How to avoid the busy trap

 

Sand trap

Humans thrive when we get stuff done. But not just any old stuff, stuff that matters. People are born to create. And to accumulate results into a body of work they can be proud of. Conversely, we get depressed when we are simply “going through the motions” with repetitive or mundane tasks that just keep us busy. You’ve probably heard of “make work” which describes pointless tasks that keep someone busy but do not result in any progress towards something valuable. While keeping busy appears a lot like working, the lack of progress on anything meaningful is dispiriting.

Progress is the single most important event leading to positive inner work life, according to the Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School. She describes a positive “inner work life” as the continuous stream of emotions, perceptions, and motivations that people experience throughout their workdays. And we all know that a positive attitude leads to better efforts and better results.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who get paid for being busy, meaning their output is measured by activity not by value created. Busy people come in earlier, stay later, and never have time for chit-chat in the company kitchen. They are often admired for their work ethic, and praised for their heroic commitment to the company.

But being busy is a trap… as you put more and more effort into something you steadily get less and less out of it. And as you get less out of work you get bored, overwhelmed, sick, and tired. Working a 70-hour week is an amazing feat, but it doesn’t signify any sort of progress. This is a problem that is plaguing American businesses according to a recent study by Mercer consulting that noted, “Diminished loyalty and widespread apathy can undermine business performance, particularly as companies increasingly look to their workforces to drive productivity gains and spur innovation.”

Funny, I just realized the term business, is actually busy-ness.

Business is often managed with policies that force people to work during certain hours and count their vacation days, yet don’t acknowledge the evening or weekend when the employee has dedicated “extra hours” to complete a project or prepare for a big presentation. Business requires such policies because people don’t like to perform make-work.

But much of the work businesses accomplish is not make-work; it’s real work, just not that interesting or challenging. It’s routine, mundane, and predictable. And there’s not a lot of autonomy provided in routine jobs, which is another source of frustration. So are we supposed to submit to “the man” and punch the clock, work for the weekend, and find our joy outside of work? That’s not what successful people do.

A quality frame of mind comes from vision and focus

In order to get meaning out of work, you must have vision and focus. With vision and focus, every moment becomes a quest for quality. A quality frame of mind sparks your energy to engage in the difficulties of real work. As observed by Robert M. Pirsig, in his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, A person who sees quality and feels it as he works, is a person who cares.

The quality frame of mind is approached from another angle by Victor Frankel, who illustrates the power of personal choice in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. If a prisoner of war can find joy in a daily routine despite his most terrible circumstances, then I believe it’s possible for anyone to avoid the busy trap or become a victim of a bad job.

But how do you “see quality” as Pirsig suggests? First you have to know what you want from your work. Is it to pay bills? To learn something? To prove something? To fulfill an ambition or desire?

Simply “being present” in a work setting will not result in real work being accomplished. Answer this question and you will have an end in mind, which is habit #2 of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. But with the end in mind, you still must have the discipline to focus on only the things that carry you toward that vision.

Despite the value I find in Covey’s Seven Habits, I think for most people there’s still something missing. Vision and focus are necessary to meaningful work, but they are not sufficient to sustain long efforts or overcome difficult circumstances. There’s another more fundamental trait involved here called grit, which I’ve described before. And Jonah Leher of Wired magazine has a similar post.

In reading that post, I discovered a point I hadn’t noticed before in the U.Penn study, which is that many people find deliberate practice not fun. They have a hard time sticking to their planned routine and suddenly find themselves bored or tired, and ready to quit.

So even with a clear vision of what they want to accomplish, and despite great focus on doing the right things to get there, most people still end up in busy mode, going through the motions of routine tasks, but not making any progress (sigh).

Play it out!

According to play expert Brian Sutton-Smith, “Play (is) a kind of transcendence. Play is not just fun, not just pleasurable for its own sake. Play makes it possible to live more fully in the world, no matter how boring or painful or even dangerous ordinary reality might seem. Play is not the opposite of work it’s essential to work.

The successful people I know always say not to do things unless you are having fun doing them. And if you look closely at successful people, they do a lot of stuff that doesn’t seem very fun. So the secret here is not in picking fun work, it’s about making work fun. A grand vision is important to spark greatness, but for many people it’s too far away, too big, and too abstract to keep them energized through routine, repetitive or physically draining activity. A playful heart to go along with your quality mindset brings fun into any routine.

Playing while working is about having small goals built into routine tasks that lift your energies and light your soul. Craftspeople take pride in the precision of a cut, the straightness of an edge, or the smoothness of a surface. This is vision and focus at work. But having the grit to complete a huge floor with hundreds of cuts and thousands of repetitive arm swings takes playful energy.

