Today I’m going to lay out a case for a philosophy that I’ve believed in for a long, long time. I believe it solves a myriad of problems, so I think it’s a tool everyone should have at the ready. The philosophy is – do one thing differently.
Doing one thing differently is a way of triggering creativity.
It is a way of triggering momentum.
It is a way of triggering a jolt to the system to re-direct focus.
And, doing one thing differently can be used for yourself or for others.
When you’ve got a problem to solve and the obvious things haven’t worked, you can use “do 1 thing differently” to try and get some momentum. For example a coworker and I were trying to create a report in Power BI and we weren’t quite where we needed to be. We had tried the obvious things and none of them worked. There was that awkward silence as we both tried to think of another option. I couldn’t think of anything else, so I decided to try and solve a different problem. So, I asked, “if we can’t get the info we want in the report, let’s talk about what the work around is. How else can I get the information?”
Rather than focusing on the problem, I was drawing our attention to a different problem. And, as we tried to define the work around, we found the solution to the original problem. We had both gotten so focused in on the problem that we had tunnel vision and we couldn’t see a more creative solution.
When you are problem solving, it is easy to get into a habit about the way you approach problems. I have a coworker who, when I go to her with a problem, she immediately goes into what I call “consultant mode.” She starts asking me questions that help tease out the details of the problem. Question after question, she is helping to narrow in on a solution. But, she never directly says “here is the solution.” Her questions help lead to an obvious solution.
I have another coworker whose approach to problem solving is more what I would call ‘throw out every option you can think of’ mode. When problem solving with him, the questions are already solutions – have you tried this? Have you tried that? He comes up with a lot of great ideas for fixing the problem and will give them to you in rapid fire sequence.
And another coworker solves problems in a more internal or subtle way. If I throw out a problem, there will be a long silence. She is thinking through the problem before giving any solutions. You probably recognize someone you work with in these scenarios. You might recognize yourself even. We all seem to have landed on our preferred way of addressing a problem.
So, next time you are solving a problem, catch yourself, notice what pattern you are using, and change the pattern. If you are a quiet deliberator, instead try just throwing out every idea that comes to mind. If you are a rapid fire idea generator, try asking questions that draw out answers rather than just giving the solutions you think of.
Another scenario where doing one thing differently can help is when you are trying to change behavior. Email is a good example for this.
People get so many emails that it is easy for yours to go unnoticed. If you want to make sure it gets read – what is something you could do differently?
One trick that I use is to put something in the subject line that makes it compelling or makes it clear what I need. In the past, I’ve used a subject line that says “I need you to read this today.” That definitely isn’t a typical subject line and is very hard to mis-interpret. Of course – you can’t do something like this all the time or else it doesn’t work – because of course, if you do it all the time then it isn’t different.
Think of a behavior that someone is doing that you’d like to change. Then, think about your response to that behavior. Are you accepting of it? Do you ignore it? Do you resist it? Now you’ve identified the pattern. Now, think about options for changing your response.
If you currently ignore the behavior, think of a way that you could acknowledge it. I’m not necessarily saying that you should confront it, although that is certainly an option. By acknowledge, I mean you do something different than your current pattern. It may be simple or subtle.
One of my favorites is to simply delay my response. A typical behavior that I think most people have is to feel that they have to respond to an email or direct message immediately. One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone marks an email urgent when it clearly isn’t urgent. We are hard wired to respond to something market urgent as quickly as possible. My ‘do 1 thing differently” solution to this is to not respond instantly to urgent emails that aren’t urgent. It takes a bit of discipline, but it is my way of trying to change the behavior of the person who mis-uses “urgent.”
“Do 1 thing differently” is a good tool to use when you are trying to get attention. If someone has a certain expectation of the way you operate, the way to get their attention is to do something differently.
If you always send an email, make a call.
If you always take notes in a meeting, ask someone else to do it.
