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Tuesday, July 03, 2020

Always give yourself time

Sufficient time is the key to making personal changes that stick.

One of the worst aspects of modern working life is the constant pressure to hurry. Not only does it create needless stress and tension, it goes a long way to making people seem dumber and more resistant to change than they are. If you want to make some personal—or organizational —changes, and make them stick, slow down and give yourself some time and space in which to work.
In all the discussion on the subject of personal or organizational development, one subject that occurs far too rarely is time: the necessity of giving yourself and others sufficient time to allow change and development to take place properly. Time is an essential component in any change involving human beings. Despite all the rush in today’s world, and the constant demands for the gratification of desires now, almost any progress people make in their lives takes far, far longer than they usually allow for.

Time to learn

Your first requirement should be plenty of free time to learn, to think, to reflect, and to internalize fresh ideas. Everyone has the experience of thinking they know something, only to find they’ve forgotten it after a few days. Say you’re learning another language. In the class, what the teacher says is clear and obvious. You know you have it straight this time. But 24 hours later it’s gone. Your brain isn’t a bag that you can stuff with knowledge and ideas and expect them to stay there. Most people’s brains are more like boxes full of holes that allow a great portion of whatever is put in to escape rather quickly. New learning is “liquid” and easily runs out through the holes. Only by repeating the learning experience, typically many times. can you make whatever you’re trying to learn “sticky” enough to stay put.

Time to see patterns

You also need time to reflect and see the links between items or areas of knowledge. The human brain finds it hard to hang on to disconnected pieces of information. Unlike a computer disc, it doesn’t cope well with large amounts of more or less random data. What it does best is see connections, linking information together and remembering the patterns, not the individual bits and pieces of data. Remembering a principle is far easier than recalling facts or some specific set of procedures. Do you see such links instantly? Usually not. It takes time to register them fully and understand them well enough to recall them whenever you want.

Time to think

Thinking time is also vital: time to plan, to prioritize, and to choose how best to expend your attention and energy. Doing anything in a rush increases the risks of missing key elements, making needless mistakes, and wasting effort. I’m somewhat suspicious of today’s fashion for simply getting things done. Which things? For what purpose? Are they the right things anyway? All the to-do techniques and software programs may make it easier to “recall” tasks and list them in some kind of order, but they don’t seem to me to help much with recognizing how much garbage doesn’t need to be on the to-do list at all. Lists easily become clogged with items if you don’t allocate enough time to thinking carefully about what you are doing. It’s a good idea to periodically go through any to-do list to see how many items can simply be dumped, with little effect other than saving valuable time and effort.

Time to change

Of course, change itself also takes time. You aren’t going to be successful with every change or idea for development every time. Many people, faced with change, behave like the investor who buys a stock today and sells it immediately if it doesn’t double their money overnight. Experienced investors allow enough time to grow their money steadily. They don’t get into situations where they must act on a particular day, since that may force them to buy or sell when the market is unfavorable. They don’t become ecstatic at every up-tick in the indexes, or depressed by every down day. They take the long perspective. Warren Buffett is famous for saying the best way to treat the ups and downs of the market is never to think about them at all. His kind of steady, thoughtful, long-term investment strategy works just as well for implementing change as it has for building his enormous fortune. Focusing on small, consistent improvements builds a solid foundation for long-term alterations that go deep enough to last.

Time to be creative

Finally, you need time to be creative. I’m not talking about sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. That’s a romantic idea that bears no relation to what genuinely creative people do. In all those “gaps” where they appear to be doing nothing at all, the world’s outstanding creative minds are hard at work reflecting, ruminating, “noodling” with odd ideas: tinkering with patterns and unexpected connections. What you see as the result is a mental iceberg: nearly all the activity that brought it about is hidden below the surface.

Most people don’t achieve anywhere near their creative potential because they never give themselves time to do so. They’re so conditioned to quick action that they give up on fresh thinking long before it has a chance to develop into anything. Don’t make the same mistake. Time spent day-dreaming or running over odd ideas in your head is the “soil” in which creative ideas grow.

Give yourself time. Give others time. It’s essential, if you truly want to improve your own prospects and advance a more civilized way of living and working.



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Tuesday, June 05, 2020

Do you dare to be different?

A “slow” way to make long-term, positive change


People come to blogs like this one seeking to make change. But because most have been conditioned by our “I want it all and I want it now“ society, they are tempted to look for quick and easy ways to become whatever they want to be, or achieve whatever they want to achieve. That’s not a very sensible way to look at things. After all, it’s taken you 20, 30, 40, 50, or more years to get the way you are. What makes you think that you can change that in days or weeks?

