This scene will be familiar to you.
I was invited to facilitate a strategic workshop. I was told fairly early on, “We have 32 strategic objectives we need to meet.”
“OK,” I replied. “Which one is the most important?”
You can probably guess my client’s reply…
“They all are.”
Now, what’s wrong with this picture?
If you are inclined to say, “Nothing, that’s just the way business has to be in these complicated days,” then I would ask you to stop and think for a moment. Too many of our organisations are like the proverbial donkey who is stalled into inaction because of two competing piles of hay.
The more we learn about the human brain, the more we learn how awesome is its capacity, but also how limited its ability is to consciously focus on things in the foreground of our awareness. Neuroscientists put the number of items we can concurrently focus upon to be as low as four.
Neuroscientists say we can only focus on four things concurrently consciously.
So we have a dilemma. There are all these targets our organisations set us to meet, but we can only focus on a few.
Recently, as part of the current release of our Leading Yourself Workshop, I released a book review of Gary Keller’s The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. And one of the passages in the book is where Keller explained that the word Priority entered into the English language in the 14th Century. It came from the Latin word prior meaning first. What surprised me was that it was only made plural in the 20th Century: priorities. Think about that. To previous generations, to talk about priorities would have been madness.
In the English language the word "priority" was always singular until the 20th Century.
I suspect the human brain, and a team, and a project, and even an organisation works better with a priority than it does with priorities. Priorities (plural) begin to generate confusion, internal competition for attention and erode focus.
What if we were to budget to one priority in any given moment?
OK, complex organisations do have a number of matters to achieve, but budgeting to one priority begins to make us dig deeper. We begin to see the dependencies between different objectives, where some enable others. For example, here is an Outcome Relationship Model of an Olympics Legacy development.
We begin to see the real drivers of organisational success. Maybe some of these objectives or targets can be met, or more easily met if we were to focus on the one thing.
As an individual, if I invest time now in making this blog post a priority, in focusing upon it exclusively to everything else that clamours for my attention, it may help me meet some of my other objectives later.
Focus is inseparable from this kind of singular attention.
Focus is inseparable from singular attention.
Now, this is not to say that my priority may not change during the day; it does. Nor will my priority today be the same as tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year. Priority is the matter I should focus on now.
In my coaching about this, I recommend clients identify their MIT, their Most Important Task. This is the daily priority, the one thing they commit to achieving that day. The real value, though, is in the process of deciding that MIT. This is where we gain clarity and leverage over our day.
Some of the most influential people I know do more than empathise with me. Empathy is important. But when it comes down it, what truly separates world-class influencers from manipulators?
One of the most acutely painful moments in my life made me quite vulnerable. I approached a man who was a leader. Len was also a great talker. He was ready with opinions on most things.
When I told him my news, he did something unexpected.
He wept with me.
Len is no longer with us, but I remember him with great fondness and deep appreciation, not least for that moment. For me, it was a defining moment. His compassion transcended his talk, his opinions, his wisdom. At that moment, he showed me great leadership. At that moment, I realised I needed something other than counsel and direction: I needed someone to walk with me in my pain.
I read this quote recently from Seth Godin:
"Empathy is not sufficient. Compassion is more useful because it's possible to talk to someone who is experiencing something that you've never experienced."
We cannot always expect to have had an experience similar others. And we can never expect to have had another's experience exactly.
Like empathy, there are examples that corrupt the meaning of the word compassion. But I leave it out there for you today.
Empathy + Compassion. This combination truly separates the forensic manipulator from the servant leader.
One of the joys of being a parent and, in my case, a grandparent is that you can indulge in watching some really good kids' movies. And way up there in my top 10 is Despicable Me. We watched it again over the holidays. I love the movie, the storyline, and ... I love the title.
So I'm playing around with this title to make a point in this article. It's about the concept of Deliverable Me.
Perhaps the most clunky piece of jargon coming out of the project management profession has to be the word deliverable. There are far better alternatives: 'output,' 'product,' 'enabler,' and so on.
As the name implies, a deliverable is what the project delivers, either at the end or along the way. It reminds the project manager that it is not all about the activities, the activity network, the resource planning, and so on. These all contribute to the busyness of the project, and although perhaps necessary, these can become an obsession, even a distraction, from delivering the end product, and beyond that, the point of it all - the what the customer really wants.
