Sweet Spot

Getting into the “Sweet Spot” – right on top of your game, in the moment and making a difference

I’ve been thinking again recently about what it takes to get into that “Sweet Spot” – the point where you’re feeling right on top of your game, totally in the moment and like you’re actually making a difference.

There’s lots of things involved in achieving this it seems and those who are really interested could do worse than read the book “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Although I actually found this to be an ultimately slightly frustrating book, because it concludes, more or less, that you can’t actually ‘achieve’ a flow-state, it’s something that just happens to you. And that isn’t really good enough for the control freak in me!

Seeing as I have a great laboratory in my coaching practice, and clients who are crazy and willing enough to play around with this stuff, I’ve been looking at two of the dimensions that I reckon might required to get into that Sweet Spot. Have a go with these yourself if you’re up for some experimenting, and let me know if it helps you find your own Sweet Spot.

The first dimension is our Comfort Level

It’s my experience that one of the best ways to regard this, is to think in terms of familiarity. That is, the extent to which you’ve been there and done that – or not.

 


Studies have shown that being too comfortable means we don’t build up or maintain the resilience required to handle life and work. I’m calling this the ‘nilstress’ position.

At the other end of the scale, is the ‘distress’ position, where we’re so far out of our comfort zones, that our challenges are not able to be resolved through coping or adaptation. This may lead to anxiety, withdrawal, and depressive behavior.

In the middle, is the point that psychologist Hans Selye labelled ‘Eustress‘ – ‘Good Stress’. This occurs when we’re slightly pushed out of our comfort zones, but are not overwhelmed by it. Our goals are familiar enough but still require us to stretch. This fosters challenge and motivation and is indicated by hope and active engagement. (But note that even good stress which carries on for too long, i.e. is ‘chronic’, can be damaging to people’s health).

The second dimension to consider in your experiments is Chunksize

Chunksize refers to the size of tasks or goals you’re working on. As much as anything, it’s about how you measure or perceive that you’re making progress.

Set your Chunksize too small, and it feels like you’re crawling along, never actually getting anywhere, and just forced to work on things that are Meaningless and don’t make a difference.

Set your Chunksize too big, and every task, goal or problem just becomes totally overwhelming. If you’re stuck at this end, it may be you’ve developed a nasty case of Meaningitis!

In the middle there is the point we want to get to. At this Meaningful point, our tasks and goals are broken down into a size where we can see that we’re making progress. And where we can predict with a reasonable amount of certainty how much time and effort it’ll take to achieve our next objective.

If you can manage to put all of this together, then it might just be that you’ve hit the Sweet Spot. You’ve got challenges that take you far enough out of your comfort zone to be slightly unfamiliar and that require you to stretch. And you’ve got a chunksize set just right, so that you can see and predict how you’re making meaningful progress.

I hope you get a chance to play around with these two dimensions. Please drop me a line to let me know what you find, even (or especially) if your experience is different to mine!


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Solve One Problem at a Time

How to deal with intractable problems and make powerful progress without having to kill an elephant

You’d have been proud of me last week, because just occasionally us coaches do actually take our own advice!

When the Film ‘The Martian’ came out at the end of 2015 I was very happy to start using it as a fictional example of how to deal with potential overwhelm, overcome seemingly intractable problems and make powerful progress towards our goals.

I don’t know about you, but the thing that people always used to say to me, when I was faced with projects, tasks, problems or goals that just seemed waaaay too big to handle, was this:

Question: How do you eat an elephant?

Answer: One bite at a time.

But instead of helping, this just used to make me feel guilty and sick. Who in their right mind would eat an elephant!?

I much preferred the engineer’s approach: break the problem down into components and solve one problem at a time, and so it was great to see this exemplified in that film.

Anyway, last week, having perhaps bitten-off more than I could chew (although at least it wasn’t elephant), I did take my own advice.

You know already I’m a big fan of being focused. I reckon that solving one problem at a time is a great partner to that approach. These days, when there are so many ways in which we can be interrupted or have our attention diverted to something else, it seems that breaking things down into manageable components and then dealing with each one in turn, is a really powerful way of forging ahead.

