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Are you a fixer or creator?

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Fixer or creator

Photo by Dillon Mangum on Unsplash

Professionally speaking I’m not a content expert. It’s the process of creating that interests me. For example, the way a board of directors defines strategic direction. How existing teams accomplish new things together. The motivation behind big collaborations chipping away together at gnarly social challenges.

I get called to fix things. But at heart, I’m a creator.

I start by listening to the issues and concerns posed by my clients. What I ultimately help them define — and plan for — is what they want. The end result. When all is said and done, what will have been created? What’s the outcome?

And yet, our culture has a deep bias in favor of problem-solving. It’s especially ingrained in business. Hiring managers want people who are good problem solvers. Candidates emphasize their problem-solving prowess in resumes and interviews. What they convey explicitly and implicitly is, “I’ll take problems off your plate so you don’t have to deal with them; even I myself will never be a problem to you, my manager.”

I’m not saying there’s no value in problem solving. After all, when your roof leaks, you want it fixed. You do the research, make the calls, schedule the repair. Something happens, you respond.

Is it getting you what you want?

But think about this: You could solve all your problems and still not have what you want. Getting rid of irritants is not the same as building a life, or a business.

If your roof is leaking and you recognize that what you’re really after is a dry interior, it would lead to a different approach. Yes, you still want the leak fixed but you would also arrange for an inspection of the entire roof. And you’d figure out a way to complete the needed repairs before the next rain.

Are you a fixer or creator?

If you’re curious about your dominant pattern, consider whether you:

  • delay action until prompted by external stimuli
  • enjoy a jolt of heroism when you successfully solve a problem
  • want things that you can’t quite articulate

… or do you …

  • approach new projects with a clear sense of what you want to produce
  • initiate the necessary steps to bring it about
  • factor in what reality is telling you so you can adjust course along the way

Problem-solving is a valuable skill to possess; people who excel at problem-solving are well-compensated. At the end of the day, however, if you discover that your life or organization is missing something, perhaps you’ve been putting more attention on fixing than creating. That realization can be startling and a bit disconcerting. If that’s the case, I recommend tapping tapping the expertise of Fritz and Ferris, in this order:

Robert Fritz, Creating, Your Life As Art, and Identity
Tim Ferris, The Four Hour Work Week[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Collaborative leaders shine

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Leaders Shine

Photo by Aaron Imuere on Unsplash

Observing what makes collaborative leaders effective when they step forward in a group never ceases to amaze me. Are they the ones with big job titles? Often not. Emotional intelligence in collaborative undertakings matters more than authority.

A collaborative leader, with a single gesture, can resolve inadvertent voids created by others on the team. Sometimes it seems as if their mere presence moves the project forward.

What are they doing? Why are colleagues comfortable taking their lead?

The orientation of a collaborative leader

In a recent post about the chops of a collaborator, I highlighted nine traits they embody —  traits most people have to varying degrees and can be cultivated through practice and astute observation. In studying collaborative leaders, another subset of traits emerges. Whether it’s a board chair, team coach or project leader, they can be seen exhibiting several specific behaviors.

What brought us all together?

First and foremost, they accentuate shared goals. This keeps the focus on what people want to accomplish together. As differences surface about strategies and tactics, they don’t allow them to drive a wedge. By reminding people of the end goal, they nurture cohesion.

Who showed up for this?

Second, they have genuine respect for every individual involved. No exceptions. In their mind – not just in their behavior – nobody is better or more important than another regardless of intellect or position. These leaders also make sure to invite introverted or quiet participants into the fold.

Yes … and?

Third, collaborative leaders are anything but rigid. It’s not uncommon to find them adopting a core tenet of improvisation, the “yes and” approach. It’s the definitive opposite of “yes but.” Rather than set up competition, collaborative leaders encourage people to build on each other’s strengths, ideas and contributions.

Merging these first three attributes, a composite begins to take shape. It’s that of a leader who tolerates dissension at the same time they keep the process from derailing. As everyone’s voice is honored it’s almost inevitable that disagreement will arise. Leaders make sure power is distributed across the group and avoid being the arbiter. They demonstrate receptivity, inclusivity and an overarching respect for the group’s shared aspiration or goal.