'Deliverable' must be the clunkiest piece of jargon coming out of project management.
A few years ago I was working with a global publishing business. I ran a few project management and stakeholder engagement workshops. And then my client asked me if I could help by delivering a workshop for people to improve their personal work organisation. Overwhelm as we now call it, was rampant, and people's working lives too often seemed to border on chaos. Productivity was certainly not what it should have been.
I'd like to think the client invited me to think about this because my style of coaching project managers was plain-speaking, without too much jargon, and it helped people see the reason behind what they were asked to do on a project.
The most powerful productivity techniques were borrowed from project management.
So although I did not consider myself at that time to be any kind of productivity ninja, or time management guru, I accepted the invitation. I developed a one-day workshop called Organising Yourself More Effectively. OK, it's not the snappiest of titles, I agree, but it set out what I hoped was the goal of the workshop.
It turned out to be a resounding success. In fact, the responses I had from delegates were somewhat surprising in the way I seemed to have helped them gain traction in their working lives.
Seeing my life as a project, the 'Deliverable Me.'
But when I dug a little deeper into what tools they had found particularly helpful, they were mostly borrowed from my project management bag of tricks. That made me think: some of the tools we use on projects and programmes can also be very powerful for the individual, for treating my life as a project, where I see myself as 'Deliverable Me.'
Anyway, we have just opened the doors again, after nearly a year to our online version of that workshop. This time we call it Leading Yourself online. However, in this workshop we go beyond modest goals of improved personal organisation and increased productivity to something more profound: moving from the captivity of overwhelm to developing ourselves to become what I call positive outliers, people who are outstanding, positively so, people who consistently do their best work. If you are interested, check out my short Doing Your Best Work email series first.
I hope to see you there.
The turn of the calendar year is traditionally a time where we review the past year and look forward to a fresh year, a fresh start.
As you look back over your year, what do you feel? Disappointed at so little achieved? Surprised, because you achieved more than you perhaps realised? A mixture of both?
For most of us there is that feeling that we are not making as much progress as we would like. Often in the midst of busyness, we feel like we are spinning wheels: accelerating hard but getting nowhere.
Could the reason for this be partly the way we work?
I read Deep Work recently, a book that raises key issues for us all in the way we work.
I found the book to be a worthy and helpful exploration of how blocks of concentrated, uninterrupted work can make a massive difference to our contribution. It is written by Cal Newport, a young professor in computer science at Georgetown University, Washington DC. I recommend it.
Ultimately it comes down to this:
We can continue to live our lives as victims of distraction or we can take deliberate steps to do something about it.
We can continue to live our lives as victims of distraction or take deliberate steps to do something about it. #deepwork
Deep Work’s subtitle is Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
I have to say that I was a little wary of the word rules in Newport’s sub-title. I find that rules are often much-loved and defended by enthusiastic but legalistic beginners, who know a little but extrapolate it to anything and everybody.
But I need not have been too concerned. Newport takes a careful exploration of ways people have established deep work and concludes that one size does not fit all in the lifestyles of intense focused activity.
I found Cal Newport’s analysis of the world of work fascinating. He explores a paradox: trends exist which show that in most fields of knowledge work - from academia to marketing, journalism, software engineering, to business consulting - deep work offer huge advantages to those that practice it consistently. Yet, most organisations permit - and somethings consciously promote - environments that are hostile to periods of concentrated, uninterrupted work.
As a coach, I’m particularly aware of this in the lives of several of my clients.
It all starts by refusing to be a victim. #doingyourbestwork
Nevertheless, I am finding ways to protect my deep working. In my own book, Leading Yourself, I look at proper focus competing with distraction. Distraction is always crying out for our attention. Our route to success is largely determined by our owning this problem of distraction and dealing with it.
And there are others like me. These people begin gain performance in their work by separating themselves from the patterns of the overwhelmed and harrassed majority and produce excellence.
It all starts by refusing to be a victim, and by beginning to see oneself as powerful. It starts with adopting a new mindset towards oneself and one’s work. Then one finds techniques to defend and enhance one’s best work.
I’m not a fan of New Year resolutions. But I do think at the turn of the year, often with an absence from being driven by workloads over the holidays, this is an excellent time to take stock.
