Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ready to take a hit

We often think that the only way to deal with an intellectual or emotional situation is to be very, very serious. When we are sufficiently tense, we know that we are focused. When we are one hundred percent committed, we know that we are doing everything in our power to come to grips with difficulty.

Well, almost everything.

I was once a soccer player. Soccer is a contact sport. It's important to be able to take a fair hit and stay on your feet and ready for action. If you are one hundred percent committed and one hundred percent tense, you are likely to end up with one hundred percent of your bum on the ground. If you want to take the hit and keep moving, you need to be relaxed, ready, and flexible.

Monday, January 29, 2007

discipline and strategy

Lots of people have talked and written enthusiastically - and sometimes even knowledgeably - about strategic thinking. Google the phrase and you'll find almost 1.2 million sites. If you google "disciplined thinking" instead, you'll find less than 30,000 references. Both strategy and discipline are systematic approaches to problem solving and achievement. Why is strategy so much more popular than discipline?

Typically, people use the word "strategic" to describe two kinds of activity: 1) activities that do not seem to serve an immediate purpose that are described as having a value that overrides short-term priorities or 2) activities that yield immediate advantage although they are not part of plans or routines. In other words, strategic is a term that often allows one to have the cake and eat it too - it offers both a reason to stay on task and an excuse to be distracted.

Discipline is a much tougher word. Discipline means accepting a set of rules and practices and applying them in order to discover value, solve problems and make progress. Discipline means giving up the chance to rationalize what you want as being more useful than what you know. Discipline means sitting down to write in order to discover what you have to say rather than waiting for inspiration or opportunity.

Discipline and strategy are not really incompatible. At their best, they work hand in hand with natural neurological processes to create routines that allow us to make good choices quickly. At their best, they allow us to balance strength with flexibility. At their best, they allow us to marry individual insight with collective wisdom. At their best, they work together.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

positive suggestions

We learn in two ways: 1) anything that has strong emotional impact is recorded so that we can easily remember it; 2) anything that gets repeated becomes easier to remember. So something with some emotional impact that gets repeated should be relatively easy to learn. Only relatively easy, because most adults have enough experience of life to have developed some cross-wiring (pre-existing connections that make learning some things harder).

One habit that has been burned into our learning is the default position "Let me tell you what's wrong." It occurs is so many settings that 'constructive criticism' and 'problem solving' is no longer a way of thinking - it's an instinct that gets engaged automatically. We see someone who is stuck or struggling or slow and we say, "let me tell you what's wrong."

Now that you are aware of this tendency, you can have more choice. Try this today. Catch yourself just before you tell someone what is wrong with their behaviour, skills or assumptions. Stop. Think. Then tell them something that is right instead.

For instance, here's a snippit from a conversation I had yesterday with someone who had overcome a particularly bad habit.

She: I had to quit. I had no choice.

Me: You had a choice. You made a good choice.

Then we laughed.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

listening "as if"

How do you recognize the story someone else is living? The answer is often to listen "as if" you were considering a play or movie. A play or a movie has a script: everything that is part of the script fits an overall narrative pattern. Particular phrases, characteristic responses and images are not just free-floating bits of information: in a script, each of these has meaning. Listening as if life were a script allows us to notice connections that we would otherwise miss.

The first step is to assign part of your mind to follow the conversation as if you were an observer and not an active participant. From this point of view, you can listen for recurring themes, words or images. As you listen, allow yourself to reflect what you notice - to repeat words, phrases or tones that seem to you significant. Do not worry that this influence direction as much as it follows it. There is no such thing as clean language: all language is part of a complicated interweaving of verbal and nonverbal influence. We always communicate and the people to whom we are talking always rely on our feedback to support their part of the connection.

The next step is to calibrate response to what you offer back, noticing when you 'hit a nerve,' and when the conversation follows the track you have suggested, and when it veers in a new direction. You will know what this means as it happens, and with practice, it will become natural for you to notice direction and pattern as easily as you now notice particular pieces of information.