Where’s this process going?

The risk to larger-scale collaborations is that they collapse under their own weight. When more and more projects have to run in parallel, inter-dependencies keep multiplying. Ideally there’s tight coordination. But that adds time. The more complex and the broader the scope, the easier it is for people to lose sight of exactly where they are in the grand process. This can be discouraging. Even worse, disorienting.

Collaborative leaders appreciate the clarity for everyone that comes from stating the obvious. They toggle between reminders about the bigger goal, the distance that’s already been covered, the obstacles overcome, the milestones achieved, the decisions reached, and, the present day realities. They don’t shrink away from asking obvious questions. If there’s an elephant in the room, they name it. When it comes to orienting the group, collaborative leaders work to assure everyone’s on the same page about where they are at any given moment.

Equally important is framing what’s ahead. What is known now that could not have been known before? What does that mean for next steps, and the phases beyond that? Since things are bound to change, the group will always be addressing unexpected twists and turns. Adjustments must be made. Being a collaborative leader doesn’t mean having predictive powers about the future. Rather, it’s an ability to embrace multiple, viable possibilities. Then articulate them to help others gain their bearings for the work, and the process, that lies ahead. Collaborative leaders remain attuned to the context and the content of the journey right up until it is over.

Distributing leadership

The behaviors outlined above shouldn’t be the purview of just one leader in a group. The more members of a collaboration that can function in these ways, the larger the group’s capacity to tolerate natural tensions that are innate to the creating process.

Situational leadership often hums in the background. At different phases of the project, one person or another’s collaborative leadership strength can be drawn on. In that moment, it’s exactly what the group needs. In genuine collaborations I’ve observed, there’s no monopoly on leadership. What’s needed today may be your precise talent as a collaborative leader. Tomorrow’s need may draw from someone else’s strength. Collectively, collaborative leaders don’t hold back – they contribute their gifts and make ample room for others to contribute theirs.

There is no question anymore that collaboration, seeking out diverse perspectives and developing new ways to look at challenges and opportunities, is a key leadership competency.
– Elizabeth R. Thornton, author, The Objective Leader

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Nine traits of collaborators

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Before defining collaborator traits that can make any group’s effort much less effortful, an obvious truth is worth naming. No one has to collaborate. It’s not a mandatory part of life. Collaboration is a choice, an act of free will. An individual’s motivation usually ties to their personal or professional goals. I want to get this done — it won’t necessarily happen alone — and the involvement of others will help me accomplish it.

Collaborations naturally vacillate

When collaboration is in the air and working well, there’s often a sense of motion — movement in the direction of a shared goal. Stepping up to own a task inspires the same in one’s peers. One person’s contribution sparks an idea in another person and more ideas flow from there. It grows safer to disclose real thoughts and agendas. It may still carry a negotiating tone but there’s also a distinct quality of collective opportunity and progress in the air.

Of course, it can be messy. Whether or not the collaboration is going well, an outsider may observe what looks like controlled chaos. People challenge each other’s ideas. They question authority, including whether they themselves have enough authority to make a decision. Even the process itself is challenged, especially when a group finds itself in a sea of conflicting ideas with no clear way to reach agreement let alone closure.

Some people are natural collaborators. Others come to appreciate its value only after seeing its result. Regardless of how their skills are acquired, the presence of seasoned collaborators goes a long way is supporting a group’s work together and their eventual outcomes.

I wrote last month about the upside of collaboration and how it can take people past their individual limits and open entirely new doors. This post focuses on the characteristics of gifted collaborators – the people who bring invisible glue, clarity and a velvet touch in the midst of confusion or disagreement.

The chops of a collaborator

Think about the savviest collaborator you ever witnessed. Was it something in how they viewed the situation? Their timing when they spoke? Their ability to capture areas of common interest without alienating people on the fringe?

Great collaborators come in all shapes and sizes – extroverts and introverts, leaders and followers, and analytical and feeling types. The next time you’re assembling a team of collaborators, consider the degree to which your candidates enter the project with the traits listed below. Or how you might coach them in this direction. It’s also a helpful tool for gauging your own strengths and growing edges.

