Stretch Assignments

I may be looking at Ye Olden Days through rose colored glasses…

…but I can’t help but notice a difference in attitudes about work today compared to when I had my first jobs 25 years ago.

Back then, my colleagues and I would talk actively about whether our responsibilities would ever extend beyond making copies, sending faxes, and answering the phone. There was enough clerical work and hierarchy that “entry level” was truly menial. When a superior asked us to do anything that involved thinking, we jumped at it. Non-clerical work was a perk, and when it came our way, it was our job to find time to make it happen: do all our menial work, and do this too. These projects were a chance to demonstrate that we could do something other than stand by the fax machine, and each mini-assignment served as a testing-ground of whether we should be given another useful thing to do.

While there are countless flaws in that old system, the mindset around how to approach “stretch assignments” stands the test of time.

A great stretch assignment is a chance to do something new, challenging, and exciting. By definition it’s beyond our current levels of mastery, so it requires additional time on our part to learn and to get it right.

Often, though, I’m hearing just the opposite (including from job applicants): I can only take on that new thing if there’s a 1-for-1 trade of getting rid of this existing thing.

I don’t think it works that way, at least not in environments that are moving fast and trying to grow: the organization only grows its reach, its scale, and its revenues profits and impact, if the things that make up that organization—software, systems, processes and people—can stretch and grow.

Whether it’s a one-off project or an expansion of our role, the best way to take on stretch assignments is, literally, to stretch: our mental capacity, our willingness to be uncomfortable, the number of hours we put in to make the “stretch” possible on top of everything else that’s on our plate. That means finding time around the edges, whether early in the morning, late in the evening or on a weekend, to get that job done. Hopefully the opportunity and learning are more than worth the trade.

(Better yet, in the process of adjusting to this fuller plate, we often discover a bunch of non-essential things that we were spending time on that don’t require nearly as much polishing).

The reality is, the path to leverage in our job requires us to constantly shift, adjusting to new opportunities and new sets of responsibilities.

Learning the skill of sprinting, and getting adept at shifting and stretching time, is the way that we discover what our maximum output really is. It’s also how we discover where it is that we really shine.

How many times?

I can’t help wondering: will there ever come a day when we skip all the hemming and hawing and just get on with our important, daily work?

Will we ever, finally, manage to completely ignore all our excellent excuses:

The setting isn’t right.

I have less time than I thought.

I didn’t sleep well last night.

A very important other problem is raging through my head, unresolved.

Something aches–my head, my heel, my heart–and there’s no way I can do my best work today.

The pain of noticing how bad this paragraph seems, of how loud the “stop!” in my head seems, of how far away I feel from “the zone, is real.

That familiar mantra, “this isn’t working this time, why bother?!” is running on repeat at top volume. I could just put this off until tomorrow, couldn’t I?

On and on and on and on.

How many times until this all fades away?

I couldn’t tell you.

I’ve not gotten there yet.

But I suspect that the noise never disappears, nor is it my job to un-see it.

Instead, over time and with enough practice, while that noise remains, it becomes something that IS while I continue to DO.

The real secret is this: the IS and the DO exist on different planes. That’s why they don’t need to fight it out, because they can coexist if we just put our heads down and get on with it.

Nothing needs to be vanquished for us to do important work today.

Seth Godin and Tim Ferris: What’s Your Job?

“What I do for a living is notice things.”

That one sentence is the most remarkable statement in the wonderful two-hour conversation Seth Godin has with Tim Ferris in a recent episode of Tim’s podcast.

Seth Godin, the many-times best-selling author, entrepreneur, speaker, teacher, iconoclast, and blogger. His job, in his words, is “to notice things.”

We should all have such a distilled version of the job that we really do (at work, in our families, in our lives).

If you had to boil it all down, like Seth does (“I notice things”), what’s your job?

In addition to answering that question for yourself, you could ask each person in your company to answer, then share those answers and discuss. It would be a great conversation.

(Bonus points for three words or less, but definitely no more than 10.)

