Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I've Moved

Thanks for visiting my blog. I've moved my posts over to http://www.proceeduntilapprehended.com/. You're welcome to look around, but if you want to check out my latest or subscribe, please come see me over there.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

We're Breaking Up

Dear selfishmatters.blogspot.com,

Sorry, I know. Even starting a post with this title is bound to make you nervous. Let me cut to the chase. It's time we part ways. I love blogging. I don't think I'll every quit writing and inflicting my thoughts on the public, but I want to grow. My commitment to you was done in haste. I didn't yet know who I was going to be. Uh, yeah. It's not you, it's me.

I don't know how to measure this, but intuitively, I'm pretty sure I'm right. Visitors are turning around (or not even clicking) because you're too "out there." Yes, I get that you're deliberately provocative, but if my potential readers don't take the time to understand your clever double meaning, they may just presume our collaboration is inwardly focused. I want to hit them over the head with the value proposition.

At minimum, I want them to read for a bit before they decide this is all about me.

So, here's what I'm going to do... an ultimatum of sorts. I'm going to move over to www.ProceedUntilApprehended.com. You can either link to me because you know that if you love something, you should let it go, or I can go into your dashboard and post a "we've moved" announcement. Either way, I'm taking my content (and hopefully, my subscribers). I'm making a clean break. I hate to be so harsh, but, shit, if you've learned anything, you should know I'm selfish.

And no, you can't call me.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Defending the way it's always been done

When you start something new, you often see with great clarity the things that are wrong or inefficient. You ask simple questions like, "why is this done this way?" or "could we just stop doing that?"

It's a tremendously valuable perspective, but it's typically not received that way. Instead, the reaction is defensive, perhaps a bit perturbed. My guess, the person doing the reacting probably agrees with your point, but it's that you've made them feel foolish. It's hard to separate the emotions from the logic.

You see, everyone prides themselves on being a strategic thinker. It's like those surveys that ask people if they have above-average intelligence. The large majority will say they do. These folks have been fighting the good fight, even if it was a little in the weeds, and today you pointed out that they're churning instead of making it simple. It's like someone just showed them the shortcut after they've used the long route for five years (or twenty). They had a reason, you know... or in '82 that option wasn't available... or it's easy to say that NOW... or we've been building to that shift for a while, let it come.

As the instigator of a broader view, however, you should gird yourself for this kind of reaction. Finding an innovation was easy. The hard part is getting through the egos and the habits to make it happen.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Manage impulsivity and delay gratification

I apologize if this isn't new to you. I'm not necessarily writing anything original with this post. However, I find this to be such a simple, profound observation that I can't let it go, even if it's new for just one reader.

I want to share with you the "Marshmallow Test." I'm familiar with the Marshmallow Test because Daniel Goleman talks about it. Goleman is a leader in the Emotional Intelligence field of study, and it's very informative stuff, in that so-reasonable-it-must-be-true sort of way.

The Marshmallow Test had researchers putting a marshmallow in front of four-year-olds. If the child can wait 20 minutes without consuming it, they get another one. They get a total of two marshmallows. If they eat it before 20, that's it. They're done at one.

This can be seen as a pretty simple measure of these kid's ability to delay gratification. Twenty years later, the researchers show that the kids that had the ability to manage their impulsive desire to eat the marshmallow for twenty minutes did better on a number of measures intended to indicate life success.

Perhaps the lesson is obvious by this point, but let me hit you over the head with it anyway. We're confronted with opportunities to get instant gratification all the time. Buy now, pay next year. Skip the gym. Eat the dessert. Avoid the crucial conversation.

Beyond the results of the test, I think we all know we can challenge ourselves to put the long-term utility of our choices as a bigger priority than our immediate satisfaction.

I'm not saying don't pursue gratification, though it's an option. The lesson I take is that the more we can manage our impulses and make rationale decisions about what and when, the better off we are in the long run.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Finally, good advice to be successful

I've got one word for you. Plastics.

I don't have good advice. I tricked you, as so many others have before. In my defense, at least I'm willing to admit the charade.

I'm pretty frustrated by the "helpful" advice we get from friends, colleagues, parents, teachers, guidance counsellors, professors, supervisors, people that are older than you, people that have some sort of societal status... I'm sure you have more to add to the list.

It is soooo hard to discern good advice from bad. You can't tell from tone of voice, cut of clothes or the number of degrees on their wall. Seeing material evidence of their success or media coverage of their latest coup doesn't actually mean anything, either.

Whatever they say, you're still confronted with an individual that is giving well-meaning advice about a future they can't predict.

I'm in a unique role now to see LOTS of people who have listened to LOTS of well-meaning advice and are still struggling to find success, to get work or to feel valued. All those people that provided advice with gentle eyes and a hand on the shoulder? They didn't know. They just thought they knew. From a paradigm of "my position requires me to groom, control and cultivate," they sold a Nigerian inheritance.

I'm thinking it would be more helpful if they said, "I don't know what's needed. I've had a long and full life with a particular strategy for adding value, but I'm not sure it's relevant anymore. I think the only thing I can encourage you to do is ready yourself for a lot more change. Be ready, willing and adaptable."

THAT would have saved me some time... if I listened to it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

You are hereby authorized to innovate

I'm pretty sure the only thing stopping us from taking the action we really think we should be taking is ourselves.

A number of years back, I was feeling a tremendous frustration with some of the patterns and culture of my work. Everything was urgent and everything was a priority. I wouldn't be surprised if this sounds familiar to a few of you.

I was challenged. When it has to be high quality, when it has to be done fast and "for the last time Nevin, no, we can't hire more staff," what's to give? Time and time again, it was I that relented. I worked the weekend or the lunch hour, grumbled about it and ultimately got the task done.

Anyway, a couple years of this... yes, I said years... and as I said, I was sick of the pattern. I still wanted to create value in the organization, but I didn't believe in our methods for creating it. Actually, I didn't just disagree. I was confident we would NEVER reach our goals if we didn't fix some of that systemic stuff. I also came to the slow realization that no-one was going to save me from it. There was no-one from up on high who "got it" and was going to eventually fix it.

Then it came to me. Titles and authority don't matter. This wasn't just me saying "Titles and authority don't matter." This was a change of heart. A deep commitment came with knowing titles and authority don't matter. I knew change comes from those who simply choose to take personal responsibility, and this knowledge gave me permission to disobey, to challenge and to generally raise a ruckus.

We can look in the mirror and say, "I hereby authorize you to innovate." I think that's where the magic happens. Everything after that is just uncomfortable and deeply fulfilling.

I jest, of course. You get used to the discomfort.

So, here's an exercise. All the things that we have declared as untouchable in our jobs? They're not. Stop using that as excuse. Get honest with yourself. Ask what really happens if you don't get it in on time? What happens if you say, "sorry, I'm keeping my lunch plans?" Prove to me that it does more than start a conversation, a conversation you've been wanting to have for a long time.

And by the way, "not getting that promotion" doesn't count as a reason. We're talking about strategies for REDUCING the insanity.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Five tips to outwit the knowledge economy

Even the most reticent among us now acknowledge that the way our economy works and the way a large majority of us produce value has changed significantly. If you're not there yet, you should perhaps watch the latest version of Did You Know. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3rqW_n1Y8o&feature=youtube_gdata to get a sense of how this world is asking something different of you.

This fundamental shift clearly hasn't been matched by a smooth adaptationd by our population. Personally, I've experienced a significant lag between my realization that the world had changed and the creation of strategies to feel like I'm actually engaged in the shift.

Here's some rules I've now put in place. Perhaps they'll be of assistance:

Make information work for you
Set up filters and categories in your email, through RSS and screen your phone calls. If you don't manage the flow coming at you, it can be constant and very distracting.

Document your best ideas and share them
The name of the game is now reputation. People won't seek you out for your knowledge like they used to and letters behind your name now mean less than they ever have. If you want people to have confidence that you have the smarts for the next problem, solve some existing ones without being asked.

Become a student... and a teacher
Along with increased availability of information is an accelerated pace of change. The approach I advocate is to institute a self-study course that makes you an eternal Master's student. You can never be on top of it all, but to be relevant in the discussion, you have to be informed and carry an opinion. Teaching is a no-brainer. It's how we learn. There's also a huge audience as we all try and figure it out.

It's DIY
In The Pirate's Dilemma, Matt Mason references a punk magazine that showed the neck of a guitar and three possible chords. It said, "Here's a chord. Here's two more. Now go form you own band." Go nuts. There are no restrictions. At little to no cost, you get to try what you want.

Embrace your new role
Most of all, beyond any advice I'm providing, I urge you to find a way to enjoy this environment. It's not going away anytime soon. There are plenty of discoveries, perspectives and unconventional sources to keep things interesting, but they can also drive you nuts. Make sure you have the right frame of mind. It's more of a pick-up game than league play. No-one is looking over everything with the right answer, not even Seth Godin.

