CG #66 – “Smooth Seas Do Not Make Skillful Sailors.”

Do you ever feel like the universe is sending you a postcard?  When I came home last night, the title of this post was scrawled in chalk on the ramp to my dock.

Reading Time:  Under 2 minutes


After the crisis-ridden day I’d had, I was happy to see those words.  As I stood there and let those words sink in deep, I thought about the difference between someone who learns to sail on the San Francisco Bay – a notoriously wild and windy place – and someone who learns on the Long Island Sound with its placid, protected waters. I know which Captain I want in charge of my boat.

Which got me thinking about resilience and the recent, compelling research about stress.  It’s not stress that harms you, it’s the belief that stress is harmful that harms you.  Believing stress is harmful is the 15th leading cause of death.

The physiology is straightforward:  Stress makes your heart pound.  Believing stress is harmful constricts your blood vessels, which increases your risk of death.  But when you see the stress as helpful, your blood vessels open. Increased blood flow in open veins is physically identical to states of exhilaration, courage and joy.  See stress as helpful and your body throws itself a little party right in the middle of the onslaught, rendering stress harmless.

But the news is even better than that:  Stress causes you to connect with others – it practically drives you into their arms.  You need help, advice, support, coaching,  These social connections bathe your body in oxytocin, which protects you from the effects of stress.   For caregivers, the healing effect of oxytocin seems to negate the wear and tear of caring for others.

Yes, you read that correctly:  Caring for others promotes a healing response in the caregiver that protects against the effects of stress.

This research means that rampant excuse for bad behavior, “I’m just really stressed out,” is about to leave the building, and good riddance to it.

Accept – Connect – Help is the formula, and the choice is yours to make.  The more I sit with this research, the more I see that what I’ve been calling stressful is simply strenuous, a signal to get moving.

Stress has one more gift for us:  Meaning.  Stress and adversity increase the chance of a meaningful life.  Seeking comfort has the opposite effect.

Which brings me to my 90-year-old Aunt Perina, a woman I’ve long admired, but not always understood.  Born between the World Wars, her generation came of age in a time of great deprivation.  Those early, difficult times hold her richest, most cherished memories, the ones that have sustained her through the death of all her siblings and most of her friends.  I did not understand the psychic alchemy that left her kinder and richer with each blow, until I saw this research.  I’m glad to get a glimmer of this this now, when I can still tell her she’s my role model for her courage, grit and unfailing sense of humor.

If you want to learn more, the book is called “The Upside of Stress,” by Kelly McGonigalHer TED talk gives a good overview of this topic.  If you don’t have 20 minutes right now, click here for my 1-page summary of that TED talk.

See you on the upside.

CG #61 – Culture is what you do right here, right now

That’s just the culture here. We can’t get anything done quickly.”  Organizational culture has gotten a reputation for being difficult to unravel and nearly impossible to change. Is your organization’s culture really a trap you can’t escape?  That’s up to you.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Reading Time: 2.2 minutes

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Culture is a verb, not a prison sentence. Here’s how one dictionary defines it:

Culture: v. To maintain (tissue, bacteria, etc.) in conditions suitable for growth.

“But that’s the problem!” you moan. “My organization won’t let me take risks or grow at all. I have to wait for someone to die to get promoted.”

Which brings us to the definition of culture as a noun: Culture n. “The attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.”

Culture is what you do, not who you are. 

Attitudes. Behavior. Conditions. Groups. That’s what culture is. If the behavior that is characteristic of your organization is getting you down, make a tiny change in one of the above 4 elements.   Here are three examples.

Change a Condition

A workgroup was moved into a new building with a dispiriting floor plan. Instead of the natural gathering places and interesting configuration of their previous space, this office was one uniform row after another of depressing gray cubicles. “It’s awful.” a coaching client of mine said, “People are fighting more, and no one smiles or jokes anymore. I want to quit.”

She didn’t quit. Instead, she placed a small table in a central location with a message board above it. Soon food started appearing there – lemons from the tree in someone’s backyard, tomatoes and zucchini from someone’s garden, a box of doughnuts. Then notes started appearing on the message board. As people lingered to eat, they talked and joked with one another. The fighting subsided.

