“I’m always disappointed when people don’t live up to their potential. I know that a number of people look down on themselves and consequently on everybody who looks like them. But that, too, can change.” ~ Maya Angelou
A lot of attention has been given over the years to the art and science of measuring organisational performance. From balanced scorecards, to OKRs, to KPIs and KRAs. In accounting terms there are even more terms and measurement methods that you, most of which focus on how effectively a company can use its assets to generate revenue… But very little attention has been given to organisationalpotential.
I think this is a major oversight.
In management terms, when we think about our employees, our team members, even ourselves, we’re interested in not only how they currently perform – whether they meet their objectives – but also whether they have potential to grow and achieve even more. Many organisations (though probably not enough) try to identify their high potential employees so that their development can be fast tracked… something usually nested within the domain of the HR department.
Why don’t we care about organisational potential in the same way?
Surely it matters as least as much – if not more – than current performance?
What if you knew your organisation was only reaching 40% of its full potential? Wouldn’t that change the way you thought about strategy? About investment? About product development? About marketing?
To be fair, for-profit organisations will have an eye to potential markets. They will know their ‘market-share’ and likely see their potential in terms of the ability to reach a higher percentage of ‘available’ customers for their products or services… as though customers are empty vessels waiting to snap up your fantabulous product… if they only knew about it!
The reality is more complicated though. Consumer decisions are increasingly driven by more than whether or not the product does what it says on the can… with massive increases in interconnectivity and lowering barriers to entry for new players in your industry, they can shop around… and they can use their values to drive their decision making. Are you as sustainable as your competition? Are you as strong on diversity and inclusion as your competition? Are you leading the way in making positive change in the community you operate in? Are you influencing your sector to lift its game? Is your supply chain squeaky clean? If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to these questions, and others like them, then chances are some of your competitors can…
So achieving the dizzying heights of mass market penetration might not be as straightforward as increasing marketing expenditure or getting the right influencer to share your product on Instagram…
And besides, as Simon Sinek points out in his latest book, The Infinite Game, is that even the point?
Organisational Potential is something that I’m wanting to delve into in more depth. I think we’re missing the boat with lack-lustre organisations achieving mediocre things… What do you think?
Create or Compete: Leadership Lessons From Minecraft
I have been learning to play Minecraft with my six-year-old son. I embarked on this exercise because I wanted to be involved with him, I saw it as an opportunity for us to do something together that wasn’t “driven by mum”, and I wanted to understand what the game entailed to ensure I was supporting him to make good decisions about online games. For those of you familiar with the game, you’ll know that there are essentially two main ‘modes’ of gameplay: you can create or compete.
In Creative mode you have unlimited resources to build to your heart’s content – if you can dream it, you can build a blocky square version of it. And importantly the bad-guys won’t hurt you. You can fly, and you don’t die from falling, lava, drowning etc.
In Survival mode, the bad-guys will attack you, you have to collect the resources by expending your time and energy, and using existing resources to obtain more efficient means of obtaining resources. You have to walk or run everywhere you go, so distance becomes an obstacle, and you need to have your wits about you.
You can technically switch back and forth between the two modes, but once you go into Creative mode you can’t earn any of the in-game achievements. Essentially, you’ve cheated.
My son almost exclusively wants to play Creative. I almost always prefer to play in Survival mode. Why is this?
Fighting and (Inevitably) Dying is Stressful for Some
Even though the game allows you to ‘re-spawn’ an unlimited number of times, Mr Six hates dying. He finds it physically stressful. He starts freaking out. I think, in part, that’s an age thing. As we get older we become more comfortable with our decision making skills, our risk assessment criteria and our ability to ‘build back’ to where we were. We learn that (with the obvious exception of actually dying, most things are recoverable.
Great leaders make it safe for their organisations to take risks. To innovate. To push the boundaries of the constraints they face.
“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.” ~ John F. Kennedy
Setting and Striving for Objectives
Unless you set yourself a mammoth building task, or any of the very clever ‘constructions’ that automate mining or farming and so forth, Creative mode doesn’t really have much in terms of concrete objectives. I have built covered tunnels so my son can move completely unharmed between villages, and we’ve built a version of our own house in Minecraft. But the lack of resource constraints kind of takes the fun out of it for me. There’s not much need to problem-solve.
In Survival mode, by comparison, you have to break big tasks into a number of discrete, quantifiable stages. If you want diamonds, for example, you need to mine down to Level 12, and then create a ‘method’ for mining that increases your chances of finding diamond ore. If you want obsidian, you have to have a diamond pickaxe. If you want to build a portal to the Nether (not sure why you would, but never mind that!) you need obsidian.