Jumping_2

Play can simply be about practicing fundamental skills that will help you be a better person. Or it can be more like a game you play with yourself or a work mate to see who can “one up” the other. With a quality mindset and a playful heart, you can dig a hole for no other reason than to dig straighter walls and move bigger shovel loads at a faster pace. When you set parameters and add constraints to challenge yourself, boring work feels like fun a game.

Personal growth is a natural result of meaningful work

When you zoom in to the moment with a quality mindset and play it out during deliberate practice, even the dullest of activities becomes fully engaging, as every new cycle is slightly better than the previous one. You feel real progress and get better results. As I learned through my experience at IDEO, working in this way is a form of prototyping. And prototyping is a great method for discovering breakthrough ideas.

Prototyping yourself leads you to discover things about yourself you’ve never noticed before. These new discoveries are what I learned to call “Blinding Flashes of the Obvious” (BFO’s ) when I worked the ropes course circuit. In these unexpected moments, you catch yourself being yourself, which is the first step in personal growth.

This is an added bonus to avoiding the busy trap. You get better results in your work, but you also get a better self. And it’s fun along the way? What are you waiting for?!

ADDITIONAL NOTES:

Work:
English Wircan “to operate and to function.” Action involving effort or exertion…negative connotation has stuck with the word throughout the history of the word.

Also: a noun describing good deeds, a literary or musical composition.

Play:
Dutch Pleien “to dance, leap for joy, rejoice”… English plegian, “to exercise/frolic”
Amuse or divert. Carry out or practice, perform or execute a movement.

Fun:
Middle English fonnen “befool”… trick, cheat, hoax

Main point: Focus + Vision + Play = Meaningful Work

Working Human

[In case you didn’t catch it… this is a re-post from my guest blogger contribution to the Bulldog Drummond blog on June 19, 2012]

Does this look engaging? (photo by jurvetson via Flickr)

For far too long, we’ve been operating under management philosophies that undervalue being human. The Industrial Revolution did a lot of good things for the world, but the organizations designed to support manufacturing businesses common in that era are not one of them. They are hierarchical and rigid and have little allowance for human variation. Even in their friendliest form, they are paternalistic, placing the burden of responsibility on a select few in positions of authority.

Mechanistic terms and phrases used to describe people and how they work together like: creative engine, mental horsepower, well-oiled machine, weakest link, and human capital are woven through our everyday language. I’m all for the creative use of metaphor, but I think in linguistic terms, the ubiquity of these terms points to an underlying framework that is decidedly not human. At the heart of the industrial view of the world is a reductionist philosophy that leads people to break everything down to the component parts and attempt to optimize the fit and performance of each item in isolation. The problem is humans are not that simple. We can understand how molecules stick together and how synapses fire, but they don’t actually work in isolation of each other. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. People have soul, and heart, and passion.

The effect of not having a human-centered framework for workplace design is decidedly negative. According to the Gallup Management Journal, only 29% of U.S. workers are engaged, while 56% are not engaged, and 15% are actively disengaged. That is, when people are treated (even subconsciously) as machines, they don’t perform at their best. They might do what they are told until they no longer have to, but they are not inspired to create, build, or serve in ways that leverage their full potential and deliver great value.

Join the Human Revolution

Most organizations we know today are built to be stable and predictable, using rigid specifications honed by financial metrics. But there is increasing evidence that this type of organization doesn’t do well in environments that are transforming, ambiguous, or complex (Think: Dinosaurs). See more on this comparison in The Connected Company by Dave Gray. So this is a call for organizations of all types, whether they are businesses, governmental agencies, community groups, schools, or sports teams, to rethink their fundamental principles of organization and shift from industrial age thinking to a human-centered design that helps people thrive.

This shift is intimidating. It’s about losing control and building trust. It’s about helping people grow versus boxing them in with rules and boundaries. It requires a belief in the innate greatness of human kind versus a bureaucratic defense against slackers and cheats.

But the rewards are substantial. Organizations of all types struggle with low creative output, poor service, and declining productivity. Optimization and consolidation can only squeeze performance on the margin so much. For sustainable high performance in service, innovation, invention, or productivity, people must be at their best. And to be at their best, they must be well.

Even in stable environments, where companies make big investments in predictable consumer patterns (like retail or automotive), people perform better when they are treated like people, not cogs in the machine. The Gallup/Healthways Well-Being study demonstrates a very clear economic advantage of employee well-being when you understand the impact of absenteeism, illness, and low engagement on a company’s bottom line.

