Making Great Time — on the Wrong Road

wrong-way-red-sign     “Map? I don’t need no stinking map!”  Sound familiar? Or am I the only one?

I was driving to meet a client on the outskirts of a rural Seattle suburb. It was unfamiliar territory to me, but I had a pretty good sense of where I needed to go. So when I saw heavy traffic a quarter mile or so up ahead at the intersection where I was planning on turning left, I made a swift and perfectly (I thought) logical decision: I’ll turn left right here, a quarter mile before my intersection, and then I’ll make a right on the next available side street. It’s sure to connect with the road I need to be on.

This is where a map might have come in handy.

I didn’t do all that well in sophomore year geometry, but I do remember an interesting factoid about parallel lines: they never intersect…especially when they stop being parallel and gradually begin to diverge. Had I glanced at the map, I would have seen two important things. First, I would have noted with interest that the road I was on and the road I wanted did indeed run parallel for a mile or so before they began to separate imperceptibly but inexorably. Second, I would have perceived that, contrary to all the basic precepts of urban planning, there was no right-angle street connecting these two — at least, not in the state of Washington. Maybe had I driven to Idaho I could have found a road, but that seemed a tad extreme.

Nevertheless, in the confidence that can only come from fundamental ignorance of the facts, I pressed on. And on. And on. It was a sunny day and the scenery was lovely, but I was not, in fact, enjoying the drive — I was getting later and later for my appointment, and more and more frustrated at the growing awareness of the fatal flaw in my plan. I was making great time, but I was on the wrong road.

When that happens, we have two choices: change course now or change course later. I chose to keep driving for maybe 20 minutes before I realized the obvious, even though I suspected the truth about two minutes after I made that fateful, premature left turn. I finally did turn back, re-tracing my steps, and sheepishly arrived 40 minutes late for my appointment. And I learned a couple of things:

  • Get good advice. I could have asked the client for specific directions, or (gasp) stopped to ask someone else if I was on the right road, but in my ego-driven state I refused to do so.
  • Use all available resources. Common sense may be sensible, but it’s not always common! I could have used a map (or, today, MapQuest) but again I thought I had the route all figured out. The fact that my route was wrong made little difference, until it was too late.
  • Make corrections early. Enough said about this one. I needed to slay my ego and change course MUCH sooner than I eventually did.

Are you making good time? Super! But are you on the wrong road? Maybe it’s time for a thorough reevaluation…before you end up clear over in Idaho! If you need to turn around — and we all need to turn around from time to time — sooner is always better than later.

In the Weeds

cat_in_the_grass     The Big Team Project starts out with the loftiest of intentions. The boss brings everyone together and launches the new initiative. We are going to re-organize the way we do business! We are going to come up with a Vision Statement and a Set of Values that will define us for the next three decades! We are going to establish new paradigms in Customer Service and Total Quality Control! There will be brainstorming assignments, work teams, and No Bad Ideas. We will re-invent ourselves! So roll up your sleeves, because today we begin!

Everyone comes to those first few meetings salivating with anticipation, eager to reinvent, re-think, re-launch and re-imagine. But after a few months all the team wants to do is retreat. What happened? The energy has dissipated, the fresh thinking grown stale, the milestones fewer and farther between. Where’s all that the excitement? When did the air go out of the balloon? Who rained on our brainstorm?

Here’s how these efforts sometimes progress.  During those first few meetings, fueled by great intentions, the team makes great progress and everyone seems to be on board. But then the questions become more complex. The issues grow more opaque. The take-aways become increasingly obscure. The impatience grows more obvious. The lofty goals evaporate into the fog of petty argument and passive aggressive “whatever” attitudes. That dreaded nemesis “Process Fatigue” begins to set in — a toxic condition where a few impatient nay-sayers are finally joined by a growing chorus of equally impatient colleagues asking with one irritated voice, “Can we please just get on with it??!”

Face it, Project Leader — you and your team are deep into the weeds.

