Letting go, asking questions

Something I have always struggled with is letting go of a plan.  I love planning, and love implementing.  One of my favorite quotes is from Dwight Eisenhower: “Plans are nothing; planning is everything,” along with “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” from Helmuth von Moltke the Elder.  But having and following a plan has served me well, especially earlier in my career when the primary person who had to follow the plan was myself.

Now, with the larger scope of people I seek to engage, I have to practice taking input and adjusting.  Letting what needs to happen emerge and giving space for that.  It could be as simple as changing the focus of a meeting from what was planned to the topic that is hot and needs attention.  I am better at this kind of adjustment now than I used to be, but I would be deceiving myself if I said I was totally at ease with it.  I get attached to my plan, and to the goal I am driving toward. Anyone who knows me well could tell you this.  And as I said, this has served me well, and at the same time has not.  I am resilient and don’t give up easily – or some might say stubborn.  I tend to achieve my goals – but have at times moved with such determination toward them that I have missed other opportunities that emerged along the way, which I did not even see until they had already passed me by.

It is such a habit for me to drive toward something, I have to be quite intentional about practicing pausing and opening up to things I might not be aware of – in myself, in other people, and in the larger system at play.  It requires that I tune in to a different level, drop down into my heart and body from my head.   What I am doing to practice this in a very concrete way is to try and start every interaction I have with a question instead of a statement.  I did it for an entire day, and at first it felt a bit forced, but just doing that one thing completely shifted my experience of the day, toward feeling more open and having more discovery.  It definitely is not yet a habit, and may never be, but I am working on integrating this into my day to day way of being.

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Friendships at work can be tricky

Friendships at work can be tricky.  At least, they can be if the definition of friendship means you are not honest with each other.  Earlier this week I was chatting with someone who hired his friend to work for him as part of his small construction crew.  The friend/employee had a pattern of showing up late, leaving early, and complaining while on the job.  The boss was really honest, letting the employee/friend know that the behavior was unacceptable on the job.  The behavior did not change, so the boss gave the feedback again, and said that the friendship itself was at risk.

I admire his integrity.  A lot of people are not honest with friends, who are supposed to agree with you and be loyal.  But that is not my definition of friendship.  For me, true friendship requires the ability to be direct and honest, with respect and kindness.   I have developed many friendships in the workplace, and the ones that have lasted are the ones where there is true, honest communication.  Working together to achieve real success often requires working through some difficult challenges, and when the going gets tough that’s often when you find out if the work friendships are true friends.  When one person’s performance puts the success of a team at risk, it is the responsibility of a team mate to say so.  I have had this kind of experience significantly deepen my friendships at work and make them stronger.  I have also had it result in a complete breakdown in the relationship and anger directed my way, when my team mate believed that my role as a friend was to always agree and never give difficult feedback, to put the friendship over work performance.  That was really hard.  In this situation I reflected on my own behavior, wondering if I did something wrong, whether I did in fact violate some rule of friendship.  But I don’t think so.  Work and friendship can co-exist and even thrive, as long as honest feedback and dialogue is present.  If not direct dialogue does not exist, then both work performance and friendship suffer.

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Practice being ok with not knowing

question markI have been sitting with the question of knowing, and not knowing, and how sure I will ever be.  My conclusion is, not really sure, not ever.  But that does not stop me from wanting to know.  I think this is probably a universal human dilemma, but let me tell you a bit about how it is showing up for me these days.  I am in a new job, with new responsibilities.  Obviously any time someone takes a new job they take on new responsibilities.  This change for me is bigger than other job changes I have made, because I took a role that has little to do with my area of expertise in which I have been practicing and leading for many years.  It is an amazing opportunity, at this point in my career (relatively senior) to have a chance to change roles so significantly and have a completely new area of practice.   I am really enjoying it, and it is also true that every day I am doing something new that I have not done before – figuring out some new problem, thinking about some new process, or exploring some new part of my scope of responsibility.  Everything is new, even many of the people I am working with and how I need to work with them.

