leadership dot #205a: pyramids or batons

The topic of collaboration came up at our recent Cave Day meeting (dot #201). As we probed more deeply into what individuals meant by collaboration, it became clear to me that there are (at least) two distinct styles. One is like a Cirque du Soleil acrobatic pyramid–everyone is working together and they are all doing a similar function simultaneously. The other is more like a relay race, where people are working more or less independently, but all rely on each other to complete the race (project).  

If you have a different expectation as to which kind of collaboration will occur, you may be disappointed in the teamwork and effort of others. If you forget that you are in a relay race and only focus on your portion of the laps, you may fail to pay attention to the baton hand-off and set the team behind.

Collaboration takes many forms and people play different roles as part of a team. Spend some time clarifying how you expect your team to function before you climb on the back of someone who is trying to run a relay race.

Originally published in modified form on December 23, 2012


leadership dot #201a: cave days

I don’t really like the word “retreat”. It conjures up either literal images of armies retreating and being pushed back in defeat, or the more modern-day images of sitting in long meetings with flip charts posted throughout the walls. I do, however, believe in the power of going off-site and changing the environment in order to do some strategic thinking or more intentional planning.

So we call our version of deep thinking “Cave Days” — as in going away to hide in a cave to escape the daily distractions. I spent yesterday afternoon out of the office at such a Cave Day experience –clarifying the transitions and processes of new staff. The informal environment allows people to be more focused and candid and, as a result, we were able to have discussions that could have never occurred sitting around a table in a meeting setting. By dedicating a significant chunk of time to this topic, it signified the importance of it. I hope it also heightened everyone’s commitment to achieving results and then implementing them.

I encourage you to think about the key things you need to discuss and commit to a Cave Day-type environment in which to process them. Sometimes we need to alter our routine in an effort to alter our thinking — and changing when/where we broach the topic can have an immediate impact on that.

Originally published in modified form on December 19, 2012 

leadership dot #180a: not guilty

My advice from being called twice to serve on jury duty: if you have to be on the jury, be the foreman.  

If I am going to spend my time at the trial and deliberation, I want to see a productive outcome (verdict) as a result. So if I have to be there, I’m going to step up and lead the discussion to help us stay on topic.

The same principle applies to meetings outside the legal arena. If you have to be at a meeting, act like the foreman. Take an active role in the discussion to frame the issue, bring out the various views, point out the commonalities and move the group toward action. The foreman is a facilitator, not a dictator, and it is a good model to follow.  

You don’t need to hold an official position of power to help move the meeting along. If you have been convened with the purpose of deciding, step up to the role. Whether your goal is group consensus or majority rule, you can help drive the discussion to facilitate action.  

Don’t just sit there and be guilty of leaving the verdict of the meeting in someone else’s hands.

Originally published in modified form on November 28, 2012



leadership dot #161a: lily pads

Q:  There is one lily pad floating on a pond. Every day the number of lily pads in the pond will double. If it will take one month to cover the entire pond with lily pads, on what day will the pond be half-covered?

A:  On the 29th day

If this was a change initiative project, everyone who wasn’t directly involved in the implementation would be “wowed” on day 30 when the full effort was unveiled. People think that change happens in big increments instead of a series of small ones, and it is this illusion that allows change to take on mythical powers. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Change happens in little steps, often involving a lot of grunt work, do-overs, trial & error, and frustrations. Only after enough persistence in this mode does a true “breakthrough” occur.  

Change is not lofty. Change is not mysterious. Change is not caused by those who are lucky. Change happens because everyday people put in the effort, over time, to take baby steps toward a goal. They connect the dots.

Today is Day 1. What steps are you taking to fill your pond on Day 30 (or 300)?

Originally published in modified form on November 9, 2012

leadership dot #144a: overwrite

I walked into my grocery store and my brain instantly knew that it was remodeled.  It was much more open through the front areas so I tried to picture how it had previously looked. I couldn’t do it. In an instant, my brain had overwritten what it was like “before”.

I think it works this way with most people and remodels — the new lighting at work that was so startling on the first day is now a non-factor. The new paint at home that made the room look so different is now just part of the background. And the same is true with civil engineering — one of the reasons I am so fascinated with it — that road or bridge seems like the most natural thing to be there. Even if we witness the construction process, after the first few days we don’t even pay attention to how different the new traffic pattern is.

It takes less time than you think for the new to become old; for things to stop being noticed and to become part of the routine. Two sides to this coin:

> You can take advantage of the brain’s capacity to overwrite things. Think about what you want to rewrite in your life — a habit? a brand element? the way your office looks? It doesn’t take long to replace a concept in your head.

> But because the brain has a great capacity to overwrite things, you need to continually keep feeding in the messages that you want to stick or it will be replaced with something else new.

Originally published in modified form on October 23, 2012


leadership dot #121a: civil engineering

My personal mission statement could be the same as the American Society of Civil Engineers:  “[We] conceive, design and build the infrastructure that supports our community and its economic prosperity.”