To achieve big things in survival mode, you set objectives, and then break them down in to measurable tasks… while not forgetting to eat, sleep and manage risk. This matters to me but not to Mr Six.
Great leaders can enable us to achieve mammoth things.
“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” ~ Confucius
Comfort in Repetitive Tasks
Sometimes, when I’m trying to relax, I really enjoy monotonous, repetitive tasks that don’t require much thought. I find it almost meditative. In both Creative and Survival mode, I have found numerous ways to ‘zone-out’ while playing. It could be mining, it could be gardening, it could be building, it could be felling trees.
Mr Six, unsurprisingly, doesn’t have much attention span for repetitive tasks. So I tend to get allocated these tasks. Often he’ll log out and do something completely different until I’m finished. Provided I stand up and stretch every so often, I can get lost for five hours or more getting enough diamonds to craft a set of diamond armour for him so he can be completely impervious to the bad-guys that are never going to attack him in Creative mode anyway!
Great leaders understand the need for down time. For periods of rest. For the importance of pacing. It can’t be all-go all-the-time.
“Relaxation of the mind from work consists of playful words or deeds. Therefore it becomes a wise and virtuous man to have recourse to such things at times.” ~ Thomas Aquinas
Communication and Teamwork
Mr Six is what I like to call ‘freeform’. There are no rules when he plays. I’m building a house, and he spawns a Snow Golem into the middle of it, which then proceeds to leave snow and snow balls everywhere. (Not to mention making the otherwise passive Creepers explode in the dining room!) Hilarious!
This is really hard when you’ve set a task with clear objectives.
I’ve established a method for comprehensive mining with no missed sections in the mine… he just points in a direction and heads off, then needs to be rescued from a lava pool.
Communication helps a lot! We agree the objective, we divide the tasks. When I can, I explain why I’m suggesting a certain approach. I ask him if he can think of a better way. I try to make sure we’re on the same page. It helps a lot!
Great leaders know that teamwork requires great communication. And they know they play a key role in ensuring that communication happens.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” ~ George Bernard Shaw
When you stop and look, there are opportunities to reflect on your leadership practice everywhere. The key is having the mindful presence to do it, and to do it consistently.
The Purpose of a Company…
Yes, I know I’m about to sound like a bit of a nerd, but I came across something really exciting in my LinkedIn Feed yesterday. Now please bear in mind that what the American Business Roundtable does, usually doesn’t have immediate impact in New Zealand – so some of you will point out (quite correctly) that this is old news… but a former colleague shared the ‘news’ that the Business Roundtable has redefined the purpose of a corporation to promote “an economy that serves all Americans”.
Common parlance is that the purpose of a corporation is to maximise the return to shareholders… which you don’t have to be a genius to realise sometimes means that companies sometimes do things that to most of us, are clearly in dubious ethical territory. With so many crazy things happening in the world at the moment, this stands out to me as a decidedly optimistic and encouraging bright spot.
I’m hatching a plan to write a book about how organisations can become ‘aware’ of their impact holistically, and take actions that enable them to create ‘unexpected good’ that drives their reputation in the right direction but also positively impacts the bottom line. So this is great news…
Here’s what some of the big players said in response to this news:
“I welcome this thoughtful statement by Business Roundtable CEOs on the Purpose of a Corporation. By taking a broader, more complete view of corporate purpose, boards can focus on creating long-term value, better serving everyone – investors, employees, communities, suppliers and customers,” said Bill McNabb, former CEO of Vanguard.
“This is tremendous news because it is more critical than ever that businesses in the 21st century are focused on generating long-term value for all stakeholders and addressing the challenges we face, which will result in shared prosperity and sustainability for both business and society,” said Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation.
You can read the full statement and the rationale here…
Now the question is, can a company really track and perform against a broader – more holistic – suite of expectations, when most leaders can only make sense of a limited number of things at the same time? Check out more about enhancing sense-making here.
The Knowing-Doing Gap: A Leader’s Guide
You’re pretty clever…
I bet you ‘know’ lots of stuff.
You went to school, you probably went to University and studied interesting things.
Then you launched a career where you have done important, meaningful work – along with some work that seemed less meaningful.
You have a whole stack of life experiences: maybe you’ve bought or sold a house; travelled the world; raised children. You’ve read books, taken courses, spent time chatting with interesting people.
You’ve certainly handled some adversity too. An illness, a period of joblessness or even homelessness, an unsuccessful relationship, a break-up. Maybe you’ve been fired, or laid-off.
You’ve stacked up some life lessons…
Sometimes, life’s lessons come neatly packaged up in the shape of a training programme with clear learning objectives, practice exercises, and techniques and tools to build and demonstrate mastery…
But usually, they don’t.
