not know what we did not know.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Keep calm and carry on: a drought of such messaging since 1939

When I was doing my Ph.D. research on how people successfully change their lifestyles for the better, I was struck by one key factor: the power of external messaging to influence eventually their decisions to change. At one level the information about the dire effects of smoking, poor eating habits, lack of exercise, etc. was simply intellectual - received as reasonable but not taken at an emotional level. However, in the long run, the outside-in reminders did help, setting a real reason context for change. Each person’s life journey provided an inside-out trigger for a committed change. Mission accomplished with the help of outside “coaching”.

Since coping with change is such a huge part of our fast-paced, volatile lives these days, we can always benefit from uplifting and simple leadership encouragement politically and within our own organizations. On a national level in Canada, I am still looking for something to bring us together, make us excited about who we are and where we are heading.

In the moment, I get more inspired by the Canadian-owned horse, “I’ll Have Another” who won the 137th Preakness Stakes on May 19 and prior to that the Kentucky Derby than anything I am hearing from our federal government. It shows how much we benefit from domestic heroes of any kind! All nations needs reason to celebrate and to stick with it. Certainly the sports world delivers at the least on a temporary basis.

But we value and find solace and inspiration in more substantive messaging in order for each of us to stay focused and hang in for the long run. That’s why I have taken to writing down every day, “Keep Calm and Carry On” a poster produced by the British Government in 1939 during the beginning of the Second World War. Winston Churchill added more to rally British citizens as the going got tough. We know his “coaching” helped win the day.

“Keep Calm and Carry On” and other outside-in “coaching” help us manage our emotions. The inspiration ignites our mindfulness, being in the moment to see our emotions but not be them.  Maybe one day I will find a “made in Canada” message that I can add to my daily reminder on how to be in the world to face another day.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Tread carefully with conflict. Creativity might not be the beneficiary.

We are being encouraged to welcome conflict in group and teamwork to improve creativity. So says Jonah Lehrer in his new book Imagine along with a number of critics of the traditional brainstorming method. The classical method recommends generating and building on ideas first before judging.  What the critics don’t tell us is how to debate or butt heads without doing harm.

Interpersonal communication and coaching training universally emphasize “constructive” feedback and asking “the great questions”. These gold standards are useful guides as we learn better how to get more value out of creative encounters in group settings. Underlying the gold standards is the exploration of assumptions or frames for “seeing” a challenge or situation a particular way. Once shared and different assumptions are identified, novel ideas often flow because each person is more open to another’s point-of-view. This is the environment to cultivate for great brainstorming.

But there is an art to this. Teams at minimum are comprised of different personality types and increasingly different cultures. Introverts, who like to think in advance and ponder about the ideas swirling around for a bit, typically do not thrive in an emotionally-charged debating environment. As Erin Meyer points out in “Managing confrontation in multicultural teams” (April 6, 2012, HBR Blog), people from many Asian cultures consider confrontation to be rude. On the other hand, that is not the case for North Americans in general and to varying degrees, Europeans. For example, French teams intuitively encourage conflict to reveal hidden contradictions and stimulate new thinking.

To tread a little more carefully, here are ways that Meyer and neuroscientists suggest for offsetting the potential downside of conflict while improving creative thinking:

1. Enable people to prepare their thoughts in advance. Collaborative tools which honour anonymity, one-on-one phone calls or a few simple questions answered in the security of one’s own working space can set the stage for a productive and relaxed meeting.

2. Use constructive interpersonal communication approaches. As Meyer recommends, refrain from saying “I disagree with that”. Instead try “Please explain more why you think that”. Or, use the tenets of great questions starting with “how” and “what” rather than “why”?

3. Take advantage of a variety of creative thinking tools. Any method that does not put pressure on specific individuals yet adds an atmosphere of fun and non-judgment will open up minds no matter the cultural backgrounds and thinking styles of the team members.

