Need to Deliver Bad News? Preparation is the Key


We all dread those difficult conversations – the ones that keep us up at night. There are as many difficult conversations as there are people and situations. These conversations include delivering bad news, admitting to an error, resolving conflicts and misunderstandings, employee separations, addressing inappropriate behavior, and other situations that you might never anticipate. Our success as managers and as leaders significantly depends on our ability to navigate these sensitive and often emotional topics. But you can successfully navigate these minefields if you approach the problem in a structured, disciplined way.

So what does that mean? It means that following a process for these conversations will help you deliver the message you need to deliver, in a professional and respectful manner, while avoiding escalating issues. Here are some tips to managing these tricky communications. By following these tips, you will find that while it won’t make these conversations any more pleasant, you will be more successful in resolving them.

Prepare for the conversation. Make sure that you clearly understand and can articulate the goal of the conversation. What information do you need to convey? What outcome do you want to advance? What behavioral change do you need to induce? Once you understand the goal of the conversation, prepare a clear and concise message. Do not over elaborate, or allow off-topic issues to get in the way of the message. When preparing the message, work from facts, not feelings or rumors. Make sure you have all relevant facts documented in writing, and be prepared to go over the facts with the other parties in the conversation. Use very specific language. Say “you were more than 15 minutes late on the following dates” rather than “I’ve noticed that you are often late”. The word “often” is vague and up for debate.

Challenge Your Own Attitudes. Do you know that your own attitudes can actually influence the outcome of the conversation? If you believe the conversation will go badly, it probably will. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy. So focus on what you can control, and resist making assumptions about how the conversation will go. This is not the same as preparing for possible responses. You should examine and prepare to respond to likely responses by the other parties, just avoid deciding which one will occur. Also, we bring to our communications all of our personal biases. Yes, we all have them. The more you are self-aware of your biases, the better you will be able to counteract their effect. Remember, someone you don’t like deserves the same professional courtesy, opportunity, and attention that someone you do like.

Focus on resolution, not blame. If someone has done something wrong, the action must be corrected. Focus on the action taken and the action preferred. It is the action that is wrong, not the person. Blame may feel “righteous”, but it doesn’t improve the future. Instead, present your facts, and the message you have planned to deliver, then listen carefully and completely to what the person has to say. Acknowledge their response, whether you agree or not. Then spend the remaining portion of the conversation focusing on how to move forward to a resolution.

Respect Emotions Reactions. While it’s important to acknowledge other’s feelings, you should not participate inappropriately or encourage the emotional reaction. Don’t take any verbal attacks personally. In the case of a highly emotional reaction, silence is a very powerful tool, allowing the other person to re-center themselves. Good preparation will also allow you to to keep your own emotions under control.


Does Employee Loyalty Still Matter?

office-building-v-1056893A number of years ago I worked alongside a woman who had spent her entire career with one company. The company had undergone numerous changes over the years, changing names, acquiring and being acquired, even transitioning industries. The company provided her with a pretty good career, and by this time she had her retirement clock setting on her desk, counting down her final days with the organization. A perfect example of the working world I had learned about as a child.

But even my parents, who were taught to aspire to this, didn’t manage it. My father changed jobs for advancement, and was forced to change jobs through programs ending and companies failing. By the time I entered the workforce, the employment world was well into the big transition from company-based careers to capability-based careers. And now we’re seeing the results – including at the extreme end the newly named “gig economy”.  Which raises the question: Do you owe any loyalty to your employer? If so, how much? What does loyalty even mean these days?

When workers built their careers around a single company, loyalty was an important component. Companies expected their workers to be loyal to the company – that their efforts, opinions, and decisions aligned with the goals of the organization. In return, workers anticipated full employment, with advancement opportunities, preference over outside workers, and retirement security. As we learn to navigate this more fluid career environment, this definition of loyalty no longer works. Companies often try to be lean and agile, poised to react to economic realities, and many believe that they can’t afford to make long term commitments to their workers; Workers recognize that their career success depends solely on their own efforts and that their security and advancement are in their own hands. But loyalty is still an important value. It is one of the characteristics of leaders that people value the most. So what does loyalty mean now?

