What flirting taught me about networking

I was talking with a colleague last week, and when she asked about my being a musician (which, I’ve found, is relatively unusual for a business consultant), I heard myself reply, “You know, you can type my name into Pandora if you want to hear my music….” She immediately perked up – and I knew she would. I knew that my music being on Pandora would make me “special.” It would raise my clout in her eyes.

It seems harmless enough, a way to call attention to myself and show what an interesting guy I am. We all do it at times – when we’re flirting, when we’re meeting someone in a business context for the first time, when we’re trying to make an impression. It’s like I’m baiting a hook and tossing it into the water to see if they’ll bite. If they do, I’ve demonstrated my worth, and I think I’m more likely to get the date, or the business deal, or whatever I’m going after.

How’s it working?

But when I really look at the results I get, what I’ve found is this type of “flirting” actually distances me from the other person rather than drawing us closer. It’s like I’m saying, “Look what I can do that everyone else can’t.” Bang – door closed. There’s really nowhere for our conversation to go from there.

So if this closes the door, why on earth would I ever do it? Because I so often fall into the frame of reference that what makes me special is what I do – not who I am. I didn’t create connection with my colleague when I answered that she could hear my music on Pandora – all I did was attempt to demonstrate my “value”. I didn’t offer her anything about who I really am as a person, and I definitely didn’t create a space for her to share anything about herself.

We all know the difference – we can feel it instantly. Am I saying what I’m saying in order to create an authentic link with someone, or to call attention to myself? Genuine connection, in my experience, is created when we share something vulnerable, and seek to create a safe space where others can do the same.

Open the door

How, then, might I have replied to this woman, in order to create genuine rapport? Well, I might have said something like, “You know, my parents started me on piano lessons when I was a kid, and it really stuck with me. I drifted away from music in my twenties, but when I had a time of personal crisis in my mid-thirties, I discovered, to my surprise, that I had somehow unexpectedly developed my own musical voice. I began to love composing my own music, and thanks to streaming music sites, I’m now continually amazed to hear from people all over the world who are listening to my music. I find playing piano is not only tremendously fulfilling – it also seems to balance me in a way that’s pretty remarkable, and I believe makes me a better businessman. You know – something that’s absolutely not about business, which makes me better at business. What do you do? Do you have an art you love, or a sport that gets you out of your head and into your body – some way you step away from your business mind and get a fresh perspective?”

Okay, so that’s a lot of words… but I just timed it, and it only took 45 seconds to say, so it’s probably not so long a response that it would lose my listener and jeopardize the prospect of building a relationship.

And what did I do in it? I revealed some things about myself that she can probably relate to (learning something as a child… drifting in early adulthood… a crisis that revealed unexpected gifts… and the benefits I’ve found of not solely inhabiting my mind), and I set her up to tell me about herself at a deeper level.

There’s nothing to prove

I can only feel confident in doing this if I believe I don’t need to prove myself to her. Then, and only then, can I become truly curious – from an authentic and undefended place in me – about who she is, what makes her unique, what she cares about.

Where, in your efforts to show what a clever, capable, powerful, reliable, sexy, fill-in-the-blank person you are, are you actually creating distance when you think you’re going for closeness? What if you knew beyond any doubt that you were those things in spades, and you never needed to prove anything to anyone? Here’s the secret: you are, and you don’t.

Don’t believe me? Try it on for a day. Pretend someone waved a wand and for the next 24 hours you don’t need to prove anything to anyone. How does that feel? Lighter shoulders? Relaxed brow? Spine a little straighter?

Now, how will your conversations be different today?

Question your own beliefs to become a better listener

At some point in my lifetime — perhaps sometime in the mid 1990s — listening fell out of fashion. At least in America. Stridency rose to prominence. The loudest voice in the room seemed to prevail.

It didn’t seem to be a shift towards confrontation or conflict; no, it seemed to be a departure from acknowledging the opposition. Talk shows devolved to mutual monologues, in which opposing guests would wait their turn to say whatever they wanted to say, refusing to notice or mention that their fellow guest had even made a salient point.

Technology appeared only to hasten this shift. The emergence of the information superhighway — as the Internet was once known — allowed people of the same ilk to enter virtual space in which the only thoughts and beliefs espoused were friendly and acceptable. It created massive echo chambers of emboldened adherents.

Good news for mobilizing supporters. Bad news for learning much of anything new.

Many of us now live in a world ruled by confirmation bias, a phenomenon of reasoning in which a person filters out whatever doesn’t fit their preconceived conclusion and only acknowledges what does fit. It happens all the time in the worlds of academia, government, religion, business, and philanthropy. It happens, essentially, any place with large groups of impassioned people.

