Don’t Be A Victim Of Circumstances

As an executive coach it’s profoundly interesting to me how the way we express ourselves either provides venues for improvement or constricts us, by blinding us to existing options. Most of us, when faced with aspects outside our control tend to express ourselves by shifting responsibility to these very aspects. Let me give you a familiar example to illustrate this point.

You’re sitting in a meeting and someone arrives late. The person (let’s call him Jack) enters the room and promptly excuses himself: “Sorry for being late. Traffic was terrible.” (or “My previous meeting ran over and I couldn’t leave.”)

Whose fault is it that Jack arrived late? The traffic, of course.

Whose fault is it NOT? Not Jack’s, of course.

Given such conditions, when will Jack stop being late? When there’s no traffic, of course.

What control does Jack have over the traffic? None whatsoever.

So, whenever we use an excuse like this, we position ourselves as innocent victims of circumstances. What usually blindsides us is that our excuses are usually true. There really was heavy traffic, or the previous meeting really ran over. We usually use such arguments because they exonerate us from the consequences of the occurrence. But there’s a steep price that we pay whenever we use such arguments.

The price we pay for using arguments that exonerate us from guilt is our ability to intervene, to change the outcome of the situation. As Fred Kofman says, “the price we pay for innocence is impotence”. We remain impotent in the face of these external circumstances. In fact, there will always be things that we do not control (like the heavy traffic), but it is within our grasp to decide how we shall respond to these circumstances. We can choose our behavior.

How will you choose to respond to such circumstances? Who will you choose to be? Will you be a victim or will you be an active participant in your personal and professional life?

When we arrive late at a meeting, it’s not really because of the traffic (although there might have been traffic). It’s because we made a choice to sleep in those extra minutes, or because we chose to take route A instead of route B, or because we chose that it was worth it to spend those extra minutes with our kids in the morning. That’s ok! But it is a choice. Owning up to those choices is what makes us alive, responsible and valuable.

So, what might be a better way of expressing ourselves in such situations?

Well, in the above example of arriving late to a meeting, here are some possibilities.

“Sorry for being late! I didn’t account for the heavy traffic.” or “My previous meeting was running late and I decided to spend a few extra minutes in there to make sure we closed the issue.”

What’s so different with these expressions? There is a subject in those sentences. We’re owning the responsibility, and we’re also allowing ourselves to be a part of the solution. Here’s how we become part of the solution.

“My previous meeting was running late and I decided to spend a few extra minutes in there to make sure we closed the issue. So If you can stay a few minutes longer, I’ll be happy to address all your questions. If not, I’ll be available to schedule a follow-up meeting at your convenience”. This doesn’t guarantee that our customer or our coworker will agree to it, but we’ll be responsible for our choices, our actions and for whatever comes out of them – both good and bad.

Further reading:

New Article: A New Outlook On Failure

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“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

– J. K. Rowling

Failure is a vital part of our own growth as individuals and as a society. However, as a society, we collectively shun the fundamental part that it plays in our development and consequently, as individuals, we often look at failure as something to be penalized.

It is common for us – part of our nature – to confuse the things we do with who we are as a person. This is particularly dangerous when it comes to failure, as there’s the risk of starting to consider ourselves as Failures when we’re not successful – and of course, no one is successful all the time. Failure, just as success, is fleeting. Just as you’re not in a permanent state of bliss, you’re not in a permanent state of success nor failure.

Considering ourselves Failures, or considering others Failures causes us to become blind to opportunities for change. We become defensive, focusing on proven methods and on what is known to work and we leave no room for creativity, ingenuity and innovation. We often self-sabotage through procrastination, excessive anxiety or an inability to follow through with our goals, which might lead to low self-esteem or self-confidence, thinking we’ll “never be good enough to take on that job”.

In a downturn market, as the rate of failing businesses and unemployment soar, it is fundamental to be able to overcome failures and capitalize on them to build your success. The thing about failure is that you can decide how you look at it. You can choose to look at failure as the “end of the world” or as the learning experience that it often is. These lessons are very important; they’re how we grow, and how we keep from making that same mistake again.