 

How to avoid hiring a consultant for the wrong reasons

Before spending money on a consultant to solve an important problem, ask yourself what would happen if:

Everyone on your team set aside 8 hours to work on this problem.

You all agreed that this work is more important than the other urgent things going on, so you’ll honor that time commitment.

You empowered someone on your team to be the ‘consultant.’ This person has free rein to use the allotted 8 hours of each person’s time as she sees fit.

Those 8 hours can be used for prep time, for meeting time, for brainstorming time.

Those 8 hours have a new set of ground rules, some of which push against the established culture of your team or organization. Cultural boundary-pushing looks like: asking un-askable questions, naming established assumptions, noticing the many elephants plodding around the room.

It’s expected that some of those 8 hours are spent generously reaching out to smart, helpful people at just the right moment to see if 15 to 30 minutes of their wisdom could get you unstuck.

Once those 8 hours are used up, the results will be shared, along with no more than three recommendations for what to do next.

At an agreed-upon date, those recommendations will be discussed, decisions will be made, actions will be taken and resources re-allocated based on that decision.

I’d bet that in 90% of the cases the above exercise gets you better results faster, for much less money, than hiring a consultant. And, better, yet, if you still decide that you need a consultant it will be for one of the only two good reasons to hire one:

  1. The consultant is a scalable resource: the amount of time required to do this work really is more than what your team can spare.
  2. The consultant has unique skills or resources not possessed by your team, and you need those skills to get the job done. These skills could be creativity or design. They could be skills in managing group dynamics and creating space for important conversations. They could be the skill of teaching things your team needs to learn.
  3. There is no third reason, because most of the time you’re hiring a consultant so they can bring the discipline to focus on an important problem. But you don’t need to pay a consultant to do that, do you?

TGIM

Oh good, it’s Monday.

Another chance to try my hand at that important problem we are trying to solve.

An opportunity to interact with our customers and bring a bit of joy into their lives.

A chance to see my co-workers, people I like and respect who treat me with kindness and generosity.

A day in which I will learn something, challenge myself, dance on the edge.

A day to commit to do some thing, even just one, that matters.

This isn’t what people normally think. Most of us don’t like our jobs.

On countless elevators I hear people greet each other with a knowing “it’s almost Friday” followed by a nod and a smile. Yet counting days until the temporary, illusory break of the weekend is no way to live.

It’s true, sometimes we get stuck. It’s happened to all of us: we find ourselves in the wrong place, in the wrong job, with the wrong people, and each day can be difficult.

But nowadays there are so many ways to learn something new, so many ways to connect with people who care about the same things we do, that there’s no reason to let ourselves slip into dividing our lives between the suffering of the week and the temporary respite of the weekend.

At a minimum, if you do feel stuck, don’t use your weekends just to “do nothing” because you believe you need that break before the week hits you again. Use the time that is fully yours to put a bit of energy towards something meaningful, something that brings a bit of a spark back into your day, something that’s a step towards the next thing.

Each day is your chance to do so much more than count the minutes until it’s over.

Because one day it will be, and that’s a game you don’t actually want to win.

No windup

I do four kinds of exercise: play squash, run, swim, and do yoga. A more accurate portrayal is that I mostly play squash, and do the other three every so often. This week, though, because of the warmer weather, earlier sunrise, and jetlag, I’ve run four times in 8 days.

One of the things that’s beautiful about running is that there’s almost no windup and wind-down: no place to drive to, no plan to make, no excess anything on either side. In 45 minutes set aside for a run, 40 of those minutes are spent running. Get dressed, lace up your shoes, and go.

Early yesterday morning, tired and cranky, I was wondering why I had dragged myself out of bed to run two days in a row. I had finished tying my shoes and I was standing at my back door looking for some way to stall (what I would have given for a fifteen minute drive to the gym!) It felt like there was a physical barrier I had to push through to get myself up and out the door. I walked out of my house, walked onto the street, kept walking for one more block, started the music on my phone, and finally had no choice but to start jogging slowly.