Change the Group Behavior

The meeting was the same every month: There was no project goal, no meeting outcome, no agenda. There was only a plate of cookies and a request by the CIO to figure out “how to create partnerships between IT and our client groups.” This group of senior managers ate cookies and went through the motions for 9 months. They’d meet for the rest of their lives because the culture did not allow pointing out the mistakes of leaders, and it did not believe in structuring meetings.

A newcomer suggested a meeting evaluation, and it took 3 flipchart pages to capture their discontent, and only 2 more highly structured meetings to agree to stop meeting, a first in this compliant, meeting-bound culture. “We can’t solve on partnership problems in isolation.” is what they told the CIO. “Makes sense,” he said.

Change Your Behavior

“…so we need a new design for the group by Friday. I need your very best thinking..” It was Wednesday afternoon and this was the first I’d heard of this from my C—level client.   It was a typical moment in this hard-driving, last-minute culture. I was booked solid for the rest of the week.

I tore out a piece of paper from my pad and started drawing the design. “I can do it right now,” I said.

“What? “ Now my client was flustered. “Don’t you need time to talk to people and think about it?”

“There’s no time for that.  We have 20 minutes left. Let’s take our best shot and your admin can type up our first draft while we agree on next steps.”

She frowned as I drew and labeled boxes. “Why are you putting that there?” she asked. Then she grabbed her pen and pulled the paper toward her. We had an engaging design session for the next 15 minutes.

Keep it tiny and matter-of-fact

When culture is in your way, it’s tempting to think you have to make a dramatic attempt to change it. What if, instead of trying to change the culture, you focused on not letting the culture change you in one, tiny way?

Just because the office layout is unfriendly doesn’t mean you have to be. Just because the meeting culture is dysfunctional doesn’t mean you have to throw away your skills. If the deadline demands are routinely impossible, why not make a first draft part of the way you work? Just because the culture is rigid, doesn’t mean you have to be.

Remember:  Right here, right now, the culture is up to you.


Behavioral Interview Questions for “Soft” Skills

I love writing interview questions for my clients, so I thought I’d start compiling the ones I’ve written here with this short list.  The “soft” skills questions seem hardest for people to write.  It would be great fun for me to write more, so feel free to give me an assignment in the comments below.  And, feel free to share your favorite questions there too.  If you wanted to include stories or comments about using them, I’d love to read them.

Hi Liz –

We’re looking for questions that can help us select candidates who:

1. like people

2. are happy/positive

3. are comfortable with change

4. are self-motivated


The first thing I do when I want to write a behavioral interview question is to picture the behavior I want in a co-worker, and the situation I think might evoke or challenge that behavior.  Then I use the Behavioral question format to phrase a question about the situation and ask them what happened.

To the extent you and I agree on what these things look like, these questions will work for you.  Whether or not they fit, I encourage you to use them as a jumping off place for your own.  In each category I included a question designed to elicit “contrary evidence,” that is a question about failing to like people, be positive, etc.

1.  Like people

  • Tell me about a time when you joined a new company needed to become part of a team quickly.  What did you do?  What happened as a result?
  • Tell me about a time when your attempt to connect with someone was rebuffed.   What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time you joined a team that was tense and not communicating with each other very well.  What did you do to become a part of the team?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to work with someone you didn’t like.  How did you handle it?

2.  Are happy/positive

  • Tell me about a time when your work was difficult – a real slog.  What did you do to keep going?
  • Tell me about a time when your boss made an unpopular decision and your co-workers were complaining and negative.  What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when you lost your enthusiasm for your work.  What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when the barriers to doing your work were severe.  How did you handle it?
  • Tell me about a time when you weren’t able to talk yourself into being upbeat and positive.  How did you handle it?

3. Are comfortable with change

  • Tell me about a time when your work changed due to a new regulation or leadership decision.  What did you do to adjust?
  • Tell me about a time when you noticed a problem with the way you were expected to work.  What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when someone came to you with an idea for improving your workflow.  How did it go?  What did you end up doing?
  • Tell me about a time when the changes coming at you were just too many to deal with.  What did you do?

