Thursday, August 14, 2008

Shovels and Blackberries

Imagine this scenario - you're sitting on your back deck, enjoying a siesta from a hard week's work. Perhaps you're engaging in a conversation about plans for tomorrow evening. Suddenly, with no warning, you see your shovel through the tool shed doorway. You, with this implement grabbing your attention, go over and start digging a hole, leaving your drink, your spouse and your visions for a pleasant Saturday behind you.

A little far fetched, but we see this all the time. Mind you, people don't want to admit being outwitted by a shovel, so they use their Blackberries, instead. Blackberries have the uncanny ability to get us to change our focus with no rationale. Simply because a message is incoming, we pay attention. More often than not, we actually take that message and give it effort. You were on something else, but that's forgotten.

I actually don't trust myself with a Blackberry. They're powerful tools, and I know they can be good, but they can be very, very bad. I have to get way better at being deliberate about that space between stimulus and response before I rely on something so potent.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


I've written on my whiteboard at work that "the environment engages and retains." I then list a number of things I think the environment should offer - training, trust, cool projects, transferrable skills...

The problem is, I don't think my environment offers me these things very consistently, but I keep coming back. Is there a deeper motivator? I observe myself trying to become "environment proof," able to be productive in any environment by being fairly steady on the inside.

Seth Godin's "The Dip" offers some clues. I can go through an environment for quite some time if I think it's actually a "dip" worth slogging through. So what are the goals that keep me coming back? A career path, personal development, increasing my circle of influence so I can change the environment... for better or worse, I think that's it.

You're most effective when you're close to quitting

Well, if I'm honest, I'm much too pragmatic to just quit. I may decide to actively find a different place of employment.

Finding the motivation to speak truth to power is a liberating experience.

Coaching and being coached

A fundamental piece of me is my interest in learning. I want to learn and help others learn. One of my biggest pet peeves is interacting with someone who has taken the presumptive role as the person who already "gets it."

The best leaders lead with humility, in my opinion, and that includes an open acknowledgement of your need to improve.

I can't think of a role in the world where having a coach of one kind or another wouldn't be helpful.

Two examples from my own life:

I developed a mentor network. I asked individuals that I knew and respected from my work community if I could meet with them in a formal fashion on a regular basis. They would provide me with perspective and experience, I, hopefully, would give them an opportunity to share some of what they've learned. All were receptive, and it has been truly positive, I think for both of us in all cases.

My employer has generously allowed me to retain a coach. We talk about my perspectives and philosophy. He helps me refine the fundamental principles that govern how I act each day. Also, I can bring specific issues and he gives me specific, tangible implementation techniques that align to the philosophy.

A bonus third: My wife's advice on parenting
A bonus fourth: My pastor's sermons on knowing your priorities
A bonus fifth: Seth Godin's blog on marketing

The wonderful gifts we receive for the low, low price of being willing to listen.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The three Cs

In Covey's 7 Habits, he shares power and discretion with his son by allowing him to maintain the lawn. Instead of dictating how to do it, the senior Covey establishes an expectation of "Green and Clean," allowing the junior to determine his own method to delivery.

I was inspired by this. I realized the equivalent for me in a policy-reliant organization were the 3 Cs: Concrete, Credible and Compelling.

Concrete: recommendations must be specific, actionable and unequivocably clear. Ambiguity causes problems, so don't be ambiguous in the slightest. You can explicitly state the who, what, where, when and how of implementation. Assuming the reader will know what seems obvious to you is a fatal flaw in recommendations. It may feel patronizing when you write it. I assure you, it's not.

Credible: recommendations must be founded on research and analysis that is trustworthy.

Compelling: The recommendation must be readable and actually able to influence. It's not enough to just be right. You have to sell it, too.

I think this code has been empowering for policy staff. They can clearly see the expectation of what they need to deliver on to be successful. I've seen a marked improvement in recommendation quality since implementing this about a year ago.

This code definitely straightens me out. I still have that impulse on a daily basis to dictate a "better" recommendation than the one presented to me. I force myself to respond based on the 3 Cs. Are the recommendations not concrete enough? Is the background lacking credibility? Is the entire package just not selling?

I respond with feedback that coaches. I present an examination of the effort rather than the outcome. The funny thing is, I'd say four out of five times, the recommendation stays as-is. While I thought I had a better way, when I discuss it on merit, not on conclusion, it rarely changes. The way I'm engaging is allowing the staff person, the person that put in all that thought before it came to me, to bring the right recommendation forward. It's not all that much of a surprise when you think about it. They know my expectation, they're smart and they've had way more time than me to think about it. I really should get out of the way.

It seems so small, but I think establishing expectations and coaching on the mechanics, not the outcome, is the key to fighting the top-down mindset.

My Blogging Code

One of the lingering items for me starting a blog is asking if it will get me in trouble. Am I giving an insider's look into my organization that shouldn't be shared? As I start this, that fear is outweighed by my desire to speak truths.