Continue to the full article.

PocketMod

Here’s a really useful little tool that just makes your life easy.

The PocketMod is a small book with guides on each page. These guides or templates, combined with a unique folding style, enable a normal piece of paper to become the ultimate note card.

To me it’s also a wonderful example of simplicity in design. Stripping out everything that is non-essential we end up with a product that is simple and that maximizes function. For all productivity buffs and organizational freaks out there, this is something really cool.

Check out the PocketMod site and build your own PocketMod.

Root Cause Analysis – 5 Whys

Why Anyone who has kids or occasionally interacts with five-year olds knows about their uncanny ability to exhaust all your justifications simply by asking “Why”?

Interestingly enough, this characteristic that we often find exasperating in an infant is quite a powerful tool for identifying root causes of problems. As a “tool” it’s quite simple to understand and to use.

 

  1. Identify the problem under analysis;
  2. Ask “why” and obtain an answer;
  3. Keep asking “why” to each answer until you find the root cause (when the only answer you can come up with is “Just because!”, that’s probably the root cause);

The beauty and applicability of this technique lies in it’s utter simplicity. Granted it’s just useful for root cause analysis, but understanding root causes is often more than halfway home in solving a problem.

This technique is called the “Five Whys” not because you should only ask the question five times, but simply because more often than not five iterations are sufficient to reach a root cause. Here’s a quite quick example of this technique in action:

Problem: My project is behind schedule

Analysis:

  1. Why?
    Because we couldn’t deploy the software on time
  2. Why?
    Because we had integration errors in three components
  3. Why?
    Because they weren’t integration tested
  4. Why?
    Because we don’t have the proper testing environment
  5. Why?
    Because the email ordering the machines wasn’t sent on time

This technique is said to have been invented by Sakichi Toyoda, Japanese inventor, industrialist and founder of Toyota Industries. However, I believe kids throughout the ages might have gotten it even before that.

Too Many Hats

hats Ever felt like you were wearing too many hats? Doing too many different things at the same time?

If you do then you know it’s not that easy to step into someone else’s shoes nor try to look at any given topic from different angles.

The Six Thinking Hats® (6TH) method is an analysis technique that helps us to look at a given topic from different perspectives. The usefulness of this approach is that you get a more complete and thorough view on the subject and you often spot issues and discover new approaches that you’d usually miss.

6TH is very effective when multiple participants are involved. In these situations there’s a tendency for people to argue their own point of view. 6TH helps by shifting the focus from argumentation to collaboration, as all participants wear the same hat at any given moment, effectively looking at the issue under discussion from the same point of view.

Reading the book I followed the SQ3R technique and listed the questions I would like to have answered by the time I finished the book.

Here are some of the questions I wrote down after I surveyed the book’s contents:

  • What are the six thinking hats?
  • What does each hat represent?
  • How do I use this technique?
    • Individually
    • In a collaborative environment?
  • How does this relate to parallel thinking?
  • How does it relate to lateral thinking?

Getting to Know the Six Thinking Hats®

The 6TH method is a parallel thinking method and as such, it exposes all sides of the topic under analysis. Under western thinking, if two people disagree on an issue they discuss it trying to have their point of view prevail.

Using parallel thinking, if two people disagree on an issue, their points of view are both exposed in parallel. By looking at the multiple angles of the issue, any inconsistencies can be resolved or fused/merged together into the final solution to the problem.

Edward de Bono proposes using multi-colored hats as a way to represent different points of view. By wearing a hat of a given color, you are prompted to condition your thinking to that particular point of view or frame of mind.

So, what are the 6TH?

  • White Hat – represents neutrality and objectivity. The white hat is concerned with objective facts and figures;
  • Red Hat – represents emotion. The white hat represents the emotional view;
  • Black Hat – represents caution. The black hat identifies the weaknesses in an idea;
  • Yellow Hat – represents positive thinking. The yellow hat identifies positive points in an idea;
  • Green Hat – represents creativity. The green hat represents the generation of new ideas;
  • Blue Hat – represents control. The blue hat is responsible for organizing the thinking process and for the use of the other hats.