If you want to be different, there are three essential steps. Missing out even on one of them will most likely keep you pretty much where you are today. That’s because every time you push hard in the new direction that you want to go, you’ll find that your old habits and ways of thinking push right back. Every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. The harder you push and the faster you try to go, the stronger the reaction you’ll encounter. Try these steps instead. The key to making quicker process is a paradox: slow down more.

Slow down

You won’t break out of your old habits by rushing. When people are under pressure, they don’t have energy to try anything new. They’re afraid of risks. They can’t face the idea of stirring up opposition. So they reach for whatever they’ve done before, or for some supposedly “tried-and-true” answer. As a result, they rush headlong down the same old paths into the same old messes. If you refuse to be hurried, surprising ideas and opportunities may present themselves. Think of a garden. You can try to force the plants to grow quickly by pouring on the fertilizer, but it rarely produces much beyond quick, lush growth that soon becomes weak and collapses under the first strong wind or heavy rain. Like many of today’s whiz-kid managers, things look great until tough times come along. Then all the weaknesses show and you can see there are no strong roots to provide long-term survival.

Give yourself time and space. Never be in a hurry. Allow time for thinking, musing, just noodling around in your head with no apparent purpose. Give space in your thinking for ideas you haven’t had yet; allow openings for sniffing out the ideas of others. Haste is the enemy of creativity. Being busy all the time is a great way to stop any possibility of significant change.

Rushing means that you have to tackle all problems head-on. That stirs up the maximum amount of opposition and push-back. So just at the time when you want to make fastest progress, you are making sure that you meet the most problems. By slowing down, you will make fewer waves and cause less upset. You will also be able to creep up on blockages and find ways around them, instead of throwing yourself at them in a frontal attack.

Let go

Let growth happen. New ideas usually arrive unexpectedly. Whenever they do, allow them to be heard. Learn to be alert always for good ideas and opportunities for breakthrough. Be flexible and grab opportunities when they come. Don’t sit back and expect another one to be along in a moment. The universe isn’t like that. The idea or opportunity you just ignored may have been the best one you’ll ever have.

Keep learning and moving. If something works, there’s a natural tendency to stop right there and think you’ve reached Nirvana. We all have a tendency to hang on to our successes and go on repeating them as long as we can. Resist. Say “thanks” and move on. Don’t cling to your achievements. Let them go to make way for more failures and new ideas. The achievements you cling to and repeat are the ones that are most likely to turn into your greatest failures, if you persist in them past their "sell by" date. Plus you’ll have spoiled the recollection of them for all time.

Open up

Shut down the critic inside your head. Ignore it. Tell it to go pester someone else. Allow yourself to wander aimlessly. Explore ideas and possibilities that your inner critic tells you are useless. Constant judgment and criticism are enemies of change. Listening to your inner critic will convince you every idea you have, every opportunity that you consider, every change you plan or make are worthless. The truly worthless element is that nagging inner voice. Sometimes the best way to deal with it is just to laugh.

If something is becoming habitual, dump it. Habits are the iron bands that hold you in your current ways of thinking and behaving. No one ever made a breakthrough without letting go of whatever has become habitual and automatic. Breaking those tough old habits won’t be easy. You may have to endure some “cold turkey.” It will be well worth it.

Keep a wide open mind. Real growth often happens well away from where we intend it to. You never know when an idea will hit you, or you’ll meet someone, completely by chance, who will have a profound and wonderful impact on your life. Don’t create your own artificial boundaries by deciding in advance what you will learn from and what you will ignore. Life doesn’t come in neat packages, clearly labeled “learning opportunity.”

Despise dogma. Dogma is the product of closed minds. It’s an idea with a threat attached. If you suffer from dogma, get it out of your life. Let it go. Kick it out. Try thinking the opposite. Treat it like a crazy joke. Do anything you can to get rid of it. It’s the greatest source of all of barriers to change.



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Tuesday, May 22, 2020

How useful is the Pareto Principle?

The Pareto Principle is often quoted as a way to save time and effort and thus lower pressure. In theory, it’s a great idea. And, if you look back at the past, it can seem quite easy to identify the 20% of situations, actions, or even people that generated 80% of the returns. But is it quite as simple as it appears? The Coyote investigates.

The Pareto Principle states that 80% of the results from any series of actions are caused by 20% of the actions themselves. In other words, most of the results we get because of a minority of our actions. The rest are either wasted or produce little of value. This sounds like a useful observation. However, before you decide the Pareto Principle is true and can be used to guide your actions, I want to ask some important questions.
  1. Can you identify which actions make up the useful 20%? And can you do so in advance? We have to live forwards in time, so to be useful a principle has to be predictive.

  2. Going forward, will this useful 20% still contain more or less the same actions? If it doesn’t, repeating them won’t produce any benefit.

