Give yourself a chance

How many times have you heard, “I’m not very good at” or listened to yourself say the same? Our ability to artfully segment activities in to “the things we can do” and “the things we can’t do” is legendary.

But how do we really know?

To give you an example, let’s say that I’m tasked with cooking a meal for a group of friends. I don’t normally cook, but for circumstances beyond my control I”m left to do so. I have the ingredients, I have the recipe, I have the cooker and the utensils. When everyone turns up on the saturday night to a pile of ill-determined, semi-burnt mush, I look at the evidence and declare, “I can’t cook”.

And from there on, I have the belief that this is an activity that I cannot perform.

I use cooking as a simple example, but what about maths, finance, presentations or public speaking? How often do we hear people declare in the workplace that they can’t do these things? And on what basis do they hold that belief?

What if instead we were to hold the belief that we could do anything? Well, anything biologically possible for a start. But rather than being about ability, instead we choose where we want to put our time, energy and effort? What if we were to accept that people had almost unlimited potential, just limited resource?

“I can cook. I just haven’t put the practice in to become good at it.”
“I can do numbers, I just haven’t had the exposure and I don’t really have the inclination.”
“I can speak in public, but I have to get used to handling the fear that comes with standing on stage.”

Ultimately, what we can and can’t do, comes down broadly to the things we want to invest in and the things we don’t. If we find that we also have an aptitude, that investment feels simple. If it is the opposite, sometimes the investment can feel too much.

The simple truth is that we choose the elements where we want competence or even mastery and we eschew those that we feel are a step too far. That choice is important in helping us come to terms with the essence of self determination and in turn how we manage and interact with those around us.

So next time you hear yourself professing that “you can’t”, instead try asking yourself how hard you’ve tried.

Meeting the productivity gap

I have a confession to make, I’ve become a little obsessed by meetings. I’m fascinated by the way in which we, in organisations, fill significant proportions of our time talking about the things that need to be done.

Which feels kind of weird.

I saw some data last week that showed that the higher up you go in an organisation, the higher proportion of your time is spent in meetings. Now assuming that people have succeeded in work because of a level of competence in doing “something”, to take them away from that to instead talk about “stuff” seems slightly counter intuitive.

And even accepting that the coming together of people within organisations is a valuable part of the working agenda (which I absolutely believe to be true). How often are meetings run by the most skilled most adept facilitator versus how often are they run by the most senior person?

What happens is that we are stuck in a historical model of business, where those on high would call together their underlings to convey, check, question or hold to account. And whilst so many aspects of our business life have changed, this one part still remains firmly planted in the past.

The much talked productivity gap that exists within UK business surely can’t be helped by the amount of unproductive time spent in unnecessary or badly run or defined meetings. Freeing people up to do rather than talk, to create rather than discuss.

When our lives become about meetings, we have to ask ourselves whether we are adding value, or simply taking resources away from the main purpose of our organisation.

Culture and responsibility

Many years ago when I read “Fish“, one of the elements that resonated most was “choose your attitude”.  The concept that whilst you can’t control the external environment, you can control your reactions and responses to it. How often do we see people who have been through some adversity, talk positively about their life and future, much against our preconceived ideas of how they “should” feel?

In organisations we often believe that someone else is responsible for the culture. “The boss”, “Management”, “Them”. There’s no doubt that power exerts influence on an organisational culture, but so do the collective actions and behaviours of everyone within. Failing to recognise our influence over those we work with and the opportunity to influence the world around us is effectively self- disempowerment.

Nobody talks to anyone here becomes I’m going to make the effort to talk to people I don’t know.

Everybody is so downbeat becomes I’m going to smile at people and wish them a good day.

Nobody knows what’s going on, everything is kept secret becomes I’m going to make sure the people who need to know understand what I’m working on and what I need.

You can see this when a commuter starts a conversation up in the tube, or opens a door for someone else, when a customer smiles and jokes with a waiter or waitress. People around observe the behaviour and often replicate or join in. The social element of our genetic make up leads us to seek to conform to group rules in the environment around us.

So if there is something you dislike about your organisation’s culture, instead of focusing on what’s not happening, focus on how you can behave in a way that shows the things you want to see. I’m not saying you’ll see full scale conversion overnight, but I’ll guarantee you see change.

And at the same time, you’ll probably feel a whole lot better about yourself, your work and your life. That’s got to be reward enough, no?

The value of critical thinking

Human beings are beautifully imperfect creatures – that’s what makes us interesting and frustrating in equal measure. We have the ability to process the most complex information and draw sense and understanding from it. And at the same time, we have the ability to lose total sight of the information and arguments in a decision, because of the lens through which we personally see the world.

Sometimes that’s ok. You ask a room full of football supporters who the best team is and you’ll have numerous impassioned arguments. Most of them are probably factually incorrect, but it doesn’t really matter – the opinion, the belief, the fundamental and overwhelming support is the characteristic that we treasure. We could probably, factually, work out which is the best team – but what’s the fun in that?

Other times, it prevents us from running our businesses and our lives successfully. We eschew the opportunity to explore multiple perspectives, to recognise our own assumptions and we choose to make decisions based on a limited set of information – often because not doing so would directly challenge our status, our beliefs or our previous decisions.

It’s a curious one.

One of the nicest, simplest models I’ve seen for this is Pearson’s RED:

Recognise assumptions

  • How can you help separate opinion from fact?
  • What assumptions are you bringing in to the decision-making process?
  • What are the different view points that exist?
  • What data exists to help explore the question at hand?

Evaluate arguments

  • What are the pros and cons of different viewpoints?
  • Can you make the opposite argument to your natural positions?
  • How does the data stack up against the various perspectives?
  • What will be the impact and how do you know?

Draw conclusions

  • Given all the information and arguments, what’s the best way forward?
  • How do you know?
  • What data/information supports your decision?
  • Is there something that you don’t know that would be helpful?

There is and will always be room for impassioned arguments and beliefs in business as there is in life. Critical thinking is about curiosity, it is about wanting to explore difference, wanting to understand views, wanting to learn and inform – not beating everyone around the head with demands for rationality and data – that’s another type of closed mindedness.

Seeking first to understand and explore, checking ourselves for out own assumptions and weighing up possibilities can only help us to be both more confident of our views and more rational in our arguments and better in our conclusions. We should, after all, be interested in making the best decisions that we can.