Similarly, earlier this week a colleague and I found ourselves with only 35 minutes at the end of a long day in which to get some important work done. Neither of us seemed up for it and I almost suggested we not bother. We chatted and stalled for a little, and we nearly got pulled into email on our open laptops. But then we began.

In both cases – the run and the 30 minute conversation that should have taken two hours – it was easy to be fooled that I needed more windup, more buffer, more something between me and the work.

Then I get out there and reconfirm what I seem to need to relearn each and every time: that the windup is nothing more than stalling; and that the correlation between how I feel beforehand and how the work goes is nearly zero.

The sprint at the end

The sprint at the end of a project does get you there.  It focuses your and your team’s energy, keeps the pressure on, and is an occasion for heroic efforts.  It can work.

Except.

Except it only really works when you guess right about where that finish line is.  It only really works when you time everything just right, so that you cross the finish line just at the moment when your and your team’s energy is about to run out.

Meaning that, once you hit maximum velocity you’ve closed yourself off to discovery, closed yourself off to noticing, a good ways down the path, that you need to make a turn, you need to double down, you need to shore up for a longer haul.

That tortoise was on to something.

The Tyranny of Outlook

Last week, as I rushed, apologetically, to start a meeting five minutes late, the person with whom I was meeting nodded knowingly and said, “hey, it’s OK.  That’s the tyranny of Outlook.”

Thank goodness for a bit of perspective.

As I reflect on the ineffectiveness of trying to transition from one meeting to the next in a matter of seconds, I’m contemplating a different approach.  One idea is to schedule all of my meetings to start at 10 past the hour.  (I think this would work better than scheduling them to end 10 minutes before the hour, because then they’d just run over).  10 minutes to shift gears, or to prepare, to take a step back, and also not to run late.

Manually retooling each outlook meeting would create more work, and it would probably take a while to explain to everyone that I’m serious that I really want to start at 10:10 (or, more importantly, 4:10).  Most important would be my holding up my end of the bargain by being on time for 95% of the meetings.

Has anyone out there tried these sorts of scheduling hacks?  What have you learned?

Four tips for better group decision-making

I’m most of the way through Bruce Feiler’s The Secrets of Happy Families.  The book takes the best, recent insights on how groups/organizations perform and applies it to families and raising kids.  This results in surprising suggestions like using agile development principles to make getting kids to school on time less stressful or coming together to write down and display family mission statements.  Feiler is non-doctrinaire in his writing, avoiding “must do” and “top 7” lists in favor of a series of surprising, useful, often counter-intuitive recommendations, many of which seem worth a real shot.

Outside of the book’s relevance for anyone raising kids, The Secrets of Happy Families is also a great refresher on new thinking in organizational behavior.  There’s lots to mine here, and I thought Feiler’s summary of four factors for better group decision-making were particularly on point.  (all the quotations below are from The Secrets of Happy Families).

