We have all known extraordinary people.  They are everywhere if only we take the time to look.  They can be colleagues, customers, vendors, and if we are lucky, our spouse or our boss.  It can be someone on the news or someone we hear about.  Some of us were even privileged enough to be raised by extraordinary parents.  

Often it is easier to start with what something is not.  In this case, it’s very simple.  Extraordinary is, simply put, not ordinary.  We know Ordinary.  We brush shoulders with Ordinary every day with far more frequency.  We ourselves are often Ordinary as well.  Ordinary is someone who puts their own interests near the top of their agenda.  Ordinary is someone who takes a position and won’t let go so they can be right.  Ordinary is someone who is so focused on completing a task they don’t notice the effect they are having on those around them.  Ordinary is someone who makes promises they know they won’t be able to keep.  Ordinary is “forgetting” to do the dishes so our spouse has to do them.  Ordinary is getting mad over things that have no long-term importance.  Ordinary avoids the difficult conversation that could create resolution to a painful situation.  Ordinary is well…ordinary.

While everyone can compile their own list of what makes a leader extraordinary, here is mine:
  1. An extraordinary leader is someone who has given himself over to something greater than himself to be used by it.  It could be a cause like the transformation of government, or global warming.  It could be a local  homeless shelter or an orphanage in an underserved part of the world.  It could be creating a legacy of service with an organization or creating a shift in the thinking of an entire industry.  The development of a new way of viewing some part of life.  We don’t have to be a Gandhi or a Mandela or a Martin Luther King Jr. to be extraordinary.  We just have to be willing to unselfishly give ourselves over to what is in front of us, calling to us, whatever size it may be…a single child in need or a country in need of freedom. 
  2.  An extraordinary leader is one that makes use of all the resources she has at her disposal, logic, intuition, strength, weakness, courage, fear, emotion, dispassion, community, independence.  She is skilled at knowing what cocktail of resources to bring to bear on a given situation to be most effective.
  3.  An extraordinary leader has enormous compassion for what it is to be human.  He knows the struggle and challenges first-hand.  He has lived through enough battles to know that some victories are costly and some losses are miraculous.  He doesn’t presume to know which will be which. 
  4. An extraordinary leader is someone who calls out the best in the people around her.  She sees the gifts, strengths and possibilities in everyone and invites those qualities out through her way of being with others.
  5.  An extraordinary leader effectively manages the tension between competing forces.  He balances the needs of the whole against the needs of the individual, the need to get the task done with the need to maintain a good relationship, short-term gains against long-term investments.  He never sacrifices the needs of one 
    stakeholder to benefit another.    
  6. An extraordinary leader is the calm in the middle of the storm.  She is able to stay centered, present and grounded in the face of uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.  She is able to ground others so they can be effective as well.
  7. An extraordinary leader is one who is able to inspire others to adopt his vision as their own over the long haul.  An extraordinary leader continues to inspire others when the bumps in the road make others lose sight of the vision. 
  8. An extraordinary leader is able to give voice to the collective experience.  She captures the essence of what’s going on, particularly when times are hard and articulates it.  Out loud.  With compassion.  And courage.
  9. An extraordinary leader knows his own shortcomings and is willing to be honest about them.  He is authentic about himself and with others.  
  10. An extraordinary leader is willing to stay in her discomfort zone for long periods of time in service of the cause she has given herself over to.  She cultivates her fear and takes it with her on her journey, knowing that fear has the ability to show her where she needs to go next.  

  “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop and look fear in the face.  You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.”            ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Recently someone forwarded a link to a radio interview with Arianna Huffington.  She was talking about how she had collapsed a few years before which gave rise to her new definition of success.:  power, money and well-being.  Her old definition of success?: Power and money.  

I have to say that struck me as a little shallow.  I hope that if I awoke on the floor lying in a puddle of my own blood as Arianna did, that I would be able to muster a little more introspection than she apparently did.  Don’t get me wrong. I have a world of respect for someone with the achievements that Arianna has racked up.  I do not know Arianna personally so I have no insights into her thought process of the time.  There is nothing wrong with her old or new definitions of success. They just wouldn’t work for me. 