Your life is a rich tapestry of experiences that have contributed to shaping how you see the world, what you value, how you make sense of others, how you build and maintain relationships, and how you identify and solve problems.
You may even have undertaken some formal leadership development along the way!
Meet: the Knowing-Doing Gap
In the adult training literature, they talk about the ‘knowing-doing gap‘: the idea you can teach things, and people will intellectually ‘know’ them… but that doesn’t mean they will do it… that they will put it into practise.
Why is it that even techniques and tools with tons of supporting evidence – that we know in our heads would work and help us in our jobs – we still fail to put into practise?
When the real life situation occurs, the one that matches the textbook perfectly, we forget what we know and rely on previous experience or old habits?
We aren’t stupid! We know it would help… but the opportunity comes and goes. We see it disappear into the sunset, and wistfully ask “what if…?”
…and yet we improve
This all sounds a bit depressing and gloomy. It isn’t.
Generally we are improving and growing as we go. I don’t know about you, but I’m a better parent now than I was five years ago. I’m a better partner than I was 15 years ago…
But am I a better leader today than I was yesterday?
How quickly can what I learn today improve how I show up tomorrow?
Is it just that our brains are too full that we can’t find the right tool at the right time?
I don’t think so.
I think it’s because, in our daily lives and in our interactions with others, we generally operate in one of two key modes…
Automatic or Reactive
This is our habits. The things we do without thinking too much. Our autopilot.
Just the same as an automatic car changes gear without you needing to think about it at all, being a leader ‘on automatic’ means much of your activity is habitual. The way you greet people, the way you conduct meetings, the way you behave in meetings, the way you respond if someone asks you a questions, how you make decisions – especially small to medium-sized decisions.
And just like your car, this is often pretty handy. It requires less thought and less effort from the driver, who is freed up to focus on other things.
To take the metaphor a little further, just like an automatic car, there are times when the automatic transmission doesn’t serve us quite so well. Going up or down steep hills, for example, or needing to accelerate quickly. While car-makers do improve the capability of an automatic to respond to such situations, it’s never quite the same as driving a manual… Most modern automatic cars include some mechanism for switching into manual (-ish) mode.
The same is true for people. There are lots of benefits to be had from installing a solid set of productive habits in your programming. Things you do frequently are likely to become more consistent and more efficient – saving your energy and decision-making ‘power’ for more important things…
But there’s a problem.
Unlike your car’s gearox, your brain can learn a new habit – a new gear – without you even realising it! If you do something reasonably frequently, regardless of whether you do it well or poorly, and regardless of whether it serves you or trips you up – it can become a habit.
And habits can sneakily adapt too. The situation can change subtly, but the habit plows on regardless, and before you know it you have a habit for a new situation, based on an existing habit.
And while automatic refers to habits and programmed behaviours, reactive refers to times when your emotions over-ride your executive functions… You’ll know this as your fight-or-flight mode. We all have emotional triggers that cause us to feel a bit like a rabbit in the headlights. Usually these things stem back to our child-hood, or our evolutionary patterns. Our aim in these situations is survival – even when the situation isn’t actually life-or-death.
Being present and mindful allows you to witness a situation, pause, and reflect.
Don’t confuse this with inaction, or indecision.
Instead, it’s a careful and thoughtful response. It can still be quick.
Actions and decisions can still rely on intuition as well as hard data, but they aren’t using poor proxies from your past (and your upbringing) to predict outcomes in what can easily be seen as completely different circumstances.
It opens up space for optimism. For assuming the best in others. And most importantly, it allows you to tap into that valuable knowledge that you have, rather than relying on prehistoric analogies where sabre-tooth tigers lurked around every corner…
If you’d like to hear more about how to switch off the autopilot and close the knowing-doing gap, you might also benefit from our Virtual Coach – join here.
All You Need (to Lead) is Love
Everyone is writing about love at the moment. I have no idea why – but I thought I might add my ten cents worth…
Organisational hierarchies create power imbalances that knock off people’s equilibrium. If you met someone, in your social circle who appeared to be struggling, you’d reach out. You might offer an ear, or a hand.
And, if it turned out to be a problem you could help with, you almost certainly would.
Yet, for some reason, when aspiring managers, become actual managers, the power seems to go straight to their heads. Unfortunately, though brain imaging is yet to prove this hypothesis, the area of the brain where power resides, overlaps strongly with the area previously occupied by humanity, compassion and empathy.
New managers start second-guessing themselves about what they can and can’t say, and start believing that every conversation with a direct report (other than a routine one-on-one) has to be scripted and run past HR in advance.
Not in a Valentine’s Day sappy or a “not appropriate at work” kind of love, but as brotherly or sisterly love. The kind of love you have for your kids…
In fact that’s quite a good analogy.