Edward de Bono lays out some ground rules for the use of each hat. However, the golden rule is that only one hat can be under analysis at any given time – this is what changes the focus from discussion to cooperation.

Since I usually learn more by asking questions and trying to find the answers to them than by using any other strategy, I have compiled a small list of questions that I find suitable for each hat:

Hat Questions
White Hat
  • What are the facts and figures?
  • What information do we have?
  • What information do we need?
  • What information is missing?
  • What questions do we need to ask?
  • Red Hat
  • What’s your gut reaction?
  • How do you feel about this?
  • Black Hat
  • Why can’t we do this?
  • What are our obstacles?
  • What’s the downside?
  • Yellow Hat
  • How can we do this?
  • What are our leverages?
  • What’s the upside?
  • Green Hat
  • What are additional opportunities?
  • What are additional angles?
  • Blue Hat
  • How should we think about this?
  • How shall we plan our thinking?
  • What’s the best way to use our hats?
  •  

    Using the Six Thinking Hats®

    Another question I had was related to how the 6TH method could (or should) be used in practice. Here’s how I have tried to apply this method personally:

    • Blue starts;
      • State the issue / approach / theme under discussion and the goal for the meeting;
    • Decide on the approach based on the session’s goals;
    • Analyze the topic from the perspective of each hat
      • Use the questions above as a template / guideline;
      • Only one hat can be under analysis at any given moment in time;
    • Continuously validate your strategy (Blue Hat evaluates if the defined approach is still working)
      • Is the team making progress?
      • Should we keep to the approach or does it make sense to switch to a different hat?
      • Should we return to an already used hat to further explore that angle?

    The Six Thinking Hats® is an interesting multi-dimensional approach to problem analysis and decomposition. I find it particularly useful for creative problem solving and as a way to make brainstorming sessions more productive.

    Mind-Mapping

    I clearly remember that one of the things I usually felt throughout my student years (high-school and college mostly) was that somehow the notes I took weren’t quite effective. At times it felt that I almost had to write down everything word for word so I didn’t loose any valuable piece of information – everything seemed important and I had a hard time identifying key concepts and ideas and jotting down just the relevant pieces of information that allowed me, later on, to mentally rebuild the whole idea. I eventually toyed with the idea of learning shorthand, but fortunately I eventually found out about mind-mapping.

    I have been using mind-mapping regularly for several years and it immediately felt a very natural and easy way to persist information in a way that I could trace it’s flow from one idea to the next, allowing me to recall information at a much deeper level. At the same time, note taking required much less granular notes.

    Today, after some years of practice, I find that mind-mapping not only helps me effectively with note taking, it also helps with creative problem solving. I use it for solo and team brainstorming sessions, whenever I am exploring any new subject.

    Creating a mind-map is quite simple:

    1. Get a clean sheet of paper (I usually use plain white paper – no lined or squared paper) and write the topic you’re exploring in the center of the page inside a large circle. This helps clearly identify the subject;
    2. As you explore the subject, write notes on lines that originate from the circle;
    3. As you explore deeper, draw new lines linked to the line with the note that originated the new ideas. This way it’s very easy to persist a line of thinking (and remember it later on);

    I have seen mind-maps where there are few notes and each branch is just a heading/subheading organization with the final branches (the ones furthest from the main topic) representing the facts, but I prefer a more free-form where each branch represents an idea. I usually take a lot of notes as I explore the topic further and further.

    Having used mind-mapping for a number of years now, I find it an indispensable tool for note taking whether I’m exploring possible solutions to a specific problem or whether I’m just studying any given subject.

    Decomposing & Working To Completion

    One way to address a complex problem is through decomposition. You take the large problem and break apart the problem space into smaller, more manageable pieces. You can continue decomposing each of these pieces until you arrive at a granularity that is solvable.

    One caveat is getting to a huge list of items. This can be overwhelming. When too many things that require attention creep in, thrashing occurs when trying to get things done due to the effort involved in switching context from task to task. Getting out of the resulting inertia is vital.

    1. Order your tasks by effort and priority
    2. Take the task with the least effort and highest priority
    3. Complete the task
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