11 September 2005

From fog to focus

Are you caught in a fog?

Do you feel that, although you are working as hard as you can, you can't clearly see the road ahead?Despite your hard work, do you feel that you're making progress too slowly? Like running in sand? Or worse yet, is it both? Like you're caught in a fog and running in sand?

Changing your perspective might change your reality.

People often look at things in a linear way. That is, we tend to think of everything as having a beginning and an end. This task has started; this task is complete; these others are underway; that one is on hold.

But when you look at the world around you, most endings are also beginnings. The world of nature is a world of cycles, not linear events. Rain falls from the sky and eventually ends up in the clouds again. Day and night, phases of the moon, and the turning of the seasons are all cycles. As you look at similar cycles and begin to compare them, you can begin to see subtle differences you might not otherwise notice.

Noticing differences is the first step toward real progress.

Whatever your situation, here are a few ideas that can help you establish a cycle, so you can begin to move toward productivity and meaningful results. You will make progress by completing cycles, noting differences, and initiating feedback loops.

Contextualize: Start by establishing a baseline and defining it somehow.What’s going on? Observe your situation objectively, as if you were on the outside looking in. Ask tough questions. As you gather information, you will see problems. Don’t point blame, but do your best to see the unvarnished truth. To avoid groupthink, reach out to peers and mentors, not only in your own industry but across as broad a base of industries, cultures and practices as you can find. A deep, contextual understanding of today will help you set your goals for tomorrow based on reality, instead of wishful thinking. Try to examine, document and report on the situation as if you were completely objective, like someone from another planet. If you don't have all the facts, don't let it hold you back -- guess. Don't worry, you'll always have more information on the next cycle.

Prioritize:What do you want, and by when? Approach the situation like an architect, not a mechanic. In other words, don't look at broken things and try to fix them! If you try to fix things, your best possible result will be a return to your former state. Think of it this way: if your goal is to get from here to there, fixing a broken motorcycle, at best, will get you a working motorcycle. You will never get to an airplane with that kind of thinking. To avoid being seduced by your assumptions, biases and blind spots, set clear, simple goals based on the what -- the end result you want to achieve -- as opposed to the how -- how you will do it. Most people can focus on three priorities at a time. What are your top three?

Visualize: How will you get there? Think about the resources that are available to you the environent you are in, and what's realistically achievable. Imagine what will need to be done in order to achieve your objectives. Imagine who is needed, and how it will be executed. Close your eyes and try to visualize it. Can you picture it? You might try drawing in on a whiteboard with stick figures. Where are the potential pitfalls? Can you anticipate these in advance, and mitigate their effects? How will you, or your people, know that they’re doing it right? How will you know when it's done?

Mobilize:Go. The sooner you get moving the sooner you will succeed. If you wait till your plan is complete -- till every contingency is covered -- you will never get anywhere. Progress, not perfection, is the goal. Enable decision-making as close to the action as you can. Build feedback into your execution mechanisms, so you can improve as you move. Some degree of failure is inevitable. Accelerate the failure to accelerate the learning.

Set the cycle in motion: Gather feedback to complete the cycle. Use it to enrich your thinking and improve your understanding of the situation. Feedback is the most important and most often neglected piece of the puzzle. When you first contextualize you are guessing. When you incorporate feedback and use it to re-contextualize you are improving. Feedback doesn't have to be numbers; it can be as simple as asking people questions about how you are doing.

Congratulations! By forging the critical link between mobilize and contextualize, you have established a baseline. Success does not come from perfect execution, but from a fast-moving cycle of continuous improvement. The faster you go, the more you learn. The more you learn the stronger you get.

Progress, not perfection!

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