  1. Curiosity

Are they genuinely interested in and curious about other people?

Do they have a natural desire to learn through the exchange of ideas and active listening?

Can they suspend their own thoughts long enough to walk in another’s shoes?

  1. Intellectual honesty

Do they say what they mean and mean what they say (which saves a lot of time and energy for everyone)?

Do they appreciate reality for its own sake, with receptivity to having their minds changed when a better idea comes forward?

  1. Imagination

How well do they tolerate new ideas and step into to unfamiliar terrain?

Are they adept at noticing things outside the box?

Do they encourage the emergence of ideas from fellow collaborators?

  1. Humility

Do their words and actions suggest they care about something other than themselves?

Do they have a sense of their own limitations?

Are they beyond having to prove themselves?

Do they seek out people who are different from themselves to augment or supplement what they bring?

How easily do they let go of the need to be right, be first, and be the smartest person in the room?

  1. Patience

Can they tolerate an encumbered pace and varying degrees of group chaos?

Can they hold their frustration in check for the good of the whole?

Or do they slide into controlling behavior by driving, stymieing or aborting the work of the larger group?

  1. Tolerance for ambiguity

As with patience, can they tolerate ambiguity when it seeps in?

Or are they fast chargers whose only mode is quick, decisive decisions?

How do they approach direction-setting when things feel adrift?

  1. Reliability

Can they be counted on to come through, no matter how visible or invisible their role?

Do they invite others to be accountable without a punitive attitude or manipulation?

If they can’t complete an assignment, do they cop to it and/or seek help to get it done?

  1. Flexibility

When they articulate their needs and expectations, does it leave room for others to see themselves inside the frame, too?

Are they open to letting their agenda evolve as the collaboration unfolds?

Can they bend without breaking to accommodate the needs and preferences of others?

Do they cling to the tried-and-true, or are they willing to take risks?

Does stepping outside their personal bounds or the norms of their group spark genuine interest and curiosity?

9. Framing

Can they appreciate the big picture (forest) and the details (trees) at the same time?

Is context ever-present in the back of their mind while they work through more immediate issues?

Do they cast their insights and observations in a light that helps further understanding and advance the project?

Bolstering collaborator traits

So, nine traits. While more could be listed, these establish a basic foundation. The list might seem like a lot, but it’s really not a tall order. Most people have these abilities to varying degrees, whether they learned them at home, in school, through sports and other teams, or on the job. I’ve facilitated hundreds of groups and rarely have I come across someone who simply has no collaborative muscle to flex.

If you want to improve, or coach someone else to improve, do what we all do to develop skill. Practice. Find a group at your job, an association, a hobby, a volunteer opportunity. Focus on honing one or two skills at a time. Watch for people who do it well, study their actions and experiment with emulating what you’ve seen work.

Finally, there’s no fixed formula for collaboration. Every group is made up of people with agendas, hopes, expectations and personal assessments of the group’s challenges and opportunities. Becoming more versed in the styles and techniques of strong collaborators positions you to deliver greater value to any collaborative effort, and increase the probability of its success.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Breakthrough via collaboration

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Photo by Debbie Hudson at unsplash.com

Throughout history people have been motivated to band together. To build villages, trade and barter, rebel against injustice. And, create. Today there’s debate about whether collaboration is wearing out ambitious professionals in matrixed organizations. Fair enough. Coordinating with others can take longer than making decisions on your own, and an excess of meetings, especially if they’re poorly run, can feel like a colossal waste of time. How collaboration happens makes a difference.

In the words of a master

To draw inspiration from a master creator and collaborator, take a stroll back in time, nearly two centuries, to the cafes of Paris. Painters on the cusp of an emerging art form gathered frequently. Ideas flew. In the words of Claude Monet

It wasn’t until 1869 that I [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Monet] saw Manet again, but we became close friends at once, as soon as we met. He invited me to come and see him each evening in a cafe in the Batignolle district where he and his friends met when the day’s work in the studio was over. There I met … Cezanne, Degas who had just returned from a trip to Italy, the art critic Duranty, Emile Soza who was then making his debut in literature, and several others as well. I myself brought along Sisley, Bazille, and Renoir. Nothing could be more interesting than the talks we had with their perpetual clashes of opinion. Your mind was held in suspense all the time, you spurred the others on to sincere, disinterested inquiry and were spurred on yourself, you laid in a stock of enthusiasm that kept you going for weeks on end until you could give final form to the idea you had in mind. You always went home afterwards better steeled for the fray, with a new sense of purpose and a clearer head.