One thing I started doing differently a few years ago to try and get attention is recording video emails. Instead of writing out everything in an email, I record what I want to say and then the email is simply a sentence that says “please watch this 2 minute video about an issue with a problem we are going to need to solve. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about this approach and I think it is because it is different enough that people pay attention to it.
Doing one thing differently is a tool to use in lots of circumstances. It is pretty low risk because if whatever you did differently doesn’t work, you just go back to the old way. The thing that really makes ‘do 1 thing differently’ hard is that it is hard to remember to do it.
So, this week, your homework is to be deliberate about looking for places where you can use this tool to make a change, solve a problem, or get attention. Try to catch yourself in a pattern that isn’t working for you and find 1 thing you can do differently to break that pattern.
Every single one of us gets paid to solve a problem. The type of problem we solve Is what categorizes us into different job titles.
A sales person is solving a problem for the person he is selling to, but also solving the problem of brining in revenue for his company.
A product owner is solving a problem for the people who will be using his product. The product owner of Salesforce.com is solving the problem of tracking contacts, sales opportunities, and all of the sales metrics that sales leaders need.
An accountant is solving the problem of accurately accounting for the company’s financial health.
A recruiter is solving the problem of hiring other people to solve problems.
So, fundamentally we are all solving problems and you may not even think about it that way. But, sometimes you get into a problem so big, or complex, or maybe so amorphous that you aren’t sure how to fix it.
Today, I want to introduce you to an approach for tackling problems that works well when you are feeling stuck. This is something I first learned from the book Do More Great Work by Michal Bungay Stainer when I read it many, many years ago.
There is a set of 6 questions to ask yourself – or a group – when doing this exercise.
The process is brainstorming with urgency. So, you are going to do this in a rapid-fire type of way. Ask the 1st question and give yourself no more than 5 minutes to write down your answers. As you move onto the next question, reduce your time to 4 minutes. For the remaining questions, give yourself 3 minutes each.
The exercise is designed to get your creative juices flowing. To help you think of things you may not have thought of because they aren’t part of your routine. To expand your options so that you aren’t limiting yourself by unspoken or even unconscious assumptions.
Ok, so let’s do this. To help illustrate the process, I’m going to use an example I’ve run into several times over the course of my career. Let’s say you work for a company that is growing fast, and there is a need to hire a lot of people, but the recruiting efforts so far just aren’t resulting in enough qualified candidates to fill the roles. Its stressful because there is more work to do than there are people to do it and as long as the positions stay unfilled, everyone else suffers.
So, you pull a group of people together and tell them about the problem. Once everybody is clear about the problem, you ask:
Obviously, these ideas may be good or bad, but the point is,, they get you thinking. Coming at a problem from the stand point of ‘what would be fun’ is out of the ordinary, but frees you to think without imposing assumptions that you might not even realize you are imposing.
Chances are, after you do this exercise, you will continue to have ideas about how to solve it in the days to come. With your creative juices flowing you’ll start to make connections between seemingly unrelated problems over the coming days. So, don’t feel like you have to pick a solution as soon as you finish the exercise.
So, I hope you put this problem solving technique to use the next time you feel stuck.
If you want to take a deeper dive into this topic, check out Do More Great Work: Stop the Busywork. Start the Work that Matters (note: this is an Amazon affiliate link. Your cost is the same, but a small portion of your purchase will come back to us to help offset the costs of the podcast)
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It had been building for a while, but this week it all came to a head. I was so stressed out that I was becoming useless. I was behind on everything, worried about letting something slip through the cracks, and on top of it all new crises were coming up multiple times a day.
Does this ever happen to you?
So, let me tell you how I got back on track. I’ve got 5 tips for getting through a stressful week.
Ask for Help
First, I asked for help. I identified the things that would be easy for someone else to do and I asked someone else to do them. Sometimes, we don’t think to ask for help because we think that if someone wanted to help us, they would offer.
Can’t they see that I’m underwater here?