Identifying the “magic 20%”

Let’s take the first question. It’s easy to feel intuitively that most results arise from a small group of actions. The Pareto Principle feels immediately valid. It also feels like a practical tool. Identify the “magic 20%” of actions and you can more or less dispense with the other 80% without much impact on your results. What a marvelous saving of time and effort.

Of course, this only works if these conditions hold true:
  1. You can reliably distinguish the 20% of actions that produce that disproportionate amount of benefits.

  2. These actions or behaviors remain the same for long enough to produce enough benefits to make a difference. If they change more rapidly, not only will repeating them be useless, it might even prove harmful. History contains many instances of people clinging on to actions that used to be helpful, long after they have ceased to be anything of the kind.

  3. The beneficial 80% of results come from single, identifiable actions—or at least small, obviously-linked groups of them.
Is all of this this true? Can you distinguish, reliably, which 20% of actions matter? Don’t some results rely on the interaction of large numbers of events, choices, actions and decisions? Can we know which count and which don’t? What if we dropped some, only to find later that they were essential in some way? Maybe they only produce good results in combination? Cutting seemingly unnecessary actions because they don’t obviously fit into the “magic 20%” might turn out to be a poor idea.

What about change?

How long will the beneficial actions remain valid? Change can come quickly and unexpectedly. Sticking with what used to work might become a liability in a fast-changing world. And can you be certain that is it always the same 20% of actions that count?

The Pareto Principle is perhaps most often applied to sales. Suppose you could reliably identify the 20% of sales calls that produced 80% of the orders you took this week. How much might the success of those calls rely on the market intelligence, knowledge and simple practice you gained by making the other 80%? Could you miss out all the rest, or even a significant number of them? That would include new customers being encouraged to place larger orders, most prospects and those former customers who might be won back from a competitor.

Suppose that this week, 20% of your calls do produce 80% of your sales. Pareto rules! Next week, you need to sell just as much. Will you visit the same 20% of customers and receive the same orders? Surely that’s unlikely. They only just placed an order. Most, maybe all, need to use up that order before buying again. Fine. You just need to find another 20%. But how? Everyone else was in the “unproductive” 80% last week. Why should that change?

What’s going on? My guess is that:
  1. The Pareto Principle distinguishes groups you can only find after the event, once you can see what worked and what didn’t.

  2. The 80:20 proportion only works over quite long periods. Take any shorter period and it’s much less likely to be correct. 80% of sales might come from 20% of customers over a year or more, but not over a month or a quarter.

  3. The membership of the “magic 20%” of people, behaviors, or actions shifts. Wait long enough and just about everyone will sometime be part of that 20% group.
If my reasoning is sound, the Principle is almost worthless as a guide to future action, which is how it’s most often used. There may be some actions or people (20% again? Who knows?) that figure so rarely in the “magic group” they could be removed without loss. There may be some regular members of that group that could be identified and given more focus and investment. Either way, what’s needed is time, careful observation and recording over many occasions, good records, and much patience and reflection. None of these are actions or qualities much associated with today’s frenetic organizational pace.

I’m not saying Pareto is wrong. I don’t know. I’m not sure anyone has ever done the lengthy and extensive research needed to find out. I’m merely suggesting it’s not the universally applicable principle, or the simple course of action, or the practical guide to decisions that we’ve been asked to believe it is.

To sum up

I think the Pareto Principle has great intuitive attractiveness—which says little about whether or not it works, nor how it works (if it does). However, these questions remain unresolved for me:
  1. How do you know which 20% is producing the results? Can you ever find out at a time when the knowledge might be useful? I suspect you can usually only find the answer—if there is one—after the event. And if that’s so, it leads me to a second question.

  2. Is it always the same 20%? If it’s not (and I suspect it isn’t), maybe the whole 100% will be in that magic 20% group sometime. And if that’s true, the Principle applies only to a specific time period (if it applies at all).

  3. Are the beneficial results caused by either single actions, or small, readily identifiable groups of actions? If they come from complex patterns of linked causes and effects, it may be impossible, in practical terms, to identify the “magic 20%” under any circumstances.
If any of these concerns are valid, the whole idea becomes fairly worthless as a guide to future action or allocating resources (which is how people try to use it). Maybe its real use lies in encouraging exploration. Looking for the “magic 20%” might well throw up all kinds of useful data and insights, whether or not you ever find exactly what you were looking for at the start.



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Thursday, May 10, 2020

Kiss the KISS principle goodbye

We all know the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. I’ve hated it for years and squirm every time I hear someone use it. Here’s why.
We’ve long been advised by many gurus to Keep It Simple, Stupid—usually abbreviated to KISS. I’ve often wondered precisely what this means. Does it just mean that that it’s foolish to embrace complexity, because people are so stupid you have to make everything simple . . . or they’ll be unable to grasp any of it? Or does it mean that keeping it simple is necessary because you are stupid, so any complexity is bound to be too much for you?