What is your definition of success?  What is your definition of an extraordinary life?  I think that most people, like Arianna have accepted the societal definition of success without any consideration of the alternatives.  I don’t think it occurs to most people that they have the ability to create their own definition of success without regard to society’s definition at all.  Here is a definition from someone who gets closer to my own personal definition of success:

“To laugh much; to win respect of intelligent persons and the affections of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give one's self; to leave the world a little better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition.; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm, and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived--this is to have succeeded."

This definition is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the renowned 19th century poet and scholar.  This can bring us back to defining what is an extraordinary life.  We can look to our own history to think about people we consider extraordinary.  I think back to my pioneer ancestors enduring the harsh Saskatchewan winters.  Their accomplishments seem extraordinary to me from where I stand in history.  William James, Emerson’s godson, is considered the father of psychology.  Marie Curry who changed the lives of countless individuals with her groundbreaking research which resulted in the modern x-ray machine.  There are many others who like my ancestors have toiled in near anonymity.  If we knew their contributions, we would consider them extraordinary as well. 

Arianna Huffington is leading an extraordinary life by anyone’s measure. Her most significant accomplishment is the on-line news aggregation site, the Huffington Post., which bears her name.  She started the website and blog along with three partners.  One thing we tend to lose sight of is that extraordinary lives happen at the intersection of other’s lives.  We literally can’t be extraordinary all by ourselves.  Who would the extraordinary of extraordinaries like Ghandi, Mandela and King Jr., be without others? 

To me an extraordinary life comes from a very different focus than the pursuit of power and money, although both of those sometimes follow.  To meet the test of an extraordinary life, there has to be some essential components. 

First, you have to be facing an extraordinary situation.  Given the increasing rate of change, complexity and ambiguity we all face on a daily basis, it’s not hard to find yourself in an extraordinary set of circumstances if you pay attention.  We often don’t even realize that we are. 

The second component is that we have to do something to deal with those circumstances.  It is often something that isn’t condoned by society.  There are now enough tech icons that have dropped out of college to start businesses that changed the world forever, that it is no longer considered unusual.  At the time that Steve Jobs took that step in the early 80’s, I’m sure many of his contemporaries thought he flunked out and was a failure.  Steve Jobs biggest legacy may be his willingness to break with society’s norms and go his own way, thereby implicitly granting permission for generations to come to do the same.  Often what looks crazy if you look at it through the lens of what’s expected/accepted in society is exactly the right thing to do.  It takes courage to step outside of accepted cultural norms but it makes all the difference if you do. 

The third component is that we have to be effective at influencing others to see things in a new way.   Rachel Carson, credited with beginning the “green movement” through the publication of her book  “Silent Spring”  was successful in influencing countless people to see their environment in a new way.  Steve Jobs forever changed the way we think about computers.  We all know now that design matters. 

Extraordinary lives are lived by ordinary people who somehow find the courage to become extraordinary by recognizing the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in, do something about it and do what it takes to effectively influence others to see things a new way.  In the course of doing that, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.  And all our lives are better for it. 

What extraordinary circumstances do you find yourself in?  If you pay attention and notice what’s different about you and your circumstances you will eventually see what unexpected actions you can take and ultimately you will figure out the new view of the world you need to share with others.  An extraordinary life starts by noticing who and where you are in history.  Start with just noticing and everything else can follow from there.  

"Everyone thinks of changing the world but no one thinks of changing themselves."
                                                                                                                 ~Leo Tolstoy

Have you ever had the experience in which someone will say something with abject clarity and your whole being will vibrate with the rightness of the statement like a tuning fork struck with a mallet?  That happened to me the other day when I heard my pastor say “Maturity is a choice”.  Before he said that, I had been letting a question a fellow parent had posed a few years before simmer in the back of my mind.  The question was “Why are our young people having so much trouble growing up?”  Perhaps it is just having the perspective of a parent as I’ve watched my two older childrens’ struggles as young adults to find their footing.  My Dad’s reaction to their story has been a gruff  “The soldiers on the beaches on D-day were an average age of nineteen.”  I understand as I hope my children do, that today’s young adults have the luxury of finding their footing that is almost unprecedented in the history of humanity. 

