Initiate, Plan; Initiate and Plan Again

It’s easy to spend most of our time reacting to problems. Some of us are built for this, meant for it even, but it shouldn’t be what we do with the majority of our time—unless that’s actually our job description. (Many IT people and Customer Service reps actually have this job description and rightfully so.)

Isn’t it just better to plan? As the boy scouts say: “Be prepared.” I would rather not have my inbox decide my schedule. I prefer to initiate over having my surroundings decide for me.

Much of the urgent is only urgent because we didn’t address it last month, last week, or yesterday. I’m a believer in the “clear the inbox” and “every problem should be addressed now” mentality—whenever possible. Yet, this too must be built into our planning. (I certainly don’t live up to this, but it’s a goal.) Problems often seem more manageable in retrospect; so, if we make retrospect now, we will be able to apply the lesson from today to tomorrow’s problems before they begin.

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Projects Are Like Toddlers

I now have a weekly time scheduled for re-planning current projects. When you hear the idea stated that way, it doesn’t make much sense. Wouldn’t current projects already be planned? Yes, but they will always need more strategic love.

If you’re not constantly evaluating a project, it will fall on its face, like a toddler learning to walk. The toddler will get hurt and something will be permanently damaged. And this has nothing to do with how competent your team is or how competent the people you work with are. You can work with some of the best people in the world–like I do–and projects will still fail along the way. Projects are still growing up, constantly, until they ship.

The goal is to put safety measures in place–as many as possible to prevent fatal errors.

Like real babies, no one loves your project as much as you do. No one cares about your baby’s cute looks like you do or how much it’s struggling.

Other people are also unlikely to babysit for you. So get over it now: don’t be upset when other people drop the ball on your project. They’re not the parent. They’re not even the babysitter. They’re the neighbor you asked to watch the kid for an hour. And who can blame them? Like the neighbor, they have other obligations. Again, you can work with some of the best in the world, and it will still happen, because the best in the world are always busy for good reasons on other great projects. You love it, they don’t. So love it and then sell them (as much as possible) on why they should love it too.

There is no perfect plan. There are always unknowns. You can try to plan for the unknowns and the unknowns will sneak up on you anyway. And that presents the second project strategy goal: prevent calling 911. And then, you pray and work hard.

How do you raise your project babies–any tips?

(P.S. I’m not a father of a real baby, but I convince myself that Milton the dog counts.)

Goals are Often Selfish

One of the most pressing problems with goals is how ego focused they are: When we set goals, we usually have ourselves in mind, not others. This isn’t usually the case with team projects, but it’s certainly the case for personal goals.

I realized this when reading Strategy for Living by Edward R. Dayton and Ted W. Engstrom. (The book was purchased for me by the director of a local non-profit. I now understand why he cites it as the single most life-changing book he has read outside of the Bible.)

“At a missionary meeting we attended we heard that the purpose of one group was ‘to bring all of Japan to the feet of Christ.’ What does that mean? It’s verbal fog. … Verbal fog can completely incapacitate us. We may desire to be a God-honoring father or mother. We may pray earnestly that God will make us such a parent. We may feel all kinds of love toward our children and have grand ideals for them. We may earnestly quote, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it’ (Proverbs 22:6). But the question is: What are we going to do? How does a God-honoring father act? What does one do to train up a child in the way he should go? How can we know whether what we did was effective or ineffective if we really did not decide what we intended to do?” —Dayton and Engstrom, Strategy for Living, pgs. 47–48

Goals must be specific, focused, purposeful and measurable. If we can’t measure the success of our work, we really don’t have goals—we have ideas. We may know generally what we want, but until we know specifically what success looks like, we’re not ready to start our work.

And unfortunately personal success—accomplishing our personal goals—often looks like happiness, satisfaction or gratification. If we believe in loving our neighbor as ourselves, as Jesus commanded, our goals shouldn’t look like this at all. Surely God can and does use ambition for his purposes; both David and Solomon are examples of this. But ambition alone is futile. Ambition doesn’t change lives; ambition makes individual people successful. It’s selfish. However, ambition coupled with a focus on God’s desires can lead powerful causes and change lives.