The primary dynamic in our current labor environment is a buyer/seller modality. Even if you are an employee, it is still a business transaction. While in previous generations there was a certain paternalism to the employer/employee relationship, that is no longer the case. You are “selling” your expertise, your labor, your time, and your creativity to the organization. They are buying from you results that they need to maintain their commitments to their customers and constituencies. That’s it. So no matter what you do for a living, you are a business owner. The business is you. So the basis of the relationship with your organization is the same as with your customers – a shared understanding of what will be provided, and what shall be received in return. Loyalty is now to the shared goal, rather than to the organization as a whole. Loyalty means that each party is in agreement as to what is expected, and commits to fulfilling the agreement to the best of their ability, and keeping the best interest of the other party as a primary force in any decision making. So you do you owe any loyalty to your employer?


Loyalty is an important part of being ethical, authentic, and fair. Being loyal is critical to maintaining your reputation, which in this new employment world is one of the most valuable assets you possess. So how do you remain loyal while advancing your career?

Understand the boundaries of the employer / employee relationship. While it is no longer a life commitment, it is a commitment. You commit to conduct yourself with the utmost professionalism while doing the best work you can for your employer/customer while you are in the relationship. This means not conducting side hustles on company time, not undermining the company in any way, and doing just enough not to get fired. However, it also means that you are an equal part of this transaction, and are free to dissolve the relationship in a professional, appropriate way.  Think of your employment like a contract, with both parties having responsibilities and gaining value.

Treat your employment as if you were a company and your employer was your customer.  Make sure that you know what the organization is expecting you to do, and make sure you have the ability and resources to do it. Training and learning new skills is your responsibility, although the organization may contribute. Be honest about what you can and can’t do. You can certainly take on new challenges, but you should make sure that any commitments you make can be met. Integrity is a critical part of the loyalty you owe your customers. Actively seek out feedback to validate that you are performing to what is expected, and to confirm that you are meeting your commitment to the organization. On the flip side, while you owe the company the work you have signed on to provide, you don’t owe the company your life, your family, or your future.

Put your career before the organization. This is when I often get pushback, but this is a good thing rather than a bad thing. Often, in order to advance in your career, you must change organizations as well as positions. When you conduct your professional life as a business, you must balance the needs of your “customers” with the healthy growth of your “business”. This means being fair and honest with your employers, staying with your commitments long enough to create value, and providing sufficient notice and effective transitions when you choose to leave for a new opportunity. Taking responsibility for your career, and not relying on the organization to do it for you, actually makes you a better employee. You are now responsible for your growth, motivation, and performance. This makes you more, not less, attractive as an employee.

I hear so many people mourn the loss of the lifetime employment culture. But there is a silver lining. Meet your employer on equal standing – So don’t feel like a traitor, or a failure, when you decide to leave your employer to find a better opportunity. It’s just a business transaction. If you do it right, you leave on good terms, and you add to your network of connections. It’s through these connections that you build your unique, customized just for you, successful career.

Examine Your Biases for Better Communication

What we believe 2One morning, I was at the dentist having my teeth cleaned. It was shortly after Nelson Mandela died, and his life and death was naturally a topic of conversation everywhere. The hygienist was chatting away, and when she brought up Mr. Mandela’s death, her comment was one I wasn’t expecting at all.  She said that she thought that he probably had lots of dental problems, being in prison all those years. It probably caused him pain, and it may have contributed to his death.

My jaw would have dropped open if it hadn’t already been open as wide as it would go. To be brutally honest, my first reaction was something like WTF. That had to be the most bizarre thing I had ever heard. But then something funny happened. It stuck with me not only all day, but for all these years since. Once her statement had marinated in my brain for a while, I realized what a fantastic example of how our biases influence how we see the world. As someone who studies dental disease, and its effects on overall health, including heart disease, it made sense that this was the window through which she saw the world. Ever since then I began to see biases everywhere, and to be more sensitive about how our unique and personal points of view impact not only how we see the world, but also how others see the same actions and events.