When your kids mess up, you let them know because it’s your job to do so. You are responsible for helping them become the best adults possible. You guide, you encourage, you develop, and yes, sometimes, you discipline.
Because. That’s. The. Job.
And your other job? Well, at work, it’s to love your employees. To guide when you can, to encourage, to develop, and yes, sometimes, to discipline.
And when it comes from a place of love, you don’t need a script, because your heart already knows what to say… but more importantly, because when you come from a place of love, everyone around you can see it. So even if you muck it up and say something you wish you hadn’t people will likely forgive you… because you did it with love.
Love is all you need.
If you think you’d benefit from bringing a bit more love into your work-life, you might enjoy our Virtual Coaching network. Join today – you’ll love it!
No-one Likes a Know-It-All
I confess, I am a recovering ‘know-it-all’.
I am clever and well-educated, and I used to believe that my strength came from having all the answers.
When my husband and I first started dating, our arguments usually stemmed from one of two things: money (we didn’t have much, which made it stressful) and me correcting him. Relentlessly.
Initially I told myself I was saving him from having incorrect information… perhaps rescuing him from making an error in front of other people. Eventually my ‘know-it-all’ tendencies morphed from facts and figures – things that I could know and ‘prove’ – to the accuracy of memories for shared experiences and who said what, even extrapolations from existing knowledge, which were theories at best. To be quite honest, I’m not sure why he stuck around!
Eventually I began to notice a pattern…
No matter who won the argument (and I’m afraid to admit that it was usually me) we still had to have an argument, and we both ended up feeling pretty crappy afterwards.
It took me a while to realise that being right didn’t make me feel any better, really. And that it didn’t do much for him either!
Individual contributors and the currency of knowledge
In our working lives, we usually start as team members – individual contributors. We are expected to learn, and over time master, a set of skills and a body of knowledge. If we are lucky, we do this under the tutelage of an experienced and patient senior team member. Our ability to recall data and past transactions quickly and accurately is rewarded and applauded. We gain a reputation for working quickly, for responding with useful information and for supporting the team by having most of the answers…
Is it any wonder then, that many managers continue to exploit this skill long after its usefulness and ability to impress others has disappeared?
As a manager, it isn’t your job to have the answers. Your job is to create those conditions that you had… the environment where your team can learn, demonstrate their capability, test their capacity and make a few mistakes along the way.
But how do you make that transition? Everything you know has led you to believe that knowledge is the most valuable skill, and that figuring out the answers to new problems comes a very close second… yet now you’re telling me that simply isn’t true anymore?
It’s as though you woke up one day and somebody said “we don’t use money anymore. We use marbles. Your money is worthless. What, you don’t have any marbles? Well you better earn some then! Off you go!”
It’s disorientating. It’s bamboozling. It’s just plain weird!
Have you ever worked with a ‘know-it-all’? Somebody who can never act on anyone else’s ideas? Someone who always has to have the last word? Someone who says “I told you so” when they are forced to follow someone else’s directions and it goes even a little bit wrong?
It’s exhausting if you try to overcome it or work around it, and the danger is, eventually, you just give up. “Yes Dave… great idea Dave… let’s do that Dave…”
No business can thrive if its people can’t contribute their brilliant ideas.
And the worst case scenario? If Dave just happens to be your boss.
As a leader, the ability to ask great questions plays a big part here.
But before you can do either of these things, you have to have the presence of mind to realise you are doing it in the first place… or at least be sufficiently open to feedback that you allow someone to tell you you’re a know-it-all without biting their head off…
And, even when you do know the answer, exercise generosity by letting others have the thrill of figuring it out for themselves!
If you think being a ‘know-it-all’ is something you need a hand with, you might like to join our virtual coaching network. No commitments, no judgement, just great advice from the world’s leading thinkers, speakers and writers, delivered to your inbox on a Monday morning… What better way to start the week! And if you’ve read it all and seen it all before, you’re welcome to say “I already knew this” and I won’t mind!
Clear is Kind – Unclear is Unkind
As a leader, this is a really important thing to remember. We often try and soften our message to not hurt someone’s feelings, which in reality, is a selfish move… we don’t want to feel bad. But that lack of clarity creates confusion and doesn’t enable that person to move forward in a useful constructive way. Remember: Clear is kind.
I’m reading Dare to Lead by Brené Brown at the moment. It’s a great book. Brown is in my team of Virtual Mentors, so reading this is part of my commitment to self-development and growth. She shares a lovely story about when her team got up the courage to let her know that her time-estimation skills were a little woeful… and outlines what happened next as she worked through her responses to that feedback. Which really got me thinking about my own practise.
