Write It Down

 

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One of my three notebooks.

 

Fresh ideas are powerful currency. New thinking can lead to renewed energy to tackle gnarly issues. Flashes of insight can spur new actions and new results. When you want to make change happen, your ideas are the starting point.

And, for most of us, life is super-busy. It flies by like your view from a rushing train. Ideas appear, and in the blink of an eye, they can quickly zoom out of view again, lost to us, as we fly ever onwards down the track.

The good thing is that we have this amazing technology available to us to help us capture those ideas as they emerge before they rush past and visit some other passenger further down the line. And that technology is cheap and easy to use. It’s called pen and paper.

If you write an idea down, the more likely you are able to do something with it.

There’s actually a bit of a debate about whether writing stuff down helps or not. Some research asserts that it helps us remember the important stuff. and it contributes strongly to our wellbeing. On the other hand, reaching as far back as Plato’s day, there’s a line of argument saying that note taking makes us lazy. I reckon it’s the wrong debate. Like all good practices, it’s about your intention behind the doing. Let’s look at that a bit more.

To my mind, there are two basic types of ‘writing down’. Taking notes, and creating ideas.

Taking notes (of a conversation, a lecture, or making a shopping list) is good for ‘storage’ purposes. It’s akin to taking a photo of an interesting slide you see at a conference, or grabbing an online article and adding it to Evernote. You’re grabbing the content, but you’re not really thinking too hard about it. You simply do it so you can retrieve it later. It gives your brain a break from having to remember everything and helps you stay organised.

The other purpose of writing down is to serve a creative process. Isaac Asimov said, “writing is simply thinking through my fingers.” The act of picking up a pen with the intention of “thinking through my fingers” forces your brain to work harder. You have to think about what you want to say or create. In that creative process, you bring into being something new.

My blogs are my creative ideas written down. I’ve had to think about what I want to say, and how I want to say it. The process of writing creates both the form and the substance of something new.

Leonardo Da Vinci is generally regarded as the epitome of what it means to be curious, and I suspect that was enhanced by his propensity to ‘write it down’. He carried a notebook with him everywhere and wrote down anything that moved him. For example, here’s one of one of his to-do lists that would put most of us to shame.

Here are a couple of ways I apply these ideas:

Notebooks: I carry three notebooks around with me: one for taking notes of client conversations, one for my daily to-do lists, and one for capturing and developing my own occasional flashes of brilliance and insight. I also have one in my car’s centre console, so when I’m listening to podcasts, I can write down ideas that grab me (when I’m stopped at the lights of course!) I’m always writing in some form or another.

Insights and Actions Log: In my workshops, I have participants use an ‘insights and actions’ log to capture relevant ideas as they arise. It’s simply an A4 piece of paper with a line drawn down the middle. The left-hand column is called ‘Insights’, and that’s for the ideas. The right-hand column is called ‘Actions’ and that’s for writing down what they are going to do with the ideas. Because an idea is more useful if you act on it in some way.

Ideas are everywhere. The trick is to capture them so you can use them.

Sound like a good idea? Great. Write it down.

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Ask Four Questions

 

Do you want feedback about you when you’re at your best? Are you wondering how you can make a difference to others in the most authentic way? Then read on.

Getting honest feedback helps you to grow your self-awareness, and better understand what you are all about.

Ask the following four questions to you get a sense of what people see as the best, most authentic ‘you’. Choose people who know you well, and you trust to give you honest, constructive feedback. Try to get feedback from at least five people.

  1. What’s the first thing you think of when you think of me?
  2. When have you seen me at my best?
  3. What do you think are my greatest strengths?
  4. What do you think are my greatest accomplishments?

I ask these questions to trusted colleagues, clients and friends every couple of years. I find the answers I get incredibly useful to calibrate my own self-perception and help me to make the most of my strengths.

You’ll notice that there are no questions about weaknesses or things you should do to improve. That’s not the point of this exercise. This is about identifying the best, most authentic you.

It’s useful to ask people to reply in an email, and then you can cut-and-paste the replies into a table. This may help you easily identify the patterns and themes across the answers.

You can use this template to help you capture and make sense of the answers you get.