When discussing biases, the first reaction I get is usually defensive. People immediately focus on negative biases, and defend themselves against having them. Racism, sexism, ageism, and so on are so much a part of our history that nearly everyone immediately assumes that I am accusing them of negative behaviors. While nothing can be further from the truth, these extreme examples can be a useful starting point in discussing how more innocuous biases influence our understanding of the world. You can’t really eliminate these biases, so instead it’s important to understand your own biases so that you can be sensitive to their impact on your discussions and decisions.

Some biases help us make sense of information. In this hyper-connected information age world, you have access to more information than your brain can manage.  Some of your biases provide context to the information you receive. These biases are built from experiences and beliefs about the world. For example, how is it possible that two educated, well-meaning people can read the same set of facts and statistics, yet come to drastically different conclusions? It happens in politics all the time. If a colleague disagrees with you, is he stupid and uninformed, or does he see the same information differently than you do?

Some biases help us make decisions. Just as so much information is available to us, the number of options available to us seems to increase every day. It is impossible for us to examine and build a case for every possible decision, so our biases step in to lighten the load. It can be as simple and innocuous as liking blue but hating green. Great – when shopping for a new coat, don’t even look at the green ones, and focus on the blue ones first. Easy. But what if you prefer northern accents to southern ones, or prefer extroverts to introverts? Yes, it would make choosing between job applicants “easier”, but it would also not only limit your acceptable applicant pool, but could get you sued, or worse. So while biases can help us make decisions, we need to understand this mechanism, and know when to counter it.

Some biases limit understanding. Communication is difficult under the best of circumstances. Factor in that each person is coming into the exchange with their own unique basket of biases, and it is sometimes a wonder that we understand each other at all. You would think that looking for people with similar biases as you would improve communication, but sometimes it has the opposite effect. Instead of a meaningful exchange of information, it becomes an echo chamber where you only hear and understand information you already have and understand. No learning or growth takes place. Instead, real communication comes from accepting that everyone has biases, and by really listening, asking probing questions, and challenging the assumptions that are rooted in your own biases, can you learn new information.

The biases themselves are not necessarily evil or good. They are a component of each individual self, part of what makes us unique, and human. How you act on your biases, however, makes all the difference. Some biases are benign, and worthy of understanding. Some, however, can do harm – to yourself and others, and are worth overcoming. Either way, it starts with identifying and acknowledging any biases you have, and mastering them. If you control your own biases, you can let them help you and prevent them from hurting.

Stop Worrying About What Other People Think About You

quotescover-JPG-57How much time do you spend each day wondering what someone else thinks about you?

Not about your work, but about you?

You want to do work that is successful, effective, and meaningful. So it follows that it is important that you understand what your customers and colleagues need, want, and use. You want to make certain that your work meets their needs and expectations. Spending time understanding what your stakeholders think about your work can lead you to a better product, a more meaningful result, and a more successful outcome.

Does it then follow that time spend wondering what people think about you will make you more effective, more successful, and your life more meaningful?

You can ascertain what your stakeholders’ thoughts are by asking them; you can understand their needs by observing their work, and conducting research. But how do you know what they think of you? I guess you could ask them, but would they want to answer honestly? The fact is, if you asked me, I wouldn’t even know how to respond.

The secret is, when we imaging what others think of us, we are projecting our deepest issues onto others. These “others” become surrogates for our fears, our insecurities, and our perceived limitations. It’s not surprising that the public speaking is the most reported fear people have. When I work with people wanting to improve their speaking, I ask about what they fear. It mostly comes down to feeling that they will be judged inadequate, not expert enough, or not interesting enough. They assume everyone is judging them against an imagined “ideal speaker”. But the truth is, people in the audience have a vested interested in having you be a successful speaker. They are rooting for you. They want you to do well, and will actually confer expert status on you just for getting up to speak!