I remember, early in my leadership journey, I used to be afraid of delivering a message that hurt someone. I had one team member who was going through some challenging circumstances in her home life, and it was impacting the quality of her leadership and decision making at work. We talked fairly regularly about what was going on for her, and how she was coping, and what support she might have available to assist her. But I never raised the impact it was having at work. I thought I was being kind. I thought she might not be able to cope with ‘attacks’ from two fronts at the same time. I thought it would go away if I left it long enough…
Some of her peers raised concerns with me. It was affecting them as well – they were carrying some of the load… and worried about her. I’m pleased to report that I didn’t betray her confidence about what was happening at home, but I can’t say honestly that I didn’t share a little grumble with them from time to time…
I’d like to be able to say that I eventually plucked up the courage to raise the issues and that we had a difficult and challenging discussion, followed by a marked improvement in performance. I want to say that more than anything.
But I can’t. Because I didn’t.
I was transferred to a new role about four months after the problems emerged, and I briefed the incoming manager about the issues…
I ducked it – and I wished my replacement good luck.
I’d also like to be able to say that my replacement deftly handled things and everyone lived happily ever after. That didn’t happen either, and the person left for another role, none the wiser.
This is not only bad management (on my part at least) it is grossly unkind.
Why being unclear is unkind…
I learned a great deal from this experience, and similar but less dramatic ones like it. Clear, timely and compassionate feedback is vital to development.
Think about parenting… Your toddler is about to touch the hot oven… a million horrible scenarios flash before your eyes… which of the following would you choose?
“Stop! Hot! Ouch!”
“If you touch that surface there is a possibility that you will experience a great deal of pain that you might not like very much and that it might leave you with evidence of injury that lasts for the rest of your life.”
It’s obvious right? At least I hope it is if you have kids!
The second one takes too long to say (not timely) is convoluted (not clear) and is too dispassionate – reducing your care and concern to a technically accurate but uncaring monologue, verging on compliance/tick-box.
Too often, I think, we worry that the message is hard, and that the only way to deliver it is bluntly.
That’s simply not true. If you love your team (and if you don’t, you should), then it is possible to deliver tough messages in a way they can handle and make use of.
Yet we do it all the time with our kids… because we love them. And we know we love them. And we know it’s our job.
Of course workplace examples aren’t usually as clear-cut as preventing someone from burning themselves on the oven (although judging by the state of health and safety in some organisations, maybe this is an assumption that needs to be challenged). Workplace examples are subjective, and fluffy – the trickiest ones involve behaviour, rather than ‘concrete results’ and numbers.
It doesn’t matter. You can’t wait. You mustn’t sugar-coat it, but you must deliver it with empathy and respect.
Clarity doesn’t just apply to corrective feedback…
Your role as a leader also requires you to be clear about your vision, your priorities and your expectations. Remember – clear is kind.
If your team doesn’t understand your vision, they’re not only going to have a hard time helping you implement it, they’re going to feel uncertain and fearful about the future. Especially in times of change. If you can see the destination clearly in your own mind, you owe it to your staff to find the words that help them see it just as clearly.
I get it, things change… sometimes the thing that was priority number one yesterday, simply isn’t today. That’s life. But if you don’t double round and let your team know, clearly, then they will keep working on what they are already working on, and gradually become more and more frustrated that nothing gets finished, they can’t get your attention, and the workload seems to be multiplying with no reprieve in sight…
If you are relying on other people to help you achieve results, then you need to make sure you are crystal clear in your expectations of them. This isn’t just the targets (though this is part of it) it’s also about the behaviours you expect, the values you want them to uphold, and the processes and systems you need them to develop or use.
That’s all very well, I hear you say, but I think I am being clear. Yet sometimes things get lost in translation. So here’s some quick tips to help you be more clear:
Try not to go ‘off the cuff’ – when it matters, prepare and practice.
Be consistent – develop some key phrases you will use consistently in certain contexts so that people know what’s coming.
Make time – every day, schedule ten to fifteen minutes to focus on clarifying your ideas and communications.
Check-in with your team. Ask them! Get them to recap what they heard you say. Clarify if there’s ambiguity – don’t take it as criticism.
Tailor the message. Different people communicate differently – what works for some, might not work for all.
Take a break if you need to. If the conversation get’s heavy, suggest a ten minute breather – grab a cup of tea, go for a walk – regroup.
Never ignore it and hope it will go away. It won’t. It doesn’t. Your temporary relief simply delays the problem. Remember: Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.
If you feel like you might need some clarity, why not join our Virtual Coaching group? It’s free, it’s weekly, and it’s lovely!
Stupid Questions: Learn to Embrace Them
“There’s no such thing as stupid questions.”