This entire adventure has put me in a constant state of not knowing.  I often don’t know what to do when I encounter something new, which happens daily.  And I really don’t know if what I am doing is right.  I find the first kind of not knowing actually kind of fun.  Every new thing presents an opportunity to learn, to dig in to root cause and think about what the real problem is, to experiment and try something new.  While there is a large body of domain expertise in front of me to understand, I believe that over time I will acquire knowledge and experience so that eventually not everything will feel so new.  The second kind of not knowing about whether what I am doing is right will be a constant, and actually always has been.  There is no way to know that what you do is right.  Not from external feedback, anyway.  That kind of certainty is an illusion.  One that I allowed myself more often when I was an expert leading in the area of my expertise.  When you have years of experience, it is easier to fall in to the trap of thinking that you are right, and harder to stay in beginner’s mind.  Now that I am leading in an area when I am not an expert, it is much easier to bring an attitude of not knowing what is right.  But it can still be uncomfortable.  At times I find myself yearning for the comfort, the security of certainty. It may be an illusion, but it is a comfortable one.

So, I am practicing being ok with not knowing.  Every day.  I hope to be able to maintain that attitude, even after I grow my expertise in my new field of practice.

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Blog re-boot

rebootI started this blog at the beginning of this year, with the intention of creating a channel to share my thoughts about systems, learning, change and feedback loops.  I found it totally engaging and easy to write once a week.  I had extra capacity at the time, was reading a lot, learning a lot, and the practice of writing helped me integrate what I was learning through reflection.  My organization underwent a significant change in the summer, and I also experienced a major shift in role.  Since then I have had much less capacity to read and learn outside of my day to day work, which is consuming a lot of my focused attention.  I have dropped the writing, and I miss it.   I want to re-boot my blog, intentionally letting go of my former expectation that I write about some external source.  Instead, I am going to use this forum as a weekly reflection on what I am learning from my direct experience in my work environment.  So it is likely to become more personal, and draw less on others’ work.  I thought I would start this new chapter by being clear about my intention, because I believe that will help create space for realizing that intention.

Before the summer, I was thinking a lot about system change and practicing it on a small scale.  Now I am fully engaged in leading system change on a much larger scale.  And by fully engaged, I mean with every part of me – head, heart and body.  It is interesting to be leading change from within, as a part of the system.  It creates a bit of a paradox for me – because I am in the system, and have a leadership role, I have a lot of leverage for creating change.  But because I am in the system, and have been part of it for some time, I find it hard sometimes to see what needs to change, what could change, how to generate movement, or even how it is actually working since I have internalized it.  I also have a deep respect for the current system.  So it is a bit of a paradox.  I understand now why people who want to create change from within find external partners to support them.  There is such huge value in getting a fresh perspective.  Ironically, the longer you work with an external partner, the more they become part of your system.  So your partners need to change too.

Just some of my reflections this week.

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Relationships as separate entities

I spent two days in a training on Organizational & Relationship Systems earlier this month, with CRR Global, an organization that offers a coaching and training curriculum with this perspective.  I signed up because I want to grow my skills at leadership in general and with change leadership in particular.  The training was very interesting, drawing on many disciplines and areas of research that I was already quite familiar with such as system dynamics and John Gottman’s work on intimate relationships.  One of the key concepts I came away with was the idea of the relationship itself as a separate entity from the people involved in the relationship, an idea common in couples counseling, but newly (for me) applied to relationships within organizations, including partnerships, teams and larger groups.  The training helped me understand how to work with a relationship system, to coach the system itself with all the people involved, rather than just work with the individuals who are part of the relationship.

I find this framework very powerful and have already applied it within my own organization.  The strength of the frame comes from a couple of key ideas:

  • The relationship system has inherent ability to self-regulate – I have certainly found this to be true. I have directly experienced stability in an organization even when individual people come and go.  Relationship systems can be self-perpetuating.  So if you want to lead change, it helps to pay attention to the next idea:
  • Relationship systems have inherent creativity and intelligence, and have the seeds of change already planted in them. The implication of this is that:
  • The work of a leader or coach is to help the system “see” itself, become aware of itself, rather than try to fix it or change it, and as a result the system will self-correct, and sometimes in unexpected and wonderful ways.