Forming new possibilities

Those conclaves inspired creative tension of such enormity that Monet’s ideas were able to cook all the way through to a new form, rather than being prematurely hatched or abandoned altogether. He sensed a new possibility without knowing immediately how to bring it to life. Through verbal sparring, his ideas were afforded fertile space for gestation. They were allowed to evolve fully into their ultimate expression.

Clearly his peers valued the exchange. They kept returning. Collectively, they sustained creative tension on a scale that no one person could have managed on their own. The result? Not one individual’s success but the successes of many. A composite of breakthroughs constituting a movement.

These were original thinkers and doers. While each had a style in their own right, they also had each other. They shared a collective urge to bring new ideas to life. What exactly did they talk about? Wrestle with? Challenge in each other?

What’s the look and sound of collaboration when it generates an entirely new genre?

Look no further

In this era of advanced technology and communications, we’re privy to such glimpses. Numerous videos, interviews and articles go behind the scenes to reveal the process Lin-Manuel Miranda went through to write the breakout musical Hamilton. Without collaborators, it never could have been staged. He and three others — director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, and music director Alex Lacamoire — were recognized on December 2 during the Kennedy Center Honors. It’s the first time the award went not to an individual for lifetime achievement but to a team. They were hailed as “trailblazing creators of a transformative work that defies category.”

I discovered Monet’s recitation in Scott Belsky’s book, Making Ideas Happen. Belsky’s accompanying commentary is as true of the Impressionists as it is of the Hamilton collaborators:

Despite prevailing notions of the lone genius, this story of how the Impressionists, a circle of friends, spurred each other on to achieve major breakthrough in the world of painting is more common than you might think.

The next post in this series on collaboration continues with an exploration of the qualities and skills possessed by people with genuine collaborative know-how.

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Mental Fortitude

Imagine you’re 20 years old again. You’re competing at peak levels of tennis and for the first time in your rapidly-accelerating career you are on center court at the U.S. Open finals. Over the next two hours you’ll be dueling with an all-time great, Serena Williams, who’s intimating and still has a lot to prove. The partisan New York crowd makes it resoundingly clear they want to celebrate her 24th Grand Slam win. You’re just another underdog newcomer likely to be shut out in straight sets.

To the stadium’s surprise, you take the first set. The second set comes to an abrupt halt the first time Serena approaches the umpire’s chair, then every time they exchange words through the duration of the match. You can’t hear them over the din of the crowd. Your job: stay focused. Despite the intense emotion on the court and in the stands, stay calm. Don’t let repeated eruptions throw your game.

Could you?

Naomi Osaka did. It would have been understandable – possibly expected under the circumstances – for her to lose her mental edge as events unfolded between Serena and Carlos Ramos, the umpire. But that’s not how it went down. Naomi prevailed. As young as she is, she was every bit the professional. One of the biggest takeaways should be how Naomi rose to meet the challenge of playing in this particular final as the rhythm of the match was radically upended.

Naomi’s mental fortitude was inspired. Her presence of mind in post-match interviews proved equally impressive. It makes me wonder how many times in the course of a day people (myself included) are derailed by events of far less consequence.

What Naomi taught us

I predict we’ll see a lot of Naomi Osaka on the winner’s stage in years to come. While we wait, take a page out of her playbook. Cultivate mental fortitude. Stop falling prey to distractions. Keep your eyes on the prize.

 

Ask beautiful questions

Beautiful questionsSolutions are nice. Questions are better. The quality of our questions shapes not only the answers available to us, but our entire life. Asking great questions will change a person’s trajectory.

If you want to get to the root of any tough situation, you’ll ask hard questions, the ones you’d rather avoid because you instinctively know the answer will irritate or disrupt. Each answer will lead naturally to the next question in cycles that take you closer to the center. You peel back layers of the issue, question after question, answer after answer, until you hit pay dirt. Falsehoods drop away. Outdated concepts separate out. What remains carries a distinct ring of truth.