A noteworthy example: Much of America’s obsession with low-fat diets came into vogue in the 1970s based on the advocacy of a series of politicians who were familiar with research carried out by Dr. Ancel Keys. Dr. Keys postulated, based on his research, that people who reduced fat from their diet would lower their own risks of obesity and heart disease. This hypothesis led to decades of government policy and fad-diet crazes. The problem is, it really didn’t seem to work. And, further scrutiny of Dr. Keys research showed that he studied dozens of places on the planet where people consumed low-fat diets and experienced minimal obesity and heart trouble; yet, he also encountered plenty of spots where people consumed high-fat diets and experienced minimal obesity and heart disease. He just left the data out that didn’t agree with his conclusions.

Which brings me back to the issues with communication in America today—we’re leaving out the data that don’t agree with our predetermined conclusions.

Admitting it is the first step…

“I was wrong.”

I’ve had to utter those three words more than few times in my life. If I’m honest with myself, I hated saying them. Sometimes I even played out conflict and drama unnecessarily long because I didn’t want to say them. I hurt others along the way.

But I had a choice to make about how my beliefs and actions would impact my life and the lives of others around me. When seeing the bigger picture, I chose to admit my wrongness. It still wasn’t easy to do.

The anticipation of this experience is what shuts so many of us down.

If I don’t listen, then I don’t need to think. If I don’t need to think, then I don’t need to question my beliefs. If I don’t need to question my beliefs, then I don’t need to admit being wrong.

Stop the listening. Prevent the admitting.

It takes courage to listen. Listening requires seeing the other person as a valid human being. This is hard to do if you simply want to prove your point. It’s easier when the other person isn’t a valid human being.

Listening requires you to question your own beliefs. How did you form your belief? Did it come from something that someone told you? Did you learn it though firsthand experience? It’s easier not to answer these questions.

Listening demands awareness of impact. How do your beliefs impact those around you? Do your beliefs hurt other people? Do they hurt you? It’s easier not to answer these questions.

Put simply — listening creates vulnerability, vulnerability that scares us. No one likes to be vulnerable. Nobody likes to feel uncertain. None of us likes to even consider being wrong.

So, here’s what gets lost when we avoid vulnerability.

  • Reasoned solutions
  • Full engagement
  • Meaningful inclusion
  • Intellectual evolution

It’s a shut down situation: “Heads, I’m right. Tails, you’re wrong.” This isn’t healthy for society.

At the core of this is a deep-seated fear. It’s the fear of nothingness. We fear it more than just about anything else. Who am I if this belief isn’t true? It’s too much ambiguity for many of us.

Yet it’s exactly what we need to explore. In a world of ubiquitous information — some of it helpful and some of it not so helpful — we need to become better at examining our beliefs. We can go two ways with this: we can use this explosion of information to hunker down and drive self-righteousness or we can use this elevation of data to grow and enrich us. In some ways, it’s that simple.

Take three of your most ardent beliefs. Complete the following sentences:

  1. People are fundamentally ______________.
  2. The world works because people _______________.
  3. I am successful because I always _______________.

Now, consider what would happen if these three beliefs were determined to be wrong. How would you feel? What might change about your worldview? Would any new doors open?

Going through this process is something every person on the planet is going to have to do multiple times throughout their lives. This is something people rarely had to do in the past.

If we want to live in peace and prosperity going forward, we all have to do this.

Evolution is everywhere

“You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.”
― Jalaluddin Rumi

We are all plants stretching towards the sun. Life clings to life, even in the harshest environments. There is an impulse in every living thing to grow. And yet, growth is difficult and messy. When we’re in the midst of it, sometimes it feels like it will never end and the process feels fraught with strong emotions. But all of us, almost as our birthright, have a drive to grow and change. Beyond our basic needs we have a desire to become a more complex, effective version of ourselves. We have an impulse to evolve.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo amongst others, describe the evolutionary impulse, that in every living cell there is a drive to evolve. This impulse is a great tide of consciousness that has been spiraling forward to right now, in which the matter of the universe is able to contemplate itself. The universe has become consciousness. This has happened like a great wave, building in complexity towards its peak, and beginning to break onto itself, moving faster and faster in exponential growth. We are the stuff of stars, contemplating stars.

We now know that across the universe, energy cannot be created or destroyed: it simply changes form. And from the moment of the Big Bang, it began transforming continuously. It started with a series of simple elements that became more complex elements that became matter that became more complex matter through sometimes explosive forces, creating the building blocks for stars. From these stars planets formed, then organic life, then sentient organic life, then consciousness. The moment of consciousness is a big one: the universe realizing itself.

At each stage of development, the universe takes what is present, and builds on it to create another. It transcends and includes the previous stage. Every aspect of life is built on the last. Sometimes maladaptive mechanisms actually become helpful, as life grows towards the sun, incorporating new operating systems to deal with harsh climates and environments. Extra protections, ways of hiding, protective behaviors that can sometimes fiercely keep the organism whole. Evolutionary biologists study this in the physical world, watching as plants and animals grow and adapt to thrive in their environments. The metaphor is obvious.