So that’s the place to start then, if you’re faced with overwhelming projects, tasks that seem intractable, are feeling lost in the frenetic race to balance too many demands, or have big goals to achieve:

  1. Break them down into components
  2. Solve one problem at a time

And if you’re still  finding it hard to solve anything at all – and this often happens because it seems like everything is connected to and dependent on everything else – then you need to go back and think smaller at step one.


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Time Management – Evolving

As your career and your leadership roles progress, how should your Time Management evolve to keep up?

I had a very interesting coaching session this afternoon, talking with one of my clients about his time management.

Time management isn’t one of those subjects that comes up so often in my coaching sessions these days, I think because I’m more often asked to work on the less tangible but more transformational issues that help people be the best possible version of themselves as a leader.

But I still feel it’s an important topic for people to look at.

I used to run a workshop called “Creating Time”, designed for professional people who wanted to make more of themselves and their efforts at work. My opening gambit was that it isn’t actually (yet!) possible to create time and that we must instead focus on those issues around attention-control, decision-making and task-management that are part of great time management.

Some of the discussion with my client this afternoon was around how his time management system might not have evolved as his work situation had changed. We found this a really useful area to explore. We reckoned that what happens as your career progresses and the organisation grows is that:

  • the complexity of the tasks you’re working on increases
  • the number of other people involved in the chain of getting individual activities done increases
  • as you become more of a leader and less of a doer, less of your activity is about tasks themselves and more is about your relationships with others
  • the timescales of the tasks themselves lengthens, as you’re likely to be leading on work such as organisational change projects or new product developments, and these need to be tracked over much longer periods
  • the number of people you answer to actually increases, as more and more stakeholders become affected by things you are responsible for.

All of this puts a great deal of demand on your time management skills and process – so they need to evolve to keep up. What worked for you as a junior manager might not be so useful as a senior leader.

These days, I’m a big believer that one person’s great Time Management System is another person’s admin nightmare. What works for me, might be really counter-productive for you.

I really like David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) approach and I’ve been using it since 2015. But, it has a really steep learning curve and requires at least a couple of dedicated days (if not more) to implement. It also needs constant attention and discipline. And, of course GTD is a task-management system, not a time-management one.  Great time-management also requires those additional aspects of attention-control and decision-making I mentioned earlier.

On the whole, I think people should experiment with their own systems and adapt them to suit  their own circumstances and preferences.

But that said, are there any principles or general rules of thumb which people should look at if they want to evolve or upgrade their own approach to Time Management? Here are a few things that might be useful to consider:

1. Do you feel in control?
If not, then you need to change part of your system so that you can clearly see where you need to take control.

2. Is your brain clear, rested and able to create solutions and face tough decisions?
There are two aspects to this, I reckon. First (and I think this is from David Allen’s book) your brain shouldn’t be your main tool for remembering stuff. It’s the best thing you’ve got for finding solutions and making decisions. Use some other system for remembering stuff.
Second, if part of your schedule doesn’t include time for you to be healthy, happy and whole, you’ll be operating at way below maximum potential – and who wants to function like that!?

3. Do you have one place, one reference point, that captures ALL of your to-do’s?
I know some systems don’t advocate this, but it’s one point I strongly recommend. Those of us who are responsible, can-do people, who want to make a difference and be at our best, should not be spending any of our attention or our ‘worry-quota’ on wondering if there’s something we’ve forgotten.

4. Do you consciously know what you’ve decided NOT to do?
This is kind of a follow-on point from 3. Having some certainty that you know everything that needs doing, can enable you to focus on what leaders should be focussing on – deciding what gets done and what doesn’t.

5. Does your system help you decide in what Sequence to do things?
For some people, sequence comes quite naturally. Actually, for about 40% of the working population, it’s one of the first things that comes to mind when deciding priorities. People who are natural sequencers need a system that allows them to work with this transparently, but which also takes into account importance – because of course the first thing that could be done isn’t necessarily the first thing that should be done.
People whose natural preference is not to work in sequence (and that’s also about 40% of the working population) need systems that give them a bit more flexibility, so that they don’t feel the time management system itself has ended-up railroading all their decisions. I personally feel that this is where a lot of time management falls down, forcing people to work in ways which run counter to their natural strengths.