I go deeper. 🙂
I wish you a better, more hopeful and effective New Year.
I want to begin by thanking you.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you are an essential reason for my work. You bring out the best in me. I’m very grateful for that.
So, thank you. I wish the very best for you and your loved ones this festive season.
In my work on the Most Powerful Daily Routine, gratitude, saying thanks, is a principal part of it all. The effects of appreciation on the person giving thanks are many. One of the most significant benefits for me is that it raises me above the voice that says, “You’re getting nowhere. You are just going around in circles. There is no progress.” By merely listing three things I am thankful for in the last twenty-four hours is convincing in shaking me out of that lie.
As I write my gratitude list, I usually surprise myself. “Oh! Yes, I did have a productive day yesterday, didn’t I?” or “Yes, there are some important steps behind me now.”
A gratitude list is a powerful anti-oxidant to stress. #2017gratitudelist
So it boosts my motivation as I go into the next day.
Here’s an example, over a few days in June, of how I used this with an analogue daily planner:
The daily log - my planning and prioritisation process - is on the left-hand side, and the gratitude list is on my right-hand side.
I explore this routine more deeply on my Leading Yourself online workshop, which I will be re-launching soon. I will also be opening the Positive Outlier Academy for those wanting to meet like-minded people who wish to grow so that they bring their best selves to their work.
As you can see, a lot of the items I am thankful for are in my relationships with those around me. This reality for me is likely to be the case for you too.
And here’s the paradox that the run-up to the holiday season highlights for many of us:
There's a paradox in the run-up to Xmas: people matter more than stuff, but urgency means relationships suffer.
Since this is the last article I am planning to publish before 2018, I thought I’d try something different,
My 2017 Gratitude List.
So here goes...
What I am personally thankful for in 2017 for:
Look out for some exciting announcements early in January.
I aim to kick off 2018 by opening the Positive Outlier Academy.
For some of us, the run-up to the holidays is acutely stressful.
It shouldn’t be so.
The run-up to Xmas shouldn't be so stressful #2017gratitudelist
So here’s something that might help you. I’d encourage you to write your own 2017 Gratitude List, and see what happens. Gratitude is a tremendous anti-oxidant to stress.
Let me know how you get on. Leave a comment below.
With every blessing this Christmas,
“The customer community is very unreasonable,” my client told me. “They won’t listen to my ideas, and seem to reject them before I have finished explaining."
I’ve heard similar such statements from different clients more than once. There is pain in this. And also a little pride. Maybe it has a subtext of, “My customer doesn’t appreciate me. They don’t know how lucky they are to have me.”
In such situations, as tactfully as I can, I get my client to think about how they present themselves to their customers.
We communicate more than we realise.
I think that we sometimes close down opportunities to influence people unwittingly because we have written them off in our estimation. We have limited their potential in our own eyes. There a little signals we give off, so-called micro-tells that give our true feelings away.
When it comes to matters of trust, people aren't as stupid as we think. #influence
Generally, when it comes to matters of trust, people are not as stupid as we perhaps like to think.
Consider about how this plays out in teaching a child. Which teacher is likely to get more out of a child: the one who has a high estimation of the child’s potential or the one who thinks poorly of their student?
I recall a case study where researchers split a cohort of young students at random into two groups, each given a different year tutor. One tutor was told that they had been given a class of outstanding performers and the other that they had a problem class. The children began to behave to expectations. At the end of the year, the first group obtained outstanding results, while the other performed below average.
Are those we seek to influence on our projects that different from these students?
Something in our attitude, our defensiveness, the absence of hope we bring to the conversation, perhaps, is speaking more loudly than our words.
On the contrary, if we think the best of people, if we begin to see potential in them that maybe they don't even see in themselves, it positions us to inspire them and lead them. Often leadership is about calling out the best in people. We love leaders when they do that in us.
The most basic engagement strategy stands or falls by the attitude we really have to our stakeholders.
In stakeholder engagement, we discuss the stakeholder engagement strategy. However, the most basic strategy stands or falls by the people mindset we bring to it. If we don't think a lot of the people we serve, then it is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, if we believe the best of them, we set ourselves up for surprising success.
