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Achieving Change and Progress

Chop the wood and carry the water: use small, daily actions to achieve big things

There’s a great Zen koan which goes:

Before enlightenment, chop the wood and carry the water;

After enlightenment, chop the wood and carry the water.

Like all those koans, this can be interpreted in a few different ways but I like it because of the importance of just doing the small, daily stuff. Even when working towards something as big as Enlightenment, the fire still needs to be kept going, the water still needs drawing. Even afterwards, we still need to cook, eat and drink.

I don’t think we always find it easy to adopt this mind-set. Perhaps it’s because popular culture emphasises the dramatic, heroic interventions, or the long-shot that finally pays off big-time.

Some changes, even good ones, do happen suddenly and with huge impact. But my belief is that even those are usually just the visible tipping points that result from an accumulation of force over time.

In reality, most change, progress and innovation is the result of small, daily actions that build and build. Daily actions that become habits, habits that become traits, traits that lead to paradigm shifts.

I’ve written elsewhere on this website about the importance of linking long-term goals to short-term activity. For example, see here: Planning, productivity and the cumulative S curve and here: Productivity, prioritisation and the rule of threes

The kind of daily, chopping the wood and carrying the water-type actions I’m looking at here are the most granular level of achieving your long-term objectives. We should ask ourselves:

“What’s the small thing I could do in the next five minutes that will at least keep the fires burning?
What small task can I choose every day to help water this year’s crop?”


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach. What’s your current equivalent of needing to chop the wood and carry the water?


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Go for it

Click the image above and then right-click it to download a copy.


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Motivation for Leaders

Why my favourite go-to motivational quote still has three fatal flaws; and what leaders should do about them

This quote from Theodore Roosevelt has long been a favourite of mine for helping to motivate myself and others:

Do what you can,

Where you are,

With what you have.

– You can click and then alt-click the image above to download a copy for yourself –

Anytime I’m stuck or feeling powerless, or can’t see the route through the forest for looking at all the trees, this quote gets me unstuck and into purposeful action.

But it still has three hidden weaknesses.

Leaders who want to use this kind of thing to help other people feel motivated need to be aware of these flaws and to take extra steps to combat them.

It’s really worth doing this, especially if you’re the kind of leader who:

  1. Naturally likes to be around empowered people and to help others to raise their game; or
  2. Occasionally finds yourself wondering why other people don’t take the initiative more, or don’t work as hard as you do.

Each of the flaws I’m talking about are right there in that first line:

“Do what you can

And this is why…

1) People aren’t always aware of just what they can do, both in terms of what they have ‘permission’ to do, and in terms of their own capabilities.

2) People don’t always believe that what they can do will actually lead to the outcome that’s needed. To take a really basic example, even though someone ‘can’ make 20 sales calls today, do they truly believe that those calls will lead to the extra business they’ve been asked to generate? If not, they won’t be motivated.

3) People don’t always know in advance if the outcome that their actions might lead to is actually an outcome that they really want. It’s not so much about them not wanting to achieve a specific outcome, but more that they just don’t really, consciously know if they do want it! I believe that this hidden flaw derails more attempts to motivate people than almost anything else.


So as well as using that brilliant quote from Teddy R, leaders who want to motivate people should also be doing these four things as well:

1a) Always give the permissions up front. This is basic delegation skills. If you’re asking or expecting someone to do something, what permissions do they have or need? What resources can they access? What approaches, methods or ways of doing it can they use or not use?

1b) Help people to assess and grow their own capabilities. Which means you really do need to encourage and show people how to learn and adapt.

2. Break the unconscious rule that people make for themselves about taking action and needing to get the correct result. Help them to be more like a scientist. Any action will lead to ‘a’ result. Get people to be curious about selecting from a range of possible actions. Have them observe the results like a scientist doing an experiment. What worked, what didn’t get the expected result, what would you try next time?

3. This is perhaps the most significant one for leaders to be doing. Encourage people to live in the future a little. This outcome that you want them to help achieve – what will that be like? What will it mean for them when it’s been achieved? How will it change or affect their day-to-day experience?