Before Engagement

Progressive organizations are already committed to the idea that employee engagement drives high performance. But many of these companies still approach engagement with command and control tactics. In response to a slippery company culture concern, I recently heard a very successful business leader say, “Give me 120 minutes with our managers and I’ll tell them how this is supposed to work.” Sorry, but you can’t order people to be good leaders. Or be creative. Or give good service. Or invent a new technology. They have to want to do it themselves and make very difficult emotional, social, and intellectual trade-offs to get there. See a comprehensive view on this point by Daniel Pink in his book Drive.

So while engagement is a great leading indicator for high performance, it’s a lagging indicator of wellness. That is the capacity to give discretionary effort and highly valuable contributions depends on individual wellness. If you are not well, it’s very difficult to be fully engaged.

Viewing wellness as a foundation for high performance makes it more clear what things an organization should have in place to help people perform at extraordinary levels. This is where things start to get messy, because in the traditional relationship of employee and employer many of the requirements for wellness are considered private or “none of your business.” But if learned one thing in graduate school, it came from professor Charles F. Luna: Things that matter are messy.

photo by sanchom via Flickr

Being Fully Human

Many people associate the term wellness with physical health. It’s not hard to understand that proper nutrition, rest, and exercise lead to higher levels of energy. So let’s just start there: What is your organization doing to help your people in these areas? Do you have recess? Do you make people take time off? Do you provide healthy food options as snacks?

But don’t forget that physical health is only one piece of the wellness puzzle. Well-being is about being fully human, which also includes dimensions of mental, social, spiritual, and emotional health. Philosophers have worked on the definition of “being human” since the beginning of recorded history, and probably before then. Aristotle, Maslow, and more recently a slew of companies like Daily Feats, Me You Health, and Kairos Labs have outlined broad models for well-being.

The desire for wellness is not a new phenomenon for us humans. Conventional wisdom is dripping with advice for how to live a good life. Phrases like an apple a day keeps the doctor away; peace (complete with two finger gesture); never go to bed angry; early to bed early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise; etc. are “rules of thumb” developed over generations to show the way to balance, fulfillment, and happiness. Research on happiness has boomed recently. I’ve even seen it stated that happiness is the new currency.

So wellness is not new, but it’s very elusive. For many of us it’s very hard to pay attention to all aspects of wellness simultaneously and adjust our habits to get there. Worse, much of the conventional wisdom or common sense tactics for living well are not tested, and some are quite simply wrong. See more on positive habit formation by Timothy Wilson in his book Redirect.

Work is Life

I think the biggest failure by organizations in this regard is the separation of “work” and “life”. Work, as we’ve defined it for centuries, is a burden to bear, not a form of pleasure. And Life is something you do when you are not working. So we “work for the weekends” and then “live it up” only to “get back to the grind” on Mondays. Shoot me now.

Certainly many people along the way have enjoyed their careers and found joy in their efforts. But the dominant mindset of corporations and institutions is to root out all “softer” elements of working under the banners of focus, optimization, and efficiency. Office cubes, assembly lines, warehouses, and even schools and hospitals have been designed to remove critical human needs like friendship, beauty, and laughter, so workers can focus and get shit done. Most corporate policies, procedures, practices, and routines are built on the same blueprint of efficiency and optimization. But all work and no play, makes Jack a very dull boy (Check out this great scene from The Shining to see what I mean!).

There is hope in world of work. Companies like 3M, IDEO, and Google are famous for their humanistic values and have great results to show for it. Zoom out and this transformation seems overwhelming. So you’ll probably just stay the course and ride this out until retirement sets you free.

Zoom in and focus on just one thing you can do tomorrow to start working like a human. Take a walk in the middle of the day. Eat grapes instead of a bag of chips. Personalize your desk with a plant or drawing from your favorite 5 year old. Every little thing counts, but you can’t count unless you do something.

Okay, get moving!

 

Innovation is a natural result of being human

Our world is faced with a never-ending list of problems we’d all like solved. Some are massive public health and environmental issues that overwhelm us with their complexity. Some are daily nuisances that require simple adjustments in order to put things right. Big or small, complex or simple, when someone makes an improvement to a process, practice, tool or service, he/she is being innovative. Innovation is a natural result of being human. We humans are well-designed to solve problems and adapt to changes in our environment by actively “messing” with the resources we have on hand to improve our condition.

Caught in the rain (Darrell Wong/Fresno Bee)

Watch anyone adjust to an unexpected weather “situation” and you will see what I mean about innovation being core to human nature. People make hats and coats out of plastic bags or newspapers, wrap odd things around them to keep warm, and are suddenly willing to lose major style points when caught unprepared. One time my daughter came home from school and was locked out of the house. The day had been warm and sunny, so she had no coat, just a t-shirt and shorts. As the sun went down and it got colder, she got pretty uncomfortable. By the time I pulled into the driveway after work, she was huddled in a beach towel she had scrounged from the clothesline, and had buried herself under the cushions of our patio furniture. That’s making the most of the resources around you to improve your situation!

