For most of American history, the rhythms of everyday life served to facilitate intellectual cross-fertilization. From colonial villages to frontier towns, and from urban tenements to first-ring suburbs, American life was long centered uniquely on what Tocqueville and others termed “townships.” Yes, distinctions like race and ethnicity divided society, but while Europeans defined themselves by social class, Americans were much more focused on the neighbors who lived and worked nearby.

This article beautifully explains the negative impact social engineering, human nature, and the decline of civic institutions has had on innovation.  In the past citizens were deeply involved in civic meetings, church, and community events.  They focused less on finding personal satisfaction through family and friends.  The author cites research that suggests the reverse is now true and it is undermining our collective ability to innovate.  (Nota bene, the image used above is clearly of a European town square.  I could find no equivalent for an American city.)

Using his hometown of Buffalo as an example, he implies that the effort to become a hub for life sciences (e.g., biotechnology and pharmaceuticals) has not yet fulfilled expectations.  The reader is to infer that this could be explained by a lack of professional diversity, as is noted in the quote above.

Very few, if any, of us will ever influence a community the size of Buffalo.  However, we all affect our work community.  When compiling work teams, look for contributors from non-obvious or seemingly unrelated departments.  Create opportunities for employees to interact informally.  The author notes that “many firms allow researchers to spend a portion of their time exploring topics beyond the projects at hand.”  If the past is precedent, innovation will follow.

I’ll close this post with another example from the author.

Detroit, for example, didn’t become the global motor-vehicle mecca by design. Rather, random interactions among engine designers, ship builders, and carriage manufacturers at the turn of the twentieth century created a mashup of ideas on the shores of the Detroit River, and from that intellectual ferment emerged the mass production of automobiles.

I believe a reason many organizations fail to meet their goals is not because the goals are unrealistic but because they don’t have a clear path to achieve them.  Setting is goals is necessary and valuable.  Goals are motivating and provide a benchmark for performance.  However, setting a goal is only part of the story.  There must be a plan for achieving the goal.

That is why I love David Brailsford’s approach.  He sets goals and has a plan for achieving them.  In the video above, Sir David explains his approach.  I have summarized this below.

  • The cumulative effect of 1% gains leads to significantly improved performance.  What is the goal?  Not victories but improved performance.  See points 3 & 5.
  • Look at every aspect of your operation.  His team looked at obvious things like diet, fitness, and tactics but also considered recovery, technological developments and psychology.
  • Enough fractional improvements add up to a larger fraction and lead to a better outcome.
  • Analyze every aspect of your operation, set goals and work out a plan to achieve them.
  • “Focus on the process not the outcome and you’re going to get the best chance of being the best that you can be.  What can I do today to optimize my chances?”
  • Coaching is important.  If you expect the rider to be the best then why don’t you expect the same of the coaches?

Where did this approach take British cycling and Team Sky?

— Source: Wikipedia

This approach is radically different than most organizations take.  In an era where outcomes dominate our attention, it is hard to adopt a process-oriented approach.  It is a vastly different mindset that many cannot grasp.  It takes courage.  It takes confidence.  It takes humility.

Another thing I like about this approach is that it is scalable.  No matter how large your organization or the size of your team you can apply the principles listed above.  Team Sky has less than 30 riders and 18 support staff.  The key is your mindset.  Do your employees know what to look for?  Do they feel comfortable bringing ideas for marginal gains to you?  Are you willing to meet and discuss opportunities to gain with your employees regularly?

This post got me thinking about the value of consistency.  The author’s focus is on consistent effort rather than the quality of being consistent, which is my purpose.

Consistency is a close cousin to reliability.  Both of these virtues are treasures in the workplace.  I’m not talking about consistency in external circumstances, such as delayed shipments or defective product.  Those are a fact of life and can’t be controlled easily.  I’m focused on personal consistency.  This involves a pattern of behavior, habits.

  • Do you have a routine that addresses the most important items in the day first?
  • Do you regularly check in with key partners to learn about their projects that may affect your tasking?
  • Do you have a strategy for managing your email inbox?
  • Do you check your task list at the start and end of your day?

Let’s look at some examples of consistency.

