I was on the phone with my coach yesterday and after listening to me explain an unfixable problem in great detail, she asked me a very simple question: “Have you thought about it this way?” All of the sudden, simply by looking at this problem from a different angle, my thinking expanded. The problem was actually an opportunity.
In fact the problem was never a problem at all – I was just thinking about it in a limited way.
There are really two principles at play in this story. First, even though I’m a coach who helps my clients gain clarity, I need a coach myself. We all do. When we think inside the closed system of our own minds, our world tends to become very small and very limited. So if you are thinking of hiring a coach, be sure they have a coach.
Second, she showed me a way out of what I call “shrinking thinking.”
Never heard of it? Here are a couple of examples:
In response to asking a friend if she would like to ski, she said “I could never do that.” Then she had a litany of reasons – ending with not wanting to get her hair wet. Her world stayed small and her hair stayed dry.
In the second example, I’m talking to a client who has taken on way too much
Me: Have you asked your boss which project needs to move down in priority?
Client: I could never do that.
Me: So you said yes, even though you knew you couldn’t do the project?
Client: Yes – but you have to understand. No is not an acceptable answer in my company.
We went on the show that being stuck at saying yes knowing you can’t really deliver is a form of shrinking thinking – and we talked about ways out of this dilemma. In fact, the boss was relieved to work through the priorities and my client eventually became a more senior player on the team.
My point is not about confronting the boss, though. Yes, overcommitting is a problem. Harvard Business Review did an article on the topic of overcommitting in October of 2017. Organizations and people are overcommitting at incredibly high rates.
My point is that many (maybe most) of our problems are a product of our thinking.
We can look at what is happening and start to feel powerless. The world IS moving faster. Demands on our time ARE becoming greater.
The question is “What are we going to do about it?” Let me make that more personal. “What am I going to do about it?”
Shrinking thinking is fear-based, keep-me-right-in-my-comfort-zone, narrow thinking.
My brain gets stuck in “either/or” options, never seeing the dozens of other possibilities. My repertoire goes from unlimited to one or two strategies at best. It’s kind of hard to learn and grow when you are stuck in shrinking thinking.
What I am working on is moving away from shrinking thinking to developing expansive, possibility filled thinking to solve problems.
Having a coach helps. Meditating daily is huge. Another technique I love is doing a “whiteboard exercise” in my retreat center. It’s amazing what you can see when you have a whole wall to lay things out. Those are just a few of the things I’m doing.
How do you get out of shrinking thinking? What are your best tools and tactics to gain clarity for yourself? How do you know when the problem is really just in your thinking?
I would love to hear from you! See that box below? Share your best tactics for moving from shrinking thinking to a holistic viewpoint!
Photo Credit: Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_thanaphiphat'>thanaphiphat / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
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In my banking days, one our most closely held values was flawless execution. It may not have been printed up in an official list of values – but I can tell you this: it was a very real expectation. In reality, flawless execution is corporate-speak for perfectionism. For many years, I was a good “soldier’ and bought in to this ridiculousness. Mind you, I did not have responsibility to print accurate bank statements. Perfection is a good thing in keeping track of people’s money! However, it was insane to make flawless execution an expectation for a group that had a strategic imperative to create new things. If something must be perfect the first time, then you better do the same thing you’ve always done – actually, you better do it slightly smaller– to guarantee it goes flawlessly. There is a saying that perfection is the enemy of good. I will take it several steps further:
Perfection is the enemy of creativity, innovation and business survival.
It was in that group that I first tested the waters of experimentation. We were charged with taking a year long training program down to 10 weeks. That’s an 80% reduction in time devoted to learning. Oh, and the trainees were expected to be as competent in 10 weeks as they had been in the 50 week program from before. Innovation was definitely needed here! It was a tall order and gave me an opening to set different expectations around flawless execution. It wasn’t easy, but our team decided to test and risk mistakes instead of trying to be perfect. We set expectations for the first program to be at 50% of what was possible. We would take the best aspects forward so that by the third program, we would have created a program that was 5 times more potent than the old program. Yikes! With a lot of courage, conflict and discussion, our team was able to set aside the culture of perfection. There were a LOT of less than perfect moments, and yet we succeeded. We developed a significantly better program that was not flawlessly executed the first time – in fact was never perfect. It just kept getting better. We made learning the number one priority, and everything else was done at par. (See Distinction and When to Say No for more on discerning what types of work can be done to “satisfice” vs higher standards.)