Another kid might have been curious about “alternative home entry methods” and found that the second floor porch door was unlocked. But in order to implement that strategy, she would have to be confident in her climbing abilities and weigh the discomfort of being cold against the risk of falling and getting seriously hurt. Given the low threat of hypothermia (her condition was uncomfortable, but not life threatening) I think she made a wise choice with the cushions and towel approach.

Innovation is not about making wild bets on the future or being a whacky creative who dreams fanciful ideas. It’s a careful assessment of where you are versus where you want to be, followed by a series of actions to close that gap. It doesn’t hurt to inject fanciful imagination (I’m sure my daughter was dreaming about a big warm fire or a fluffy comforter wrapped around her), because in those dreams we find the seeds of ideas we can actually implement.  Check out my previous post for a definition of these core skills.

Children are a great source of insight on our natural propensity for innovation. With less concern for negative social consequences, they are built to imagine and explore, and they do it all the time. My son plays with LEGOs on a near constant basis, and it’s amazing to watch his deep level of engagement as he sorts through hundreds of tiny plastic pieces to find just the right one for his latest project.

He’s built many LEGO models by following the prescribed approach in the instructions (he calls the booklets “maps”). His experience with those pre-built models has given him many core components to build on as he invents new structures. He knows how wheels go together, where a driver might sit, how to build a wing from scratch, and how to make a tower that won’t fall down. Mixing and matching these underlying components is a great way to jump-start a new idea or accidentally discover that there are more ways to build a spaceship than the “maps” tell you.

The keys in his natural innovativeness are his willingness to explore and his quick adjustment and continued effort when things don’t work out as imagined. When a structure is not built to handle real play, the feedback is immediate… it falls apart! His natural desire to play out-weighs his frustration with poor construction, so he keeps going.  But there are many times when he gets stuck, and in those moments the “magic” ingredient of innovation comes into play.  Humans are social, and we have a natural desire to help each other, so it’s not surprising that he asks for help almost immediately when he is stuck or frustrated.

The magic ingredient of innovation: asking for help

Sharing your problem with someone else when you are “stuck” brings new ideas and a renewed sense of excitement about what “could be”. When my son can’t figure out how to connect two awkward structures he asks his older sister (or basically anyone who’s within his vocal range) for help. At this moment he is ripe for coaching (motivated to complete his vision, frustrated by his own abilities to pull it off). I call “asking for help” the magic ingredient of innovation because it contradicts the dominant belief that invention (and subsequently innovation) result from a “lone genius” focusing on a problem nobody can solve. Surely, intense focus is a necessary component of complex problem solving, but it is rare that the answer comes from an isolated person devoid of input, discussion, or coaching.

The really big problems in our world require us to work together, applying our different perspectives, styles and modes of thinking to overcome their complexity.

Innovation is a competitive capability

Companies are forever talking about how they need a culture of innovation, or that innovation is a global initiative for the next important phase of the business, or that innovation will be the engine to drive the company to new levels, etc. I’m sure you’ve seen the word innovation thousands of times in business media in only the past month.

Innovation is nurturing growth

But, really, what is innovation? It seems to be an exciting concept with a lot of fuzzy edges and an elusive magical aura. Few companies could say they have a handle on innovation as a capability they manage like other aspects of their business.  Those that do are amazing and powerful (check out this growth chart for Apple). Innovation makes an organization competitive because it is measured by growth in new products and services or growth in new users (or both).

More often than not, the World’s Most Innovative Companies are a flash in the pan (Groupon?), or have a short tenure at the top of the list and then gradually fade into normalcy. This makes innovation seem even more mysterious and slippery… something to admire, but too vague to manage.  Something based on size or timing, not a sustained advantage directed at a market.

So how can organizations get this capability and why is it so elusive? Let’s start with the elusiveness first. Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management, explains that many businesses have a hard time with innovation because it requires a different mindset than the way most business people approach problems. In his book, The Design of Business, he identifies three types of logic necessary for effective problem solving: deductive, inductive, and abductive. 

The problem is, most of our schools and businesses teach and practice only inductive and deductive reasoning (abductive isn’t even in my spell checker). Frankly, most of us don’t chat about formal logic over coffee and donuts, so you can see why this makes innovation slippery. The less formal version of this logic is often called design thinking and was pioneered by IDEO. But that term is awkward because design is associated with fashion, graphics and art, while innovation is more about doing than thinking. So, I just call it the capability of innovation.  I don’t disagree with Bruce Nussbaum’s focus on creativity, but that still feels incomplete to me.