 4. Are self-motivated

  • Tell me about a time when you saw a way to improve your team’s workflow.  What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to learn something new that was really difficult for you.  How did you go about it?
  • Tell me about a time when you wanted to move forward in your career, but couldn’t see an opportunity to.  What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when you were overwhelmed with work.  How did you handle it?
  • Tell me about a time when you couldn’t not seem to get motivated to do something.  What did you do?

CG #60 – How to Hold Someone Accountable

It’s tempting to think accountability depends on the other person and their skills.  Nope.  It depends on you.

Reading Time:  3 minutes

*     *     *     *     *


Let’s say you’ve got someone who is missing deadlines or turning in work that isn’t up to snuff.  Let’s say you’ve given them feedback about what’s right and carefully explained what needs to change about their work.  You’ve offered more training and sat with them to show them what to do.

And, although there may be slight improvement, it isn’t enough.  You dread spending more time for such a feeble result.

Trust that feeling. 

The cardinal rule of accountability is to stop working harder than they are.

Who is putting in more time, energy and worry?  If it isn’t the person who is responsible for the work, accountability is in the wrong place.  Believing if you just show them one more time, if you just do this one more thing for them is a big part of the problem.

Either someone can do that job or they can’t.  If they can do it, but aren’t doing it, then doing it for them won’t close the gap between them and successful job performance.  Like a baby bird, they’ve got to peck their way out of the shell to get strong enough for the challenges of life.  Doing it for them weakens them. 

Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine about how to teach a baby to sleep through the night.  Holding someone accountable is a lot like that.  Assuming they aren’t hungry and don’t need to be changed, you’ve got three choices when your newborn starts screaming in their crib:

  • Ignore them and hope they stop crying on their own (the equivalent of leaving your employee without any guidance and hoping they get it)
  • Rush in and pick them up (the equivalent of doing someone’s work for them or working harder than they are)
  • Rub their back and speak softly to them, then leave. (the equivalent of letting your employees know you care, that there are standards, and that you are confident they can fulfill them)

Letting the baby know you are nearby and rubbing their back eases his terror.  Not picking him up holds him accountable for soothing himself back to sleep, a necessary life skill.

Your employee needs to know you are nearby, and that you care, both about them and the work.  They also need to know that you have confidence they can figure out how to meet the job standards, which remain high.  Holding people accountable is holding a clear expectation of performance without abandoning them or doing it for them when they miss.

So if holding people accountable isn’t doing the work for them, or ignoring them when they don’t perform, or giving feedback or a pep talk or explaining it one more time or sending them to another training, what is it?

Holding people accountable is staying in your own business and out of theirs.

Instead of being an expert in the other person – why they might be failing, what they might need – you need to be an expert on yourself.  Your needs.  The requirements of the job.  Your ability to do your job which is diminishing with each hour you spend doing their job.  What you need from an employee in order to keep them in the job.

It’s the chick’s business to summon the strength to peck its way through that hard shell.  It’s the baby’s business to regulate its own emotions.  It’s your employee’s business to stare at the gap between what’s expected and what they’ve produced until they figure out how they can close that gap.  It’s your business is to keep your employee’s attention focused on the performance gap long enough to devise a plan for closing it. 

 Staying out of their business doesn’t mean the baby’s cry won’t make you squirm, or that you won’t long to reach out and crack the chick’s shell open.  It doesn’t mean you won’t feel uncomfortable watching your employee struggle to get their work done properly.  It doesn’t mean closing your heart or distancing yourself from them.  It means you know better than to get in the way of someone else’s progress.

CG #59 – Does Your Productive Group Fall Apart at Times?

Groups excel at tasks, and flounder with projects.  Learning to recognize the difference will revolutionize your meetings.

*     *     *     *     *

Reading time: 2 minutes

*     *     *     *     *

A task is something that can be accomplished in one step.  A project is anything that is more than one step.  Tasks are speedy and give you an immediate feeling of accomplishment.  Projects are speedbumps on the road of life.

Very few of the things on a typical to do list – or a typical meeting agenda – are tasks.  Most of us have items on our to do list – or our meeting agendas – that we move to the next list or the next agenda.  These are often projects rather than tasks.

