At a recent lecture, the speakers asked us to look around the room and find something that was red. Then we were asked to close our eyes and think of something in the room that was green. Most couldn’t do it. It was a quick, yet powerful exercise to illustrate that we see what we focus on — and often unintentionally ignore what is outside of that narrow view.
Of course, it’s one of the reasons that writing down goals is productive – it elevates our ambitions to top-of-mind and puts them in the front of our consciousness. Focusing on a topic also works for creativity if we allow the time for ideas to “incubate” in our mind. For example, I facilitated a strategic plan for a group that works with generational poverty and as soon as the date was set, I began seeing articles and news items related to that topic. I know that they were always there, but once I began to focus on the subject it was seemingly everywhere.
Our minds are too inundated with information to simultaneously focus in many directions with equal depth. Be conscious about whether you will look for “red” or “green” today and hone in on just one. It is better to bring vibrancy to one color than to mute them all in the background.
Marc and Angel Chernoff lecture “Getting Back to Happy!”, March 21, 2019, Hotel Julien Dubuque
What do jury instructions and dissertations have in common? The end result is incredibly narrow in focus.
When I served on a jury, I left the courtroom ready to hand over a “guilty” verdict for the defendant. In my mind, the evidence showed that he committed the crime. But the jury instructions we received were ultra-specific: for example, did the defendant send X number of harassing communications between X-Y date, etc. In the end, we could only convict him on two of the five counts because of the tight parameters.
When I wrote my dissertation, I was convinced that it would be something in the area of human resources. Ultimately, my research topic was Role Expectations and Predictions of Trends for Human Resource Development at Small, Private Colleges and Universities within the Southern Regional Education Board Area. If you had asked me at the start, I would not have been able to fathom that I would be this specific or that the whole study would hinge on just five research questions, but it wasn’t until I narrowed it down to this level that the real writing could begin.
Often, we spend time trying to manage an expansive interpretation of the problem when it would be better to dedicate our energy to reducing the issue to a far more minute level than we first anticipated. Unlike on television, it’s never a question of whether someone is guilty or not, rather did or didn’t he violate Statute XYZ(a). Research doesn’t tackle a whole subject area, but only a tiny sliver of it.
Consider the issues that loom large in your world — perhaps you would be better off by parsing them into small, specific bits and resolving them one component at a time. Moving to the narrow part of the funnel is where thinking morphs into action.
There is a fable that succinctly illustrates the difference between being reactive and proactive. Often, people don’t have the resources (time, money, energy) to solve both the problems and what causes them. They become absorbed in the urgency of fixing the problem (doing good works “downstream”) instead of focusing “upstream” on the source of the issue. This fable shows that while there are notable improvements in the response, it is still a never-ending cycle without curing the root cause.
Child welfare workers, from where this story originated, can work mightily to improve foster care or move upstream to reform the causes that remove children from their families in the first place. Wellness professionals can provide convenient weight loss programs or work to promote healthy eating that prevents obesity. Colleges can invest in excellent tutoring and academic success programs or collaborate with secondary (or elementary schools) to increase student preparedness upon graduation.
Middle managers are especially susceptible to this narrow thinking as their daily work revolves around being passionate about getting things done without necessarily linking it to the system or big picture. It becomes the job of the executive or higher-level manager to see beyond the surface and understand the system at a deeper level, strategically recommending changes “upstream” in the organization or industry.
If you are an entry-level staff member or someone just climbing the ranks, taking time to intentionally think about the larger environment is an excellent training tool for future growth. Share this fable with colleagues and incorporate the “upstream-downstream” language into your meetings, planning and conversations. The most important thing you can do “downstream” is eliminate the need for it.
Sometimes your most significant accomplishment of the day is when something doesn’t happen.
Think of all the energy that goes into preventing a crisis or proactively problem solving: correcting false information so that misinformation doesn’t become an issue, double checking processes to prevent an error, maintaining equipment so it won’t break down, or even driving defensively to avert an accident.
It is easy to take satisfaction in the tangible outcomes of what we do, but it’s also important to celebrate the work that no one sees. Some of your biggest wins may come from extinguishing that spark so it never bursts into flames.
As a way to learn more about a topic I know little about, I attended a presentation about human trafficking where they showed the documentary I am Jane Doe. The film highlighted many of the issues surrounding this “modern-day slavery” but in particular focused on the website that serves as a clearinghouse for children to be bought and sold.
I was struck by the seeming legal imperviousness of this site – as they have won or had dismissed all of the cases against them (except for one that is in limbo). The crux of their argument comes down to the Communications Decency Act (CDA) which protects sites from liability for what third parties post on their platform. It makes sense that Facebook wouldn’t be sued directly if someone posted something negative about another – but does that broad interpretation extend to a site that helps others post cryptic descriptions of sex traffic? Currently, the courts say yes.
The CDA is an act that made good sense when it was established in the early days of the internet but needs to at least be revisited in light of contemporary conditions. Does Free Speech extend to protecting illegal activities? Should a website that provides patrons advice on how to disguise the true intent of their posting be covered by the CDA? Or should the CDA stay as it stands and protect all third-party postings as it has been interpreted to do?
The documentary serves to highlight the unintended consequences of the CDA but the principles apply to many issues beyond human trafficking. What rules or policies has your organization had in place for years that preceded the internet era and should be revisited? (Iowa just encountered one when the post office bar code was invalid to determine the mail date of a paper ballot because the law said “postmark”.) Have you re-read your policies lately to see if the intent still matches practice?
The time to review your policies is before you are faced with defending them.
My mom’s belief was that you should never have enough chairs at a party. If everyone could sit, her thinking went, then they stay statically in one place whereas if some were forced to stand they would move around and mingle. She was aiming for enough “mixing” that created a lively blend of conversations and fun.
The same principle applies to most events where more than a few gather. If you have a critical mass of participants, and an environment that packs them in rather than spreads them out, you will generate much more energy than in situations where you have ample or excess space.
The workshop you hold where every seat is taken will have greater participation than one with the same number of people in an oversized room. Consolidating four church services into three will provide a different experience than if the worshipers were spread out among empty pews. Hosting workshops, open houses or classes in venues that put everyone in close proximity to everyone else will stimulate more interaction than if each person had room to spread out.
Critical is the operative word in critical mass – it’s critical that you take mass into account in your program planning and space allocation. Condense your physical environment and the number of offerings you provide until you reach a point where there are enough people to generate exponential energy through forced contact with others. If you offer options for isolation, people will remain in their own bubble and you’ll lose the energy that they could have contributed.
The puzzle I wrote about yesterday was the perfect balance of being challenging without being frustrating. It took some concentration to put the individual balloons together but, if you worked at it, it was doable and the end result was enjoyable. I have made puzzles before that apparently were designed to be difficult – odd shaped pieces and aggravating cuts – and it was no fun at all.
I think that your job or another project can be judged from a similar perspective: you want to be learning, but not drowning. You need to have enough challenges to keep you stimulated, but not too many where you feel that you aren’t making any progress at all. With proportionate effort, you need at least a few of the pieces to connect.
Yet, if the pieces are too big or the puzzle is too easy, it’s no fun either – you need it to engross you in the effort but reward you when you reach the end and to do so in a reasonable amount of time.
If you are considering a new job or new project, look at it as if you were assessing whether or not to buy the puzzle. One of all solid colors or without any distinguishing features may be more difficult than is worth it, but one from the children’s section may not stretch you enough. Find a fit that looks challenging but excites you and makes you want to jump in and figure out how the pieces go together.