It’s okay to not like where it takes you. It’s also okay if, having arrived at the crux, there’s no obvious solution. The more you see and understand the source of the issue, the greater the odds that you’ll arrive at a workable, maybe even elegant, way through to the other side.

Percipient questioning can flip an organizational culture on its head by challenging notions of how things should be. Gary Hamel, in The Future of Management and What Matters Now, illustrates how simple questions can penetrate outdated assumptions about competition, cost structure, customer satisfaction and even employee engagement. His tip to managers is to ask, “‘Where do I have this wrong? … Is there an option I haven’t considered?’ The best leaders are the ones who get the most options on the table before making a decision, and the most adaptable companies will be those that encourage folks to voice heretical viewpoints.”

In The Surprising Power of Questions, from the May-June 2018 Harvard Business Review, authors Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John take an even more pragmatic approach. Different situations with different intended outcomes necessitate different approaches for both the questioner and the responder. Unlike Hamel, who challenges  leaders to put their own interests behind those of others, Brooks and John prescribe a set of calculations. Their implied aim is to accumulate knowledge as a means to power, rather than quenching curiosity or advancing knowledge for the greater good. I’d characterize it a transactional mindset rather a relational approach.

I recommend keeping it simple, straightforward and real. To draw out people’s potential (as well as possibilities within organizations), travel with sincere questions in your quiver. Without costing a dime, they’ll equip you to dispel assumptions and unearth new options.

Meditation: Good for Business, Better for You

I had no idea what I was in for when I decided to make meditation a habit. And yet I genuinely craved a classic habit, “a regular tendency, especially one that is hard to give up.” For this, I needed a technique with stickability. I needed experiences so helpful, so definitive and so repeatable that not meditating would feel worse than making the time to sit alone in silence.

 

Attempt number one

It was 2008 and not my first trip down the mindfulness path. Decades earlier, living in New York City, I tried to learn. I lucked out when a friend invited me to an evening with Gurumayi; predating by two decades Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey to Gurumayi’s Indian ashram as portrayed in Eat, Pray, Love.) Sitting with a master and her students, meditation came effortlessly. The room was dense with stillness and all I had to do was float on that wave. The practice quieted me to the core and, more importantly, created my first reference of what inner silence looked, sounded and felt like. Back in my apartment, sitting alone, was a different story. My mind returned to its antics – rattling through lists, replaying conversations, fantasizing about stuff to buy and yanking me from rare pockets of calm. I was incapable of repeating the meditation experience. Instead I got crazy monkey mind. This went on for weeks. With no reward for the effort, I gave up.

The meditation technique that stuck

Fast forward twenty years and the yearning for inner stillness became relentless. As I launched a new earnest attempt, I borrowed from a friend who was using a new-to-her meditation technique. She was becoming, from the inside out, the person she always wanted to be — allowing her deepest values to define her and her choices. I wanted my version of that. Since the technique wasn’t being taught in Portland, Oregon where I lived, I tracked down a used book at a local bookstore (the inimitable Powell’s City of Books) that laid out the exact instructions. I memorized the steps then I gave it go. Third eye meditation doesn’t focus on the breath. Instead, it systematically draws attention to distinct qualities – vibration, light, sound – that anyone would notice within a few minutes of sitting with their eyes closed. Simple as it sounds, those qualities give one’s consciousness a place to rest. Literally. To my amazement, it worked. My mind quieted, my nerves calmed and I felt inner peace. Each time. Forty days later, I had engrained a habit. I enjoyed deeper levels of well-being as a reward for my 15 minutes of daily meditation. Then I noticed how any day I didn’t meditate turned funky fast, including a pronounced absence of the synchronicity I’d come to enjoy.

I could have stopped at this point. But I saw there was more to be had and I wanted it so I traveled to an in-person class in New York. This journey was followed by trips to California and correspondence courses that let me pace my continued learning at home. I also jumped at the opportunity to join a weekly video call study group with fellow students spanning the country.