This approach to leading change really opened me up to all kinds of new possibilities.  I found it to be very energizing, for a number of reasons, among them:

  • It was so freeing to not have to know what the answer is – what needs to change. As a leader, it means you can set vision and then work with the relationship system to facilitate movement toward that vision, but not have to know all the steps along the way.  In fact, the system could surprise you in ways you could not even imagine.
  • I really appreciated the starting assumption that the people in the relationship system are inherently capable – it emphasizes that a leader can let go of a particular outcome and trust the people in the team or organization.

The skills a leader brings to bear with this approach are similar to those of Lean leadership such as inquiry and respect for people.  But there is also an appreciation for the emotions people bring in to the system (we are all human and our emotions follow us into the work place, it turns out!), as well as for physical experience, and how we can use body movement to tap in to a different source of intelligence than our head center where we spend so much time.

It was really fun to be able to go to a training and apply what I learned right away, with such positive outcomes. A very strong reinforcing feedback loop!

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Investing in your own growth

growthOver the past 3 months I have been working at my full capacity, stepping in to a new role that is really stretching and challenging me.  I am learning new things, developing new skills, and confronted with the edge of my comfort zone on a daily basis.  I love it, and I also come home really tired.  For a while I was telling myself the story that this was hard, with a negative frame – that the difficulty meant I was not doing a good enough job.  And then I had enough space to do some self-reflection through writing – one of the best ways for me of stepping back, going deeper, and really integrating what I am learning.  I realized that I had wanted to be challenged, so I got exactly what I wanted – and that it is uncomfortable to be challenged, and that is what is required to learn, stretch and grow.  I have written about this before; I just needed to remind myself.  Once I integrated that new perspective, my tiredness at the end of the day became an indicator of a job well done, rather than not done enough.  And my energy actually increased.

What has also been true is that it has been difficult to create space and energy to write – including this blog.  So the process that works best for me to reflect, learn and increase my capacity has taken a back seat as I give all my attention to the daily challenges I face in my new job.  I know I could support myself better by taking the time to write – even when my energy is low.   Even if it is only for a short time.  Such as right now.

What seems to be true is that it can be very difficult to balance the demands of a challenging, fully engaging occupation with self-care and support.  Not a new problem.  What I notice in this moment is that it helps to set low expectations and just do a little something.  As an investment in myself.

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Taking Kanban virtual!

A while ago I wrote about the costs of switching your focus across tasks and my intention to run an experiment of using a personal Kanban board to help limit my work in progress and bring greater focus to my days, in the service of getting more done, faster.   I am happy to report that the experiment was successful – using the Kanban board kept me grounded in the top priorities for the day, and focused on what I needed to do to move things forward.  It served really well to have the physical board be something I could walk around with – literally just sticky notes inside a file folder.  This allowed me to pull it out at any time to show others, add new things to the backlog, or move something to Done and pull the next thing into In Progress.    Teams have been using Kanban for years to great success, of course, so this is not news.  So when I had a big chunk of things that needed to get done which included four other people, I really wanted to use Kanban.  And then I ran up against the challenge – using a physical board makes it difficult to collaborate across a virtual team that is not co-located.  But all the technical solutions I had seen to date left a lot to be desired – they just could not replicate the simplicity of sticky notes and the satisfaction of literally moving a card from one column to the next.virtual kanban

Well, I am happy to report that has changed.  A colleague introduced me to Trello (website here, info about the company here), software that lets you have a virtual Kanban.  I have been using it for about 3 weeks, both for myself and with a virtual team.  It was as easy to set up as my physical board with sticky notes, and provides the real experience of moving cards through the process which I find very gratifying.  And because it is virtual, I can add links to other sites, documents, detailed tasks lists, change the color, categorize things, add due dates (which I will get notified about as the date approaches) – all kinds of things, but I can keep it as simple as I want.  I can also invite others to view my board – so I can give my boss full visibility into what I am working on.  The application is helping the virtual team get much better coordinated so that we can move forward together.