What about situations, ideas, or concepts that are naturally complex? Are you supposed to simplify them regardless of whether this makes them unintelligible or nonsensical? Or ignore them, just because they aren’t simple?

There are two principal kinds of simplicity. One is easily produced: take a quick, superficial view, based on some scrappy sound-bite, and ignore anything that might add complexity. Many examples can be found in most organizations, where complex ideas are reduced to some kind of slogan, like “Delight the customer,” “Be the lowest cost producer,” or “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

The other kind of simplicity is tough, demanding, and may take years to achieve. That comes from long and careful thought, thorough research, and a profound understanding of all the elements involved. It has almost nothing in common with the superficial simplicity that is demanded by Hamburger Management. It seems simple only because you don’t see the huge amount of work that has gone into it, stripping away all the inessentials to get at the fundamental meaning beneath.

All too many corporate managers only understand the first kind of simplicity. They have learned how to use buzzwords without any real understanding of the processes they (very partially) describe. They look around and see the grass looks much greener over the fence in the other guy's organization, so they snatch up whatever they believe the other guy is doing and apply it instantly, usually understanding little or nothing more about it. Let me let you into a secret. The grass very often looks greener over there for one reason only: it’s had greater applications of BS than yours has.

Simplicity Type 1—the quick and dirty kind—fits the KISS principle exactly. Everything is kept simple (not gradually and painstakingly made clearer and simpler to grasp) by ignoring the complex bits and skimming over anything challenging to the mind.

Hamburger Managers like it because they assume, arrogantly, that others are indeed stupid, and couldn’t grasp anything more complex. Besides, they don’t want to “waste” time explaining or answering questions (or, still worse, having to defend what they are doing). In true command-and-control fashion, they shout out the slogans and expect everyone else to jump to attention, salute, and comply.

Of course, the KISS principle also applies because these macho types are stupid themselves. They haven’t the determination, patience, or (often) brain power to work through to Simplicity Type 2: the kind you only reach because you know the topic in such depth that you can step beyond superficial complexity and point straight to the essentials.

Forget slogans like KISS. Problematic complexity almost always has a single cause: you haven’t taken long enough, or thought hard enough, to grasp the topic fully, so explaining or teaching it gets muddled and wanders off the point. The only way to produce the crisp, elegant, utterly comprehensible “simplicities” of the greatest minds is the same way they they did it: hard work and steady application to learning.



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Wednesday, April 18, 2020

A failing grade for the world’s business schools?

Are they a route towards a solution to today’s workplace issues; or a major part of the problem?

A little while ago, I posted an article about Professor Russell Ackoff’s “Management f-Laws.” Professor Ackoff, now 88 years old, has a mind as sharp as a razor and a subversive wit to match. These laws cleverly expose many of today’s conventional management ideas and assumptions as flaws in the process of running a business, not well-established steps to success as is usually believed. Here’s Ackoff’s take on business schools.
Recently, Professor Ackoff was in London to promote his book. He was interviewed by Peter Day, the dean of British business correspondents, and the interviews are posted on the BBC’s web site. In this two-part article. I want to draw your attention to Professor Ackoff’s thinking about two issues critical to leadership and management: the role of business schools, and the impact of our modern culture of suppressing or denying many of our mistakes.

Here are some choice extracts from what Professor Ackoff had to say about business schools:
Business schools are way back. They’re behind even corporate practice. They are a major obstruction.

Information is more valuable than data, and knowledge more valuable than information, and understanding more valuable than knowledge. We devote all of our time and energy to information and a little bit to knowledge. None to understanding and still less to wisdom.
Heady stuff, but not, I suspect, that far from the truth in many cases. Hamburger Management has infiltrated business schools in a big way, causing them to turn out mostly people polished in applying today’s orthodox style of macho, finance-obsessed, short-term management, not knowledgeable, thinking professionals equipped to make up their own minds and challenge sloppy thinking.

Peter Day summarizes Ackoff’s observations on business schools like this:
When he retired from the Wharton School in 1986, Professor Ackoff wickedly identified three contributions of a business school education:
  • It gives students a vocabulary that enables them to speak with authority on things they do not understand.
  • It gives them a set of operating principles that enable them to withstand any amount of disconfirming evidence.
  • It gives them a ticket to a job where they can learn something about management.
Let’s consider each of these points from a Slow Leadership perspective.

Does an MBA help people to speak with authority on things that they don’t understand? I suspect it does, at least in this sense. To understand something fully takes time and experience, plus a willingness to reflect deeply on what you have observed over many different situations. It used to be that expertise went with age; mostly because age allowed for enough time to have passed, not because older people are automatically wiser. Now bright, young MBAs are assumed to know more than managers twice their age.

