Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Good people skills required

Good people skills are a requirement for success in virtually any position - from community volunteer to C.E.O., every job description calls for good people skills. We all raise an eyebrow, and then most of us read another book or take another course designed to give us "hard" technical skills instead.

Good people skills are often seen as the excuse that the mediocre give for keeping us one level below where we really belong. They are a necessary evil, a way of catering to political realities instead of doing our 'real' work. In a perfect world, we would not need good people skills to make the most of good ideas.

Or would we? What if good people skills means having the skills to work with good people. Too often, communication skills are confused with conflict management. They seem to be a way of dealing with difficult people. No wonder so many people stay away from practicing them. Who wants to be the expert called to manage cranky, dreary people?

Good people prefer to work with good people. The top achievers in every field like to work with other top achievers: they like the company of people who are as bright and energizing as they are themselves. Good people skills are the ways they communicate with one another; think of them as the secret handshake by which high performers recognize one another.

If you do not have good people skills, how will good people know they want to work with you?

Teleseminar with Mike Murray on Integrated Thinking for IT will be available beginning Nov. 29 at www.episteme.ca.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Puzzling over communication

Why is straightforward so seldom effective when it comes to communication? It seems that when we are talking to one another there are many more ways to be wrong than to be right, and the clearer we are, the less we are understood or appreciated. It's a puzzle if we think communication is primarily about logic.

People who want to communicate primarily through logic find themselves limited to a small pool of options: math and science work to a point, although writing is better than speaking if logic is the main point. Even scientists get involved in heated discussions and misunderstandings. Science does give us one route to an answer, however.

Human beings are subject to all sorts of perils: we are not particularly strong or fast and we cannot swim or fly. In order to survive, we had to think and to think quickly. Logic is relatively slow: instinct is faster. Instinct, it turns out, is the simultaneous application of multiple neurological and physiological systems in order to produce an answer. The human brain is not a computer (says Gerald Edelman, Nobel-winning neuro-biologist). It is more complicated and it works faster.

What this means in day to day conversation is that we never respond to anything with just the logical part of our brains: we use the full range of our resources to elicit, recognize and correlate a much information as possible. We judge speech with our bodies and our memories and our emotions; we do this because using multiple systems simultaneously has been an advantage in the past.

We are not clear beings. We are complex beings, and we expect complexity from one another.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Would you like to be a master of your craft?

Before society accepted the largely artificial oppositions between the arts and science, or between education and the 'real' world, people had other models that organized the way they worked in the world.

One of the oldest models is that of craft: it endures in our use of "craftsmanship" to reflect something produced with elegance and quality. When we talk about craftspeople, we generally refer to people who produce handmade or custom goods - often sold at "craft" shows. Somewhere along the way, industrialization stole our ability to relate to our work as masters of our crafts. We can take it back.

In the model of the guilds, an apprentice was a worker still learning a craft; a journeyman could be trusted to carry out most of the work of the business; a master was so skilled that s/he could teach the craft by the way s/he did the craft. The work of the master was not to choose between doing and teaching, but to do by teaching and to teach by doing. You will have seen something of the legacy of this when you watch television shows about teaching hospitals. The most accomplished doctors ply their crafts while young apprentices (called interns or residents) learn by observing and sharing the work of the master.

The doctors are not always good masters: their failings make for more interesting scripts. Those failings also reflect the difficulty of 'mastering a craft' in a society that has forged thick walls between teaching and doing. What would change if you had an 'intern' who was to observe or even participate in your most serious, highest level work? Would you be distracted or would you discover a new/old model of learning; a model in which both master and apprentice get better by working together?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Good with people

What do you think of when you hear the phrase "good with people?" When a wine is good with steak, it means that both the steak and the wine taste better when enjoyed together. If you are 'good with people' that could mean that both you and they perform better when you work together.

"Good with people" should not be confused with charm or grace. Many famous leaders have, in the absence of any obvious charm or eloquence, managed to get people to produce at high levels. Some introverts fail to be influential; some extraverts fail to be effective. The most useful criteria for "good with people" is the performance that results when an individual is working with others: does the sum exceed the total of the parts? Or would they all have been better working from separate cubicles?