There is a great book called  The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter--And How to Make the Most of Them Now. This book by Meg Jay lays out the premise that we have a new stage of maturity that has developed as we have progressed through to the 21st century.  It is not commonly known today that the stage we call adolescence is a relatively recent development in the history of humanity.  Before a couple of hundred years ago, human beings went from childhood to adulthood almost literally overnight with a ceremony that took place at about age thirteen. 

While the veracity of what is postulated in Meg’s book will need to be tested by time, one thing is perfectly clear right now.  Many individuals in today’s society when faced with the choice to mature say, “Thanks but no thanks”.  The evidence is all around us.  All you have to do is look at popular culture and you can see the evidence of a resolution to stay “young”.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with choosing to stay “young”, it does have an impact. 

Wisdom is not an automatic consequence of the passage of years.  Wisdom is the hard-won reward for the willingness to engage in often painful, self-reflection.  It comes from a willingness to take responsibility for one’s actions even when it hurts.  It also requires that we set aside quiet time for reflection, learning and finally embracing all of who we are including the parts we would rather not see the light of day.  The maturity that comes with wisdom has a price tag that our popular culture does not support and that many seem unwilling to pay.

What is the impact of a large section of society refusing to engage in the tasks required to gain wisdom?  A person who refuses to endure the painful, self-reflection that leads them to a better understanding of the totality of who they are sentences themselves to a life in which they are unable to accept their “shortcomings”.  They must expend vast amounts of energy making sure no one finds out about those limitations.  Of course, it’s really easy to see this in others.  It’s almost impossible to see it in yourself unless you go looking for it. 

Another impact of staying “young” is that people are unwilling to accept the impact they have on other human beings while loudly decrying the impact others have on them.  The not-so-recent trend towards incivility is a symptom of this. 

Finally, the unwillingness to accept responsibility leaves others having to pay for harm caused by “young” people.  Does anyone leave notes on parked cars anymore when they crash into them?  As a society I believe we have shifted to the point that we would be surprised if anyone did.

In the arena of parenting, “young” people cause unimaginable harm.  Parents who have children outside of a stable, mature relationship sentence their children to a world of uncertainty, risk and a frightening lack of limits during a time when stability, safety and limits designed to protect are of utmost importance.  My “favorite” is the single parent who says their child is their best friend.  Children need their parents to be parents.  Their best friends should be their own age.

Don’t get me wrong…I am certain all these people would be horrified if they could see their own impact.  I am certain that they are caring, wonderful human beings all doing the best they can with what they have.

What is it that has people choose to stay “young”?  In speaking with people about this, I’ve discovered that many of them have a definition of “grown-up” or “adult” that is past its expiration date.  They list words like boring, old, dull.  Boring comes up a lot.  Responsible gets a lot of air time too.  Some just say, older than 18, like being an adult is an automatic thing.  It’s not and maybe that’s part of the problem. 

To me, a mature adult is someone who engages in life with joy.  Someone who is comfortable with all parts of themselves, even the ones that made them uncomfortable when they were younger.  Someone who no longer needs to strive for something.  They contribute because they enjoy contributing not because they have something to prove.  Others feel peaceful around them.  Of course, this is an aspirational definition and all of us will fall short at one time or another.  However, to me it is a far more appealing definition of adult and one worth aspiring to.

It seems to me our collective definition of adult is past its expiration date.  How much fun would it be to be an adult if the definition was boring, old, dull, and responsible?  How much more appealing would it be to be an adult if the definition was “someone who engages in life with joy, is comfortable with themselves, contributes for the pleasure of it, embodies peace.”  You choose which one works for you.

Whereever there are groups of people working together there are politics.  Politics are as much a part of life at work as they are on the national political stage.  There are elections with winners and losers although in business we call them hiring/firing and promoting/passing over decisions.  And the choices aren’t made democratically.  To get anything of any substance accomplished, you have to become skilled at building alliances, collaborating, polling (in business we call this socializing), influencing, getting votes (gaining agreement). 

