I recently facilitated a strategic planning process and worked hard to get the task force to end up with one goal. One total.
They wouldn’t do it.
Or maybe they couldn’t do it, because it involves making hard choices that as a task force they were unable to make.
I don’t disagree with anything that ended up in the final plan. It is all important. But having multiple goals means that it’s all equally important and I don’t think that is ever truly the case.
I wrote yesterday about managing complexity. Having a laser focus on one goal is a strategy to do just that. The more we can simplify, the more we reduce the complexity that distracts and dilutes.
If you ask your boss for one thing that you can do to improve, her feedback will be more helpful than a multi-page performance appraisal. If you ask your family what is their favorite thing to do on a vacation, it will guide your planning more than a travel agent could. If you make one promise to yourself of something to accomplish today, the odds are great it will get done.
Michael Bungay Stanier from Box of Crayons has a wonderful two-line planning tool that you can download here. Follow his advice and simplify. Force yourself to get to the essence of what is important. If you weed out the fluff, you take what remains more seriously.
“We have to figure out how to get ourselves out of the complexity of an inherently complex system.”
My colleague Mike Cyze shared this sentiment when discussing school districts, but it applies to a much broader content than that. People often find themselves with complexity paralysis, unable to determine a course of action because of the multitude of options and intertwined variables.
As my class studies systems thinking, we have used the Affordable Care Act as an example. People may not like it as it is, but no one seems to have another solution that doesn’t come with its own downside. For example, one small act of allowing people to opt out could destabilize the markets if healthy people discontinue coverage and costs rise for those needing care who remain. More comprehensive changes have broader implications — that some people will like, others won’t — but all of them are interdependent upon each other.
One way to maneuver in a complex system is to stay focused on the vision or end goal. By taking steps to achieve the “why”, a pathway to action can become more clear. In the school district, a defining principle is “what’s best for the kids.” It guides steps and strategies that may otherwise be buried in the complexity.
What is the beacon that will light your organization’s way amidst the many choices and options?
There recently was a train derailment just outside of town and several cars left the track. We were talking about what caused this, and learned that with the change of seasons the tracks expand or contract. If the tracks contract too much, a small gap can impact the smooth flow of the wheels and tilt the cars.
This hit home with me as I personally experienced the impact of a small heave in the sidewalk. While the height gap between one panel and another was only an inch, it was enough to send me off balance and “derailing” onto the cold concrete.
What is true for railroad cars and walkers also applies to organizational cultures. Train tracks and sidewalks remind us that a small misalignment can cause big consequences. Railways have inspectors that are continually checking the tracks for any gaps. Leaders should do the same and vigilantly take steps to keep small cracks from derailing their organization’s effectiveness or morale.
Because of my love of organizational strategies (and cool new office supplies), two friends shared information about the Rocketbook notebook. This system is a combination of high tech/low tech, allowing you to write with a (special) pen, then the pages are synched to the cloud so your handwritten notes are stored electronically.
I have yet to try it, but there are some appealing features of having handwritten notes instantly sent to your Dropbox, Evernote or mail. Through the use of a special symbol and a QR code, you tell the Rocketbook where to file your document, and it first enhances the image then sends it on its way. When you’re finished, you microwave the notebook (yes, you read that correctly) to erase your writing and allow you to reuse the book up to five times.
There is always a quest to build a better mousetrap, and the Rocketbook is trying to improve on the standard notebook that has been around for decades. They aren’t competing with the 17 cent back-to-school-specials, but it may be a winner for those who want to spiral their notes into the cloud.
Maybe paper works for you, maybe you like all-electronic notes, or maybe you want to blend the two. With notebooks and all other gadgets, find your own sweet spot for technology: how comfortable you are, what you are willing to pay, the learning curve and the efficiency/effectiveness of use. No choice is right for all, but whatever you choose, do it with intentionality.
Thanks to Nate and Mike for the tip!
One of the hardest aspects of writing this blog is keeping track of all my potential ideas. As I wrote yesterday, most dots are a synthesis of several thoughts that I connect together to craft a lesson. But I collect those ideas from multiple places and over an extended time period — making it challenging to keep them in a format that allows them to stay alive and not lost.
For example, Sunday’s dot was from an email my friend sent me in December, 2015 (14 months ago — Thanks, Tracy!), inspired by a dot I did last week, coupled with information from years ago when I was working on a campus. I have ideas written in little notebooks, pictures on my phone, emails and texts with ideas from friends, electronic copies of articles that inspired me, things I hear on the radio, social media entries, newspaper and magazine clippings and more. The challenge of synthesis is not only melding the ideas in my head, but being able to physically access the accompanying reference materials to be able to write about it.
It reminds me of a scene in the 1988 movie Working Girl, where Melanie Griffith is asked how she got her idea for Trask Industries to acquire a radio network. She pulled out a file folder with an article that had Mr. Trask’s daughter’s wedding announcement on one page and a feature about the radio’s star DJ on the next page. The proximity helped her to make the connection.
I don’t think most of our environments are set up to foster synthesis. Our office has rows of file folders or electronic documents that keep each item in its own separate location. Our schools teach individual subjects and don’t often provide interdisciplinary instruction. Our lives are kept manageable by keeping things in silos and schedules.
Think about what you can do to put some of your different inputs in proximity with each other in a way that may encourage synthesis. Have conversations with friends and family that elevate the discourse by chatting about ideas, rather than just the events of the day. Make time to journal or reflect on what things mean to you and how they relate to each other. Mentally try to make connections as you absorb new materials.
And if any of these methods reveal an effective way to integrate multiple media inputs, please let me know!
One of the assignments in the class I am teaching requires students to write a synthesis paper. The objective of this is to allow (force?!) students to reflect on the connections between the textbook, additional readings, class discussions and their personal experience. It is obvious that they need some practice in this skill!
Synthesis is where the magic happens.
It is taking information that is readily available to all and making new insights and observations. Synthesis is creating a more complete picture out of fragments and seeing relationships that may have otherwise been overlooked. Synthesis is, dare I say, connecting the dots, of disparate ideas into something original.
Think about how you can exercise your “synthesis muscle” on a regular basis. When you read a news item, consider how it relates to other stories you have read before, or tie the national news to the local level. Tie your experiences together and see if you can’t find additional meaning between the lessons you gain in church and what is happening at work, as an example. Maybe you can connect what you are doing in your volunteer work with something that relates to a vacation or your family.
With effective synthesis, one plus one really does equal three.
The passing of Mary Tyler Moore got me reminiscing about her iconic Mary Tyler Moore television show. Though I haven’t thought of it in ages, I was able to sing most of the theme song by memory, and, of course, knew the cue for the signature tossing of the hat.
I watched every episode of that series during grade school/high school, but did not really realize it was a groundbreaking premise to feature a single woman pursuing a career. It was just a good show.
It wasn’t until I recently read Tim McGraw’s tribute to MTM upon her passing that I wondered what impact the show had on my development. Did it subliminally convey that it was an option to pursue a career and not children? Did it shape my desire to major in journalism? Did it draw me to want to live in a big city?
While I am not sure whether I subconsciously followed Mary Richard’s path, I am sure that we take in shapes us, whether we realize it at the time or not. Pay attention to your social media feeds, reading list, entertainment and friends. They are all sending messages that help us become who we are.