We are entering the season of networking: it's a perfect time to observe the difference between the people who are working the room and the people who are making the room work.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

You're closer than you think

Mike Murray (www.episteme.ca/cblog) has been writing about the paradoxes of problem solving. Today he argues that solutions come from the same box as problems. This is certainly true of Lego and other kits that need to be assembled by bleary-eyed parents in the wee hours of Christmas morning.

Most of the time, I am not much aware of boxes or problems. My own thinking is metaphorical and lends itself to journey motifs. Often, it seems that my main gift (and curse - they always have two sides) is to see the distances that others are traveling so that I can tell them "You're closer than you think."

Neurologically and chronologically, this is likely to be true. By the time you are aware of a thought, your brain is always one step ahead, preparing for your next thought. People benefit from hearing this truth; and quite often, I can follow it up with specific evidence that the road in front of them is shorter or the obstacle smaller than it seems.

There are no problems in this story: mountains and rivers are part of the landscape without which we would have a smaller, less interesting world. Finding our way over or through or around is what we do, because we humans are restless beings. If we are going to be on the road, it might as well be scenic. Sometimes, it takes enormous creativity or perseverance or courage to keep moving. It's lucky human beings have lots of those things.

What if the problem on your desk is a road you are travelling? Where are you going? I'll bet you are closer to getting there than you think.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Looking for a little magic?

There's a book that's been on my wish list waiting for the right time for me to read it: it's called The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Didion is a brilliant, evocative, and powerful voice. Her most recent book, The Year of Magical Thinking is about the year after the unexpected death of her husband, a time when her daughter was also critically ill.

We all wish for magic in our lives. While we are aware of the charm of happy, little magics - like snow on Christmas Eve or fairy godmothers that produce the perfect outfit with a wave of their wands - we really want more powerful magic, especially when we are in trouble. Magical thinking takes many forms: most of them are about having the power to evade tragedy, to escape the inevitable human consequence of being born. If we had magic, we would not need hope or courage or faith.

That's the crux, of course, the real reason religion and magic do not mix. We want magic so that we have power that we would not ultimately know how to wield. We want magic so that we can change the consequences of our actions and protect ourselves against the consequences of other people's actions. We want magic so that there are no consequences. The irony is that all of our stories about magic are full of consequences, and of magicians who pay for their magic with their souls. The irony is that we want magic to hold the world accountable for the consequences that come with bodies subject to disease and love subject to change.

These days, my mom frequently points out that people cope with things because life does not give them much choice. The power to resist consequences is not magic: it is that inner strength that we discover even when we cry loudly for magic. It is that inner drive to get to the end of the day. We have as much of magic as we need and probably as much as we are capable of wielding well.

Let yourself look at that place in your life where you most profoundly wish for magic to clean up the mess. Notice what you would do with magical powers if you suddenly possessed them - or were possessed by them. Then take a deep breath, and grab a broom.

Friday, November 17, 2006

two paths to productivity

Path One:
Decide what you want to achieve. Use language like "operational objective" or "well-formed outcome" to emphasize that this is solid and practical. Make a list of steps you need to take in order to do what you want to do. Make a list of people whose support you will require at various stages. Make another list of resources you will need, including their location and any plans you need to make to ensure you have what you need when you need it. Work through your steps, one at a time. Stick to your plan.

Path Two:
Decide what you want to achieve. Decide that you have or can acquire everything you need in order to achieve this thing. Engage the people whose support you require. Allow them to respond and pay attention when they do. Assume that whatever you are given will be helpful at some point in the process. Be alert and responsive wherever you are because you know that the world presents opportunities at unusual times in unexpected places. Allow yourself to be relaxed and ready, intent on your goal. When the time is ripe, carry out your achievement with a minimum of fuss.

If you choose path one, block out time for the weekend so that you can make progress towards both personal and professional goals. Get an early start, even on Sunday. Have a productive weekend.