Older people are often assumed to be out-of-date, technologically illiterate, incapable of grasping new ideas. Is this the truth?

Does time at a business school count for so much more than experience doing a management job? Older people are often assumed to be out-of-date, technologically illiterate, incapable of grasping new ideas. Is this the truth? No, just another one of those conventional cultural myths that bedevil all societies, like wearing top hats or growing luxuriant whiskers marked out Victorian times. There are older people who refuse to stay current, but I strongly suspect that they were just as reactionary when they were 20 as today, when they are 60 or older. There are many young people who care nothing about new ideas, preferring to rely on mindless slogans and whatever is the currently fashionable clap-trap. Getting an MBA gives you access to today’s fashionable buzzwords, that’s for sure. I’m not convinced it always offers much else. Maybe that’s why so many businesses suffer from jargon-monoxide poisoning and creeping consultantitis.

In place of experience, we tend to rely on qualifications. Fine, if it’s also proof of some level of knowledge and hands-on training, as in the case of doctors. Not so good, if all it means is that you were able to absorb theoretical information and write term papers, as in the case of many MBAs.

What about the idea that business school student absorb a set of principles that are proof against all subsequent evidence that they are wrong?

. . . a whole generation of obsolescent executives, applying out-moded ideas together and never noticing they were doing it.

Also true. When I worked in management and executive posts, I came across hundreds of managers who had shown neither the inclination, nor the wit, to keep their knowledge up to date. Most relied entirely on a few basic principles they had learned maybe 25 years ago. They didn’t question them, because they had nothing to put in their place. Besides, questioning them would have taken time and thought, and they never slowed down enough to apply either. Since they were surrounded by others behaving in exactly similar ways, they appeared to fit in perfectly: a whole generation of obsolescent executives, applying out-moded ideas together and never noticing they were doing it.

The last of Peter Day’s points does at least offer hope. The best way to learn about management and business is by doing it. You’ll get ample experience and have the chance to test your ideas in realistic situations. So far so good.

There’s one catch. You have to be willing both to make mistakes and reflect on them honestly afterwards. Pushing them aside, or hiding them from everyone (including yourself), renders this chance for learning null and void. And it’s not just mistakes arising from what you did that count. More problems are caused by mistakes based on not doing what you ought to have done.

But that’s the topic of part two of this article.



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Monday, April 16, 2020

If you want to be more creative, give yourself more time

If you want the people in your team to be more creative, the same applies to them.

In all the discussion about creativity, one subject that rarely occurs is time: the necessity of giving yourself enough time to allow the creative process to happen. Maybe we’re too influenced by the Hollywood idea of the sudden flash of brilliant insight, so we ignore the patient period of thinking and ruminating essential for any flash of inspiration to happen. Given the rush in today’s world, and the constant demands for instant gratification, we’re in danger of becoming steadily less creative—right when we need it most.

Getting creative ideas takes far longer than people usually allow. It’s not the idea itself—that may come in an instant—it’s the preparation, plus the time needed afterwards to check it out, explain it to others, and turn it into a practical plan of action. Creativity isn’t something that you can ignore for years, then expect to be able to switch on right away. It needs practice, nurturing, fuel, time to grow, time to allow the basic ingredients to swirl around inside your head in chaotic form, until one day something clicks and the idea is there.
How do you make this time? The simplest way is to arrange your day to stop wasting so much of the time you already have. To-do lists and similar organizational tools can help, but they mostly make it easier to recall objectives and track tasks, by putting them into some kind of order. Useful stuff, but not critical to creativity. Finding more time for creativity needs you to recognize how much garbage doesn’t need to be on your calendar or to-do list at all. Many items can simply be dumped: pointless meetings, reading and sending endless e-mails, wasting time on reports designed to cover someone’s backside, or team co-ordination meetings when there’s nothing to co-ordinate. Have nothing to do with Instant Messages. Stop people copying you on e-mails of no consequence. Don’t waste time gossiping or swapping e-mail jokes. Turn your cellphone off sometimes. Refuse to become a slave to a BlackBerry. There’s plenty of time really, so long as you stop allowing it to be frittered away on rubbish like this. Set aside time to think and defend it as ferociously as a lioness defends her cubs.

Most people don’t achieve anywhere near their full creative potential just because they never give themselves time to do so. They’re so conditioned to quick action that they give up on fresh thinking long before it has any chance to develop. Don’t make the same mistake.

One of the worst aspects of modern life is the constant hurry. Not only does it create stress and tension, it goes a long way to making us all seem dumber and less creative than we are. If you want to get your brain going, slow down . . . and give it some time and space to work.



