What Do I Do Next?

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Roughly a year ago, I was approached by a client team member with a simple, yet profound, question; namely, how do I decide what to do next? The topic of priorities in business gets a lot of airplay. We know the importance of setting priorities. Your organization may even be pretty good at defining priorities for your company, division, department, or team. However, when you really stop to think about it, a surprisingly high fraction of the time, we are left to determine our own priorities. How do I do that effectively? How do I determine what to do now or next? 

One of the more powerful frameworks managing our priorities is Stephen Covey’s Four Quadrants. Covey proposed that any activity falls into one of four quadrants on a 2×2 grid that defined an activity as either important or unimportant on one axis and as urgent or not urgent on the other axis. His primary takeaway was that Quadrant II activities (those activities which are important, but not urgent) will get ignored unless we purposefully schedule them into our days. However, even that powerful framework falls short in terms of helping me understand what to do next.

After some reflection on the client’s question, I shared what has become an enduring and reusable framework for answering this question. We subsequently taught this framework to a client company that now reinforces it with repetition during companywide daily huddles.

  1. Serve Customers — Whenever we have an opportunity to serve a customer, no matter what our role or activities in the moment, we redirect our energies to serve that customer.
  2. Do Your Job — As part of our assigned role, we are accountable to our teammates for various deliverables. These commitments to the team comprise our second priority. This means that whenever we are unable to fulfill those commitments, we must find a delegate who will temporarily perform them. This phrase is a mantra for the Bill Belicheck-led New England Patriots. Whether you’re a fan of the team or not, their success is undeniable.
  3. Help the Team — Since we are all in this business together, we keep our minds and hearts attuned to the needs of our teammates. When they need help, we willingly and joyfully step into the breach and help; even when it requires personal sacrifice.
  4. Find a Better Way — When we have fulfilled the previous three obligations, we perpetually seek and test ideas to find a better way (including identifying and capturing opportunities, eliminating waste, solving problems, increasing speed, simplifying tasks and processes, improving quality, etc.)

Use these four guideposts to prioritize the investment of our your own time and talents. Only progress down the cascade when you have satisfied the current and higher levels. For example, you should not pitch in to help teammates (#3) at the recurring cost of ignoring your own responsibilities (#2). 

What are other frameworks have you found effective in deciding what to do next?

I’m in Transition; How Do I Choose a New Path (What is Right, Part 5)

In part four of this What is Right series (here) I mapped out a five-step decision for thinking through big, and potentially life-altering, decisions. As I start this post I am reminded of a favorite quote, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.” Since some may struggle a bit when attempting to apply principles to practical situations, I thought I’d provide an example of applying this decision process to a practical situation almost any reader of this blog will face one or more times during their professional career.

Scenario: I am a professional in transition and faced with crafting a strategy to search for income. How do I apply the What Is Right decision process to my search? I don’t pretend the suggestions below cover every situation, but they will help you get started.

1. Is there a reigning principle of natural law in play? How is my search target (the business I would start or join) aligned with natural laws? Said another way, does the product or service which is the outcome of my profession have redeeming social value? Does that product or service contribute to society’s overall health and/or wealth or at least not contribute to moral decay? Does my prospective employer or partner(s) have a reputation for honesty and fairness–are they worthy of my trust?

2. What prior commitment(s), if any, effect(s) my choice or a new job or career? Have I made commitments to my family which should limit or constrain my professional alternatives? Would the job involve relocation, hours and/or travel which would preclude my follow through on existing commitments? Have I made previous financial commitments that require a certain level of income to fulfill? Have I made previous commitments in the community that should impact my decision?

3. What career path or job opportunity most aligns with my life purpose and goals? Is continuing down this professional path consistent with my life purpose or calling? Do I feel a passion for this type of work? Is my search target appropriate for my current season of life? Would this path or opportunity help me advance to or achieve certain long-term goals?