You cannot adequately define what a story is (no one has), and yet you can tell stories and listen to them. You will not be able to adequately analyze another human being (no one has), and yet you can listen as if you knew what the story you hear means. The final step is to become part of the story: to respond not to the person, but to the story you have heard with story elements of your own. If the story ends with a wall, you can find a door or a window. If the story ends with tears, you can offer the thin edge of hope. If the story runs roughshod over others, you can be the voice of those the story has silenced.

You can do these things, not because you understand (you may not understand). You can do them because you intend to be both witness to and participant in the stories that other people are living.

Friday, January 19, 2007

leadership means telling your story

It's evident that there is a connection between telling a story and being a great leader: business writers frequently describe famous CEOs as master storytellers. Most give only a vague sense of what it means to tell a story (or sell a story) and why it is a key ingredient of leadership.

In groups of people, the natural leader is the person with the strongest outcome. Outcomes (goals) are a source of tremendous strength: they provide a clear path for people to follow, and people will follow that path unless they have a compelling reason of their own for choosing a different path. The clearest path is the path of least resistance: it attracts all the flow of energy that is not already moving through a channel. The strongest outcome wins.

What is the strongest outcome? It is the outcome that is most fully imagined: the one that includes the most sensory detail, the most complete ecology check, and the best sense that it is possible to get there from here. The form of that imagining is the story. Stories are narratives that include sensory detail, multiple view points (through the inclusion of multiple characters and influences) and a movement from where they start to where they finish. Stories are outcomes with legs: they not only describe, they move.

Leaders tell stories: they present rich, multi-dimensional visions that move from the status quo to a different reality. When they tell their stories, they give followers a map that allows them to progress imaginatively towards an outcome, and then to follow thier imagination with real steps towards achievement.

Learning to form the strongest outcome means learning to form outcomes that are stories. Learning to be a better leader means learning to tell better stories or to tell stories better.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

please steal this idea

If a film crew had been wandering the halls of the college where I am teaching, we would have a record today of the difference between conventional teaching and integrated thinking. In one classroom, a teacher would be very competent as she walked students through the basic structure of presentation making. In another, students are laughing, talking, and using paint programs to customize graphics. Those students are learning by doing, and what they are learning is that presentations tell stories.

Those students are using powerpoint to illustrate true life stories from their own experience of being a kid or interacting with kids. At first, they are sure this has nothing to do with business. Later, as they are instructed to draw "morals" from their stories, they come up with the staples of management theory:
Listen to your boss - s/he is quite often right
Don't walk on thin ice
Share ideas so they don't end up splattered all over
Don't shoot at hippos (my favourite!).

They begin with a story that belongs to them. They end up with a message that belongs to everyone in the class. Along the way, they figure out the computer program and experiment with design and with cooperation. They laugh - a lot. They learn that stories they thought were just about them have messages that apply to everyone in the room. They learn they have something to say.

How is business different when everyone making a presentation has an authentic message? How is business different when the message being broadcast begins with experience that is specific, real, and memorable? How is business different when people use stories to bridge the gap between "me" and "we"?

Friday, January 12, 2007

profit, growth and learning

What is business? That's how I open classes on business communication. Even young students are able to answer that business is an exchange of goods or service for the purpose of generating profit. Their minds begin to open when I start asking questions about the implications of profit. Profit means expecting everything to be worth more than you pay for it.

If the purpose of business is profit, then it is fair for your boss or client to expect you to generate more value than the fees s/he pays in exchange. At the same time, the profit drive also means that you expect more value in exchange for your labour than that labour is worth. Both parties cannot profit from the same exchange if the pie remains the same size.

The pie never remains the same. Sometimes it shrinks and sometimes it grows: it is always changing. That is the nature of the world. Growth is sometimes a good thing and sometimes means that you need to buy new jeans after Christmas. This is also the nature of the world.

