Thursday, April 14, 2011

Opportunities or Problems: Where are you Devoting your “Thought Resources?”

For many years I participated in the Jensen Consulting Executive Roundtables. The Roundtables are a peer group of senior executives who worked in a confidential environment discussing issues in their business and offering outside input to other members.

One of our Roundtable participants owned a manufacturing facility. He had a great perspective on many things but the one that sticks with me is a comment he made as we were discussing an issue regarding one individual's company. He said, “When you are standing in the shower in the morning, are you thinking about problems or opportunities? If you are thinking about problems, take care of them and then start thinking about the opportunities.”

There are two lessons I took from this notion:
  1. You have make time and space to find those creative thoughts. If you don’t, mostly you’ll be focused on the problems in your world and can easily fall into “playing work” (see previous blog).
  2. You will never know the true costs of the opportunities that you miss when you are focused on the problems.

A number of people I know say some of their best ideas come while taking a shower (mine actually come when I am running or even mowing the lawn, but you get the point). Why is that? It is where our minds wander and we can let the creative juices flow in an environment where we aren’t interrupted. That time and our “thought bandwidth” is precious. Many times I end the day looking around and thinking that if I just could have gotten 15 or 30 minutes to slow down and think through something, I would have been much more effective. But we’re all so busy. It’s why I don’t believe that the comment “I don’t have (or can’t find the) time to do …” is misplaced. We all have to make time to do what is important.

If you are spending your time beating up a problem – why it happened, who was to blame, what could have been done differently, etc. – you are wasting your precious thought resources on something that won’t move you forward. I don’t mean to say ignore the causes of problems; certainly you want to make sure you don’t end up down this road again. But if there are problems in your world (business, personal, family), meet them head on, solve the problem and keep moving.

The opportunities you miss when focusing on the problems are unlikely to return. Are you using your precious thought-cycles to evaluate how to maximize an opportunity like entering a new or emerging market, building the product enhancement that will launch you into the future, getting in front of your next big customer with the right solution for their future? Or are you stuck in why so-and-so did such-and-such or how am I going to get Joe over there to back off so I can just do my job?

One other thing I notice about opportunities and problems: It seems that problems are often internally-focused or related to things that are difficult to control (for instance, the economy). Opportunities seem to be largely externally-focused or customer-focused. This is not universally true, but when I find myself thinking about problems, they are often about people and personalities, or about macro-issues that are well beyond my control. It goes back to the root of the Plan B Philosophy idea – there are some things about our world that aren’t changeable (or as I say, “sometimes the laws of physics still apply”) but you have to adapt to world as it is while keeping your focus on your vision. We can all adapt to a changing environment – by minimizing whatever problems are out there and then going back to work on the opportunity that had us in the business to begin with.

To be clear, getting control of your thought time, calendar, schedule and to-do list is not easy (you can ask my wife about my level of balance, which is often a bit out of control). It is even harder to focus on the important, not just the urgent – especially when there are many things that seem both important and urgent! I have a few rituals to try and do this that I thought I would share.

One thing I do is to occasionally take a mental “agenda” with me when I run. There are certainly those times when I want my mind just to drift or take in a beautiful day, but I will often take an idea or opportunity that I haven’t had a chance to digest with me on my run. My mind wanders in and out of the opportunity thinking about possible strategies and tactics. I don’t always find the solution, but usually I have a better idea of the issues and where I need to focus my thoughts. (Sometimes I come up with an amazing brilliant idea only to forget it by the end of the run!)

Another tactic is spending time at what I used to call my “west office.” The coffee shop down the street from our old building is a place that I can put my headphones and spend a few hours in the morning focusing on the couple things on my to-do list that take uninterrupted time (like writing a blog post). It is segregated from my house, my work and most of the world. Airplanes are another place I often find this time. Wi-Fi Internet access on airplanes is a mixed bag for me – while it can help with productivity, it also has provided a mechanism to lose one of the only places in the world that was truly unreachable and allowed me to work on those “big rock” projects.

My tactics work for me … they might not work for you. The important thing is to find the time and place to spend time working on the opportunities in your life. The problems are always there. Like my Roundtable colleague, deal with them as soon as you can and then move on to the opportunities.

And a request: share your ideas in the comments section on how you make the time to work on the opportunities and big projects in your world. Your input may not work for everyone, but one idea could change someone’s life. Make a few moments right now to share your ideas. By doing it, you will also remind yourself on how you break away and focus on the opportunities in your life.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Happy Sidd Finch Day

While I usually do not participate in April Fools' Day capers, I always remember the Sports Illustrated article about Sidd Finch, the Mets phenom pitcher who was deciding between a life as a pitcher or as a French horn player. If you read the story - check out the first letter of the opening and what it spells ("He's a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd's deciding about yoga - and his future in baseball."). Likely one of the best April Fools' pranks of all time (the SI issue was published on 4/1). All the better because it lasted through the April 15 edition when they finally announced it was a hoax - after announcing on 4/8 that Finch was retiring.

I laugh about the story as I think back to me as a young boy reading this and wondering what a buddlist pitcher who learned throwing in the Himalayas was really like. But then I think about what it means to create something that really endures - even if it is a bit silly like this story and an April Fools' joke. George Plimpton, the author, had a few of these and enough daring to create more than a piece of literature - more like a part of our history, something that endures.

There is no question in my perspective that this was a stroke of creative genius (you can have your own view, but the reactions of readers in a pre-Internet world when they realized it was a hoax are classic). On today, April 1, will you create genius or mediocrity? Not a joke, just a thought.