We’ve all heard that phrase espoused by leaders, project managers, consultants, facilitators and trainers. We’ve probably used it ourselves upon occasion. It’s the thing you say to fill the awkward silence… because you know that what you just shared is new and a little bit complicated, and you assume no-body wants to be seen as stupid by their peers (or their boss).
“I can guarantee if you have a question, somebody else will have the same question and be grateful you asked it” they say… as though that’s the inducement you needed to build the courage to look a bit slow in front of your workmates…
And let’s face it, when we’ve been in that room, we’ve all groaned (hopefully inwardly) at the actual stupidness of the eventual question that gets asked.
Today though, I’m going to try and convince you to embrace stupid questions. Not because it helps the people in your audience – whether clients, or peers, or your staff – but because it helps you.
What are stupid questions?
This might seem like a stupid question. So let me tell you a story.
My school-age son is enrolled in a before-school programme. There’s also an after-school programme offered by the same provider, but it has a massive waiting list. At the end of each school term, we have the opportunity to supplicate ourselves to be on the waitlist… again… in the hope – futile though it may be – that our son has progressed sufficiently high on that list that we might get a place.
Each term, when we do this, the email says “your child is automatically granted the same slot he or she had this term. If you have requested additional spaces, you will be wait-listed. We will notify you if that space becomes available.
The day before term starts, my anxiety about not having heard anything finally gets the better of me, and I contact the programme “just to check” that Mr 5 in, in fact, on their list, and that he hasn’t miraculously been granted an additional slot.
Without checking any actual list, I’m made to feel like an idiot for not properly reading an email I received two months ago.
This morning (after asking this question) I realised three things:
First, it’s entirely possible that I am an idiot. I’m up for that, if the evidence points in that direction.
Second, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” is never a good approach, because the risk of administrative error and the absence of any potentially corrective dialogue, is a recipe for disaster… showing up at 7.30 am to be turned away and having to fill an hour until the acceptable drop-off time at school simply isn’t a workable worst-case scenario for me.
Third, what wonderful rich feedback that question is, to someone who is capable of seeing it that way, and open to acting on it! Embrace it! Use it as impetus to improve whatever your thing is!
You see, the power of Stupid Questions isn’t in the answer to them, or in the courage of those who decide to ask them. The power of Stupid Questions is in the opportunity they present you with, to alter your approach so that that particular stupid question isn’t needed again in the future.
Because the people asking the questions aren’t actually stupid. You are at fault. Not in a blamey way, just in a “you haven’t communicated effectively” way.
How do I embrace stupid questions?
De-emphasise the asker
Well, you still need to ask for them. But you need to shift the focus of the asking. Implying that the person asking the question needs to be brave to ask them, or is doing their colleagues a big favour by asking, is placing all the emphasis on the person asking (or potentially asking). Instead, put the focus on the person seeking the questions: “I know I haven’t explained this as well as I could have – what didn’t make sense? What are you left puzzled by?” Make it about you and your presentation of the information – which, let’s face it, can always be improved.
Watch how you respond
When you hear the question, you almost certainly have an immediate reaction to it. It probably starts with ‘but’:
But I covered this already
But I sent you this information in an email
But I thought that was the clearest part of my presentation
But… But… But…
“But” is a word you should try and banish from your vocabulary. Replace it with AND. The sentence still works, but it leaves space for multiple perspectives, and diminishes defensiveness for both parties.
Defensiveness is your ego’s way of trying to protect itself from the idea that you aren’t as wonderful as it thinks you are… or worse, that you aren’t great, but everyone else is worse.
Engage with the lesson
Instead, try and enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to learn from what the asker has shared with you. Especially if you get the same or similar questions often.
In my case, a programme administrator for a before/after school programme, probably knows that parents don’t want any uncertainty about whether their kids are in or out… waitlisted, or successfully slotted… In this case, the tradeoff is the lesser hassle of not sending out 100-odd tailored emails (though a template would probably suffice).
Communication is one of those things that we assume is more effective than it actually is, because we know what we were thinking and cannot know how it was received.
So make it your mission to embrace stupid questions. They are rich sources of intelligence for you – real-time feedback on how you are performing. Don’t let that go to waste!
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Creativity with Constraints: Leadership’s Secret Sauce
I’ve never really considered myself to be creative – at least not in any conventional sense of the word, as applied to artistic endeavours. I can’t paint or compose or sculpt… I’m really great at following the instructions. I can play classical piano but run a mile from jazz. I did some acting as a teenager, but never warmed to improv. Interpretation rather than creation. So today, I thought we might explore the idea of creativity with constraints.
This year, I have challenged myself to try. To get a bit uncomfortable and experiment. I have a reasonable iPad Pro – I know it has some pretty powerful graphics grunt. So I took a short online course about abstract art, using the Paper App.
