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Innovation the FORTH Way

13 Jun

Much of what we do at the nonprofit where I work involves innovation. My supervisor recently shared the FORTH innovation method with us as a process for rapid concept development and testing. FORTH stands for these five steps:

1 – Full Steam Ahead

2 – Observe and Learn

3 – Raise Ideas

4 – Test Ideas

5 – Home Coming

I am going to read this book about FORTH and report back. From everything I’m seeing, it seems like a fresh approach to idea generation and refinement.

Also interested in incorporating the approach as part of a writing process that can help my graduate students improve their final work.

Flow

6 Jan

Image: posterize / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This year my simple goal is to put myself in more situations where I can achieve flow. These experiences make life richer and more rewarding.

Flow is an ultimate state of happiness–derived from being immersed in creative pursuits or other situations that put you “in the zone.” You can learn more about this concept named and studied by University of Chicago psychology research Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi by watching this TED Talk or this short interview.

I started to make this list of activities that get me into a state of flow:

  1. Listening to album-oriented music. Musicians who intentionally create albums–not individual songs–explore their art in greater depth than hit-makers. There’s a story in the collection of songs, like reading chapters in a book. I include current artists The Black Keys, Adele, Florence and the Machine, The Joy Formidable, and Arcade Fire among my favorites. Dvorak’s Cello Concerto (in particular the 1969 Berlin recording with Karajan and Rostropovich) is a “best of.” Listening to an album in its entirety is a simple luxury not to be missed.
  2. Writing. I am very lucky to work in a profession where I get paid for being creative. It feels good to get lost in the process of writing. I can do this for hours at a time, which can be very productive and works out quite well in terms of having this as a career. Professionally, I can write about topics that would probably be considered boring for most people, but I enjoy learning about them and translating them for wider appreciation to a broader audience. I also like to write in my off-work hours for personal enjoyment, a combination of blog posts, essays, and poetry.
  3. Yoga. I tried hatha yoga many years ago and was not able to truly enjoy it. It moved too slowly, and the poses felt disconnected. While watching more flexible people touching their toes, I was bored and felt inferior. Once I tried Ashtanga yoga, where the poses are connected and the movement is more aerobic, I began to appreciate it. The level of physical difficulty and endurance is a challenge that I enjoy. V Power Yoga is my favorite place locally to practice yoga in a group setting. I alternate between flow and asking myself “Is she trying to kill me?” when the instructor heads into the nth repetition of a series of poses, but it’s all for a good cause.
  4. Teaming with people I trust. When rolling up sleeves for a project at work, the experience is funner and more fruitful if the group can let go of expectations, personalities, limitations…and creatively solve a problem. I am grateful to work with folks that get into this mindset. Being passionate about creativity and productivity is a good thing.

There are more that I could list for myself. And for everyone the list is different.

Turning off this episode of flow. Must go to work now!

Aliens at Work

7 Dec

A version of this post was also published on the Executive Elements blog earlier this year.

At work, we can sometimes sense that we’ve been dropped onto an alien planet. I’m very fortunate to be working for and with people who are from “my planet,” but I’ve been in places that felt alien.

Don’t think you’re alone if you find yourself pondering:

  • What is this strange language that’s being spoken, and why don’t I understand it? Will they understand me if I say, “Plergh?”
  • Why are decisions made without any seemingly rational train of thought?
  • Is this a bad dream, or am I really awake?
  • Where’d I park my mother ship? I need to get back to Earth!

If you’re having these feelings, don’t despair. We’ve all been there. Every workplace can be awkward or downright difficult at times. Even the most healthy workplaces have their moments.

But if there’s a pattern of dysfunctional behavior, recognize it and take stock. In some sense, it’s all relative. Each of us has a different tolerance to workplace problems like aggression, passive aggression, professional neglect, workplace bullying or general incompetence. One person’s abyss is another’s heaven.

Don’t accept unreasonable behavior that jeopardizes your career growth or negatively impacts your ability to perform. Work is hard — that’s why it’s called work. But it should not kill your soul.

I’ve realized over the years that I have a high tolerance for environments that are not conducive to human life. Out of loyalty or pride (“I won’t give up!”), I’ve let myself suffer for too long at times. Don’t make that mistake.

If you are caught in the alien planet dilemma, here are some survival skills:

  1. PERSPECTIVE – Talk with someone outside of work about your situation. They can help you to get some perspective.
  2. CAMARADERIE – Blow off steam over lunch or coffee with a coworker that you trust. Chances are if you are feeling off about something at work, you’re not the only one. Don’t wall yourself off from your colleagues and make yourself feel more isolated. By commiserating, you may also find some humor in the madness.
  3. STAY POSITIVE – I remind myself that having a positive attitude and healthy self-esteem can’t change other people’s problems. What it can do is to help keep my head clear and my heart clean while seeking out what’s next.