4. What Relationships could impact or be impacted by my choice? Whom do I know that could assist me in landing a desired professional opportunity? What people in my network have walked this same path and could provide me wisdom from their experience. Who is affected by my choice? What are their related desires or concerns? What people might move into or out of my circle of influence if I change companies or communities? How and where might my circle of influence expand or contract based on the professional alternatives in front of me? Whom might I teach or from whom might I learn along different professional paths?

5. What is Reality? Do external threats encourage or compel me to make a professional change? Should I change companies, functions, levels, industries, communities or careers? What are the odds for a successful transition if I change three or more of those at once? Do I have a distinctive and compelling professional story that aligns with the opportunity I’m pursuing (because the question is often not can I do the job, but will somebody hire me to do the job)? Do I have the talents and experience necessary to succeed? Is my prospective industry or employer growing, stable or declining? Turnaround specialists jump into sinking or floundering businesses all the time, but they both know what they’re getting into and how to get out of it. I may want to accept a position of lesser responsibility and compensation as a way of getting in the door, but what are the realistic odds of getting to my target compensation level in a timely manner? If I’m starting a business, do I have the financial reserves to carry my family and the business until the latter starts generating sufficient cash flow.

I’d be interested in hearing from readers your reactions to this decision-making model or ideas for other approaches you’ve found successful.

Binary Thinking. What is Right? (Part 3)

This is Part 3 in a series on “What is Right?” (How to decide when the choice isn’t obvious). Part 1 (here) identified seven filters (tools) that can help you choose right. Part 2 (here) outlined a simple three-step thought process for applying those tools. This post describes a subtle, but potentially dangerous trap into which we often inadvertently fall. I call it the “Binary Decision Trap.”

In short, the Binary Decision Trap frames questions around issues with only two possible answers – yes/no, start/stop, go/stay, etc. Without denying the presence in life of authoritative questions involving right and wrong, we too often allow binary thinking to constrain our alternatives and thereby eliminate a vast array of potential outcomes which might enrich our lives. I want to quickly explore three perspectives around binary thinking. Why do we submit to, or even prefer, binary thinking? The consequences of binary thinking? And, how to avoid binary thinking?

Why we fall into binary thinking?

It’s simple. Binary thinking enables us to address the increasing complexity of our world. We quickly narrow our thinking to one alternative and frame it as a go/no-go, good/bad, us/them choice.

It’s easy. Admittedly, some decisions are substantially less consequential and deserve an easy decision process. However, we must guard against lazy thinking that allows decisions of import to drift into binary thinking mode.

Competitive mindset. The competitive nature of American culture cultivates a mindset that frames the world in binary terms—winners and losers. We especially see this happening in the political arena where players from all political persuasions leverage and twist every action and statement for advantage—whether to lift its own party or tear down others. When our minds and emotions get bombarded daily with win/lose dialogue it seeps unaware into every aspect of our lives.

Scarcity mentality. People with a scarcity mentality automatically default to “either/or” thinking. Their fixed-pie worldview condenses every issue into haves and have-nots; givers and takers; and winners and losers.

Consequences of Binary Thinking

Law of Unintended Consequences. We get surprised. Striving for simplicity causes us to devalue or neglect context. We naively consider inconsequential and ignore whatever caused the current situation. We also fail to speculate about the impact our choice may have on the future.

Polarization occurs. Binary thinking divides us. Advocates for either side of a binary decision quickly fracture into separate camps and harden their positions. Rather than facing off against the issue advocates face off against each other.

Extremes get amplified. Oversimplification and polarization make it easy to believe that more is better (or worse).

Arguing replaces dialogue. Binary choices drive stakeholders to choose a side too early in the thought process. Once we’ve chosen a side, we feel compelled to defend that choice. The dialogue which naturally accompanies a spirit of open inquiry gets supplanted by the argumentation which flows from a mind closed to other alternatives.

Winning replaces learning. Binary thinking encourages a win-lose mentality. Our thought process narrows to alternately selling or defending our position. Our energy gets consumed in advocacy and leaves no mental capacity for learning.

Identity crises. In extreme cases, we even let our identity get allied with our choice. At that point, our ego enters the equation, and we lose perspective. Rather than a dispassionate search for the best solution, we engage our intellect and emotion in self-defense. As an aside, this reminds me of one of the best pieces of business advice I ever received; namely, “Never get so closely identified with your position (on an issue) that when it goes down, you go down with it.”

