Contrary to popular belief, SLACK is not a four-letter word.

“It’s possible,” Tom DeMarco writes, “to make an organization more efficient without making it better. That’s what happens when you drive out slack.” The myth of efficiency The relentless pursuit of efficiency has the unintended result of eroding our effectiveness. Daily, our attention is consumed by the immediate and the urgent. Overall the consequence is less time spent thinking as we are consumed by doing. The capacity to think, create and innovate has been driven out of organizations along with the perceived slack. Somewhere along the line “slack” has become a bad thing. In his book Slack, Tom DeMarco illustrates the issue clearly with a simple puzzle. The challenge is to move the numbered tiles into numeric order. Filling the empty space achieves an impressive 11 per cent ‘efficiency’ gain but renders us incapable of solving the puzzle. We have no room to move. No slack. The need for reflection Our brains filter out most of the sensory data we encounter daily. Yet the connections we make between the information that does register don’t always happen automatically. Sometimes we need to think things through to build relevance, connections and insight in response to what we experience.  For knowledge workers, in particular, this is critical. Gaining insight from thinking is hard cognitive work. We don’t respect the time and conditions needed to do it well. Interrupting a programmer who is working with a complex mental map of a system is guaranteed to cost time and effort  to reconstruct the cognitive state he or she needs to work well. To a degree, this is influenced by cultural norms. In some countries,...

Confronting the Thief of Time.

“Procrastination is the thief of time.” – Edward Young (1683-1765) We all do it. But for some, the practice of procrastination – delay without good reason, can become a chronic habit. Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird , tells this poignant story of the consequences of delay: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” We now know that procrastinaton isn’t a time management issue. There are powerful cognitive issues at play and our brains are not being our friends. But like any learned behaviour, we can displace it with another learned behaviour. The irony of procrastination is that we succumb to it to feel better (in the short term) but the result is usually the opposite. Annoyance, stress and guilt quickly erode the fleeting sense of satisfaction provided by the distraction of the choice we make in the present moment. Procrastination simply doesn’t make us feel great. This distress seldom prevents the development of a procrastination habit. A good place to begin Whatever it is you need to get done – just start. Then revise and improve....

What’s the flip side? How to create another point of view when you’re stumped.

We all like to think we’re instinctively creative thinkers but we’re not. Overcoming the constraints our existing mental maps impose and the unconscious pattern-matching that filters our senses and thoughts makes the process of thinking of and assessing new ideas hard cognitive work. So we avoid or are deflected from doing it. When it comes to creative thinking our brains often are not our best allies. When you feel you’re stuck in a rut, succumbing to groupthink or simply at an impasse with respect to generating options try looking at the flip side. This is a straightforward technique called “reversal”. Consciously thinking about the opposite position or situation – however contrived – can be a powerful catalyst for new ideas and insight. If you’re trying to change: How can you guarantee the status quo? If you’re trying to improve: What can be done to make things worse? Sounds too easy? Here are two short videos (~5 minutes total) that drive the point home and provide visual and emotional hooks to hang the idea on. The first is an award-winning video from UK publishers Dorling Kindersley called the Future of Publishing. It addresses the view that physical books will become less relevant in a digital world populated by a cynical new generation of digital natives. In a stunning (and literal) reversal of the opening argument we may think otherwise (Be sure to watch past the midpoint!) The second offering comes from Derek Sivers in a presentation made at TED India. He introduces thought-provoking examples from his travels that illustrate viable options exist as opposites to aspects of the world we...

Useful or Interesting?

Attention, focused and conscious thought, is a scarce resource. It requires effort and consumes energy – something our brains strive to minimize. It’s further constrained by the number of waking hours we have. We only have so much time in which to express ourselves and do things that matter. Yet, without fail, a multitude of things manage to distract us from the things we really want to achieve. In today’s “always on” environment these distractions seem to multiply and the opportunity to dilute our attention is usually only a click away. There are so many sources of practical advice on how to focus, from time management practices to “Getting Things Done” frameworks, that it seems we have no excuse to be distracted – but it happens. How then to decide what to do? Here’s an interesting question to ask yourself before (or while) you disappear down a rabbit hole following a unplanned thread of activity: “Is this interesting or is this useful?” I happen to be interested in many things and love to explore ideas and connections between them. My wife and business partner calls me an “info lush.”  This is highly entertaining (for me) and sometimes yields useful discoveries or insights, yet it’s often dysfunctional in the broader context of life. What, then, is worthy of our attention? Or, more to the point, the attention of folks you want to help. Clearly the intersection of these two sets, the interesting and the useful, is where we should focus. I know it’s difficult at times to place ourselves on the “interesting versus useful” scale, but simply being mindful of...

Don’t confuse the issue with facts!

Have you ever tried to win someone over with a clear, fact-based proposal only to have them become even more fixed in their current (in your view, misguided) position? Earlier I wrote about the resistance to give up ideas being as difficult for us as giving up more tangible things we own. A useful variation of this notion is examined  in an essay called How Facts Backfire. by Joe Keohane in the Boston Globe.  A key insight: “In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts.” The essay looks at the findings of political scientist Brendon Nyhan, who studied the puzzling behaviour of people who become more entrenched in their beliefs when confronted by contradictory facts. Unfortunately, this behaviour is as common in the workplace as it is in the political arena that Nyhan examined. Our default position in the “rational” business world is to make fact-based decisions based on clear evidence. When we propose change based on the facts of a given situation we’re often puzzled when met with “irrational” resistance. We now know what’s at work in our brains in these situations: Having to admit your current belief is wrong is a social threat. Our brains can’t distinguish between this type of threat and a physical one. Logic is overridden by emotion and the “flight or fight” response emerges as resistance to change. This behaviour gets subtly woven into our lives as we readily accept facts and opinions that confirm our beliefs and assumptions and actively discount those that don’t. What can we do to effectively inject facts...

Why Does Coaching Work?

If you’re like me, at least a little bit, you want to know why stuff works. I’ve a long history of pulling things apart to see what makes them tick. It’s just something I need to do. I can appreciate magic but I can’t help thinking of an explanation for the effect. Perhaps you do too. That’s why I was initially a bit sceptical about coaching. I know there are lots of great true-to-life examples of coaching success, especially from the sports world. Which great Olympian doesn’t have a coach? And team sports just wouldn’t be the same or, perhaps exist, without the Coach alongside the players. So why the hesitation? I just had to have a framework, some foundation, to understand why a coach isn’t simply an expensive nag. Well I found it when I started to explore the neuroscience-based approach taken by David Rock. He’s built on relatively recent discoveries about how our brains actually work to construct a coaching model and process that takes advantage of our innate behaviour to instill new thoughts and habits without undue pain and stress. He’s not alone in this approach of course. Dr. John Medina, on the basis of his neuro-biological work, has also written a brilliant “expose” explaining how we can exploit our brains to enhance our productivity. In his book, Brain Rules, he sets out twelve basic rules to follow to think and act better – and describes the brain activity that supports each. Back to David Rock. Over time he evolved his coaching experience and interest in neuroscience into coherent coaching methods. Results Coaching Systems is the...