Learning is one area where more is better. Our brains function naturally to accumulate learning; my learning adds to the knowledge of the world without requiring any one else to sacrifice learning. When I add my learning to someone else's, we can produce insights that would have been impossible to either of us alone. The pie gets bigger. We both profit.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

training the mind

There is, I think, an interesting disconnect between the way we train our minds and the way we train our bodies. The disconnect begins in our concept of learning. Most of us think that learning means the acquisition of new information or skills. One moment you do not know, the next moment you have learned. You have acquired something. So far so good.

If what you have learned involves physical skill, like riding a bike or ice skating, we do not assume that learning is the same as training. You may have learned to skate when you were five years old: if forty years have now passed without you skating, we asume you will be rusty at best. At worst, we would expect to have to learn all over again. If you skated every day for forty years, what would you be doing? Would you be training your muscles? Would you still be learning new things about skating?

Most people accept that physical skills require repetition. You do not have to skate everyday to learn to skate; you have to skate frequently to be able to skate at a certain level. We accept that our bodies need conditioning in order to stay strong and flexible and perform the right moves in the right sequence. We might not know that our brains are also part of this conditioning: by providing the right stimulation in the right patterns, we allow our brains to strengthen the connections that allow us to control our movements.

We are less likely to accept that this strengthening of neurological connections is also necessary in mental activities. To learn something once is to learn it only for that moment. In order to have more reliable access to what we learn, we require repetition: repetition that reinforces neurological connections so that the map of the learning within our brains stays clear and constant. Learning that is not reinforced in this way breaks down (the "wiring" weakens and the protein molecules deteriorate). To learn is to revisit what we have learned, often forming new connections and increasing the mental territory assigned to that learning.

It is not always obvious that our education system is well-designed for this kind of learning. In fact, the progress children make through different grades creates the illusion that they are learning new things every year. This is mostly an illusion. In fact, they are revisiting skills, concepts and patterns over and over again. The changes in the children mask the ways in which the learnings remain stable. That's why it is difficult to write curriculum for writing and reading: the underlying skills are repeated with finer distinctions. They are not replaced by new skills each year.

What do you already know that you want to focus on learning better? What have you done once that you want to be able to do more often or more reliably?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

What is a holiday?

A client sent me a quotation today because it reminded her of our teaching. The quotation is from Hamlet: "Nothing's either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." I first learned it many years ago, when I was a high school student with a very good English teacher. Like all short quotations, there is much it cannot say - it is true in that all of our experience is ultimately internal - nothing hurts until we think about it. It does not seem to be true if we take it to mean that we have absolute freedom to choose our experience. Some things do not have a bright side, and others cost more than they should. We need to discern differences.

What is the difference between a work day and a holiday? My son recently performed in Our Town, a play by Thornton Wilder. In that play, the main character is describing two women in typical middle-class early 20th century households. He notices that they work without break, caring for their families and cooking, and do not consider themselves ill-used. Is it a holiday because you cook in a cottage kitchen instead of your own?

My dad taught me to golf when I was about 13. Golfing with him was an intense experience: it involved quite a lot of physical exertion (he loved to play when the weather was really hot), mental focus (it was important to play well), and chores (he would look at a zipper left undone on my bag and tell me "neatness counts"). Was that work or play?

When I was in university, I went to the doctor because I was tired and having headaches. She asked me what I did for fun. There was no way for me to tell her that I worked for fun. I was so stimulated by my learning and writing, that was what I did. I spent about ten hours a day reading and writing - not because someone was paying me to do it, not because someone made me do it - because I loved doing it.

When people walk into a training room, some are ready to work and some are ready to be entertained. Some are taking a break and some are working. Their bodies and minds will go through patterns of experience that take them out of their current lives and introduce new possibilities and new sensations. They feel less pressured and more pumped. Some are working and some are playing. It's all the same course.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

can you relax, recharge and make progress?