Probably the most profound aspects of the course was a lesson on constraints and rules. Constraints being the unmovable boundaries within which you operate (the size of your screen, the app you are working in ) and rules being some additional limits you give yourself (only one foreground colour, all shapes must overlap, work for two minutes maximum).
It has been interesting. I think I’m more creative than I believed… which really got me thinking…
Is leadership creative?
At the same time that I describe myself as “not very creative” I know in my bones that the practice of leadership is exceedingly creative, and I do think I’m capable of finding deeply creative solutions to organisational problems. So what’s the connection?
I think, too often, we think of artists – ‘true’ creatives – as working completely unfettered by the barriers, and roadblocks, and complaints, and frustrations we find in our organisational lives.
Never enough money, laws and regulations that describe how certain things must be done, owners’ and shareholders’ expectations, opening hours, “we’ve always done it like that”…
And it isn’t necessarily true that any of these constraints are bad. While we’d all like more money, I think we can agree that treating our employees fairly, and not polluting the environment, and serving our customers honestly and well, are good things…
So as a leader, then, our job is to understand the constraints… and then to exercise extreme creativity within them. It’s at the heart of problem-solving, of storytelling, of innovation, of evolution. It’s about getting in flow. It’s about fulfilment. And it’s about engagement.
But I hear you! “Not me” you say. “I’m not creative! I’m just here to do my job!” Well let’s give it a go. How can you exercise and strengthen your creative muscles?
Five ways to boost general creativity
Here are five activities that can boost your creativity – your baseline level, if you will. Do these things and you will also improve your creativity with constraints…
Learn a new skill, craft or language
In order to learn something new, your brain has to ‘unstick’ itself, and then reshape itself around the new knowledge. It’s quite hard work (which is why it can feel exhausting). New neural pathways are formed, old ones are pruned. And in that window of neuroplasticity, you actually become more creative. Cool huh!
Watch a film or read a book you’d normally avoid
The older we get, the more habitual we become. We go the same way to work, we go to the same grocery store, we go to the same gym, eat at the same restaurants… And our preferences for television, film and reading become pretty solid. I don’t read fiction – haven’t for years… until my son came along and I’ve read all manner of fiction since then! Mostly Dr Suess…
Anyway, the point being that watching or reading something outside of your favourite and preferred genres is a great way to generate new thought patterns.
Learn to meditate… daily
Meditation can assist with lots of things: management of mood, gratitude, observational skills, and yes… creativity. In effect, meditation is like learning how to use your brain properly… did you ever notice there isn’t a user guide? Well meditation can assist you to understand the way your brain thinks, feels and processes information. All useful to becoming more creative.
Exercise the body… regularly
Rigorous exercise gets extra oxygen to the brain and releases endorphins, all of which is great for optimal brain function. Separately, I also find that mindless exercise (as opposed to mindful exercise) is another option for solving a specific problem. I often seem to come up with my best ideas or solutions while on the treadmill…
Get enough sleep
There is increasing evidence that all adult human beings need between seven and eight hours sleep each night in order for their brains to function at their best. Too much, or not enough, and without you even realising it, memory can decline, processing speed can slow, and general fogginess can set in.
Six ways to boost creative problem solving
And when you already have a specific issue or challenge to tackle, you need some tactics to help you with a focused burst of creativity…
Go for a walk
Ideally in nature, even better, in bare feet. But if you can’t get to the forest or the beach, a meaningful break can work just as well. In The Eureka Effect,David Perkins explores the observed tendency humans have for apparently stumbling across our most important and groundbreaking ideas when we’re completely focused on something else entirely!
Reframe the problem
Sometimes we get stuck because we keep thinking about the problem from the same angle. Asking a different question or reframing the problem can radically increase our likelihood of finding a solution.
For example, if you are trying to improve a particular aspect of your client experience, such as how can you answer calls to your helpline on the second ring without increasing the number of agents in your call centre. Instead, try asking what you can do that would delight your customers.
For example, when I worked for an insurance company in New Zealand, our script for answering all calls was: “My name is Rebecca Elvy. Welcome to [name of company]. What can I help you with today?” It never ceased to amaze me how many people commented on this greeting. It gives space for the caller to get your full name (many times I’m sure help desk staff are giving me a fake name, let alone their full name!) and it left the full emphasis on how you were going to help them solve their problem.
Invite other perspectives
We know what we know and see often. But sometimes what we need to know is outside our experience. People with different worldviews can look at the same problem in a completely different way. So find some people who wouldn’t normally be involved in your problem. They might be elsewhere in your firm, or completely outside it. They might be competitors, or clients, or people from a different ethnic background. Diversity of thought is key here.