Avoiding Binary Thinking

What practical steps can we take to avoid binary thinking?

  1. First, and most importantly, actively seek the best alternative; frame the issue as “ What is the best/wise thing to do?” Consider a variety of alternatives and mentally condition yourself to avoid staking out a position too early when faced with an important decision.
  2. Take time to consider context. How did I/we get in this situation? How have my own choices influenced the present? How have external factors contributed to present circumstances? What is driving current behaviors—My own and others? What’s changing around me that could make the future different from the past?
  3. Consider consequences. Invest time in contemplating what-if scenarios. I will discuss in a future post the fourfold test I use.
  4. Consider all the stakeholders. Who is affected by this decision? Ideally seek their input and perspective, but at a minimum reflect on how the various alternatives will impact them.
  5. Actively seek different points of view. There is wisdom in many counselors. Look beyond the circle of stakeholders. Listen and learn from those who have walked the path before you. Seek input from subject matter experts. Sound out the wise people in your life.

A shout out to Eric Jackson whose May 2004 column in LocalTechWire.com introduced me to the concept of binary thinking.

Now What? Stop Doing > Return to Being

Now What? At the end of any intense period of life this question confronts us? You may have recently been laid off, completed a huge project, closed a big deal, sent your child off to college, or suffered any number of major life dislocations. The periods preceding these life events can often be so defining or consuming that their absence leaves a troubling void.

How should we react during these personal voids? This much is certain; how we respond during such voids determines the course of our remaining life. We can wallow in pity, or we can make them times of rejuvenation that restore and prepare us for what lies ahead. The key is using this respite from doing to return to being. Let me suggest three phases for responding to a void in our lives.

Remember — Return to your core purpose for living. Remind yourself of the guiding principles upon which you have chosen to order and direct your life, family or business. This will likely involve investing significant time in rereading and revisiting passages, people and places that have previously inspired you. Set aside a private space for this remembering time. This is a great time to write out (or update) a personal mission statement.

Reflect — Significant people reflect on the past to learn from it, not wallow in it. Condemnation is unhealthy. Convictions are empowering. Evaluate where your recent life/work aligned with or wandered away from your guiding principles. Identify triggering events or behaviors that helped you stay aligned or caused you to wander off the track. Examine each relationship in your life and ask whether that relationship challenges and encourages the fulfillment of your purpose or distracts from it. Reflect (and possibly even solicit input) on the impact my life has had on others. It is impossible to over emphasize the value of capturing your reflects in writing. Making time to write down what you’ve learned both crystallizes that learning in your own heart and mind and also creates an invaluable resource for Remembering during future life voids. On a personal note, this blog is one of the ways I am recording that thought process in my own life.

Renew — At this point in the thought process we should face forward and ask the following three questions in my core being and each major role in my life:

  1. What am I committed to continue?
  2. What should I eliminate, quit or stop?
  3. Where do I want to learn, grow or start?

Apply each question to your private world (body, mind and spirit) and every role in the public world; such as, spouse, parent, sibling, friend, neighbor, citizen, volunteer, student, profession, or employee/employer, etc.

I’d like to give a shout out to @JonStallsmith for his talk on Nehemiah 8-10 from which arose the core ideas in this blog post.

The Unequal Nature of Egalitarian Time

The world isn’t fair. Personal, corporate, community and national assets are not distributed equally. Intelligence, wealth, and power may vary greatly from individual to individual. Yet, the life distance we measure as a day travels equally for every person on earth. This same window of time is available to all; regardless of individual intelligence, wealth, health or power. However, in retrospect we can see that some periods during our life or business were dramatically more impactful than others. While the seconds, minutes, hours and days marched on at a rigid pace, not all days presented the same opportunity window.

A former business leader of mine once said that for a stable business with modest growth a year is a year. However, a business experiencing fast growth must treat every quarter as a year and every week as a month; and a business experiencing hypergrowth must respect every month as a year and every week as a quarter. In other words, time is egalitarian (i.e. there are 24 hours in every day for everyone), but time is not equal for all people in all situations.