We humans have an impulse to evolve in our cells as well. And like the universe, there is no way around the law of transcend and include. Many of us have developed patterns that are indeed maladaptive. We fought sarcasm with sarcasm. We learned to perform love and to perform being loved in turn. We retreated into our inner lives to find safety, building worlds that offered retreat and meaning. Instead of destroying them, or ridding ourselves of their influence, the way forward is through understanding and integration. As we heal ourselves, and find what lurks in the shadows we build a new internal operating system and evolve past our limitations. We reflect and learn. In this, we stand in a lineage of thousands of years of ancestors; whose wounds, narratives and ways of being have been passed down through millennia, and as we become conscious and take the charge to evolve, we are doing their work, the work of our forebears. Because you are here right now and aware of yourself in this moment, you may be the first over a thousand years of ancestry that has the will to consciously grow and change. To heal, to live with greater purpose. To even know that you have to evolve. Let this sink in for a moment. Going into our depths to find ourselves allows for a rewiring and an evolution in our consciousness. The time is now.

In this burden of consciousness is the responsibility to evolve. Looking at our actions and taking account of them, making commitments to new and more sustainable forms of living and leading, and finding our own integrity and alignment are the outgrowth. We evolve with an eye towards our deeper operating system; our deeply held beliefs about ourselves and the world, family narratives, repressed emotions. These things are our operating system. As as we move forward, we upgrade it.

It can be hard, but if we can move through the valley, we find a garden on the other side and a life of meaning, richness and purpose. As this evolution happens, the ripple we send to others: our families, our friends, our communities and the world at large changes. I do this for my daughter, for my colleagues, for my wife. This impact is one drop in the great wave of evolution that is happening. With each drop, the universe evolves.

I Wanted To Change The World
When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.
I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.
When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.
-Unknown Monk 1100 A.D.

Start your day with a grounding and motivating ritual

Being the best version of myself, consistently, day in and day out, is very tough. It is far from something that comes naturally to me, even now after years of personal development. The only means by which I know how to give myself the chance to show up is by following a daily morning practice. Here’s what mine consists of:

Journaling

Waking up early and making a cup of green tea is one of my favorite daily rituals. I use loose leaf tea from China with jasmine buds. The green tea is much kinder on my stomach than other kinds of teas or coffee and provides a mellow buzz.

As my tea is steeping I sit down in my favorite chair in the living room and get out my journal. I use a Moleskine, unlined. It is not inexpensive, but I’ve decided it’s a worthy investment given the value I place on my time writing each day. I have gone through more than 75 of these black books over the past decade.

As I pour myself a cup of tea I begin to write, always starting with where I am and the time of day. Then I launch into my feelings. It is a check-in with myself. I write sloppily; barely legible, even to me. I don’t care. The point is to get my thoughts out, not to write for an audience, or even myself. (I have read few of my entries.)

This type of writing is helpful to me, as it slows down my thinking. I cannot write as fast as I think, so it causes me to be a bit more thoughtful. This creates a form of self-reflection that is not innate. I become an observer of myself and gain a higher perspective. In other words, it builds consciousness.

I write whatever comes to mind. Sometimes there is a lot. Other times I struggle to make my pen move over the paper. Typically I will allow myself ten minutes. In these entries, I often advise myself or work challenges out. At the very least, I become aware of what’s coming up for me by answering one of my favorite check-in questions: ˆWhat is it like to be me in this moment?”

Meditation

After I’ve processed my waking thoughts through journalling, I settle into a light meditation. I began meditating regularly more than a dozen years ago and have found it to be invigorating and infuriating.

Early on, I struggled—as most do—with my understanding of meditation and the process. Am I doing it right? How will I know when I’ve succeeded? Once I learned that what mattered most was the discipline of keeping awareness—not expecting to remove all thoughts—I began to slip into a deeper, extraordinary state. I saw visions and had massive breakthroughs. It was so good I wanted to do it longer each day. I even considered going to a monastery where I could meditate all day, every day.

Then, I stopped seeing visions and began to feel like I couldn’t sit still, even for ten minutes. I indulged my mind’s wanderings and felt shame at my mental weakness. I’d feel worse after a session. But I kept it up, and, eventually, I it became a positive experience again.

I realized that meditation is no different than any other aspect of my life, it can go either way depending on the phase of of life I am in. It isn’t a panacea. It just is. But it undoubtedly (and scientifically) has a profound impact on neural pathways–creating new levels of awareness that carry over into what I’ll call “real life”.

There have been times when I’ve fallen off the meditation wagon. Usually I begin to notice a difference in my reactions to triggering events within about three days. My capacity to respond from my whole self decreases and I’m much more likely to be reactive.

