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

22 February 2011

Creativity on Demand

As you know if you've read much of what I write, I'm a big believer in paying attention to your personal rhythm, and working with your energy instead of against it as it ebbs and flows over the course of the day. You'll be more productive, and less stressed, if you do heavy duty mental work when you have high mental energy, physical activity when you're feeling inclined to it, and rest when you're feeling run down. I advocate working with your family and your colleagues to build a schedule that works with your energy patterns, even if that means you do some activities at rather unorthodox times of the day (for example, working your desk job from 7 AM to 3 PM, or noon to 9, if that lets you be more productive without disrupting others' ability to do the same).

But here's the thing: reality doesn't always offer us the luxury of waiting until we are at our best to do something that needs to get done. That's the situation I'm in today. I have a very big project with a very aggressive deadline, and I need to make appreciable progress on it today even though my energy and creativity levels right now might best be compared to the bottom of a mud puddle. So the question is, what am I going to do about it?

Do the easy parts first. In today's particular case, luckily, the deadline is still a ways away, and so I don't have to just soldier through the hardest parts. I can choose aspects of the project that are easier and more fun for me today. The easy parts are just as essential as the hard parts, so I can accomplish something meaningful without beating my head against the most challenging pieces today, and having finished some parts will provide a nice framework to handle the harder parts when I'm feeling more up to it.

Pace yourself. In a not-so-long-ago time of my life, I would start to panic in this situation, letting myself be crushed under the negative self-talk of "now you're screwed; you'll never get it done in time; why did you agree to this deadline anyway?" I wasted a truly astonishing amount of time in overwhelm and going in circles, angry with my brain and my body for not performing at 100% efficiency all the time. There's only so much I can do about the way I am feeling today. Once I've done that, I will have to make do with what resources I have, and make the progress I can make. I'll do what I can, take breaks as I need to, and allow myself to be capable of what I'm capable of today, trusting that it will be enough.

Use affirmations. If affirmations tell the self in times of doubt that which it knows to be true at other times, then what better time to use them than when in doubt? On a rough day, I use simple, fairly modest affirmations that remind me that most days aren't like this. Sometimes just a good old-fashioned "this too shall pass" will do the trick. I'm also fond of "I am enough." Sure, when I believe I can make it stick, I'll go with "I am an awesome, brilliant, dynamic superhero" (or the equivalent) -- but on days when I can't quite find that belief in me, I'll just use something simple and solid that gets my feet back under me and gives me a way forward. I know I'll be back in superhero territory soon enough, and in the meantime, I can connect to something that, while it may not be quite that spectacular, is still very real, very comforting, and very empowering. I am doing the best I can right now, and tomorrow will be even better.

Own it. When I sat down at my computer this morning, I didn't quite know how I was going to deal with this problem of needing to be creative on a deadline. I knew I wasn't feeling it, and I knew I needed to figure out a way past the block I was facing. By writing this very blog entry, I have taken ownership of the problem and the solution, and perhaps offered you a way to deal with this situation next time you find yourself in it.

Did I miss anything? What do you do when you have to be creative on demand?

10 January 2011

Radical Alignment

Last week I attended a two-day strategic planning retreat with some colleagues I greatly admire. As we discussed my 2011 plan, I realized that it is just about as different from the one I wrote in 2006 as a plan could possibly be, and I was amazed at how far I have come in five years.

If you compared the two plans side by side, it would seem as though I had completely redefined my business from the ground up, and reinvented everything about it. In some ways, that's true. But it's not that I've gone from one end of a line to the other end. It's that I've gone from the edge of a circle to the center.

If you're a business owner or executive, perhaps you remember your early efforts at planning. You probably did what most of us (including me) do: you wrote a plan that said what you believed the bank or your mentors or your customers wanted to hear. It probably related a little bit to what you wanted to do, but it was mostly about making sure it sounded really impressive. You were going to synergize your team's core competencies for maximum stakeholder return (or something equally likely to guarantee a winner in Buzzword Bingo). When you tried to execute it, your plan was either incomprehensibly vague, or so specific that you threw up your hands in despair the first time it went off the rails.

After that, you might have attempted a rewrite, or just decided to "wing it." Somewhere along the line your business either started to go well or it didn't, and in any case you developed a profound distrust of the whole idea of "strategic planning." The phrase went into the buzzword bucket with "synergy" and "conceptualize" and "deliverables", never to be heard from again.

In my case, my business has changed a little, and my attitudes about what needs to go into a strategic plan have changed a LOT. My plan has always been easy to distill to one page (and I hope yours is, too). These days, that one page doesn't have very much "how" on it. It has "what" (mission, BHAG, critical success factors) and "why" (vision and values), but is free from the details that change all the time anyway. I've gained clarity on the whats and whys in ways I could never have imagined five years ago. Most importantly, the plan is now radically aligned.

There is no disconnect, anymore, between what my plan says and what I want, believe, and aspire to accomplish. There are no tasks on my plan that I hate or dread. There are no values or goal categories that someone else told me to put there, or that are just meant to look good to the bank. My plan is uniquely and profoundly mine. And I know it is exactly what I'm supposed to be doing.

How about you? Is your plan radically aligned with your dreams, your talents, and your passions? What would you have to take out, change, or add to get there?