If it takes a calendar month to develop an “annual” business plan and you are a hypergrowth business, you spent a whole “year” planning and no time executing. If it takes three weeks to close the books and issue financial reports, the “year” in a hypergrowth business is 75% complete before the business know how well it’s doing.

It does not take much thought to identify rate of change as the distinguishing factor between stability and hypergrowth. Time speeds up when my life/business experiences a high rate of change. If I do not recognize times of rapid change and correspondingly adjust the pace at which I plan, decide and act, then I risk falling behind or missing a window of opportunity.

But be careful! In order to appropriately adapt we must recognize that our minds can warp our perspective of time. Consider how often you have heard someone remark how quickly the year has flown. Contrast that with your memories of the interminable wait for Christmas Day as a child. And, if you stop and think for a few moments, you can also recall periods of time as an adult when time seemed to stand still. Don’t ask me how that happens. The best analogy that comes to mind is the difference between high-speed and time-lapsed photography. A high-speed camera takes many frames per second, but when replayed at normal speed gives the appearance of slow-motion. On the other hand, time-lapsed photography compresses time and allows us to actually observe slow rates of change that are undetectable at normal speed.

I can only speculate that our minds possess remarkable potential to adapt to high rates of change. However, extended periods of stability can also slow our minds. This is why bright people with long experience in large corporations may struggle or even fail in a fast-paced entrepreneurial environment.

Bottom line…you must learn to recognize the signs of the time and adjust your behaviors accordingly or risk getting either left behind or overrun. As the iconic American humorist, Will Rogers once said, “You may be on the right track, but if you are just sitting there, you will get run over.”

Putting it into practice. How can I leverage the relativity of time?

  • Take time to reflect and train my mind to recognize the present pace of time in my life and business
  • Adapt my rhythms of planning, decisions and actions to suit the times
  • Take advantage of slower times to crystallize and capture lessons from past failures and successes; so that I am prepared to readily apply them to future problems and opportunities
  • Commit to a lifetime of learning. Leverage times of stability to learn new skills and explore new arenas.

Rhythms & Sabbaticals

Why haven’t you taken a sabbatical? I know. I know. You only wish you could take a multi-month break and return to find your job awaiting you. However, you not only should but can take a sabbatical (it’s not what you think). Read on…

A new friend, Gary Christopher of The Jholdas Group, recently recounted his plans for a sabbatical from his consulting practice that will include a bicycle ride across the continental United States with two friends. He’s blogging about that trip here. An undertaking of that magnitude requires no small amount of planning, and the consultant in Christopher clearly researched and planned his trip thoroughly.

Christopher noted that an effective sabbatical has four distinct phases:

  1. Releasing of present responsibilities for the duration of the sabbatical
  2. Resting from our regular labors; An arduous transcontinental bike ride hardly sounds like rest, but this respite from his profession is more about intellectual and emotional rest
  3. Reflection on the past, present and future
  4. Recalibration, or taking an inventory of one’s own life before returning to our daily routines and related responsibilities

Very few of us will ever take a multi-month sabbatical before retirement. However, it struck me that those same sabbatical phases can and probably should conjoin other rhythms in our lives. For example, every day we should release the day just concluded (we cannot change the past), reflect and learn from what transpired that day, rest to recharge for the coming day and recalibrate to establish a plan and priorities for tomorrow.

Depending on the speed or scope of our present lifestyles and obligations, we each should also apply these four sabbatical disciplines to some of the longer frequency rhythms of our lives; namely, weekly, monthly, quarterly or annually. God designed rhythms into nature, and we ignore them at our own peril.

If we desire to leave a powerful legacy, the process of these mini-sabbaticals will arrest aimless wandering and give our lives greater purpose and productivity.

Rivers & Swamps

A river flows.  A swamp stagnates.  

A river gathers strength.  A swamp generates stench.

A river provides energy.  A swamp fuels decay.

A river identifies a path much traveled.  A swamp invites aimless wandering.