Go well!

 

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Lead With Questions

Last week, I was reminded of the awesome, and underutilised power of leading with questions.

Questions Leverage.001

A colleague and I spent two days together with a group of up-and-coming leaders. They’re an energised, talented group, hungry to learn and to make an impact on their organisation. A joy to work with.

As facilitators, my colleague and I had a bunch of ideas for what we could have done with them over those two days.We had a run plan. There were certain leadership topics we thought we’d cover with them, and we had the content and activities ready to go.

And, we chose to lead things off with some questions. Questions that we thought would stimulate thinking, connection, and insight. So in the morning session of the first day, we kicked off with this slide:

Workshop Framing QuestionsNow, we thought these might take us an hour to discuss. We spent over two. The conversation was rich, unhurried and thought-provoking. You could feel the engagement in the room. The organisation had been going through a tough few months, and we soon realised that the group had a strong need to make sense of what was going on. If we’d tried to rush it and stick to the run plan, I think we’d have lost the group. Anything we’d tried to teach or tell them would have washed over them. They weren’t ready to engage with new content just yet.

We followed that first slide with this one:

Workshop Framing Questions 2

 

These questions caused a shift in focus from ‘out there’ (environment) to ‘in here’ (self). There was a quieter, more reflective mood in the room, with the conversation unearthing what was most important for people to work on in their leadership. Leading up to lunch, the group were grounded, oriented to the future, and ready to do work together.

After lunch, we framed the rest of our time together with this slide:

Workshop Framing Questions 4

From that point, we were away. Everything we did came back to that question. We covered lots of territory, including leadership culture, leadership networks, deep listening, uncovering assumptions, and influence. My colleague and I taught some stuff, but mostly the leaders learned from each other. By the end of our time together, this diverse group had a) real ownership for leading a range of organisational issues, and b) developed deep connection and support across the group to make it happen. The catalyst was a handful of deliberate, thought-provoking questions.

So what’s this all about?

I’ve noticed that most leaders (and trainers, for that matter) generally still live in a world of ‘tell’. The need to have the answers, be the expert, show the way. Setting the agenda and driving through the “stuff”. That’s fine in some contexts, like when the answers are obvious, or you can rely on what worked in the past to work in the future. But of course, that’s increasingly unlikely when you’re expected to lead in a world where old blueprints need to be thrown out and new approaches invented. As I’ve written about before, we need a more curious approach.

In this context, there’s huge power in letting go of the need to tell, and instead shifting to asking questions. This requires a reframing of what it means to be a leader. A move away from being ego-centric. A move to towards other-centric (whether ‘other’ be another person, group or the system you’re in).

Here are some ideas about how you can lead with questions:

  1. Determine your intent. What is it that you want to occur during the conversation, and afterwards? I find it useful to break it down into “Think, Feel, Do”. What do you want people to think about? What do you want them to feel? What would you love to see them do?” Your answers to these questions will shape everything that follows.
  2. Frame your role. Imagine two roles: Teller and Asker. Given your intent, what percentage of your time do you think you need to spend in each? Hint: allow more time for asking than you’re comfortable with.
  3. Decide on the questions. These, of course, will depend on your intent. I find powerful questions have the following in common:
  • You can’t possibly know the answer beforehand (so you have to be the “naive inquirer”)
  • They’re not easy to answer
  • They raise awareness
  • The provide a focal point
  • They generate possibility
  • They generate responsibility and ownership
  • They tend to start with ‘What’, ‘How’ or ‘Why’

Notice how the examples above have some or all of these elements.

So, here’s a challenge for you: over the next week, pay attention to how often you choose to lead with questions versus “telling”. Perhaps get yourself a ‘spotter’ to give you feedback on how you’re doing. When you ask a question where in the past you’d probably jump to giving an answer, notice what happens as a result.

 

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Step into the Leadership Vacuum

I’ve been working with a senior leadership team of late that has, shall we say, quite a forceful executive at its head. Having been in the role just over 18 months, he’s been instrumental in reshaping the direction of the organisation and lifting its performance. Things are tracking well, morale is lifting across the board, and the future looks bright.