Understanding what the audience wants from the presentation will make you a more successful speaker, while imagining what the audience members think of you, actually makes you a less successful speaker, not a more successful one. This is true in so many areas of life.

Consider imposter syndrome. “If people really knew me, they wouldn’t give me this job, wouldn’t respect my opinion, wouldn’t buy my product”. Have you ever felt the pull of imposter syndrome at some time in your career? It’s yet another example of how much energy we lose worrying about what others think of us. Have you ever considered the math? Try to add up how much time and energy it would take for everyone you know to spend time considering all abilities and opinions of everyone they know? No one would ever get anything done! How much time do you spend thinking how incompetent and unworthy all of your colleagues are? Not very much, I hope.

As hard as it is to remember, know this. All the negative thoughts you imagine are coming from others, are just reflection of your own insecurities. Take action anyway – you are worthy, you are talented, and you will do great work. And remember, the person sitting next to you?  Be kind – they are probably busy worrying what you think of them.

Life Happens – Don’t Punish Your Team For Living It

DSCF2439_1Sometimes we all just have to lighten up and let it go.

This weekend here on the East Coast we had one of those gigantic, epic snowstorms that local news programs go crazy for. When the snows are 12, 18, 24 inches or more, there is nothing you can do about it. Complaining about it won’t change anything. Worrying about work not getting done, meetings being cancelled, and due dates at risk will just raise your anxiety, but won’t move the snow out of the road.

I can hear some of you now – work must get done. We can’t let the weather win. We must get back our lost productivity. A snow day shouldn’t be a free vacation day!

I have heard similar complaints not only about weather delays, but anytime life gets in the way of work. Someone actually uses their vacation days, takes bereavement time when they lose a parent or a friend, or need a few hours to take their child to the doctor.  And then there are the people who brag about how busy they are, and keep score by comparing how many hours they spend at the office.

Is this how you want to live your life? What about your team? People work hardest for those leaders that they like and respect. They like and respect those leaders that genuinely like and respect them in return. Bosses that push people relentlessly in a death march to the end will get time and effort in return, but only enough to stay out of trouble. Great leaders manage real people with real lives. Expecting the best work from your people, and giving them the space to manage their lives will allow them to bring their best to the workplace every work day. They will want to give their best because they know they are truly valued.

People talk a lot about work live balance. Most of the time this is discussed as it relates to time allocated to work and time allocated to “not work”. This doesn’t really work in our hyper-connected, 24 hour world. You can receive email 24 hours a day on multiple devices, work from anywhere there is an internet connection, or meet by conference call, work life balance is less about “reserving” time for your life, and more about living your life while working.

So what does this mean for a leader? Well, in the winter, snow happens. Plan for it and let people off the hook if they tell you there is a four feet high snow pile in front of their driveway. People have families – leave space for them to attend to the needs of their family when they need to, with the understanding that they will make time for work deadlines they you need them to. And, above all, lighten up. Let a little humor help buoy the team during the tough times. Your team are not robots – they are people. Make it clear what is expected of your team, hold them accountable for delivering on their responsibilities, and give them the space to succeed – no matter what life throws at us.

And the little guy in the picture? I don’t know his name, but he makes me smile. Sometimes that’s all we need, no matter how much snow there is outside.

Being Willing Makes You Able

sunset-summer-golden-hour-paul-filitchkin-mediumA number of years ago I worked for a small consulting firm. We were offered a somewhat risky contract that would be very difficult and would require learning an entirely new industry – one with a relatively high failure rate for projects. The customer trusted us, and it sounded really exciting, so we took the contract. We were ultimately successful, and it was a big win for the company, and allowed our team to develop some very lucrative follow-on work. I learned a lot from that project, but the biggest lesson of all is that the biggest wins come from taking the smartest risks. This is true for individual roles as well – does anyone who gets a promotion really know what the job entails until it happens? Being willing to take on a role outside your comfort zone is the first and most important step to being able to do the job.