This important part of motivating people is the equivalent of getting them to try on some new clothes in the mirror before they know whether or not they want them.


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach What do you think of that Roosevelt quote? Does it help you motivate yourself and others? What also works for you?


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More on Outcome Focus

Is this the most powerful question you can ever ask?

One of the best things a leader or a coach can do for somebody is to ask them:

“What do you want to have happen?”

This simple outcome-focussed question can do so much:

  • It can raise someone’s head up and out of whatever problems they’re stuck in
  • It can focus effort and attention in a really personal and energising way
  • It can create unique moments of clarity and even stimulate big changes in direction.

You can use this when you want to address conditions in someone’s personal or professional life; when they’re working on a project and need to plan and progress it; and you can use it when you want to motivate and build on success, or even when things aren’t going well.


Sometimes you need to ask the same question, maybe in a slightly different way, several times in a row.

People can avoid answering it, they can be stuck in the problem, they can even be wedded to a possible solution (rather than being clear about what they actually want).

Keep asking until you get a clear outcome statement of some desired future state that doesn’t reference the problem itself or a solution. Then you know you’ve got to the heart of what they want.


And how about you?

Thinking about what you’re working on now, or about where you find yourself, what do you want to have happen?

And who around you needs you to ask them this kind of question? Who needs that clarity and powerful attention from you just now?


As usual, please leave me a comment if they’re still open below, or tweet me @NickRobCoach to let me know what you want to have happen or how you’re getting on at asking other people the same.


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The Supportive Boss

Leaders: 7 things your struggling employee needs to hear you say

What if you’ve got someone who works for you who is struggling? They’re maybe a little overwhelmed or out of their depth. Perhaps they’ve lost their mojo. Or they’re reacting badly and you know something is up, but not quite what it is. What is that person secretly waiting to hear from you, their leader?

Here’s seven options to start with:

“I’ve got your back. What support do you need from me?”

“I know you can come through this.”

“Your concerns are genuine and I hear them.
Can we look together at how to deal with them?”

“The reason we fall over is so we can learn to get back up.
What do you want to learn from this?”

“Here’s the bigger picture of why this is important now …”

“Stop struggling.
Take a break.
Come back to it later from this [different] angle.”

“I’ve struggled with lots of things in the past myself.
I reckon we all must do at times.
Who have you asked for help?”


I hope those help a little? Please add a comment below if they’re still open, or contact me here, or tweet me @NickRobCoach especially if you’d like to add something that a struggling employee needs to hear from their leader.


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Face the sun

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Creds to my friends at Inspired Lives for spotting this one – they never fail to help me choose to face the light x

Planning, Productivity and the Cumulative S-Curve

Time to focus on that small, regular progress which builds into really significant long-term achievement

I’m writing this in early September, just back from family holidays. It’s time to commit to and to get down on paper the priorities and achievements I want to focus on for the remainder of this calendar year. If you run your year quarterly:

  • Apr-Jun, Jul-Sep, Oct-Dec, Jan-Mar

then the start of the month before the next quarter starts is a great time to get this kind of planning done. (Which is why I’m doing planning for the Oct-Dec quarter at the beginning of September).

And, of course, any other periodic structure that works for you is just as good.


You might already know that people generally tend to under-estimate what they can achieve in the long-term, and over-estimate what they can achieve in the short-term.


One of the consequences of this tendency is that it’s really important to plan what you want to achieve in a cyclical way. To look at both long-term and short-term, and to link those together. Longer-term planning needs some ambition and vision. Shorter-term needs more realism. I’ve written before about how you might use the Rule of Threes to help with this.

Another way to think of it, is as a series of linked S-Curves.

Any project managers reading this will be familiar with the concept of the ‘S-Curve’: a graph showing how costs, labour hours, profitability or outputs in a project typically flow over time. Slower at the beginning, accelerating in the middle and slowing down again towards the end. There may even be downward slopes at the beginning and again at the end, as the rate of the input/output measure tends to drop at those points.

