A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

29 March 2010

The first quarter of 2010 is almost over!

It flew by for me, thanks in part to an exciting and profitable client contract and the promise of more coming down the pike. As often happens when a "good gig" comes along, I'm awash in the daily details of what's currently in front of me, and getting a bit behind in some of the less urgent (but still quite important) aspects of my life. Fortunately, I have some mechanisms for addressing that so it doesn't get out of hand.

Anyone who knows me knows I'm a huge David Allen fan, and once again, his methods apply to this situation, although I would qualify that by saying the GTD philosophy is necessary but not sufficient. I've been using OmniFocus with good success to capture and categorize the "stuff" in my head, and would recommend that fine software package to those who are in search of a good workflow management app for your computer/PDA. I'm sort of keeping up with weekly reviews, a habit that requires a good deal of discipline but is absolutely worth whatever it takes to establish.

Perhaps the most critical piece of the puzzle, and one I hope you have as a repeating appointment in your calendar as I do, is a periodic (at least quarterly and preferably monthly) review of your strategic plan. Assuming you chose to set some goals for this year, whether they were SMART goals, wild wishes, New Year's Resolutions, or even just hopes and dreams, it's right about now when they tend to be permanently lost if you haven't pulled them out to assess your progress.

What I've discovered about myself in using OmniFocus is that having my "stuff" captured and interpreted into doable tasks is only half the battle. Finding the motivation and managing my physical and mental energy to tackle the items on the list is just as, if not more difficult than the capture process itself. Everything on the list is something I put there, not someone else's arbitrary idea of what I ought to be doing. Yet a bewildering array of distractions is always available: interesting TV shows, new books, nice weather (for a change!), and of course the highly addictive Internet. Periodically reviewing my progress toward my larger goals becomes the fuel on my motivational fire, providing the clarity that allows me to focus my attention on the things I have decided are important to me. It also provides a critical reality check, giving me the opportunity to change my mind about one or more of my goals based on whatever new information has come to light since I wrote them. I may need to change some, eliminate some, and add others. The key is to do so in an intentional way, and so not permit external forces to change my goals for me.

When was the last time you pulled out your list of dreams or goals for 2010? Is now the right time to do that? If not, when is? Make an appointment with yourself and put it on your calendar right now. Even if you decide to throw every last goal out the window and write up a whole new batch, you'll feel so much better for having done it on purpose.

As always, let me know if I can help.

24 March 2010

Life Lessons from the Movies, episode 2

In just two viewings of "The Princess and the Frog," Tiana has become my favorite Disney princess. Any Disney aficionado, or anyone with daughters, knows there are a myriad of young two-dimensional ladies to choose from in that pantheon. In most cases, two-dimensional doesn't only describe their appearance.

Tiana is different. For starters, she's not a princess. And in a refreshingly modern twist, she has no particular desire to be a princess. She has a different kind of dream, driven by her family ties and her personal values, and she spends her life in relentless, focused pursuit of it. Tiana is no shrinking violet, tempted by evil sorcerers and in need of rescuing by any knight in shining armor. Interestingly enough, in this story, the prince is by far the more helpless of the two.

Like all good mythic heroes, Tiana has disadvantages. She is a minimum-wage earning minority woman in a time and place where such people rarely rise above that station. She has a tragic flaw -- that of being out of balance. She loses someone important to her, and she faces temptation, hardship, and injustice. Of course, this is a Disney story, so in the end, the good guys prevail and "happily ever after" comes right on cue. What's unique about this story is that the fairy godmother (you're going to love this!) is basically a coach. Rather than intercede on Tiana's behalf, she simply asks the right questions and points out the flaws in our heroes' strategies, that they might find within themselves the needed resources to solve their own problems. In the end, they prevail by realizing, and then being true to, what is most important to them.

Here are the questions Tiana needed to resolve. Do any of them resonate with you?
  1. How is what I want different from what I need?
  2. What's my real reason for doing what I am doing?
  3. What motivates the people who are in a position to help me?
  4. What am I willing to sacrifice for what is most important to me?
  5. What am I missing out on as I pursue my goals, and is that OK with me? If not, what do I need to do differently?
Two things Tiana really had right were that she had a plan, and she had an affirmation. Do you have both of those things? If not, drop me a line. I can help.

12 March 2010

Follow the Money

A colleague of mine recently said to me, "if you understand the flow of cash in a business, you understand the business." While I'm not sure an understanding of the cash flow alone would make me an expert in a particular industry, there's no doubt that "following the money" provides a lot of insight into how a company works. It can also shed some light on the ways in which a company doesn't.

Supposing Jane in procurement doesn't much care for the way Joe over in marketing treats her. Joe puts together a purchase order for some promotional items to be handed out at an upcoming trade show, and tosses it on Jane's desk along with a terse remark. She carefully places it at the bottom of the pile on her desk. The P.O. gets processed eventually, and the items arrive (barely) on time. Joe's and Jane's distaste for each other deepens, and more to the point, the company pays rush charges on the last-minute order.

The invoice for the order makes its way over to accounting, where Bill, who doesn't like Joe any better than Jane does, tucks it into the bottom of his in-basket. And misses the deadline to get the discount for paying within 15 days.

There's nothing wrong with the process at this company. Everyone does exactly what they are supposed to do, according to the letter of the procedure. Yet they are missing obvious opportunities to save money. Why? Because processes don't run companies. People run companies. And when people let their personal gripes or grudges get in the way of productivity, chances are there's a deeper problem that process improvement alone won't solve.