Look at your list right now:  Is the item you move from list to list a project rather than a task?  If it is a project, you’re smart to avoid it.  It’s going to gobble up a lot of time and demand your complete attention.  And it’s going to send your group into one of those long, unproductive discussions.

 If you want to get things done, you put only tasks on your to do list. If you want your group to get things done, you put only tasks on your agenda.

Analyze Your Task List/Meeting Agenda

Here’s a typical to do list:

  • Wash the car
  • Mow the lawn
  • Do the laundry

There is a project lurking behind every one of these items.  I can’t wash the car without first parking the car away from my neighbor’s cars, finding a hose, getting a bucket, soap and a sponge, and putting on clothes I don’t mind getting wet.  It’s a project to wash a car, not a task.

If I put “wash the car” on a meeting agenda, then ask the group to help me wash my car, pandemonium will erupt.  The group will split according to the task they each think comes first.  One person will ask for the keys to the car.  Another will tell me – at length – how much they love using Dawn dishwashing detergent and do I have any while someone else warns me of the damage dishwashing detergent will do to my car’s paint job.  While they are arguing, 3 people will already be in the parking lot squirting each other with the hose and getting my neighbor’s cars wet.

My project just turned into a nightmare.  Unproductive meetings are just like this.  Which brings me to 3 principles of working with groups:

  • Groups are fabulous at tasks
  • Groups fall apart over projects
  • Groups tend to turn everything into a project

If you want to see the full flowering of the dynamics lurking in your group, throw a project at them.  If you want their help working on a project of enormous complexity, give it to them one small task at a time.  That’s what meeting planning is for:  to break down the big, undigestible project into tiny, group-sized pieces.

Task or Project?

In order to make improving your meetings a quick, easy task instead of an enormous, time-chewing project, take this tiny step today:

Look at your task list or list of agenda items and ask yourself:  Which of these is a project rather than a task?  It’s probably the one you’ve been avoiding, and now you know why.

CG #57 – Real Feedback Doesn’t Shame

 Giving feedback is not an excuse to belittle someone, yet it’s so easy to cause harm.  A simple formula will keep you from crossing the line.

+     +     +     +     +

Word Count:  1100

Reading Time:  4 minutes

+     +     +     +     +

Shaming Feedback

“The officer was shouting at me, his face red, spitting mad. He would not stop until I admitted I was a reckless driver.  Not just that I was speeding, but that I was a reckless driver.  After he left, my 13-year-old daughter said ‘Dad, he really shamed you.’”

+     +     +     +     +

Yes, he did.  Speeding is a behavior; something you did that was wrong.  Being a reckless driver is something you are that is wrong.  Real feedback is about the behavior, not the person. 

feedback shame

Real Feedback

Jacqueline and I are talking about the equine-guided leadership program at the Stanford Red Barn. A horse named Chey is standing with us, looking me in the eye as Jacqueline talks.  When I begin speaking, Chey takes 2 steps backwards, still locking eyes with me.  I say “No?  Not the right direction?  OK.  Forget that.”  Chey immediately takes two steps toward me and wiggles his ears, then blows snot all over me.   We have to take a tiny hilarity break before we can go on with the meeting.

+     +     +     +     +

We can learn a lot about giving feedback from horses like Chey.  Here’s why he was so effective:

  • He stayed connected to me, both when he was stepping away from me and when he was stepping back toward me.
  • He gave feedback instantly, without agonizing or creating a story about why I was being such a chowderhead.
  • He didn’t call me a chowderhead.

Feedback that works is feedback without shame.  Horses excel at this. 

Humans don’t. 

Horses simply respond in the moment without judging either their response or the person or horse they are responding to.  Horses are OK with having likes and dislikes, and letting each other know about them.

Horses accept feedback as a way of life.

Humans don’t.

Humans like to “improve” the feedback they’re about to give by first disowning it, then telling themselves a story about it.  Rather than admitting to our own anxiety or irritation, we create stories that make it easy to blame our feelings on others.  Then we blame them for forcing us to give feedback!  “if you want to succeed in this company, you’ll watch your tone.”  That’s a world apart from “You sounded cranky to me yesterday.  It rubbed me the wrong way.”  The second example lacks shame; the first is drenched in it.