6. Does your system support your oversight of other people’s activities?
I know leaders in very senior positions who have responsibility for up to 20 other people – who themselves are leading teams too. These are big spans of control. When I’ve been in similar situations, I’ve actually really enjoyed the buzz of it, of being at the service of those people, making sure that they can do what they need to do. And I think it’s a powerful way to make a difference. And, you soon find that you need some kind of system which helps you see progress on some important tasks, but which also helps you coach, guide and support those people. The rise of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) as a way of doing this is part of an organisational response to these issues that goes back over 20 years.
Bottom-line – choose a system which supports your style of leadership, in your circumstances.

7. Do you have a way for deciding what task is most deserving of your attention right now?
And does that way of prioritising actually get the results that you want – if not, how might you need to change it?

8. Do you have ways of controlling your attention?
This is absolutely essential if you want to get the most out of your problem-solving and higher-cognitive functions. The distractions caused by email and other forms of interruptions will steal your day out from under your nose if you let them. Please find structures and ways of doing things that don’t have you working on some kind of knee-jerk autopilot, pulled all over the place by less important interruptions.

 

I’m sure we just scratched the surface of how your time management systems need to evolve as your career progresses, and of the general principles that need to support great time management. Let me know what else is important for you?


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Leadership, Power and Empowerment

What leaders should really be doing if they want to empower people, and five coaching questions that help

Actually, I don’t really believe you can empower anybody else, I think they have to do it for themselves. If you’re lucky as a leader, there are times when you might just be able to create the conditions that make it possible for someone to empower themselves.

I love the quote in the picture above. For me, it says almost everything about how leaders should go about creating those conditions – give away your own power.

I reckon there are two crucial ways that leaders ought to be giving away their power, if they do want others to empower themselves:

  1. Give people “Agency” – that is, the ability to take action or exert power
  2. Give people “Choice of Attention” – that is, the freedom to decide where and how they direct their focus and efforts.

I’ve done plenty of leadership roles myself and I can tell you, when things really matter, when the outcome is an important one or when there are big things at risk, giving away power in those two ways can be absolutely terrifying!

It’s also the only way to absolutely get the best out of others, to stop feeling that you’re the only one who works at 100% and to grow beyond the limits of your own abilities.

If you’re a leader who would like to begin giving away more of your own power, so that you can get the absolute best from the people who work with you, have a ponder on these coaching questions:

  • Where could you give people more Agency and Choice of Attention straight away, without having to really worry too much about it?
  • What would be the benefits to you and your organisation, if the people around you started to be more self-empowered?
  • If you did give away some more of your power and it works, it gets the results you want, how would you feel about that?
  • What’s your greatest fear about giving away your power, about giving people more Agency and more Choice of Attention – what frightens you about that?
  • Thinking about the fears you identified in that previous question, what kind of new, additional or different kind of power do YOU need, so that those fears evaporate or turn out to be groundless?

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Leonardo da Vinci’s Top 7 Tips for (not) Goal-Setting

Why there’s a 50% chance that setting SMART goals won’t work for you; and what to do about it

As I write this, it’s mid-December and I expect some people are thinking about setting goals, objectives or even resolutions for next year.

What you may not know, is that all of the great advice about setting SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-targeted) is useless for about half of the population.

It used to be that psychologists would talk about Type A and Type B people.
(Google this if you’d like to know more about how it may not be that well regarded now. And how it actually came from research into heart disease that was funded by tobacco companies!)

But if we put that Type A and Type B research to one side, I think we can say that there are some people who are naturally organised, who like to plan ahead and who tend to think in step-by-step procedures. Doing goal-setting work with these people is almost too easy.

Then there’s the other half of the population, people who tend to think creatively, who like to dip in and out of many projects, and who love doing things their way, even if nobody else does it like that.

