Apr 232012

Years ago, I attended my first boy scout camp at Camp Little Lemhi outside Palisades, Idaho. It was there I had my first experience with paddling a canoe. A few years ago, friends introduced me to a lake kayak and I was sold. Since then, I have taken every chance I could get to dip an oar into the water. I love the tranquility and peace found will paddling around a lake or shoreline. While there are many techniques I have learned over the years, one of the most applicable across life is to keep an oar in the water.

Canoes and kayaks have very little draft, how much of the craft is below the water. Sitting on top of the water means there is little to keep the boat from being pushed around by the wind and the current. The lack of a rudder means all the steering must be completed by the person paddling. In short, the oar becomes the method of propulsion AND steering. These important tasks only happen when keeping an oar in the water.

A little oar makes a big difference

The oar blade is wide and thin, When pulled through the water, the wide surface powers the boat forward. When flipped sideways, the narrow blade becomes a rudder, able to direct the craft in the desired direction. I have always marveled somewhat that a 17 foot kayak can easily be directed by a 6 inch rudder. By contrast, an 1100 foot air craft carrier’s rudder is only 22 feet long.

My scout advisor taught me a few different methods for controlling my craft, including a couple different stroke styles. However, the one lesson he pounded into our heads time and again was the only way it worked was if we kept our oar in the water. Perhaps he really wanted us to quit splashing around, but the lesson is profound. Keep the oar in the water and it puts the boat at your command. Take the oar out of the water and the boat becomes instantly at the command of the current and the wind.

Oars in life

There are many analogies and lessons that can be made to our lives and the oar. Today, I am thinking about how goals are like an oar. Goals don’t have to be very big in size or scope to keep us tracking toward a greater destination. Working toward something, no matter how small, means we are not just allowing the current of life to sweep us along. A goal focuses our efforts and moves us along.

When I made the goal of getting up earlier in the morning, I had no idea how much change that little difference would make to my life. When I get up and get my “Three R’s” of Reading, Writing and Running complete before breakfast, the rest of my day goes much more smoothly. My day becomes more productive. When I sleep in, I have to fight harder to get everything done that I should.

Put an oar in the water

Goals are simple desires to improve ourselves. Without action, though, they are just hopes for someday. Putting the oar in the water, so to speak, is the only way the goal will benefit us. A little speed develops with each stroke or action. Pulling against the resistance of life helps us gain speed to where we want to go. A few small successes and we have momentum. Then we can settle into a steady rhythm, using the oar or goal to guide us.

When I feel adrift in my life, I realize it is time to do as my scout advisor suggested and put an oar in the water. Make a goal and start pulling. it doesn’t take long to get under way to somewhere special.

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

Feb 282012

Yesterday, I reviewed Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen’s best selling business book, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. This has instantly become my favorite business book of all. It teaches how business leaders can choose to make their company or organization into something great and outperform all the measures over ten fold.

Not only does it explain the methods whereby large companies can choose to thrive, it is directly applicable on a smaller level. Much smaller. I believe Collins and Hansen have hit on perhaps what may become the most overlooked self-help book yet. The principles he demonstrates that propell Southwest Airlines to great heights amid one of the most turbulent industries can just as easily be applied to the rest of us in our own constantly mutating worlds.

I want to be great. But what if I wasn’t born great? Can I become great? Can I make a choice to be great? Apparently, I can. Collins defines “Great” as a company that beats the industry average by at least 10 times or “10Xers”. By applying that standard to myself, the question is “can I be at least ten times more ______ than the rest of humanity” (Fill in the blank with whatever the dream may be). Can I be ten times more successful than the average blogger? How about the average woodworker? Of course, life isn’t necessarily about being “better” than others, but we all feel a call to be the best we can be. Every one of the methods Collins and Hansen posit for business are directly applicable on a personal level. I believe following the simple steps can propel us to be more than ten times more successful than we ever thought we could be.

Over the next few days, I want to take apart the key points in Great by Choice and discuss how they apply to the individual life. I believe them to be key to success. Since reading the book in December, I have tried to pull them into my life and test their applicability. So far, they work.

Collins and Hansen begin the book with the burning question Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not? I have asked a similar question of myself for years. Why do some people thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others, me!, do not? I have watched other people at work, whose skills are (in my opinion) no better than my own, thrive and be promoted well beyond my level, while I languish several levels below.

I have never liked change all that much. I certainly don’t thrive in chaos. My tendency, instead, is to shut down, sit in a corner and wait until the battle calms down. As a manager, I have had to learn to not run to that way of thinking, but attack it head on. I have had success in leading teams through some hurricane-level changes. However, it still isn’t my comfort zone and my wife can attest to my not handling it as well at home as I do at work.

Collins and Morten talk about 10Xers this way:

Clear-eyed and stoic, 10Xers accept, without complaint, that they face forces beyond their control, that they cannot accurately predict events, and that nothing is certain; yet they utterly reject the idea that luck, chaos, or any other external factor will determine whether they succeed of fail.

Yes, I want to be a 10Xer. Can you imagine having that read at your funeral? I’d sit up in my coffin, pump my fist in the air and yell, “Yeah!!!” That ought to get the party started.

The authors continue by listing three core behaviors that set 10Xers apart from less successful leaders.

  1. Fanatic discipline. Extreme consistency of action, values, goal, performance standards and methods.
  2. Empirical creativity. When faced with uncertainty, 10Xers rely upon direct observation, practical experimentation  and direct engagement with evidence. Their bold, creative moves come from a sound empirical base.
  3. Productive paranoia. They stay  hypervigilant, attuned to threats and changes, especially when all is well. They assume conditions will turn against them and channel that fear and worry to action, preparing, develop contingency plans and margins of safety.

I know I have some level of these traits. When I drive down the freeway, I actually look for escape routes from traffic, even when I am the only car on the road for miles. It paid off one winter when traffic abruptly stopped on an icy freeway for a wreck ahead and I looked in the rearview mirror to see if the people behind me were able to stop. To my horror, I saw an empty car carrier semi moving too fast, flip over and slide sideways down the freeway toward us. I knew exactly where I needed to go to get out of the way. I believe in productive paranoia!

These behaviors can be practiced and learned. Every day they can be employed, starting with little victories and building to mighty achievements. I am on a quest to lose twenty more pounds. I can have the fanatical discipline that resulted in losing thirty pounds last year. I can practice empirical creativity on little problems around the house, like how to get my sprinkler system fixed and the landscaping my wife wants completed. Now that I have moved to a busier freeway system, I always practice productive paranoia. I think taking that skill an applying it to my home finances could yield some good results for staying on budget when unexpected expenses appear. Over time, these behaviors can each become a strength.

You’re all invited to my funeral in a few decades to see how I have succeeded. Be prepared for a little surprise, though. You have been warned.

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