There is no single source. YOU are a source. I'm a source. Isn't this fun?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

There's a payoff, it's just not the one you were trained for

I'm pretty sure I could have more salary, status, responsibility and corporate influence than I do right now. In fact, there's a few moments... without naming any names... when I saw a vote of non-confidence brought on by my "sticking up" for the kinds of things I talk about on this blog. These moments came with pretty clear reductions in my role in the organization. Nothing formal, mind you. That's not how bureaucrats do things. Rather, it's done in the re-routing, the bypassing or the reassignment.

I can't say I was surprised by these results. I'm in a pretty conservative, status quo-driven sort of organization and I'm very vocally not playing the urgency game that's on tap. What I try and bring to my organization can, through a certain lense, be seen as unhelpful.

When I first started down this path, I thought I was beginning a story that would end with me being warned to change my ways or lose my job. That fear has long since past. This role I've chosen won't put me out of a job. It puts me on the outside of the things that used to confirm my value in the organization. Even though I can rationalize that those aren't the things I want, it still stings. I was trained to pursue such rewards, after all.

When I take a moment to reflect, I'm reminded that my behaviour choices have improved the quality of my life and the lives of my family. There's likely too many benefits to truly list, but suffice to say I'm happier, more content and I'm devoting more time to my wife and kids.

I think there's a bigger picture payoff, too. I'm participating in (and sometimes forcing) a conversation about how and why we do things and about the imperative to change. It certainly doesn't provide the kind of gratification we're used to, but I'm energized by the pursuit. That's a pretty good benefit.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Bubble Boy

The last person to get knocked out of a poker tournament before they get to the cash payouts is called the "Bubble Boy." Celebrating the arrival of the Bubble Boy is great fun for everyone but, you guessed it, the Bubble Boy.

I watched a World Series of Poker broadcast the other night when they were going to "break the bubble" and get into the cash. Poker celebrities were talking about the misery of being the Bubble Boy, their own experience with the bubble and their hopes for this year. They all took pity on the Bubble Boy, except Daniel Negreanu, a well-known Canadian player. Daniel celebrated the Bubble Boy as someone who took a risk when they were close to the reward. He said they could walk away and people should say, "there's a guy who is going to be a great poker player."

I think there's two ways to have a career, and one of them looks a lot like the Bubble Boy. You can choose to be the methodical, incremental value creator or you can be the make-it-or-break-it person, the one that succeeds and fails a dozen times. The one that creates stories worth telling - about the times they hit and the times they missed.

Sometimes that person has to walk away from the table, but it doesn't have to be in shame. Someone will be saying, "there's a guy who is going to do great things."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pursuing Happiness

This might be a really simple idea, but sometimes I can forget it. My guess is that you're prone, too.

What we chase to make us happy and what actually makes us happy are often two different things. We chase a bigger salary, a nicer car, a trip to Mexico or a bigger office. We chase acknowledgement for our volunteer efforts or for someone to compliment our new shirt. We save up to buy... wait, who am I kidding? We use our credit card to buy a new camera.

Without fail, these items soon become part of our new routine or a distant memory. Once the euphoria fades away, we're filled with "what next?"

There's a pattern here, and if we step back for a moment it's easy to see it. The majority of our lives is spent in the routine, not the moment of achievement. If your happiness is derived from THE NEXT THING, you're establishing that you will live most of your life unfulfilled. Sure, you get a sense of satisfaction when you attain something, but that's fleeting.

I say we should focus on what's constant. Rather than "what's next?", how about asking "what am I doing on a consistent basis?" Then, if you plan to continue repeating the pattern, figure out how being in that moment can make you happy.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It feels like it got out of hand

I checked in with a colleague to see how he was and how his project was going.

He said he had completed his recommendation and submitted it. When he saw it in the next phase, it had substantially changed.

"How did you feel about that?" I asked.

"Well, by the end, it kinda got out of my hands anyway. I was more just interpreting instruction than making choices for the recommendation."

Turns out, it wasn't really his project anymore. He was still holding the document, but his "superiors" were calling the shots.

That's disappointing. That's a brain underutilized, to say the least.

When the project got into this dynamic, you can guess he was still spending a lot of time revising and editing the document. However, the rules changed in terms of what he did to make it better. Sure, he still found the document could be improved if he applied his knowledge and skill, but he actually did a subtle little calculation that dramatically changes the overall outcome. He first determined if he intrinsically cared enough about the project to go through the eye rolls, the patient deep breaths and the paternal voice that tells him why they're not doing it that way. Most of the time, you can guess that he determined it wasn't worth the discomfort.

If you're a manager, please understand that taking things out of people's hands isn't done by announcing that you're taking it out of their hands. I know you've got better sense than to take that drastic step. Taking things out of their hands happens when you amend their work without consultation or you cram your expectations for the product down their throat. I know you've got pressures and deadlines. What's the emergency that justifies ripping the individuality and creativity from your employees?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Survival is NOT Enough

Jonathan Mead and his Illuminated Mind have been exceptionally inspirational for me lately. I can't say enough about how his writing seems directed right at me. I mentioned in an earlier post about his terms of "renting out your mind" and "getting paid to exist." These are now daily phrases for me as I try and make sense of my place in the world.

Jonathan has now released a new, free ebook, the Zero Hour Work Week that you should read. After reading it myself, I sat down and started writing what I've called my "liberty project." This is a project plan to take me into uncharted waters... well, uncharted for me, not for people like Jonathan. It's about a disciplined, bootstrapping sort of workplan to create value for me, my family and my community. Best case scenario, I'm rewriting my plan for making a living. At minimum, I'm rewriting my strategy for how I'm relevant and how I make meaning.

This is deeply personal stuff and it's more than a little scary. I'll borrow from Seth Godin's Survival Is Not Enoughwhen I say it's hard to let go of my "winning strategy." This strategy has served me so very well up to now. In conventional terms, I've been doing everything right. I'm educated, I have lots of competence at marketing, strategic planning, policy development and simply just getting stuff done. When I'm not stirring the pot too much at work, my employers appreciate my efforts. I've come in to a bigger salary and more responsibility than I dreamed of... but I feel a dissonance. It feels like I'm running a fool's errand. The "success" I'm pursuing isn't actually what I want. When I step back, I see that I'm just one in a herd of buffalo, stampeding for a cliff. It would be so easy to just keep running, blamelessly running. But I can't do that. I've seen the truth. I'm obligated to stop, to reverse direction.

This is a journey almost entirely within my own mind, about my own behaviours and about my own willingness to rewrite my script. I'm reprogramming. Though this is almost entirely between my ears, it's surprisingly hard.

I'm working with a policy of being radically honest, even if that makes me uncomfortable. I recognize that this policy also results in a post that just sort of dangles out there without resolution, so here's one: I feel better being on the journey than having the feeling that I need to start.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Am I just being repetitive?

Now that I've been blogging for a while, I would say this is the question that haunts me the most. A lot of magnificent thinkers and writers are talking about the same sorts of things I am talking about.

I've just learned about www.caliandjody.com. They have a model is called ROWE, the Results Only Work Environment In my estimation, it's brilliant. I downloaded the introduction and first chapter of their book, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It, and the evisceration they give to our out-dated perspective on time is fantastic.

So what am I doing here blogging when other people are already saying it so well? Well, two things. First, I'm forcing myself to get my own thoughts into a coherent format and be responsible for them. It's tremendously helpful, if not even a little cathartic. Second, I'm contributing my voice to a movement, one that needs every member the world can spare.

Your quiet agreement to some or all of what I say is great. Agreeing in a not so quiet manner, through voice or action, is powerful.

Oh, hang on. There's a third reason. By blogging, I'm learning a ton. I'm not sure I would have come across ROWE without the generosity of a reader. Thanks Sebastian.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Coral battles and the slow growth of bureaucracy

I just watched the Blue Planet episode where they show how coral grows and overtakes other coral.

Here's the piece that got me thinking. At 38 seconds there is some fascinating time-lapse footage of one coral overtaking another.

If you were snorkeling or scuba-diving by this fascinating scene, would you notice? I think it would look pretty static and I would swim on by.

Bureaucracy is pretty static too, right? What if we could time-lapse photograph a bureaucracy? What would become apparent that's difficult to see with the naked eye? Speeding up the pace would likely make the slow encroachment of policies, procedures, restrictions and risk aversion look as sinister as this coral. If you sped it up , I think you'd see that the well-intended efforts to influence and control employee behaviour actually kills an employee's discretion and ability to be independently thoughtful.

This progress goes seemingly unnoticed every day. We tend to take for granted, or perhaps we shrug off, the daily insults to our autonomy and ability to be discerning. We choose not to push back. Through time-lapse, we'd see that we're losing the battle. We'd see the bureaucracy move forward so steadily that you'd think it could only be planned.