God doesn’t want us to ask what he wants us to do; he wants us to ask what we can do for his kingdom. (Notice the subject switch from “us” to “his kingdom.”) Goals should be focused on what we can do for others—the lives we can change.

As I set goals going into my birthday this year, I’m focusing on how I can help other people and not my success. I think it’s going to change everything. I’m telling you because I hope that you will do the same. (For my first goal, I’m raising $2,500 for relief efforts in the Horn of Africa; learn more here.)

How do you recommend we (all of us) change our goal setting structure and process? What ideas do you have?

Editing the Declaration of Independence

“Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence was edited and corrected to some extent by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Where Jefferson had written, ‘We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable,’ Franklin substituted ‘self-evident for ‘sacred and undeniable.’ In the famous opening sentence Jefferson had written, ‘When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people’; Franklin changed the word ‘a’ to ‘one.’

The moment the draft of the Declaration was submitted to the Continental Congress for approval, Benjamin Harrison rose to his feet and said: ‘There is but one word in this paper which I approved, and that is the word Congress.’

After a great deal of spirited discussion pro and con, four hundred words were cut from the first draft. In some cases strong words were changed to weak ones. By the third day, Jefferson … said he was ‘writhing.’ Benjamin Franklin came to his aid, not only with editorial advice, but with full moral and parliamentary support. Thus the basic structure of the document was retained and its integrity preserved. …

When Jefferson was seventy-three, in the year 1816, he wrote to a friend: ‘Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the Ark of the Covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I know that age well; I belonged to it and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book reading; and this they would themselves would say, were they to rise from the dead. … Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.’ …

On another occasion Jefferson said: ‘I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.’ ”

—M. Lincoln Shuster, A Treasury of The World’s Great Letters (New York: Simon and Shuster), pgs. 170–71. (Yes, that’s the Shuster who co-founded Simon & Shuster.)

I often think of the world’s great writers of old as untouchables: men and women beyond question, inspired beyond measure. Yet, as Jefferson so acutely observes, they were like us. The difference being their time, place and decisions. Jefferson’s time and locale involved distress, yet he made the correct decision. Continue Reading…

Robert Frost Only Published 10 Pages a Year

My complete works … adds up to maybe 700 pages in 70 years–10 pages a year. … I don’t calculate on it, but it comes out to be about that much a year–probably twice that and half thrown away.

–Robert Frost

If you didn’t know Robert Frost, and he said to you, “I’m a writer who publishes 10 pages a year,” you would consider him a failure. Yet, those 10 pages were eloquent and perfectly crafted. They are enduring contributions that we will cherish for as long as English poetry is valued.

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What Actually Defines Us

It’s not the difficult decisions that define me, it’s the decisions I make that affect others.

Leaders understand their burden well: If I fail, so do the people around me. Those who merely manage other people are looking at “I” and not “we.” Leaders are looking for the “we”—their looking at “you.”

Leading means understanding the strengths and weaknesses of those around you: playing to their strengths and strengthening their weaknesses. To make that concrete: it often means making difficult decisions with them. When faced with a problem, leaders look beyond the people involved and consider how their decision will alter the lives of everyone. And by everyone, I mean everyone: the team, the department, the company, the customers, and the world. What affect will this decision have on all of us? Continue Reading…

Over Thinking: 3 Questions that Eliminate the Problem

“Over thinking an issue”—it’s an axiom that’s probably overused, but a truism nonetheless.

Most items in business and project management are over thought. Over sights and assumptions are certainly project killers, but how much time do we waste by analyzing things that have already been sufficiently analyzed?

The question “What’s the action item?” can certainly get old, but we need to keep asking it. Meetings that result in more meetings are a complete waste: of dollars, of time, and of creativity. So let’s find another method, so that we can all start doing more of what we really care about.
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Confessions of a Goal Setter

I spend more time thinking about goals than most people I know. If you checked out my Myers & Briggs profile, that wouldn’t surprise you. I think goals are fun, even amusing.

