But that’s what I’d said!

There’s a stage in one’s professional life that is defined by spending our days figuring out right answers. Do this analysis. Value this company. Research this donor. Share your recommended plan of action.

This is an important skill to develop – we need to be able to understand a problem, take it apart, find out an answer and share that answer with others. But the half-life on this sort of approach is shorter than it initially appears. More often than not, the right answer is only worth the paper it’s written on, since what really matters is what people do. Indeed, Nate Silver’s great book The Signal and the Noise points out that pundits with the strongest opinions are most often wrong, even though they of course get the most air time. One of the tough realizations as we progress in our careers is that the right answer or the best analysis is nearly always a small part of the equation in getting people to act.

At a certain point, what the world is asking of us is that we to get out of the audience. The world doesn’t need more critics, sitting back with arms akimbo, taking mental notes for tomorrow’s water cooler conversation. We need more protagonists, people willing to take the risk of standing on stage, being on the line to make things happen.

What role are you playing?

Here’s a nice test: what do you think, and do, each time something goes wrong when you had been on the other side of the argument? What goes through your head each time someone else says what you were thinking (or said) in last week’s meeting, but it’s their comment that turns the conversation?

The safe, self-validating approach is to say, “You see, they should listen to me. I was right.”

But what really makes change is to use that as a moment of introspection to ask, “What is it that I’m doing, or not doing, that my great ideas aren’t shifting the way people think and act?”

And if it turns out that the reason they listened to that other gal, and not to you, is because of who she is – the experience she has or the position she holds – then go ahead and spend your time trying to influence her thinking. That counts too.

Just finding the answers, though, isn’t nearly enough. You can do more.

(Of course, the same logic applies to “I created great art, it’s not my fault that no one wants to see it.”)

Benevolent dictator?

Another gem of an exchange with my son, whose recently-acquired ability to read (my open laptop) has opened up a whole new set of conversations.

Him: “Daddy, is Generosity Day like a new national holiday?”

Me: “Sure, I guess it is.”

Him: “So will people celebrate it just in the United States or everywhere in world?”

Me: “Well, I hope everywhere, but probably it will be more in the United States because Valentine’s Day is such a big holiday here.”

Him: “And will everyone celebrate it?”

Me: “I don’t think everyone will.  But we’re going to try to get as many people as possible to celebrate it.”

Him: “Yeah, it can’t be everyone…(pause).  It couldn’t be like that unless you were Emperor or King of the World or something like that.”

*                             *                             *                             *                             *                             *

In the old days, if you wanted a zillion people to do something new and different and exciting, you had to be King of the World, or some close approximation thereof.  Now you need a great idea, an audience, and a bunch of allies.   That’s it.

It is indeed a brave new world, if you’re willing to take that leap.

Now if only I were Emperor…..

The answer-outcome paradox

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the gap between finding the right answers and getting to the right outcomes.

A few years ago, a close friend of mine was working for a think tank that was hired to consult for the Ministry of Education of a small country.  The team, which was made up mostly of PhDs who specialize in education, was asked to create the blueprint, design, and launch of the country’s higher education system.  I was petrified to imagine a group of researchers being asked to create a living system that would consistently deliver high-quality educational outcomes.

The premise was that the people who knew most (analytically) about higher education would be the best people to solve this problem.

I’m a problem-solving kind of guy, so it’s taken a combination of observation, deduction, and advice from peers and mentors for me to come around to the idea that the analytical skills I’d been trained to develop all my life – from school grades to the SATs and GMATs to the whole system of admission to college and graduate school – aren’t the end game, they’re the starting point.

You’d never guess this was the case by looking at our institutions of higher education, which by and large are run by professors who are mostly in the answer-finding business.  It’s true that there is an occasional nod to things like team-building, communication and influencing skills, coaching, self-reflection, etc., but these inevitably are billed as “soft” skills somehow different and apart from the hard (read: real) skills that matter.

If you’re an “answers” kind of person, it a cop-out to blame poor outcomes on others’ inability to see the solution you saw all along.  If a path not taken – one that you believed in – was the right one, then the first question to ask was what you could have done differently to get your team, or your organization, to that outcome.

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I missed you

Between trying to catch up on work and a publishing glitch this morning, there was a gap in my blog posts.

I was talking to one blog reader yesterday who said, “What happened?  You didn’t post today.”

That’s great news.  If you want to influence, if you want to lead, if you want to have voice and influence, the three words you most want to hear are “I missed you.”

Think about all the noise and commotion and all the competition for people’s attention.  Think about big corporations spending millions to find a way to get to all the people who are TiVoing their favorite shows and SPAM filtering their emails and do-not-calling at home.  Think of all the BlackBerry-buzzing, iPhone-app using, Kindle-reading cacophony of communication careening through everyone’s days.

If you have broken through so much that you’re missed, you’re doing well.  And if you’re missed by 100 or 1,000 of the right people (for you!), you’ve arrived.

(Just to clarify, this post isn’t about blogging.  It’s about your organization, your product, your program, your community, your career, your voice.    It’s about you.)

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