The capability of innovation is a compound set of three skills that enable you to solve problems for your customers: rigorous observation, creative wonderment, and risk management. Whoa. Did you say wonderment? Yes, yes I did. (see Phineus and Ferb) Innovation is about coping with ambiguity and uncertainty while constantly moving forward to discover new opportunities. Since most business people haven’t developed these skills in their formal training, not knowing the best path forward makes them uncomfortable. So they stick with what they know, which keeps them locked in the present.

Three core skills of innovation

1. Rigorous observation. This is about being obsessed with your customers in action. This obsession involves asking questions, taking photos, and simply watching what they do (and don’t do) when interacting with a product or service. Ironically, many product managers defend their product deficiencies by saying customers didn’t behave as they should (at least they notice the gap!).

2. Imaginative wonderment. Instead of defending them with deductive reasoning, an innovative product manager would ask, “I wonder why that happened?” This is a moment of truth where innovation will live or die. If the leader shifts reasoning modes and becomes curious, the next step is to explore what could be happening instead of defending what is happening. This is not magical or fluffy, it’s a rational leap based on an observed pattern.

The exploration process that underpins imaginative wonderment is essentially the scientific method. It is the rapid iteration of possibilities that are tested against audacious goals (Like Thomas Edison and the light bulb). An emerging solution to a customer problem is driven by simple questions like, “Why not?” but is also constrained by feasibility (can it be built?) and viability (does it make business sense?). This exploration is both serious and fun. Systematic testing and elimination of ideas and options requires discipline, tenacity, and rigor. Generating an endless array of possibilities to test is playful, energizing, and empowering.

3. Risk Management. Overcoming the challenge of risk in innovation starts with a better understanding of the difference between innovation and invention. The dominant (but false) understanding that innovation comes from a blinding flash of insight, or from a lone genius that sees the world from a different angle, makes innovation seem untenable. How is a company supposed to plan for genius to occur? What’s the timeline? No wonder it’s not supported.

Innovation is not driven by breakthroughs in technology… it’s the opposite. Innovation is driven by commitment to satisfying customer’s needs and keen observations about what is and what is not working. These observations push the limits of technology and force the breakthroughs. Innovation in practice couldn’t be farther from being a lone inventor in a lab. Innovation is a collaborative, hands-on experience, taking place on the front lines with customers.

So the way to manage risk in innovation is first to stay very close to your customers, second to create a portfolio of innovation projects designed to solve their problems, and third to move very quickly to determine what doesn’t work so you don’t waste time and resources on unacceptable solutions.

Not every idea will evolve into an innovative solution (either attracts new customers or more engagement from current customers). An effective innovation portfolio should work much like an effective stock portfolio. There should be a mixture of incremental improvement ideas, evolutionary ideas, and revolutionary ideas. Investing in a balanced portfolio of several ideas mitigates the risk across all of them instead of placing “all of your eggs in one basket.”

Innovation is not whimsical, magical, or fluffy. It’s not accidental or even unpredictable. The problem with innovation for some companies could be that it’s more about nurturing than managing, a human-centered style not often associated with the titans of business.

 

Be well. Work better.

When I think of wellness, I get images of Richard Simmons and Japanese workers in matching sweats during corporate exercise programs. Too bad. Unfortunately, wellness wound up marginalized as a silly fad in its first big corporate movement during the 70’s and hasn’t really recovered.

Not an inspiring image of wellness for most people!

Sure, there are lots of companies touting the value of perks in today’s world (my favorite is BetterWorks). But most people still shy away from the term wellness.   Well I think it’s the best word to define this successful human condition, so as Bono says, “I’m stealing it back.”

Physical health is only part of the equation

One of the big problems with wellness is that it’s so closely associated with physical health. But true wellness is a multidimensional issue involving your whole self, not just your body.  This is of course, not MY idea, but I’m focusing on it here because it’s such a misapplied aspect of being human by so many of us, and it’s so critical to sustainable high performance.

Abraham Maslow was on the right track with his Hierarchy of Needs, showing us that some needs are more fundamental than others, and that humans are motivated to get beyond the basics and become creators of good things in the world.  And it’s likely that people have explored the holy trinity of mind, body, and spirit from the beginning of time, but even that extension beyond “body” is incomplete.

Somehow in modern America we commonly reduce wellness to physical health, and make that a personal responsibility to take care of in isolation of work and family.  You go to a doctor when you are “sick” and he/she tells you what you should do to fix your body to regain health.  I don’t think many doctors prescribe social remedies, but the now famous Framingham Heart Study, effectively shows that health is highly dependent on social interactions.