Off-the-mat results

The initial promise of meditation – calming my mind – was an early and predictable outcome. What emerged over time was unexpected, even breathtaking. In the weight room I was lifting double my earlier capacity. On my bicycle I rode faster, stronger and with more confidence in pace lines. My vision (I used to call it intuition) expanded. So, too, my discernment. I have a better beat on what matters most to me. I’m able to throw my heart, mind and belly into things I care about. With greater capacity to see and honor truth came a core sense of serenity. I’m both softer and stronger. More open and more focused. Less constrained. Faster to action. Capable in ways never imagined.

Corporate meditation adopters

Many, if not most, modalities of meditation live up to their general promise of bringing calm, centering and focus. Even novices attest to the way meditation shifts perspective and its lingering effect long after the session is up. It clears the mind to think crisply, engage imagination and improve decision-making. Google, Aetna, eBay, Intel and General Mills advocate meditation and mindfulness not because of the bliss factor but because of the documented impact on productivity. Improved efficiency multiplied by tens or hundreds or thousands of employees is good for business.

It’s for you

For the individual, however, it can be so much more. Applied with the mindset of a warrior, meditation is a tool for reinventing oneself. It combusts and dissolves, constructs and fortifies, pierces illusion and illuminates truth, changing us from the inside out. Little did I know that securing a habit would lead to vast experiences of this world and worlds beyond, pushing past physical, intellectual and emotional limits.

 

Marco Polo: close or far?

Podcasts and pool games. Do they have anything in common? I stumbled on one commonality when I listened to a recent episode of the Slate Political Gabfest, one of my favorite weeklies. David Plotz hosts with regulars John Dickerson and Emily Baselon. Every few months they stage a live audience conundrum show. December’s included participation by their Boston audience. Teeing up the conundrums, Plotz periodically encouraged audience members to shout out their answers, too. It was like a round of Marco Polo to gauge audience position. Here’s one. “Due to some baroque genetic condition, you have to give up all food and beverage over room temperature, or all food and beverage under room temperature. Which do you choose?” He asked audience members to say “cold” if that was their choice. Then he invited those who preferred hot to say “hot.” It was easy to hear the room’s overwhelming vote for hot. (True for me, too.)

Variation on the theme — close or far?

I used a modified version in a recent meeting, to surprising results.

That day there were twenty leaders in the session I facilitated. The group is moving through a multi-month process of design — creating a collective impact model to achieve shared goals for Oregon’s largest river.

The agenda called for a review of a draft vision statement. They each had a copy of the most recent version, which was based on discussions at their prior meeting. To kick it off, I simply asked, “How close is this draft to what you believe the group’s vision is? Say ‘close’ if you think it’s close.” All twenty said ‘close’ in unison. “Now say ‘far’ if you think its far off.” Not a word.

What did it accomplish?

Because it’s so direct, the poll took only seconds. I didn’t have to fish around to gauge alignment. What’s more, group members could see — in sharp relief — just how close they were. Without the need for debate, we quickly clipped through minor suggestions. Had there had been an outlier who said ‘far,’ I would have paused the session to hear their perspective and open a discussion to resolve any discrepancies.

Put it into action

Too many group discussions get bogged down in details that aren’t actually relevant to the task at hand. On certain topics, you can cut to the chase and read a room using a forced choice. Hot, cold. Close, far. Complete, unfinished. Try it with family, work teams and other groups when you need targeted feedback that could spare everyone from unnecessary deliberations.

Start with genuinely seeing

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Art credit: Nadi Hana

The simple act of sitting down with a client at the start of a new project is invigorating. In remarkably short order a rich field of vision opens for genuinely seeing. Events leading to the project’s formation, the motivation of people in the room and beyond, specific examples of alignment or conflict — it is astounding how much can be seen in those first few minutes. For curious minds, the exchanges that take place during early discovery are golden, full of vital clues stretching beyond superficial appearances.

But what do you want?

Before arriving at an answer to this question, clients often take a few detours. That’s okay. At the outset they’re less likely to know what they want to create than what they want to fix. Leaders from all sectors and at all levels of management are rewarded for solving problems. They’re well trained in problem-solution methodologies. However, think about it. A person or organization can fix all their problems and still not have what they want.

