blog if wishes were horses beggars would ride

If Wishes Were Horses

If wishes were horses, the old adage goes, then beggars would ride. The phrase, dating back to the 16th century, of course is a poetic way to say what we all know to be true: you can’t wish something into existence, you have to take action.

If long meetings were new clients…then bureaucrats would run the world.

If meaningless emails were completed projects…then laggards would run the show.

If waxing eloquent with business buzzwords were strategies…then windbags would lead the pack.

dilbert on buzzwords

 

Vision–that is the easy part. In fact, I have yet to meet a leader who doesn’t have a vision of the future.

However, I have also met a lot of leaders whose vision was more akin to “wishes” because they lacked the prescriptive actions needed to achieve that vision. Lots of energy  got channeled into long meetings talking about the vision (read: “wishing”) than taking action–to actually get something done. And, well admittedly, I have to say I too have been that leader at times.

That said, the roles I’ve had over the past 15 years have required that I (along with the team I am on or am leading) must produce results. As I look back, here are a few nuggets I have pocketed along the way–strategies, have you, that have helped to overcome the inertia of exclusively vision-focused discussions. Here they are:

Visualize the steps, not just the outcome.

It’s common knowledge among athletes today that one important discipline is visualization. While the Russians didn’t beat us to the moon, they did discover the power of visualization for athletes. Their Olympic success in the 70s was attributed in part to this new discipline. Some of the research is crazy on this—psychology studies show exponential performance gains when athletes add visualization to their regimen (here is one: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14998709).

But most people make the mistake of focusing exclusively on the picture of the outcome. Athletes more effectively visualize the steps that lead to the outcome. The way that I have implemented this is with the phrase, “Slow down to speed up.” When I slow down—even in the most urgent circumstances—and take time to think through and picture in my mind the steps, I am more effective because I take more of the right actions.

Guard my calendar.

A couple of books I’ve read this year have brought home to me again the importance of guarding my calendar. OK, let me say it more boldly: essentialism-bookbuilding a moat around the castle in which is housed my calendar (read: priorities). Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown and The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller have been good reminders and practical paths to clearing my calendar of all but the most important priorities.one thing thumb nail

Today, I have 2-4 hours blocked out most morning to dedicate to the essential activities of my most important work. There is one requirement for this time: I have to be taking action around my most important goals for the year, the month, the week, and/or the day. Which leads me to my last point…

Review my goals AND my action steps AND the names of the people I have met this year.

Most of us are familiar with the Harvard Business School study that identified the one characteristic 3% of the graduates had that resulted in 10X the earnings of the other 97%: they wrote down their goals with plans to accomplish them, and then reviewed them at least every year.

While I don’t have a Harvard MBA, ever since I read that study, I have been doing a version of that in my own life on the outside chance it works in other settings too (you don’t have to tell me to do the math!).

I also review the tactical action steps I’ve written down over the past weeks and month to make sure that, 1) I haven’t overlooked an action that I have committed to accomplish, and 2) I haven’t “lost sight of the forest for the trees”—which is having the right perspective.

Looking back over the immediate past gives me a perspective on the flow of work, direction of responsibilities, and most importantly, the right context for solving problems, finding creative opportunities, and managing my schedule.

The last thing I do in my portfolio notebook is to circle the names of all the new people I have met over the past few months. This helps me remember their names, reconnect with them if needed, and in general take care of the most important part of my life–relationships with people. While these new business relationships aren’t as important as my family, friends, and close colleagues, there are some people in this group that one day will become friends and close colleagues…if I am faithful to take care of the right relationships in my life.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out that there are very personal disciplines (read: grace) that undergird these business practices, like prayer and Bible reading, but I leave that discussion for another time.

What disciplines do you have that help you to make sure your strategic decision leads to action?

 

Strategy and Decision-Making: Reflection

Recently I spent a couple of days at our annual leadership team strategic planning retreat at a cabin on Lake Tahoe’s west shore.
This year the gray sky heavy with moisture, the wet snow falling on the cabin’s sky light window, and the icy wind chill all reminded me of the past 16 winters we’d just spent in Colorado—up until a year and a half ago when we moved back to Sacramento for me to join a great firm and, importantly, to be near family.

Lake Tahoe–what an idyllic setting to dream about the future.

So, this strategic planning session is my second time through with this talented and dedicated team, and just like last year, I know that these two days will shape the decisions we make over the next year.