Leadership Vacuum 1 (1)

Until, of course, the shit hits the fan.

Recently, the team held an offsite meeting for a day to discuss critical issues and make decisions about their priorities over the coming months and years. It was all progressing smoothly until said executive took a phone call which saw him leave the room for 30 minutes.

What unfolded during that time was interesting. Can you guess what happened?

Leadership Vacuum 2 (1)

Yep. The group went into paralysis. No-one around the table wanted to progress the discussion without their leader in the room. The general sentiment was “we can’t do anything else until he’s back.” So, people went to their phones and checked emails, or had off-topic sideline discussions.

I pointed out what I was noticing in the room. I asked, “What could leadership look like when he’s not here?” The group struggled to provide a coherent answer. Then someone pointed out that their leader was going on three weeks’ leave in a month’s time. Hmm. Opportunity or threat?

I see this dynamic at play time and time again. Deep down, we all seek a leader to provide stability and make our decisions for us. To take the blame when things go wrong. To save us from having to expose ourselves to risk. Walt Whitman wrote his poem ‘O Captain My Captain!’ after the death of Abraham Lincoln, lamenting the loss of stability and direction that his president had provided him and the nation during deeply troubled times. When the single point of leadership is lost, we are all lost. A vacuum remains.

Too much of a good thing can make us lazy. We can forget that we too must play a part in the dynamic of making something successful or failing. We can hand over leadership responsibility to another, and we wait to be told what to do.

In a group, a leadership vacuum can represent an opportunity for someone else to step in. And, more powerfully, it’s an opportunity to reshape the group’s definition of leadership. What does individual leadership responsibility look like when we are together? How will we work collectively work to provide the leadership that’s needed? It’s not easy. It’s a more sophisticated way of operating that future-proofs the organisation from single points of failure.

It asks you, and your colleagues, to speak up and speak out. It asks you to reach out and inquire into others’ views. It asks you to invite potential messiness, confusion and disagreement where once there was polite silence and passive agreement. Don’t just move on to the next item. Go beyond the threshold. Get deep into the conversation. Make it rich, alive.

Here are some tips for making that happen:

Will this group go that way? That remains to be seen. I really hope so.

The more important questions are: where are you allowing a leadership vacuum to be?And what will you do about that?

Leadership Vacuum 3 (1)

 

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Photo: Pexels.com

 

Flat Mojo? Do A ‘Hell Yeah’ Audit

Got a flat mojo? Do a ‘Hell Yeah’  audit.

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Derek Sivers talks about getting to the point where you only say ‘Yes’ to stuff if it’s a ‘Hell Yeah!’ Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that some of the stuff I’ve been delivering hasn’t been feeling as much of a Hell Yeah as I’d like. So I decided to do a Hell Yeah audit.

I printed a list of my invoices over the last 6 months and rated each piece of work on a scale of 1-5, 1 being ‘crap’ to 5 being ‘Hell Yeah!’  75% was over 3, 50% was over 4, and 30% was a ‘Hell Yeah!’.

Maybe you don’t do invoices. But you probably have a way of tracking your time. Some sort of calendar perhaps. Or a diary, or a notebook. In whatever way works for you, I recommend checking how you’ve spent your time recently, and what activities are giving you the most energy.

Doing this exercise has helped me to take stock of what sort of work I’m saying ‘Yes’ to that I could maybe change. Now I’ve got a choice: I can stop saying ‘Yes’ to it, or I can reframe to be more of a ‘Hell Yeah’.

Just knowing that makes my mojo rise.

Hell Yeah!

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Courage is a Practice

When people face something big and scary, they’ll often say “I need to muster up the courage to tackle that.”

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Illustration:  Elizabeth Scott

Kind of like courage is something that’s scattered around the place in small bits, and they just need to gather up all of those small bits and create a big courage ball. Then they’ll be OK, and they can lean into the big thing and do what it takes.

Kind of like courage is something you need to draw on only occasionally. Like this:

Baseline Courage Graph 1

The rest of the time you just cruise.

You wish. Life doesn’t work like that.