Well – no, no they can’t.
The thing is – people are focused on their work. They have a job to do and they are doing it. They don’t spend part of their limited time focusing on whether or not others are in need of help. Although you are the center of your universe, you are not the center of theirs. I was the only person who knew how stressed I was because I was getting farther and farther behind. The only way for anyone else to know would be for me to tell them. Surprisingly my coworkers are not mind readers, and I’m guessing yours aren’t either.
So, when you are stressed, a simple step you can take is to ask for help. Shift some of the work to someone else. This works at home too, by the way. If the thought of shifting work to someone else has your inner voice telling you that other’s will think you are slacking – I would say that people know the difference between a slacker and someone who needs help but would also give help if the tables were turned.
What I did this week was ask for help by asking someone else to take over responsibility for completing a defined set of tasks on my behalf. This is also known as delegating.
But, there are other ways you can ask for help. You can ask for permission to just not do something on your list. If your list is too long, see if there is something on it that you can just no do and get permission from your manager to not do it.
This would take the form of saying something like “I’m really behind right now and need to prioritize in order to be able to get back on track. I’m thinking that X is something that would have the least impact if I can’t get to it, so I’m thinking about taking it off my list. Do you agree?”
Another way you can ask for help is by collaborating. If you are stressed or behind because a certain task is taking more time than you planned, you can speed it up by getting someone who is good at the task to work with you. For example, maybe you are having trouble putting together a presentation because you aren’t a powerpoint wiz. Get someone who is to help you organize the powerpoint. Something that is their strength will be easy for them but at the same time save you a ton of time. I am not very good at creating graphs in Excel. But, I have a coworker who is great at it. I will almost always send her my spreadsheet and ask her to help me make my graph look better. For her, it is a 2 minute thing because she can just look at it and know what to do.
Make a List
Another thing I did this week – and that I do anytime I get too stressed – is to sit down and write out a list of everything I can think of that I need to do. Now, although there is a benefit to having a nice tidy to-do list, that isn’t the main reason for the exercise.
What I’m really doing here is quieting my mind. When we get stressed, our brain starts to go into overdrive. It wants to keep track of everything that isn’t done and in order to do this, it starts repeating the list. Its like when you repeat a phone number so you won’t forget it while you try to find a pen to write it down. As your brain works on keeping track of everything, it is using a lot of energy, which u can’t afford to use because you’ve got so much to do. It is a vicious cycle, and sitting down to writ out a list of everything you need to do will break that cycle.
The added benefit is that you now have a nice tidy list that you can use.
Go Into Hyper-Prioritization Mode
The other thing I do when I’m stressed is that I prioritize. Or, more accurately, I go into hyper prioritization mode. If you’ve ever had a death in the family, or had a baby, or had a child fall and break an arm – you have experienced hyper-prioritization. Whatever else you had on your agenda for the day became absolutely unimportant the minute the event happened. The day my dad died, I had a full day of meetings scheduled – including a meeting that I was the host of that included around 20 people – all directors and vice presidents. When it comes to priorities, that meeting was at the top of my list. Until my dad died, and which point, it became completely not important.
The point is, priorities are contextual. What is important when you are working under normal conditions can easily become not important when you are stressed.
So, when you are feeling underwater with too much to do, you have to go into hyper-prioritization mode. This means that you are triaging tasks into categories such as: absolutely critical, important, and can wait. Th important and can wait tasks may be things that would normally gt done but because of your current situation, if they don’t the consequences will be small. You have to shift your context from what is typically a high priority to one where only the absolute necessities become critical. Think of yourself as the head of an emergency room during a natural disaster. This patient may need stitches – but stiches can wait because this other patient has internal injuries and could die without your immediate attention.
At the start of the week, I was literally operating in that mode. If it wasn’t something that had to be done within the next 60 minutes, I had to ignore it. Hyper-prioritization allowed me to get through the natural disaster.