Remember that it’s possible — and preferable — to thrive in the workplace. While it says something about a person’s endurance and fortitude to be able to to survive in challenging conditions, sometimes enough is enough.

Over time, I’ve realized that it’s important to go with my gut instincts when I start feeling as if things just aren’t right. A decision to move on when the time is right is not a failure. It is simply a decision to make a change.

Making Mistakes

5 Dec

Image: pakorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To Know Better is no saint and has been known to make less than stellar decisions from time to time.

We’ve all been there. Those who say they don’t make mistakes are either lying or not doing much. The more you try, the more you fail. And the more you have a chance to succeed.

I’ve had some stinging failures from friendships. Trusting people is a risk, and it doesn’t always work in your favor. But I’ve grown beyond that lost trust to build new friendships that have stood the test of time, where I can believe in myself and know that my friends support me as much as I support them.

Effort does make a difference. If I’ve put my all into something and I don’t succeed, I still try to have some sense of accomplishment. I have a tendency to throw myself into projects at work and put a lot of personal ownership and investment into the process and the outcome. I enjoy getting constructive criticism to help improve my work, but if the person I’m creating something for just doesn’t “get it” I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time. To keep from having that feeling, I try to use the work for another purpose. Did I do research for it that helped me to learn something new? If so, then the process was worth it. If it’s something I’ve written, can I use it for my portfolio or a professional association blog post? Repurposing supposed “failures” makes them feel more worthy of seeing the light of day.

As a favorite mentor of mine often asks: “What is the lesson?” This helps me to see my way beyond the mistake, even when it feels as if “this is the end.”

Failures are not sins: They are learning opportunities–valuable data to help get it right the next time.

Everyone has their weaknesses. Missing the mark is human and can be fixed. Never trying, or not being honest with myself about what really matters, is the greatest disappointment.

Smart Leadership is Social

5 Dec

Image: Ian Kahn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As I continue to read the Steve Jobs biography, two things are clear to me:

  1. Steve Jobs was a genius. He could envision the market demand for the substance of what his developers could build, and his product marketing skills delivered it with style.
  2. Steve Jobs was able to motivate his team intellectually, but often his social deficiencies worked against greater accomplishment. Bullying and berating his people had to create an organizational black hole of missed opportunities.

In my own experiences and through what I hear from others, in particular those of us in the creative class of workers, having a socially intelligent leader is critical. Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis describe the concept in this Harvard Business Review post.

Socially intelligent leadership can leverage the intellectual capacity of teams, and enhance that capacity by upping everyone’s game through social connectivity. This means that each team member is given permission to perform to their fullest potential–and they are also encouraged to work WITH one another to push that potential into the unexpected. This type of innovative teamwork delivers disruptive innovation. When teams are led by someone with social intelligence, they create products and services that take their craft to the next level.

Let me give a couple of examples.

1. This first example comes from state government–shocking, I know. While working at the Ohio Department of Education, I was on a team assigned with creating a  report card to inform parents how their child’s school was doing on key performance indicators.

This was a new concept and required the team to tap into design, copywriting, and technology that would deliver thousands of these reports–each unique to a school–in such a way that parents would care to read them. Our leader helped us to imagine what the reports could be, and she created a team environment where we were free to put our all into delivering the reports we envisioned. She was not dictatorial. She asked more questions than she answered. She lifted us up when we made mistakes and thought we couldn’t do it. And she celebrated our successes with us along the way and when we did deliver the reports, on budget and on time.

2. My second example is from my current workplace, a nonprofit focused on educational transformation for schools. There’s a lot of innovation going on here. My role is a combination of client-facing and internal strategy support. The creative in me enjoys having the time and space to roll up my sleeves and “make stuff” (which for me means writing and doing information design) that is useful to internal and external clients.

My leader in this setting is an ace at managing demands and matching the best people to excel in meeting those needs. There’s been more than one situation where my big ideas have gotten the best of me. I have a tendency to “think big” and not consider the time commitment I’ll need to make to get to “big.” She knows this tendency of mine and encourages me to be vocal in asking for more resources to help reach the goal, rather than killing myself in the process of getting there by pulling all-nighters. What I appreciate about her approach is that she gives me the room to exercise my creativity, and she offers me the support I need to get there. In short, she saves me from myself.

Socially intelligent leaders ask questions, clear the path so that their team members can achieve, and help them find ways to pace themselves to sustain their creativity (and not burn it out) over time.

The Goldilocks Communications Principle

3 Nov

I’ve never been a big talker. Unlike most communications professionals, I am closer to the middle on the Introvert-Extrovert scale. My preference is to mull over and percolate what I learn before I discuss it. I tend to be a minimalist in terms of what I say and write–at least compared to others in my field.

I was always the girl in high school that you could share your secrets with, because I wouldn’t broadcast them to the world or judge you for them. Professionally, this style of being a confidante and thoughtful communicator has served me well in working with clients in crisis situations, where a lot of information needed to be collected, shared and processed by a small team before it is ready for public consumption, to avoid spreading rumors.

