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Bright Spots December 23, 2011

Posted by Jason in Management.
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The Heath Brothers are all about change.  But really, we all are.  The subtitle of their book Switch is “How to Change Things When Change Is Hard.”  That seems a  bit redundant.

Humans are hard-wired to resist change.  Psychologists, sociologists, and advertisers have known this for a long time.  It is the rest of us – the owners of such irrational brains – that seem consistently surprised that most of the things we would like to (or need to) change take plenty of hard work.

So with the close of another year and a reflection on just how difficult it has been to change ourselves, our businesses, and even our countries, it is appropriate to recall some of what the Heaths call “bright spots.”

Their bright spots are the things that highlight that progress is being made.  The small wins and micro-steps that occur day to day, but that are often invisible when we lift our gaze to the goals that still seem quite far away.  But they are there, and in fact we need them – we are biologically wired to stick to the safe path and avoid unnecessary risks.  These small wins allow our minds to grasp the possibilities and literally reshape our thinking.  Our hesitancy to take the first step along the path is many times greater than that keeping us from the second and subsequent steps.

So it is as many of us look forward to 2012, make our resolutions, set high goals, and then – come February – discover that, “gosh, this is hard work!”  So many of us examine our weaknesses and resolve to reverse them – the ultimate definition of personal change.  Alternatively, we could examine our strengths and achievements over the past year – and build on them.  I guarantee that even if your life was turned upside-down during the last year or two, there have been small successes.  You never know when one of those will be the key to the next door.

Appropriate Rules December 21, 2011

Posted by Jason in Management.
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I play a lot of games with my kids.  Every game, naturally, has its rules.  But each also has other, intangible goals.  Some teach strategy, some teamwork.  Quick thinking, observation, and word skills are also important.  Games teach us, even when it doesn’t feel like learning.

So when I play with them, I will often adjust the rules to fit their personalities and ages.  My 8 year old son will not have fun playing the same way that my older daughters will.  The important point is that we don’t just ignore the rules to make the game easier; we think about the goals of the game, and adjust the process to attain them in the manner most appropriate to the players on that particular day.

Some people are hard-wired to follow each and every rule the way that it is written.  Someone sat down and designed the game the way that it is, and that’s the way it will be played.  But remember that people can’t foresee every circumstance that the players will encounter.  Game designers also assume a certain level of general experience, but can’t be expected to know each individual’s abilities.

Or perhaps there is tradition to consider.  We rarely change the rules of chess, for example.  That’s a case where, like a language, if you want someone else to understand you, you have to agree on a common set of rules.

This adjustment of the rules extends to other parts of life as well (and indeed, along with learning strategy, is an important life skill that comes from games).  Anyone that works for a living knows there are countless rules that govern daily actions.  Policies, procedures, paperwork, informal networks, etiquette, and culture all set up constraints to the work we do.

The important point is that if you are all working toward the same goal, it is okay to adjust the rules to fit the players.  This particular form is onerous and not adding value?  Stop filling it out.  That department isn’t allowed to request supplies directly from the vendor (even though it is cheaper and more expedient)?  Make an exception.

Games (and work) are not necessarily about everyone playing by every single rule.  They are about having fun and reaching an end goal that everyone can agree on.  Leading an organization means knowing which rules are negotiable, to what degree, and to whom any changes should apply.  Following the rules for their own sake means not understanding the true goals in the first place.

Are You Expecting? December 10, 2011

Posted by Jason in Management.
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Every human interaction has several common attributes. Communication is one of the most overt. It is obvious – at least that it is occurring, though there is almost always a hidden message. More subtle are our personal motivations that drive us to persuade, entreat, favor, or reject another’s ideas. These attributes come together whenever you expect something from someone, or someone expects something from you.

We have all had shattered expectations. We thought we could depend on someone, we trusted, we delegated responsibility – only to face disappointment, frustration, and what becomes regarded as substandard performance. Naturally, this happens in both personal and business situations. But in business, we have a much more structured concept of expectations and a line of authority that provides fundamental motivation (to keep your job!) if not actual leadership.

Nonetheless, whenever you expect something of someone else, you have an obligation as well. It is rarely enough to simply assign a task – big or small – and expect that it will be done without some degree of follow-up. At the most fundamental level, the task must be understood and the proper resources must be available. But beyond that, the delegator must ensure that the task is properly prioritized and fits into the schedule. Time, as always, has the final say.

Don’t Be That Guy December 2, 2011

Posted by Jason in Management.
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We talk a lot in my business about “management by walking around.”  Naturally, one can’t truly manage a workforce from an office or otherwise not in regular contact.  Indeed, I addressed just this very issue before, but as always, there are exceptions to the rule.

As a business coach, I must be constantly sensitive to my clients’ time and aware that anything I ask of them must fit into an already busy schedule.  Simply walking around and dropping in can easily consume valuable time, making my visits a chore and an annoyance rather than constructive.  Not only must I be aware of everyone’s “hard” scheduled commitments, but also of the more subtle differences in energy throughout the day.

One person may be ready to attack new tasks first thing in the morning and would welcome adding things to the list so that they can be prioritized all together.  Another leaves work the previous day having his morning scheduled just so and detests interruptions and changes until the major tasks have been completed.  Solution: drop in for a few minutes with Person A at the start of the day; save Person B for after lunch.

Taking this approach to yet another level, just because I avoid taking valuable time from Person B in the morning, doesn’t mean I can’t say “hi” or otherwise engage in a brief, non-work-related chat.  The subtle payoff is this: I (hopefully) will not be “that guy” that can’t talk about anything but work or always comes rushing in with a “five minute” task at all hours of the day.

Accepting coaching is already stressful and time-consuming.  If all you ever bring to your staff is another job that doesn’t quite fit into the schedule, hasn’t been well thought out, or is otherwise just another fire drill, your mere presence can cause stress and anxiety.  This feeling – even if mild and unconscious – can reduce productivity and creativity, even to the point of active resistance to your management efforts.