Most of us have been there. I was once part of a Strategic Planning team that met weekly for a period of, as I recall, at least two years. We found ourselves in the weeds a lot, debating about the meaning of terms and the pointless details of timelines that would never be met. Ultimately there was an organizational change at the top and the whole project was shelved. Hopefully your project isn’t headed for that same dismal fate!

If you’re a Project Leader and your team seems stuck, the team needs you to help get things moving. So here are three things you might want to focus on. First, replace confusion with context. When a complex project goes awry it’s easy for members of the team to lose sight of the goal and start asking, “Can someone remind me why in heck we’re doing this? What’s the point?” That is the leader’s Central Question! You may understand the point fully, but your team might not, so you need to remind everyone frequently why this project is important. Make sure everyone comprehends where we’ve been and where we’re going. Put the project into a larger context and your team should become reinvigorated.

Second, overcome complexity with clarity. Some projects are just inherently complex, and you’ll never succeed by trying to “make it simple.” But you can make it clear. Use straightforward, non-technical language. Break big concepts into bite-sized chunks and, again, help people see how these smaller pieces fit into the larger task. If you’re a highly analytic leader, learn to use emotional terms to motivate your non-analytic colleagues. When you speak with enthusiasm, confidence and conviction, your clarity can overcome a lot of fear. Take charge and be clear.

Third, turn paralysis into progress. Leaders need to understand just how frustrating it is to be on a team that’s going nowhere! The fastest way out of the weeds may be to back up a bit — something strong-willed leaders hate to do. Figure out where things began to go off the rails. Maybe you need to re-frame the discussion, rearrange the teams or reconsider the timeline. Maybe you need to focus on one or two areas where progress is possible and leave the others for later. Momentum brings a kind of energy that can often sustain itself — just as the feeling of being stuck in the mud brings the fear that it will always be this way!

Context, clarity, progress — help restore these to your project and leave the weeds behind.

The Things You Plan For (and the Things You Don’t)

House Bridge Collapse     You can pretty much plan for every contingency, right? Dream on! Murphy, the gent who wrote his famous law, is alive and well, thriving in the overlooked details of our best intentions.

I’ll bet the guy who planned to move this building down a rural highway made all the right plans — almost. He made sure the building was secure on its trailer. He checked the tire pressure. He made sure the tow vehicle was operating properly. He probably had the pilot cars in front and behind to warn motorists he was coming. He took care of practically everything! But one important detail he assumed would not be a problem turned out to be a REALLY huge one.

Unanticipated problems often surface despite our best efforts. I have a good friend who spent years in the direct mail business. She told me once that they had a client in Hawaii for whom they were doing a direct mail piece — tens of thousands of brochures bearing the company’s address. Only thing was, the company was on the Kalanianaole Highway. Not wanting to mess up such a complex name, the team proofread the address a dozen times to make certain they spelled “Kalanianaole” properly. Finally satisfied, they sent the piece to press. Only after the final brochure came back did someone notice that, while they had indeed spelled “Kalanianaole” correctly, they had misspelled “Highway.” The whole order had to be reprinted.

One of the keys to good planning is not to do it all by yourself. I can think back on several examples in my career where I thought I was taking care of all the elements of a project solo, only to overlook one or two really obvious, really important details — like ordering 2,000 sales folders for my radio station and finding out I had specified the wrong colors. (Teal green and magenta came out as baby blue and bubble gum pink — yuck.) Or the time as a junior officer in the Navy when I took custody of 20 copies of an important document that I was supposed to relay immediately to another ship, only to forget and leave them behind my desk — where we found them three days later after we had sailed away. (The admiral was not amused.) Or the time…well, you get the idea.

The wonderful Old Testament book of Proverbs says a lot about this — for example, “The way of fools seems right to them, but the righteous listen to advice.” Ouch! So Rule #1 is to surround yourself with good people and don’t make plans in a vacuum. Rule #2 is to control what we can control. Do your best to plan for every reasonable contingency. But try your best not to obsess unnecessarily — because remember Rule #3: Murphy was right.

Someday I’ll Stop Procrastinating

“I was going to stop procrastinating,” the old line goes, “but I kept putting it off.”