You may have heard the phrase “fake it till you make it.” Often this is a good strategy, but to really succeed you must take it little further. You must be willing to take calculated risks in order to grow, and you must develop a strong skill set that will support your ability to take on the risk. If you continue to do the same things you always do, you will stagnate. You must continue to learn and grow. But taking training courses and keeping up with the professional journals isn’t nearly enough. If you wait until you are an expert in something before you start doing it, you are already behind. Consider instead developing the skills and strategies necessary to take on the risky projects. To step up into the unknown with confidence. How do people get promoted? Visibility. How can you achieve visibility? Be willing to take on the big tasks. That’s the secret. It’s being willing to take on the big tasks that makes you able to take on the big tasks. Being able to step up with confidence to new tasks will get you the opportunities to demonstrate your ability to manage the big tasks.

This does not mean promising to do a task for which you have no skills or experience upon which to build. I would not recommend volunteering to conduct brain surgery if you have no medical training. This also does not mean falsifying your background, skills, or experience to get a job. What it does mean is that you have prepared yourself to take on challenging projects, high profile projects, or new tasks with confidence, not from knowing the path and the outcome in advance, but from knowing that you don’t know everything now, but you have the skills to lead a team of people to find the answers and figure it out. So what are the skills you will need? It’s all about maintaining strong management fundamentals while learning and analyzing.

Attitude – Show confidence in your (and your team’s) ability to succeed. Confidence will be contagious, and when people have confidence that they can do something, they are more likely to actually do it. Don’t dwell on the downside. Address risks as something to be managed.

Communication – With high visibility comes the need for more communication. Over communicating, or not controlling the message, can create additional risks to the project. Focus on progress, new information, and successes. Develop a solid project narrative, and make sure the communication plan is specific about who needs what information, and who needs to be involved in decision making.

Management – If you are stepping into unknown territory, the reality is that you will make a lot of assumptions, and you should constantly test and adjust those assumptions. The same with metrics. You must develop strong management fundamentals, and expect to spend more time managing the work than you would on a a more familiar task.

Learning as you go – This is a task that must be managed. Don’t expect to learn what you need to know by “winging it”. Also, business does not stop while you (and your team) come up to speed. You need to plan for the work to go on and for specific learning tasks to occur – often at nearly the same time. Developing a knowledge management strategy will be as critical as the plan, the schedule, or any the management fundamentals.

Team Development – Who you bring to the party may be the most important factor of all. Whether this is a project or a new role, you will need strong support, good advice. For a high risk project, you will need a team that excels in creativity, a team with a broad set of experiences and skill sets, and above all, a team that is comfortable with uncertainty. Or of not comfortable, at least accepting. Successfully leading that team into the unknown requires that you create an environment where failures are part of the job, where getting it wrong is good news (because you now have more information than you had before), and where teamwork is paramount. You must create a safe environment for others to take the risks with you. Building a strong network, a strong team, and promoting their success will reflect that success back to you exponentially.

Is Your Project Plan a Useful Tool or a Treasure Map?

3642387-treasure-mapAs all project managers know, for a project to be successful, it must have a good plan. The plan must be rigorous yet reasonable, well researched but realistic. A project without a plan is not going to succeed – accept maybe by accident or luck. But does it then follow that just because a project has the “best plan ever” that the project will succeed?

Of course not. But I have witnessed project managers who are so committed to the plan that they actually put the project at risk. How can that be? By treating the plan like a treasure map. If I just follow each step of the plan to the letter, I will reach ‘X’ – where ‘X marks the spot’ of a successful project. It sounds a little silly when you say it like that, but it’s a useful image to consider when examining your project plan. Will the plan serve as a useful tool to manage the time, activities, and resources needed to successfully fulfill the project objective? Or is it a tightly scheduled forced march to a predetermined conclusion?

I once had a client that insisted that every minute of every hour was scheduled in the project plan, and that no changes to the plan were allowed without executive approval. I tried to show her how unrealistic that kind of planning was, but she had been burned in the past with unsuccessful projects, and believed that this kind of rigid planning was the only way to protect herself from another failure. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect, and as the project dragged on, tasks got further and further behind. Following a project plan that is too rigid will certainly lead you to where you plan to go, but it may take you where you needed to go. How can you tell if your project plan is a treasure map?

