Four-Letter Word

"It always seems impossible until its done." Nelson Mandela

Back in 2008, I signed up to run the Colorado Relay with co-workers and friends to raise money for charity. If you are unfamiliar with the race, it's an epic run through the mountains of Colorado that covers 200 miles and approximately 12,000 feet of elevation change. 10-person teams have to cover the territory and each runner on the team has to run 3 separate legs in a 24-hour time period. It may sound brutal, and that's good because the fact of the matter is, it is brutal!

Since it was my idea to sign my friends up for the race to begin with, I thought it was only appropriate to accept the responsibility for running the toughest leg, Georgia Pass. Kicking off right outside of Breckenridge, this leg is 13.5 miles long and includes in ascent of 2,500 feet and a descent of 2,000 feet at the end. Most of the run is on a singletrack trail through the woods with nasty switchbacks and obstacles along the way. This particular year was more challenging because there was significant snowfall the week leading up to the relay.

I knew this was going to be a tough leg when the race organizers declared, "We are unsure of the snowfall at the top and whether it's safe to run, therefore we're sending a group of Marines to the top to give us an assessment." All that was going through my mind was that the Marines were hardly a good test for whether something was doable or not, and I was ready to drop to the ground in a fetal position and begin sucking my thumb. It turns out that the Marines thought it was fine so we were cleared to run.

In total, it took me 3.5 hours to finish the leg, which is approximately double what it takes me to run a half-marathon. It was by far, and still is to this day, the toughest mental and physical challenge I've ever experienced. There were definitely moments I didn't think I was going to finish, and those moments would get temporarily blocked as I stumbled on ice-covered stones on the trail.

The only strategy that worked for me was to think in small increments.

Every half-mile, I'd celebrate the small win and would remind myself, "You only have to make it the next half-mile." I repeated this over and over again until I staggered out of the woods, slightly injured and completely worn out.

I'm sharing this story because I heard a segment on the radio that reminded me of that running experience. The DJ teased the spot by saying, "Coming up next, a four-letter word that makes people more productive at work when they use it!" Of course, during the 2 minutes of commercials I tried to exhaust my working knowledge of every four-letter word I knew. (To be honest, it was kind of therapeutic to cuss out loud and for no reason in the comfort of my car with no one to hear me.)

The DJ interrupted my cuss-a-thon with information about Leslie Sherlin, a psychologist and neuroperformance specialist. She has done some research that shows that using the word DONE in the workplace helps you more productively get through your to-do list. A neurochemical shift occurs in the brain that releases Serotonin, which is known as the body's feel good chemical. Here's a link to the full Fast Company article.

Finding more opportunities to use the word DONE at work increases your own productivity ... and you get a cool, little natural buzz, too!

So how do you do that? One obvious but effective way is to break your projects or tasks up into bite-size chunks. Just like my run on Georgia Pass, you can make your way over the mountain by celebrating small victories and then targeting equally small wins for the future. I've always believed in the expression, “Think big, start small, iterate fast.” It really applies here.

One thing I've noticed in my executive career is that people are tougher on themselves than I normally need to be when providing feedback. They forget to pause and celebrate their small victories. In some cases, they become so overwhelmed with the mountain they need to climb that a simple fall puts them in a state of surrender. Is this the case with you? How do you approach big projects or tasks? Do you think about them a half-mile at a time? If not, try it today. Try using the word DONE, and see how it makes you feel. Look, here's your first DONE of the day ... you are now DONE with this missive. Didn't that feel good?

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Chris Laping is Co-Founder & CEO of People Before Things, LLC, a boutique consultancy that helps executive and project leaders prepare people for technology change. He has also written a bestselling book, People Before Things: Change Isn’t an End-User Problem, which explores the role leaders play to pave success in change and transformation. To join the conversation, follow @CIOChris and @pplb4things on Twitter.

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Uncertainty

“The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart.” —Robert Green Ingersoll

In my corporate career, I remember how big changes rocked my world. Maybe I was lulled to sleep by the security and comfort of steady employment. Maybe I gripped my job description a little too hard, like a toddler holding a blanket. Because just like that—I’d open my inbox and some announcement would rattle me; uncertainty ensued.

Our personal lives can be like that, too. I remember driving to the gym on a snowy Saturday afternoon in 2008. The roads were fairly empty, and I was probably going faster than I should. With the way the sun was reflecting off the snow and ice, my vision was impaired, and I ran into the back of a car sitting at a red light. I didn’t see the car; I didn’t see the light. My airbag deployed, burning my lower arms and breaking my hand. I remember sitting there wondering, “What just happened?”

Launching a company is a lot like driving on snowy roads with the sun glaring in your face. However, instead of experiencing the rare accident every 7 years, you feel the stress of daily fender-benders. And unlike the corporate world of big announcements hitting your inbox and rattling your confidence, startup life is more defined by messages you DON’T receive. This silence could mean there is a lack of interest, someone doesn’t want to tell you “No” directly or that your work is at the bottom of someone’s priority list.

Are you experiencing uncertainty now? How does it make you feel? Is your confidence shaken? What are you doing about it?

Here’s what I’ve learned in my corporate and (short) startup career: uncertainty breeds courage.

In the moment, it of course doesn't feel that way. In fact, it usually feels like watching lightning in the distance and counting the number of seconds before hearing the thunder. However, if you carefully recount the details of your own uncertain moments, you can probably see how it made you stronger and more resilient.

Kristine and I got some really good advice early in the process of building our company. It helps with uncertainty and is applicable personally and professionally. Are you ready? “Get to NO—faster!” Yes, "No" stings. Yes, "No" usually means rejection. "No" is never easy. However, if you kick the can down the road (of life) too long only to get to “No,” you’ve wasted a lot of time!