I meditate most days for 12 minutes. If I’m pressed for time (always a bad sign), I do a shorter sit (a “mini-medi”, I like to call it). You can find me on Insight Timer, an app for tracking your meditation that offers bells as well as stars for hitting milestones (something my ego loves!). Insight Timer has a wonderful community with appropriate social tools. If you join, please connect with me and we will see when we are meditating at the same time, wherever in the world we happen to be.

Prayer

After I complete my meditation, I love to recite the Serenity Prayer. It goes like this:

God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change;

The Courage to change the things I can;

And the Wisdom to know the difference.

I love the Serenity Prayer for its cogency. It is undeniable and so important for someone like me who, in shadow, believes that I can control the Universe. It reminds me that not only this is not true, but that I can relax into that awareness. I also struggle at times with decisions or conflict, and the next line reminds me to be courageous. And then it ends with a reminder that I’m gaining wisdom as I become more conscious in both of these areas.

I sometimes then pray for learning during my day or for clarity of my path. Perhaps I recognize a need for more compassion—of others or myself. Prayer can be about anything. And it takes very little time.

Does it work? Unequivocally so, in my experience. Though often not when or how I would expect. I recommend reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Energy of Prayer if you are interested in learning more.

I grew up in a non-religious family. We never went to a formal place of worship and I felt like those who did were wasting their time. Our god was achievement and intelligence. My intelligence didn’t include much natural EQ, however, and so I had to learn.

Recognizing my spiritual side has been quite a journey. Even today, after years of connection, I sometimes doubt this version of reality. It often happens unconsciously, where I push hard to make something happen, expecting my intellect or will to be the solution. Until it is not—and I am humbly reminded of my limitations.

And so I continue, each day, forgetting, remembering again, and practicing, or not. But I find as I travel this cosmic journey through “real life” there is nothing like my morning practice to fall back on. I hope you can find your own process that supports you as mine does me. Perhaps it includes some or all of these practices, or perhaps it is entirely different. There is no right way except your own. The only thing that matters is seeking and doing in service of your being.

Identity is the undercover enemy of change

A colleague and I had just finished our coaching work for a client leadership team. We briefly exchanged a few glances of frustration and exhaustion that spoke volumes about our earlier experience. We then just sat on a hotel lobby sofa for about 20 minutes in pristine silence. Eventually, my colleague said, “Solving problems is fun. Solving the same problem over and over again is….” He then trailed off.

I filled the silence by saying, “Agony.” We both sat back and rested another 15 minutes before climbing to our feet and stumbling to a restaurant. We felt as though we’d been trampled by a herd of buffalo.

At dinner we discussed the experiences of the day. The pre-work was fine. The agenda was solid. The materials were relevant. The facilitation was good enough. So what was so agonizing about workshop?

Resistance to change. That’s what. My colleague and I were battling the enormous and well-fortified internal defense mechanisms of our clients. We were fighting ghosts and shadows. Every time we attempted addressing an issue that they raised, we then had to defend their point against a rash of their own contradictory and conflicting viewpoints. It felt like the type of horrifying nightmare a person has the night before a debate club competition. The basis of the argument was changing, again and again, because the clients were so internally confused about what to think.

Although it sure felt like it, they weren’t fighting us. They were struggling with change.

Author Robert Quinn got it right when he said the following: “Most of us build our identity around our knowledge and competence in employing certain known techniques or abilities. Make a deep change involves abandoning both and ‘walking naked into the land of uncertainty.’”

What a statement.

And for the vast, vast majority of people, this is exactly how significant change feels — awkward, disorienting, and exposed. Most people see change — especially positive change — as something that folks perceive as good and worth doing, as though the intellect dictates reactions. They are wrong. Change, even positive change, is hard for people to embrace. It’s a shift away from what they do and how they think; and, more importantly, it’s a shift away from who they are.

Who somebody is relates to identity, and identity overrules logic. It’s the reason that most good ideas don’t change people’s behavior. There are thousands of books and online course available, right now, that can change people’s lives for the better. There’s no shortage of incredible ideas.

But having access to good ideas doesn’t mean that people will pick them up and put them to use.

Stepping into change requires a reconciliation between the old and the new. Nobody, no matter what the circumstance, completely transforms as a person when going through change. It’s not a 100% shift. Some parts of a person endure. It’s the way things have to be.

But some things change and change dramatically. It’s the reconciliation process that’s so daunting.

For me, I’ve changed on an enormous scale throughout the course of my life, and not just the growing up part. I’ve gone from being a very reserved, diffident person to being a much more open and expressive individual. I’ve gone from being passive in my approach to business to being active. I’ve gone from feeling pessimistic about opportunity to feeling much more optimistic.

Yet, deep down, parts of me feel the same as they have my entire life. From my earliest memories, around age three, the things I notice and pay attention to are the same. The curiosity I have for people and relationships remains the same.