Let’s say you’ve devoted the time and energy to learn how to play the political game and for the most part, you’re successful.  You’ve lost a few, but you’ve won more, and with each engagement you’ve learned something and now you are “playing with the big boys”.  And you lose…big time.  Now what?

For many on the losing end of a major political battle, there is a real sense of loss and for good reason.  Something real has been lost.  In some cases, the loss may be one’s reputation as a winner.  For others, it can leave behind a feeling of betrayal if the battle got ugly, because trust is lost. 

Although the specifics may be different the fall-out is remarkably similar.  When you lose a major political battle on which you’ve staked a lot of political capital, your role within your organization may be diminished.  You may not wield as much clout as you did before.  You may find yourself excluded from major decisions and projects. 

The way others view you is affected but not because you lost the battle.  That’s just the beginning of the adjustment period.  Everyone loses sometimes.  It’s part of life.  People around you are watching to see what you do with the loss.  Will you pick up your ball and go home?  Will you come out swinging on the next one?  Will you adopt a bunker mentality and hunker down?  Will you “retire on the job”?  Or will you retreat temporarily, regroup, learn, adjust and do the hard work of repairing trust/reputation?  Sometimes trust and/or reputation can’t be rebuilt.  What then?  Maybe it’s time to find a new sandbox to play in. 

Choose your strategy carefully.  Only you can decide the best strategy for the circumstances you find yourself in.  The good news?  What you choose to do after the loss is much more important to your career than the loss itself.  

There aren’t many people out there making the argument that life is getting saner.  Conversely, what is the typical response you give to someone when they ask “How’s life?’  Did the word “busy” come to mind?  It often does.

How do we manage ourselves in a world with no boundaries on work?  No boundaries on options for how to spend our off-work time?  We have to find new ways to create (and hold) boundaries around our time.

Start With the Technology You’ve Got
Many of us in the working world use electronic calendars to manage our time.  The hours between eight and beyond five are often so filled with blocks that it looks like a tower of blocks a toddler might build.  Sometimes it seems that even a short bio break is beyond reach.

What’s really crazy is many of us have sufficient control over our own calendars that we do it to ourselves.  What are we thinking?  To borrow a phrase, we are thinking inside the box  When you schedule a meeting do you routinely schedule an hour-long meeting because that’s the default for your calendar software?  Not all meetings require an hour.  Some only require 10 or 15 minutes, so schedule the meeting for 15 minutes, then respect that boundary.  Ever notice that tasks expand to fill the time allotted?  If you schedule a meeting for an hour, chances are the discussion will expand to an hour.  You can often get done in 15 minutes what you could have taken an hour to accomplish.

Get Clear on What You Can Control
I once coached a leader who had just started managing a global team.  When I asked him if he would accept a meeting from a direct report at 2:00 am his time, he said yes.  Not being at all clear on how this could possibly make sense, I asked him why he would do that.  Admittedly he had a challenge because some of his team members were geographically located so that they were in a time zone exactly 12 hours ahead of him. His answer was that he assumed if they sent the meeting for 2:00 am, they did it because that was the only time the meeting would work for all parties.   While I am sure it was true that time worked for them, I'm also sure that time did not work for the leader.  Sometimes a meeting has to be scheduled at an inconvenient time but the middle of the night goes beyond inconvenient and should be clearly out of bounds for all except under extraordinary circumstances.  

There are three options when you receive a meeting invitation; 1) Accept 2) Decline or 3) Propose New Time.  If the timing of the meeting is such that you won’t get lunch, propose that it start 30 minutes later so you can eat.  Some people have no problem with this and others struggle.  If you are one who struggles with this, try an experiment.  The next time you get a meeting invitation that doesn’t work for you, propose an alternative meeting date/time and see what happens.  It may be that the organizer can’t accommodate your request and then you have to decide if you will need to be updated by a participant later, send an alternative in your place, or make the meeting work within your schedule.  None of those alternatives leaves you worse off.  On the other hand the organizer may be able to accommodate your request and you now have an easier schedule to live through.