So I am a definite fan.  The only drawback is keeping the board fresh – which is true for physical boards as well.  They have to be visible and used, to be useful.  I have set up my web browser to automatically open my board along with my home page, so that it is always front and center for me.  And having a phone app helps too.  Here are some other things I have learned about how to optimize, based on my personal work style:

  • I don’t use Kanban for smaller action items – instead I use it for “projects,” something with a start and a finish, what I think of as a chunk of work, in the David Allen nomenclature.  I have been using Allen’s Getting Things Done approach for years, and find it incredibly effective for managing my action items which often arrive as an email.
  • My Kanban board and my Outlook task list are now my two primary productivity tools for creating flow – one at the “runway level” (task list) and one at the “10,000 foot level” (Kanban).  I could use one or the other instead of both, but I like the different features of each for what I am using them for, and having two does not feel burdensome.
  • As Allen would say, any system won’t work if you don’t use it  – it has to be part of how you get your work done, not something you have to maintain on the side.  To that end, both of these tools can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make them, and are very adaptable so that you can make them your own.

Here’s to flow, and focusing on whatever is the highest and best use of your time!

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Indirect feedback: better than no feedback?

I recently received some indirect feedback.  It was well-intentioned – meant to help me do my job better.  I welcomed it, because I think any feedback on performance and what could be better is better than nothing.  There is always something to learn, some way I could improve what I do.  Perhaps even more importantly, it also gives me information about the other person – as Tara Mohr says, feedback can often say more about the person giving it than the receiver.

At the same time, indirect feedback can reinforce an organizational culture of gossip, triangulation and an unhealthy system in which expectations are unclear.  I personally prefer direct feedback, and do my best to offer it respectfully.  When someone criticizes a third party who is not present, rather than speaking directly to them, it can often come out as edgy, even mean – not offered respectfully.  Taking that kind of criticism and passing it along to the subject could be seen as helping them out, but instead it can set up a “drama triangle,” a concept first articulated by Stephen Karpman in which the recipient could play a role of “victim” or “persecutor” depending on the situation, with the critic playing the alternate role, and the person passing the criticism along playing the role of the rescuer.   Indirectly addressing conflict in this way can be a method of releasing tension that may help participants feel better in the short run, but over the long run does not address any root cause, and results in chronic tension.  This can be very toxic in the work environment, severely hampering a team’s performance.

Once I became conscious of the idea of the drama triangle, I started to see them everywhere.  It is relatively easy to see those you are not directly involved in.  It is much harder to see the role you are playing yourself.  My first clue is usually hurt feelings, mine or others.  I have learned to pause and consider whether there is some drama triangle at play.  Stepping off the triangle is even more difficult, and something I am still practicing.  I find the most helpful thing for me is to draw on the work of Tara Mohr and Brené Brown about knowing my own truth (which is all I can ever know), do my own work to reflect and learn (usually through journaling), and then moving forward in the best way I can.  Often I find the most powerful move is to lean in to the relationship directly – to move through fear, risk being vulnerable and directly seeking feedback.  I also practice not passing on indirect criticism – instead I seek to redirect so that I don’t serve as a go-between.  Everyday there are so many opportunities to practice all of these behaviors.  It can feel challenging because it takes me out of my comfort zone.  I imagine it always will be a bit uncomfortable to directly engage with conflict, but I hope to practice enough so that I grow my capacity to do it in spite of the discomfort.

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Changing relationships, Lost connections

Circumstances change in our lives, and bring new relationships or end existing ones.  Sometimes a change in employment means that we don’t see the same people we used to see daily.  Sometimes the loss is more final – a death.   The recent death of a colleague of mine has brought into stark focus the value of my connections with the people in my life and the importance of investing in my network of relationships.

Due to recent events at work, there have been a large number of people in my life who I used to interact with daily and who I now no longer see on a regular basis.  This is not the first time this has happened, usually surrounding key events – I moved away from my family, I graduated from school, I left a job to take a new one, my marriage ended.  Something ends, often making way for something new.  Relationships built must change.  Some fade away, dependent on the situational context to exist.  Those that remain require investment of a different nature.  I have maintained connections with people from all aspects of my life – school mates, work colleagues, sisters, parents of children’s friends.  In order to do so, I need to be intentional.  Noticing when I think of someone, and taking action.  Reaching out (usually via email, sometime text or phone) to say hello.  It takes extra energy to pay attention, to not let the thought just go by but to attend to it, make the effort, invest in the relationship.  I used to feel drained by the energy required to maintain relationships beyond my immediate daily interactions, perhaps because I had small kids and they required so much of me.