Every time I entered into a meaningful change opportunity in my life, I was confronted by the real prospect of losing myself, saying good-bye to who I was. It was, and continues to be, the single greatest fear I have. I can handle financial ups and downs, conflict with loved ones and friends, and high-stakes business opportunities.

People who work through significant change face serious ambiguity. They risk losing who they are for the prospect of something better. It’s a primal issue.

My clients in the above workshop were confronted with an existential crisis. They didn’t know who they were anymore. They could draft business plans, complete financial models, write inspirational speeches — but when they looked in the mirror, they didn’t know what they saw.

This disorientation led to weeks and months of stopping and starting, coming and going, and launching and pulling back. To outside observers, the situation seemed schizophrenic. Criticism was constant.

Yet, my brave clients were on the front lines of an enormous struggle. They were redefining who they were as people. Making the business changes was the easy part. Knowing who they were was hard.

Change is hard for some obvious and non-obvious reasons. People usually overvalue intellect and undervalue courage when it comes to these matters.

Next time you’re looking to make a significant change in your life, ask yourself the following question: “Am I ready to redefine who I am?”

Originally published at goodmenproject.com.

Gratitude is rocket fuel for human potential

My fiftieth year had come and gone,

I sat, a solitary man,

In a crowded London shop,

An open book and empty cup

On the marble table-top.

While on the shop and street I gazed

My body of a sudden blazed;

And twenty minutes more or less

It seemed, so great my happiness,

That I was blessed and could bless.

–William Butler Yeats

 

Thanksgiving week is one of my favorites of the year. In LA, the world slows down and I can get to places in the city that are inaccessible in the normal gridlock. The air is crisper, it gets dark sooner, and there is a sense that yes, even in LA there are seasons. It’s also one of my favorite weeks to slow down and reflect. I intentionally try to do as little as possible and end work as early in the week as I can. At least Wednesday afternoon through Sunday the world pauses, breaks bread with loved ones, and initiates the holiday season. 

For me, Thanksgiving is the beginning of the end, as a few short weeks later the December holidays hit and the year is officially over. I have always thought that Thanksgiving is a part of a greater process: to begin the time of reflection and intention setting for a new year, to take stock and begin the holiday season with gratitude and feasting.

Sometimes however, the feasting turns into an argument with your cousin about politics or your uncle gets a bit too drunk and scares the kids, and so it is. The holidays remind us that there are people that we love that are gone, and we miss them. The opening of our heart and lowering of our guard exposes the sensitive spots, and for all of our development, we are still a child in the house we grew up in. Old wounds make us wince and we feel sad and sometimes lost and we may be reminded of old, painful narratives that govern family behavior. The holidays are filled with ghosts.

And yet, it is still a wonderful life. When I get torn and twisted in some aspect of my life that I am unhappy about, I am not connected to this. Much of the time this stems from something not going the way I wanted it to and in this, I feel like complaining. I get irritable. I make others irritable. It’s hard. And yet, there is something the great spiritual traditions agree on: the power of gratitude, or appreciation, of blessing to bring us out of the place of powerlessness and despondence. This mechanism is a super power.

When I can orient towards gratitude (sometimes forcing myself to do so!), I take myself out of the place of willfulness and into the place of peace and surrender. There is no gratitude without the acknowledgement that I have been given much, and have been so fortunate in what I have experienced. In this is a great spirit of abundance and warmth and I feel open and positive to the flow of gifts that have benefitted me in my life, remembering that I have been blessed, many times over. It helps me to reflect and meditate on this regularly. Using gratitude as a focus for silent meditation is a powerful tool.

Gratitude supercharges when I offer it to another. We live in a world bereft of honor and gratitude. Most of us go through life under appreciated and thus pass this on. I know that when I have been powerfully appreciated, it changes my day and sometimes my week. It fills me up and gives me fuel. And it can do the same for your business and employees. 

One of the most powerful activities you can do at an offsite is to offer gratitude to each team member, giving everyone a chance on the hot seat and having everyone else state out loud what they appreciate about them. It never fails to transform the room and frequently gets emotional. The workforce is sadly bereft of appropriate honoring and gratitude as well. It falls on us, the blessed, to continue the cycle of blessing. As we do this, as we appreciate one another, the cycle of blessing flows back to us, over and over. We leave our pain and limitations and stories and are put in a place of wholeness: a whole person blessing another whole person.

This kind of energy, this giving of thanks, can create emotional safety and resilience and a powerful culture for performance in a team or business. Appreciation and gratitude are rocket fuel for human potential. A valuable culture practice is to deeply and publicly honor those who are role models of the core values of your business. Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner call this “encouraging the heart” and it has been shown in leadership research to be one of the most powerful leadership tools.

I find that when I access this place at home, it helps me reframe and come to peace with the wonderful and imperfect humanity that is myself and my family. I can honor and love those around me and tell stories over the dinner table of their quirks. I can see how people have helped me grow and the gifts they have given me over the years. I can see how everyone is doing the best with what they have. I can embrace their humanity, as well as my own.