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Tuesday, February 13, 2020

Start Practicing “Conscious Incompetence”

If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly first. In the real world, doing something new almost always means doing it poorly the first few times. Improvising never produces a polished result, but it's nearly always the first step towards creating something new and worthwhile. To do something new, you have to make a conscious decision to let yourself try things that you know you can't do. That's practicing "Conscious Incompetence."


Sir Winston Churchill wrote:
Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.
The way to get out from the herd and let adversity itself turn you into the next big success is to practice “Conscious Incompetence.”

Why do you need it? To make time and space for learning. What is it like when you do something you haven’t done before? You do a pretty poor job of it. You do it badly. There’s no other way to learn. If you’re only willing to do things well, you can’t improvise or do anything new. To develop your potential you must start to cultivate a new skill: the skill of “Conscious Incompetence.”

In the world of work, there is so much pressure for doing things correctly from the start that most people live in a constant state of anxiety. If you aren’t allowed a period of grace to learn by doing things badly, you’d better stick just to what you know you can do already. If you’re to “hit the ground running” in a business that has “no room for passengers,” you must either do everything competently from the start or risk being pushed aside. The result of such needless torment is that people draw back from new areas. They’ve survived to the point of doing something—anything—capably, so they don’t want to risk themselves by stepping outside this hard-won comfort zone.

“So what exactly is it?”

“Conscious Incompetence” is doing something that you know you can’t yet do, let alone do well, for the purpose of learning how to do it better. It’s allowing yourself to make a mess and get things wrong, because you’ll never know how to do better until you get past that point. And it’s the basis of all learning. If you can’t allow yourself to make mistakes and probably look silly doing it; if you can’t allow yourself to attempt what you know you won’t be able to do at first; if you can’t allow yourself to take the risk of screwing up; then you also can’t allow yourself to learn or develop. And if your boss or your organization demand near perfection from the first moment, they’re fools. The only result will be employees who never try anything new at all.

“Conscious Incompetence” should be required behavior in every organization. This is true for individuals, teams, and the whole corporation too. The world makes unavoidable and unexpected demands on us. Such demands force us along new paths, if we want to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs. Improvising and learning by doing are perfectly natural human activities. So are making a mess, failing the first few times, and getting in a muddle with new ideas, but only making them deliberate will allow us to use them effectively, whenever and wherever and however we want—without feeling so embarrassed or silly that we resolve not to risk either again.

“How do I start?”

By seeing what might work and trying it, even if you’re certain that you’ll do it badly at first. This requires four steps:

Step 1: Ask yourself, “Do I think this might be a useful idea or skill?”
If the answer is “yes,” consider how you can try it out. It’s very easy to be misled by appearances or the opinions of others. Those who advised major corporations to indulge in creative accounting were simply giving opinions. Were their opinions correct? Events have proven they were not. What appears to be new and useful maybe a delusion or a miracle. You won’t know until you try.

This sounds simple, but it’s amazing how often managers turn down most fresh options without even trying them, purely because they aren’t things they know they can already do well. If what you try doesn’t work, drop it. But at least you now know that it isn’t really an option, and—far more important—you know why.

Don’t accept conventional wisdom. Don’t make easy assumptions (to assume, it is said, is usually to make an ass out of U and me). Distinguish causes from their effects. Explore, poke, probe and question. Don’t worry what others think. What passes for thinking most of the time within organizations is merely the rearrangement of old habits and preset opinions. As the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who was neither troubled by modesty nor inhibited in his comments on others, once wrote:
Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.
Merely by trying things others ignore or turn down without question, you’ll build an enviable reputation as an outstanding creative thinker.

Step 2: Ask yourself, “What tells me that the conventional answer to this is true?”
You need to be clear about what is going on. If someone tells you, “we have a retention problem,” take the time to ask whether that is true; and if you think it may be, take the next step and explore what you can see, hear or experience that actually tells you that’s the problem that exists.

Confusion is the enemy of effective judgment. Perhaps a problem does exist, but if you’re confused about its nature and extent, there is little chance that you can take correct decisions on what to do about it.

The fear that is generated in harsh times makes us hurry to premature action. If we believe we need to do something immediately, we have little option except to reach for the conventional solution. Yet most of our requirement for immediate action comes from anxiety, not reality. Few things that occur in organizations demand instant responses. Even half an hour of focused thought can prevent disaster and a major loss of face.

Make a list of the “proofs” that demonstrate the problem. You will need this for the next step.

Step 3: Ask “why not?” repeatedly until exhausted all the options you can discover.
“Why?” and “Why not?” are the most useful questions in the universe. Perhaps that’s why toddlers use it so often. They haven’t yet had it knocked out of them by hostile authority figures. They also need to learn a whole lot in a hurry and know, instinctively, that asking “why?” and “why not?” all the time is the best way to do it. Most parents find their child’s persistence in asking “why not?” soon becomes maddening. Most bosses feel exactly the same way about their subordinates. Both groups are wrong. Asking “why not?” can be uncomfortable, but it is nearly always productive.

