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 #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

leadership dot #3666: purge

After yesterday’s dot (#3665) about my storage system, a friend asked:

Any advice for me: I have a lot of organizing and purging to do. Office stuff. It’s hard to do when there’s so much. I read an article recently about minimalism and how it’s hard to start when the job seems so big. It seems like it would be never ending and would prevent me from using time now for more enjoyable things. Any ideas on how to make this fun?

Drat! I have no magical advice on how to make boring tasks fun. Susan Power wrote: “The motivation is in the doing.” I think about that a lot (usually when it comes to writing the next dot — I’m rarely motivated to start but the motivation comes from doing.) So, the trick is to start. I’d suggest:

  • Put an hour appointment on your calendar (daily for 2 weeks or weekly for 2 months, etc.) and hold to it like you do for everything else. It’s not “do I feel like purging — it’s My 2:00 appointment says purging time, so I’ll do it.” Stop thinking that it has to be fun to start — it never will be. It will be fun when you finish, and things are organized/clear/etc.
  • Schedule the time so that you have a reward at the end. Do it for 1 hour then watch TV or read or eat lunch, etc. Or do it in chunks — Do 1 drawer then X or this pile then X.
  • See if you can do the purging in a different place than your office. Somehow purging on the patio or in the sunshine is less arduous (says the woman trying to read and sort 3600 dots!)
  • Great music helps!
  • Keep a pile of what you’ve purged (i.e.: don’t take it to recycling/shredding right away) so you can see progress even though it won’t feel like there is any.
  • Depending on the state of things, you may need to sort then prioritize — put things into piles by category, THEN read and purge. (For example, when I cleaned out my Mom’s office, I quickly sorted things by insurance, utilities, medical records, etc. – tossing the very old insurance benefit booklets and obvious recycling as I went – but saved the purging that required thought until a second round after the piles were sorted.)
  • Only keep things where you’re the source. If you have a lot of minutes or documents from work or volunteering, I’d ditch those and rely on the organization to supply them if ever needed.
  • As I said in my dot, I keep things in small folders — each topic has its own so I can find them again. Shopping for office supplies (colored folders, etc.) can make the task more fun but don’t get hung up on logistics of “what goes in the red folder?” etc. As you can see in the picture, my folders are ragged, handwritten, reused — and work perfectly.

Whether it’s with purging or any other daunting task, I guess my best advice is to stop seeing it as “a lot.” As Anne Lamott wrote: “bird by bird” — one step then the next. You don’t have a lot to do; you have a little to do a lot of times. You could complete the first “little” in the time you spend avoiding doing “a lot.”

leadership dot #3665: saved

When I started my first professional job, I took an empty box that held reams of paper and covered it in contact paper, making it my first filing “cabinet.” As rudimentary as it was, the box served as a useful way to collect, organize, and, most importantly, retrieve handouts or resources that I would later use for inspiration or workshop material.

Many years later, that same system has morphed into 39 boxes, some of which have contents older than the people I am sharing them with. What has worked for me over the years is to not only save materials but to create a separate file folder for each topic, no matter how small. If it’s a key article that I use repeatedly, it has its own folder so I can easily find it. If it’s one article on something new, it starts from scratch, too. There’s nothing lofty about it — reused file folders, handwritten titles, Post-its to label the boxes, etc., but this system has allowed me to begin content development from something, never having to face the dreaded blank piece of paper that is sure to cause a creative block.

I take my method for granted since I’ve been doing it for so long, but it was brought to consciousness by author Dan Pink. He isn’t a resource-hoarder like I am, but he shared that he gets an empty box when he is just beginning to consider a new project. Then when he discovers resources as his idea incubates, he tosses them into the box — books, articles, etc. Once he’s ready to get serious about writing, he has a ready-made collection of places to start.

If you’re not proficient and devoted to one of the sophisticated and powerful tools that are now available to help with the curation process, give the humble box method a try. It has saved me (as well as saved my resources) so many times, proving over and over that it’s much easier to turn something into something more.

leadership dot #3561: something new

A different skill set is required to create something as compared to improving it. If you are focused on making something that exists better, the focus is on the output. If you aim to develop something new, the effort should be concentrated on the inputs — the people, vision, infrastructure, culture — all those need to be aligned in order to be successful.

Unfortunately, too many organizations are interested in short-term wins and immediately visible results. Leaders want to see quick evidence that can be bragged about — tangible signs that changes are occurring — but in an inaugural effort, those benchmarks often come much later in the process. The real work occurs before any outward changes are seen.

If you’re asked to champion a process to create something new, begin by setting clear expectations about the time it is likely to take. There are no easy ways to innovate or embed adaptive changes in an organization. Don’t let your enthusiasm override your thinking and cause you to believe otherwise.