As I write that last line, I can feel my body exhale. It’s time to enter the chute of reflection. And as the world begins to slow down at the end of the year, amidst the noise of a chaotic world, I remember: I am blessed, and I can bless.

Five steps to boost creative problem solving

“Think outside the box.” That advice is about as helpful under pressure as telling a three year old to calm down in the middle of a tantrum. We all want to be creative when we face tricky problems, but how?

Many creativity experts advise opening your mind to wacky ideas, and creating a sense of total freedom when you’re brainstorming. I’m here to argue for the opposite: Limitations actually help you create new ideas and solve big tricky problems. Why? My research suggests that too much freedom is actually paralyzing – it provides too many choices and our brains get overwhelmed.  Limitations, or constraints, help you unleash creativity inside your own brain, and inside your team.

A few years ago, I was interviewed on the Thrivecast podcast about using constraints to get creative in solving business problems. (All forms of creative work, from running a startup to launching a new innovation demands creative problem solving, and running an innovative accounting practice like the Thrivecast advocates is no different!)

Here are some of the tips that came out of the conversation. Give them a try.

Five steps to boost creativity in problem solving

 1. Define the problem.Write down a problem you want to solve in your business. Maybe you want to find a way to double sales, sell to a new customer segment or have a serious problem or threat facing your business and you don’t know what to do about it. Write down the problem.

2. Create some crazy constraints. The next step is to “playfully” think of five different categories of ideas to consider that might help solve the problem – each category is a constraint, or a limitation that helps your think about the problem from a new perspective. One category might be ideas that could get you arrested. One category might be ideas you can’t afford. Another would be ideas that involve other people. How about ideas that use no technology? A last might be ideas inspired by the movieFrozen. The purpose of the crazy constraints is to force your brain to examine ideas and concepts in a new and different way.

3. Get it on paper.
Now it’s time to start writing ideas in each of the five categories you’ve chosen. Set a crazy time constraint. For example, you have three minutes to list as many ideas as possible in each of category. Keep your pen moving! When you get stuck, don’t think… Write ‘ideas ideas ideas…” until you get a new one. There is no wrong answer, there is only wrong process. Take a one-minute break between each category. No analytical thinking allowed. No planning or judging yourself or your ideas as good, bad, possible, impossible. Complete all five “ideation sprints”.

4. Get picky. Is it interesting? Is it smart? Read the ideas you wrote down and put a star next to the ones that seem interesting to you. Not good, interesting. (And you know it’s interesting when you read it and you get a little bit nervous.) Now read the list again and circle the ideas that sound smart. What you’re looking for here is an idea that is both interesting and smart.

5. Go a little deeper. 
Select three of the ideas, preferably the ones that you consider both interesting and smart, and write a one pager on each of the three ideas. You are basically describing those three ideas in more detail. It can still be a little messy. You’re trying to see if you have the “brain juice” to turn your ideas into reality. It helps you determine if you want to create an action plan to make it happen.

Want more? Listen to the podcast here.

Let’s stop this change process, it’s starting to work

By David Shechtman

As absurd as the title of this article may sound, it’s the reality of most change efforts in the corporate world. Nearly every organization wants to change in some way — higher revenue, lower expenses, better marketing, greater efficiencies. Yet most organizations want quick results and won’t hang in through the change process.

If change were a linear process, then the world would be a much simpler place. But change isn’t linear, so the experience of going through it remains a swirl of highs and lows, progress and setbacks, endurance and perseverance. People are not robots — thank goodness — so the way that organizations experience change needs to reflect the complex, nuanced reality of human systems.

Kurt Lewin, a noted social psychologist, was one of the founders of the Organization Development field. His thinking went into creating some of the most important and prominent change institutions in the world, including the National Training Laboratories (NTL) in Bethel, Maine. Lewin’s greatest contribution to the world may be his model for change. He described a change process in which three steps occur: 1) unfreeze, 2) change, and 3) freeze. That’s it. It’s that straightforward. And nearly all other change models build on this foundation.

Of course, the devil is in the details because each of the three steps contains massive and challenging work. Unfreezing includes letting go of the existing mindset. It’s a way of disrupting the status quo. The way we think, work, and act all gets called into question or reexamined. Then changing, as a step, includes making the modifications to the system or process in question. This step often involves the observable efforts that people can see. Finally, freezing includes crystalizing the new way of thinking and acting. The results become the new norm.

The challenge, especially for those experiencing the change process, is that steps one and two (unfreeze and change) are extremely disorienting to people. Again, people are not robots and behavior is not always rational. Even healthy, positive change encounters resistance, because it often threatens an accepted and familiar way of doing things. Even if the change is beneficial to all involved, people still resist it because it’s new and different.

