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Multiple Priorities? Really?

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

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.

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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.

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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. 

Outcome Relationship Model Example

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.

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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.

Question:

The MIT is my technique for identifying my personal priority each day. What is yours? Leave a comment below.


Deliverable Me

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.

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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.

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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.'

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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.

Life in the Way

We plan, we organise ourselves, we budget, we set goals.


But sometimes life just gets in the way.

For much of what I write and teach around self-leadership and personal productivity, I use myself as the laboratory. This approach seems to me to be the way of integrity. As someone once claimed, “We eat our own dog food!” I understand that.

Silver Sofa Surfers

Over the last eleven weeks, my wife and I have been in transition, moving from Oxfordshire to Kent, about two hours’ driving distance from each other. We left our old place on 2nd August, a home we had lived in for more than 28 years, without regret, but with thanks for many happy memories.

However, the purchase of our new home fell through. Such is the way of things quite often in the English housing market.
We did not let this distress us, so we set about finding a new home, and so we did. Within a matter of 24 hours, we found one we liked very much, put an offer in, and it was accepted. However, it will not be until next week that we will finally move in.

That will make 11 weeks altogether. We were not dismayed. We are blessed with wonderful children and generous friends. So we have spent the late summer and early autumn moving from home to home.

One friend called us recently ‘Silver Sofa Surfers.’ I like that. We’ve been learning in this odyssey, learning about ourselves and others. For example, each new home we’ve moved into, we have found we had to adapt to their unique environment and constraints. It’s amazed us how different people’s kitchen storage and waste systems are, for example.

Not having a permanent residential address has created its problems as we engaged with some agencies. It seems that their systems cannot cater for our situation.

All the while I’ve attempted to publish articles on this site where and when I can. Finding places to work undistracted and uninterrupted was a challenge. In Leading Yourself online I explain ways high-performers order their private worlds, so I have sought to live this out, even on the move. I have continued to prioritize using my daily MIT technique. During this period I have calmed myself by reminding myself, “This is only temporary. When we move in October …”

All was going well, until...

Last week, though, uncertainty in our lives reached new levels. My wife’s back gave out putting her into the most extreme pain and immobilising her for several days. We canceled a short holiday we were about to take in Mallorca, visiting more remote members of our family. The flight we should have been on was with Monarch Airlines. Forty-five minutes after our scheduled take-off, Monarch Airlines ceased trading! Explaining all this to our travel insurers became very interesting.

Dealing with Extreme Uncertainty

So what am I learning in, what is for me, extreme uncertainty?
It’s at times like this that I am brought vividly to face reality that ‘life’ is lived with one’s body, soul, and spirit.
There is a verse in the Psalms that has come to mean a lot to me:

Psalm 73:26

"My flesh and my heart may fail, but the Lord is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

When Routine Fails Us

We all need to accept that in extreme situations, even tried and trusted personal workflows will be interrupted and fail us. We need to dig deep.

We need to look into our spirit and find what is unchanging.

I’m fascinated, for example, by the concept of the fulcrum, in leading change. We all need to find the unchanging, the fixed, the certain. Everything else can change around us, but one thing needs to remain fixed.

We all need a fulcrum, an unchanging pivot point in a context of change.

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What Matters Most

Ultimately it comes down to what matters most. What is my one priority in this moment? That is always a valid and clarifying question. For me, I'm very clear on that right now. It is my wife.

'What is my priority in this moment?' is always a powerful and clarifying question.

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I’m learning that I must trust God in navigating through these times. I cannot advise people with this methodology or that technique when they are in such circumstances, or worse, in extreme uncertainty. Ultimately it comes down to a matter of faith and meaning.

Question:

What are your experiences in such situations or worse ones? How did you find meaning in the storm of circumstances? I'd be interested in your thoughts below.

Ever-Increasing Circles

In the last two posts, I’ve explored course corrections, that is, how we use feedback loops in our lives, so that we keep on course, and improve our results.