My advice is to check your estimation of and attitude towards whomever you are about to influence. Is it positive enough?
I was talking with a client last week who has a difficult relationship with a significant customer. What the customer is demanding my client to do would make him feel professionally compromised. He knows it is an inferior requirement.
By a mile.
We explored what would happen if he had a Plan B, a fall-back if he couldn't get an agreement with his client.
Think of such a relationship as requiring negotiation. Good negotiators always have options before they go into the negotiations.
But what if there are no options?
If you have no options, you are disempowering yourself.
Going into a difficult negotiation without options is disempowering yourself.
You see, going into a negotiation without a fall-back, without a no-deal option, means you are throwing yourself on the mercy of the other party.
You leave yourself with no alternative but that of having to get an agreement, any agreement.
So they can manipulate you.
In the Dealing with the Difficult Relationships Checklist, we use the concept that Roger Fisher and William Ury use in their book, Getting to Yes. It is the concept of BATNA, which is an acronym for Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.
Having a BATNA gives you power as you go into negotiations. You are not needy. You don't need to give in.
Recently a government agency with whom I have worked for over ten years - and I have enjoyed serving them - wanted to change the terms of my contract in a very controlling way. A way which would have treated me as a commodity and not the consultant that I am who can add significant value to my client. I found it dishonouring and unbalanced.
My BATNA was to walk away. I decided that I didn’t need the work.
Government agencies like this rarely negotiate.
And, true to form, they didn’t.
So I walked away.
I was sad,
But I also felt powerful and free. I exercised choice rather than feeling coerced to comply.
I felt powerful and free. I exercised choice rather than feeling coerced to comply.
And this underlines another vital point: a BATNA has to be a real alternative to give you power.
Failure is not an option.
No, it's inevitable.
The issues is, first, will I accept that reality? Then can I act so that when I do fail, it is cheap and useful? When I do fail I do not do something worse: take failure as my identity. No, I am not a failure, but I do fail. The question is, did I learn from that failure?
Failure is not an option ... it's inevitable.
Time was when we would develop methodologies that tried to avoid failure altogether. I now realise that this attempt was impossible and even dangerous. The way it was typically evidenced in project management was to start further and further back in design:
"We need a plan first." (This seems like good sense, doesn't it?)
"Well, we need a business case first." (Of course, who would argue with that; I wouldn’t.)
"Yes but before that, we need a Project Brief."
"Yes, but before that, we need a Project Mandate."
"OK, but before that, we need some Strategic Objectives."
"Yes, but first we need our Vision, Mission and Values."
We can carry this seemingly-rational nonsense on for as long as we wish - many consultants and business gurus do just that.
Confession time: I own up to having done that as well.
I have repented!
I sometimes think we have created a management Catch 22, where we never achieve anything substantive.
But when do we do get around to doing something? Where is the execution?
"Oh, no. We're not ready for that yet. What if we do the wrong thing or do it badly?"
I sometimes think we've created a kind of management Catch 22 where we go around and around in ever decreasing circles, never achieving anything substantive. Fear of failure has become a sort of management political correctness. It's time to face this demon.
Is failure always a bad thing? What if the worst failure of all is never achieving a return on our efforts. I believe this is a subtle and sophisticated paralysis by analysis.
The world is more complex than our models.
There are three challenges we need to face in breaking out of this syndrome:
I remember when I spoke alongside my friend and former colleague, Richard Rose, at an Agile Project Management conference. We found many there who were new to Agile. Others, by contrast, had been so long immersed in Agile practice that they had forgotten the real value of incremental, Just-Enough-Design-Up-Front management.
At one point I said, "Failure is not an option, it's inevitable." I saw lights go on all around the room.
Those weary with traditional management that promised much but delivered little, and those immersed in newer, more empirical approaches both need to be aware of the value of limited failure. We hypothesise about this complex world, test, examine the results, adapt and move on. W.E. Deming had nailed this years ago in his PDCA cycle. See an earlier article on this: Ever-Increasing Circles.
We need an empirical humility about what will happen if we do such-and-such, test and then see if we are right.
Maybe we need a CTF, a Call to Failure.
Marketers talk about the Call to Action, the CTA. Maybe we all need a CTF, a Call to Failure.
