Tuesday 29 March 2011

Decide what you want

Deciding what we want is difficult, for the simple reason that there are so many things to want. And if we want too many different things, we end up with nothing. Which is why so often we end up break New Year Resolutions, or other fine goals we set ourselves. It’s not that we don’t want whatever it is (being thin/rich/a good dancer) that we resolve to achieve, it’s just that we don’t want to give up other things that we want even more.

So setting goals and objectives is mostly about making difficult choices.

But if we are clear about what we want, and we want it badly enough, very often we become unstoppable – whatever the goal.

H L Hunt, the oil tycoon, apparently said:
“Decide what you want, decide what you are willing to exchange for it. Establish your priorities, and go to work”.
It’s not only good advice, but succinctly put. And I don’t think its overstating it to say that it’s the secret (if indeed there is a secret) to success.

Whenever I have wanted something badly enough, I have figured out a way to get it. (Right now I just have to figure out how to want a 2.5 hr half marathon badly enough to train and starve myself for it ….)

Being clear about your goals is central to achieving excellence. But it’s also one of the most challenging aspects. Which is perhaps why there are many ballet dancers, but only one Darcy Bussell, many runners but only one Paula Radcliffe, many business people but only one Bill Gates, many investors, but only one Warren Buffett …. Yes, of course, all these people have talent. But all of them challenged their focus, their time, their energies on achieving their single most important goal.

Friday 25 March 2011

Know Thyself

To thine own self be true

Shakespeare’s words ring as true today as the day he wrote them. If we are not true to ourselves, we will forever follow the direction of the wind. But how well do we actually understand ourselves? Apparently I wasn’t the only one who didn’t come with a manual. We all go through life trying to figure out what we like, what we don’t like, what makes us happy, and what doesn’t. What are we good at, and what just doesn’t fit with our temperament.

It’s a slow and sometimes torturous journey with many twists and turns and a fair number of false starts. But as we grow as people, so our understanding of who we are also grows. Or at least it grows somewhere in the back of our minds, in our subconscious. It’s rare that we step back and take a good hard look at ourselves.

But when we do look at ourselves, we find patterns that repeat themselves. I make sense of the world through words – writing and reading. It’s how I am. You may make sense of the world through numbers. Others may be visual. There’s a big difference in these different types, and it moulds our careers and what we do when we want to relax.

So would our lives be different if we DID come with a manual? I think they might. Knowing whether we should put diesel or petrol into the car means our cars last much longer. If we just kept trying one and then the other, murmuring, “No, I think it went better with the petrol” we probably would never have built motorways. Yet still we insist on eating foods that don’t agree with us, we don’t take enough exercise, and we don’t really understand our strengths and weaknesses.

Of course the fact that a manual didn’t arrive in the package when we were born doesn’t stop us creating our own. It might take a few drafts to get to something that seems to work, but it might be a big improvement on having no manual at all.

Thursday 24 March 2011

Make the process your goal, not the outcome

Making the process the goal, rather than the outcome, seems like strange advice. Indeed in my last blog post I set myself the goal of running a half marathon in 2.5 hours or less. But what if I get injured before the race? What if I’m ill? Even if I don't run the race it doesn't mean there won't be another, or that my training will be wasted ...

Goals mostly focus on outcomes: winning business, running marathons in a certain time, achieving a certain outcome in a meeting, etc. But these goals rely on a host of external events: customers wanting to implement a solution when you have the staff available, being fit to run, or other people agreeing with your views. To a large degree we have little influence over these external factors.

What we do have control over is the process. The quality of our proposals, the amount of training we do, being open and fair in meetings. Focusing on the process is what really gives us the advantage. Yet when we are focused on the goal we can sometimes forget the importance of each of the tiny steps along the way. Managing time, creating opportunities, being thorough in preparation all add strength to whatever goal we are trying to achieve.

Gretchen Rubin in her wonderful Happiness Project blog has written some wise words about paradoxes. Sometimes to achieve the outcome, we have to focus on the process and forget about the goal.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

One Year, One Run

Setting a goal a full year ahead is always satisfying. There’s plenty of time to do what needs to be done, and a nice warm feeling of having something to aim for. But as the weeks and months tick by, the reality of doing the work sets in: quickly followed by growing panic as the deadline looms.

One very short year ago I set myself the challenge of running a half marathon. The Reading Half Marathon, to be precise, which I ran last Sunday. At least I ran most of it, my feet and ankles complained bitterly towards the end which slowed me to a walking pace. I took 7 minutes off my Henley Half Marathon time, and wasn’t last! Yeah!!! And I achieved my goal - even though I wasn’t nearly as well prepared as I could have been, or as I would have liked.

A year ago I struggled to run one mile, let along 13. I was very nervous of joining my local 3 mile Saturday morning Park Run. So although I don’t yet have the Kenyan runners quaking in their running shoes, I’ve made a lot of progress.

As always with projects, be they running, software or other changes, things never turn out as you expect. I thought if I took up running my excess weight would drop off me automatically, whatever I ate. I have to tell you that ain’t so. I thought I’d have two running buddies to keep me company, for all sorts of reasons that didn’t work out either (although one volunteered as a marshal on race day and sent me off and welcomed me back with a bright, encouraging smile). I thought running would be easy. It isn’t.

So it’s been a year of learning. Learning about motivation, my body, and my limitations. Learning that if I don’t put the effort in, I don’t get the results back. And learning that there’s a great deal to be learnt from others: authors, friends, trainers, coaches and people you meet along the way. (A huge thank you to all of you!)