If you’re one of the second group, read on…

A couple of years ago there was a great exhibition here in Manchester of some of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches and scientific research. As well it being a great chance to see that work first-hand, the thing that stood out most for me was information about what a terrible completer-finisher Leonardo da Vinci actually was. I forget the total number, but in my notebook I copied down part of the curator’s words:

“Leonardo wrote copious notes and intended to publish several treatises, but, like many of his artistic projects, these were never finished”.

I got to thinking about Leonardo’s approach to productivity and how he might have approached setting some goals for the new year. So, in my best attempt to channel the inner Leonardo, here’s some goal-setting tips for the creative, multi-tasking, individualistic renaissance genius in all of us:

Tip 1: Forget setting SMART goals. Seriously, just forget it
Unless you know that this approach already works for you, or are feeling really, really happy and relieved at the thought of getting all organised and writing numbered lists, with deadlines etc, let it go. If you absolutely can’t let it go (perhaps because you work for a Type A person or have HR people in your company who feel more comfortable with boxes on forms), then I’m afraid you will need to game the system as best you can, but make sure you do the following stuff too, as this is where your strengths really are.

Tip 2: Think vague thoughts, set broad-brush outcomes not specific goals and take time to dream
Do you like to scribble in notebooks (you probably have more than one notebook on the go at once)? Do you think visually (you’ve probably already got into making vision-boards or scrapbooks of things you intend to try doing)? Maybe you’re a talker and like to think out loud? Whatever your method, make sure you set aside time for dreaming (call it “Visioning” if you’re at work, it sounds more official to Type A’s).

Tip 3: Have a Someday-Maybe list/notebook/file
It’s very important to have somewhere to ‘put’ all of your great ideas and stuff that you might work on someday. Not because it’s important that you don’t forget it. After all, ideas come relatively easy for you, like buses, there’ll be another one along in a minute. No, for you, having a Someday-Maybe file is an important way to stop your head exploding with the awesomeness of all your ideas and initiatives.

Tip 4: Do it your way
There really isn’t a right or a wrong way to set goals. They are only a means to an end, a way, for some people, to drive their performance towards something important. What’s important is that you find the way that helps you to achieve what you want to achieve at work.

Here’s one exercise I often use with clients who aren’t sure yet what their way is.
Think about a time at work when everything was going just right for you. When you felt alive and were getting the results you wanted. What was going on around you then? What conditions were important to you for for getting those results? What was in it for you – why was that outcome important to you?

Tip 5: Get used to juggling stuff
You’re probably at your best when you’re like one of those circus plate-spinning acts. You’ve got loads of plates spinning on loads of poles. Some will be teetering and need your input and some will be doing fine. And some will be lurking in a corner, forgotten. As you write your version of your ‘goals’, you will need to learn to recognise when you’re about to set one too many plates spinning.

Tip 6: Love to fail, but hate to quit
If you’re a subscriber to my newsletter, you might have already seen that I’m running a series of exclusive video blogs along this theme – that failure is a really important part of progress and is actually the antidote to quitting. I think it’s also an important part of goal-setting for non-linear people. You will need to try more things than you can achieve. You will need to go down some blind alleys. Like Leonardo da Vinci, you will probably have a pile of unfinished projects. When you’re writing down whatever your version of goals for next year might be, make sure they’re listed as things to “Try”, “Experiment with”, Fail at” or “Learn about”.

Tip 7: Take a look at Da Vinci’s own to-do list
Reproduced in a great article here: Leonardo’s to-do list

Note how much of it is listed as “discover…” or “find…”


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Self-Awareness (2a)

How do you make people feel? The importance of Intention in our interactions and four key hints for leaders who want better Impact.

As a leader, manager, colleague or supplier to other people, the personal impact that you have on others is perhaps the single biggest determinant of the quality of your relationship with them. And it’s that relationship which will make or break the success of what you’re trying to achieve.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Maya Angelou

If you click the diagram at the top of this article you can download or save a copy. You’ll see that there’s two important aspects to the Impact that we have on other people:

  1. Intention. This is about what we’re trying to achieve when we have an interaction with someone else;
  2. Result. What outcome did we actually get (which might be different from our intention).