There are no future planning tasks. Have you detail planned the entire project, from initiation to delivery, up front? Even before you’ve completed your analysis, decisions, or designs? If you’ve done this project before – meaning you are specifically replicating a previous effort, like building a boat, then that’s fine. You know the recipe; you know the resources. But if this project has any unknowns, any problems to be solved, or anything new to learn – don’t assume that you know how it is going to go. This doesn’t mean not to plan, but use planning packages. Create decision tasks followed by planning tasks – this allows you to detail plan based on the results of research or design, and the decisions that have been made. It’s these subtle adjustments to the plan that allow the project work to dictate where you go rather than forcing the project along the path you set at the beginning.

There is no breathing/thinking room. Have you detail planned every hour, every day, every week for your project team? I’ve seen this so many times, and it never succeeds. People need time to think, to react to changes, to deal with unexpected events. So how do you build this time in? There are a number of techniques. One can be to set your resource management settings to only schedule 80% of each resources’ time. Another is to put time based packages into each phase that you assign to each resources as needed. I call these packages research or analysis time – and they are defined as time for evaluating, communicating, and sharing project activities. In addition to thinking time, I also encourage this time to be used to break down silos and build relationships among the project team.

Risk management activities are not built into the plan. If you are maintaining a risk log, but are not including risk mitigation tasks in your plan, then your plan is incomplete. The whole point of mitigating risks is to manage the risks and issues that arise during the project. If you haven’t made room for managing risks in your plan, then it is too rigid to be a good management tool. A treasure map plan by default assumes that no risk will alter the plan. Be aggressive about deploying resources to manage risks as part of your project plan.

There is no mechanism for reacting to alternatives. This often goes hand in hand with not including planning packages throughout the project, a plan that doesn’t leave room to adjust to interim results is too rigid. What does this mean? In one traditional waterfall methodology, for example, there is an analysis phase, where requirements are clarified and refined, and alternative resolutions are researched and selected. Then there is a design phase which takes the results of the analysis and designs the details to be developed. Then the development phase results from the design phase, and so on.  Have you ever constructed an entire detailed project plan before the analysis phase even begins? You build it based on a large (and often undocumented) set of assumptions, but then you have to shoe-horn the later phases in to fit the initial plan? There is an alternative – Plan the phases based on the results of the previous phase. Build planning packages to account for constraints, milestones, resources, and risks, and then expand the packages as you arrive at the identification and selection of each alternative.

Don’t Chase Someone Else’s Success – Define Your Own Instead

quotescover-JPG-43It is very useful to take inspiration from the lives of others. Having mentors is an important part of professional and personal development, and emulating people you respect can highlight a path forward for your career. These positive examples can give you confidence in your decisions and confirmation that success is possible. We can also find inspiration through people whose work we admire. Reading blogs, listening to podcasts, and attending seminars are great ways to learn new skills, meet new people, and refresh your thinking. When you find people with similar values and ideas, it can make you feel like you are not alone in the world. The rise of the internet has made finding interesting people and accessing new ideas easier than ever. On top of that, the 24-hour media cycle brings constant stories of start-up millionaires and celebrity glamour.

While it is wonderful to discover new role models and find inspiration in the work of others, there also lurks danger – the twin dragons of jealousy and regret. Don’t get caught in the trap of letting someone else define success for you. Learning from is good – but feeling that because you aren’t doing the same things they are you’ve somehow failed is not. Have you ever seen someone featured on TV and all of a sudden you feel like you’ve wasted your life? You read the blog of your favorite entrepreneur or adventurer, and your career or your last vacation just doesn’t measure up. There was even a study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology that demonstrated how people can get depressed if they spend a lot of time reading Facebook. The study described the issue as “social comparison”. Intellectually, we know that our friends only post the good stuff, the interesting events, or the cutest pictures of their kids. But when we see attractive images, or hear about events that we didn’t attend, the pangs of want poke at us.