A complete model of wellness

Based on discussions with thousands of people via research at IDEO and the YMCA, I’ve developed a simple way to evaluate wellness in a holistic way.  The model was developed from patterns that emerged when people were asked, “What makes you feel well?” Their responses were captured, and then categorized into these dimensions of wellness.  For another complete view of well being check out the Gallup model.

User defined dimensions of wellness

  • Wellness is individually defined (there is no prescribed “best state” for everyone).
  • Wellness has rhythm (sometimes you feel more well than others).
  • Wellness is about balancing choices (not applying a routine or formula).
  • Wellness is about control (for some it’s “in” and others it’s “out”).

A first principle of human centered organizations

From a business standpoint, employees with low levels of well being are far more expensive than those with high levels of well being.  But this “loss of work” cost based approach doesn’t even consider the “opportunity costs” of not being on top of your game on a regular basis.

Gary Hamel is leading the world to reconsider their fundamental models for organizing and leading people with his Business 2.0 Challenge.  He suggests that this process starts with rethinking principles, and I fully agree.  Furthermore, I’m suggesting that a fundamental principle of business success is individual well being, and it is a primary element of successful leadership to be well and to lead others to wellness.

So my call to action here is that businesses need to rethink their fundamental relationships with the people who work there.  If a holistic model of wellness is critical to high performance, then issues that are often considered “private” or “personal” in our traditional models of management become essential in employment relationships.  Much of this will be discounted as “coddling” employees with yet more benefits and perks, but in today’s world of business where creative thinking and critical problem solving are often the source of competitive advantage, I’ll bet on wellness as a strategy.

Focus your feedback

There’s one thing I’ve found that separates good feedback from bad.  Really!  Just one: more focused questions generate higher quality responses. Usually you get dead air and blank stares when you ask a generic question like, “Does anyone have any feedback for me?” The typical response, “Uh, fine… uh, really great… yeah, good job!”

Typical response to a generic request for feedback. From: photo.net/photos/zbbrox

It’s a lot of work to give someone good feedback, and most people simply aren’t prepared when you spring it on them like that. Remember, the burden of gathering feedback falls on you, not the provider. So make it easier for others to help you out by asking more focused questions. After you ask a focused question, behave like a curious four-year-old and ask, “Why, why, why, why?” to get underneath surface level generalities to real opinions that help you grow.

Of course if you really don’t want to know how you can grow, and are just asking so you can say you did, you need to return to GO (do not collect your $200) and start over with why it’s important to get feedback in the first place.  See more on that in my post Get Some Grit. Don’t waste your time (or other people’s energy) by asking generic, open ended questions. They don’t work.  For more on why, see my post Ambiguity kills feedback.

Here are some tips for getting focused feedback:

Focused questions generate more complex (valuable) answers

1. Use good manners:
Be curious, persistent, patient, and grateful.  Feedback is a gift, but you have to wrap it yourself.  When you ask one question, follow it up with a deeper, probing question to help the person in his/her thinking.  Something like: “Thanks for that. Do you think if I try that next time I’ll get better results?”  Followed by, “Okay, sounds good.  Has that worked for you?”

2. Focus on priority and purpose:
Ask high level questions that help you determine if you are working on the right things.  For example: “If I do these three things well, do you think I’ll be successful?  Or: “Which of these five things would you do first?”

3. Seek advice before you act:
Sometimes it’s easier to give an opinion before an action has occurred because there’s no implication of judgment. Use questions like, “How would you approach this project?” After you gather advice from several perspectives, review for patterns of agreement and disagreement. Follow up with another round of questions to get advice on the patterns you’ve found.  “I have two opposing ideas on how to approach this.  Which one do you like better?”

4. Invite critique on approach and impact:
Cue feedback by asking for direct opinions that leave no room for one word replies. Bad: Do you like this? Better: How could this presentation be more clear? Best: On slide three, how could I present this concept better?  For critique on the value of your efforts, ask about your impact on the person, team, or organization.  Questions like: “Was my contribution what you expected?”  “How could I have helped our team accomplish more?”  Or, “What could I have done to increase our results by 10%”

5. Cross-pollinate good ideas: Share what someone else has told you to jump-start their thinking and generate discussion.  “I was talking with Dave about this and he said…”  This helps the person you ask learn something about another colleague too.

Final thought: even when you ask a very precise opening question, you are still likely to get a simple answer.  Successful learners ask several polite follow up questions to help those around them warm up to their situation and be more helpful.  Don’t be satisfied with someone’s first answer.