For great self-awareness, we need to be conscious of both of these aspects of our impact on others. This article is going to look at 1. Intention, and I’ll cover 2. Result in a later article here.

I like to break it down into those two steps because we’re often operating on a kind of autopilot when it comes to our interactions with others. But the issue here is that you can’t not have an impact on another person. They WILL notice how you made them feel, even if it was that you made them feel nothing.

If your relationship is a purely transactional one, no emotional content, no ongoing interactions likely, no need to trade favours or if they’ve no choice about helping you, then I suppose you could safely skip all of this stage. But how many purely transactional relationships can you actually think of? For most of us, and I would argue most of the time, the personal impact that we have on someone, even when we’re just asking for a task to be done, is hugely important to getting those things done well.

So be very clear about what your intention is before you start an interaction, or before you respond to one.

Sometimes leaders need a bit of a framework for their personal interactions. Below you’ll find my simplified cheat-sheet for the kind of impacts that leaders should be looking to create whenever they have an interaction with someone.

To boost your own self-awareness of the impact you have on others, start being really conscious about the intentions behind your interactions. The key question to answer is this:

“As I interact with [person], as well as the ‘transactional’ reason for doing so, what kind of impact do I want to have on them?”

I would argue that any leader should be intending to have one of these four impacts in each of their interactions with others:

  1. to have them experience clarity and direction
  2. to have them be inspired
  3. to have them feel nurtured, cared-for or looked-after
  4. to have them be empowered and be growing.

How about you, what impact do you intentionally want to have in your next interaction?


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How to Like Yourself and be Honest about your Faults at Work

5 Steps to Effective Behaviour Change at Work – the Silver Dollar Technique

One of the (apparent) paradoxes I love about my work revolves around this little dichotomy:

1. People can’t change if they don’t like themselves;

BUT

2. People won’t change unless they’re honest about their faults.

People can’t change if they don’t like themselves. This first point is true because real change requires a positive mindset. It needs the ability to move towards something specific and attractive. If your mind is in a place where you’re constantly beating yourself up, or feeling at fault, or where you don’t like the underlying person that is really you, attempts to change just don’t work.  They get sabotaged, overtaken or drowned-out by a focus on what’s wrong.

But the second point is also true. People won’t change unless they’re honest about their faults. If my delusion that I don’t need to grow or change is so complete, where’s my motivation to change? If I can’t see myself as others see me, to understand the impact I have in the way that I do things, how do I know that a different approach might also be possible?

But seeing your faults is painful and raw. Knowing that your typical way of doing things is having a negative impact on others usually doesn’t make you feel like high-fiving yourself.

And this is the situation that about a third of my clients find themselves in when they arrive for their first coaching. They’ve come to me because their way of doing things at work is no longer getting results. Often, their behaviours are out of sync with other people, or even causing problems. If the situation has been allowed to continue for too long, this person may even have acquired a reputation for negative behaviour that precedes them; that is worse than their actual behaviour.

This is a tough situation to be in, and a hard one from which to to make effective changes.

So here’s one of my favourite techniques for resolving that dichotomy and making effective change in behaviour at work.
To learn to like yourself and all your traits, and to be honest about your faults.

I call it the Silver Dollar Approach to Behavioural Change, because (a) a Silver Dollar has two very distinct sides; and (b) I’ve got a Silver Dollar that I brought home from Las Vegas and am very fond of. This technique is so easy that you don’t even really need a Silver Dollar to make it work.

Step One – Identify a Quality

Identify a quality of yours, or a way that you tend to go about things, that you either like or don’t like (it doesn’t matter which). Let’s use a real example of something that was given to a client as negative feedback:

“Well, I’ve been told that at team meetings I can be like a bull in a china shop”.

Step Two – Give that Quality a Neutral Label

Give that quality a neutral label, one that can describe how it is, without an overly negative or overly positive connotation. It may take some exploration and discussion to find the right label. The coach’s job here is to check for neutrality in the term; beyond that, the client should be allowed to call that quality whatever they want. The label can be one word, a couple of words or even a short phrase. Here’s what came up with our bull in a china shop example:

“I suppose you could call that being Direct“.