In this case, following the money would reveal these disconnects. The challenge for the person who discovers them is to recognize the real problem. Telling Jane and Bill to pay more attention to the urgency of this paperwork, or giving them more "training" on the procedure, won't make the slightest difference. They know how do to it efficiently. They choose to undermine Joe instead of acting in the company's best interests. It will take noticing the pattern -- that this happens regularly with Joe's purchase orders and not with Bob's or Mary's -- and resolving the people conflict to put the cash flow back on track.

The soft stuff is the hard stuff, and people are the bottom line when it comes to your bottom line. What might you discover by "following the money" at your office?

08 March 2010


I am recently back from the 21st annual Women in Aviation, International Conference, where I heard wonderful keynote speeches from a number of notables in the aviation field. Among these was Randy Babbitt, the new FAA Administrator. Mr. Babbitt talked at length about the issue of safety, as you might expect. What was interesting to me was his choice to address safety in terms of professionalism.

Pilots, like people in all industries, are expected to take appropriate steps to ensure the safety of themselves, their equipment and others in their care. In your workplace, even if the greatest daily danger you face is a paper cut, you have safety procedures with which you are expected to be familiar and compliant. But how many people do you know who approach safety with real professionalism?

How many times have you seen someone complain about or ignore a fire drill, give their hands a cursory rinse rather than a thorough scrub, or use a tool without the proper guards or protective gear in place? Most of us have taken a safety shortcut at least once in our lives, and some of us, myself included, literally have the scars to prove it. And usually, at least for me, I can look back on that event and see the error chain: no one was looking, or I was in a hurry, or I got sloppy because I was bored or tired. Those errors show a lack of professionalism -- not a problem with training or procedure, but a problem with attitude.

Any safety-conscious industry offers plentiful safety training for employees. Most have been through classes, review, and drills recently, and are surrounded by job aids in the form of placards, posters and checklists. Yet in the absence of a professional attitude, none of this makes the slightest difference.

How would you want a customer or colleague to describe your work? Would you like it to be labeled "sloppy", "lax", or "incomplete"? Or would you like it to be labeled "impeccable"? I, for one, would like to have an impeccable safety record. Will I achieve that by rushing, skipping steps, or failing to take it seriously? Probably not. I'd also like my clients to describe me as providing impeccable service. Will I achieve that by rushing, skipping steps or failing to take it seriously? Of course not. And in the case of service, just as in the case of safety, more "how-to" training won't help. Professionalism -- attention to detail, focus on the client and on my mission and values, and the right attitude toward the work are the keys to impeccable performance.

02 March 2010

Care, Then Choose

"For as long as you know in your heart that what you’re making or doing matters, and, consequently, for as long as you accept and embrace the immutable laws of scarcity, your options for maintaining focus will, like Frank’s perfect answer ["you do one thing at a time"], remain stunningly obvious.

You “focus” on the one thing you care about, as you “unfocus” on everything else. If not for every minute of your life, at least for the time you set aside to pursue the thing that matters.

If that sounds fancy and oversimpliļ¬ed, then you “care” about too many things. Period."

(from Merlin Mann's post, "First, Care" on 43folders.com)

In another realm of my life, I am considering closing a small volunteer organization, of which I am currently president. My one-year term as president is about to enter year four, not because I've refused to give up my power (far from it), but because no one else seems to want the job. More specifically, only four people reliably attend meetings, and two of them just moved out of state. The other is already filling two other officer posts and has no aspirations to the proverbial throne.

When the organization began, it boasted a membership of nearly 40 enthusiastic members. Since the novelty has worn off, it has fallen off the priority list of those other members, leaving me no choice but to conclude there is either no ongoing need for the service we are offering, or that service is already provided by other organizations.

There's nothing wrong with that. By extension, there's nothing wrong with saying "no" to something that is not a priority or a passion in your life. When you are asked to join a club, donate to a cause, volunteer for a charity event, or write a letter to the Times, you can say "no," and that can be the end of the conversation. It is far better simply to say "no" once than to say "maybe" over and over again. This is what you are doing when you say "oh, I can't today," or "I'm too busy this week -- maybe next time." Rather than free yourself from something you don't love, you are letting it remain around your neck as you give that friend or colleague or organization permission to keep asking. If you say "not this time" more than three times, face it: you aren't interested and discussing it further is a waste of everyone's time.

Causes, committees, clubs and kaffeeklatsches are available to you in infinite supply. Any of them would benefit greatly from your support. All of them will not, and trying to spread yourself that thin is a great way to go broke and fall over from exhaustion. Instead, give generously of your heart, mind and pocketbook to a few causes and hobbies that speak to you on a deep level. Organizations rely most heavily on a few, a few dozen, or at most a few hundred people for whom that one thing is the most important thing in their lives. If you have the wherewithal to be one of those people for a favorite group, by all means, do so. If not, you may want to support a handful of different groups to a moderate degree, or you may want to plan to give a little bit to as many as you can, as your resources allow. Odds are, unless you have a lot more free time or discretionary cash than most people, you will have to choose one of these options. Choose your strategy carefully, in alignment with your values, your basic needs, and your other priorities.

Distractions are often disguised as opportunities. Measure each one against your personal vision and mission, and make your choices intentionally. Your health, your family, your appointment calendar, and your wallet will all thank you for it.

From Merlin Mann: "First, Care."

Before I write my own blog post, I offer you this one, that I wish I had written.
(Warning - there are one or two "non-family-friendly" words in the linked post. Please do not click if such a word might offend you. And no, I don't wish I'd written those particular words.)

Merlin Mann offers a great, no-frills answer to the question of how to stay focused, and it provides a great segue into the post I'm about to write, about priorities. Take a look at Merlin's post, then come back for mine....