Sunday, September 30, 2007

monday morning

How will your week begin? Your Monday morning can be full of promise or full of problems. Some of its quality depends on things beyond your control. Less than you think.

If you can admit the possibility that things can go wrong, that the best laid plans of mice and men often end on the rubbish heap, that no one is really in control - if you can admit that Murphy's law governs our best efforts then - logically

You must also admit the possiblity that in a world of random happenings, some surprises are pleasant and sometimes we are saved from ourselves and sometimes the plans that do not work are the plans that should not have worked. So -

You - and I - are left to make a choice. It is Monday morning early, and the week has not yet really begun. There is no indication that either promise or problems will win the day. It is up to you- and me - to choose. Promise or problems?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

strength + stretch

I often wish I could find a way around the problem. It's like having two-year-old twins: they would be so much easier to handle one at a time. Like twins, they are often hard to distinguish, especially when found together. Strength. Stretch.

If the goal were just to cultivate strength, we could learn enough and repeat enough so that the neural pathways would be deep and reliable and we could count on having what we needed. If the goal were just strength, we could dig deep and find what it takes to hold ourselves together and to have an impact.

If the goal were just to stretch, we could take just one step, pull just one more fraction of an inch, open our minds to just one new idea at a time. If the goal were just stretch, we could free our imaginations and reach out. We could enjoy being pulled out of shape and out of orbit.

Growth for people (and trees, for instance) demands that we develop both strength and stretch. They demand different qualities, different practices, different perspectives. Just when we think we are ready to enjoy one, we become aware that the other needs our attention. Stretch too far, and strength suffers. Get too used to being strong and you lose the urge to stretch.

It's hard to find comfortable models of excellence. Whether they are motivated by pain or by gain, models of excellence move endlessly between the need for more stretch and the need for more strength. They reach and contract and imagine and build. They are unsatisfied and generally unsafe. They are not content.

They are often joyful. They are fulfilling the most natural of imperatives. They are growing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Radical integrity

Structural integrity depends on having two qualities in sufficient degrees: strength and flexibility. Structural integrity allows buildings to withstand internal and external forces so that they stay standing. Buildings begin with foundations and foundations support all that comes after them. Foundations do not grow and buildings cannot expand beyond their foundations.

Roots are different. Trees grow in both directions: up and down. As they reach higher, they also reach deeper or wider (depending on the type of tree). Roots provide more flexiblity than foundations. They support structures that bend and change and grow.

When you think about your roots, it is common to think about where you began. That's not an entirely accurate way to think about roots. Plants begin as seeds, and while the roots might begin near the beginning, they keep growing throughout the life of the plant. If you want to think about where you began, think about seeds and soil. If you want to think about where you are going, think about roots. Roots move.

What grows deeper or wider as your accomplishments stretch higher? What part of you is growing underground to support the growth that others can see? What qualities in you are radical?


• adjective 1 relating to or affecting the fundamental nature of something. 2 advocating thorough political or social reform; politically extreme. 3 departing from tradition; innovative or progressive. 4 (of surgery) thorough and intended to be completely curative. 5 Mathematics of the root of a number or quantity. 6 of or coming from the root or stem base of a plant. 7 informal, chiefly N. Amer. excellent. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

knowing what we want from a connection

It is not as common as it could be. I'm not sure that anyone has ever looked at me and asked: "What do you need from me to allow you to perform at your best?"

Why is that an unusual question? It makes sense for teachers, managers, and partners to ask what they can do to better the performance of the people on whose performance their own success depends. It is evident that there are benefits to understanding the perspective of the people we are supposed to lead or support, and to having them commit to that perspective by putting it into words. It allows us to provide better support and it commits them to working with us when we provide the kind of support or guidance they have requested. It is truly a win/win.

So try it. Notice that it is hard to ask the question and that it is a hard question to answer. Notice that there is an element of tough self-reflection that is necessary in order to make the question effective. It's not easy to risk asking a question that might open doors that are comfortably closed and it's not easy to risk asking for what we think we need (just in case we're wrong). It is a difficult question.

It is not more difficult than coping with the frustration of hoping that what occurs to us is what is necessary. It is not more difficult than demands left unspoken or needs left unfilled. It is not more difficult than struggling alone when someone else would be willing to lend us a hand or an ear.

So try it. Ask someone on whose success you depend (at least in part): "What do you need from me to allow you to perform at your best?"

Monday, September 17, 2007

always begin with what you want

This morning, I told my class repeatedly, "Never send an email with a blank subject line." I forgot what I knew to be true: that the unconscious mind is really bad at listening to negatives. Some part of me heard "send an email with a blank subject line." And so, when I returned to my computer, I sent an email with a blank subject line.

Ouch. I had to avoid what I knew on at least two different levels to make one dumb mistake.

Everyone makes dumb mistakes. Everyone gets caught in the common failing of saying what we don't want - and thereby making it probable if not inevitable. We live in a world of "thou shalt nots" and they are hard to avoid.

Next class, I will tell my students: "Always begin by creating a subject line that catches the positive attention of your reader."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The discipline of making it fun

I had coffee with a colleague yesterday, an accomplished speaker who gets teams to see with fresh eyes and act with fresh energy. Paradoxically, we were sitting down to walk our talk as we reflected on a recent experience. The obvious part was that we wanted to give our own work the same open-minded appreciation that we encourage our clients to give to their work. We looked at what had really happened and noticed what worked and what we would change next time.

The more important part of walking our talk yesterday was that we sat down in fresh surroundings with great coffee and thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. We made each other laugh. This was not the bonus added to the critical look at what we had accomplished. This was central to what we believe about how people achieve: we added fun to the mix precisely because we were absolutely serious about the conversation.

