I asked him one day if he ever wishes he had an Edit|Undo option in his paintbrush. He laughed and said, “Yes!” then told me a story about a time when he attended a workshop taught by a renowned painter. On one particular late afternoon my friend returned from a day of painting and the instructor asked how his day had gone. My friend said, “It was a ‘scraper’”.
“What’s that?” you might ask. A “scraper” is when an artist, unsatisfied with what he’s spent several hours toiling over, takes his trowel and scrapes everything he’s painted off the canvas, leaving it bare and wanting. Personally, I can’t imagine how difficult a decision that must be, what it must have taken for him to recognize that all his time, his effort, needed scraping away. Possibly he learned something, possibly he realized something; yet still, the work was gone. And how and when, I wondered, did he know that the scene on the canvas in front of him had reached that point?
Then I realized that we all have our “scrapers.” As HR executives and as leaders we are constantly faced with such situations. Maybe a training program isn’t working out the way we thought it was, or a recruiting strategy isn’t producing the results we expected. How often might we hasten to scrape what we are working on or have worked on? And how do we know we’re not dismissing those efforts in haste? Might there be opportunities to stop, wait and consider what might be preserved? I submit that there are and propose four questions to consider when deciding when to toss or keep:
1. What might I have if I keep it as it is? Perhaps there is something of value or something someone else can use. It’s always worth taking a few minutes to think this point through. Once scraped, whatever we’ve done is gone and we can’t usually get it back. Perhaps even asking someone else’s opinion would be worthwhile.
2. What is here that I’ve not explored? Sometimes we want to get rid of something because it doesn’t fit the purpose for which it was originally intended; put another way, a good idea or a good effort may simply be targeted at the wrong purpose. Is there another way to use this? A different kind of value?
3. How can I make sure I remember what I’ve learned? As my painter friend reminded me, there’s always something to learn, even from a failed attempt. In fact, if we don’t sometimes fail, it’s arguable that we never learn. So I always take the time to jot down the few kernels of value that have come from my efforts–even if the value is noting what not to do again.
4. In the bigger scheme of life, how important is this? All too often we let our egos and emotions guide us. What will people think of us if we admit to a “scraper?” Will we feel like we’ve failed and will others see us that way? But that’s not what’s important: what’s important is the doing and the learning–at least as much as the achieving–and I always try to remember this, and to remind others of it, too.
Sometimes scraping is the right thing to do, but it’s important that we know why. Asking these questions always seems to help me. Are there others that help you?