I don't in any way think it is planned. Rather, I see it stemming from a culture and paradigm of command and control that doesn't work. Those that champion this out-dated style or those who don't stand up against it need to see some time-lapse footage of its effects.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Flow, Flee or Fight revisited

I had a media inquiry regarding my manifesto (a link to the manifesto is on the left if you want to see it). Here's the questions and my answers. I hope you enjoy it.

1. You say that: The vast majority of employees sit on the fence. They’re not completely gone, but they’re not completely there, either. I think this is a dismal story of how our businesses and our economy exists. What is the best way to stop people sitting on the fence?

I am going to point you to another resource for a better answer for this one. The Canadian Management Centre wrote The Perfect Storm. I've attached it. Following my read of that, I wrote on my whiteboard at work, "The environment engages and retains." That's it. Give them an environment that allows them to be creative, insightful and passionate. They'll do the rest. People sit on the fence because they don't believe their effort will make a difference. Give them an environment that is open and responsive, they'll see opportunity and get engaged.

My manifesto implicitly suggests that the creation of such an environment is not commonly done. If that's true, I'm suggesting an employee could say, "I don't care if they don't want to create a welcoming, engaging environment. I'm going to get engaged anyway." I'd say that's option 2, after it's clear the employer isn't going to make the right kind of environment in the first place.

2. Have you ever been the mastermind behind a big employee engagement strategy?

No. I've worked to get my own direct reports engaged, with moderate success. That was a staff of eight. Unfortunately, I work in one of those big bureaucracies that just doesn't have the impetus to create the kind of environment the Canadian Management Centre talks about. I may have created an environment that encouraged ideas, engagement, risk-taking and innovation, but I think there is always a level of distrust... staff know our ideas can and will get overruled. I am not the ultimate authority in that organization. This really spawned my vision for Flow, Flee or Fight. At some point, it becomes a very personal choice to instigate change from within your own circle of influence. Here comes option 2...

3. You make the important point that individuals within a company can instigate change. Have people written to you since your piece was published, to tell you they have done this successfully?

No. I get emails from people identifying with the article. They say that they tried fighting for a while, then they burnt out and switched to flee. That's what I do, too. I think we're not going to find that example of one person that changes the entire culture single-handedly, unless maybe they're the ultimate decision-maker. More likely, you're going to find subtle cultural shifts that happened because one, two or a dozen individuals make the decision to fight.

4. You cite a survey that has found that only one in five employees choose to undertake the discretionary effort required to resolve a new challenge. What does that say about modern workplaces?

It says that they are overwhelmingly inefficient. An employer could get so much more value out of employees, if only they made the investment necessary to create an engaging environment. I'm willing to wager that workers on the floors at GM have ideas and energy to reinvent that company... for real. Unfortunately, whatever environmental measures are in place have made an "us vs. them" environment. Employees are disempowered and disengaged. There's no incentive to dive in and innovate, so employees watch the company flounder and cash their paycheques.
There is a school of thought that suggests the GFC simply accelerates a much-needed change in the way work environments are designed. Modern workplaces aren't modern at all. They're clinging on to a "command and control" paradigm that doesn't motivate knowledge workers and is too inefficient. I suspect that most workplaces won't respond to this accelerated requirement for an engaging workplace. They'll keep clinging on to an old management philosophy while upstarts or progressive organizations figure it out and eat their lunch.

5. A lot of employees want to see change in an organisation, see the need to boost morale. Why do so few of these people ever do anything about it?

Fear. For every action they could take, there is a fear or social norm that they have to come to terms with.

The creation of an alternate culture requires leadership. It requires someone to say "I don't believe in our practices. I want to get to the same place as you, but I believe there's a better way to get there." At minimum, they will be labelled a heretic. They'll also be quietly encouraged to get back in line, to stop making the boss look bad and quit stressing everybody out. If an environment doesn't encourage a challenge to the status quo, this takes a lot of self-confidence and conviction.

6. A lot of employees will not be happy with your perspective, preferring to pass the buck to “management”. What is your response to that?

OK. How's that working out for you?

I'm talking about pursuing satisfaction and even happiness at work. I would be surprised to hear that someone is finding satisfaction through passing the buck. More likely, they're finding validation and a moral righteousness but things still suck. I'm open to alternatives that give people a sense of control and engagement, but complaining about the boss, by itself, has never seemed very satisfying.

We spend all too much time worrying about the dissenters. I'm more interested in the huge majority of employees that are "on the fence" or are inclined to put some work in to becoming engaged. You don't need 100 percent buy-in to change the environment.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What kind of choices are you making?

There appears to be two types of managers. There are those whose key priority is to deliver outcomes right now and there are those who have a priority to build a sustainable future.

I would suspect, in both camps, there is an acknowledgment of the importance of the other priority, but when push comes to shove, some managers choose to produce, others to build for sustainability.

My guesstimate of the split is something like 90% production-focused, 10% future-focused.

I think there's another interesting breakdown. Of the production-focused managers, you can split them about down the middle in terms of their awareness of how critical sustainable practices are. Half don't see a bigger picture. Sure, they've heard of things like diversity and succession planning, but they legitimately think they're doing the best they can for the organization by focusing on the more immediate challenges. I think it's fair to say I disagree with their conclusion, but I appreciate that they're acting on their convictions.

The other half of these production-oriented managers, however, full-well know they are on a sinking ship, it's just that when pushed, they choose to deliver a product over making choices that are in a longer-term interest. You see, it may not save the company, but it keeps them "safe," today.

Whenever I experience this sort of tactic, I'm frustrated, disappointed and more than a little perturbed.

You mean you KNOW that we can't sustain what we're doing, what we've promised and what we've planned, but you're STILL going to go ahead and do it? Is your salary that good? What legitimizes that behaviour? Does "not my job" cover it? What happens when you fail your customers, your clients or your job disappears? Still not your fault?

Sorry. That's not really intended for you, directly. If you're reading this blog, I think you're either a knowledge worker that just categorized your boss or you're a boss trying to muster the courage to be part of the 10%... like me.

Reading that over, it's one big rant - here's the solution, as I see it - stare your fears in the eye. Play them out. What will really happen? Acknowledge you're not going to lose your job for speaking up. Find ways to make long-term choices and move the ship, bit by bit. You'll be surprised to find a large majority of colleagues appreciating (albeit quietly) your efforts.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

TLC for my anxiety

I'm acutely aware that I've only got one chance of living a life that I'm proud of.

I've been in job interviews before where they asked me what motivates me. I don't know if that's a good interview question. I'll leave that up to someone else to decide. Here's my answer:

"I don't want to sound fixated on death, but I think I put more time and thought into what will be said at my eulogy than most people. I have a certain anxiety in my stomach every day that asks if I'm doing right and if I'm making a difference. This is pretty motivating. I want to make sure that, when I'm done, I've done something meaningful."

I'm serious about this. I feel it right now. In addition to feeling it, I'd like to point out that I'm starting to like that I feel it. I think I'm on to something. I have started to cultivate it. I ask myself questions like "What will I be remembered for?" and I read Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" or Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays with Morrie." The anxiety grows.

It has become so strong that I feel compelled to act on it. It's real, not some theoretical I should sort of statement. There's those situations where honesty is required but it's uncomfortable and perhaps a bit awkward. I find myself saying the truth because I want to be remembered as honest. I'm more inclined to challenge the old way of doing things because I want to make sure we create results, though perhaps my boss and others just want to get the job done. I have also started asking and answering questions on a blog that will turn off 90% of the people I know and scare my parents.

It feels like a freight train slowly gathering speed.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Unconventional plans for my new job

I am getting VERY excited about going over to my new position with the Saskatchewan Public Service Commission. I believe the PSC offers some enlightened management practices, a positive working culture and an important, meaningful mandate.

For all of its positive traits, I'm sort of anticipating that there's also a culture of "policy adherence" that has gone a bit overboard. What I mean is that HR functions are quite often the whipping boy in an organization, and staff tend to rely on policies and interpretation of policies to serve as a a form of protection (or backbone). I recognize this is also partly done out of respect for a collective bargaining agreement, though I do think there's a difference between respecting it and instantly capitulating to it.

I'm probably not going to be very accepting of policy adherence, if in fact I come across it. I'm toying with a work-specific mission statement, sort of a supplement to my still relevant personal mission statement.

Here's some language, though perhaps I'll call it draft. [If my new supervisor is reading this, feedback is definitely welcome.]

I am here to add value. To make a difference. Providing an unencumbered perspective and approach is an overlooked and misunderstood way to add value.

Boundaries and expectations need to be questioned.

This will make some colleagues uncomfortable. They'll come around... or they won't.

My job is to ask unflinching questions and be radically honest. I'll operate with the best intentions and without permission.