Step 4: Give yourself (and those who work for you) permission to improvise and try new approaches, even if you all get it wrong first time.
Suppose that Brad is afraid of anything that might suggest incompetence or threaten failure. Many high performers are. They’re typically extremely superstitious about risking even the possibility of failure, because they have never experienced it in their past.

Brad is faced with an important decision. He wants to shine—and he really, really doesn’t want to make a mistake, or take any risks that he can avoid. The best way to meet both these objectives looks to be to use his knowledge and memory to see how this kind of decision has been made before, then replicate it.

Brad looks for this information in the past. He remembers what he has done that turned out well; recalls what he learned at business school and corporate training events; searches out industry best practice. He finds many things that he already knows, and uses this knowledge to make a decision that has the best chances of being correct in terms of past knowledge. That’s why he will probably never develop more than a fraction of his potential.

Susan comes up against the same decision, but decides it’s a great chance for stealthily practicing “Conscious Incompetence.” (It’s usually best done in secret. The conventional parts of the world tend to misunderstand.)

Now she adds the magic ingredient that is going to transform her career. She takes time to review all the other options she can think up that don’t match industry best practice, and aren’t in line with how things have been done before. She knows that she isn’t likely to be good at them, but checks them out just the same. By doing this, she has started learning something new, not just learning more about what she already knows.

When Susan starts to implement her idea, she makes many mistakes — she knew she had little previous competence to help her — but each one teaches her more. She persists in the face of failure. By the end of the project, Susan has accessed more of her potential, the company has gained a new approach, and senior management has recognized a talent in the making. Brad is still polishing his existing knowledge and wonders why his career isn’t progressing.

“Conscious Incompetence” (and the deliberate testing, improvisation, and experiential learning that it produces) should be required behavior in every organization. It is the only way for organizations, and the people in them, to access untapped ideas and unused potential and put them to practical use.

“Now I get it!”

In today’s harsh, macho, grab-and-go business environment, the real risks come from repeating the past and believing that you already know all the answers. Sure, experimenting takes time. Sure, there will be many mistakes and stumbles along the way. Sure, people will have to persist in new activities to become good at doing them. So what? That’s how things work. The only new things you can do instantly, without time to practice or develop a skill, are so inconsequential that they’re hardly worth doing at all.

And, sure, you’ll look silly many times. But not half as silly as you’ll look when it becomes clear that the idea that you rejected without fully considering or trying turns into a killer advantage for a competitor.



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Friday, February 09, 2020

What's Stopping You? (Part 3)

Deficit Thinking Ruins Lives

Whatever else you do, drop the habit of deficit thinking: concentrating on what’s wrong, what’s missing, and what’s not working, rather than what is. It’s a very poor way of looking at the world, and a major source of all kinds of limiting and negative beliefs.This is the third and final posting in this series. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

The principal source of negative beliefs is an ingrained habit of deficit thinking. This means focusing on gaps and weaknesses (the deficit) instead of what’s working (and can be made to work still better). It’s focusing on what you can’t do, not what you can. Instead of your dreams and ambitions propelling you forward, you let the gap between your current state and your desires become a source of frustration and depression.

All beliefs need regular scrutiny

You should challenge all your beliefs. All beliefs need to be checked regularly for accuracy and usefulness, so question them constantly. It’s tempting to take comfort in beliefs when life is difficult and the future is uncertain. Beliefs help you feel stable. You’ll feel uneasy about recognizing the ideas you trust could be false. But if you’re thinking clearly, you’ll see that a true belief will always stand up to scrutiny. It’s the false, outdated beliefs that must be moved out of your way. It is always worth asking yourself, “Is this true? How do I know it is true? Is it still to be trusted?”

Negative or limiting beliefs need to be subjected to especially rigorous questioning. Since they stop you from doing something, it’s hard to prove them false in any other way. When you try some idea, you find out how well it works. But when your beliefs prevent you from even making an attempts, you cannot know for sure what might have happened if you had. That’s why these belief are so pernicious: they remove options and possibilities without testing them—or, usually even considering them properly.

Here’s how to get rid of deficit thinking

Free yourself from the tyranny of useless beliefs

The commonest source of the fears that weigh us down is some unexamined belief about what is “normal” or “standard.” Here’s an example. One company I worked in had a common belief that anyone who hadn’t been promoted to a serious management position by the age of 30 was never going to be promoted. There was no basis for this belief, but it persisted. The results were predictable. People of 29 lived in constant fear of being “passed over.” By age 31, anyone not promoted had already left to find another job.