There are 3 problems with “improving” feedback by attaching a story:

  • The story gets in the way of the simplicity and directness that makes feedback effective.
  • The story obliterates the connection that makes feedback safe.
  • The story shames the receiver, which forever blights the relationship between them.

Feedback + a story = shame.

The Opposite of Shaming is Vulnerability

The feedback you give tells others what you care about and something of who you are.  Building a case for the righteousness of the feedback you’re about to give is like the Wizard of Oz terrifying Dorothy before she spots the man behind the curtain.  But it’s the man behind the curtain we want to hear from, person-to-person, because getting feedback makes us vulnerable too.

Come out from behind the curtain 

Who are you without your beliefs, certainties and authority?  You’re a human being with endearing quirks, annoying habits, staggering talents and persistent blind spots, just like me.  Nothing real separates the person giving feedback from the person getting it.  Nothing.   

Who are you without a 360-degree review process that institutionalizes gossip, or a performance review process that forces you to find “weaknesses” in perfectly wonderful people, even though every bit of research supports focusing on strengths instead?   You are a human being caught in an organization that sometimes causes you to act like you’ve lost your way.  But you haven’t, have you?

The Threefold Test: True + Kind + Helpful

There’s an ancient formula that helps us human act more like horses.  Its earliest appearance is in the Upanisads, the mystical texts of Hinduism.  It’s most often associated with Socrates now, and is a threefold test for speech that is beneficial for the speaker and the receiver.  You need all three of these to pass the test for effective feedback..

1. It’s true. True is what is real about this situation – everything that’s real.  Let’s say you have an employee who casually mentions that they’ll be working from home for the week between Christmas and New Years.  Let’s say “home” is in Colorado, where they’ll be visiting family over the holidays. What’s real is that working at home has to meet two criteria:  There has to be a valid business reason for doing it, and it has to be approved.  What’s also real is that you are supportive of telecommuting in general.  The most real thing you can say about this is that you are stuck on the horns of a dilemma.  If you start there, I bet you can work out something that satisfies the employee, the organization and you.

If you making a case about how insubordinate or entitled they are because you are stunned by this obvious attempt to pass off vacation time as work, you are adding a story to the truth and you will shame your employee.  The truth is what actually happened in the real world. The story didn’t actually happen.  You made it up.

Effective feedback is the truth without the story. 

2.  It’s kind.   Kind is from an Old English word that means kin or family.  It carries the sense of “deliberately doing good to others.” In order to deliberately do good to someone, you have to open your heart to them.  Where doing good to them seems to conflict with doing good for the company you represent, you’ll need to open your heart to yourself.  It’s OK to feel uncomfortable with the discrepancy between what you want to do and what you must do.  Everybody deserves kindness.  Make the circle big enough to include all three of you.

3. It’s useful.  Useful for the person receiving the feedback.  You’ll know because they will get very interested in what you are saying and show all the signs of someone who is learning:  bright eyes, talking faster, and a vocal tone full of color rather than a dead monotone.

True, kind and helpful:  It’s your insurance policy against shaming others as well as being shamed into being less human than you are.

CG #56 – Are Your Meetings Messy Enough?

A plan is like a wax mold:  When you pour the hot metal in, the wax form you spent hours perfecting melts away.

Word count: 633

Reading Time: 2 minutes

*     *     *     *     *

“Hermione, when have any of our plans every actually worked?  We plan, we get there and all hell breaks loose.”

–Harry Potter, The Deathly Hallows

*     *     *     *     *

“We’re going to have fun, right?”

My 17-year-old niece is looking at the planning grid for our upcoming trip to New York City, her first.  I don’t usually plan my vacations, but everything my niece wants to do requires a timed ticket.  We’ll be taking the subway everywhere, so those directions are on the grid.  I’ve also included suggestions for stuff my niece might enjoy when they are near what she has asked to do.

After assuring my niece that having fun is the outcome we’re after, I run the grid by two seasoned parents.  Seasoned parent #1 is says:  “You won’t be able to do all that.  Better scale it back.”  Parent #2 says:  “This is fantastic!  I want to take this trip.  Send me a copy?”

