Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Delivering bad news in good ways: The "magic" of your mind

In the previous section of the book I'm writing called Delivering Bad News in Good Ways on Projects that is posted here, we considered how to define the situation in front of us as part of the Separate step of SED the process. The next part of the chapter explains what's happening in the background of our mind as the first impression of the situation takes shape.

The thinking (and feeling) process explained

Many years ago I was curious about how our mind can react so instantly to people and things around us. At the time, it seemed to me impressions and thoughts came out of nowhere like magic, but I knew that didn't make sense. So I started doing a bit of research to understand the process. My hunch was if we better understood this seemingly magical process we might have an opportunity to respond more thoughtfully and intentionally when communicating with and responding to others.

So, how long does it take to form an impression of someone? Well, if you believe recent research, it takes between 100 and 150 milliseconds. To give you a sense of just how brief that is, we can use an example from language. All languages have phonemes which are sounds unique within that language. In English, we have the phoneme "cha" which takes about 250 milliseconds to say. Yep, that’s fast, but how is possible that impressions can pop up so quickly?!?

The brain has three major parts - the brainstem, the limbic area, and the cortical area.  The brainstem is the oldest part of our brain, and it is the bit we share with the lower ordered creatures on the planet like snakes and other reptiles. This is the part of our brain that takes care of autonomic functions like breathing, digestive processing, eliminating waste, etc. The brainstem regulates all those functions and keeps them in check which simply means we don't have to chew up our awareness with saying, "Come on, heart, pump" or "Breathe, lungs, breathe..."

The limbic brain is what one of my children affectionately refers to as the “feeling” brain. This section is the seat of our memories. When events occur, it is this part of our brain that tells our mind and our body how to feel in response. So when we encounter a long lost friend, see tear-jerking commercial on television, or hear someone crying or screaming, it's this part of our brain that calls up a memory which then triggers the chemicals inside of us to flood our body with emotion.

The cortical brain is the newest part of our brain, and it is considered to be our “thinking” brain. This is the part that uses logic to sort information and give it some order. It allows us to assess what we’re experiencing in our environment and then respond which is obviously critical to survival. The rub here is that it’s slower than the limbic brain. Remember that 100 to 150 milliseconds stat? Well, it’s the limbic brain that’s quick on the trigger. The cortical brain needs a bit more time - about 3.6 seconds to be exact.

I think you know where I’m going with this...

Flowing out the 100 millisecond to 3.6 second process

Just like most things in life there is a process and first impression response is no exception. There's a lot of science to this process, but to keep it simple, I’ve clustered the thinking/feeling process into three groups:

- Collect
- Respond
- Filter

Collect, Respond, and Filter have lots of things going on in each. What's interesting about the process is how it gets developed, and what's even more interesting is it doesn't just get created and stop. It actually grows, changes, and evolves over your lifetime. Your experiences, the people in your life, the things you do all inform this process. What does that mean to you and someone with whom you are working on a project?

Well, when you sit down to have a conversation with that person, you might think you and the other person are the only two people there, but actually that’s not the case. The reality is that you BOTH are bringing loads of people and experiences into the conversation. It’s these past experiences that help you make sense of the current experience.

In the next installment, we'll take a deeper look how these three groups work to deliver such a "magically" quick response. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Delivering bad news in good ways: Get a handle on yourself first

Almost everyone wants to write a book until they really start writing it. That's me - I'm actually writing two: A nonfiction and a novel. 

For many years I've had the pleasure of working with some fantastic people in corporations and government agencies around the world. They have shared their stories and concerns with me in a search of solutions to very real problems. Interestingly, the problems they face are less about the mechanics of work and more about the human side of getting work done. In response I've made a concerted effort to learn and share as many facts, best practices, and processes as possible in a effort to address the behavioral aspects of their work that chew up much of their day. 

Now I'm finally doing it, and it is just as daunting, tedious, and scary as I thought it would be. I'm soldiering on despite knowing I'll have scores of revisions before the final product is finished.

The title of the nonfiction book is Delivering Bad News in Good Ways on Projects. Being the bearer of bad news is never fun whether it's in your professional or personal life. Some people don't have an issue with delivering bad news, and that's fantastic. I'd love to hear about your approach and technique. But there are those of us who do have a harder time sharing and responding to bad news. These are the people I hope this book will help.

Over the years I've experimented with an approach that is the foundation of this book. In an effort to get your response and feedback, I thought I'd start publishing pieces of the book chapters here. Writing can be a lonely endeavor so I'm looking forward to sharing the journey with you. 

Here's a segment of Chapter 5 which addresses the "Separate" step in a model I call SED.  SED stands for Separate, Evaluate, and Deliver. I look forward to your comments either here or via email.

Separate: How you do it

Maybe you’ve experienced a situation like one of the following:

Your project sponsor has significantly reduced your funding but still expects the same scope.

A major issue discovered during testing will require an additional three months work which will impact the critical due date. Oh, and by the way, in anticipation that project would wrap up on time, you’ve already started ramping up management of a new and even larger project!

