Enterprise Projects

New Year's Resolution: Stop waiting for the Work-Life Balance. It Ain't Comin'!

"Mindfulness" as defined by Webster's is the inclination to be aware.

Of any time I can think of in my personal and professional life where this is important, it's now.

Mindfulness is synonymous with reflection. And it's only in reflection that we can realize progress on something or lack thereof. Most of us know the value of stepping back and reflecting on something. In the spiritual realm (did he actually use that word in a business article?), it's called meditation.

But in the "real world", there's no time for this airy-fairy stuff. We've got jobs to do and a limited amount of time to get that work done. The dilemma of this "time poverty", a term used in a recent Boston Globe article, is the view that spending more time in the office is our only option to be successful at work.

As described by Juliet B. Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College and author of "Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure", she writes:

"At the end of World War II, the US had the shortest working hours among other industrialized countries. We now have the longest. We have surpassed Japan. The average American worker is putting in 200 more hours per year than he or she was in 1973."

But at what cost?

Two Lives

I believe many of us feel we are living two lives — the one we wear to work and the other, the life we spend waiting; for vacations, days off and whatever "free time" we fantasize about for the weekend. It's not the work-life balance that we're living; it's really the work-waiting balance.

It's like that Dr. Seuss book: "Oh The Places You'll Go"

"…and grind on for miles, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place. The Waiting Place… for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring… you get the point. Everyone is just waiting!!

It's simply that you've either got a life to live or you've got work, but not both. The suggestion is that you don't live your life at work and shouldn't even consider it. How resigned is that? No wonder we're unsatisfied with our jobs. We're teaching ourselves to think that way.

Consider this question: Are we mindlessly setting up our work lives to be unsatisfying to motivate ourselves only to work less hours? Is that really the goal we should be working toward? Given how much time we spend at work, the answer is no!

Assuming an average of 17 hours a day of conscious wakefulness (after coffee), not working on weekends, and a conservative 40 hour work week, we spend a third of our adult lives "at work". (I calculated this in an Excel spreadsheet) One third! For those of us who occasionally work over the weekend and evenings, it easily reaches half of our wakeful lives.

Here's the rub. The work-life balance isn't coming, doesn't exist and will never happen. The best it will ever get is an ever constant imbalance of recognizing when priorities go astray, being able to step back and reprioritize how we're spending our time. That's the nature of balance — it's constantly out of balance.

The Challenge of Being Mindful At Work

I imagine one of the reasons we're running around like chickens with our heads cut off at work is if we were to stop and reflect on what we're spending our time doing, it might reveal how disconnected we really are from half of our life. Not a comfortable thing to think about.

I walked into a new bakery the other day and began chatting with the owner. It ends up after years of being a software engineer, he decided to become a baker. Very inspiring and a great lesson of pursuing your dream. But for most of us, we're not going to jump that far, at least not yet.

So in lieu of completely turning your work life around, maybe the key is to make the time to step back and find satisfaction in the things you care about at work. Maybe we forgot that everything isn't equally important and it's not about how much you get done, but getting done what really matters. What "really matters" is up to you.

As we approach December 31st and our yearly ritual of resolutions about weight, diet, exercise and other bad habits to overcome, let's resolve to live it up at work. Not to spend more time there, but find ways to derive satisfaction from the people and things we care about in that 8,760 hours we spend at the office. This is close to half our life, and at the risk of overusing an overused cliché, "life's too short".

So I'll take the first step. I resolve in 2007 to have a satisfying life balance, at work and at home. I resolve to not leave my life at home but bring what I care about to others and what I do for work.

If we all do this, I believe we can truly proclaim, "Oh the places you'll go!"

Best wishes to you and your family (at home and at work).

On Waiting

"A slave is one who waits for someone to come and free him."

— Ezra Pound, expatriate, poet, musician, and critic

Is anybody really listening?

...does anybody really care? Does this sound a little too close to lyrics from a 70's song? But I digress.