With non-specific language, I'm probably not going to get in trouble, either.

I could see myself becoming more relaxed, though, and wanting to express ideas based on that day's events.

I'm thinking of a code that says:

I'll never name my co-workers

I'll use generic examples

I won't talk about confidential projects

But also, I will:

Acknowledge that the public service is a huge bureaucracy

That huge bureaucracies are slow to respond to obvious trends

That there is a significant leadership deficit in the public service

That an organization that has elected individuals as its decision makers is prone to a top-down culture

Interests vs. Best Interests

I think a lot of the time we get caught serving our immediate interests at work and at home, rather than serving best interests. The simplest example I can think of is how we push ourselves to burnout. Only then do we take time off or sick leave when we can't do it anymore. Why do we not acknoweldge that we're over-extending before we're there? I think we're too focused on serving interests. Stephen Covery describes it as the p/pc balance.

Serving the organization's interests would mean you deliver on everything asked of you, right up to the point where you're not thinking clearly, you're exhausted and you're certainly not strategic. Serving best interests would mean you "govern" your own actions to meet a longer-term result. Even though the things asked of you are limitless, you define a healthy limit and stay within it.

The problem with clearly saying, "I'm drawing a line in the sand so that I can serve the organization's best interests," is that it's also something you can say if you're wanting to avoid a task. Everyone else, especially the person that gave you the assignment, isn't seeing the "ask" as too much or too demanding. They will likely see what you're saying as resistance to a good and true path. It's gut-check time. Are you willing to speak truth to power?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Embracing Selfishness

I've decided to break down the title "Selfish Matters," just so I'm not leaving anything to the imagination. You see, you can either say, "On his blog, he talks about all sorts of things. The common theme is that they are all selfish matters." Alternatively, you could say, "He pursues being a better person. In his journey, he's realized that having intellect matters, individual responsibility matters and being selfish matters."

The world would be a better place if we all thought about and acted in our long-term self interest. We wouldn't choose to smoke, we'd drink in moderation, we'd cross the street at the cross-walk, we'd join our local community association and bowling leagues. We'd make an effort to get to know our neighbours, we'd question whether our use of fossil fuel is sustainable and we'd use compact fluorescent lightbulbs.

Why, you say, in the name of self-interest would we do this? Because we're all good "optimizers." We all know how to make choices that serve us and help us, personally. For some reason though, we're typically short-sighted. I think having a community we can trust and a healthy environment to live in are some of the key factors in a happy and content life. On a daily basis we forget to pursue these important issues. If we were really, truly self-interested, we'd forego today's more shallow concerns because we know we're attaining a broader definition of success.

The more conventional way to say this is that our lives are out of balance. Pretty much everything around us (commercials, media, fad diets, "overnight" success stories...) tells us it's OK to seek the quick fix. It's hard to remind ourselves what our focus really should be. Simply reminding myself to "be selfish" seems to do the trick. When I fully embrace selfishness, I can commit the time, effort and perserverance to achieve the good things in life.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Defining Leadership

If I edit my personal mission statement, it's to be more clear about what "leaders" is for me. Right now, when I read it, it speaks to me, so I'm OK with it.

When I say leaders, I mean someone who examines conventions, paradigms or the way things are done. They have the willingness and the courage to objectively assess if their behaviour, or the behaviour of their environment, is actually the right way to get to their intended objective.

They also have the courage to change the way they act if they discover something in that examination.

For example, if I'm stuck in a cubicle all day and I'm just pumping out paper, I may realize that I would be more strategic, more thoughtful, more productive and more energized if I was also engaging in conversations with my colleagues. When I look around though, everyone else's head is down, too. Of course, if you do change your behaviour and try and change the behaviour of a colleague, you're not being immediately strategic, thoughtful, productive and energetic. Changing your behaviour has a short-term cost. Given this cost, I think most people shrug their shoulders and pick up a hobby outside of work. Leaders don't avoid it. They summon the courage to act.


By OFFICIAL PROCLAMATION, I hereby declare this blog, herein known as "Selfish Matters," to be open for business.

OK, with that out of the way, I'll let go of questions such as "will it be good enough?" "will I have enough to say?" "will readers get me?" Instead, I'm taking the plunge. Here's my Personal Mission Statement:

Who I am and what I stand for

Starting with myself, I help develop leaders.
I live what I believe and I share what works.
I prioritize family before work, work before play and play before more work.
I am uncompromising in my belief that an individual has the ability to change the world. I will make unlimited room for others to join me.
I will be remembered for my integrity and honesty.
I'm trying to live this. My blog is about fulfilling my mission.
I'm not yet sold on my blog title, but the double entendre is intentional. I find a personal interest at the root of everything I do, though many of these "selfish" behaviours are in my long-term interest.
If I'm working tirelessly to solve world hunger, it's only so I can die without guilt.