Step Three – You’ve Got a Silver Dollar

Imagine that quality was a Silver Dollar. So now we’ve got a Silver Dollar with the quality of being “Direct“.

Now, whether you tend to hang out in Las Vegas or not, you’ll know that a Silver Dollar is a valuable thing. If you’re a cowboy, you probably keep one in your boots to pay for your funeral. In my view, everybody should have several.

Joking apart, what I’m trying to say here, is that all human qualities have value – and they also have two sides.

Step Four – the Two Sides of that Silver Dollar

So the thing about this Silver Dollar is that its value depends on where you are and on what kind of situation you find yourself in.

We can use the two sides of the Silver Dollar to think about different types of situations:

Side 1 – can be about situations when this particular Silver Dollar is really, really useful.

Side 2 – can be about situations when this particular dollar is less useful, maybe even counter-productive.

To continue our example, here we have a Silver Dollar that is about being “Direct“. Now go ahead and explore that quality:

  • What are the kind of situations at work when being Direct is really useful?
  • What kind of impact can it have when you bring out your Direct silver dollar at the right time?Now flip your dollar over:
  • In what kind of situation is Direct less useful?
  • What’s it like for other people when the Direct silver dollar comes out at the wrong time?

Step Five – We all have many Silver Dollars

This is a key step in the process. What’s often happened for people who are struggling at work is that they’ve been relying on one of their strongest qualities too much. They’ve unconsciously seen that it worked for them in the past, now they use it in all situations regardless of whether it will work or not. They’re spending the same silver dollar over and over.

The coach’s job at this point is to explore a number of other qualities that this client also has. Look for qualities, ways of being, typical styles of doing things. And especially listen out for qualities of theirs that the client might not like.

For example: “I can sometimes doubt myself and I try hard not to show it”, can become the quality of “Intuition“. And being able to say in a meeting: “Actually, my intuition tells me there’s something we don’t quite understand here”, is a great partner to the quality of being “Direct“.

Keep going until you’ve identified number of qualities and have explored when they’re most useful and when they’re less useful.


The thing I love most about this technique is that you’re not so much asking someone to change, as actually helping them to bring out different aspects of who they really are, at times when that is useful for them. For me, this resolves the dichotomy I mentioned at the start, because you can both like all the qualities that represent your behaviours and be open to how they impact other people.


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You can’t plough a field by turning it over in your mind

New image update for you to download

There comes a time when too much more thinking is fruitless.
In order to prepare things for a new harvest, action is required. And this is often simple and basic.
And it can be done over, fixed or amended as needed.

What’s the next step you can take?

What’s the most immediate thing that you could do?

What’s right in front of you that needs your physical effort?

Click the image above and then right-click and select “Save as…”

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Decision-Making and Ketchup

Why nature wants your decision-making process to be fast and frugal and how this is a problem at work

Nature wants your decision-making process to be fast and frugal.

Fast, because the primary purpose of your life, from nature’s evolutionary point of view, is to survive long enough to successfully reproduce. And most choices that might have affected your caveman ancestor’s chances of survival required fast and decisive responses.

Frugal, because the brain accounts for about 20% of our body’s energy usage.
If you waste too much mental effort deciding whether to hunt for game, collect berries or set-out fishing nets, you’ll be needing to collect even more food to refuel your brain.

This can cause a great deal of difficulty when we are faced at work or in our personal lives with a wide range of possible choices.

Have you ever had trouble trying to decide what  to buy in a supermarket? Experiments have shown that when shoppers are presented with a large  amount of potential consumer choices (e.g. chocolates, jam flavors) people actually end up making fewer purchases, and are less satisfied.

There was an episode of the Simpsons where the family visited a new supermarket called”Monstromart”; slogan: “where shopping is a baffling ordeal”. Product choice was unlimited, shelving reached the ceiling, nutmeg came in 12lb boxes and the express checkout had a sign reading, “1,000 items or less”. In the end the Simpsons returned to Apu’s Kwok-E-Mart.