Since wise decisions are the aim in problem-solving, a study by the University of Waterloo’s Igor Grossman on age and wisdom (April 7, 2012, The Economist) offers insights into leavening the “dissonance” challenge in society. The parameters Grossman and his colleagues used to compare and contrast wisdom among Americans versus Japanese encompassed five crucial aspects of wise reasoning:

1. Willingness to seek opportunities to resolve conflict
2. Willingness to search for compromise
3. Recognition of the limits of personal knowledge
4. Awareness that more than one perspective on a problem can exist
5. Appreciation that the situation may get worse before it gets better

No matter your conflict tolerance, these five interpersonal and intergroup principles are a more helpful guide to encouraging conflict and creativity than simply “let’s do conflict”.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Where brainstorming and introversion intersect

In the movie Dead Poets’ Society the teacher, played by Robin Williams, captivates and inspires his students with his confidence in their potential to make a difference:

You will learn to think for yourself…words and ideas can change the world.

This resonates with the emerging consensus on the limitation of group brainstorming – the danger of groupthink.

As the classroom scene unfolds, Williams tells his students to tear out a page from a textbook. The particular content focuses on analyzing poetry mechanistically which flies in the face of thinking for yourself.

The reactions of different students are hilarious. Some immediately rise to the challenge tearing out pages as Williams goads them on. Others hesitate briefly such as one student who after encouragement from his fellow classmates carefully uses a ruler to rid the textbook of the offending passage. We witness thinking for yourself in action and the different thinking styles that go with it.

The careful student is likely an introvert who needs some time to check out the merit of the action in his mind before jumping in. This isn’t brainstorming but it highlights the importance by the teacher and by the different student reactions that thinking for yourself is a sacred part of our identity.

Susan Cain in her book The Power of the Introvert in a World that Can’t Stop Talking underscores the contribution of thinking for yourself, extroverts included. People are generally more creative when they have some quiet time and freedom from interruption to let their minds search for new ideas and connections. This mind wandering gets below the surface noise of our conscious minds to enable imaginative work to be done.

Introverts thrive on quiet time to think first. A number of recent studies by researchers in neuroscience and psychology now point to the importance of this quiet time as a must for better brainstorming by any mix of people. The result is more and better quality novel ideas at the outset of the creative journey and as the process unfolds with a group or team. Team leaders and managers take note: build in this structured time for members of the group!

Electronic brainstorming tends to offset the problem of group think in real time. This may be due to the advantage of solitude in the midst of a group adventure. Crowdsourcing in large groups and teams that collaborate remotely seem to channel brainstorming well.

Taking a page from the preference of introverts as a start point, no matter the medium the principle of thinking for yourself is a useful guide for improving brainstorming. As Robin Williams says so beautifully in the movie, “The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

Thursday, February 02, 2012

OK. I gotta think positive!

You could see it in his eyes – the tears. At the same time his lips quivered. Kyle Stanley blew a three-shot lead on the 18th hole at Torrey Pines at the Farmers Insurance Open with a triple bogey. Meanwhile, Brandt Snedeker who was seven off the lead at the beginning of the day had finished with a 67 to assure him of second place – until the meltdown. Snedeker went on to win the golf tournament in a sudden death play-off against Stanley.

This is every golfer’s nightmare. Just ask Rory McIlroy and many before him. How do you stay positive when the stress is extraordinary? How do you find your centre again after such a shock?

Although extreme and relatively rare for golfers and the rest of us, the comeback techniques are universal. We humans have a remarkable ability to bounce back. Built into our biology is the tendency and ability to see the silver lining. And, that’s just the start.

The hard work is rebuilding a frame of mind to confront the same or different challenges. It’s not enough to “think positive” although positive self-talk is essential such as “I can do this”. The trouble with just thinking is that it is not doing. A routine – doing something even if it’s a little bit every day – is the key to strengthening resilience in the face of adversity. As Shawn Achor author of The Happiness Advantage puts it:

Training your brain to be positive is not so different from training your muscles at the gym.