I hope that my work accomplishes what the ASCE purports as its mantra, and I think that we would be better off if most people routinely took two of its main elements to heart:

1.  “and build”  I like the concept of not just coming up with the idea, but delivering on it. This isn’t a lofty thinking exercise; ASCE gets things done. Execution is important to them, and to me.

2.  “supports our community  The work isn’t about individual gain or internal purposes; this phrase advocates thinking about the impact on others and how you can help. 

If you build in ways that support your community, we would all prosper. Building bridges of civility. Building partnerships and networks. Building alliances and friendships. Building physical buildings and tangible programs that foster economic health.

Who knew that civil engineers had so much to teach us, but I believe that they do. Engineering civil societies is a great goal for all of us.

Originally published in modified form on September 30, 2012

leadership dot #105a: dive lunches

Once each month, several of us from work eat lunch at a local establishment that is off the beaten path. We call these “dives” but others may call them Ma and Pa diners, greasy spoons, bars, or other similar terms of endearment. It started as a way for me to keep in touch with a colleague that transferred to another division at work, but it has since grown into a rotating group of a dozen or more people who have participated in one of our field trips.  

What makes our “Dive Lunch” crew special is the mix of participants. Our regulars include the president, president emeritus, a retired faculty member, a couple of the vice presidents, directors, assistant directors, faculty, and people from four of our five divisions. We have even been joined by the chair of the board of trustees when we went to a dive she recommended! It is our own mini-version of a cash mob (as most of these places literally only take cash).  
The wonder of Dive Lunches goes well beyond the food — even though we have found that to be surprisingly good. These meals instill camaraderie and build relationships that would never be fused inside a meeting room or office. There is a sense of experimentation, creativity, and risk-taking as we try places none of us have ever visited before. There is a bonding and shared experience that carries over into working partnerships.   
The next time you’re ready to head to the same old place with the same people, think about inviting someone new to go on an adventure with you. We’ve found that those who break onion rings together do projects well together!  
Originally published in a modified form on September 14, 2012

leadership dot #86a: care by example

One of our service offices had a temporary table set up this week to handle the opening-of-school rush. The person working had made a handwritten sign, on a piece of notebook paper, with the loose leaf “fringe” still attached.

Another employee walked up to the table and removed the sign, replacing it with a typed version. “We’re better than that,” he said as he crumpled the original paper. 

I did not witness any of the above, but it made such an impression on someone who did that he retold the story to me and, no doubt, to others. Little things do matter. First impressions do count. 

Kudos to the employee who acted to improve the situation, instead of just complaining about it. Rather than just shaking your head, let’s follow the example to take those extra few moments to make something a bit better in your organization. 

Originally published in modified form on August 26, 2012

leadership dot #67a: the other side of the coin

I have two new staff members starting work this week.  Several people here have been busy planning training for them — lots of meetings, readings, and things to do to help the new employees to learn their job and get acclimated to our culture. To be sure, learning what is serves a critical purpose and is vital to success in the position. When you’re new, you clamor to learn everything there is to know as soon as you can.

Harder to learn, but perhaps more valuable, is learning what isn’t. Sometimes it is a struggle for people at all stages to think beyond what is on the page to what should be there. They proof a document and point out that a comma is missing, but fail to note that a paragraph to set the context or to explain something important is absent. They learn every detail of the process but don’t stop to question why it is that way in the first place. People become experts at what exists, but forget to be strategic about what should be happening.  
Whether you are brand new or a seasoned veteran, the real difference makers are the ones who ask “what isn’t” in addition to mastering “what is”.

Originally published in modified form on August 7, 2012

leadership dot #48a: first draft

The most important lesson that I learned in all of college can be summarized in five words: “Writing is different than editing.” It was the admonishment of a curmudgeonly old journalism professor that we just write, putting unfiltered thoughts out there, and tend to organization and editing later.  


Because of this simple mantra, I have completed hundreds of proposals, papers, projects, and especially a dissertation. Writing and editing utilize different portions of the brain and as we worry about spelling or comma placement, we cut off the creative flow that comes from freely expressing thought. Writing without editing also produces a far greater quantity of writing – giving the editor a larger selection of work from which to glean some “good stuff”. It makes all the difference in getting something done. A blank page is intimidating, but reviewing something that is already there takes much less effort. We often know what we don’t like, so editing it out comes naturally. 

I think this lesson applies to many things beyond the literary world. It is really about starting and worrying about making it better later. START vacation planning and then narrow down specifics later. START planning a menu for your dinner party and then swap out choices later. START making a Christmas gift list and then make changes depending upon what you actually find at the mall. START thinking of all those courses you could take and then pick one or two. START dragging out the box of receipts and sorting them into piles and then determine what is tax-deductible later. 
We don’t like to begin, and we don’t like to have first drafts in life. But a good life is like that – continuously editing to make it better.
Originally published in modified form on July 19, 2012