And of course, The Simpson’s is a great mirror for real life. At one point in the last few years, the UK supermarket chain Tesco used to offer 28 tomato ketchups!


In an attempt to cope with the large amount of information and potential choices that we are presented with on a daily basis, we tend to rely on so-called “heuristics” (rules of thumb or mental short-cuts) that help guide our decision-making. In essence, heuristics are decision-making tools that save effort by ignoring some information. They act to reduce and simplify the mental processing of cues and information from our environment.


You’ll have possibly been under the the effects of these heuristics in your own decision-making when you:

  • Picked the same thing that you chose last-time, without even really thinking about it
  • Chose the option that most embodies the kind of thing you wanted (e.g. Heinz for ketchup)
  • Chose the option that you were most recently made aware of, or for which you most recently received information.

We shouldn’t think of these heuristics as a ‘bad thing’ by themselves. Other researchers have argued that  such smart and adaptive heuristics have successfully guided our decision making in various uncertain environments over millions of years of human evolution. When pressured for time and faced with many competing options, “fast and frugal” decision making can potentially enhance the quality of our decisions.

Problems with this at work can arise when we’re not aware of this innate drive for fast and frugal decision-making.

Think back to the last management or board meeting you were in when you were faced with an important decision. Did you feel energised or tired by the process? What was your sense of time during the decision-making: fast, slow, rushed, dragging?

The chances are, that if you felt tired and that time dragged, then you were under nature’s influence to have your decisions be fast and frugal.

If the decision you were all making was complex and important enough to require the attention of the management team or board in the first place, it may be that those heuristic mental short-cuts are not the best way to approach things. The consequences of bad decisions can be severe. Research shows that in business the top five casualties of poor decision-making are customer loyalty, company reputation among customers, profits, company productivity and customer service. And in some working environments they can literally be the difference between life and death.

There are a great many decision-making techniques that can help overcome these shortfalls (some of which I’ve written about previously), but for now, I want to focus just on your awareness of this issue. Here are some of my most significant bits of learning about countering the downsides of these heuristics in decision-making at work:

1. Be aware of people’s innate drive to have their decision-making be ‘fast and frugal’. Is it right, given the decision that you have in front of you, to take a fast and frugal approach? Or is this something that demands a greater investment of time and resources?

2. Don’t be blinded by a dazzling array of seemingly different options. Often the differentiation between various choices is not as significant as it seems (Heinz’ reduced-salt ketchup is possibly pretty much the same as Tesco’s own brand…).
If necessary, categorise your choices so that you can more easily see where the real differences are.

3. Rather than trying to close or narrow the choices down too quickly, open them out first. This is something I learned from being around creative people, who tend to be much slower to close down their options. Although this means they tend to take longer to get things going, I think it can produce new solutions to previously intractable problems. So open it out first – we might be faced with a choice of 28 different kinds of ketchup, but is ketchup really what we need right now?

4. Look out for information about your options that isn’t readily available. Dig a bit. This is the power behind the increasing use of ‘big data’ mining. Even if you don’t have access to big data, try to overcome the ‘reduce and simplify’ tendency that nature would like you to use in her fast and frugal approach to dealing with information.

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Empowering Beliefs (part 2)

Why asking yourself ‘why’ never works – How the search for meaning steals your power

One of the great strengths of the way the human mind works is our ability to make meaning of the world around us. This happens all the time, mostly unconsciously and starts at a very young age.

You’ll have seen how young children never seem to stop asking questions that seek to understand the meaning behind things: Why is that tree green? What does that lady wear such a big hat for? Why aren’t there any more dinosaurs? You’ve probably got a few favourite examples you’ve heard yourself!

I think there’s a clear advantage to us as humans to be able to do this. As we were evolving as a species, being able to interpret and understand the world around us, to know what certain events and significant moments mean, would have been of great help. We see food that is an unusual colour and we know it probably means it’s unsafe to eat. We notice smoke and understand that it means fire is nearby. Loud and sustained shouting may mean that a violent confrontation is taking place. Three or four people heading-off in a different direction to us might mean that they know about a food source.