  1. Is there anything more frustrating than leaving a voice mail or sending an email and not getting a response or even an acknowledgement?  Last week I was traveling and my inbox was full of messages that needed responses when I returned.  After I prioritized them I sent a few quick messages to people whose issues could not be addressed immediately.  In the message, I reassured them that I had received the message and was working on their issue.  It took a few minutes to send these out but it was worth it.  The recipient knew that I had received the message, that I understood what they needed and was working on a solution/answer.  If my response was not clear or there was additional information to provide, my message gave the other person an opportunity to provide that information.  If they need an answer sooner they can tell me that too.  My colleagues expect this from me and know I will follow through.
  2. Deadlines got their name for a reason.  It is the last possible time for something to be completed.  I strive to have my work done well in advance of any deadline.  Do I always achieve that goal?  Of course not.  But that doesn’t mean I should give up.  My goal is never be the reason a project cannot be completed on time.  I’m far from perfect but this is a goal I have set for myself and my coworkers expect this from me.  The author of the article linked above correctly points out,  “it’s really easy to confuse being consistent with being perfect. And that is a problem because there is no safety margin for errors, mistakes, and emergencies.”  I can say with confidence that my work will be done, and done well, before the deadline actually arrives.    I developed this as a way to protect myself but experience has taught me that something unexpected always comes up when a deadline approaches.

I will end this post with a piece of advice from the article linked above.

How to Be Consistent: Plan For Failure

Consistency is essential for success in any area. There is no way to get around the fact that mastery requires a volume of work.

But if you want to maintain your sanity, reduce stress, and increase your odds of long-term success, then you need to plan for failure as well as focus on consistency. As I mentioned in my Habits Workshop, research from Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal has shown that the number one reason why willpower fades and people fail to remain consistent with their habits and goals is that they don’t have a plan for dealing with failure.

Clear and concise writing is hard to find these days.   Collectively we don’t know how to express our thoughts or meaning into the written word any more.

I had the good fortune to work under a passionate editor early in my career.  She provided meticulous feedback on everything I wrote and I am a better writer because of it.

I also benefited from a word count restriction that forced me to be very judicious with the words I used.  Think Twitter without emoticons or abbreviations.

When I came across this article recently I knew I had to share it immediately.  “Strong writing is lean writing.”  The author recommends cutting 10 words from your writing.  Below is one example.

1. Just: The word “just” is a filler word that weakens your writing. Removing it rarely affects meaning, but rather, the deletion tightens a sentence.

Cutting these words will change the way you express yourself in writing.  Give it a try and see what happens.

 

 

Here is a nice article on being likable.  This is such an underappreciated characteristic.  The author makes the point, “If you’re disliked, it may not matter how competent you are, people simply won’t want to work with you.”

Likability reminds me of Guy Kawasaki’s recent book on Enchantment.  In it he provides his own advice on likability.

Kawasaki’s are more practical but both authors provide good food for thought.

to-do-list-graphic

Is this what your to-do list looks like?  Mine does.  My responsibilities are largely in support of other teams or persons.  As a result my to-do list is determined by the priorities of others.  I doubt this is unique to me.  The “stuff” I want to do is much lower on the priority list.

When I start my day I prioritize one thing that I really want to get done.  I don’t mean getting a latte or talking with colleagues about fantasy baseball.  I’m talking about a side project or project that means a lot to me.  Often it is a project that I have neglected and need to focus on and get it off my list.  I make it a priority to get something done on that project.

On days where most of my time is devoted to serving others’ needs and priorities this is a nice way to break up my day.  I also use this time to address issues that are not getting attention.  Since they don’t have deadlines there are no expectations, timelines, or deliverables.  I can allocate 30 minutes out of my day on such a project without disrupting or delaying my other responsibilities.  This is where innovation comes from.  I’m not saying any of my priorities represent innovation, but the freedom to work at my own pace enables me to be more objective.

Spending time of a side project also helps my morale.  I’m a self-starter who enjoys identifying and resolving problems.  Finding and resolving an issue makes my day more satisfying and improves my performance on the to-do items that are in service to others.

Allen Toussaint is an American treasure.  You may not have known he wrote the song in the video above. You probably recognize this version though.

He also wrote Working in a Coalmine, Fortune Teller, Whipped Cream, and Java.  His songs have been performed by a wide range of artists including Patti LaBelle, The Rolling Stones, Ringo Starr, Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, Bo Diddley, The Who, and The Pointer Sisters.

You may be asking yourself, “What does this have to do with learning and performance?”  It all comes down to a comment he made in an interview I listened to recently.  He attributes his success to the variety of music he listened to and tried to “mimic.”  He thought that the piano players all knew something he didn’t so he felt like he needed to learn what they “knew” regardless of the genre.  It was this “innocent, naive attitude” that caused him ” to have a very large scope and with equal respect.”

Consequently he “naturally evolved from being a session piano player to a composer, songwriter, and producer.”  This commitment to learning gave us songs like this.

Thank you Mr. Toussaint.