A river has boundaries that provide direction and generate power.  A swamp is a featureless morass that easily entangles and consumes.

Building Boundaries in my Life & Business

As a strategy leader for a multi-billion dollar business and now a mentor to embryonic businesses at a local startup incubator, we coach leaders to define the boundaries of their business.  Personal mentors–authors, pastors/priests, coaches/bosses–often urge us to do the same in our personal lives.  This exercise is both superficially simple and deeply difficult. There is a tendency to define ourselves and our business by what we do (i.e. our professional vocation, community role, the products we sell or the services we provide).  However, highly successful businesses dive below the surface to define why we do it and often think in terms of the desired outcome in the lives of family, friends, colleagues, customers and suppliers.  

Even if we can get below the surface to develop a richly fruitful understanding of what we do and why we do it, we face continual challenges in living up to what we believe defines us.  

Why is it so difficult?

I touched on part of the challenge in  Beliefs, Behaviors and Branding.  Beyond that, human nature instinctively resists the imposition of boundaries.  Boundaries restrain our freedom to explore.  Boundaries confine us to the mundane.  Boundaries limit our options.  The idea of going anywhere, doing anything and being anybody sounds seductively liberating.  But, in most cases we simply don’t like being told what to do.  

Why boundaries matter?

Whether we like it or not, individuals and businesses remain subject to natural laws.  One such reality is that every individual and business faces the reality of limited resources in every dimension.  Well defined boundaries for our businesses and lives avoid the wasteful spending of our limited resources.  Aligning our beliefs and behaviors provides the focus that generates exponential returns from our investments of time, talents and treasures ($$$).  Consequently, it becomes crucial to define who we are, what we do and why we do it so that we are equipped to recognize and rebuff ideas and invitations that fall outside our boundaries.  We must reframe those crossroads questions; not can we do it, but should we do it.   

Putting it into Practice.

  • Create a written list of your own resources
  • Carve out some reflective time to define (or update) your boundaries in writing — things you will (and won’t) do in life or business; this might be in the form of a mission statement, a list of values you cherish.
  • Periodically test the alignment among your beliefs, boundaries and behaviors (at least annually)
My present period of voluntary unemployment creates the luxury of more contemplative time.  Those reflective times have variously challenged, frustrated, and encouraged me.  It has forced me to consider the need to define some new boundaries in my life and build up the levees in other areas to prevent the chaos that occurs when a river overflows its banks.

Thanks to @BuddyHoffman for the reference to rivers & swamps that got my mind moving down the track of this topic.

Learning to Leave a Legacy — What’s in a Name?

Before I get too far out of the starting gate, this blog’s name, “Learning to Leave a Legacy” deserves its own post.
Webster’s dictionary defines “legacy” as anything handed down from the past. Since every living person has a past, we must not ask, am I leaving a legacy, but, what legacy am I leaving? A legacy may:
  • Uplift or tear down
  • Enrich or impoverish
  • Expand or contract
  • Enlighten or obscure
  • Spread peace or strife
  • Cast narrow or broad
I’m writing this post sitting in the home of my recently deceased aunt.  An auction company is removing the personal possessions from her home.  It’s a sobering experience to observe how little those things mean.  I want the measure of my lifespan on earth to leave a legacy of enduring value to others in my circle of influence. Like many of you, I want others to think of me as wise.
Webster’s dictionary defines “wisdom” as knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action. In other words, a wise person aligns their beliefs and behaviors with Truth. 
Let’s consider that definition in two pieces–knowledge of the truth and practicing justice. 
1. Knowledge of the Truth
But how do I know what is right or true? I see at least three ways to acquire knowledge of the truth.  One, humans have a conscience that sometimes accuses and at other times defends our own actions; although my repeated actions can sharpen or dull this innate sense for what is right. Two, the Christian faith teaches that any person who lacks wisdom may receive it by asking of God who gives to all generously. And third, we may acquire wisdom through life experience.  Since this third source is the only one we influence as humans, I want to explore it a bit.
Even a cursory observation of mankind concludes that acquiring wisdom requires something more than longevity of life. That something is a zest for learning. Whether they do so consciously or not, most wise people acquire knowledge of the truth by applying a process akin to the scientific method. 
First, they intentionally seek and voraciously consume the acquired knowledge and wisdom from those who preceded them. From that knowledge and their own life experience they develop hypotheses (or beliefs) about what is right or true. However, those ideas remain academic information until tested in their individual lives. That testing process requires purposeful action; most notably, making time for reflection in order to progress upon a learning path (Applying our senses to collect data >> Sifting the data for patterns to glean information >> Acting on that information to acquire knowledge >> Repeatedly practicing knowledge in a variety of circumstances to gain the expertise/wisdom).
2. Practicing Justice
Like our conscience, I would contend that we are also born with an innate sense of fairness.  Consider small children who are quick to say, “That’s not fair!” at perceived injustice. However, unless arrested, our naturally selfish nature will breed a callous disregard for others that eventually dampens our ability to sense injustice. This  tendency suggests the wisdom to produce a powerful and positive legacy rests on a servant’s heart.
Learning to Leave a Legacy
Summing up…a powerfully positive legacy requires a commitment to intentional learning and a heart of service toward others.  This blog, “Learning to Leave a Legacy” embodies my commitment to share what I am learning on the journey of building my own legacy.