This pattern continues through our lives. We notice something important, or a significant event happens, and in order to make sense of it, we interpret or attach meaning to it.


And it’s also useful that this meaning-making process mostly occurs unconsciously. Imagine if you had to stop and think about everything all the time in order to understand its meaning. There wouldn’t actually be enough time left to do anything with the information! It’s important that our minds have these kind of shortcuts so that the meaning of everyday events and interactions with others isn’t something that we consciously need to analyse and interpret. Otherwise it could quickly become overwhelming to do so.

But problems can arise when the meanings that we give to significant events or moments become like rules or automatic shortcuts. When we start to believe that X always means Y. Or when we automatically interpret X as meaning Y, when a wider view of the situation or a more complete weighing of the evidence might suggest a different meaning.

In those cases, this ability to look for the meaning behind things can become a hindrance not a help. When we’re looking for the meaning behind an event or interaction and it’s not making sense or it doesn’t fit the usual pattern we’re expecting – to continue searching for it can be particularly disempowering.

Here’s some simplified examples of real-life meanings/interpretations that typically come up for my coaching clients at work:

  • My colleague never smiles at me; she doesn’t like me.
  • My team member was late for our appointment; he has no respect for my time.
  • The Board haven’t responded to my email; they can’t be interested in my idea.
  • I always feel out of place in our Executive meeting; I ‘m not the kind of person that belongs here.
  • I can’t seem to get everything done in the time available; I’m just not disciplined enough.

You can see that the pattern for this kind of thinking goes like this:

  • This thing happened; I interprete it to mean that…

This pattern becomes a problem, as I’ve said earlier, when we assume that “this” always means “that”; or when a wider view would suggest something else. AND – it becomes a really disempowering pattern when we put our focus on finding the meaning itself, but the meaning isn’t actually what’s important.


A great way to uncover whether or not you’ve got into a disempowering view of these events, is to check out if you’re asking yourself those kind of “Why” questions:

  • Why doesn’t she like me?
  • Why doesn’t he respect my time?
  • Why aren’t they interested in my idea?
  • Why can’t I be more assertive in the Executive meeting?
  • Why can’t I be more disciplined with my time?

These kind of “Why” questions are a potentially useful indicator that you’ve slipped into a disempowered mindset. In a way, it’s a kind of return to being like that little child, trying to make sense of the new and huge world around them. And wanting a grown-up to explain it all to them.

In those situations, we need to stop searching for the meaning we expected to find. We need to stop taking that automatic shortcut. Fortunately, there’s very easy way to do so. Here’s how.

For the reasons described above, us coaches very rarely ask “Why” questions of our clients. In fact, if your coach asks you a “Why” question, it’s quite likely that they think they’re spotted an unconscious meaning or interpretation of yours that is not helping you – and they’re trying to uncover it more fully.

Instead of trying to figure out the “why”, your coach will help to look beyond that automatic search.

Let’s take that first example from above. Instead of asking about: “Why doesn’t my colleague like me?”, your coach will help you shift your focus to something much more empowering – a bit like this:

Coach: What do you actually want in this situation?
Client: All I really want is a good enough relationship with her so I can do my job effectively.

Coach: What evidence would you need to see or hear to know that your working relationship was good enough?
Client: Mostly it would be that she answers my calls or gives me time when I need help with issues in her speciality.

Coach: If you didn’t have that straight away, how would you go about getting it?
Client: Actually, and this has worked in the past, I’d either book time ahead with her, or check if it was OK to go directly to one of her team members.

Coach: And how do you feel now about her not smiling at you?
Client: Well, I know that smiling and being seen to be friendly is important to me; so that’s what I’m going to do myself. I’ll never really know if she likes me or not, but that isn’t what’s important here.

This is a much more empowering and useful way of interacting with the world. So next time you find yourself focussing on the “Why”, try this sequence instead:

  1. What’s actually Important to you
  2. What tangible Evidence do you need so that you’ll know when you have that important thing
  3. What Strategy (the how) will you use to get what’s actually important to you.

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