Based on this feedback, I decide the grid is ready for use.

What a plan does

  • It clarifies your desired outcome.  Check!  Ours is fun.  17-year-old fun.
  • It gives you a clear path to your outcome. Check!
  • The plan isn’t the outcome:  You can’t let the plan bully you with its neat boxes and black-and-white certainty.

Just Add People…But First:  Einstein

Einstein’s study of Brownian Motion is not his most famous contribution to science, but it may be his most profound.   Brownian Motion refers the random twitching of pollen grains suspended in a drop of water.  The water was still.  What was making the pollen jump around like that?

Einstein’s calculations showed that, as the molecules that made up the water bounced around randomly, they occasionally bumped into the pollen grains making them twitch.

Let’s say the plan is the pollen, and the world at large is the water, which is full of molecules – let’s call them people – moving randomly.   When you launch your little pollen grain into the world of jostling molecules, all hell breaks loose.

For example, the subway is late, or it’s rerouted or both:  It’s all detailed in the 5 pages of service changes posted in every station. Who knew thousands of people would be willing to stand in 20-degree weather for hours to see the Empire State Building?  And, I have grossly underestimated the importance of shopping to a 17-year-old female. Grossly underestimated it.

When the grain of pollen is your meeting agenda, you arrive late, the materials didn’t get to everybody, your quietest member launches into a passionate, long speech, 2 team-mates get into an argument, and your star performer challenges you about not being invited to a key meeting.

This is NOT the meeting you planned.

 You have a choice.  Do you rigidly adhere to your idea of how the meeting was supposed to go, or do you abandon the plan altogether and let yourself be led by the group?


 It’s not the plan’s fault that your meeting is being buffeted  by random events.  It’s not anybody’s fault. 

But without an outcome, you might be itching for something or someone to blame  You need a third option:  Flex the plan in favor of the outcome – the result – you’re after and let the people take you there.  When you know the result you’re headed for, you can welcome the messiness of human interaction.  That messiness is going to get you there faster, better, and with more energy.  There’s no need to tidy the messiness away, and no need to tense up when your perfect plan is being eaten up by what’s actually happening..

When your group has a clear outcome, they will find the most efficient path to get there.  The route they take may not look like your agenda.  It may look bumpy and inefficient, like pollen moving for no apparent reason.  That’s OK.  Enjoy the ride.

CG #55 – Working at Your Peak Without Burning Out

You can do anything 25 minutes at a time.  You’ll do it better if you take a short break every 25 minutes.

Word Count: 677

Reading Time: Under 3 minutes

Dave is standing on the dock, covered in sawdust.  He’s been remodeling the galley of his trawler for the last few days.  Being a trawler – a boat designed with visibility in mind, – it’s quite easy to see his progress.  Being Dave, I’m expecting an entertaining conversation.  Dave is a tugboat captain in Alaska in the summer. .  “Most days, I have a lot of time to think,” is how he describes his work life.  During the winter, he lives aboard his trawler.  Most days, I understand very little of what Dave says.

“I’m about 6 boat units in so far, probably take another 3 to finish this.”

“What’s a boat unit?”

“The minimum amount of money it takes to complete the smallest project on the boat.  It’s also a way to estimate time.  A 1-boat unit project takes 2 or 3 hours.”

I soon started seeing the usefulness of Dave’s boat unit idea.  I noticed there was a meeting unit, and it didn’t vary much across groups or organizations.

A meeting unit is the time a group can stay focused a task without tangents.

I saw that groups can work like the wind for 25 minutes, then they need a small break from that relentless focus.  They rest by cracking a joke, making a personal comment, staring out the window, or checking email.

When I designed with the meeting unit in mind, I had to do less facilitation.  Much less, especially in long meetings.

About this time, I came across the Pomodoro Technique, by Francesco Cirillo.  Cirillo has developed a simple time-management technique based on the writings of memory expert Tony Buzan.

According to Buzan, if you work for too long without a break, your understanding may increase, but your ability to remember what you understand decreases  Subsequent work can’t benefit from what you understand unless you can remember it.  The highest quality work comes from this equation:

Understanding + Remembering + Rest = Learning.