What if you viewed courage as a daily practice? Like going to the gym? Where you focus on building up your courage muscles so you can be ready to use them anytime something scary comes across your radar. Like this:

Baseline Courage Graph 2

Daily living offers us heaps of opportunities to be courageous:

  • Saying ‘no’ when you usually would say ‘yes’ (and vice-versa)
  • Letting go of the need to control things so tightly
  • Approaching the person that makes you nervous
  • Speaking up and speaking out
  • Making a decision even when you don’t have all the information
  • Letting someone know bad news
  • Challenging your story about what you believe life is all about

When these types of challenges are thrown at us, we often let them go through to the keeper. If we do take them up, they can feel like hard work, and we shake in our boots. All because we haven’t developed our courage muscles enough.

Develop your courage muscles through daily practice, and when the big gnarly ones come along, you’ll be ready. The big decisions won’t feel so big anymore.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “do one thing every day that scares you.” She was on about what I’m on about.

So, what will it be today?

For more on building courage, check out a couple of my other posts:

 

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Find Your Rhythm

Are your days ‘lurchy’ or ‘flowy’?

For many of us, it’s more often the former, when we’d love it to be more of the latter.

Let’s get some definitions down:

‘Lurchy’ = you’re moving from one thing to another, feeling fragmented, scattered and often ending feeling unproductive and shattered.

‘Flowy’ = stuff feels effortless, you’re in sync, you can get deep into your work and nail it, it’s fun and energising. You’re not trying too hard.

For most of my adult life, I’ve struggled with getting more into ‘flowy’ and staying there. More recently, I’ve learned a few tricks about how to do that. It’s all about finding your rhythm.

Finding your rhythm is like when you’re doing exercise, and you get that ‘click’ moment. When you’re walking, running, riding, in the gym, whatever. You hit a certain rhythm, a certain flow, where it feels ‘right’ for you, your performance lifts and it all becomes effortless. You know the feeling.

You can find your rhythm in how you structure your time, too.

Cal Newport wrote a powerful book called Deep Work, which argues that if you want to produce anything of value, you need to carve out uninterrupted time to do it. He builds on the ideas of Paul Graham, who wrote about two types of schedules: The Maker’s Schedule, and the Manager’s Schedule. They are both quite different: the first needs unstructured time to be effective, and the second is all about structuring your time. If you’re trying to do ‘Maker’ work (wrangling new ideas, writing, deep problem solving) you generally need big blocks of unstructured, focused time. And, we all need Manager time as well. That’s when you allocate your time into segments to hammer through your do-list, hold meetings etc.

I’ve learned:

  • I need to allow time for both types of activities if I’m going to be effective.
  • If I don’t deliberately carve out the Maker time, Manager time takes over. And I get into ‘lurchy’. And that’s frustrating.
  • It works for me to allow for Maker time across different time spans: daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually.

Here’s how I structure each of those time blocks with my Maker time:

Daily: first thing in the morning for at least an hour, I journal, scribble or listen to an interesting podcast.

Weekly: every Friday is a ‘client free day’ where I write, think, and create (including my blogs).

Monthly: I build in three to four concurrent days for ‘Making’ work every month, which is often when I design a new workshop or programme.

Quarterly: I take a week off from any sort of client work to decompress.

Annually: I take all of January off (holidays, yes, and also it’s also a great time for reflection, deep thinking and writing). And, of course, my annual two-week windsurfing trip in October, which keeps my edges sharp. You can learn more about my annual approach in my post Your Year By Design.

Does it always work perfectly? Rarely. Life gets in the way all the time! However, without a structure like this, I reckon I’d always be in Manager time, and I’d feel like I’d not be doing my best work, or producing anything of value. I stick to my structure about 80% of the time. As a result, I get into plenty of ‘flowy’ experiences, create good work, and feel good about how I’ve spent my time.

We all need to experience more ‘flowy’ times. Especially when we need to create new ways for our teams and organisations to be more agile, more innovative, and more bold. More lurchy meetings aren’t the answer.

Of course, I’m not suggesting you or your people follow my exact schedule. I am suggesting you think about what works for you across each of these time spans, and what’s possible for you given your current situation. And then take the first step, however small, to make it happen.

Go well.

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