While we don’t have all the details worked out, and likely there will be many pivots in the months ahead, this is the time when we commit. At the end of the day, the most important thing that comes out of a successful strategic planning process is the commitment of leaders:

  • First, we commit to an agreed-upon understanding of today (i.e. what happened this past year that has brought us to today), and
  • Second, we commit an agreed-upon picture of tomorrow (what does the future look like a year, 18 months, 3 years from today).

The strategy is how we are going to get there. At the core, strategy is about decision-making.

A strategic plan’s power is imbued by the commitment of each team member to the core approaches (strategies) regarding how the team will arrive at the destination.screenshot_508

One of the approaches I’ve had as a part of the proverbial “leadership toolbox” has been a decision making approach based upon double loop learning (Argyris and Schon, 1976).

In double loop learning a commitment is made to getting stakeholder(s’) input at every step of the process. Because we have (at times) a lot of leadership involvement in marketing tactics (a good thing as there is 20+ years of experience contributing to successful execution), it’s been important to try to structure the learning process in a way that captures all learning. Before I unpack that, a couple of explanations.

An illustration might be helpful here. If single loop learning is a thermostat set at 68 degrees, the question the thermostat asks to solve the problem is,”What is the room temperature?” Double loop learning, however, asks a different question–“Is 68 degrees the right temperature?” The first kind of learning solves the problem based upon a set of assumptions. The second kind of learning takes into consideration the assumptions themselves.

Which leads us to the heart of this approach: First, you need to recognize the difference between 1) the Espoused Theory and 2) the Theory in Use.

An example would help here (coming from one of my previous jobs): At a company where I used to work some 5+ years ago, we talked a lot about a new brand promise, and the importance of each employee’s contribution to the success of the company. The effect was brilliant for new employees especially, as they understood that they were part of “reinventing” this 20 year-old organization.

screenshot_509However, for a variety of reasons, over time the individual team member’s contribution became less and less important. Stifled growth put a tremendous strain on the company’s belief in the future, and an increasingly stressful work environment. This reality is what defined the implicitly stated “Theory in Use.” In the case of this company, it went something like this, “The fear of the company’s future (the company story) short-circuited the day-to-day employees’ experiences, leading to an organizational crisis.

Double loop learning adds an important step to the process of feedback, called “Reflection in Action,” or “Reframing,” and is built upon a very simple notion—that experience is the best teacher (told you it was simple).

A purposeful step back, with probing thoughtful questions, often exposes the mental maps we have, then affords us the opportunity to objectively evaluate them–how effective are these assumptions for making decisions that will help us reach our goals (what we want to accomplish) and will reinforce our core values (who we are).

OK, so some of you have connected the dots: Isn’ this just a fancy, business consultant-speak way of saying, “Look, we are going to approach strategy and execution with a brutal kind of honesty where WHAT is right is more important than WHO is right?” And, well yes, you would be right. This approach–double loop learning–takes a hard run at making sure there is deep learning.

Courageous learning where anyone in the room speaks up to offer a good idea.

Bold learning where past success doesn’t obfuscate the revolutionary ideas of tomorrow.

Passionate learning where all team members are invested in both the process and the outcome.

The key is to reflect on the action in ways that help us see the situation from a different and more effective or efficient point of view—whereyounggirloldwoman we experience paradigm shifts. It is similar to the psychology textbook examples like the young woman and the old woman (included here—you see both women, don’t you, in the same picture?).

Here are the kind of questions we are working through right now:

  • Our brand promise today for our company is, “We serve YOU.” This is a straightforward brand promise, but it prompts discussions about what is the heart of service, the role of humility, the nobleness of serving, and how often the person serving is getting as much or more from the action than the person being served.
  • The Reflection-in-Action/Reframing raises the next set of questions, Are we really serving our clients? If we aren’t serving them every time, why not? Are we serving each other, from the top of the organization down? And, we recognize there is a big idea here, if we give enough space for the process of building it out.

These questions flush out the Espoused Theory from the Theory in Use.

So, as we are building the strategies and tactics for next year’s plan, we are also working hard to make time for and valuing the outcome of Reflection-in-Action. While it requires courage throughout the organization and a dogged determination to align what we say with what we do, it also promises to integrate what we say with what we do, and that is the best objective of all, to integrate, which as the root word implies, at the heart is INTEGRITY. Now, there’s a strategy.

(For more information, see https://hbr.org/1977/09/double-loop-learning-in-organizations)