They may not come up with the answer, but they’ll certainly challenge your thinking and get your creative juices flowing!
Change your environment
I am a serial room-changer-rounder (that’s the technical term). At least a couple of times a year I’ll rearrange various rooms in my house, and my work space at the office. I don’t know if I’m looking for perfect Feng Shui (I don’t really know anything about Feng Shui!) or it just gives me a good clean out… but I find that the change of perspective helps me think clearer.
You might not need to be that radical though. You might find that relocating to a coffee shop or public library to work for a few hours might be enough!
Challenge your assumptions
You probably don’t know what they are… but you definitely have some.
Spend some time figuring out what they are: try asking “what has to be true for this to work out the way I think it will”.
Once you know what your assumptions are, try breaking them. If you assume that you don’t have enough money, try solving the problem in the way you would if money were no object. Clearly this is a thought exercise… at least to begin with, because it can’t magically make more money appear. But sometimes freeing your mind in this way enables you to come up with an elegant affordable solution that you otherwise were ‘hiding’ from yourself.
‘Unsolve’ the problem
Yes, you read that correctly. Rather than focusing on how to fix the problem, try focusing instead on how to make it worse. What are all the things that you could do that would make this situation deteriorate… doing nothing might be the first one, but I bet you can come up with some really creative ways to make things worse! Get mischievous!
Once you have a bunch of ways to make things worse, test which ones can be ‘reversed’. Say if one way to make things worse is to always blame your customers for their problems (“it was working fine when we gave it to you…”) you might make things better by never blaming your customers, even when it is their fault.
Try it out! It’s fun!
And remember, great leaders are agents of change. If they wanted things to stay the same they would have appointed a manager…
If you are having trouble expressing your creativity as a leader, perhaps you need a virtual coach! Join up today, you can cancel at anytime.
She said “be more colourful, we didn’t meet the real you.”
She said “use the intonation of your voice, let you passion shine through.”
She was a psychologist providing me feedback after a job interview assessment centre.
Today’s post is a little different… more like a journal entry than an article. If it’s not for you, no worries! Thanks for stopping by!
Yet I do prefer to be ‘in control’ – to seem in control. It makes me a good/conscientious driver. It helps me resist addictions of all sorts (coffee, food, exercise, alcohol). It drives me to understand how my brain works (so that I can better predict, anticipate and control it).
And it drives me to help those who find themselves in the midst of chaos not of their own making. People who live in violence, or drug dependency, or poverty, or war-torn countries.
I lived there for moments of my childhood and early adult-hood. The chaos of parent with inconsistent discipline and mood led to my strong value of fairness.
The chaos of near misses (especially involving men) when influenced by alcohol led to my strong desire for sobriety.
Why am I so ‘buttoned down’?
I think I’ve always been that way. Being upset – no, betrayed – when I learned someone I cared deeply about and admired was growing pot in their glasshouse… Disapproving of ‘lowly’ and ‘uncouth’ behaviour… Aloof? Conceited? Non-reactive?
It’s very hard to find fairness in a state of chaos.
So to hope in a world filled with disorder and complexity, my brain became highly skilled at creating and identifying predictable patters – at systematising chaos – and at diagnosing root causes.
An observer, before becoming a participant.
And I participate with the express purpose of reconciling the irreconcilable… solving the unsolvable… calming the chaos.
This means that evidence of chaos – the indelible marks it leaves behind on the lives (and deaths) of those touched by it – cause me distress and emotional turmoil. I imagine myself into those lives, and the chaos overwhelms me. The lack of fairness. The absence of sobriety.
I’m sure if I were a religious person, I could find solace in the unknowable plan of a supreme being, but my mind resists religion for its apparent acceptance of unfathomable pain and intolerance.
Instead, these events call to me, and play over and over, begging me to act… But to do what?
What are you asking me to do?
What am I resisting?
I try to ensure my mind is unshackled by pedestrian constraints, but I cannot see what it is that I’m supposed to do…
Why is that the lot of human beings to not be able to see those things at the next stage of development – evolution – that would most help us?
Those in chaos cannot see there can be ‘not-chaos’.
Those in addiction cannot imagine there can be ‘non-addiction’.
Those pain cannot understand the idea of ‘not-pain’.
Those in combat cannot fathom peace.
And those under siege cannot recognise refuge.
Why do our own minds present us from achieving that which we most need? It is cruel. It is unfair.
What must I do to resolve this?
What must I stop resisting?
They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
I am ready.
What is my teacher?
Footnote: literally the morning after I wrote this, I read the chapter called “Your Inner Purpose” in A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle… (Part of my team of Virtual Mentors.) It leapt out at me immediately… though I cannot tell you why. I’ll keep you posted!