And the shorter version: Boundaries are the enemy. As gently as possible, blow the fucking lid off.

I just said that publicly. Gulp.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

lest anyone be confused...

I believe the "soft stuff" is the hard stuff.

Flowers and Innovation

I feel so lucky have a friend like Spencer that shares stuff like this. It's a story about Tony Hsieh, the legend behind Zappos.

It's a long read so be prepared. If you make it to the end and the flower story, I'd like for you to know my flower story.

I ordered flowers here once for a business partner. It wasn't this situation, but the purchase was entirely warranted and appropriate. I didn't ask for permission or approval for the purchase. Once the purchase hit the system, four different people told me I couldn't do it. "OK," I said, "but the cow is out of the barn. Reprimand me and pay me back." The answer? I should have known better. I should have checked. I should have gotten prior approval.

It ended up being an out-of-pocket expense for my boss. I told him I didn't want the money, I wanted him to fight it. He wouldn't. He preferred to pay, instead.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Naming some thoughts

So Jonathan over at the Illuminated Mind is shining a light on some concepts that were just barely a flicker in my brain.

I encourage you to go back to his The Liberation Manifesto post and then catch up to now, reading how his last few months have evolved. I think it's fascinating.

I'm personally circling around this concept of being unemployable, speaking with my true voice and being a Radical Truth Teller. Jonathan has named some namess worth spreading. Renting out my mind is on the top of my list of dislikes, the idea of getting paid to exist is at the top of the list for things I like. These aren't unreasonable ideas. They're quite natural. They are, however, unconventional.

Changing my behaviour and the way I feed my family away from a conventional model is a scary thought. Naming the dissonance I feel and the future I'm pursuing helps quell some of the fear.

I'm really comfortable right now... too comfortable. I need to build a clearer, more deliberate plan about how I'm going to let go of more and more of this false security blanket. It's the only way to get to the real victory, I think.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Lessons from Chicken Little

We go through phases in our house where it's the same book for bedtime stories for my three-year old for a week or two. Right now, it's Chicken Little. If you read it every night, you'd over-analyze it too.

For those that don't know/can't remember, here's the version we're reading, abridged.

An acorn fell on Chicken Little's tail. Chicken Little announced her (his?) analysis: The sky was falling, and she was going to tell the king. Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky and Goosey Loosey all accepted C.L.'s conclusion and go along to tell the king. They all looked pretty foolish when the king plucked an acorn out of her tail feathers. They all laughed and went home.

Chicken Little did a poor job of thinking critically. Given limited information and other more plausible explanations, Chicken Little committed to a conclusion way too fast.

Every day at work, we're dealing with similar limited information problems. We're taking pieces of information, trying to get a better understanding and then, ultimately, making conclusions and recommendations about what to do next. Chicken Little's story is another version of the typical knowledge worker office.

It ticks me off that the king doesn't do anything to improve the advice he'll get next time because typically, neither does your boss.

Maybe in his fairytale world, he appreciates the interruption. At my work, the whole day is interruptions. It's what makes us so inefficient. What if the king helps C.L. unearth the reality by coaching her way through the analysis. "Chicken Little," he says, "what facts are you using to come to this conclusion? Are there other scenarios that could explain what happened? Have you done any research on what typically falls from above at this time of year? Have you considered what the composition of the sky is?"

"Oh, I see how that works," says Chicken Little, "if I pause and ask questions, I start to know more." The next panic may be avoided. We may move a tiny step closer to focusing on our priorities instead of being reactive. The king has to assume Chicken Little is teachable. Lucky for him, I haven't met anyone who isn't.

OK. Too much for three-year-old reading, but not too much for the office.

Our organizations are typically filled with power and fear. Solutions are not thoughtful and democratically generated, they're stamped with "draft" for fear of being overuled or they're laden with ego and personal perspective. People get more points for looking smart than they do for building a more efficient, sustainable organization.

We need to examine our styles. We're all afraid of coming off looking like Chicken Little, so we act like the king. It's not helpful in the long term unless you're putting on a show to justify your throne.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Trying to be Unemployable

I've just finished a job hunt. I've accepted a new position in the Saskatchewan public service. I thought I'd share some of the things I observed after not having been actively "in the market" for the better part of five years.

Your typical employer seeking to hire an employee these days seems to be working under the impression that employees are desperately seeking employment and are always on the cusp of yelling out "Yes! I'll take it!"

If you count my Mom and my wife, there are at least three people that think I would add value to your organization. If you want to hire me,
  • Understand you're being evaluated.
  • Have a clear picture of what you really need. Don't do a selection process without first thoughtfully establishing what skills and functions you need the candidate to be able to fulfill. If you're choosing to name a certain degree or a number of years of experience as a key criteria, it's an immediate flag that you're looking for an image, not a result.
  • Respect my time. Don't be late, unprepared or easily interrupted. I want you to be expressing how important this role is from the moment I meet you. If you don't respect what staff do for you, I self-select myself out.
  • Ask good, relevant questions that make me sweat. If you are interested in demonstrating that you're competent, that's how.
  • Don't hack on current employees. I'm trying to be one of those. I'm savvy enough to know I'll get the same treatment.
The employee version of these rules has always been a requirement for applicants to follow, but for the employer, they used to be optional. You used to be able to assume the power position and indicate that you could hardly be bothered with this process... you could do everything including saying, "I'm kind of a big deal." No longer.

Applicants, especially applicants with some skill and experience, can be way more selective.

Some things I've enjoyed being able to say to prospective employers during this process (and yes, it did take me a while).
"If you're concerned that I'm only going to work eight hours a day, I'll make it easy on you. Don't offer me a job."
"I didn't have the inclination to spend any more time on that exercise. It was very detail focused. You need someone who is looking at the bigger picture."
"I like to build the skills of my staff. This means, sometimes, we don't meet deadlines, but we get better in the long run. You [the supervisor] should be aware of this. I can be frustrating some times." (This one hired me.)

Let me be clear. I'm not being a prima donna. I'm not looking for a job where I get to lounge around a lot. I'm going to work and create value and focus on results. It's just that I have a lot of confidence that success requires a lot of change. From what I can tell in this process, I'm one of the few people bringing a challenge to the status quo. I don't want to work long hours, I want to do the work that's challenging.

If I had weighted "getting a well-paying job" higher than the expectations I had for myself to tell my truths, I think I could have wooed a prospective employer long before now. I also would have gotten a job under a pretense I would loathe and I would have missed the opportunity that finally came around.

On Twitter, @chrisguillebeau just recounted a conversation where @strongcraig called himself "unemployable." I've got a ways to go, but it seems like a good goal.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I wish I was that creative

Every year, when my fundraising team for the MS Bike Tour gets out on the road in our costumes, people say, "Oh cool. I wish I was that creative." We dress up as cows, or soldiers, we make up a theme and dress as the Adam West Batman characters. People say, "how did you ever come up with that?" or "I'd never think of that in a million years."

These statements always surprise me. You see, I'm not creative, either.

I just so happened to care about fundraising for MS. I participated in the bike tour and determined that it was too elitist, too competitive and too fashion-conscious for my liking. I determined that new fundraisers were getting turned off by a culture that they didn't fit in. I want new fundraisers. I want the tour to grow. I want more money for MS research. As the title suggests, these are "selfish matters." I decided that I cared enough to try and change it, and I'd do it by example.

So, deconstructing how we make our team costumes, here's how I get creative:
1) I get quite specific about what I want to change and how I might change it
2) I created space to reflect on what would work as a solution
3) I enlisted others to react and contribute to a kernel of an idea
4) We try it. We don't know if it will make sense to others, but we implement.

I guess what I'm saying is that creativity, for me, isn't some other-worldly headspace where stuff just pops in and "becomes." It's deliberate, it's methodical and it takes work. Typically, I think the "I wish" crowd just doesn't get deliberate enough to make it happen.

This is from the SAMBA blog:
After a concert, a woman gushed to Beethoven about how enthralled she was by his music. “Oh, sir, I wish I could play like you! It’s genius the music you create!”
Beethoven: “Well maam. If you want to practice 8 hours a day for 30 years, you could most certainly play that way also.”
She didn’t expect that. To Beethoven, his performance was not a one-off coincidence where talent met opportunity. To him, it was the culmination of effort and sweat put into his practice daily. The woman, only aware of the performance, didn’t give the process the respect it deserved. Honoring the process matters. It’s the thing that matters.

By the way, this year's theme is SuperHeros. It's going to rock.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The sudden realization

I enjoyed this article.

7 Reasons Your Employees Hate You

I had this very experience, the realization that I was being the kind of boss I loathed. This is a funny, point at yourself and laugh kind of bit, but it begs the follow-up question, how do you change?