This reality throws a lot of people for a loop, including the people leading the change effort. “Why in the world are these people fighting me moment by moment? This change will benefit them,” is a refrain commonly heard around the water cooler during change projects.

So, what’s extremely common in the workplace is that companies will launch a change effort, experience a temporary decline in morale and results (as people adjust to the disorientation), and then scale back or abandon the change effort. It happens all of the time. It’s why many efforts just don’t work.

Many people have come to call it: “The Rollercoaster of Change.” This is a good description. Rollercoasters are thrilling, jarring, and disorienting. Not everyone likes them. Rollercoasters force people to confront fears around speed, height, and movement.

But the wisdom among practitioners of change, those who lead these efforts regularly, is that things get worse before they get better. As organizations begin changing, disorientation sets in and people often start looking for safety. It’s not uncommon for companies to take a step back when this happens.

So, for you, while dealing with a change effort, consider the following suggestions:

  • If you’re a coach, consultant, or trainer, be up front with your clients. Tell them that change isn’t an easy or linear process. It might get worse before it gets better. Set expectations properly. It’s often hard to do when selling work, but you and they will be much happier in the end. The likelihood of success also rises when people know what’s coming.
  • If you’re a leader taking a company through a change effort, be discerning and patient. Sometimes people resist change because they don’t understand what’s happening or because they’re just struggling with a new way of thinking or acting. This type of resistance doesn’t mean that they’re a problem. Offer some grace and latitude as they adjust to the new normal. On the other hand, some people don’t want to see the new way. They’re so threatened by change that they’d rather take the entire ship down than do something new. They shouldn’t be part of the future. Learn to tell the difference.
  • If you’re going through a change process as an organizational contributor, give some benefit of the doubt, both to yourself and those leading the efforts. First, for you, remember that humans are extremely adaptable. If you take a deep breath and step into the unknown, chances are you’ll figure out whatever you need to learn. It might not be smooth or seamless; but it will happen. Second, for the leaders in your company, they don’t have all the answers. They may act like they do, but they don’t. Yet in most cases they are genuinely trying to do what’s best. And if you offer help, you might just make the difference that puts the whole thing over the top.

It’s not easy to step into the unknown. Change efforts in organizations often force people to confront this reality. Yet hanging in through disorienting times typically pays off for most people. The only thing that’s worse than going through a big change effort, however, is starting one and then abandoning it. It’s the worst of all outcomes.

When people embrace courage, perseverance, and adaptability, they change, organizations change, and results come — even if they come later than everyone expects.Step in, step up, and step through.

Originally published at goodmenproject.com.

The Check-In: The easy way to make time for reflection

Reflection is one of the most powerful tools in business (and other aspects of life) but it is hard to make time to do it regularly, especially before something goes awry rather than after. We are all too busy with meetings, projects, emails and Slack to reflect. To paraphrase my partner, Matt Auron: It is easy to reflect but it is hard to remember to reflect. I’m writing this to offer a solution.

It’s the check-in. A check-in is a process that can be done by anyone at any time who wants to reflect. You can do it alone with a journal or upon request with another person. But the way I’m presenting here it is done as the opening for a meeting. If you’ve worked with Evolution, no doubt you’ve experienced our check-ins at the start of an offsite or a coaching call.

It’s a great way for everyone participating to get present. Running from one meeting to the next, or from family responsibilities or a commute to work, can be challenging. A check-in, even a simple, short one that follows a prompt such as What is it like to be you in this moment? can be helpful and grounding. I might respond with something like, “I’m stressed and a little frustrated; I’m also a bit tired; but I’m ready for this meeting.”

Just saying those words in front of other people takes away a lot of the distracting, troubling energy and settles me in. It also allows others to know where I’m coming from so that it is easier for them to empathize with my current state and adjust accordingly. Now that you know I’m a bit frustrated, if I’m curt or sound angry at your suggestion, you know it may be because of how I entered the meeting rather than what you said, and hopefully you are more likely to check in with me about that since I’ve opened the door to my challenge. You will also have a better sense of what that look on my face means and not make incorrect inferences.

The intimacy created by even a simple check in (when taken seriously) can remove all sorts of barriers to real conversation. But it doesn’t work if everyone just goes around and says “fine.” Nor does it work as well if people respond to one another out of turn or make jokes. In order to avoid these kinds of behaviors (which are likely self-protective strategies and meant to deflect the intimacy that is naturally created), it is helpful to set up ground rules for the check-in and explain its purpose:

  • For example: Let’s do a check-in so we can all get present for this meeting;
  • One person speaks at a time;
  • Anyone can start and then go around to the right; or, hand off to someone else when you are complete;
  • Potentially employ a prompt, such as: what do you need to leave behind to be present? or what is it like to be you today?;
  • No crosstalk or interruptions; be respectful;
  • Recommend a length of check-in (Tweet length, Facebook post length, or blog length) and potentially time it so it is right-sized for your meeting.