You would have thought that I took that lesson with me, especially when I started learning to become an artist. Nope. I am a very slow learner. At first, I would look at the blank paper (I was painting in watercolor at that time), and decide to create a masterpiece. At the first mistake, I would get so frustrated, I often walked away. I really believed that every blank sheet of paper had to become a masterpiece. If not, I didn’t deserve to get another blank piece of paper. Then one day, I remembered my lesson from the bank about testing instead of perfecting. Seen through that lens, I decided it was just paint and paper. So what if it had to go in the trash can? (I tell more about this story in The Secret to Better.) The most important thing I learned in painting has been this: You have to get through the “bad” paintings to get to the great paintings. The same is true of almost any endeavor where you are creating something new.
The question is this: Are you willing to go through the “bad stuff” (phases of performing below your standards) to get to the “good stuff” (really great performance)?
I tested this question again when I decided to learn pottery. My early attempts were truly awful. Yet I kept going back to the wheel, slowly learning and frequently using the “F” word. I must have made 500 mugs before I had one that earned its way into my kitchen cabinet. Making mugs is notoriously difficult, because newbie potters like me leave too much clay in the bottom, making for a heavy mug. Few people want to drink out of a heavy mug. Many, many of the mugs I gave away in those early days became pencil holders.
Had I started pottery with the attitude of flawless execution, I would still be making teeny, tiny pinch pots, because that was the only thing I was competent to do at the beginning. Gratefully, art is slowly curing me of my perfectionist streak. It’s unleashing the freedom to test and experiment. And that freedom shows up in every domain, from work, to writing, to skiing and to friendships.
Where do you seek perfection? In what ways does wanting to flawlessly execute paralyze you? Where is one place you could experiment with doing something a little poorly now for the sake of being better tomorrow?
Perfectionism will still sometimes reach out and grab me by the throat. Anytime I find myself stuck or paralyzed, I look for those fingers on my throat and gently pry them away. My wish for you is to unleash your creativity and allow yourself the freedom to make it (whatever it is) better!
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When he knocked at my door asking for a few minutes, the resentment rushed from head to toe. I was gleefully buried in a budget spreadsheet, playing the annual game to beat the system, keep everyone on staff and avoid layoffs. “Can’t he see I’m busy?” I thought while slowly turning a fragment of my attention to him. (The rest was stuck in the computer screen, where my identity as the “spreadsheet queen of the universe” resided.) He would have had to be dull – and he wasn’t – to miss the fact that he was dealing with a half a boss in that moment. Soon we were deep in conversation, bouncing ideas back and forth on how to solve a sticky problem, the specifics of which I’ve long since forgotten.
What I do remember from that conversation is the breakthrough in my thinking that day, as he had my full attention in solving this sticky problem – guilt free.
Surprisingly, I was enjoying our challenging conversation. More importantly, I laid down the “guilt” of ignoring the budget spreadsheet. Having this conversation WAS my job at that moment. (And seriously, how was I to be an effective leader with my head constantly buried in "work"?) During our intense session, somewhere in the back of my mind, I realized something that changed my approach to leadership for the rest of my life. It went something like this: “My job is not spreadsheets and project plans; this is my job - having conversations.” Little did I know how much that mental pivot would become the cornerstone of my approach to leadership, and eventually change the trajectory of my career.
Within a week of that meeting, I asked another member of my team to take on preparing the budget for my review. This was a developmental assignment for that person that eventually led to new and better things for him. I began looking away from my computer screen (let me tell you, this was very difficult) and making time for critical conversations.
In the many years since that mental pivot, I have come to recognize that the DNA of leadership resides in conversation. It’s not that leaders never do the actual “work” of the organization. They do. However, for leadership to occur, conversation is essential. There are a variety of conversations that leaders are carrying on all the time. Awareness and deliberation around those conversations makes them more effective.