If You Do Nothing Else, Set a Boundary on When You Leave Work And Stick With It No Matter What
Admittedly this is one of the hardest things to do.  The pull of being indispensable is so compelling.  One of my favorite tests to administer is the indispensability test.  It’s simple.  You get a good-sized bowl and fill it with water.  Put your hand in the bowl of water, then pull it out.  Observe carefully.  When you pull your hand out of the water, does it stay parted?  If it does, congratulations, you are indispensable.  :-)  If it doesn’t, welcome to the club of the dispensable many.  Once you get over your disappointment, you may actually find it freeing to be dispensable. 

Remember, every time you say yes to one thing you are saying no to something else.  If you say yes to staying at the office, you are saying no to 1) your family,  2) your fitness, 3) your friendships, or 4) to a commitment you made to yourself to spend more time doing (fill in the blank with what you’ve been promising yourself for years you are going to do).

If you are someone who has been “indispensable” for so long you’ve forgotten your dreams, take a few minutes to write out a list of things you would love to do if you had the time.  If you wait until you have a few spare minutes to try to decide what to do, you won’t be able to come up with anything so you have to write it out ahead of time.  If you are sitting staring at a blank piece of paper, like I was when I did this exercise, think back to what you loved to do as a kid.  That will get the juices flowing, I promise.  Once you have your list, pick one thing to start with and just do it.  You are out of practice and need to give yourself time to adjust to the new reality of life as a dispensable person.  Try it, you’ll like it.

I recently had an important choice to make.  I wasn’t sure which direction I should go.  As I started to think about my purpose and how each option would allow me to fulfill that purpose I was reminded of an earlier time.  A few years ago I was sitting at my desk journaling one day and noticed that I had just written that I felt like I was swimming upstream and it was tough and I was getting tired.  In a blinding flash of the obvious I thought, “Why the heck am I doing that?” I wish I could tell you that I surrendered to “what is” that day and have never looked back. But the truth of it is I have to keep doing it.  I have to keep noticing that I am swimming upstream because I keep doing it.  I have to return my attention to surrendering to what is after it has wandered and my automatic tendency to try to direct things has returned unnoticed to the fore.

But before we get to that, there are two critical questions to address: 1) why surrender in the first place and 2) to what am I surrendering?  The answer to the first is that it’s easier than resisting what is.  Countless millions, myself among them, have expended enough energy resisting what is to have cured cancer and eradicated poverty worldwide.  That is if we could have harnessed all that energy and directed it into more value-producing channels.

The answer to the second question, to what or who am I surrendering is a far more loaded question.  Most of us don’t like to imagine ourselves as subjugated to anyone.  In the U.S. in particular, we are a fiercely independent people.  We are also living in a time in which the word “God” has tremendous emotional baggage for many.  This leaves many of us with extra difficulty in answering the question.  If you embrace the idea of God, this is a non-issue for you.  If you reject the notion of God and many today do, what are you left with?  Some solve the problem by calling themselves spiritual.  Others are comfortable with terms like higher power, goddess, universe and many others.  My suggestion for this purpose is that you focus not so much on the name you give to what you are surrendering to, but more on the act of surrendering to something greater than yourself.

If you can acknowledge that there is something out there that is greater than yourself then you can surrender to it.  Of course, the issue of whether you want to or not has a lot to do with how you perceive that greater something.  If you view it as benevolent it’s a lot easier to surrender.  If you view it as potentially dangerous, why would you ever consider surrendering?  Most of us get our view of the world and its relative safety from our family of origin. If you come from a mostly functional family (no family is always functional) you are more likely to default to the view of benevolence.  If your family of origin was primarily dysfunctional, it will require more work to arrive at a conclusion of benevolence.  This is where a compassionate counselor can be of enormous help.

Assuming you’ve arrived at the conclusion that the greater force that is out there is benevolent and you’ve surrendered, then what?  First of all, the feeling of peace and oneness that arises when you stop struggling and just accept what is is extraordinary.  To be able to relax and follow a benign, benevolent leader that has your best interests at heart is an experience that is beyond words.