I know for me, it was extremely scary to do something different than it felt like everyone around me expected me to do... my boss, my colleagues, even my staff. Know what? No-one batted an eye. They won't for you, either.

At worst, some might think you went a little soft. Your employees, on the other hand, will respond and love you for it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Library of Leadership Writing

I found a treasure-trove of valuable leadership materials in the online library at the Banff Leadership Development Centre. It's proof that The Banff Centre is ahead of the game.

Friday, July 17, 2009

This is getting interesting...

On the surface, this doesn't seem all that big, but I'm blown away that from my little corner, I can engage so broadly with people.

First, people scattered all over the world have read my blog:
Additionally, another blogger has reviewed and commented on my manifesto.

People I've never met have taken the time to post my manifesto on Twitter and some of the writing meant enough to be tweeted by others.

Admittedly, these have all been in small numbers, but I find it exhilirating. When I started sharing stuff through online media, I had the hope of adding my voice to the thoughtful things I read by such people as Seth Godin, Leo Babauta, Pam Slim and Chris Guillebeau.

This gives me some feedback that I'm contributing to a conversation that's happening worldwide. I'm proud to be a small part of it.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Two choices - Conditioned or Deliberate

You have two choices in how you react to life. You can be conditioned or deliberate.

Our default is set to conditioned. We have ingrained, emotionally-driven responses for every scenario - guilt, fear, happiness, joy, you name it, it's there and ready, should the need arise. If you choose conditioned, you accept the program that's already installed. Perhaps you're accepting or competitive, optimistic or pessimistic, whatever has been established as your modus operandi is pretty much there to stay. You can thank your childhood, your life experiences and your worldview for the program you've got.

The big selling feature of this choice is that you don't really have to choose, you simply have to keep on course. The downside is that you don't usually get to choose which reaction you're having at any given time. It's hardwired, so it depends on what's happening to you.

As a bonus, nothing is ever your fault. Someone else is always the architect of your misery.

The other choice is to be deliberate in your reactions. You can catch yourself before you react and plot out how you want your actions to play out, you can rewire the hardwired reactions. Declare that you are calm, cool and collected... or thoughtful... or passionate... or honest, and start to be that way in your reactions and interactions.

The positives of this choice are that you get to have the kinds of experiences you want and no-one is doing things unto you. While it sounds great, the downside is that you have to do work between your ears, right now and forever after. It gets easier, but you'll find you can never be complacent.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Flow, Flee or Fight

I've just returned from the Canadian Rockies to learn that I'm published! My ChangeThis manifesto, Flow, Flee or Fight is now up for the world to see.

If you've read it, I'd love to get your feedback. Was it interesting? Did it raise questions? Did it answer any? Was it useful?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Phoning it in

The phrase "phoning it in" used to be how we described someone who wasn't really putting in an effort. Rather than get off the couch, come in and do something, this person was simply just doing the bare minimum.

Now though, I'm not sure phoning it in is a bad thing. In an economy desperate for innovation, we're seeing that effort and hard work for the sake of hard work isn't a good strategy. What you want are people who are willing to see the whole picture and be creative. Nose to the grindstone, sweat on your brow kind of effort likely won't get you there. Instead, if you're just paying attention to the important bits, maybe a phone call is all that's necessary. Perhaps the phone call transfers the single piece of information that's required, or adjusts the project to save a thousand hours of work. I would prefer distributed problem solvers to a room full of people putting in the face time. Face time is the kind of stuff that obfuscates the real issues.

I get my best ideas as I go to sleep, go for a run or read someone else's brilliant writing. If I could spend my whole day in that creative, thoughtful state, I'd be waaay more productive. Maybe a bed in every cublicle isn't right, but walks whenever the mood strikes, a recognition of the power of diverse perspectives, a work environment that is a lot less stuff, a focus on ideas and results instead of appearrances and hours - these start to make a lot of sense.

They just aren't in the typical manager's toolkit... for now.

Just for the record, I spelled obfuscates right but had to spell check it to make sure.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Recommendation

One of my favourite bloggers right now is Chris Guillebeau. He has written a couple of fantastic, free guides that I would recommend, and he writes a brilliant blog. You should check him out. His site is the Art of Non-Conformity.

Right now, Chris is running a competition for essentially a "guest post" on his site. I submitted my entry today. While my chances of being selected feel pretty close to zero, I still appreciate the opportunity.

The terms of the competition are that if I don't get selected, I am free to push out my post wherever I want... you'll see it hear in a while.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Analyzing "Can't"

I have had, as we all have, many experiences where I'm told I "can't do that."

"Can't" seems like the kind of word we should use when it's a physical impossibility, or it really is outside of our capacity.

You have permission to tell me that I can't if I say:
A) I'm going to fly off a tall building
B) I'm going to declare all world conflicts will stop at midnight.

For everything else, "can't" is a pretty strong word. I think it would be more helpful if those saying "can't" would say "Well, you can, but there's some pretty significant implications. Let's go through them."

It seems to me if organizations started reserving "can't" for legitimate non-starters, we'd get a lot better at examining conventions.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Activity Trap

In times of trepidation or discomfort, what helps us feel secure?

If you're not getting the results you want from your work, how do you improve the program?

If your community non-profit is struggling to stay afloat, what do you do next?

It's really easy to answer these kinds of challenges with "nose to the grindstone" stuff. We can easily assuage our concerns or feelings of guilt by working so much it hurts. Surely, this kind of martyrdom or repentance is acceptable in the eyes of the powers-that-be.

But really, who is in charge? Who is calling the shots? Who is keeping score of how much manual labour or amount of hours we put in? I've had my share of bosses that were watching for facetime or sweat on my brow (figuratively), but none of them held a candle to the pressure I put on myself.

I don't think this is a good reason to respond with "work harder." We should focus on getting the right results, even if that means stepping back, not leaning in.

As the title of this post suggests, being active for activity's sake is a trap. It's a trick we've learned to help us get through the anxiety. I've really struggled to see an example where this additional effort really created the outcome we were seeking. More likely, pushing, hurrying and embracing urgency puts up blinders... they make it easy to absolve yourself of the responsibility to see the big picture.

I'm operating with a principle that says, "no matter how much pressure I feel to be active, I won't do it at the expense of maintaining perspective."

Easy to say, hard to do.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Why I'm frustrated with the "Reinvention" ad

GM is running an ad called "Reinvention." If you haven't seen it, here you go:

But I'm more than a little disappointed that my tax dollars are going into this promise. I don't think they can deliver.

This ad comes from an organization that JUST WENT BANKRUPT. The system they've been using doesn't work. They have more liabilities than assets.

There are millions of steps between where they are now and where they say they're going to be. GM has built a huge organization, an organization that has factories, equipment, unions, vendor relationships, big salaries and policies about policies. I don't believe that bankruptcy alone breaks all these constraints. Bankruptcy helps, but you've still got designers that think too narrow, vendors that seek profit margins, communicators that think they can win with TV ads and union employees that feel entitled to something after 30 years of devotion.

This video made me think of the practical challenge facing GM:

Gives you a better sense of the distance between here and the ad, doesn't it?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Boarding an exponential curve

Seth Godin shared a post today that is built around a video visual everyone should see.

Here's Seth's post.

Here's the video:

If you're confident that you're on to something many should be doing but they're not, when should you start doing it? The courageous (or perhaps those without social inhibition) start as soon as they figure out what should be done. The large majority start when they see it's socially acceptable.

There's a lot of fear to overcome to be the first one dancing.

Some of the things I'm doing, I feel like I'm dancing alone. Whether a critical mass will join me, I don't know. I feel a purpose in being one of the "early entrants" that make it OK for others to start. I'd feel some validation if it turned out we were the first dancers on an exponential curve.

Friday, May 15, 2009

You Don't Know His Story

It was Bike 2 Work Week. Despite this salient and relatively unknown fact, I was honked at twice for biking in a traffic lane during my commute this week.

In one, I was commuting south on Albert St. (Regina, SK) on my bicycle after work. I only have to go on Albert for a short segment, but it's to go over a bridge. It's a narrow two lanes going south and no shoulder.
As an individual trying to be as safe as possible, I wear a helmet and a bright, reflective vest. I also bike right in the traffic lane. It's the safest thing I can do, and the law. When a vehicle comes up on me, I'm pretty sure the message is that I'm owning the lane, that they're not going to "squeeze" by me and that I'm predictable. I'm going to follow vehicle traffic laws. That's just the way I like it.

On this day, however, I was startled by a red SUV that drove by me really tight and honked for a full second as they pulled level with me. Ironically, they had a bike rack on the back of their vehicle. It scared me and immediately flooded me with adrenaline. For starters, it was loud. It was also close and the driver was clearly being aggressive.