I spent the afternoon at a very nice spa today. It was an important way to connect with people I love, and so I went to the spa although it is not my favourite way to spend either time or money. I do believe that it is hugely important to rest and recharge in order to be in a state I want to maintain. It is just that I believe a spa should do more than polish my nails or clean out my pores.

Next weekend, people will work through the first weekend of our practitioner training, our Focus on Strengths weekend. They are likely to leave feeling like they have visited a very nice spa: the knots in the muscles will loosen; they'll breathe a little more easily; and they'll see the world a little more clearly. They will value the rest they have earned. They will experience all these feelings while being completely engaged and active. There are very few times in the training when a participant gets to be worked on by other people - the practitioners guiding the process are collaborators who depend on participants to be active and engaged throughout. There is no time to lie on a massage table or sit idly while someone else works on you as though you were a fine car. Our participants work.

They work and they rest at the same time. That is not a contradiction. As much as human beings need rest, we need work. Our brains are active as long as we are alive: we learn awake and asleep. It feels so good to make connections - whether we are connecting with other people or putting information together in new ways - that it relaxes us. Work and play are not different things to a small child. They do not have to be different things to an adult.

The games we will play during training next weekend help people cleanse their systems of mental waste and toxins. When we focus on strengths, the other stuff disappears from our awareness. As we become completely engaged in setting goals and searching out the many ways we already know to reach them, we relax. There is no fear, no weakness, no making mistakes. We are only aware of what we can do, and how we can connect effectively and naturally with what we need.

What we do requires little in the way of equipment or luxuries. It can be done wherever people are willing to pay attention - to spend time thinking about the way they think and the way thinking changes what they do. And it always works. Focusing on strengths and goals always allows for positive change and it always provides for a release of negative tension. It clears the way for great things.

Friday, January 05, 2007

knowing what you want

Among my current reading is a book called The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius, by Nancy Andreasen. Andreasen separates creativity into two camps: the ordinary creativity possessed by all, and the extraordinary creativity which is sometimes called genius. The distinction, she says, is in the way that people of genius access their unconscious mind - the rich web of associations that links things that have not been linked before until order emerges.

Setting goals is a creative act: we focus attention on something that does not yet exist until we bring it into being. To the extent that we treat it like a creative act - an act of reaching into rapid, random unconscious process and allowing order to emerge - we create goals that are compelling and achievable. These goals are quite different than those that are produced by making obvious links between obvious next steps, often under a certain amount of pressure from other people. They are quite different from what the poet Yeats called, "the thoughts men think in the mind alone."

As this year begins, why not find out at least one thing that you really want, one thing that surprises and challenges you and ultimately settles into an order that seems true and inevitable? Find it the way poets find poems and composers find symphonies (and mathematicians find formulae): 1) become intensely curious about everything you encounter; 2) value all the thoughts that bubble up within you, especially the ones that don't make sense; 3) do whatever makes you feel relaxed and ready while your unconscious forms the mass of associations necessary for insight; 4) when your idea takes shape, stabilize it by writing it, drawing it, or telling people about it; 5) appreciate your idea the way an editor appreciates a great manuscript or an audience appreciates a fine performance.

Enjoy the first weekend of the new year.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Welcome 2007

Look at the title of this post again. Is it my greeting to the new year, or a suggestion that you approach it with the same offer of hospitality you would make to a guest in your home?

Language is never as clear as it seems: it offers us choices and we make its meaning together. The new year offers us the same blend of what is given to us and what we contribute to make it meaningful. Some of the conditions of the year are already set: you know something of what waits for you when you go back to work, something of your family circumstances. Some of it may be set in fate: surprises (good and bad) that can neither be predicted nor controlled. The rest of the year waits for you to make your contribution, to shift meaning and context, to add humour or emphasis or effort.

2007 is here, whether you welcome it or not. Each day, another page turns on calendars all over the world - if they can be turned back, we do not yet know how to do it. You have many of the materials out of which this year will be constructed - the words, so to speak. What they mean to you, depends on you. You have so many choices.

When you welcome them, how do those choices change?