The question of how to determine your course takes on a whole new tenor and tone.  Hemming and hawing and/or pushing and pulling to get what you want is replaced by a process of determining the course of action that has already been laid out for you and stepping into that.  How do you determine that course of action?  You need some guideposts.

One guidepost is to determine your purpose in life.  What would you do if you could do anything in life?  If money was not a factor and whatever it is that you just thought of was already taken care of.  In other words, if you were free to be what you were put on the earth to be.  If there were no money concerns, no family concerns, no health concerns…everyone (including you) was thriving without anything needed from you, what would you be interested in? Once you put out there what that would be, cull it down to a few words.  Words that resonate with you and that you can remember.  It will take effort to do that but the reward is that you end up with a reliable guidepost you can use to help direct your life.

When I am trying to determine where I am being led next, I test my initial thinking against my guideposts.  Your guideposts may look/sound/feel different than mine but they must fit the following criteria:

  • At least one must be your central purpose.  Mine is to invite the greatness out of people.
  • At least one must be your personal values, which means you have to take the time to figure out what those are.  If possible, cull it down to only one but if not, three is the absolute max.  More than three is too much to remember.
  • At least one should be vetting your idea of where to go next with a wise advisor…or two…or three.
  • Others will emerge over time as you get used to this new process.  Retain those guideposts that result in “right” actions.  Dispense with those that do not.
What is the reward of surrendering?  A life filled with peace, joy, and fulfillment.

What is the challenge of surrendering?  Staying that way…noticing that we have gone back to swimming against the current.  We naturally lead ourselves and we need to remind ourselves often that we are not in control.  That when we cede control to something greater than ourselves, life goes more smoothly (most of the time) and includes more peace, joy and fulfillment.  A surrendered life is a life well-lived.

While I was working on my Master’s degree I read a story in a long forgotten text that told a tale of finding the right question.  The tale centered around a drill bit company who worked tirelessly to manufacture the best drill bits in the marketplace to stay ahead of their competition.  Better metal composition, better manufacturing techniques, better this and better that.  Until the day a new company arrived on the scene that was able to give customers a way to obtain the hole they wanted without a drill at all.  It was cleaner, faster, cheaper and did exactly what the customer wanted.  It provided them with a hole the size they wanted in the location they wanted.  The question the drill bit manufacturer was asking was the wrong question.  They were asking, “How can we make the best drill bit in the marketplace?”  The question they should have been asking was “How can we deliver the hole the customer wants cheaper and faster than anyone else?”

Since that long ago experience I have encountered similar stories.  Like the new tire manufacturer employee asking a proud company executive showing off the new state-of-the-art tire wrapping equipment why the tires were wrapped before shipment.  The executive couldn’t answer the question so he went and asked.  The answer was to protect the white wall on the sides of the tires.  Right, that white wall…the one that went out of style with tail fins and greasers.

Time and time again we do this.  We find a problem, jump to a solution and go ask for the solution instead of posing the question to the people who can help us find the best answer.  I will sheepishly admit that I’ve even done this with my doctor.  Not just any doctor, a specialist.  A person who has spent a minimum of a bijillion years in medical school…just ask them and their student loan lender.

I set up an orthopedist appointment because I had plantar fasciitus in my right foot.  For those lucky enough not to know what it is, plantar fasciitus is an inflammation of the plantar fascia tendon, which covers the arch of the foot.  A person with plantar fasciitus experiences pain in their heel when they step with the affected foot.  Having had plantar fasciitus before, I knew what it felt like.

When the doctor asked me why I was there I told him – I have plantar fasciitus in my right foot.  What I didn’t tell him was I already knew what the treatment should be.   Another doctor had diagnosed my husband with plantar fasciitus and prescribed a treatment that relieved his symptoms within weeks.  I wanted the same treatment.  Oblivious to my stunning medical know-how, my doctor ordered an x-ray because he is a doctor and doctors deal with people like me daily.  When the x-ray came back he diagnosed me with a stress fracture.