While I've reminded myself a hundred times that there's no rational reason to engage in a debate with drivers, my first, instinctual reaction was to fight back. I want to yell, "it's my lane!" or "it's the law!." Perhaps a little more appropriate for the venue, I could have shown how long my middle finger was. I'm an even-keeled, objective guy, but this was one of those interesting sensations where the space between stimulus and response was nearly non-existent. To my credit, I stayed cool. I envy the cyclist that can smile and wave at that point. The driver kept going (his point, apparently, had been made). It took me 15 seconds to right-size my thoughts and be more objective about the situation.
That's a good recovery, I think. While 15 seconds is still too long, it's not the same as steaming about it for the entire bike ride, or going home and being short with my wife and kids. I was able to fairly effectively roll with someone else's bad day and not let it affect mine. I'm writing about it to tell you what cooled me off after 15 seconds. I said "You don't know his story."

I don't know if he was rushing because he's just found out water is leaking into his basement, or that his long-lost father said he'd be at the mall cell-phone kiosk at exactly 5:38, or if a cyclist once stole his grandmother's purse. Perhaps he didn't mean to honk. His hand slipped at a very inopportune time, or his poodle chose that time to put its paws on the steering wheel. Sure, I can assume he's an a**hole, but that's the thing that will ruin MY day. No thanks.
The image above is pulled from the Ministry of Transportation in Ontario. A very good site for appropriate cycling techniques.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Just... around... the corner

There's a school of management thought that says that if you push hard enough, if you just get over this particular hurdle, things will get better or will get back to normal. Right now, though, there's some particular, special, urgent needs that require that we burn the midnight oil.

In my experience, it rarely gets back to the way it was, in fact, the "special" needs will likely just keep coming. The pace of work incrementally accelerates, it never goes back. The way the organization is functioning establishes a new normal, and the culture of the organization is incapable of reversing course without a lot of hard work.

I was contacted by a headhunter today. As this was the first time I've ever been targeted (because of my title, I think), my interest was piqued. Turns out, one of our Saskatchewan crown corporations needs a director that they can insert in an office that is under siege and under-staffed. In fairness, they are being very transparent in what challenges they face, and I appreciate that. However, the description also enthusiastically presents the promised land that is sure to come, if only they could get this one critical position to put in some hard work...

Yeah. Just around the corner, I'm confident the culture will change. Never mind that working like mad was encouraged and reinforced yesterday. Today we're done the project.

Hey, I'm all for changing culture. I think it's the right fight, but we can't just say we want it. We have to live it. I'm yet to be convinced that the best path to get there is to talk about how we're going to get strategic while we burn the midnight oil.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The "Yes and" Rule

This is an improv rule with tons of value for everyday life. As I understand it, one of the fundamental rules for onstage interaction in improv is always agreeing with the premises others start. Instead of proposing a change in the plot that will take the story where you think it should go, you respond with "Yes and." You layer your ideas on top of ideas that are already there. This rule leads you down a path none of you anticipated or could have come up with alone. It also results in great humour.

We can benefit from accepting other's ideas and premises as we go through life, as well. If we're operating from a paradigm of trying to drive out our pre-determined outcome or we need to be in control, it's hard to say "Yes and." Rather, we filter the opinion or advice to fit our intended plan. Filtering, of course, means we just keep the pieces that align with our perspective. We discard the information that doesn't conform. That's unfortunate. We say "no" or "instead, how about..." instead of incorporating diverse perspectives and ideas.

As a supervisor, I typically have a notion of the recommendation I am expecting. With my desired outcome in tow, it feels unnatural to employ the "yes and" when something different is proposed. When I have employed this rule, we've discovered solutions that always surprise me and are better than anything I'd envisioned.

I'd like to propose that we establish a covenant between you and me right now. We agree to say "yes and" between us and with others when we're seeking a solution. I know it will result in some profound solutions. I think it might result in some humour, too.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The false comfort of attendance

There's a pattern I want to try and put my thumb on.

This pattern, as best as I can see, comes out of a deeply ingrained cultural need to show support. The task of actually being helpful takes a back seat. It doesn't seem to matter what actually happens. It's about smiling and nodding when a stakeholder is talking about their needs, not about addressing them.

The utility of this behaviour is evident. Stakeholders feel understood. You don't have to say no. When you're meeting face to face, everybody is friendly. There's no tension.

However, I have some frustrations:

1) Stakeholders are placated by activity that doesn't do what they actually need.
2) People in positions to make real things happen invest their time and energy in the superficial.

Please don't read that I'm against understanding your public. That's not it. Of course you should understand them. What I`m saying is that after you have that continual process underway, you should get on with responding.

What's happening too often is that people are absovling themselves of the real effort because they're good at relationship building. They can bounce from one warm and fuzzy meeting to the next, leaving a trail of impossible expectations in their wake.

Stakeholders are complicit too. They need to ask questions that go deeper than "Do you feel me?" How about, "What will you do? When will you do it? Are you committing the necessary resources?"

I'd like to think that by naming this behaviour, I can focus a more appropriate amount of my effort behind the scenes for real results. It may mean the meetings are a little less comfortable. I hope I can deliberately choose the long-term outcomes, even if it means a little less immediate gratification.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Two rules for innovation

1) Biggest mistake this year (as voted by your colleagues) wins a paid trip to Mexico
2) Intentional mistakes are not allowed

These rules are easy to implement. Spread over your workforce, the cost of the initiative approaches zero. The communication of the rules is simple. Within a day or two, a staff of thousands would know them by heart.

These rules are hard to say out loud if you're in a position to make this commitment. The rules feel risky. They feel like you're not being accountable... at least on the surface. You are flying in the face of a culture that values minimizing risk.

But really, what would happen? I think:
  • A signal is transmitted - leadership is committed to change
  • Individuals pursue the incentive
  • Some fail. One lucky SOB really fails
  • Some succeed. Some of the results can only be described as revolutionary.
  • Most efforts fizzle, but we learn from them
  • The organization benefits from thousands of employees choosing to apply discretionary effort

While it feels risky, the results actually seem pretty solid. I think economists would look at the incentive and the statistical probabilities for success and say it's a no-brainer. More likely, you hurt your business if you don't do it.

The challenge is to step away from the emotional reaction and go with the effort that produces results.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Wisdom of Crowds

I'm trying to be a voracious reader. More realistically, I'm a persistent reader. I stick with it, page by page, until I finish.

This dogged determination has paid off with the completion of "The Wisdom of Crowds" by James Surowiecki. The concept he brought to life had considerable real-world applications and he examined some very important implications. I wish I could capture what Surowiecki so expertly describes and download it into the brains of my colleagues. In short, it has the potential to revolutionize the way we work.

TWoC does an excellent job of describing the reasons and manner in which a group of people can make consistently better judgements than individuals, even so-called experts in the field. Please think about that for a second. For most challenges, with the right conditions and framework, a collection of average minds is always more trustworthy than the one mind that is a focused expert on a particular issue. The crowd won't always be right, but they will be more often than the individual. When we're all looking at a loose set of variables and don't know what's next, statistically you should go with the crowd's wisdom, not the guy that looks confident.

The implications of this are enormous. We get caught up in status, appearances, experience or some other social signal and defer judgement to the individual we're confident will make the best choice. We're wrong. We're placing confidence in the wrong source. Surowiecki acknowledges in his afterword that, even after writing the book, he still felt anxious entrusting a crowd to make the right call. The conventional wisdom that's been burned into us has a powerful pull.

This illogical, gut feeling that makes us hesitate instead of openly inviting diverse opinion on matters of significance is a clue as to why we're stagnating. If you agree with the book, it still takes a "mind over emotion" persistence to put it into practice. That's hard work, and I'm not talking hours at your desk, I'm talking introspection.

My posts lately all seem to fall into a common pattern:
  • name an issue
  • ask if it's a problem
  • if yes, summon the courage to change behaviour.

Are you deferring significant issues to an indivdual? Do they have the information to make good decisions? Do you have greater access to diverse perspective? Are you part of the crowd that could do better? Are you the individual that's convinced you know best? What happens if you engage some diverse perspective?

I don't know about you, but I get a little nervous when I ask these questions.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Instant capitulation vs. dying on the hill

We rarely seem to find a happy medium between these extreme choices in the workplace. Traditional behaviour dictates that you capitulate to your autocratic boss the moment they've stated their desire or intention. Doing anything but their plan will label you as a problem. You're essentially raising your hand and announcing that you are not a team player... for their game, anyway.

This roll-over response is well ingrained. When you consider the career challenges of later baby-boomers and Gen-Xers, it's even understandable. To paraphrase Linda Duxbury, when you're lucky enough to have a seat on the crowded bus, you don't complain about the rip in the seat. Well, the world has changed. There's now room on the bus, and an empty one comes in another 10 minutes. The power dynamic has shifted more in your favour.

