Mar 072012

I recently reviewed the book Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen. While written about making businesses great, I believe they have perhaps inadvertently written one of the best books on improving oneself. I am taking the next few posts to lay the case of how we can ourselves be Great By Choice.

The companies studied in Great by Choice had a not-so-secret recipe for successful operational practice. What is an operational practice? It is guidelines or even a checklist that will provide repeatable and consistent results. When Howard Putnam was putting Southwest Airlines together in 1979, he developed 10 rules for their operational excellence. Some of those rules included remaining a short haul carrier with no segment over two hours, only flying 737s, staying out of food service, and staying passenger focused – no freight or mail. These principles have served the company well and over the last quarter century, Southwest has changed only 20% of the original ten. Progressive Insurance had a list of nine, changing only two in over 30 years (and those two have not been changed in the last twenty years).

What’s the recipe for great operational practice? SMaC: Simple, Methodical, and Consistent. What does a SMaC recipe look like for those of us who aren’t flying jets, insuring cars or developing medical devices? John Wooden, perhaps the greatest basketball coach of all time, started the first practice of every season of the UCLA team the same way. “We will begin by learning how to tie our shoes.” By teaching his star athletes the simple, methodical and consistent way to put on their socks and shoes, a remarkable number of injuries were avoided every year, allowing the team to be more consistent in what they wanted to do, win games. Another example of a personal SMaC recipe are the Twelve Personal Commandments as explained in Gretchen Rubin’s popular blog The Happiness Project.

This is an area I have been working on this year. In an attempt to accomplish more consistent work, I have decided one of my “operational practices” to be “Get up at 5:00 and accomplish the most important tasks first.” The results have been incredible so far. The progress I have made in scripture study and writing is something I never really thought I could achieve. Another practice I have adopted is to plan in advance the books I will read this year. Having a list has kept me motivated and consistent in my reading. Today I finished my eleventh book of the year.

Developing the list of personal SMaC recipe takes time. These are rules that should be able to stand up for twenty years without change. Care must be taken to not create something that changes with the season or situation. These are governing principles that can guide in bad times as well as good. The success I have enjoyed so far with my first two candidates is making me very excited to try others. Developing a set of personal operational practices is definitely worth the effort. Take some time to lay out a personal SMaC recipe. I am going to post mine above my desk both at home and at work to help remind me until they become engrained into my life. I just have to remember to keep it Simple, Methodical and Consistent. SMaC me!

Great By Choice Personal Improvement Series

Great By Choice: Personal Success In Reach
Great By Choice: The 20 Mile March
Great By Choice: Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs
Great By Choice: Leading Above the Death Line
Great By Choice: SMaC

Great By Choice: Return On Luck

Jun 062011

Layoff is one of the most feared words in the English language. Through no fault of their own, the job has disappeared. Layoffs are usually unexpected, traumatic and devastating to both the family and individual being let go. No one wants to be laid off.

I was laid off from the small software company I worked for back in 2004. Perhaps I was nuts, but I actually volunteered. The company was laying off 40% and I didn’t believe for a minute that would be the end of it. As a manager, I knew it was coming and had a view of the future most didn’t. I knew our parent was planning to sell the company. The severance package being offered was not likely to get better with the next round, so I decided to take it.

Starting in mid-January, I became unemployed. I took a vacation with the family and a little time for myself. On the surface, this may have looked foolish, but we had the money from the weeks and weeks of unused vacation time I had accrued. Since I hadn’t taken the time with the family earlier, they deserved it. We had a wonderful time and it was very relaxing, especially knowing nothing was piling up back at the office. Yes, I had that nagging concern of not having a job to go back to, but the severance package went a long way to keeping those feelings at bay. I had a year’s cash in the bank.

In March, I began investigating franchises, thinking I wanted to start my own company.Over the next few months, I looked at several, but couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger on any of them. I came very close to one, literally a day away from signing. However, I developed second thoughts and backed out. I decided owning a franchise wasn’t for me. It was time to find a job.

It quickly became apparent that I hadn’t developed a network over the years. I had to start from scratch. With the help of a great coach, Paulette Esposito, I began networking in earnest. Through the summer of 1994, I met with over 125 fascinating people in all walks of life, position and places. It was an education in people and I had a front row seat.

In October, I finally got the break I had been hoping for. Through a networking contact, a job was created for me, where I was the only applicant. Those are the odds I was praying for. Corporate America being what it is, it still took until the following February for all the paperwork to come through and actually start the job. I worked a temp job while waiting, but I remember the wonderful feeling of getting back to the status of “full time employee.”

So why tell this long story? The pivot point for me was that long year out of work. Being unemployed is not something I would wish on anyone. However, the experience is not something I would trade, either. I learned so much about myself through that year. That learning has changed the way I look at myself, my career and my skills completely.

I discovered I love meeting people. I thrive on it. I have said more than once if I could find a way to make networking pay, I would do it full time. Learning stories and making connections to solve problems is the most gratifying work I have ever done.

What was really exciting was when I could start helping others by connecting them with people I had already met. This happened a few times, most notably when I was able to connect a woman in the Department of Education to a man in the Board of Education, who had told me the week before he had solved the exact problem she was facing. The relief on her face was priceless.