I wasn’t there to see the doctor because I had plantar fasciitus.  I was there to see the doctor because it hurt when I walked.  I had co-opted his expertise as a diagnostician and inserted my own stellar expertise in its stead.  I did it without even thinking twice about it and long after I had heard the above stories so I should have known better.

Why do we do this?  Why do we present solutions to our colleagues (and doctors) masquerading as problems?  How many of you start a conversation with a colleague with the phrase “I need…”   As soon as I hear those two words coming out of someone’s mouth I get my why’s ready.   The conversation goes something like this:

Colleague:  “I need you to pull together some training on having difficult conversations.”

Me:  “Why?”

Colleague: “Because one of my people didn’t have a difficult conversation with a client and we ended up losing all kinds of money on the project.”

Me: “Why?”

Colleague:  “Because the project was going all wrong and we ended up having to provide a lot of free time to get it all cleaned up again.”

Me: “Do you know why the project went wrong?”

Colleague:  “It was a lot of different reasons.”

Me: “So it might have been conversations that should have taken place and didn’t, and it could have been other factors as well.  Is that right?”

Colleague:  “Yes, that’s right.”

Me: “It sounds like we will need to figure out why the project went off the rails to begin with before we can determine what our response should be.”

Colleague:  “Yes, let’s do that.”

The above scenario is loosely based on an actual discussion I had with a colleague.  Further research revealed that the staff who were expected to manage the projects, were not trained as project managers.  We established a new project manager role, hired in experienced project managers and paired them with the existing staff with their extensive technical knowledge.

The flag for me was the phrase “I need”.  That told me that the colleague I was speaking with had already diagnosed a problem and arrived at a solution without even realizing it just as I had with my foot issue.  If I had gone along with her diagnosis and accepted that the problem was that we needed training on difficult conversations, we would have expended considerable time and energy on a solution that would have made little to no difference. That’s what happens when we answer the question without asking if it is the right question or not.  The right question was not, “Do we need training on difficult conversations?”   The question was, “Why did this project go off the rails?”

When we started looking for the answer to that question, we discovered that my colleague’s project was not the only one that had gone off the rails.  The problem was pervasive across the organization.  Finding the right question, not only resulted in a solution that actually made a difference but it uncovered a larger, more widespread problem than we first thought.  We got the resources we needed to make our recommended changes because the P&L owner had just written off $300,000 of uncollectible receivables because, you guessed it, an earlier project had gone off the rails.  In this case though, the manager in charge had done everything he could to hide the evidence.  By the time the problem was discovered the company had racked up $300,000 in charges to the unhappy client that had to be written off.  Had we found this question earlier we could have saved the company at least $300,000.  Our estimate of the savings to the company was in the millions.

At any given time we can end up on either side of this conversation.  If I am on the receiving end, my task is simple.  It is to ask “Why” over and over (it usually takes no more than five why’s) until the answer stops changing or it’s clear the answer is unknown as the conversation above.  Asking why uncovers the question that is begging to be addressed.

The far more challenging side of the equation to be on is the one in which we are the one with the problem.  How do we prevent our very natural, human inclination to assess, diagnose and present the solution disguised as the problem?  Awareness is the first step.  There was a research study done by a group of researchers who showed a movie to a group of study volunteers.  Halfway through the movie, someone dressed in a gorilla suit ran across the front of the theatre immediately below the screen where the movie was being shown and exited on the other side.  At the end of the movie, the researchers checked to see how many study volunteers noticed the gorilla’s sprint across the front of the theatre.  Roughly half noticed the gorilla, which means half did not.  The researchers asked a different group of study volunteers to watch a movie but this time they asked the volunteers to stay alert and notice what was going on around them.  This time almost 80% of the volunteers noticed the gorilla.  Prepping yourself to notice seems to be as simple as just making the statement that you will notice and your subconscious does the rest.

So the next time you are tempted to dazzle the world with your amazing problem-solving skills, take some time to make sure you have found the right problem to solve.  You find the right problem by asking the right question.  Dazzle the world instead with your question-finding skills and everyone will be that much better off.