When it comes to how much you might achieve over time, your own S-Curve graph might look something like this:

If you can take the time each quarter to refresh this work and to intentionally plan the priorities and achievements that you want to focus on then, over time, you’ve got more chance of your overall achievements building into a kind of much bigger cumulative S-Curve. This is how small, regular progress builds into quite significant longer-term progress. I think it’s the accumulation of achievement in this way that’s behind our tendency to under-estimate just how much we can achieve in the longer-term.

If you were to make a graph of it, most project-managers (and technologists, who love this kind of stuff) will be familiar with the cumulative S-Curve graph, which looks something like this:

I often feel in this kind of planning process that the joy, spirit and motivation can all too easily get sucked out of the whole thing. Even if you’re somebody who does get excited about the planning part, it’s just as easy to lose heart when the weight of everything that needs doing becomes clear. Again, this is why it’s so important to approach this in a cyclical way. In the longer-term, a great deal can be achieved. In the shorter-term, we have to be realistic about what’s possible and find ways of motivating ourselves about it. I’ll leave you with some thoughts about stuff that does seem to help with that motivation part.

Whenever you do it, as you’re refreshing and planning the priorities and achievements you want to focus on, does it help you to also include things like these:

  • How do you want things to ‘feel’?
  • What’s exciting, attractive or rewarding about your priorities?
  • What needs to happen in order to stop the sky from falling in?
  • What does it look like? I mean, if we could jump in a time machine and travel forwards to when you’d achieved it, to the end of that S-Curve, what would we see, hear or feel in relation to each of your priority achievements?
  • How will you know when the end-point of an S-Curve has been reached?

Let me know how you get on please. What are your priorities? What timescales work for your regular planning and focussing?


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Overcoming Obstacles

There’s no obstacle that can’t be overcome – the second most important thing that any leader should believe

(click the image above and then right-click it to save or download your copy.)

If you’d like to feel more able to overcome obstacles, and have more confidence that you can tackle anything that life and work throws at you, try working through these easy questions in the order given:

What do you personally mean by “overcoming obstacles”?

What would you see, hear or feel that lets you know you are overcoming obstacles?

When you are overcoming obstacles, what is important to you?
(and write that answer down – I’m going to refer to it as X in the next few questions)

Then answer either both of or whichever of these questions make the most sense:

What enables someone to have X?  Or…
What is necessary for there to be X?

And then answer either both of or whichever of these questions make the most sense:

Why is X important?  Or…
What does X lead to or make possible?

Write down as much of your answers as you can and keep coming back to them to get a deeper feel for what’s important to you around overcoming obstacles.
If you can, explore these questions with other people too.

It’s a great group exercise too, so if you want to lead a session with your team, have them work through those questions in pairs.

Think back to previous times when you’ve overcome something difficult. How many of the factors I’ve asked about in the questions above were present at that time? What else have you learnt from previous experiences when you overcame obstacles? Also, what might you need to Unlearn?

There’s even more you can do to embed these beliefs and empower yourself, including some of the less transformational but more practical things like, what do I actually need to DO. Have an experiment yourself and go overcome stuff!


I said in the heading that this is only the second most important thing that any leader should believe. That’s because you can’t get anything worthwhile done without overcoming obstacles, BUT even a cast-iron belief in doing so only gets you so far. It’s like repaying a debt. Okay, you clear what’s owed, but having overcome that obstacle, now you’re just back at zero. At square one.

As well as believing they can overcome obstacles, great leaders also believe that they are doing something worthwhile, something that makes a difference. Having overcome obstacles, that belief in making a difference of some kind gets you beyond zero and into plus territory. And that’s where the cool stuff is.


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Thanks

How to lead like a boss in five minutes

I’m just back from a weekend’s volunteering, leading one of my favourite activities. It’s a really energising and rewarding thing to be involved with and there’s a lot to get organised. What makes it work are the other people who volunteer their time, effort and experience, at the weekends and elsewhere.