Aside from this, instantly capitulating to your boss' ill-formed idea has never been in the best interest of what you're trying to accomplish. You're not safe anymore to just let someone else define your work and your direction. You'll still feel safe, sure. The problem is, that safe stance is very similar to the one taken by people who put bolts on cars. They feel completely justified saying "you get to run this how you want, even if I disagree," until the day they no longer have a job. Please don't accept that role.

Here's the simple first step. Become a student of the Instant Capitulation vs. Dying on the Hill continuum. Objectively examine your behaviour in the context of this scale. Do you like where you're at?

Step two, try something that isn't so much instant capitulation. Don't go all the way to Dying on the Hill. Make a small shift.

Here's some behaviours to think about:
  • Don't tell anyone, just turn off your email for a morning. Re-engage at 11:45 and see if you can clear your inbox by noon.
  • Propose an amendment to the specific wording your boss gave you for a letter.
  • Push back on a deadline by saying "I've cleared Friday so that I can get my files under control," or "that task will have to wait until after my coaching session with Tom."
  • Allow all your calls to go to voicemail. Set one hour aside to deal with them all.
  • Unilaterally schedule a meeting in your boss' calendar called "Establishing Performance Expectations with (insert your name here)"

In my experience, establishing the way YOU want to work allows you to benefit from the roll-over response. No one else is spending as much time thinking about processes and what it takes to be effective. Rather than engage with you in a rational discussion about why you are doing this (which would be immensely helpful), they'll do their own capitulation.

Once again, I'm advising something that doesn't particularly feel good for the ego, but it should be just about right for your soul and your sanity.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Can you handle a big salary?

I've noticed a relationship between salary size and inability to speak the truth. Essentially, how it seems to work is that well-paid senior management seem to be extremely choosy about the times they point out to their boss that they think something is a bad idea. They "pick their battles" and "build relationship" by saying yes. The other, rarely used alternative would be to present thoughtful, articulate and contrary advice. This advice is not invited, nor is it appreciated until it is appreciated.

I've tried to put myself in the position of these senior individuals:
A) They were hired to show results
B) The bureaucracy can at times be fickle and has demonstrated a hair-trigger response to employment issues in the past (read: they could get canned)
C) The salary they're now at is an increase for them... quite possibly the pinnacle of their career

I have trouble coming to the same apparent conclusion, though, that you have to play the game to get the odd win. I have a salary that is nothing to scoff at. In fact, I currently make double what I thought was wildly successful when I graduated university 10 years ago. I was naive, yes, but I'm still making well above average and more than I need.

I don't think you have to play the game and incrementally present a change of course. I think playing (and validating) the game guarantees we don't create value or effective results. Read The Wisdom of Crowds to become a believer.

There's clearly a deliberation that happens here. Individuals attain a pinnacle point, or at least the best so far in their career. The choice is to play safely and receive the paycheque or to stick to your principles and try and make meaning. It appears that with such big salaries on the line, the decision to play safely is just too tempting.

In one of the richest and most comfortable countries in the world, the excuse that you've got mouths to feed no longer cuts it. Is it the status, then? The trips and toys that can be bought? The validation of appearing in control? I find it hard to believe this stuff is better than making a meaningful result.

I might be seeing this all wrong. This also begs a question: Which came first? The sycophancy or the salary?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Busy" is Diverting You

I've decided not to use the word "busy" as a response to the question "How are things going?" or "How's work?" It's surprisingly hard.

I know it's just a typical, off-the-cuff thing we say, but removing the dreaded b-word from our vernacular can be the start of a transition away from running our lives on fast-forward.

"Busy" is, of course, the standard state of being these days. Just because it's the standard, though, doesn't mean it's right. Being busy means you've got your head down and people are demanding your time. It doesn't mean you're working on the right things or being effective. There's a superficial feeling of validation when we feel like there's more to do than there are hours in the day. We're wanted. Can you imagine responding with, "I'm not busy. That's for sure." It simply feels like we're not valuable, that the world could get along without us.

Saying "busy" may make us feel wanted, but it also reinforces a culture of urgency where working up a sweat or staying late is a badge of honour. I'm tired of this culture. I want to focus on results, not the show.

I don't want to be known for being busy. In fact, I think if I say I'm busy, I'm openly acknowledging that I'm not asking the big questions. I'm just doing the work laid out before me. I'd rather be able to say I'm definitely, unequivocally not busy. Rather, I'm determining what's important and I'm giving it its proper focus. I'm doing a few things well and I'm confident they are the right things to work on. I'm not multi-tasking. I've made the bold and courageous choice of saying what's important. I'm mono-tasking.

This does leave the challenge of what to do in that small talk situation. What to do when someone politely, but without much actual interest, asks you how you're doing? I don't know. I end up saying, "I've made a conscious choice to not say I'm busy. I think saying I'm busy means..."

Saturday, April 4, 2009

On Being a Cusper

Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers is fascinating. He lays out some very interesting and convincing arguments for how people become successful. One of the pillars of the book is an acknowledgement of being born in the right time, with the right circumstances and even with the right culture. It may not seem "right," however, until you look back and realize how helpful it was.

One of his most compelling presentations is of Jewish lawyers who, because of bigotry and a closed, traditional culture, couldn't get into the big New York firms of the day. They were stuck doing takeover law, the "grunt work" no-one wanted... until the '80s, when that's what everyone needed. Suddenly, they were perfectly positioned.

I see some of that blessing of circumstance in my own life course, though clearly the parallel fails when compared with the adversity of the Jewish lawyer's systemic exclusion. I was born in 1975. My simple set of circumstances and luck put me in a demographic trough known as a "cusper." I'm either considered the youngest of the GenXers or the oldest of the Millenials. This provides me with some very interesting perspective, and I think it defines much of how I find my roles.

As a GenXer, I'm disaffected. I'm frustrated with a conventional system that rarely offers me a helping hand and expects unquestioning loyalty and commitment to the organization. The first seven or eight years of my career, I played along to Baby Boomer rules. Arguably, I was pretty good at it. I climbed the ladder quickly and built a reputation for insightfulness, ambition and independent skill. At least to myself, I proved that I could succeed in that environment.

All that time, though, there's a piece of me that was a Millenial. I've never been much of one to conform, and I always had the unsettled feeling that everyone around me was wrong. If I've learned anything about myself over my career, it's that I never fully buy in to the system and status quo that's around me.

Millenials, by definition, are loyal to careers, not organizations. They're interested in ideas and results more than service to the boss. The laws of supply and demand make this so. There's a growing seller's market for thoughtful workers, and Millenials naturally have a stronger negotiating position to ask for work that makes sense.

I find myself now in the role of translator. I get the rationale and purpose of the status quo, though I simply don't agree. I don't see it creating results. It's all too driven by individual self interest. It's founded on a belief that jobs are scarce and the safe way is the best way.

I also get the Millenial approach. I know that it's not all entitlement and expectation. It's their birthright of a stronger negotiating position. They're ready to work, hard. But they want to do difficult, challenging and meaningful work, not the stuff that does more for show than results.

Cuspers are a rarity. Not only did I need to be born in the right time, but I also needed to straddle the two gravitational pulls on either side of me. We don't all stay in this no-man's land. I'm also amongst cohorts that are bitter GenXers and others that are uninitiated Millenials.

With rarity comes doubt. Am I really seeing and addressing a reality? Only a minority seem to see it this way. As the brilliant writer and artist Hugh MacLeod says, "Ignore Everybody." This has become a mantra for me lately. I'm sure I'm on to something. Keeping this discussion alive can and will serve a purpose.

Faith in this chance placement is scary, but I'm leaning in to it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The case for top-down

I'm sometimes accused of being an advocate for "bottom-up" organization solutions. I think I'm only accused of it because I advocate for it so often.

I don't think there's enough acknowledgement of the capabilities of your staff. They are severly under-utilized. If you've got staff then yes, I'm talking to you.

Good decisions get made when there's lots of diverse thought and consideration, not when an expert determines they know best. Diversity trumps specialists every time.

But there I go again, arguing for bottom up.

In this post I wanted to say something nice about top-down.

Our organizations need structure. They need purpose - a pre-defined understanding of what we're going to do together. Organizations can be aided tremendously by having someone clarify how things are going to get done. Employees desperately would like to know what success looks like. That's top down and it's valuable.

The big mistake is using top-down authority on the wrong topic. Top-down isn't to manage behaviour and the way people work. It's to define broad boundaries and to TRUST staff.

Friday, March 20, 2009

ChangeThis proposal update

I'm pretty excited today. My submission to get my manifesto published on ChangeThis was successful. Thanks to friend and family support, my proposal garnered enough votes to hold on to fifth place... enough to get published.

I'm now going to put some finishing touches on the manifesto. I've had a fantastic infusion of energy and inspiration ever since I got my head around how I could express my ideas and engage others, particularly online. I'd be remiss if I didn't credit Seth Godin and Tribes. It's one of the most practical and insightful books I've ever read.