(Some of you cringed as you read those words, but you’re probably reading this post because you want to stop cringing and embrace this madness–I’ll try not to let you down.)

I set goals for nearly everything: reading, writing, working out, and (of course) project and career goals. The craziest goal-oriented thing I do: I set leisure goals. I decide how I’m going to recharge my batteries, and make it a goal. Otherwise, I won’t recharge and I won’t be as creative as I could have been. (Moving on from the crazy.)

Here are seven confessions from a goal setter. I hope these seven confessions help you make your goals less boring and more manageable.

  1. I know I won’t accomplish all my goals from the start. But this doesn’t keep me from believing I can, or will. Anything less than accomplishing all of my goals is a disappointment. Nonetheless, they’re certain failures that I know I can (and likely will, by probability) have to live with. I have a whole philosophy behind this idea.
  2. I tell everyone my “public” goals. (I have personal goals, like how many pounds I want to lose, that I generally keep private.) This can be an occupational hazard. Many people will decide that they’re not interested in talking to you once you let them know you’re a crazy Type-A who (according to common belief) will try and turn them into one. Once people know my goals, I’m more inclined to accomplish them. Continue Reading…

The Lightbulb Alone is Useless

Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit (makers of Quicken and QuickBooks software), felt that the problem to solve wasn’t making good accounting software, but something else entirely: “The greatest competitor … was not in the industry. It was the pencil. The pencil is a tough and resilient substitute. Yet the entire industry had overlooked it.” … Even if [Cook's] competition had more talented problem solvers, engineers, or designers, his creative framing of the problem gave him an advantage.

Scott Berkun, The Myths of Innovation, pg. 130

We assume that those who win innovation wars are either faster or smarter than the competition. We assume that the winners either work smarter, harder and longer, or are born brilliant. (Talent is overrated, though.) It’s actually those who frame the question correctly that usually win.

Hard work is one part of the equation, and so is smarts—the old “smart and gets things done” adage—but the greatest factor leading to successful innovation is focusing on the right question. Those who look at the problem differently often win.

It’s asking the right question that’s difficult. The best questions take imagination. The right question doesn’t just hit you—Berkun also debunks this myth in The Myths of Innovationit takes the hard work of asking the wrong questions first. We usually have to think of all the wrong ways to do something, and thus eliminate possibilities, before we attempt to innovate.

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The Writer’s Warm Up

When I workout, I’m not very good about warming up. I have a tendency to go hard and fast. (If you knew me, you would likely say that my workout method is characteristic of my personality.) But when I don’t warm up, the next day is more difficult. I have learned this lesson as a musician, but I have not learned it as an athlete. I have also not learned it as a writer or leader.

When I go hard and fast, I’m ultimately slowed down. My creativity level eventually drops. This makes it difficult to finish a long article in the amount of time I would like to spend on it. It also makes it hard to keep up the energy levels required to lead everyday. It’s hard to be positive when you’re exhausted.

When I drum, I spend time to tune the drum kit and warm up my hands. I stretch. I start slow, before I go for speed. I start with simple rhythms, before playing something complex. I’m contemplative and intentional. It took me years to learn this. It sounds simple now, but it’s not. Warming up is also a discipline.

When I spend time to write a blog post, or a memo-style email, before starting a large project, I’m actually more efficient. The same (likely) holds true for all projects. It goes against our nature to be “off task” before being “on task.” In all actuality, though, a warm up writing exercise is intentional and “on task.” (We’re not talking about checking Facebook or Twitter after all.) It helps us mentally prepare for being more efficient than we would be otherwise. It engages the part of our brain that we’re about to use.

Now what if your warm up also had a purpose? This warm up blog post does. (I wrote it before beginning work on the Bible study I write for Bible Study Magazine every two months.)

So here’s to warming up, like an athlete or a musician. Be contemplative and intentional. You will actually get more done that way. How do you warm up?

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