If you choose path two, enjoy your weekend, confident that you are about to encounter something that you need in order to solve a problem or take a step, easily, naturally and quickly.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

sharing the stage

Yesterday, Chris and I watched a wonderful two-person play, "The Story of My Life." It's playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre, produced by CanStage and stars one of my heroes, Brent Carver. Carver is one of my heroes because he chooses his work: when he won the Tony award on Broadway, he could have allowed work to choose him. Instead, he appears in shows big and small (this one is very small), and mostly in Canada. He is also deeply marvellous to watch.

Chris and I were particularly interested in how he and his co-star, Jeffrey Kuhn, worked together on stage. Today we talked about the skill of disappearing. It's not about merely being inconspicuous by standing as frozen as the furniture. It's more about being so completely engaged with the person who is centre stage that you become an extension of his/her work. During one particularly key piece, I watched how Carver supported Kuhn. Seated behind Kuhn as Kuhn sang, his body language subtly echoed the singer's - where Kuhn had a foot tipped against a prop, Carver's toe tipped upwards. He rocked so gently that it was impossible to tell if he was urging Kuhn on or being pulled in his wake.

Conventional wisdom has it that standing still is the best way to disappear on stage. That's only a start - a negative solution that stops one from doing anything distracting. The more subtle answer is Carver's - to be so much a part of the work that you reinforce it even when attention is somewhere else. It's the same strategy soccer players use when they are 'off the ball' - and it's the quality that often distinguishes the best from the rest.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

happy now?

What would it take for you to decide to be happy now?

When we set goals, we typically say "if only I had this, I would be happy." We're wrong. There's research that shows that shortly after we get "this" we will be back at the same level of happiness we are at as we plan. Being wrong does not stop us from saying "if only" again and again.

The next time you find yourself motivating yourself towards a worthwhile goal by saying "if only" stop and change it just a little. Instead of saying "if only" say "as if." Say, for instance, "now that I make a commitment to this goal, I can act as if it's only a matter of time until I get it" or "it's as if I am ready for this." "As if" allows you to want things without believing that you will only be happy when you get them. "As if" allows you to be happy now and to accomplish what you want. If you're happy now, you are likely also to be happy then.

"If only" is deceptive: it sells today to buy tomorrow. It sells itself as motivation because it puts attention in a future that is not yet real. That's not motivation and it does not lead to happiness.

Motivation is making the decision to act as if you are happy, starting now, so that you can build the success that happy people build - every day. When you get to a goal by acting "as if" you can be happy now and happy then. That's motivation.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Can hypnosis make you a better innovator?

What makes people innovative? Different kinds of innovation all depend on the ability to apply imagination in practical ways. Yet many people believe that imagination is a talent - if you are not born with it, you have to live without it. Developing a new imagination seems as unlikely as growing a third hand.

Growing a third hand is relatively easy, however, if you are following the suggestions of a master hypnotist. When Mike Mandel takes the stage, he showcases the universality of imagination. Inevitably, the volunteers who join him on stage become wildly inventive. Under Mandel’s direction, people suddenly see landscapes or insects, become immersed in adventures, or find they have an unexpected talent for Spanish dancing. They take a few words from Mandel and create complicated, very funny experiences.

Mandel’s stage show is so completely entertaining that it is hard to believe that it also provides real learning about what it means to practice innovative thinking. Mandel’s expertise as a hypnotist is developed on the same three abilities that drive innovation. The keys to success in both are:
1) looking at the past to reinvent the wheel in profitable ways
2) paying attention to clients to uncover hidden needs
3) predicting the future to anticipate trends.

Watch Mandel on stage and you see all three keys at work. Mandel plays with the best traditions of stage hypnosis; he apparently reads the minds of the people on stage, and he predicts effortlessly what will happen next. The skills he uses on stage are precisely the skills that lead businesses to connect with client needs and reinvent processes and products for new success. More than this, he makes it look so easy that it seems everyone in trance is a natural innovator.

People who want to know more about their hidden talents often explore hypnosis. Trance is a state of focus in which it becomes easier to isolate and identify qualities in themselves that normally fly under the radar. People can become aware, through trance, that they have more imagination than they thought they had. They gain even more from learning how to do hypnosis for themselves and others. Mandel is as passionate about teaching hypnosis as he is about practicing it. Twice a year, he leads students through a program that explores hypnosis as a way of facilitating change in oneself or others.