It is easy to leave out the fun, or to assume it should be added in as a reward once the real work is done. Only the highest achievers know that the fun has to be built into every layer of the process.

Monday, September 10, 2007

What if work were more like play?

Try this. Think about a specific point in your working day tomorrow, a point when you think you will need to be able to think on your feet, make good decisions, and relate well to people. When you have identified the point, allow yourself to really imagine it as if it were happening right now. See it and hear and feel it exactly as you will tomorrow (or just pretend that you are imagining it that vividly). Experience it, then come back and continue reading.

Now imagine a time when you were very young, a time when you were completely wrapped up in playing. It will take a minute or two for a time like this to come into focus - but you have memories of being a child and spending whole days playing with complete imagination and wonderful concentration. You have memories of being so caught up in your play that the rest of the world seemed to fade into the background. You have memories of thoroughly enjoying a day as you played with energy and enthusiasm. When you have a really clear picture of a time when you thoroughly enjoyed playing, come back and read the next paragraph.

Because you have focused on each of these experiences while reading this, your brain has already begun to form connections between them. You can make these connections deeper and more reliable this way: first imagine a large tv or movie screen in front of you, and cover it with the picture of you at work. In one corner, put a small picture-within-the-picture of the time when you were so enthusiastically at play. Let the small picture become bigger and brighter and more colourful until it entirely covers the picture of you at work. Repeat the process faster and faster until it becomes automatic: whenever you see the picture of you at work, you immediately start to cover it with the picture of you at play.

Make a note in your daytimer or calendar: before the day begins tomorrow, think about the same point in your working day. Notice how you feel about it: you might even want to write a note or two. Then get on with your day at work. And be prepared for an enormously productive day!

Friday, September 07, 2007

How do you feel when you read your own writing?

Reading your own writing is a little bit like looking at yourself in a photograph or video. It provides you with an opportunity to see yourself from across the room. It's not the same as seeing yourself objectively or seeing yourself as someone else sees you: other people have preoccupations of their own. They often do not notice the things that jump off the screen at you because they are not self-conscious about the way you look or sound. You are likely to be self-conscious.

If you read something you wrote some time ago, you will notice that paradox of the human self: you are aware of both being the person who wrote what you just read and of no longer being the person who wrote it. You can notice change in yourself - you notice that you have said things in words or phrases that no longer come naturally to you. You can notice that the way you organize your thoughts has changed. You can notice that the things you wrote seemed inevitable at the time, and now seem subject to change.

When you are lucky, you read something you wrote and you respond as you would to a younger friend, noticing beauty or enthusiasm or strength or clarity. When you are lucky, you think: I remember being the person who wrote this, and I notice now that I was stronger or smarter or more creative than I thought I was.

When life happens differently, you look back and squirm a little. Did I really think that was something I should put into words? What was I thinking?

Writing lasts a long time. When you write, consider the people for whom you are writing. Then consider that reader who, in a few weeks or months or years, will be you - and write something that will make that person smile.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

words matter (but not in the way you might think)

Today I begin working with new classes of very young business people. Although some will hide it better than others, most will resist coming to my communication classes. They know they do not know. They know their spelling is bad, their sentence formation unreliable, and the whole process of writing and speaking runs according to rules they just do not get.

What I will teach them is that words matter - and so do lots of things that they can handle better than words. The truth is that no one has 'the right words' all of the time or in all of the situations where they want them. None of us has precise control over what we will say next or what it will mean to the person who hears. Even following all of the rules does not guarantee success.

The good news is that breaking the rules does not guarantee failure.

The good news is that the mistakes we make with words can teach us as much about ourselves, our circumstances and our goals as the words we choose with what feels like better accuracy. All of our lives are improvisation, a constant adaptation to the actions we take and the actions the world takes around us. Words are not as precise or as stable as we think. That's why they are able to add value in a world of continuous change.

To think of words as less or more important than the total package of our thinking or communication is to miss the point entirely. Breathing is not the most important part of being a human being, yet none of us manage to do much unless we are breathing. Words matter as breath matters. It's better to get them a little bit wrong than to stop using them altogether.

My students will get as much wrong as they get right. They will break a lot of rules. Nonetheless, very few of them will write something I cannot understand. Very few of them will speak so badly that they cannot be heard. Words matter - because they support our process of communicating without defining it entirely. Rules matter - because they facilitate communication as they facilitate the way we play different games.

What matters most is the intention to communicate.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

presence is power

My training partner, Chris Keeler, often used to end a training session with a story he had heard told by his teacher and mentor, Derek Balmer. The story involves a young man who follows St. Francis of Assissi as he makes his rounds one day. The young man discovers that the teaching of St. Francis is not in his words, but in his presence.

I once worked with a sales professional in financial services. Several clients had entrusted him with their entire portfolios to invest. When the markets took one of their unpredictable downturns, the clients would call. He sometimes complained about the need for "handholding" in this situation. I wondered what it took to turn holding hands into a bad thing, something to be endured rather than welcomed.

We all need to have someone hold our hand from time to time. We need the reassurance that comes from presence. Words are optional. Often, they are not even helpful. The people we crave are not the ones who will give us the right answers; they are the ones who can simply walk with us, reminding us that we are not alone.

Today is the first day of the long weekend. You may be gathering with friends or family. You may be part of a crew that is working while others play. Wherever you are, you will probably be with people you know. Take some of the weekend to be present with them, to listen and, when appropriate, to reach out with your hand.