Yet there are situations where it’s actually MORE comforting for people to have information, even if it is incomplete and still messy. I’ve had to fine-tune my communications approach during my career based upon the situations I’ve been in, and shaped by the people involved. In business and in life, how much communication is not enough, too much or just right? Not always an easy question to answer.

It’s all subjective, based upon the needs of the audience and the circumstances prompting the communication in the first place. Even with the same group of people, the communications needs can change based upon the situation. I call this “The Goldilocks Principle” of communications. Here are the stages, described by caricatures from my own career:

  1. Goldilocks tries to eat Papa Bear’s porridge–TOO MUCH! Early in my career, I wrote A LOT of detail in my business communications–emails, reports, talking points for communications. At that time, I thought that you needed–and really wanted–to know everything that I knew, exactly how I knew it. Because I identified as a writer, by God you would see my writing…and have to determine for yourself what was most important, buried somewhere in the long sentences and James Joyce density of it all.
  2. Goldilocks moves on to Mama Bear’s porridge–BETTER BUT STILL NOT RIGHT! As I progressed in my business writing skills, I tapered back and began to position my writing so that the reader would not have to wade through so much and would know more about what was really important to understand. I was also given counsel at this stage of my career that even if I had limited information, sometimes it was best to share it in the moment because I worked for a person who wanted to have all of the buzz. For this audience, I needed to inject more of my gut reactions and not “filter” out what I often perceived as people’s over-reactions to situations. Trying to compensate for being overly analytical and not “human” enough in my communications, I put more of myself, and more emotion, into this stage. The thing is, not every Goldilocks wants Mama Bear’s feelings…
  3. Goldilocks tries Baby Bear’s porridge–JUST RIGHT! On most days I am here, but it’s always good to be reminded of what the audience needs to know and can truly benefit from. It takes more time to communicate just the right amount of information, positioned in just the right way, to meet the needs of all the right people. A heavy dose of emotional AND intellectual intelligence gets poured into this porridge. “Just right” is usually about telling them what they need to know, but in a way that it’s framed as a story–something that they will BOTH “get” AND remember.

I continue to learn lessons about the “Goldilocks communications principle.” What it really comes down to is being aware, pivoting to meet the needs of the audience and acknowledging when you’ve over- or under-communicated. And not forgetting to celebrate when the porridge is “just right.”

 

Contemplate This

7 Oct

A nice picture of Thomas Merton with the Dalai Lama, both quite ecumenical.

When I was in my 20s and had the luxury of time on my hands, I hung out with a group of people who were into contemplation.

Not the thinking kind of contemplation; it’s a form of prayer in the Catholic tradition practiced by Benedictine (Trappist) monks and is related to Buddhist meditation.

At an area church connected to a nursing home, there lived an actual Benedictine monk with responsibilities outside his monastic community. I think he’s still around Columbus, Ohio but have lost touch with him. He hosted weekly gatherings at his house where a group of us, called “lay contemplatives,” would gather for this particular form of prayer. The idea is that you do this at least once a day, as a lay contemplative, to extend the dedication to prayer built into the discipline of Trappist monks at monasteries all over the world.

The best way I’ve seen it described is “prayer of the heart.” Instead of praying FOR something and thinking about the conversation with God, the purpose is to open your heart and quietly be open to God for a period of time every day. Trappist monks pray through contemplation and chanting at least seven times a day (at specific times called “offices”) in addition to daily practice with the rosary and a daily mass.

For we humans who try to overthink everything, the concept of contemplation is both very simple and extremely difficult:

Stop thinking and doing. Be alone with a quiet knowing.

Several times per year our group of lay contemplatives traveled to Kentucky, home to the closest “mother ship” of contemplation: The Abbey of Gethsemani. This is a place that’s mostly silent, so that retreatants can converse with “God Alone.” There’s a large retreat house, acres of trails and a chance to pray and sing with the monks, beginning as early as 3:15 am. Amazingly, a stay at Gethsemani, like all monasteries and in the Benedictine tradition of hospitality, is free–by donation only.

I’ve tried to practice this life of quiet and unassuming prayer as life has become more complicated, with husband, kids and career. In concept it doesn’t require a huge time commitment; only a few minutes per day. I haven’t always done it well, but I’ve tried. I’ve tried to be comfortable in the unknowing of this silent prayer.

This prayer by Fr. Thomas Merton, who lived at Gethsemani prior to his untimely death, is a good guide for those of us seeking but not feeling quite perfect along the way:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

– Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”
© Abbey of Gethsemani

Worth a view is this video of the recently deceased Fr. Matthew Kelty, poet and mentor of Merton’s, reading that prayer. I had the pleasure of hearing Kelty speak on dozens of occasions and was charmed by his Boston accent and cowboy boots worn below his robes. Kelty was also a gifted poet.