Monday, March 16, 2009

My memory is awful. My memory is awesome.

So, here's something interesting. I have an extremely selective memory. I can't remember most of what I did before lunch. To be honest, I can't remember what I was working on 20 minutes ago. At the same time, I can remember, quite clearly, the systemic challenges and events that led to a significant failing within our workplace a few years ago.

Most of the events that happen in a day I actively dismiss or ignore. I am trying to discern relevance and give items an appropriate allotment of my time and conscious effort. Most of the time, that appropriate amount is pretty close to zero.

This activity feels risky. What if that email addressed to 20 people actually had some important information or assignment for me? What if that ringing phone I didn't pick up was my boss or the Premier? What if that verbal briefing I didn't take notes for held the key to our future?

Here's the thing though. There's always more information. I think a better question would be "What's the opportunity cost if I pay attention to this?"

Just a few of our information sources are colleagues, bosses, mainstream media, bloggers, twitter, cable television, youtube, magazines and email, both anticipated and spam. Who's to say where the next nugget is going to come from? Who's to say it's going to be delivered at all? Maybe you alone are going to generate the knowledge necessary for the next step. Uh oh. That requires quiet reflection and new ideas. Can you make that space?

I'm making a focused effort to remember the macro story. The pattern that results in the win (or the loss) that defines the big chunks. I'd like that memory burned into my mind. That's the piece of information that would save me countless hours of heartache.

Without that memory, we engage in patterns and efforts that didn't work before. Sadly, I think most participants on this earth remember the small things, not the big.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Being Willing to Leave

I've experienced an inverse relationship between my desire to stay at a job and how much value I add.

It seems counter-intuitive, but the more comfortable I become with the idea of leaving, the more comfortable I also become with behaving in a way I know to be right. I don't let the expectations of those around me dictate the way I work.

Even at the worst of times, I don't think I actually participate in the frenzy at the same level as those around me, but there are degrees. That's why exit interviews can be so valuable. Individuals might just give you a glimpse of reality.

When you're not participating in the status quo, you're innovating. That's valuable.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Year of the Nevin

2010 marks the 10 year anniversary of my diagnosis with Multiple Sclerosis. By most accounts, I’m smarter, happier and healthier than I was back on May 16th, 2000.

I think we should celebrate. I’ve always been open about my diagnosis, and I’ve always sought to help those who also suffer. I think my 10 year anniversary is a good time to take it up a notch.
I’m calling it The Year of the Nevin.

Starting January 1, 2010, the party begins. We’re celebrating Success with MS.

MS has drastically changed my life. It’s made some things harder. It’s made others a lot easier. The following list is as scientific as I get:

Getting enough rest
Catching flying objects
Walking without bumping something
Maintaining my ego
Letting go of “jock Nevin”

Acknowledging my mortality
Sharing feelings
Connecting with my family
Walking away from work
Committing to exercising
Subjugating my ego
Embracing “well-rounded Nevin”

Here’s some things I’d like to do as commemorative acts in 2010:

Publish a booklet of things I’ve learned about MS
Distribute the booklet in Saskatchewan MS Society offices
Host a party and fundraiser on Saturday, May 15th
Write a blog that celebrates The Year of the Nevin
Commemorate my 11th consecutive MS Bike Tour with my biggest team ever
Complete an Olympic-distance triathlon
Distribute commemorative The Year of the Nevin souvenirs

It will also be 10 years of marriage for Kerri and I in 2010. Another reason to celebrate... another big party, I think.

Please help me out here. Is it too bold? What else should I do?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Discerning Relevance

I had a great conversation today about Black Swans.

I haven't read the book, though it is now on my reading list.

There are events that are a rare occurence in your life. These are game-changers, and they're as rare as the fabled black swan. Events in this category would be Sept. 11, a world war, a collapse of financial markets, and with any luck, the election of Obama. I think that's the point of the book and its title.

But I also think there's a deeper hierarchy of important things. Unfortunately most of the time, we are ignoring this hierarchy in favour of the easy path of just being "busy". We simply try and deal with all of it instead of filtering and sorting.

There's the stuff that isn't quite so rare, but is still pretty big. Let's say these things happen a few times in a decade. A university degree, a significant shift in what you do, a severance package, a big promotion.

We go down the scale, and there's the significant events that happen a few times a year. The hiring of an employee, a re-organization announcement, an unexpected reaquaintance with a lost friend.

We can keep going. There's events that are of the significance that we see occuring monthly, weekly, daily or hourly. This spectrum of different-sized events goes from the Black Swan moment all the way down to the 40-a-day "reply all" emails.

The thing is, there may not be a lot of cues to tell you which event is big and which one is small. Regardless of size, they can all come to us on the same old information-overload train.

How appropriate is our response to the big events? The medium ones? The small ones? When we're under constant attack from new information, our filter gets skewed. We start over-reacting to the small stuff and under-reacting to the big stuff. Personally, I'd appreciate a "recommended appropriate response level" attached to each message. Alas, I think that's what our brains and free will are for.

Peter Drucker wrote "The Effective Executive" in 1967. He defined everyone that is having to make choices based on information as an "executive." "Effective," you could say, are the ones among us who can summon an appropriate response to events, be it appropriately large OR appropriately small. Effective people put their time and energy where it matters.

That effort is rarely devoted to the most recent email. In the hierarchy of priorities, what's the likelihood that the latest is also the most important?

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sweater Threads

I sometimes think I'm working on a life assignment to examine and understand what's really going on. It all comes down to finding Truth. I'm responsible for asking big questions, hearing the answers and courageously acting differently when I see I've been wrong. The converse, I suppose, is to not rely too heavily on "conventional" wisdom. Your own wisdom is more trustworthy.

Pretty deep, I know.

Anyway, this post isn't about that. It's simply an examination of why I've gotten this assignment. Why did I start doing this? Why does anybody start doing this? It's not particularly comfortable (though I do find it meaningful and fulfilling).

I like to think of the process as pulling on a sweater thread. To begin with, it's just a loose thread. There's a complete, suitable sweater there... and you're ruining it. Most people ignore the thread, or trim it. A typical response is to maintain the integrity of the sweater. Some, however, compulsively pull on the thread. The more they pull, the more they see beneath. The more they see beneath, the more they pull.

Looking back, a convergence of factors pushed me to first ask questions.
  • An increasing sense of my own mortality - a close friend passed away shortly after I was frightened by my own health. A perspective smack if ever there was one
  • A culmination of frustrations in my career - I hit the "sick and tired of being sick and tired" point
  • The impeccable chance timing of a leadership course that turned into a lifelong coaching and mentoring relationship
I've taken this analogy this far. I'd better examine the punch line. You end up without a sweater. Do we end up exposed and cold? I don't think that's it. I think we're in direct contact with the elements. We end up more aware, more responsive and more capable of an appropriate and thoughtful engagement with our environment.

What is your sweater thread?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick two.

There's a pretty simple deliberation a person can do when they've got a project. They can consider delivering quality (good), they can consider delivering it quickly (fast), and they can consider delivering it cost-effectively (cheap).

Problem is, you typically can't pursue all three. You've only got so much focus and effort to apply.

The hard part, of course, is choosing which one will be at the bottom of your priority list.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

There's three things you should know about me...

Almost every time I've ever been in an interview, they have given me a warm-up question. It goes something like, "Can you tell us how your education and experience are suited for this position?"

It's the one question where they're not looking for anything in particular. It's a great opportunity to give them something you want to deliver.

I've got a set of things I'd like to interviewer to know about me by the end of the interview. Call it my "Nevin in a Nutshell" list. If given this softball question, I'll make sure to use it to talk about what I think is really important.

It will go something like this:

"I would be really pleased if you remembered three things about me by the end of this conversation. First, I'd like you to know that I'm a generalist. This is important for you to know because this is how I approach problems and this is how I solve them. I'm objective and open to all elements of the issue. When I come to a solution, you can be assured that it is considered. This isn't a particularly fast way to work, but it gets effective results. If you hire a specialist, instead, they can work a lot faster. Their bag of tricks just might be limited.

Second, I'd like for you to know that I'm committed to challenging every assumption and worldview I have to make sure it's the right one. This has changed the way I do a lot of things, and we can go through some examples. Suffice to say, the most effective choice is rarely the one that "feels right" or is socially expected.

Third, it's important that you know I'm passionate about innovation and change. This might just be a side-effect of being a generalist and committed to challenging status quo thinking, but I really like pushing to see how effective my efforts, and the efforts of my organization, can be. I'm not necessarily interested in incremental improvements like squeezing more of the same from the budget. I'm interested in asking if we're doing the right practice. Often, that means revolutionary change."

This isn't necessarily what most employers want to hear. Man, am I going to be excited if I find one who likes it.