  1. Too Few Cooks Spoil the Broth.  This addresses the wisdom of crowds (Surowiecki) and how large groups with the right information can be smarter than the smartest person in the group.  The part that I found most interesting was: “Uzzi [a sociologist] analyzed 321 Broadway musicals and found that teams of people who had never met did not work well together and produced more flops.  Meanwhile, groups that had collaborated before were also not that successful, because they tended to rehash ideas and not come up with fresh concepts.  The sweet spot was a mix of strong and weak ties, where trust existed but new ideas could flow.”  To me this speaks to the need to have fluidity of both people and ideas (often from outside the organization) to get to the best decisions.
  2. Vote first, talk later. “I was shocked to learn that groups are better at making decisions if participants express their views at the start of a meeting before they’ve had a chance to listen to anybody else.  Countless studies have shown that once the discussion begins, the people who speak first tend to persuade others of their position, even when their positions are wrong.  Daniel Kahneman offered a helpful blueprint. ‘A simple rule can help: before an issue is discussed, all members should be asked to write a very brief summary of their position.’   This seems like the easiest tactic of all to employ – simply ask people to write down what they think at the start of an important conversation.
  3. Hold a premortem.  “As the conversation reaches a climax, it’s important to encourage people to express their true opinions, especially if they disagree with the group…psychologist Gary Klein calls [this] a ‘premortem.’  When teams engage in prospective hindsight…they increase their ability to identify what might possibly go wrong…[e.g.] ‘Let’s imagine it’s a year from now.  We’re following this plan, and it hasn’t worked out.  Let’s write down what we think would have gone wrong. Klein says the main value of a premortem is to legitimize doubts and let skeptics voice their concerns.”     What’s powerful about this is that it engages us in a concrete thought experiment that grounds a conversation of “what if’s” and complex dependencies.  By placing ourselves in a future space, we can see the decision from a new vantage point and understand the risks and opportunities of the different paths we might take.
  4. The Law of Two Women.  “One night I was having dinner with an executive at Google, and I asked him to tell me the most significant change he’s seen in how his company runs meetings.  Without hesitating, he told me they always make sure there is more than one woman in the room.  He then told me about the study that led to this principle…”  I won’t summarize the subsequent MIT study – the punchline is “groups that had a higher proportion of females were more effective.  These groups were more sensitive to input from everyone, more capable of reaching compromise, and more efficient at making decisions.”      This one is fascinating and, again, very easy to implement.

Increasingly I’m coming to appreciate the importance and power of small groups that come together to make decisions.  I’m also coming to understand that just putting a handful of smart, effective people together and saying “be an effective group” is a pretty terrible strategy.  You need trust and safety and mutual investment and a sense of shared purpose and higher goals.  And you also benefit greatly from tactics that are proven to result in better decisions.

This list seems like a great way to start the important work of making your groups as high-performing as the individuals in them.

The risk of being a bull

Time is the scarcest of all professional resources, yet we never seem to get enough of it.  A recent conversation with a friend and advisor helped me understand that one of my greatest professional strengths and joys might be exacerbating my time problem.

Earlier in my career, success was doing the right thing in a challenging situation.  Then later on success becam: me, my team, or my organization doing the right thing.

As my span of responsibility has grown, I cannot do everything and I can’t be – and shouldn’t be – involved in every step from here to there.  Obvious enough.  So, outside of work that’s on my plate, I focus my energies on helping those around me solve problems.  I love doing this and I’m generally pretty good at it, which makes it both is intellectually and emotionally rewarding.  I get to problem-solve (fun!) and help a colleague (fun! fun!).  Bingo!

The helpful but very sobering insight is that my enjoyment and capacity at this kind of problem-solving might not be the right end-game.  Because it is so rewarding and because the outcomes are (often) positive – both practically and emotionally – have I created a learned response and, like the proverbial bull seeing a waving red cloth, do I, when presented with a situation in which I might be helpful, just jump in and help?

Why might this be a bad thing?

The suggestion was that consistently helping to solve a set of problems keeps me in the business (forever) of being involved in helping solve those sorts of problems – without ever asking the question: what sort of problems do I want, in the long run, to be in the business of solving?  For example, it could be that I always want to have a role to play in key hiring decisions or important strategic choices, but is there another set of situations that other people are better equipped and better positioned to resolve in the long term?

If so, when I’m presented with a cool, fun, challenging and interesting situation, the first question I should ask myself isn’t “what should we do here?” but rather “is this the kind of problem I should be in the business of helping solve in the long term?”  If it is, great.  If not, how would I act differently?

Whenever I’m looking for advice about a tough situation, working through the solution with a respected colleague teaches me something.  But that process of osmosis could be accelerated by a much more explicit, meta-conversation about how I’m engaging with the problem and how my more experienced colleague is coming up with different and better approaches and solutions to that same problem.

That’s the conversation I suspect I need to be having more often.

Harder, requiring different muscles, and, toughest of all, forcing me to look at all that great short-term feedback I’m getting and say: this thing that I love doing might just be part of the reason I have too little time on my hands.