That’s why the real work begins with drilling down until the client has a firm grasp on the end goal the team is really after.

The creating process

Next comes studying reality anew, i.e., seeing reality for what it is without blinders, as free as possible from assumptions. Where is momentum building? Where are things operating at cross-purposes? Which limits are real and which perceived? How do elements of the overall structure work together or in conflict?

This gap between the goal and current reality sets up a tension dynamic. It’s elegant in its simplicity. Well-designed, structural tension draws people to what they want; they will achieve their goal by closing that gap. Thus a natural motivation emerges, which urges highly directed thinking and action toward a specific outcome.

Seeing in action

I had the pleasure of diving into a new project last week. Pre-reading material arrived from the client the night before. Reviewing it took only a few minutes; I’m a virtual team member, hence familiar with the business. During the meeting they rapidly downloaded relevant details then together we probed for clarification. Given their co-creative natures, we easily dipped into early stage design discussions. By the end, feeling heard and invigorated, they entrusted the next steps to me … pondering the direction they’re heading, the destination they envision, the structural elements involved, and avenues to power their journey with smartly crafted creative tension.

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Time to save your best for first

TimeOur New Year’s resolutions and time management go hand in hand. It’s already mid-January. How’s your year going so far? I blogged a few years back about something I called the Readiness Project, which gives structure and momentum when change is in the offing. Let’s add a bit of nuance for impact.

What we know: Everyone awakens each day with things to do. Tasks range from the near-universal (shower, eat) to the tailored (complete the business report, jog three miles, get to class on time). Many of us are well schooled in the art of making lists and prioritizing to increase the odds we’ll get stuff done. Books, workshops, and even personal coaching abound, showing us how to beat procrastination, enjoy an organized life and do more through mindfulness. Among countless tips and techniques you’ll find many to be helpful even if you already have a solid working system.

But can we think about time better?

I believe so. It takes a page straight out of the continuous improvement playbook. Picture a simple line on a sheet of paper representing a continuum from low to high. Now apply these two factors, one at a time.

Factor one: independent control. Let’s say most the things on your list today are within your control. You live in a temperate climate where squeezing in a run is simply a matter of throwing on gear and heading out the door. Perhaps your late-afternoon class is within walking distance. However, some things require more coordination and thought. Suppose you want a colleague to look over your report before turning it in; he has his own deadline and wasn’t planning on spending 30 minutes for you. Or your class is across town and the car’s in the shop. Now you have more variables to contend with and much less certainty. You’ll need to use more of your brain to get the results you want.

So try dividing your list into high control vs. low control, along the continuum. That gives you a picture, an at-a-glance reference in stark relief to see which tasks you can blow through and which require more effort due to a range of dependencies. Seen through this lens, you can make wiser investments of your resources — time, thinking, planning, researching — to get each job done.

How about stamina?

That takes us to factor two: energy. More specifically, mental energy for thinking and deciding. We know energy fluctuates throughout any given day and our reservoir isn’t limitless. Daniel Pink‘s newest book, When, explores the science of timing and the value of daily routines. Doing your tough mental lifting at the right time of day gives you an advantage. As Tim Ferriss reports in Tribe of Mentors and Tools of Titans, highly productive and accomplished people say that attacking their most critical work early each day is key to their success. Save tasks that don’t demand much of you for when your reserve is lower because you don’t need as much to accomplish them.

What about the big projects?

Energy and control are but two factors. Creatively speaking, the number and type of factors to explore is an open field. Choose your own. For example, leaving the realm of daily to do lists and entering the world of strategy for NGOs and non-profits, a  popular factor is impact. While some goals may be relatively easy to achieve, their measurable impact is limited. Higher impact goals that transform, say, an entire social system, will take far more sophistication, resources and time to accomplish.

Getting real about the role of these and other forces helps steer our thinking in new directions. Time isn’t merely a linear progression of equal parts; it is, in effect, dimensional. Knowing you’re more likely to achieve your goals using a thoughtfully-leveraged schedule may completely alter your relationship to time. All tasks are not equal. And we now have science suggesting all hours are not created equally either.

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