But now my experience is different – whenever I connect with someone, I usually get as much back as I give, or more.  I visualize all the people I know as a true network, supported by the virtual network.   Some connections are stronger than others.  Strength is not always a factor of frequency or proximity – some of my strongest relationships are with people I rarely see, but we went through hard times together and developed deep intimacy.  We know each other so well, that when we do reconnect we pick up exactly where we left off.  I recently had dinner with my college roommate in town for a conference, and it was so lovely with lots of laughter.  So now I have an opportunity to recreate relationships with people who I value having in my life, former colleagues from work.

The colleague who died was someone who I served with on a volunteer board, and both our terms had ended.  I did not know her well, but we had been through a lot together over the past year as we supported the organization through some really challenging times.  We had planned on getting together with the entire board for dinner now that our official service was completed, to honor what we had accomplished and bring a sense of closure to our time together as a group.  Her death was sudden, abrupt, a real shock.  I think of all her connections, all the people for who she was an important relationship – wife, mother, friend – and I have a sense of the enormity of their loss.  I am reminded of how much I value all the people in my network, and how important it is that I tend to my connections so that they remain vital and don’t fade.

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Real time feedback and stand up paddle boarding

paddle boardersThis past weekend I went paddle boarding for the second time ever.  It was on a lake, with wind, and wakes from speed boats, and family members nearby on paddle boards and in kayaks.  And everyone says how easy it is to stand-up paddle.  That may be true – eventually – after you have learned how to pay attention to all the feedback coming in from eyes, hears, feet legs, hands.  What was true for me was that it took a while to get comfortable enough to actually stand up.  I am notoriously bad at staying balanced – physically, that is.  I do great on a bike, but pretty much stink at anything else on wheels or that slides on ice or snow.  So when I started on the paddle board, I stayed really low – as in, sitting on my feet.  I was not particularly scared of falling in the water, but it was not very warm out so the idea was not that appealing.  Mostly the experience of feeling unbalanced is disconcerting for me so I was happier low down.

Eventually, my legs got tired of that position, and I felt like I should at least give it a try.   The hardest part was getting up on my feet at the beginning – all wobbly and uncertain.  So much going on – all the small movements, all the different forces acting on me.  Just a slight overcorrection and I almost fell in.  Then a speed boat approached.  One of my paddling partners helpfully told me to point my board into the wake.  That seemed like a good idea, except that there were two wakes coming at me from different directions.  I had no idea what to do, so pretty much just stood there waiting and trying (and failing) to relax.  Fortunately, the wakes were quite small by the time they arrived at my board.

I eventually gained comfort on the board.  Never fully at ease, but able to relax enough to look around and take in some of the scenery.  And always very aware of all the micro adjustments I was making with my feet, legs and torso – constant response to real-time feedback.  My conscious brain could definitely not keep up with the speed needed to avoid the water.  So it was relegated to observer.  I imagine with more time, this could become pretty second nature to me, much as I am on a bike.  This experience has led me to consider the role that fear plays as a barrier, or accelerator, to learning.  It makes sense that a high amount of fear can really get in the way of learning – as it did for me with rollerblading.  A quick search of the internet showed ample references to scholarly articles and self-help sites on this topic.  I think being in a state of fear makes it very difficult to learn anything new, whether a new physical skill, mental skill or emotional skill.  But it also seems that just a little bit of fear could help learning – ratcheting up your focus, bringing more energy to whatever activity you are trying for the first time – more attention to the feedback you are received, whether from your body, your senses or other people.  The optimal learning zone probably falls somewhere between complacency and panic.  Noticing your fear level might help you recognize when you are in that learning zone, and use it as an indicator for whether you are pushing it too hard, or not enough.

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