 

Familiarity breeds innovation

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but familiarity breeds innovation (See my recent post for the difference).  I was fortunate to have that thought quoted in a recent Fast Company interview about inspiring innovation with radical trust, but I think it deserves even more detailed attention.

I’m not sure why this concept is so hard to grasp for business people. So I looked it up and found that the Latin root of familiarity is intimacy.  Ah ha!  After a quick search on that term, it’s clear that most people associate intimacy with sex.  Which made me think of the famous Annie Leibovitz photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.  She’s a living legend for pushing our comfort zones with her art.

John & Yoko Rolling Stone cover by Annie Leibovitz

So I think we should get back to the real definition of intimacy and get more comfortable with how it is so essential to innovation.  For the record:

Familiarity: close acquaintance or knowledge (Latin: familiāritās  intimacy.)

Here’s what I mean by familiarity:

1. Love your customer. Think about when you have a crush on someone. You can’t stop thinking about her and you want to know EVERYTHING about her. To innovate in business, you must obsess over your customer’s behavior and pay close attention to what they do (and don’t do) in their lives surrounding your product or service. If you don’t create intimacy with them, you end up playing “whack a mole” with your new ideas, missing most of the time because you are just guessing.

2. Engage in healthy debate: I like the word debate because it implies that you know both (all) sides of an issue and are fluent with them. Fluent enough to play with them versus trying to win over or kill the other ideas. This level of familiarity is critical to “higher order” breakthroughs because playful interaction with multiple perspectives leads to unexpected connections and the blending of ideas into new concepts.

3. Work with you best friends. Years ago the Gallup Organization found significance in the statement, “I have a best friend at work” in their research on employee engagement. Innovation powerhouse David Kelley is famous for starting IDEO as a place where he could work with his friends.  In the Fast Company article, Greg Ferenstein underscores this point by saying, “You don’t BS friends. And they don’t blow smoke and rainbows when you share with them your crazy ideas.”  Friendship is the embodiment of trust, and trust is foundational for innovation (which is loaded with risk).

For many people in the working world, the ideas of intimacy, playfulness and friendship are against their very conception of work.  But there is more than sufficient evidence linking these types of familiarity with high performance and creative production so things are starting to shift.

The potential for creative greatness in any person is there… but us humans are social beings and fulfilling our potential requires healthy, holistic, intimate relationships.

 

Is that innovation or invention?

While closely related, invention and innovation are distinct concepts. Invention is a technology driven breakthrough, bringing something new to the world, that acts like a doorway for innovation to occur. Innovation is an iterative process of improvement that either sustains or disrupts a consumer market.

Wright brothers first flight at Kittyhawk

A great example of this distinction is the invention of flight allowing for the innovation of air transport into a major industry.  The Wright brothers are largely credited with inventing the airplane, but what they really invented was a steering device, which allowed them to make the first “controlled, powered and sustained, heavier-than-air human flight.”

Among the early innovators of air transport were Donald Douglas, who created the DC-3, a robust aircraft capable of carrying things and people, and Henry Ford who was instrumental in the development of paved runways, passenger terminals, hangars, and radio navigation.  Without these innovations, airplanes were an interesting novelty, but they didn’t fulfill a real customer need (like traveling or shipping packages over long distances).

The Ford Trimotor is an example of innovation

Simply put: Invention is driven by technology and innovation is driven by consumer need.

Another example:

At Hulu we are focused on the consumer experience of video entertainment, and innovation is one of our primary goals as a business.  What drives our forward progress is an obsession over our customer’s needs, and a commitment to delivering better and better services to meet their demands.

Innovation in digital media requires deep expertise in software and communications technologies, and along the way Hulu has been awarded many patents for inventions that push the consumer experience to even higher levels.  But we didn’t invent most of the technology we use, or create most of the content viewed on the service; rather we are assembling existing components in new ways that are transforming the media business for users, advertisers, and  content owners.

Is that innovation or invention?

Many popular web-based services are breaking ground in the way people communicate, connect, and work with each other.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell if these things are novel inventions or early stages of innovation that will shift markets or generate new ones.

I wonder if Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are inventions or innovations.  They are all valued with great potential to disrupt and transform, but to me they appear more like inventions in their current forms.  They are very cool, novel ways to interact, but that is by definition, invention.  What consumer markets have they created or disrupted?

I think it’s going to be very exciting to walk through the doorways they have created and see what innovation on the other side will produce!

 

 

Goals are a natural part of work

You can’t score without a goal.  But, compared to other high performance environments (like sports), typical work environments don’t provide enough clarity or focus.  This ambiguity causes people to conserve effort and/or waste energy on the wrong things, leading to lower engagement and lower performance.