Twitter, Facebook and the Web are alive with tips, tools and techniques gleaned from current research across multiple disciplines. The January-February 2012 edition of The Harvard Business Review is dedicated to the science of happiness. Science Digest provides nuggets on a daily basis. The self-help book business has been thriving for 60+ years. The topic has a long history in religion and in human history.

So what can Kyle Stanley do? Here are some examples that consistently pop up as proven to work:

1. Ease someone else’s pain. Do something good for someone else. Help a person looking for something in the grocery store. Hang out for a day with young kids who can’t afford to take golf lessons. Be their teacher for a few hours. Good intentions have a two-way impact: soothe pain, and increase pleasure. Confucius called this The Jen Ratio.

2. Ponder. Handwrite in a notebook all your thoughts about the situation, free flow, no judgment or editing. That empties the mind, takes out the busyness and has a calming effect even for many athletes who prefer action to sitting quietly writing. Handwriting makes a stronger connection to the brain than working on a computer. The quieter creative and healing part of the mind can get to work.

3. See the silver lining. Exercise this biological gift to your advantage every day. Verbally or in a notebook, make a list of three reasons you are grateful. The Dalai Lama likely has practiced this to a fine art. He giggles quite a lot. We can assume he must see the upside to just about obstacle thrown in his way.

4. Listen to music while exercising. You can’t do it while competing as it does give an athlete a competitive advantage. But you can in-between tournaments. Music acts like a conductor orchestrating and coordinating activity across different parts of the brain. The repetitive beat combined with the exercise –walking, yoga, work out at a gym, Zumba, etc. – directs attention away from the negative providing a motivational boost. Mark Fenske, co-author of The Winner’s Brain, wrote about the power of music in The Globe and Mail (February 2, 2012).

5. Do something silly. Be with someone silly. Permit yourself to have fun. Laughter is an infectious social phenomenon. Even a quip here and there in conversations with others will magically lift your spirits and those around you. Reach out to David Feherty at the Golf Channel. He can make even the most dour person chuckle.

These and related habits repair and develop our Buddha brain. Rick Hanson describes the process in his book Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Step at a Time. Many little mindful habits tame the amygdala, our brain’s anxiety-ridden troublemaker. The emotional tail wags the rational dog (Jonathan Haidt). But it doesn’t always have to be that way.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Feeling "Sandwiched in Your Work? There are Tools to Ease the Pressure.

It’s not getting any easier for managers to manage. The younger generations want agile, open, engaging tech-savvy workplaces where legacy bureaucracies reign. The front-line is seldom satisfied. An economic environment in perpetual turmoil yields no promises for stability. Politicians and bosses from above don’t always consult and make good policy or strategy. Managers are truly the “sandwich generation” no matter their age.

But, good news: the fog around what works in management is less dense. Precision tools with a proven track record are beginning to proliferate.

Here are two top tools from 2011:

The Three to One Rule – Three Positive Emotions to One Negative

If you want employees to be open to change, generate creative ideas on the fly, make good decisions and generally be more productive, put away your negative, anxious self (even if you have good reason to be so). Sprinkle positive ideas and comments three times as often as negative. The latter spread faster than the former. Positive emotions that are genuine also build trust.

The Progress Principle – Small Wins

Black holes and snails leave burned out people in their wake. There is nothing worse for morale than a team having worked night and day on a project only to see it stalled somewhere up the line. Our brains like rewards. The size doesn’t matter. No rewards – funkiness sets in.

Managers who take pushing the fly wheel seriously also continuously re-generate team energy.

Both of these tools radiate results in all directions. Like compound interest, such multi-purpose instruments are cheap ways to develop increasing returns.

For more information, check out these researchers on YouTube:

Barbara Fredrickson, Positive Emotions and Teresa Amabile, The Progress Principle.