For people already looking to make a change in their life, these inspirational lives can insert themselves into our dreams and desires. It can be difficult to listen to stories of success and impact, and not imagine that you should be doing that as well. I was in a coaching session recently, and my client was struggling with what she wanted to do. She was feeling the desire to travel the world and live abroad, but she didn’t know how to go about it. We worked through a number of options, but nothing resonated. The more options we discussed, the more the nomadic life didn’t seem fit with her desired lifestyle and other personal ambitions. As we delved into it, it became clear that she was unhappy with her current life, and didn’t have a “mission” of her own yet, and was inspired when she read about people who travel. So she thought by traveling she would be happy. But she had adopted someone else’s dream. When you are looking to make a change, you should examine very deeply whether it is what you really want, or if it just sounds better than what you are doing now. Is this your dream, or is it someone else’s dream that you adopted as your own?

Trying a new way of living on for size is a great way to see if you would like it. Learning from the experience of others can be a great way to broaden our view of what’s possible. Modeling our actions by the example of our mentors can drive us to new heights. But are feeling depressed, not good enough, or jealous of some element of someone else’s life? Do you think you should be doing that too? Only you can define your own success. Don’t let someone else’s life dictates yours to you. Our connected world allows you to sample almost any career or lifestyle you can imagine, and at a fairly low risk or cost. That’s the good news. The bad news is that all those options can leave you feeling overwhelmed and feeling unsuccessful. But remember, you only see what others put out there for you to see. Success is what you define it to be. Whether it’s money, family, service, peace, or something else – it will be a success unique to you. Don’t let others define it for you.


At An Impasse? Stuck? Kobayashi Maru It!

sky-night-space-galaxy-mediumNegotiating, finding common ground, and agreeing on the best approach to solving problems is never easy. Even if everyone came to the table with perfectly matched information, education, and opinions it wouldn’t guarantee and easy decision. And that scenario is about as impossible as it gets. In reality, every person you encounter has a unique set of ideas, beliefs, theories, and opinions. Sometimes, you can work through all the information at hand, and either come to find common ground and a mutually satisfactory solution, or the person with the most power or influence can force a decision, whether or not it is for the best.

But what about those scenarios where the decision makers are at an impasse and no agreement can be achieved? This often happens when the parties have strong opinions, beliefs, or vested interests in the outcome, and have staked a position and are expending all their efforts to defend that position? You can look no further than the US Congress to see this disaster scenario at play. If a discussion has reached this point, for all practical purposes it is impossible to move the discussion forward. Everyone is now focused on their position, and listening to and considering new ideas is difficult, if not completely blocked. In projects, I have found that this happens most often with competing business unit sponsors or among advocates of particular technologies or products. What can you do when you’re faced with the “no win” situation? Tell the team to Kobayashi Maru it!

For those of you out there who aren’t Star Trek fans and don’t know what the Kobayashi Maru is, here is a quick explanation.  As part of training of Star Fleet officers, it was a simulation designed to be a test of leadership in the face of a “no-win” scenario. It was designed to evaluate the decision making capability of a prospective captain when every possible choice would have involved significant loss of life. Captain Kirk was famous for “beating the no-win situation” by reprogramming the scenario to allow for a new solution. While some saw this as cheating, he did receive “a commendation for original thinking”.

I use the phrase “Kobayashi Maru it” to mean go back and reframe the issue. Look for another avenue of approach. Create a new narrative to help the group see the question in a different way. Instead of trying to change someone’s beliefs, try to give them a different question to consider, one that is not at odds with their current beliefs.

This also works when you can’t find a solution to a problem. More often than I’d wish, I’ve worked on a project where we’ve stumbled across a problem we couldn’t solve. Either the technology was incapable of meeting the design spec, or we had unresolved competing requirements. Before surrendering and telling the sponsor that they can’t have the requested feature, we would conduct a brainstorming session to examine the intent of the requirement and look for other ways to meet the intent. This results in finding new design options or process changes that can be recommended to overcome the technical impasse.