Therefore, what’s the most important thing to do when you’re back? (apart from sleep for nearly 10 hours!)

Easy – thank the other volunteers!

If you’ve only got five minutes and you want to make a real impact in your leadership why not try this. Think of somebody whose spirits would be lifted by a simple thank you, write a card, by hand, and post it.

Don’t do it just because it works as a leadership technique (it does); do it because people deserve it.

Do keep a stock of cards in your top drawer for when you’ve got those five minutes. Just about every brilliant leader I know does this.

Don’t be put off by the fact that for everything people do right, there’s often something you wish they’d done differently. There are other techniques for dealing with those things.

Do be authentic. If your style is naturally reticent, then a simple “thanks for doing that job” is fine.

Don’t worry that people you haven’t thanked this week will in some way be aggrieved (they won’t); but do be mindful that teams and groups are usually sensitive to ‘fairness’. They want to hear “thank you” and they also want poor performance dealt with – regardless of who that’s directed at.

Do take a moment to notice what impact it has on yourself as you search for things to say thank you about and for people to say thank you to. There’s research to suggest that gratitude improves physical and mental health, facilitates relationships, strengthens self-esteem and increases resilience!

 


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How far can you ask people to go?

How far can you ask people to go at work – balancing Ambition and Reality

I’m having an interesting experience of this at the moment, planning some expeditions for kids, the first of which goes out a week or so after I write this post.

I’d set “Watersinks Car Park” (see picture) as the finish point. In my memory, this was a lovely spot and I had enjoyed walking there. So I was quite surprised to discover, when I drove there last weekend for a final reconnoitre of our routes, that it is really quite some distance out of the way for cars!

The significant of this is that although it’d be fine, even a fun exploration, for the kids to hike there, for their parents coming to pick them-up by road, it might be tricky. There’s no mobile signal, it’s not on most satnavs and it’s a lot smaller than I remembered!

It made me think about the assumptions I was having to make about those parents’ capabilities. How good might they be at navigating by map and driving? How they might feel about driving for quite some distance, with a significant height gain (and down again) along narrow, single-track lanes, especially if the weather is bad or the car park gets full? How long might the other volunteers and I spend waiting there for people to collect their kids, with no mobile signal, no refreshments and no toilets!?

In the end, I decided to move the finishing point to somewhere (slightly) more practical. But that doesn’t come without a price. It’ll mean the kids (and potentially us adult volunteer leaders) having to trek for a couple of extra kilometres and add another 80/90 metres of ascending for them. I chatted it through with a couple of people who know their stuff, and they agreed this was better, but it’s still my decision, my responsibility. And I know that I’ll still get some people (parents and kids) moaning about or struggling with the revised finish point.

How do you decide how far you can ask people to go, in a work context?

Is your way anything like mine – which tends to be like this:

  • Start very ambitious and expect a lot of everybody involved
  • Reflect on it
  • Compromise a bit
  • Be prepared to deal with some complaints and give a hand to those who need it.

How do you know how much to compromise – and what kind of price is worth paying to get most people to the finish line, even if you don’t quite meet all of your initial ambitions?

I have some previous experience with some (although by no means all) of the parents involved. So I think my assessment of their capabilities and attitudes, on average, is probably about right. At work, do you have enough understanding of people’s capabilities and of their current state of mind, to be able to judge how much you can ask of them?

One of my first thoughts, when I realised where this car park was, was to take the parents out of the equation altogether and use a couple of mini-buses instead to transport the kids ourselves. And I might do that if we want to get further off of the beaten track next year. But, for now, the mini-bus solution didn’t quite sit right with me. It’d mean me and one or more of the other volunteers doing even more work. And it’d mean less responsibility for parents, who (mostly) really enjoy getting involved.

When you’re asking people to go some way for you at work, how do you balance those kind of involvement and workload issues?

I say, let’s be as ambitious as possible AND balance out as many other factors as we can.
Perhaps the only way to get this dreadfully wrong is to not think about it intentionally in the first place!

How about you?

 


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