This last bullet is quite important since a check-in can be anything from super quick and light to long and deep. If you are checking in at the beginning of a meeting, the type of meeting and number of people present should guide your approach.

At Evolution, we start our weekly Core team meeting off with a meditation and a longer check-in. There are five of us currently and we spend about 30 minutes in total. Then Matt and I take an extra 30 minutes together to allow for a deeper cut, given our long and close relationship, and the way in which we work.

The longer Monday check-in process is part of our company principle to live our week like a yoga practice, starting slow and ending slow. It is super helpful to us, perhaps due to the line of work we are in, supporting others and needing above all to be grounded for our coaching sessions. But I believe following a similar practice would benefit most people and organizations. It is so abrupt to start off a week with an intense “It”-focused meeting where projects or sales are reviewed and lists are made for follow up for the week ahead. Or, when Monday mornings are filled with meeting after meeting and there is no ramp up time to come back from the weekend with grace.

By midday Monday we are on to the “it” stuff ourselves, but having the time to come in, get settled and present, and be psychically and emotionally prepared for the week ahead makes a huge difference in our ability to handle a heavy workload and high degree of stress.

Try it out for yourself. Make an extra 10-15 minutes at the beginning of the team meeting to check in. See how it works for you. Perhaps there is a better approach for you and your team. The key is to discover your ideal rhythm and use techniques like the check-in to become more effective and peaceful.

People don’t quit jobs because of money

Before I became an executive coach, I spent 20 years in tech and product recruiting. I consistently tried to dig into why people would leave jobs. Though I have never tracked the data formally, there are two clear experiential winners tied for first place:

● They don’t like the person they report to

● They don’t think what they are doing matters in the grander scheme of things

That’s it. The other reasons — more money, shorter commute, more growth opportunity — fall far behind.

With Millennials forming the workforce of the future, addressing these two issues is a necessity, not a luxury. Their generation won’t put up with compromising values or sanity for a paycheck. So, what should you do to ensure your crew doesn’t leave for greener pastures? Here are some ideas, as well as links to business cases/ROI studies to back them up.

Leadership

When I say, “They don’t like the person they report to,” that can be translated into variations, including:

● Being expected to compromise work/life balance

● Being treated unprofessionally (being yelled at, unrealistic expectations, favoritism, etc)

● Being expected to do unethical things

● Person doesn’t lead by example — expects a person to do as they say, not as they do

● The manager is just no fun — perhaps lacking in EQ, empathy or a sense of humor

● The leader is not a leader — they have weak leadership skills, are ignorant about how to manage people and careers, don’t address conflicts within a team, under-performance, doesn’t walk the walk, etc.

Addressing any of these variations will require your willingness to take responsibility for your abilities (or lack thereof) as a leader. You’ll need to be brave, self-aware and willing to do the work necessary to improve. Here are ideas on how to get there:

● Feedback— Get feedback from your team — actual, real life, honest feedback. If it means bringing in a neutral third party to get it for you, do that. This is especially important if you are doing a 360, so the team feels the safety to be transparent. Read Thanks For The Feedback. It’s an incredibly short, sweet, tactical approach to giving and getting feedback. Here’s an article on the value of a well-executed 360 from HBR.

● Executive Coaching — get it. Get it for your Exec team if there is dysfunction in the C-suite, or between two Co-Founders. Even better, get it to AVOID any of the scenarios above. The best coaching clients are ones that already have it together for the most part, but want to continually evolve. Here are some case studies focused on the ROI of executive coaching — study1study2study3.

Purpose & Meaning

Even if your company makes widgets, you can still infuse your culture with a sense of purpose and meaning. According to Gallup, a 10% improvement in employees’ connection with the mission or purpose of their organization would result in an 8.1% decrease in turnover, and a 4.4% increase in profitability. Here are some ways to create a sense that sense of purpose:

● Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) —CSR is a big thing now, however you don’t have to be a big company to implement a CSR strategy. Here is a business case from the Harvard Law School Forum for implementing CSR.

● Give Back —as a company, you can decide on a charity or mission to support as a whole. This is a great bonding mechanism, can feed the souls of your team, and can be implemented at little to no cost, if cash is low. Pick a charity to volunteer with as a group, such as a local elementary school, or volunteer events with DEFY VenturesHabitat for Humanityvarious 5ks, etc. Here’s a great business case study for organizing company-wide efforts to give back.

A career is no longer just a job. A leader is no longer just a manager. Both have become holistic frameworks which merge tactics and humanity. The bottom line is that your bottom line will only prosper if you nurture all facets of yourself and your team. There has historically been a ubiquitous belief of a correlation between “doing good” and “doing without.” Be someone who changes that to a paradigm where by “doing good” and being a great leader, you propel your company to become iconic and successful.