One of my projects right now is helping the opening of a new local school for 5 to 11-year-olds. Since the government likes the idea, much of this will be publicly-funded, which means we need to evidence demand for the school by getting parents to sign up before it opens.
So, I was with another volunteer, who is also a friend of mine, visit a manager of a pre-school nursery recently. We left leaflets and asked this manager to make parents aware of this new school.
I found the manager to be a helpful, experienced woman, who was willing but overwhelmed by all the demands and constraints placed upon her. I began to see before me not so much merely a gatekeeper, or manager, or even merely a channel to market.
Rather, I saw something of the real person. This woman clearly had a great passion for her kids. It kept her going
Burdened by bureaucracy, imposed by this same government, she nevertheless was willing to extend us the courtesy of her precious time in the middle of the day.
I was impressed.
My friend and I began to empathise, asking how we might help her. My friend also began to ‘call out the gold’ in her; that is, telling this woman what she recognised in her that was good and worthy.
If we get the chance, my friend and I will help her as best we can. We will, where possible, deposit something into our relationship with her.
The relational bank account technique is a simple and powerful way of building relationships.
This is the relational bank account in action. It’s a simple concept: never make a withdrawal from a relationship without depositing something in first.
We could have just tried to make a withdrawal without depositing anything into her account. We could have asked her to hand out our leaflets to parents, and then gone away.
Instead, we came away committed to seeking ways to make that manager’s burden a little lighter, ways of helping her express her passion and vision for her children more possible. We did come away with a new friend and, I think, ally.
The relational bank account is a concept we explore more in EPE. You can download a paper about 10 ways of making such relational deposits here.:
It’s a simple and powerful.
In my book, Practical People Engagement, I use this illustration of the modes of engagement. Far too often, I find classical approaches to engagement and communications planning almost always overlook the power and versatility of the ubiquitous conversation. We, as human beings, have had all of human history and pre-history to hone the practice of language and executing language through a conversation.
But modes are not the same as levels. How deep do you go with a conversation, for example.
There are, of course, degrees of engagement as there are degrees of relationship we have with people. I do not have the same level of intimacy with my bank manager as I do with my wife (thankfully!).
So a pretty basic level is the transaction conversation. This is a conversation where the aim is to exchange information, or get agreement, or get a sale, for example. Often if can be successful without needing to share deeply with the other party.
And it is usually attempted in one conversation. As sales managers might put it: aim to close the sale in that conversation.
Now here's the caution: this kind of transactional conversation can back-fire very quickly when we are dealing with people who already feel aggrieved about the change we are either making or even just proposing to make. This grievance may be legitimate, in our view, or not; it is still a felt hurt by them.
We can attempt too much in one conversation with people we are seeking to influence, and do more harm than good.
If we still think with the purely transactional mindset, it is all too easy to find ourselves doing this. We just want to process that person at the desk as quickly as possible. We want to end that interrupting call as soon as possible so we can get on with our day. We just want to clear that email out of our inbox. Urgency can work against us here.
A far better approach is the two-conversation strategy outlined in a recent HBR article by Sally Blount and Shana Carroll. The first conversation is seeking evidence from the other party, perhaps using active listening, discovering not just the facts, but the underlining emotions of that person or group, and making sure they know that they are being listened to carefully.
The second meeting should follow shortly after on the basis that you have thought carefully about meeting their concerns and objections. It’s in this conversation that you lay out your proposal and its merits.
By splitting the conversation in this way, you are honouring the other party. They are likely to think, “You hear me.” They are also more likely to be persuaded since you have given time and consideration to their concerns. Also, the pause possibly influences our thinking also, where we may identify those win-win solutions we did not first identify.
In my book, the first principle is taken from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Seek first to understand and then be understood.
The problem with transactional, broadcast communications is that it leaves no space to hear people.
The problem with transactional, broadcast communications is that it leaves no space to hear people, to dialogue, to understand them to any significant extent.
Now, you may be thinking in all this, This is all very well, but I just don’t have time for all of this engagement stuff!
Well, I have two responses to that:
Allow me to challenge you. Meet with one more person, one-to-one in your work environment or project each day. That one-to-one can be physically or virtually.
Then comment on this post below and tell me how it is going.
Don't worry, your email address will be safe.