Then, once I sat down and wrote up my list of everything that had to be done, I was also able to go through that list and prioritize. By putting things into categories, I was able to easily decide what next thing to work on as I went through the week.
Another tool to use when you are having a ultra stressful week is the power of ‘no.’ You need to be willing to tell someone no when they ask for your help.
We live in a culture where it is normal for people to not only interrupt you, but to expect a quick response. There is no consideration of your priorities – if I send you an email, I assume it automatically becomes a priority for you to answer it. If I send you a chat, I expect you to drop what you are doing and respond to me. When you are underwater and feeling stressed, it is easy to let other people’s priorities add to your stress. But, it isn’t effective. It just makes you that much more stressed which puts you deeper underwater.
You have to be willing to say no. How you say no will depend on the situation. I suggest that you come up with your ‘no’ responses when you aren’t in a stressed out state so that you have them ready to use when you need them. For example, when someone sends me a chat and says ‘do you have a minute?’ my response is ‘actually, I don’t right now. Can you send me an email so I can get to it later, or feel free to put time on my calendar.’
Believe me that is not what I feel like saying in the moment – when I’m stressed, but because I have the canned response, I can pull it out and us it when I need it.
Finally, the other thing I did this week as I was at a level 10 stress was have fun. I forced myself to take a few minutes here and there to enjoy a moment with my coworkers. Having those moments took me away from getting dug out of the hole I was in – but the benefit out weighed that impact. Recharging my batteries every once in a while kept me from burning out more quickly. It also reminds me that my relationships with my coworkers are going to matter long beyond this stressful week.
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Everything we do, everything we hear, or see, or participate in has a context within which it happens.
Context is very often invisible.
Although it is there, it isn’t obvious or up-front so it sometimes gets lost. But, the thing is that a lot of times it makes all the difference to the situation. Learning to look for the context in the situation you are in will help you make better decisions, build better relationships, and come up with better solutions.
The definition of context is ‘the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea and in terms of which it can be fully understood and addressed.
You can’t fully decide how you will react to an event until you have the context around the decision in order to be able to fully understand the situation.
Understand Your Process for Considering Context
Understanding how often you consider context when you make decisions is an important tool in building your emotional intelligence.
The more you understand about the context of the situation, the better able you will be to respond in a manner that aligns with your personal values.
And, I’ll take it a step further and say that when you become good at identifying context, you can help your colleagues as well. When you are in a meeting and an issue comes up, if you are able to ask questions that help uncover the context, everyone involved will have more information to fully understand and address the situation.
How To Uncover Context
There are some questions you can use to help uncover context:
One of the important things to keep in mind when you are asking questions in order to draw out context is to make sure the questions are coming from a place of curiosity. You are asking the questions in order to have a more rounded understanding of the situation; to be able to give yourself a fuller picture that will allow you to draw from a wider selection of responses.
This is curiosity.
If you ask the questions in a manner that comes across as accusatory or judgmental, the person you are talking with is likely to shut down.
Don’t React – Take the Time You Need
If you are the type of person who reacts, this may feel a little foreign to you. It may seem like it takes longer. But, reacting without gathering information about context can have consequences. Your colleagues may feel that they can’t trust you because your reaction hasn’t taken their point of view into account.
Using Context to Design a Business Process
Or, on a less personal level, a reaction can result in a less efficient or less effective process. When designing business processes, understanding context is critical in ensuring efficiency, ease of use, and even adoption.
For example, I’ve been working on designing a new customer portal for our help desk. I’m not in a customer facing role, so I don’t have a lot of context about what kinds of things our customers come to the customer portal to get help with.
As we were defining the options they can select, I had to ask a lot of questions to be able to find a solution that would be effective for them.
I asked questions like: “Does the customer know which of our products they use, or do they just think of our product as ‘our company name’? Designing a process that assumes the customer knows or distinguishes between our different software products is not effective if the customer doesn’t have that context.