One of the fundamental problems the western rationalist mind is that it finds it hard to think in non-linear terms. Our thought processes habitually follow the linear, “If I do this, then I will get this, and then I will achieve this” kind of mental narrative. We can find this works, but only in limited contexts.

In the world of engineering, marketing and projects, to name but three fields, we are learning to think more iteratively: to revisit and rework the results. This is more like thinking and moving in circles.

W.E. Deming, the American quality guru who was credited with revolutionising post-war Japanese manufacturing advocated his classic PDCA cycle:

By Johannes Vietze - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26722308

Practising this led to continuous improvement. Manufacturing results improved because of attention to the feedback and improved as a result. In marketing, deliberate A/B testing yields similar results. In projects, we are learning to iterate, improve our estimates and customer satisfaction.

I remember a situation comedy on UK TV a few years ago called "Ever Decreasing Circles." It had a hapless hero who always found himself in a spiral of frustration.

Circular thinking has had a bad rap. I'd like to reframe circular thinking as "ever increasing circles." That is to say, that some circular workflows become more and more powerful.

Shall I go over that again?

Question:

In what ways do you iterate positively in your life? Leave your comments below.

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Course Corrections – Part 2

For a period of time, a friend of mine prevailed on me to take up golf. To begin with, it seemed like I was doing random gardening on a long walk. I became very conscious of my muscle movements in a swing, which club to choose, and experimenting with little rituals, like the number of times I looked up at the target spot I was aiming for. I also became aware of two things that could undermine my performance as the game progressed: my inner emotional state after a ridiculously bad shot, and my physical stamina - or lack of it.

For me, golf was like random gardening on a long walk.

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I realised that the inner game of golf was all about self-awareness. What I became acutely focused on was being aware of my muscle movements, grip and so on. If I made a bad shot, I would attempt to adjust and see if I got a better result. I was constantly correcting myself.

In yesterday’s post, we looked at the Apollo 11 mission and how the accuracy of the launch targeting was a delusion; the reality was that they landed within the lunar landing zone by a process of constant correction - a sort of feedback loop.

Then I moved to talking about a more personal kind of feedback loop, the Daily Heads-Up technique that I use for my personal organisation.

At least every week, I review, hone and improve my key workflows.

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Feedback loops can operate at different cycles, such as at:

  • the weekly cycle. I ask myself the questions: What could I do differently this week to get better results than last week? What must I complete this week? What results to I want? I have noticed that these questions at the weekly level help me to work on my workflows. I’m continually reassessing and honing, for example, how I compose and publish articles like this one.
  • the monthly cycle. At this level, there is some overlap with the project cycle. It deals with somewhat more seasonal challenges. We are in the run-up to Christmas now, so my questions are centred a lot around being ready for the family visits, gifts, etc.
  • the annual cycle. I’ve just been through this, reviewing where I want to be by the end of 2017. This has really been an adjustment from positively saying ‘no’ to certain kinds of work, and positively saying ‘yes’ to replenishing events such as vacations, and positively moving towards the kind of work more aligned with my passions and chosen destiny. This is a less obvious, but profound level of course correction.
  • the project cycle. I’m coming to the end of a book publishing project. It’s not quite complete: you can’t find my book on Amazon yet (but you can find it here!!) And I’m about to start an online Leading Yourself programme very soon. Of course, there should be course corrections within the project cycle. Agile is very good at this, Waterfall less so.

In each case the feedback loop provides the opportunity for us to correct our course, to learn, and to get better results.

In the next post, I’ll look at how neglecting the course corrections, the feedback loop can hinder our effectiveness and growth, and why it is so easy to neglect this.

Are we developing our critical skills the right way?

When I began writing Leading Yourself, the working title I started with was “The Soul of Personal Mastery.” ‘Personal Mastery’ is a term much-loved in leadership academies, so I explored the idea of mastery. ‘Mastery’ has some negative connotations, so I backed off from it as the central label and moved to the concept of self-leadership.