Different skills are required to improve the one on the left vs starting from scratch on the right

leadership dot #3127: batch

In anticipation of the holidays, I spent an entire day writing an advance posting of dots for the week. It felt like a massive expenditure of time to invest in the project and I wondered whether it was worth the effort.

However, when I think about it, I’m sure I actually dedicated less time per dot by writing them in a batch. The efficiencies of having all my materials out, getting in that “writing groove”, and having a list of ideas rather than spending time thinking of them individually made the overall process more productive.

It’s often easier to do things bit by bit but sometimes you’re better off devoting a big chunk of time to really get something done. You could clean the garage one shelf at a time but be more efficient hauling everything out onto the driveway and doing it all at once. You might write one paragraph of a report but save time by closing your office door and crafting the whole thing. An afternoon of concentrating on filing your taxes may actually take less time than doing it in stages.

The hardest part of a big task is getting started on it. Once you do, try mightily to keep going until it’s done.

leadership dot #3108: renewal

So much of our routine business is conducted on autopilot, not because our current providers are necessarily excellent rather because it is too much of a hassle to change them. Think about your health insurance, car/home insurance, banking, phone network, cable, internet, doctors, subscriptions, software, retirement savings or investments – most likely they are with the same institutions you have been using for years. We often allow things to renew automatically without further investigation because of the time it takes to do something else.

While we don’t have the bandwidth to research every decision or spend the time canceling and adding every time a service comes up for renewal, it is likely worth the effort to make some conscious decisions to do so on occasion. It’s also worth considering the long-term cost when you choose any on-going provider, whether that be a subscription or service professional. It may be tempting to jump at the low-cost introductory offer but remember they are counting on you to continue when the discount expires because you don’t want to take the time to wait in their customer service queue to cancel.

But if you are the provider and not just the consumer, allow the “it’s-hard-to-change” principle to work in your favor. Make your initial encounter enticing enough to get the consumer started on an automatic renewal program and enhance your chances that they’ll stick with you for the long term.

That first step has disproportionate value for everyone.

leadership dot #2762: precise

I understand the volatility of weather patterns and the difficulty in predicting specific outcomes. What I don’t understand are the inconsistencies within the same app forecasting for the same time period. For example, in the “daily forecast” the app showed a high of 50 degrees, but in the “hourly” predictions, 48 was the warmest it would get. I realize there is little difference in two degrees, but the lack of internal integrity calls the whole forecast into question for me.

Think about your organization and whether your employees act in the same manner as the weather app. Do your customers receive different answers depending upon who they ask? Do you provide updated information to your front line so that facts can remain current and accurate? Is there a process to monitor and evaluate the replies that are given?

Maybe the variances are minor but there should be certain responses that are consistent throughout. Strengthen your communication with internal alignment and practiced precision about the numbers that matter.

leadership dot #2616: mile marker 1

Musician Lzzy Hale bought her house because it had a mantle to display her prized trophies: one, a Grammy that her band Halestorm won in 2012, and her “other favorite trophy”, the Schukill County Fair 3rd place trophy that the band won in 1997. She describes that as “equally monumental – mile marker 1.”

Halestorm has been performing over 20 years with another Grammy nomination and many other mile markers along their path, but Lzzy stays grounded by remembering the band’s humble beginnings and the roots that got the group started.

We often focus on the end goal but sometimes forget the importance of mile marker 1. It’s easy to diminish the importance of that initial landmark – when someone actually pays you for what you do, when you are quoted for the first time, when you receive that initial recognition – but it can be that early beacon of hope that keeps you going forward.

Starting on a long journey is tough. By the time you have slogged through hundreds of steps to get to the first mile, you need a marker to acknowledge that even though there are many steps to go, those initial ones have meant something. So, even if it’s a third-place trophy from a county fair, cherish the markers that indicate all those incremental steps are getting you somewhere.

Thanks, Mike!

leadership dot #2594: power wash

I have been lamenting about my filthy windows since winter. I tried to borrow a power washer to no avail. The person I tried to hire never returned my calls. Finally, my housemate purchased a power washer and tonight we tackled the big task.

It struck me that with my “flippable” windows that tilt in, I ended up doing all of the window washing from inside without any power washer involved. In other words, I could have had this done since March. Yes, power washing the screens made a huge difference. Yes, washing the outside casings and siding makes the house look so much better. But for the part that bugged me the most, no new equipment was needed; it was just a matter of doing it.

Isn’t that the case with so many dreaded tasks? We put off exercising until we join a gym or fitness class when simple walking would make progress toward strength and health. We avoid beginning that project at work until we install new project management software when a simple legal pad could get us started. We eat out because we don’t have 100% of the ingredients instead of making an easy substitution.

The mind works magic when trying to avoid an unpleasant task. The next time you catch yourself listing reasons why you can’t do something until ______, power wash the thought from your head. I’ll bet there is a way, right now, without anything new, that you can take a step forward.