A good way to start clearing up the problems in your life is by throwing away all your old, wrongheaded beliefs and assumptions. Many of them will be plain wrong; others will be long past their “sell by” date. Most people carry around a heavy load of such mistaken beliefs about the world, themselves, and others: beliefs that stir up negative emotions and behaviors; assumptions that cause deficit thinking; and a host of other habitual ways of seeing the world virtually guaranteed to limit their achievements and cause them unnecessary suffering.

Take them out and question them mercilessly. If they’re still true and sound, you have nothing to lose. They’ll come out of the process unscathed. If they aren’t useful any more—and many, many won’t be—drop them immediately. Then make sure you repeat the process often. Today’s knowledge quickly gets stale. Yesterday’s beliefs soon become moldy. Don’t let them fill your mind with outdated ideas and cripple you with deficit thinking.



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Thursday, February 08, 2020

What's Stopping You? (Part 2)

In part 1 of this series, I considered the power and importance of essentially unprovable beliefs in determining people’s actions and outlook. In this part, the focus is on limiting beliefs: those that actively reduce the options open to you in dealing with whatever life brings. Limiting beliefs can block your future and confine your choices. Start by recognizing them and understanding how they work and what they do. Then counteract the effects by broadening your outlook and adding to your strengths. You don’t need these beliefs. Let them go.


Suppose you think that you have no chance of ever living the kind of life you want. Maybe someone in the past told you you would never make anything of yourself—and you believed them. Children are very impressionable. They easily believe what they’re told, especially by parents and others they look up to. You may have been living with this ever since. Something in your head keeps telling you it’s not worth making an effort, because you’ll never succeed.

Stop and ask yourself whether this is true or not. Was it ever true? Has it become a self-fulfilling prophecy? My guess is that it’s true as long as you believe it is. The minute you tell yourself you can do it, you can succeed, that will be true instead. Try it.

Limiting beliefs have power over you only because you treat them as the truth

Remember, a belief is no more than a thought or opinion that’s automatically treated as correct. In reality, they have no greater likelihood of being right than any other thoughts. But once we give them the label “belief,” we convince ourselves they’re different and must not be questioned. Whether they’re our own beliefs, or ones we’ve accepted from others, or the commonly-held beliefs of the society in which we live, they aren’t necessarily true—even if that’s how we’ve come to treat them.

There are at least four distinct sources of limiting beliefs:
  1. Hidden fears. Nearly everyone has a few long-standing, hidden, and irrational fears. My mother was deeply afraid of frogs, though she knew they couldn’t hurt her. For other people, it’s spiders or snakes (not so irrational here in Arizona!), flying or enclosed spaces. The one that’s most likely to block people’s careers is fear of risk. Any change involves risk. Life itself is risky. Beware telling yourself: “I could never do that.” It may be true (I could never be an Olympic athlete), but it may be nothing more than an irrational fear. Check it out. You have nothing to lose. Try kissing a few frogs to see if you can find a prince.

  2. Outdated habits. Outdated habits are like worn-out, shabby clothes. They may be comfortable but they look ridiculous to everyone else. Comfort is more powerful than most people believe. Look at all the people who know they ought to change something in their lives, but keep putting it off because they’re comfortable as they are. The clue is when you notice yourself thinking: “It’s going to be trouble. Probably more than it’s worth.” Ask yourself if you want to stay fat, dumb and happy. I guess many people do.

  3. Mixed-up values. Inner values are much more powerful in people’s lives than they credit. But, like everything else in our world, they sometimes get a little muddled and crazy. People tell themselves they must do something. Why? Because it’s their duty. Because it’s “right.” Because it’s the way to get ahead. Because … whatever. Beware of emotional reactions driven by your values. If your decision is a thoughtful one, that’s fine. If it’s an immediate, instinctive reaction, take care. The world has many shades between “black” and “white” and they’re worth exploring before you settle on a choice.

  4. Untested assumptions. Untested assumptions are caused by mental laziness. There’s no kinder way to put it. People who don’t check out their beliefs and assumptions are the couch potatoes of the mental world. Hey, it’s easier to reach for the mental remote and look for some more entertainment than do the work of weighing choices and checking data seriously.
Until you’re conscious of your limiting beliefs, and how they work against you, you’re powerless to overcome them. Take back your freedom of choice. Don’t let mere opinions call the shots in your life. Look around inside your head. Do some mental “spring-cleaning.” Chase those silly fears and outdated habits out of the dusty corners of your mind. Sort out your values and get them working to help you instead of hinder. And most of all, get off that mental couch, put down the remote and do some serious exercise. If you let your mental muscles get flabby, you’ll pay for it one way or another, believe me.



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