Reading Half Marathon was run on the same day as the New York City Half Marathon. Over 16,000 runners took part, compared to about 10,000 in New York. Our fastest runner was Simon Kasimili from Kenya at 1 hour, 3 minutes and 8 seconds. New York was won by Mo Farah from Great Britain in 1 hour 23 seconds. Both deeply impressive and scarily fast. There’s a big difference between the best and the rest.

So although this project started out as being “One Year; One Run” it’s turned out to be just the beginning. The next goal is to run October’s Henley half marathon in under 2.5 hours. It won’t make headlines, but might give me a small feeling of satisfaction. As well as sore feet....

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Managing your Time as a Master Builder

Time management is a long established but curious management idea. Time, after all, is a measurement like length or depth or height. Just like physical dimensions, we can fill it with things. So a mile along a street might be filled with houses, an hour can be filled with events. Events such as the ticking of the clock, the writing of a report, or the watching of a TV programme. Or sleeping, or eating lunch, or having an argument. Or planning the following day’s work, or taking a nap, or doing nothing (a tricky one).

So time management isn’t so much the management of time, which will pass no matter what we do, but the management of the events that fill our time.

Of course not all events can be managed. There is nothing we can do about a colleague coming in to work in a lousy mood. We can’t control the Porsche trying to overtake just before a bend, nor the weather. But we can attempt to manage the events that are important to us.

Our choice of “events” or “things to do” during each hour is what determines the course of our businesses, our careers, and our lives. Just as what we choose NOT to do during each hour has the same (but less obvious) effect.

If we think of ourselves as master builders, coming to work each day to build houses, hotels or mansions on our day-long streets, we get more of a physical picture of what we are doing. We are building little houses along our days. Some days we barely manage to complete the foundations for a rickety garden shed, other days we map out grand plans for palatial extensions.

As you start your day, have a look down the street you are currently working on and inspect yesterday’s building work. Was it done according to the architect’s plans? Are you happy with the quality of the workmanship? Are other builders briefed so that tomorrow’s work can start on time? Are you almost ready to start roofing work or have you been labouring on the foundations for far too long?

Most of us manage a multitude of projects, and it can be helpful to think of abstract notions such as time, reports or software as physical things. Time as a street that we are about to walk, and our day’s work as the buildings we are constructing. Concepts such as foundations, levels, and rooms, are useful for many different types of work, whether they are tangible or intangible. Happy building!

Wednesday 9 March 2011

4 pointers to make better decisions

Good decision making is crucial for a happy life and building successful businesses. So how do we guard against poor decisions? Whilst some bad decisions are just annoying, others can have truly dreadful consequences. So why, when often others can see a mistake is being made, do people sometimes bash on so determinedly?

The answers make uncomfortable reading. Uncomfortable because I recognise them in my decision making, and I bet you will recognise them too. Just knowing this list, however, helps us make better decisions. When we recognise them, we can double-check ourselves.
  1. Intuition. Generally, we have a great belief in something we call gut feel or having a “nose” for something. But good decisions are rarely, if ever, made on intuition. Good decisions are based on evidence and data, in many different forms.
  2. Emotion. We get overly engaged with our decisions. Somehow if someone is challenging our decision we thinking they are also challenging us as a person, our judgement and our very worth. And isn’t it just true that the more emotionally involved we are, the more certain we are that we are making an objective decision? Emotion is the second sign of danger when it comes to good decision making.
  3. Attachment. Attachment is when we care more for people or things more than we care about whether a decision is right or wrong. We rationalise why we are right, knowing in our hearts that we are really attached to something that we may not want to even articulate.
  4. Self-interest. Making a decision based on what’s in it for us. More money, more power, more kudos as a leader. Bigger, better, more beautiful. More, more, more. There are too many examples of where greed and self-interest have led to disastrous decisions. Self-interest does nothing for clear headed decisions.

All four traits lead us into subjective decision making, rather than objective decision making.

Of course that’s not to say that buying the pretty, but dilapidated old cottage, isn’t the right decision for example. But our objectivity should at least enable us to realistically budget for renovations instead of potentially making an expensive mistake.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Keep on keeping on

It’s too rare these days that I make time to catch up with friends. But the other night I went out with my wonderfully glamorous and deeply French friend. She’s huge fun and annoyingly thin. But then she is French.

So, she asked, you are still writing the blog? There was a feint raise of the perfectly plucked eyebrow and small surprise in her voice. Of course, I returned. But of course isn’t of course. Keeping something going is difficult. After the first flush of excitement it gets harder to keep on keeping on.

Which I guess is why you see so many deserted blogs. So much “space debris” cluttering up the internet with well-meaning but ultimately useless resolutions. “I’m going to write 200 words a day” claimed one blog. They managed about 300 words in total, and that was about two years ago. Seemingly the public outing of their intentions wasn’t enough.

But blogging isn’t the only thing that needs persistence. Succeeding in business is, according to Donald Trump, “sheer persistence is the difference between success and failure.” Bertrand Russell said “No great achievement is possible without persistent work.”

As I look down my “to do” list, the small urgent things get done. But the big, difficult things require a more disciplined and longer term approach. And a lot of keeping on keeping on to see them through.

So as the conversation twisted and turned, inevitably we talked of running, personal trainers and diet. I bemoaned the difficulty of losing weight. We talked carbs, calories and champagne. She manages to ingest them all and still look perfect in a size 8 suit. Finally she snapped - "don't talk about it, do it! If it's important, make it a priority". For the first time that evening I was stuck for words ...

Persistence pays in so many areas - the bits we enjoy, and the bits that are more difficult. But keeping on keeping on is the only way. Crumbs, is it still a full hour before lunch ....