Another question I asked was “why would a customer come to the customer portal in the 1st place?” I needed the context of what the customer is thinking in order to be able to define a process that will be efficient for them.
Use Stakeholder Analysis
Another important way to gather context for business process solutions is to use stakeholder analysis. When you are faced with an issue or challenge, how often do you step back and assess the people who are impacted?
Who are the people – whether individuals, departments, or groups – that are impacted? Is your solution taking all of these stakeholders into account?
In the coming weeks, observe yourself as you are faced with issues or situations. Is your natural tendency to think about the various stakeholders before you make a decision? Who are you considering when you come to a conclusion? Are you casting a wide enough net?
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I learned a valuable lesson this week that I thought I’d share with you.
Let me ask you something: what is your job?
You’ve probably just pulled up a mental picture of a job description. The thing you tell people at a cocktail party when they ask you what you do. You’ve probably said something like “I’m a project manager for IT projects,” or “I work in accounts payable,” or “I’m a customer support specialist.” And, if I were to answer that question – I’d say “I run the operations of a professional services organizations.” It is what my job description says, after all.
But, the lesson I was reminded of this week is this – my job is also to make my manager’s life better. The way I do that is by making the operations of our professional services company run smoothly. For our project manager, the way she makes her manager’s life better is by ensuring the project stays on budget and on schedule. For our accounts payable clerk, he makes his manager’s life better by ensuring everything is paid on time and nothing is overpaid. Our customer support specialist handles customer issues in a manner that they don’t get escalated.
How do you do your job in a way that makes your manager’s life better? Think about it for a minute. How are you contributing to your manager in a way that makes their job easier?
What value are you adding for your manager?
More Personal than Objectives
There are a lot of articles and books that talk about how important it is to ensure that employees are able to tie their objectives to the corporate objectives. Can each employee tie what they do to the overall success of the company?
Having spent my entire career in back office type roles, I know first hand that it can really be a stretch to do this sometimes. Many times,, the company objectives are sales related, which means that if you aren’t in a sales or marketing role, it can be hard to see how what you do contributes to the company objective. It can sometimes feel like the company doesn’t value your role as much as the sales team because all eyes are focused on the corporate objective of growing revenue.
If you struggle to tie your work to your company’s objective, what I’m suggesting is that you change your perspective. Don’t think of it in terms of objectives. Think of it in terms of tying what you do every day to how that makes your manager’s job easier – up the chain then everyone is contributing to the company’s objective.
This takes something a bit esoteric – objectives – and makes them more personal. Finding ways to make your manager’s life easier brings it to the personal level. I think it is also more fulfilling. Let’s be honest – most of us work for companies with objectives that aren’t really all that fulfilling. That’s ok – you can get your fulfillment through other means. One of which is by becoming an employee that makes life easier for others.
Although this is a philosophy I’ve had for a long time, I was reminded of it this past week. We’ve been really under the gun for the last few months at work because we’ve had some record quarters and we are understaffed. Everybody is swamped an that inevitably means things start falling through the cracks. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out who to get us back on track and wasn’t coming up with any great solution.
Then, I changed my approach and asked myself – what could I do to make Scott’s life better? Scott, as you might guess, is my manager. Once I started thinking of it in those terms, I came up with two ideas that could really make a difference. After spending some time on those two ideas, I narrowed in on the one that I could really sink my teeth into and moved ahead with it.
There is something about putting the question into human terms that really opened up a new set of options for me. Rather than solving this esoteric problem, I was simply trying to help Scott. And by helping Scott, I free him up to use the time on something else. And, if that continues up the chain of command, then we will achieve our corporate objectives.
Spend some time this week thinking about what you are doing to make your manager’s life easier. Not only will you feel more fulfilled by doing this, you’ll also be more successful at work because manager’s reward employees who make their job easier.
Also, put this technique into your toolkit so that the next time you are stuck, you might be able to use it to become unstuck like I did this week.
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