I also learned one of my strengths is mentoring and helping people. I recognized it through my meeting with people and telling my story. When asked for their advice, they would parrot back to me this skill I hadn’t recognized as valuable. I thought every manager grew the people they led, advised them on their careers and coached them to greater productivity. As they told me it wasn’t the norm, I discovered those were the skills I most wanted to use. These conversations gave me confidence and trust in myself that set me up for success when the opportunity did come along.

Odd as it may sound, I treasure the year I was out of work. I learned more about myself during those months than I thought possible. While the time was stressful for both me and my family, the introspection set me up for greater success later. This is one pivot I will appreciate forever.

Feb 262011

Our guest writer is Thom Stratton. He has an MBA, worked on a newspaper, writes Simple Self Reliance (a blog on recapturing lost arts of doing it yourself), worked as a requirements analyst, actually understands social media marketing and is at least ten times smarter than me. He also started a business this year, too.

I’m a firm believer in David Allen’s precept that your mind is not free to function at full capacity until it is able to let go of all the things you need to remember. It can only do this, however, if you have a good, reliable system for capturing and maintaining the list of all the things it would otherwise need to remember for you. Getting to that point, at least initially, is accomplished by doing what he calls a “Brain-Sweep”.

A Brain-Sweep is essentially a brainstorming of everything that needs to be done. You write everything down without trying to deal with it in any way until you feel like you’ve gotten everything out of your head. I’m often reminded of the imagery from Harry Potter when Dumbledore extracts memories from his own head to store in his magical basin, the pensieve.

Allen’s approach is to devote a day or more going to each physical location where you do work, looking at everything you have that represents a possible “thing to do”, or at least worry about, and catalog it. While I’m sure it’s a helpful approach, it takes a long time. And from my own experience of having achieved a becalmed mind before, I don’t think it’s entirely necessary.

It may even be counterproductive, actually. If you go looking for things to do, you’ll always find some. It may be as insignificant as “find a place to stick my spare change”, but it’ll be another item on your list. Once on your list, you have to take the time to deal with it, even if it’s to decide not to do anything about it. So purposely making your list as large as you can make it can actually stress you out more (look at all the stuff I’ve got to do!!!), and make you take longer sorting through it all instead of just getting on to the stuff that’s most important.

So for my part I believe in doing your brain sweep only until you’re reasonably sure you’ve got all the really important stuff. Then you start dealing with it. Yes, more stuff will come up that perhaps you should have captured before, but it won’t take any longer to capture it and deal with it now than it would have to try and remember it all before moving on.

I also have to question whether it is necessary to physically put yourself in each workspace in order to do your brain sweep. Yes, it can help, and I do use that approach at times. But here are a few other strategies I’ve used to help me brain sweep wherever I may be (ie. waiting at the dentist’s office this morning):

  • Mentally picture a location and make your mind walk around there. I do this when sweeping for tasks and honey-dos around home. I take a mental walk through my house, purposely picturing details in each room, on each wall, etc. Pretty soon I’m remembering “Oh yeah, that curtain rod needs reinforcing”.
  • Review your current roles. Think about each role you fill in life. For example, in addition to my work, I’m a father, a husband, a church music director, an HOA president, and a guest blogger. Just spending a few minutes thinking about things I’d like to accomplish in each of those roles is likely to yield at least a half-dozen task for each role.
  • Review your list of tasks. Quite often just looking at some of the tasks on my list and starting to think about what each might entail will shake loose another (sometimes even unrelated) task I may have forgotten.
  • Group your task list. I sometimes find that in going through my list of tasks and starting to group them by context or location I will start to make new mental connections that unearth related tasks. It’s almost as if we have to sneak up on memories from unexpected directions in order to flush them out.

So far I’ve found that by trying some or most of these strategies I am able to sweep out most of the most irksome, stress-inducing tasks. Perhaps the resulting catharsis from Allen’s method is even more pleasant, but I find that just getting the majority of my more important tasks down is often enough to let my mind relax. It also allows me to not get bogged down in creating too large a list and instead move on to managing my tasks.

This in turn allows me to get on to building up the habits of capturing all new tasks as they come along. At that point it doesn’t matter if a task is a new one, or an old one that was overlooked initially. The minute it surfaces I can capture it and manage it.

Most importantly, these strategies help me get past the initial brain sweep stage. If I had to find even four uninterrupted hours in my current schedule I’d probably never get organized. These strategies can be used wherever you are, and with as much or as little time as you have available.

If you have the time to give it the “Full Allen”, then great! I suspect it would be a valuable experience. But I’ve also seen (and been) people fail from not being able to settle for “good enough” and pursue “perfect” to the point of burnout. It need not be an all-or-nothing venture with Allen’s system–sometimes just getting started and growing into it may even work better.

I write this having just completed my brain sweep at the dentist’s office this morning. I know I don’t have everything captured yet, but I’ve got enough that my mind feels comfortable with my list. It knows that accomplishing what is on it will feel really good. I’m ready to move on into setting up my tools and my routine. More on that after I’ve got some progress to report.