Monday, August 05, 2013

What do you think?

When my sister gave me Tina Fey’s book “Bossypants” a couple of years ago for my birthday, all in jest of course, it reminded me of the forces that shape us and how difficult it is to change a habit. As the eldest, I took life far too seriously. To this day, my sisters frequently kid me about my relentless messaging to them. In my view, they always seemed to be fooling around, slacking off. “Work hard”, I told them, so they could take care of themselves as adults, not depend on a man for their well-being.

Not surprisingly I have made a career out of the value (or not) of working hard. It’s much more nuanced than I imagined. Good coaching has many facets and lecturing is not necessarily an effective strategy. Maybe it works temporarily to change behaviour quickly in a risky situation. For the long-term though and to encourage self-momentum, it has diminishing returns.

Lately the power of a single question when problem-solving with others has reminded me of a way to shed the “bossy pants” habit. “What do you think?” is one major personal transformation theme I hear when I follow up with managers who have graduated from our leadership development programs. They don’t jump in to provide the answers, as was their habit too often. Although difficult to withhold their opinions, the managers are amazed at the creativity and enthusiasm that follows.

But does such a simple question make a real difference in achieving results? Anson Dorrance is a university soccer coach legend, having led his women’s soccer team at the University of North Carolina to 21 national championships over 33 seasons. According to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, who have written a fascinating book on the science of winning and losing (“Top Dog), Dorrance learned not to berate or lecture the women after a game played poorly. He simply asked, “What do you think?” The women capably provided the answers.

Fortunately for me my sisters knew that I was just looking out for them. They have both done well. Their playful feedback resonates though. I continue to work on letting go of my “bossy pants” persona to allow the “What do you think?” me to emerge.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Beyond our natural default setting

When I take a walk around any university campus, I calm down. There is something magical about the winding, irregular paths, the trees and vast green spaces, the beauty of the well-designed original fifty-year plus buildings and the hustle and bustle of students, faculty, staff and visitors traversing the grounds in every direction. It’s a cocoon, a little enclave in the midst of that unpredictable, often uninviting world out there.

Memories past spring up when all I had to worry about was being a student. It was a glorious time and a stressful time. But little did I know how peaceful it really was in comparison to what was ahead. The journey of life is a series of pilot tests offering an opportunity to learn or fume.
Fuming seems to be an easier route to take because it’s easier. Something annoying happens. We react. Simple! To not get irritated requires effort.  To be calm means I have to stop, see the situation in a more benign light, let go of being ticked off and revel in a more positive world. Too many steps! It can be exhausting when life is a constant series of irritations!

Yet, with a bit of practice the switch to seeing others and the prickly situations in a better light can speed up reducing the drain on my brain. A bonus is having the pleasure of going down pathways that may never have been explored and enjoyed otherwise; thus, my motivation to be more “type B” in nature in the face of life’s pilot tests.

What better place to pick up on the “learn or fume” challenge than a commencement address? It may go in one ear and out the other in the moment but with the fullness of time it resonates. David Foster Wallace captured the story poignantly in his address to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. I wish he had won the battle as he passed away in 2008 but his messages live on to inspire us to keep pushing the flywheel.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Nature can help us with priorities

Hunger often tricks us. We heap our plate with delicious food expecting to savour every morsel. But, our real capacity to take in a certain amount of food in one sitting kicks in. For most of us, the left-overs go into the refrigerator or to the dog or the garbage.

The same can be said of lofty and exciting visions – “big, hairy, audacious goals” beget big priorities which can be tough to achieve in the short-run and maybe never. They are often impossible to accomplish quickly and are prone to taking us on a wild goose chase.  By aiming too high, too fast there is no time to relax and enjoy the journey and to learn as we go. The far outcome rules the roost and we don’t like failure. So we keep trying when the best strategy might be to re-evaluate the start point in the first place.

There’s nothing wrong with having a great vision. We need a picture in our mind’s eye to be a navigator. But getting from here to there is another matter.

The way nature handles priorities provides some guidance on toning down our ambitions and become “real” when selecting “priorities”. As Steven Johnson describes in his Wall Street Journal article, The Genius of the Tinkerer, nature evolves through with “first-order combinations”. To quote from scientist Stuart Kaufman, such combinations are “the adjacent possible” rigged together from existing and nearby resources. It is a “kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can re-invent itself”.

In our language, this looks like and sounds like “first things first”. The “adjacent possible” certainly captures that and more to quote Johnson - “the boundaries of the adjacent possible grow as we explore them”. Nature evolves as the current situation demands. We do too, learning on the fly, experimenting.

Taking a page out of nature’s book, when we attempt to identify what’s first, consider the next door that has to be opened to push the flywheel forward. Think small, as in mini-step, while aiming high. Let the story unfold with each storyline connected to another. Be OK with left-overs as they signal a possible stop, turn or detour in the road. Feel free to “combine odds and ends” to bring form to emerging ideas along the way. 

And finally, relax into the present, rather than be dogged by the future. Such focused attention provides clues to the next priority.