Last month we focused on the risk factors that contribute to project success or failure; Vision & Goals, Planning & Preparation, Capacity & Personnel and Buy-In. This month we'll look at the glue that keeps projects from falling apart. In the spirit of non-consultant speak, I'll simply call this "really good communication".

Communication is a funny thing. Looking back on most projects, you've either communicated too much, too little, but rarely just the right amount.

When you communicate something, three elements are present:

  1. What you intended to communicate
  2. What people heard as a result of what's said
  3. The unintended consequence of what's heard

A perfect example of "When good communication goes bad" is the following attempt to set a context for an organizational initiative:

"As a result of this financial implementation, checks will go out quicker, better reports will be available to staff and most importantly, we'll be able to simplify people's work and minimize the use of other systems to keep track of departmental budgets."

The communication appears to convey great benefit to the institution, and ties it to genuine value for those working there. But what do the people who are affected by this change hear?

"As a result of this financial implementation, we'll be working twice as hard, will no longer have control over the information we've taken years to understand and some of us will be looking for work."


Managing your listeners

What's communicated is often misunderstood because the speaker perceives that what's said is more important than what's heard. This is the heart of communication breakdown. What people say is rarely what's heard, even when you have the best communicator delivering the message.

Think of it this way. Everyone has a unique filter that allows certain ideas in and keeps others out.

If I say "you need to better manage your people.", some hear this through a filter of "thanks for the feedback," while others hear "my job's in danger," while others might think "you don't know what you're talking about." One message, unlimited listening responses.

Consider expanding these listeners' interpretations to 10, 100 or 500 people. The challenge then becomes compounded with the message going from listener to listener, versus from the speaker directly. These watered down communications have direct impact on the collaborative nature of project work, leading to the next problem.

The Blame Game

Projects fail, or are "discouraging successes," because an unproductive cycle begins with the deliverer of the message blaming the listeners for "not getting it," while listeners blame the speaker for being a "poor communicator". This ping-pong match creates a "virus of discontent" across the organization.

For example, if I were to ask you: "Have your piece of the project ready to go in two weeks.", you can blame me for not being clear what "ready to go" means and I can blame you for not following through on a simple request.

Taking Responsibility

What's needed is a paradigm shift away from "who's to blame" to each side taking responsibility for how one is heard and how one listens.

Management need to take greater responsibility for the unintended consequences of what people hear them say. For example, they may use the phrase "efficiency" while everyone hears "job loss".

At the staff level, taking responsibility means validating assumptions about what was heard. The underlying dilemma for staff however is an absence of trust between them and management; that it's REALLY about cleaning house disguised as "productivity improvement".

If trust is a problem across your groups, consider addressing these issues first. Opening this can of worms may benefit from professional facilitation, a service that Teibel Education Consulting can help you address.

Listening and Speaking Strategies

Assuming a basic level of trust and a simple need for better communication skills, consider this point of view:

The majority of the time, what you heard was not what was said or what you spoke was not heard by others accurately. If you come from this point of view, you'll be way ahead of others who are more interested in playing the blame game.

Strategy for someone making requests:

Ask your listener(s):

  1. "What did you hear me say? OR
  2. "What are you going to do?"

Most importantly, don't assume listeners got the message.

Strategy for the listener:

Tell the speaker one of the following three things, even if unprompted:

  1. "What I'm going to do is..."
  2. "What I heard was..."
  3. "What I didn't hear or what I am not going to do is..."

For the second strategy, the goal is to help close the feedback loop so the speaker can evaluate in real-time whether what they intended to communicate was heard accurately.

The Bottom Line

Good communicators are primarily great listeners. Great listening takes the extra step of validating what was heard by others, or makes sure that what was spoken by someone else was heard the way it was intended.

Communication is not the message being spoken; it's the act of two or more parties actively listening to the other for a mutually agreed upon outcome.

On Listening

"June Rokoff, Senior VP at Lotus credits her success in turning around the company's position to building a team that listens: she made listening the culture of her team."