During a rest period, the brain converts understanding to learning and makes it available for use, just like fertile farmland makes use of a rainstorm.  Too much rain for too long and the water runs off carrying valuable topsoil with it.  Even a brief let-up in a rainstorm allows the soil to absorb and be enriched by water.  Taking a break does for the brain what a break in a storm does for the field.

To grow the best crops, a farm needs the optimal mix of nutrient-rich soil and moisture.  To do its best work, the brain needs the optimal mix of understanding and memory.

The Pomodoro Technique achieves this optimal mix by alternating work units with rest units. A work unit is the unit of time the brain can balance understanding and remembering to produce its best work.

The work unit alternates with a rest unit, the length of time the brain needs to consolidate what it’s understood from the work unit.  A work unit and a rest unit produce a learning unit, which makes the next work unit better.

Using the Pomodoro Technique is simple:

1. Set a noisy kitchen timer for 25 minutes and work with complete focus on a single task.

2. When the timer goes off, no matter how you feel about it, set the timer for a 3-5 minute break.  During the break, do something that gives your mind a break.  This is not answering emails or talking to a colleague about the problem at hand.  A quick walk is good, making some tea, a doodle, or just staring into the middle distance.

3. After 4 pomodoros, take a longer break, about 15-30 minutes.

I’m using the Pomodoro Technique right now.  I find  it remarkably helpful for all sorts of tasks.  If I love the task, I don’t burn myself out with my enthusiasm for it; if it’s a task I hate, I know I can get through it 25 minutes at a time.

CG #52 – Taming the Small Group Report-Out

No one wants to deal with long meandering report-outs and stacks of flipcharts.  And, good news!  There’s a better way.

Word Count:  678

Reading Time:  Under 3 minutes

Let’s say you decide to use small groups in your meetings.  You understand that open discussion isn’t easily converted into action, much less commitment.  You’ve seen for yourself how presentations create a certain passivity in those presented to.  You want to amp up the participation in your meetings without losing control.  Small groups can do that.

In your next meeting, you put 8 people in 4 pairs to generate ideas for 2014 goals.  It works!  Each pair generates a list of 10 ideas, which they’ve written on a flip chart.  Their report out to the larger group is interesting and takes a little longer than you hoped.  When they’ve all finished sharing their results, you have a moment of pure panic:  What do I do with the 4o items on the flipcharts?  I can’t throw them out because I asked for them.  We do not have time to narrow them down to a manageable number.  You vow to never, ever use small groups again.

There is a better choice:  Simply ask your small groups to report out their top 1-3 picks, rather than their entire list.

Here’s how:

1a.  Structure and time the work of the small groups (7-10 minutes).  If you don’t use a meeting process for small group work, you’ve just set several open discussions in motion.  Open discussion in small groups is just as inefficient, rambling, and subject to tangents as they are in large groups.

I recommend Likes and Concerns, Stop-Start-Continue and the Plus-Delta evaluation for small group work.  Just pick the one that’s most appropriate for the topic at hand:

  • Like and Concerns asks participants to list what they like about something and then to list what their concerns are.  It’s the best process I know for getting feedback to a document or proposal or vision or goal.
  • Stop-Start-Continue asks participants to give themselves advice about what to stop doing, start doing, or continue doing.  It’s best for things that already in progress, but need to shift.
  • Plus-Delta*  evaluates something in the past, like last year’s performance or the meeting we just had.  It’s also good for a temperature check on something you do regularly.  In the plus column, list what is working well, in the delta column, list what you’d like to change for next time.  (*delta is the mathematical sign for change)

1b. Limit the report-out to the number of items you have the time to deal with.  This asks the small groups to prioritize their lists and only share their 1-3 picks.

1c. Ask each of the groups to write their picks on a single flipchart. That’s one flipchart each for the likes, the concerns, the stops, starts, etc.

In the above scenario, I’d ask for the top pick from each of my 4 trios.  That would give me 4 items on each flipchart, a manageable number.

2.  Ask if there is anything missing from the list  (1-2 mins).  Always ask.  Sometimes the best ideas come at this stage.  If the new idea is similar to what is already up there, challenge it.