Most leaders understand their role in managing resources. The best leaders recognize the powerful resource of conversation. Some of the conversations we have as leaders are like adding water and nutrients to the soil in order to grow a bountiful garden. They are necessary, yet sometimes neglected. Others are more action-driven, like asking people to take on assignments, holding them accountable (now there’s a rich set of conversations for you) and making decisions. These conversations correlate to the harvest. Anyone who has ever farmed or gardened recognizes that the quality of the harvest starts early with soil preparation, well before planting. Throughout the growing season, farmers contend with a series of controllables and uncontrollables. Master farmers and gardeners utilize a wide range of actions to deliver an abundant yield, working with the climate and variables in their part of the world. Farmers are acutely aware that in order to reap abundantly, they must first provide resources – ie, they till, nourish, sow, and water wisely. (Not to mention weed, prune, mulch and so forth.) A lot goes into generating a good harvest!
The analogy works well for leadership, because so much of what makes a great "harvest" of results happens well before the money hits the income statement. All too often, leaders neglect to cultivate and set the conditions for growth. Conversation infuses resources into the organization, and ultimately impacts the quality of the results. These conversations either add something to the system or take it out. Every conversation you have sets into motion a different impact to the system – and not having certain conversations can also impact your long-term effectiveness. Think back to that “tiny” conversation I had so many years ago that set into motion an entirely different approach to leading my team.
Take a look at your world. What types of conversations you are having on a regular basis? What conversations are you avoiding? What makes one conversation go well and another get off track? What conversations have you started and then failed to carry forward? Have you made your own distinction between conversations that generate action vs ideas? Or those that feed or starve relationships? How does your state impact the mood of any given conversation?
Becoming mindful of the different conversations that cultivate a business can take your leadership game to a completely new level.
Know someone who would love this article? Email or share below! Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers. She loves to hear about how your experiments with these ideas turn out. To contact her or share your experiences email email@example.com
Note: I've been thinking a lot about creativity recently. Today, I'm republishing a blog from my art site Creative Spirits Unleashed, because sometimes, you just have to start.
Originally published February 2015.
Recently I drove by a Michael’s craft store that I visited only once. It brought back memories that made me smile and helped me remember that a creative journey starts with baby steps.
It was on one of my first trips to our newly acquired lake house, (more like a fishing shack) and the longing to be an artist was just germinating. The problem was that I had no idea what to do. I kinda, sorta wanted to paint. But to paint what? With what?
So into Michaels I went in search of inspiration. At this stage of my creative journey, just being in the store with the intention to “create” was daunting. Eventually I landed in the scrapbooking section because I liked the pretty papers. And it didn’t involve buying paint, paper, and who knew what else. Easy seemed like a good idea at this point.
On the paper aisle, an idea dawned. I could take those blank cards over there and glue that pretty scrapbook paper on the front in different shapes. Scissors and glue sticks seemed accessible in the face of my unadulterated intimidation.
How could such a simple desire as wanting to be an artist cause my heart to feel like it was going to beat out of my chest?
Since that weekend when I cut up a storm and glued paper like crazy so much has transpired. Eventually I took a watercolor class. Then another. During one particularly difficult class, a great weight was lifted when I realized it was just paint and paper. So what if it wasn’t good? That’s what trashcans are for. So I kept painting and with time, I’ve been happy with what has landed on the paper.
Then came the clay studio. Once again I entered a foreign land and went through the agony and joy of being a beginner. Nothing worked right at first, yet over time, what seemed un-learnable has become second nature.
No one comes out of the gate a creative genius. As Ira Glass said in this NPR clip, we all have to go through some pretty bad stuff to get to the good stuff. That’s the journey. That’s the joy and yes, agony. Yet how else is a work of creation to speak to us if it doesn’t hold all of the emotions, including those we deem “bad?”
What are you waiting for? So what if you can’t do it well? Just start.
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Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers. She loves to hear about how your experiments with these ideas turn out. To contact her or share your experiences email firstname.lastname@example.org
Inspiring new ways to look at learning, growth, and reinvention, whether in leadership, athletics, art or life.
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