— Glen Rifkin, New York Times

Eliminating Risks That Kill Projects -- A Roadmap

Conducting an organizational project is tricky, especially if it is expected to help realize some defined vision. How do you prioritize the people, process and technology goals associated with these efforts while minimizing the risk of losing sight of the larger purpose?

Assessing Project Risk

What does it mean to assess "project risk"? It's a matter of identifying elements of the project that if poorly managed will cause it to be perceived as less than satisfactory or an outright failure.

As stated by Lloyd Rain in an article describing the challenges of IT Projects:

"The truth is that the great majority of IT projects do not fail — most simply do not go as well as originally hoped, take longer than planned and cost more than anticipated. These are really not failures at all; you might classify them as "discouraging successes".

What would it take exceed expectations on IT and organizational projects that involve people, process and technology change? It starts with having a plan to address the following four elements:

The Four Elements of All Projects

Organizational project have hundreds of moving parts, tasks and milestones. These pieces can be collapsed into four broad categories. They are:

  1. Vision and Goals
  2. Buy-in
  3. Planning and Preparation
  4. Capacity and Personnel

Vision and Goals

A vision often serves two functions; it motivates decision-makers to commit time, money and resources to get projects off the ground and two, as a destination for what constitutes success.

Be careful though. The use of vision as a means to secure up-front commitment from senior management as well as defining the ideal end point for the project often produces this sense of discouraging success.

This is because once buy-in and resources have been allocated, vision takes on a lower priority. Lost among hundreds of tasks and milestones, the project becomes less about delivering on the vision and more about delivering something to justify the investment.

Questions to ask around vision and goals:

  1. Has the vision been clearly defined?
  2. If so, has it be articulated in a way that different stakeholders understand?


Buy-in is a critical success factor that for the most part needs to be reframed around commitment, not whether people feel good, bad, or indifferent. Enthusiasm is useful, but it's the incorrect measure for buy-in around a project.

We need to also do a better job of including skepticism, doubt and concerns as necessary phases that people go through in a change project. Having doubts or concerns is an appropriate starting point for people who are used to doing things one way and then asked to change.
Questions to consider:

  1. What does buy-in current look like in your projects and how can it be reframed as a question of "commitment"?
  2. Are you excluding skeptics, doubters and challengers at the expense of the long-term success of the initiative? If so, how can you change that?

Planning and Preparation

Of the four risk categories, planning and preparation are probably the most practiced and well understood in organizational change initiatives.

The challenge around planning comes back to making sure there is a direct line from tasks to vision. Without continuous reflection of "where are we relative to our vision?", milestones and tasks take on a life of their own. Getting things done becomes more important than evaluating if the work is moving toward or away from the overall goal.

The project may be successful in that people are working hard to get things done, but it's also a "discouraging success" in that the work is moving away from its intended outcome.

Questions to consider:

  1. Are we closer or further away from our vision relative to what we're spending our time doing?
  2. Have we given up the vision to get the work done? If so, what needs to happen to get our tasks aligned with the vision?

Capacity and Personnel

Whether labeled a technology, IT or organizational project, it's capacity and personnel that drives work to completion. There are two primary groups — those helping to realize the vision and the intended beneficiaries of the change. Too often we move forward on projects with untested assumptions about people's preparedness — both to lead the projects as well as inherit the change.

For a group to become a successful team, there needs to be much greater transparency in what each person can count on others for. Knowing each others strengths and weaknesses is central to building a well-oiled team.

Team question to answer:

Rate each person on the team based on the following criteria. Then discuss as a group where the gaps lie and how they can be filled:

  1. Management skills
  2. Communication/presentation skills
  3. Organizational/business knowledge
  4. Technical skills
  5. Accountability to results

Project risk can be minimized or eliminated by understanding gaps in vision, buy-in, planning and capacity. Avoiding or not addressing any one of these categories runs the risk of creating another "discouraging success" initiative. It's time to raise the bar and focus on exceeding expectations of going from an initial vision, through tasks, and back to the vision itself.

Achieving Vision

"If it wasn't for the 'last minute', nothing would get done."