3. Clarify the lists.  Read each item and ask “Is this clear?” (3-5 mins)  Correct them on the flipchart until everybody is satisfied.  Do not wordsmith – just make notes or draw arrows.  Move quickly, as though you are late for an appointment.

4. Commit to doing something with the list of concerns, deltas, stops and starts.  Make it small. (1-3 mins) The simplest action is to assign items to future agendas, or to a sub-group to work on.  One manager I worked with reports: “We were able to design the agenda for our next meeting using the “concerns” list.

You can do this in 20 minutes.  With practice, you can do it in 15 minutes.  Best of all, it’s a high-quality, focused and energizing 15-20 minutes.

CG #51 – Peace of Mind or the Unenforceable Rule?

What if it’s not reality that has you stressed, but the unenforceable rules in your mind?

Word Count: 715

Reading Time: 3.2 minutes

I just fired my new tax accountant, Bob.  Well, fired may be too strong a word.  Let’s say I relieved him of a certain responsibility:  Contacting the IRS on my behalf over a bill they’d sent.  The IRS likes to send me notices every few years telling me I owe them thousands of dollars.  That never turns out to be true, but it does require a phone call to straighten out. The first time, I made the mistake of letting them try to help me solve “my problem.” As the IRS clerk romped merrily through the past 5 years of my tax returns reading me the riot act, and displaying a stunning disregard for my privacy, I broke into a cold sweat.  The call ended with a tongue-lashing about my slipshod record-keeping.  The entire call was a virtual strip search.   Since then I’ve learned to limit the call to the tax year in question and get off the phone fast.

So when Bob told me he was going to handle my latest IRS notice by offering up information about previous tax years, I went berserk.  The only thing worse than having the IRS use my personal information against me was having someone I employ helping them.

Even worse was what happened in my mind while I was on hold with the IRS for the next hour and 10 minutes.  I had an outbreak of Unenforceable Rules.  That’s what psychologist Fred Luskin calls it when we hold ourselves or others to a standard that we can’t enforce.    Here’s what it sounded like:

“Bob should really know better.”

Ah – there it is:  The word “should.”  “Should,” “Always,” and “Never” are 3 words unenforceable rules like to hide behind.   Unenforceable rules fool us into thinking something is wrong when it just isn’t what we prefer..  That’s how they destroy our peace of mind.

And they come in so many colors!

We can have unenforceable rules for:

Others – My boss should communicate more, give me the assignments I want, notice how hard I work and offer me a raise.  My partner should remember I don’t like lime green, take out the garbage, be kinder.

For ourselves – I should be more disciplined, exercise more, get up earlier, be further ahead than I am.

For the Universe at large –   Life should be fair.  Evil should be punished.  Goodness should prevail.

If you aren’t quick enough to catch yourself saying “should,” there is another way to spot an unenforceable rule:

Reality.  The gap between what is happening and what you think should be happening is created by an unenforceable rule.  The one you’re using to make yourself miserable.  You destroy your own peace of mind when you choose an unenforceable rule over reality.  Reality doesn’t care what you think of it.  It just goes on doing what it does.

I know that may be a little difficult to accept.  Although I bet it matches your experience.  The teenager who will pick up their clothes only when you are standing over them.  The colleague who says they hate being late, but always is.  We cause ourselves so much stress by choosing to insist on a “truth” we’ve never experienced.

Regain your peace of mind and keep your standards high

If I soften the language of my unenforceable rule, my peace of mind floods back in.  Instead of “He should know better,” I say “I wish he knew better.”  Instead of “My boss should have given me that assignment,” I say “I’d prefer a boss who would give me assignments that challenge me”  I can think those thoughts without getting angry.  It softens the hold my unenforceable rules have on my thinking and restores my peace of mind. I start to see other possibilities.  If I prefer an accountant who responds to the IRS differently, perhaps I’ll go find one.

I think it’s up to each of us

Here’s an experiment I’m currently running:  When I react, I stop myself to identify the unenforceable rule that causing my distress.  Then I soften my language about it.  Instead of “This is taking too long.”  I think “I wish this wasn’t taking so long.”  So far this is working 100% of the time.  If you decide to try this, let me know about it in the comments.