Seven Steps to Relevant Decision-Making Now Online at NACAS

In the spring 2014 issue of NACAS College Services magazine, you'll find my latest feature, The Seven Steps to Relevant Decision-making.

I've long held that one of the key differentiators of best practice institutions is their ability to cultivate a healthy environment around making decisions. These institutions are more agile, more responsive to dynamic market conditions, and vastly more creative when it comes to defining solutions in a sea of complexity. 

The stakes have become greater in recent years, making the functioning of a well-oiled decision machine that much more critical. In this piece, I discuss the traits of powerful decision making, the pitfalls and trials that come with it, and offer a tested process for decision-making that can help your institution become more responsive to demands of your constituencies, and more creative in the process. 

I invite you to read the article online now, and share your comments and insights below. 

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

Tips to Improve Your Marriage

OK, now that I've got your attention, give me a chance to make the connection. And no, I haven't changed careers. I make my living listening, interpreting and acting on what others want me to help them with. Over the course of the last twenty years, I have become acutely aware how easily it is to misinterpret what is being asked of me, or what I ask of others.

Raising the bar around listening means going beyond good listening to effective listening. Good listening focuses on visual cues; eye contact, leaning forward, nodding one's head. This is about what you do, not the result you're trying to produce.

Effectiveness is about results, and effective listening is about taking our visual cues one step further and answering the question:

Was I heard accurately, or did I hear accurately?

Tips To Improve Your Marriage

Communication is at the heart of successful relationships, both personally and professionally. As we've repeatedly heard from the time we're children, being a good listener is at the heart of good communication.

Every day we're reminded how listening comes up short in the workplace; in meetings where people are more interested in making their point than hearing what was said, in requests that we make of others that don't get done, or requests of us that we misunderstand.

We all know good listening when we hear it. Why is this seemingly common sense skill so difficult and rare?

The Appearance of Good Listening

I'm speaking with someone and while talking, they nod their head. What does this mean? It's clearly an attempt to demonstrate understanding, but more often than not, what they're privately thinking is not what you're saying.

The appearance of good listening is insufficient when there is an expectation that the other person will act on what was spoken.

If you're making a request, a head nod by the listener is most certainly a poor measure of understanding the request. But we often treat this physical gesture or responses like "OK" as evidence of being heard accurately.

The Furled Brow

In my early professional days of teaching technology classes, I learned that facial expressions are useful cues to what people are thinking. A furled brow or disinterested look may mean confusion, boredom, anger, and possibly the same symptoms that cause an infant to smile - gas. The problem is we give these visual cues too much weight in our interpersonal interactions.

What's missing in our communication is recognizing those moments when it's important to elevate our standards around listening to be about effectiveness versus appearance, and acting accordingly.

Air Traffic Controllers

Of all the professions that demonstrate the use of effective listening it's Air Traffic Controllers and pilots:

Controller: Delta 557, reduce speed to one, seven, zero Pilot: 170 speed, Delta 557 Controller: Affirmative, Delta 557

The nature of their work demands a higher standard around listening. The Controller communicates a request, the pilot repeats it and the Controller validates. This simple act holds the key to effective listening.

Unless we work in an emergency room or other high risk profession, this style of communication isn't demanded of us. But we can learn from these examples and apply it to those moments when we need to make timely decisions or follow through on what is being asked of us.

Listening in the Workplace

I recently had a conversation with someone who was preparing for a challenging conversation at work. In discussing her upcoming dialogue, she planned to listen first, then share her concerns with the person.

Does giving the other person a chance to speak first before sharing oneself a demonstration of effective listening? Not necessarily.

What will take this exchange from "good to effective listening" is the following simple statement:

After listening to the other person speak, she reply with:

"This is what I heard you say", paraphrasing what was said, then asking:

"Is that accurate?"

This simple act of restating another person's point of view and asking about its accuracy produces true dialogue, validating whether what was heard is in line with what was spoken. It takes the ambiguity out of statements and requests, creating a transparent dialogue.

Two Exchange - Can You Pick Out The Effective Dialogue?

Exchange 1:

  1. I make a request.
  2. You respond with "I'll take care of it?"
  3. I reply with thank you.

Exchange 2:

  1. I make a request.
  2. You respond with "I'll take care of it?"
  3. I reply with "You'll take care of what?"
    Which example demonstrates effective listening? The second. Put aside all the good reasons why you would be reluctant to respond with "you'll take care of what?" The point is exchange #1 is loaded with assumptions while exchange #2 makes those assumptions transparent. (As an aside, from the years of training people in these skills, you would be surprised how many apparently clear requests are misunderstood by the listener but never validated by the speaker.)Asking validating questions is the only way to truly uncover what was heard or not heard. Once you embrace this point of view, the art is to learn how to ask questions in a way that doesn't sound condescending or patronizing.  

    A key think to remember is if where you're coming from in your communication is to produce effective dialogue versus merely trying to control a situation, you'll find the right language to uncover what was heard by others.

    And if you've made it this far in this article, I'll close with the tip to improve ones marriage - don't try this at home.

    On Listening

    "I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."

    Robert McCloskey Author and Illustrator - Children's Book 1942 Caldecott Medal winner - Make Way for Ducklings