We all face the “no-win” situation in work and in life, although granted not to the level of a galactic battlefield. But you still will face times when there is no perfect solution, people can’t come to agreement, and you are stuck and can’t move forward. Sometimes you really can’t win. But sometimes you can find a way through the problem. Lead your team through by posing a different question, asking for a different decision, or trying a different approach.  It couldn’t hurt to try, and it might get you too “a commendation for original thinking.”


Reclaim Your Mojo On Your Lunch Hour

3F0x632NAre you feeling burned out? In a rut? Looking for something new? Hoping to win the lottery?

I hate to break it to you, but you probably won’t win the lottery. But the good news is, if you can commit 30 – 45 minutes a day, you can gain new skills, find enthusiasm for your work again, or lay the groundwork for moving to a new challenge.

I know, you’ve read this before. Change your life during your lunch hour – not exactly an original idea. “But I’m hungry, tired, and I need the break.” Absolutely right – you do. And you should most certainly take it. I’m not talking about skipping lunch to go to the gym, take a class, or using the time for a “side hustle”, although all of those are a great use of your time.

I’m talking about enhancing your life while eating lunch.

Build relationships – Have lunch with someone you want to get to know better, a friend who inspires or supports you, or invite someone from another office to lunch. Widening your work community will make you feel more connected, and your network can also keep you in the loop when new positions, projects, or initiatives are launched that could provide you with the change you are looking for.

Find inspiration – Limit your Facebook time to 10 minutes or so (I would NEVER tell you not to look at Facebook – that would make me such a hypocrite!) But you may have read that studies show that reading Facebook can actually make you more stressed and depressed. When you are finished skimming your news feed, read a couple of blogs that inspire you. Personally, I use Feedly to consolidate my favorite blogs, but there are many other tools out there. Set up a group of blogs that feed your mind and energize you for the afternoon’s challenges. If you don’t know any, ask people you like and admire who they read, and start there. If you asked me, I might suggest starting with Seth Godin, Gretchin Rubin, or Jonathan Fields. I also love Harvard Business Review.

Learn while listening – I love podcasts. There are so many podcasts out there – from guided meditations and humor to business advice, and anything else you can think of. Both the Apple and Android world have podcast apps, and there are sites you can download them to your favorite MP3 device. Many bloggers also do podcasts. Podcasts are also great for commuting – my favorite driving podcast is Freakonomics. And the best part is, put your headphones on, and podcasts leave your hands and mouth free to consume an energizing and nutritions lunch (or whatever else you are eating – again I don’t want to be a hypocrite!)

Gain a new skill. Yes, I said I was not going to recommend taking a class, and I’m not. (Although online learning is a great way to use your time.) But there are other ways to gain new skills. As you build relationships, ask someone you had lunch with to show you what they do. You can learn all kinds of tips and tricks from blog posts. I love Lifehacker for that. And podcasts? There are so many great teachers out there – it’s an embarrassment of riches. Almost anything you might want to learn has a podcast.

Expand your role – Think about what causes you the most grief in your work life. Is it a broken process? A task that takes up too much of your time in relationship to its overall utility? Is it an old report you are still producing long after anyone is really using it? Spend your lunch time thinking about changing the process to be more efficient, recommending a new way to meet the requirement that reduces the time it takes to complete the task, or whose concurrence you would need to eliminate the obsolete report. Then document your proposal, with your evidence and your recommended alternative, to the right person. Doing this could eliminate a pain point, help others you work with, and raise your profile as someone who is committed to the best course of action for the organization.

The best way to make this work for you? Mix it up! To really get you mojo back, don’t just do one of these – that would be just another rut! If you are a planner, you could set a day for each. Make Monday “Have lunch with someone new” day. “Podcast Fridays” sounds like fun to me. Or, if you like, you can just pick which one inspires you on any given day. And these aren’t the only things you can do. These ideas are just a starting point. Think about where you want to be in life this time next year. What will it take to get you there? Break it down into little steps. Take action at least once a week. Taking concrete action toward a goal is the best way I know to boost your mojo.