However, my research returned me to the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition, something that was referenced by the APM’s L&D team at one of their training providers’ away days. It appears that we may be investing in the wrong kind of learning solutions for some skill levels, and perhaps under-emphasising other kinds of solutions. Continue reading

How much breakthrough skill do you really have?

Have you ever wondered whether your efforts at self-development are really paying off? Do you sometimes feel like you are just treading water in getting better at your job? How we really get better at something is a critical issue of time, money and effectiveness.

[shareable]How we really get better at something is a critical issue of time, money and effectiveness.[/shareable]

For years now I have been a student of how we truly progress in skill… in anything.

In particular, I’ve looked at these skill sets:

  • communications skills,
  • the skill of leading people through big changes, and
  • the skill of working on my own personal organization in the face of sometimes seemingly overwhelming busyness. Continue reading

Ambiguity in a VUCA World

I’m very proud of my daughter, Sarah. She has made a name for herself in the very male-dominated world of historic building restoration and ornamental plastering. She uses all her skills as a sculptress and has developed a keen eye for the health of historic buildings. I was walking with her recently through the centre of Newbury, an old market town in Berkshire, UK, that boasts a fairly modern shopping centre. And she began to illustrate for me how ambiguity works in a VUCA world. (‘VUCA’ stands for an environment defined by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.)

Ambiguity is all around us. The trouble is, by definition, we don't recognise it. 

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So when Sarah suddenly moaned at the sight of this wall (pictured above) it got my attention. What was wrong with it? To my untrained eye, someone had been responsible for preserving this fine building by re-pointing the wall. That was a good thing, right?

Well, no. Sarah pointed out that the traditional material to bind bricks was lime. Concrete, though less perishable, does not absorb water.

I still didn’t get it. Not absorbing water is a good thing, right?

Again I stood to be corrected. A building such as this, Sarah explained, is a living system. When it rains, where will the water go? It will seep into the most porous – and also the most precious – element of the structure, the timbers, stay there and eventually rot away the wood. In about ten years time, these ancient timbers will be rotting and need replacing. And they are irreplaceable.

This illustrated a couple of things for me about ambiguity:

  • It's often experience and skill that will be the only way of recognising ambiguity in our work. I thought the repair was a good, responsible job; my daughter knew it was a restoration crime.
  • The frame of reference we bring to the world matters. In this case, do we think of a building as an inert, static structure or as a living system, a system that needs to flex and breathe? Our frame of reference is how we see reality, how the world appears to us.

Our worldview conditions how the world occurs to us.

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In the world of leading change, we make assumptions about people and their behaviour. For example, someone reacts with surprising hostility towards the changes we are trying to make. We can make the assumption that they are a trouble-maker, they dislike us, or that they are just a stubborn reactionary.

We need to look closer. My experience draws me towards that person, towards that conflict; it triggers exploratory, compassionate questions. And my frame of reference is that very few people are sociopaths, so there is probably another reason why this person appears unreasonable.

I look deeper, and I find that this person is going through a domestic trauma and that the only stability in their life right now seems to be their workplace. And I'm about to take away that last refuge of stability.

Suddenly their reaction begins to make sense.Now I can view them very differently. I can begin to work positively with that person.

Ambiguity in this VUCA world is all around us. The problem is, by definition, we don't see it.

The more we grow in experience and what worldview we bring to our work, the more we challenge our own initial assumptions, the more we are likely to uncover and recognise important ambiguity.

 
 

The Dual Mindset of an Entrepreneur

At the weekend I came across this gem of a video posted over six years ago. Marten Mikos, the then-CEO of MySQL who sold the company to SUN Microsystems for $1 billion, gives a candid short interview during the Innovate! conference in Zaragoza, Spain, about his key learnings as an entrepreneur. It’s a nine-minute masterclass:

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