Assets, Inventory & Giving

     The 14-Apr post on Lessons from Networking generated some interesting dialogue with those I’ve met in the intervening ten days or so.  A couple of those dialogues made significant impressions on my outlook.  Over the past decade or so I’ve mentally toyed with the idea of writing and sharing more frequently, but I’ve always been reluctant to dive in.  Two reasons would usually stamped out any thoughts of committing to regular sharing.  One, maybe some folks can sit down and rapidly capture meaningful thoughts, but for me it’s a time-consuming and deliberative thought process.  And, two, I was afraid of having little, if anything, to share that others would find interesting or meaningful in their lives.
     The past week has been another example of God intentionally lining up people to hammer a common message into my head like ammo in a gun on full automatic.  As my heart and mind have continued to chew on how to make regular deposits to the emotional bank accounts of the relationships in my life network, I keep getting drawn back to the notion of writing for the purpose of giving.  
     Once my mind headed down this path, I quickly realized that we cannot give something we do not already possess.  On the balance sheet of a business, we categorize things we own as “assets.”  One of the periodic activities of successful people and businesses is that they periodically step away from doing and take an inventory.
     So, what assets do I possess (you will need to conduct your own inventory)?  I narrowed my list down to five big categories.  I do not pretend this list is comprehensive (it ignores tangible assets–monetary or physical assistance); however, this inventory represents elements crucial to any effective relationship–gifts from both the head and the heart.
  1. Time — In this fast-paced world, time for many of us is our most precious asset
  2. Talents — Those traits inherent from birth that make each of us better at some things than most people around me
  3. Training — The lessons life has and continues to teach me
  4. Transparency — Being real and vulnerable with others
  5. Truth — The Natural Laws, designed by our Creator, that govern the affairs of mankind
     I still do not know if anyone will consistently find value in what I share, but that barrier, which previously kept me from starting down this path, is falling in the face of several truths.  First, since I believe that God owns it all, “my” life assets are really His assets to use and hoarding them is a disingenuous lack of faith.  Second, any gift involves relinquishing control.  The outcome is in the hands of the reader/recipient, and not my concern.  Third, I am left with this simple, yet deep question… am I giving (writing in this context) for the best interests of the reader/recipient?
     So What (can I do now)? [Since I’m a huge believer in action-oriented learning (i.e. applying the lessons we are trying to learn), I will usually include in these posts a few suggestions on practical steps you can take to apply the concepts discussed in the post.  Otherwise, it’s just an intellectual dialogue firmly anchored in mid-air.]
  1. Conduct your own periodic inventory of life assets (life is dynamic; so it will change over time)
  2. Decide how you will share those assets into the lives of others in your circle of influence
  3. Put that plan into action
  4. Return to Step 1 and repeat