 

GOAL! (from wikimedia commons)

Psychologists have discovered much about how our brain handles goals.  One of the defining traits of the human species is our ability to choose what we will do and how we will do it… that is, to create goals.  Goals are central to grit, which leads to greater happiness, which in turn is a source of high performance.

Goals are simply a way to clarify expectations and keep track of agreements about your work, and can help answer these critical performance questions:

  • Am I doing the right work?
  • Is the work I’m doing good enough?

You should use goals to discuss the potential of your work and the progress you are making (or not) towards them.  In their best form, goals are not administrative or bureaucratic processes.  Rather, they are vehicles that help you carry work forward.  An individual or a leader may initiate a goal, but in either case, both people should be invited into the discussion.  In fact, goals can serve as a “boundary object” to engage several people with different perspectives as your advisors, creating the basis for a continual 360 degree dialog.

You can increase transparency and efficiency in your organization by sharing goals, and you might gather them together for a “roll-up” to create a big picture of how everyone is working together.  But keep them lightweight and flexible, as they are most useful in the form of a natural conversation about what you are doing and how you are doing it.

Don’t let goal processes and templates (like SMART goals) overcome the natural simplicity of goals.  They can be written on post-its, scribbled on a napkin, or entered into a web service like Rypple.  The key is that you think about and discuss what’s important in your work and capture it in a very simple statement that has meaning to you.

Key questions for generating goals:

  • What is needed by the business/client?
  • What am I prepared (ready and able) to do?
  • What will I need to accomplish this work properly?
  • Who is impacted by this work and what are their needs?
  • How will I know it is complete?

Goals make it easier to gather feedback:

Think of goals as a “prototype” of the future you can use to gather feedback.  You can ask three kinds of questions about a goal to help you deliver high quality work that others value:

1. Focus- use one or more goals to ask your boss, client, and colleagues if they think you are working on the right things.  Compare them to expectations set out for you by company level mission/vision statements and job level requirements like a job description.

2. Advice- use a goal to ask others for input on how they would approach the task.  When you do this before you act, you make it easier for others to give their full opinion about the “right way” to do something.

2. Critique- use a goal to ask others their opinion on your results.  It’s easier to get feedback if you show what you were hoping to accomplish (with a goal), as it allows people to focus their opinions on the gaps between your intent and the actual results.

For more on this topic see my post Set homerun goals.

 

Set homerun goals

This is not about setting big hairy audacious goals, which are great for inspiring groups over the long haul. This is about working with a natural efficiency in your brain when it comes to having too much to do and not knowing which things to get done.  In every day life, smaller goals are more useful as a way to keep you motivated and on track with the most important things.  A BHAG in this post would be to win the World Series, while an effective short-term goal would be to hit a lot of homeruns along the way.

Most of us have too many demands on our energy, time, and commitment.  This is great because when you are well networked you are more likely to accomplish more things.  But setting goals against every demand can be overwhelming.  You have important things to do at work, and more to do on the home front, and aspirations for your career and health, and of course you’d like to contribute to society, and well, you get the picture.

By the time you list a separate goal in each area, there’s no time to get everything done, and you end up doing nothing but react to things as they come your way.  There is a way out of this mess: Psychologists believe that we are more likely to accomplish a goal that satisfies several (if not all) key demands at one time.

For pure efficiency and survival, we are naturally attracted to activities that satisfy multiple goals.  That is, we’d rather do things that “kill two birds with one stone.”  So the best goals are ones that satisfy many needs.

Homerun king Babe Ruth

Now, let’s get back to the baseball analogy as a reminder to set better goals.  There’s nothing wrong with a base hit… it puts a runner on base and if you get additional hits, that runner could advance to score.  But it’s much more efficient to hit a long ball and get several bases in one hit, and best to knock it out of the park.  In one swing, you clear the bases and get multiple points.

Four types of goals:

  1. Do what needs to be done for the business/customer.
  2. Do something that helps me learn and grow.
  3. Do something that improves our way of doing work.
  4. Do something that’s good for your family, society or the planet.

Take the time to consciously build connections across the many demands you are trying to satisfy in your life.  When you do something at work (a single), look for ways to tie that work to your professional development (a double). Better yet, look for ways to improve the way you do that work while you’re doing it (a triple).

And best of all, be clear about how that work will be good for your family or make a positive difference in the world (a home run!).  When you explicitly attach all of those outcomes to your actions, your brain is more likely to keep it at the top of your consciousness and in the busy part of your thinking.

Which means you’re more likely to get it done.

For more on setting effective goals see my post Goals are a natural part of work.