Archive for September, 2011

Getting (something) Out of a Scrape: 4 Questions to Ask Yourself

I have an artist friend who oil-paints en plein air; he goes outside, sets up his easel and whatever he sees in front of him, he paints. It’s a very in-the-moment type of art.

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?

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A Plan for No Plan

Michael and I are about to head out for our annual vacation week in Port Clyde, Maine. We’ve been renting the Gable Ends cottage with our good friends Dave and Kathryn Dodge for the last five years; it’s become our “end of summer” time for reflecting on what has been and preparing for what will be. The cottage, designed and built in the early 1900s by architect Russell W. Porter, sits on the water’s edge and could have been plucked right out of Andersen’s Fairy Tales. The porch invites long, leisurely hours of reading and napping, and provides prime viewing of lobster boats, tourist charters and solo sailors.

Dave is an en plein air artist. His week mainly consists of setting up his easel, either  just off the porch facing the water or down the road along the rocks that bank  Marshall Point Lighthouse. (yes…that lighthouse. The one that Forrest Gump runs up  to, turns around and runs back from during his cross-country jog.)

Michael, Kathryn and I wile away the days with walks to the town’s general store or up to the lighthouse, with long, rich conversations and tall stacks of books. No pressure to do or go, just whatever nudges us in-the-moment.

The week is restorative and allows us to reconnect in a sustaining way, much differently than our often hurried phone calls and text messages that, although keeping us connected, lack the human touch that enriches our friendship.

I recently facilitated a design meeting for an upcoming leadership offsite. When the conversation began to explore a team-building activity for the agenda, strong opinions emerged about what they did not want. Some ideas were deemed uncomfortable; others were off-putting. (Phrases like “touchy-feely” were even batted about.)

I offered an alternate option. What if we didn’t “design” an activity, something that would be “played” and debriefed during the offsite. What if, instead, the team just spent more “off-time” together? We could carve out time on the  agenda to be together away from the meeting room, and to do something relaxing, fun and interesting. Since the team had established a goal to continue to deepen their relationships, why not just “hang out” with each other?

Ideas began to bounce around the room. Perhaps tour a local winery? Go to an aquarium? Play softball? The specific activity didn’t really matter; what was important was planning unplanned time, time without a set agenda or “learning” outcome, time together that will help enrich relationships.

I really believe that our work relationships, and our commitment to deepening those relationships, are foundational to both enjoying our work and being productive. Every time — bar none — that I facilitate a team-building workshop, the one piece of consistent and positive feedback that I receive focuses on the time the participants spend getting to know each other and learning about each other’s lives. I now always plan a time not to plan, leaving room for conversation and camaraderie. The restorative nature of those interactions sustains a generosity of spirit throughout the team that enables them to work better with each other when they go back to their offices.

Sometimes, it seems, having no purpose can be a purpose in itself–and a gateway to effective teams.  Have others had this experience?  When have you planned “not to plan?” What was that experience like?