True Confession Time: lately I feel as though I’ve been plagued with a mild bout of procrastination. I’m not sure why, but for the past few weeks I’ve been more aware of it every time I review my To Do’s. That pesky phone call doesn’t get made. That proposal sits half-written. Those appointments are stuck on the “To Be Scheduled” list. I wonder why that is — why do I make lists and then put off the execution phase? Why do I procrastinate?

Since reflection is a great aid to procrastination (self-absorption takes time, after all), I’ve been reflecting on this situation and have come up with at least three reasons why I put things off.

The first procrastination trigger is Fear. You’d think after many years in sales and fundraising that call reluctance would be a thing of the past, but it still rears its head from time to time. Fear is grounded in self-doubt. Will I say the right thing? Will I ask the right questions? Will the prospect be in a good mood? Will I get the donation, the order, the appointment, the commitment? The fear is completely irrational, of course, but too often it’s there, lurking just beneath the veneer of confidence and self-assurance.

Complacency is probably the second reason why I procrastinate. Fundraising always has a sense of urgency — make the ask, make the month, make the quarter, plan the event — so maybe with that much background noise the tendency is to tune it out once in a while and allow myself to settle into a warm fog of complacency. So what if it doesn’t get done today? Well…it might not matter that much, unless those delayed tasks start piling up, which they inevitably tend to do. The effects of procrastination tend to be cumulative, after all!

Then there’s Distraction. Being a relational person, working around people I enjoy, I can sometimes be drawn away from the Important Task into something that’s frankly more fun! As much as I appreciate being a random “people guy,” I do admire those sequential types who successfully maintain a single-minded focus on the task at hand — they seem to be immune to the kinds of distractions that draw my attention away from what I should be doing. (Maybe I should ask my brother in law to stop sending me those YouTube links…)

Are you one of those admirably focused types? Or do Fear, Complacency or Distraction cause you to procrastinate? As for me, one of these days I plan to put a stop to it! Meanwhile, there’s a fresh pot of coffee across the hall…I’ll get back to you.

While You Wait

Waiting. We all have to do it. Most of us don’t like it — after all, we’re an impatient species by nature. (I once read an article that showed using hidden cameras how people waiting for an elevator become physically agitated after about 20 seconds of delay. Sounds embarrassingly familiar: “Maybe if I just hit the ‘Up’ button a few more dozen times the #$&@* thing will get here today sometime!”)

Fundraisers and salespeople are particularly bad at waiting — but since it’s a fact of our professional lives, the question comes up, “What should we be doing while we wait?” Today I learned a great answer from an unlikely source: the Old Testament book of Nehemiah.

Short version: Nehemiah was one of the captive Jews living in the city of Susa in what’s now Iran, back in the 5th century BC. Years earlier, some of the captives had been permitted to return to Jerusalem, which had been sacked by invading armies, and these Jews had sent word back to Nehemiah that the place was a wreck — especially the walls and the gates, which had been torn down and burned. Nehemiah was desolate at the news that his beloved city was in such disastrous and vulnerable shape, and he vowed to ask King Artaxerxes if he could go to Jerusalem (an 800 mile journey) to do something about it. Old Nehemiah was cupbearer to the King, which gave him personal access — but still, asking a favor like that was extremely risky. The timing had to be right — tick off the King and your life would be really short.

So Nehemiah did two things. First, he prayed for favor with the King. Second, while he waited he made plans. It took four long months before he finally got to ask Artaxerxes for permission — and amazingly, the King sounded favorably disposed. “How long will you be gone?” he asked. Nehemiah’s reply, recorded in Nehemiah 2:6, was simple: “I gave him a definite time.” He didn’t hem and haw — he knew precisely what he would say when the time came.

You see, while he waited four long months, Nehemiah had made his plans. He had figured out how long the project would take. The chapter goes on to show that he had even thought of the materials he would need and the special permits that would be required to get them. He didn’t wait passively — he waited expectantly. While he waited, Nehemiah worked.

The lesson for me is simple. What should I be doing while I wait? I should be planning and preparing so that, when the light finally does turn green, I’m ready to go with no delay. That way “waiting time” is productive time. A “timely” reminder from an ancient source!