Think about wasted time in romantic relationships. You might have known it was doomed from the beginning, but the uncertainty of going through life alone delayed action. Then, one day you (finally) woke up and, “No” was in your face! Lots of time was wasted. Maybe the same type of thing happened at work. You put in a lot of extra time and effort and hoped your boss would notice. One day, you walked into the office and “No” showed up with your morning coffee.

It’s okay—I promise you, it’s okay! You will build courage and courage is needed to do things you never imagined possible.

So, take control of the situation and get to NO faster. Make this the week you put uncertainty in your rearview mirror. Don’t waste time wondering what might happen in the future. Rather, simply ask “the other person” a “Yes” or “No” question. If the answer is "No," celebrate the fact you’re wasting less time. By the way, if the answer is "Yes" ...just think about it!

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Chris Laping is Co-Founder & CEO of People Before Things, LLC, a boutique consultancy that helps executive and project leaders prepare people for technology change. He has also written a bestselling book, People Before Things: Change Isn’t an End-User Problem, which explores the role leaders play to pave success in change and transformation. To join the conversation, follow @CIOChris and @pplb4things on Twitter.

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Ten Pounds of Crap in a One-Pound Bag

“Change is hard because people wear themselves out … what looks like laziness is often exhaustion.” —Chip Heath

Busyness Doesn’t Equal Productivity

We live in a world that promotes and celebrates busyness. Think about it. How many times have you heard co-workers brag, “During my day off, I ran 20 miles!” Or, what about the people who repeatedly boast about how little sleep they get because they are so busy? While on the surface, busy looks like an effective metric for productivity and success, it can do more harm than good—yet it is consistently and positively reinforced in society.

In most cases, people feel pressure to multitask in order to meet their work and leisure commitments. However, studies show that (for the majority of us) our brains are actually incapable of multitasking, especially when it comes to the types of activities required of knowledge workers. In addition, when people don’t have time to focus, it is hard to find the discretionary effort required to learn about and adopt new changes. As a result, many opportunities and returns on investments are never realized.

The most successful leaders connect people to purpose AND ensure their team has the time required to do the job right. Otherwise, frenetic environments promoting the trivial many will result in overwhelmed team members who resist change and hate going to work.

So, now that we’ve adequately defined the time challenge, how can change leaders enable their people and organizations for success? In my experience, there are really only two logical solutions: 1) Ensure people are focused only on the critical elements (“The Vital Few”) of the business and nothing more; and/or 2) Accommodate the needed time (i.e. backfills, schedule time) to adapt to and adopt a new change.

The Vital Few

In mathematics, the theory of optimization basically says one thing will come at the cost of another. There is a technique called linear programming, which is used to find the best solution with limited resources to maximize profit or minimize cost. The key to both points is this: when you manipulate one variable it changes the impact of other variables. This isn’t an assumption, it is MATH! Yet, when allocating their people’s time to work efforts, leaders often ignore it. And unfortunately, this leadership approach often results in over-extended and exhausted team members.

As Greg McKeown brilliantly points out in his book Essentialism, “The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality.”

I’m an ardent believer of the “Vital Few,” which comes from the Pareto Principle: 80% of the return will come from 20% of the effort. When leaders build a “Vital Few” discipline into their culture, they provide clarity and prioritization. This frees their team members time to focus on the new Thing or change that means the most to the organization. There are some fairly easy and straightforward techniques for identifying the “Vital Few,” but I’ll save that for a future blog.

Accommodate the Needed Time

Maybe you and other leaders in your organization feel your teams are already working on (only) the highest priority projects and tasks. Yet, you keep hearing people say they just can’t keep up, let alone take on any new work. So, how can you really know it’s time to put less crap in a bag? One way to know is by completing a time and motion study. Leaders usually see this practice as an overwhelming task, unless they happen to work in manufacturing or have strong industrial engineering support in their business. While it’s absolutely the best way to understand what is required of people to manage their jobs effectively from a time perspective, I recognize very few companies and leaders are willing to take this step.

In lieu of doing this kind of industrial engineering work, leaders can perform an easy, high-level analysis of the incremental effort required by a new change initiative. I call the outcome the Capacity Index, which is detailed in The Nitty Gritty chapter at the end of my book, People Before Things. The Capacity Index can be used as a relative measure to understand how heavy (or light) a change will be from a time commitment standpoint—relative to other changes being implemented in the organization. This information is pretty powerful at an individual change initiative level, but even more helpful at a portfolio level.

A given leader may only be responsible for pushing a major change or two throughout the course of a year. However, the impacted team members may be receiving dozens of changes during the same period of time from other leaders. Having a macro view of those changes and being able to provide a monthly Capacity Index roll-up will help leaders prepare for the times of year which may be more heavily weighted with change than others. Said another way, when implementing a new Thing is VITAL to the business, it may make sense to clear the decks of other new Things to ensure the total team is doing a great job with the vital one.

This approach doesn’t have to be an all or none proposition. However, the closer you get to offsetting the time and effort required to take on a new change, the more likely you will achieve your expected outcome(s).

That’s what enabling people for change and leadership is all about: It’s about taking action in the best interest of your team. And it’s about putting their needs in front of unrealistic expectations of discretionary (and heroic) effort.

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Chris Laping is Co-Founder & CEO of People Before Things, LLC, a boutique consultancy that helps executive and project leaders prepare people for technology change. He has also written a bestselling book, People Before Things: Change Isn’t an End-User Problem, which explores the role leaders play to pave success in change and transformation. To join the conversation, follow @CIOChris and @pplb4things on Twitter.

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