Participants in Mandel’s classes explore their own abilities to imagine, focus and influence. They learn some of what thirty years of practice have taught Mandel: to focus their attention intently, to observe others with new levels of perception, and to combine the two in ways that produce remarkable results. Based on the work of the world’s greatest hypnotherapist, Milton Erickson, the techniques Mandel teaches allow people to practice the skills of innovation. They focus better on their objectives: they notice more about clients and circumstances; and they anticipate change with greater accuracy. It’s not magic: it’s a disciplined process that uncovers abilities that are latent in all human beings.

Mandel’s own process for teaching and performing looks absolutely natural. It is natural and it is also the product of many long years of practice, polish and analysis. As he gets better and better over time, Mandel demonstrates that nothing creates natural talent as effectively as attention and practice. He is Canada’s most accomplished stage hypnotist precisely because he has that most prized of business abilities: he can innovate continuously without losing track of himself or his audience.

Watching his stage show is a unique opportunity to laugh out loud while practicing the kind of thinking that is likely to drive your success. It’s not really about the people clucking like chickens. It is about the magic that happens when people realize they have what it takes to enter their imaginations and bring back something that connects with clients or coworkers.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What can you write in five minutes?

What do you know about how much you can get done in five minutes? For people who write all the time, five minutes is enough to write a paragraph or maybe two paragraphs. It's an opening to a conversation, an insight jotted down for more reflection, a quick answer to a quick question. For other people, five minutes is not enough to say anything finished, anything of worth. For those people, anything worth the effort of writing takes more than five minutes to consider and communicate.

Set a timer and write for five minutes on any topic that is currently engaging your attention - five minutes on next steps in a project at work, five minutes on what you would like to ask your child's math teacher, five minutes on what you want to accomplish before the end of the year. The only vital elements in this exercise are that you pick the topic and you write continuously for five minutes (type or write without stopping to ponder - keep the cursor or the pen moving by writing whatever comes to mind or by complaining that nothing comes to mind - just keep writing).

As I watch the clock, it has taken me five minutes to write the first two paragraphs. That was long enough to introduce the exercise and explain what to do. If I had been a little more focused, a little more into a peak performance state, I could have produced this final thought as well: what you can write in five continuous minutes tells you what is in your mind and how you feel about it. If the writing is confused, it's likely because your thoughts are confused. If it's clear, interesting and opens a great discussion, you're probably writing about something you know congruently enough that you can inspire others.

Use the five minute writing test (or be daring, and stretch to ten minutes) to find out what's really on your mind. It is what you think: it might not be what you expect.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

honesty is simple

It is an ethical problem and a practical one. If you can provide more than people expect, should you?

My friend and colleague, Mike (www.episteme.ca) wrote this week about honesty. We expect people to promise more than they can deliver. What we do not expect, and are frequently disturbed by, is the prospect of people delivering more than they promise. It is not precisely honest, particularly when the people in question plan to do more than they promise. And it is unnerving because it leaves us feeling that we owe someone something, that the agreement we made is not the agreement we intended to make.

And yet, we run up against one of the silent problems with being honest. People can only hear what they expect to hear. I often mention the experiments that showed that people from cultures with no graphical representations of faces cannot see photographs as pictures of people. They can see the physical object that is the photo but, even when it is held by the subject of the photo, they cannot recognize what it depicts as a person. We can only perceive connections to our experience.

If I can offer a product or service that is more than you expect, should I advertise that fact? You cannot expect more than you expect, so my claims will not be convincing to you until you have the experience that makes them seem reasonable. If I promise what I can deliver, you will dismiss my claims as hyperbole. If I promise more or less than I can deliver, you will wonder why I am deceptive. Quite rightly, from a certain point of view.

Maybe this is why marketing gurus talk so much about listening to your customers. It's not that you need to listen to produce better products. You need to listen to produce precisely the product that is as good as it can be and still be credible to people before they experience it. That way, they can feel that they are making a good and honorable deal when they buy your product or service.

The reason it is so easy to stretch the truth is that the truth is so much bigger than our experiences and expectations. When we stretch ourselves, we get closer to the edges of the truth.