Two primary project stakeholders can’t seem to get aligned on a solution for a crucial part of system build. The situation has eroded quickly and now they are refusing to work together.

You’ve just found out your resources have been slashed by 30 percent, but the sponsor won’t budge on the workload. More with less is the mandate.

Change is a reality on projects. I’ve always said I would love for a plan to be etched in stone right out of the gate, but we all know that’s not possible. There are simply too many variables and unknowns so in the spirit of Rolling Wave Planning we lay out the plan to the best of our ability and then respond and make adjustments to new information along the way.

The management part of this is using processes to collect, integrate, and distribute information and work requirements. There are are many fine publications that illustrate in detail the processes that support this. I’ve listed recommendations for these publications in the Appendix section of this book should you like to explore them further.

What is not necessarily covered in equivalent detail is how to assess, respond, and manage the emotional experience of change on the stakeholders (and you). Because bad news is likely the result of a change, we’ll break down the parts of the SED model to help you be more effective with assessing, responding, and managing the emotional experience of it.

Step 1 of Separate: Define the situation/event
Bad news is on the table: Now what?

To put a new spin on an old quote, Alexander Pope (1688-1744) said, "To err is human; to forgive, divine," but for the sake of project management let’s make a slight adjustment:

To err is human; to separate and sort before responding, divine.

When we first become aware of a situation or event, it’s natural to jump right into a bunch of assumptions.  It is even more natural to make one of those assumptions your conclusion before you’ve fully assessed the situation. This is just the way the mind works - we use mental models to quickly assess and respond to the situation at hand.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, our mind is constantly sifting through tons of information in an effort to make sense of the environment and experiences around us. The human brain likes order and will work very hard to create it as soon as possible. It’s important to understand the following:

"Context is the reality of the situation around us. Without context, our minds have a tendency to take shortcuts & recognize patterns that aren't really there. We connect the dots without first collecting the dots." From the book The Mission, the Men, and Me

The upside of this is that it enables us to rapidly respond to a variety of situations, to innovate, and to create. The downside of this is we make a ton of assumptions that miss the mark. As a matter of fact, research shows 40 to 50 percent of the time our assumptions are correct, but here’s the rub: 50 to 60 percent of the time those assumptions are NOT correct.

Hmmm...time for a reality check, you say? Yep, you’re a quick one. :)

Let’s take a look at how that process works.

Making sense of information

Maybe you’re standing around the airport gate waiting to board your plane and a interesting person catches your eye.

Perhaps you’ve just been named project manager of a project that’s been in progress for several months. You steal a quick glance at the team before getting down to business.

You’re at a networking event and you see someone who looks like a person you met before. You walk up and introduce yourself, but suddenly realize this isn’t the same person.

What’s happening in your head during the initial moment of those situations? In what seems like an instant, thoughts creep up into your consciousness. You might reflexively make a statement about the person in your head, and then counter that thought with an “Oh, where did that impression come from?” Possibly you simply react without any forethought. Hopefully there’s no fallout from that potential “uh-oh” moment which is where you act on the thought without thinking about it.

So, how long do you think an instant is if you quantified it? Perhaps you’re thinking it is only a few minutes or several seconds.

What’s going on with your reflexive response? Maybe your response is that you “just know” or it’s “intuition.”

How can you form an impression of someone else so quickly? Where does it come from? Perhaps you simply assume that being on the planet and having a variety of experiences just gives you license to make quick decisions and conclusions without vetting them.

If any of those responses rolled through your head you’re not far off, but as with most things, there is a process we naturally follow.

In the next post, I'll address The thinking (and feeling) process explained which will address the process we following.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Quote to recalibrate

When I saw this quote earlier today, it felt very appropriate and timely. 

Helping others be successful and feel loved helps us get out of our own way and deepen our experience of living life.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

What life expects from us

This slightly modified quote from Viktor Frankl by me seems very appropriate today. really [does not] matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expect[s] from us. We need to stop asking the meaning of life - daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in RIGHT action and RIGHT conduct [at the RIGHT time]. ~ Viktor Frankl  

Friday, February 1, 2013

Beyond productivity - leveraging the spaces in between

Having OPTIONS is not the problem.

Sometimes the shifts in focus that I experience astound me. One day I’m full of ideas and energy and feel intensely focused and highly productive. Another day I’ll find myself feeling like an ineffectual child hovering in a paralytic state bumping around in between activity-filled spaces despite the clearly marked path nestled among the many arteries of options.

There’s NEVER a shortage of things to do.

To my left is my journal. Because I tend to write my book chapters by hand before typing them up, the pages are filled with small, tight cursive writing that continues the fictional tale of Elia, Guzmon, and Robbie. Twelve chapters in with five chapters waiting to be typed up, and yet I sit between spaces.

Only ONE STEP away and yet...

To my right are Post-It Notes filled in and laid out in a Work Breakdown Structure that supports my nonfiction book Delivering Bad News in Good Ways on Projects. In my mind, the already composed next section of chapter five patiently waits for me to simply transfer it to paper. A friend in the film business once told me that content generation was never a problem for Alfred Hitchcock. For him, the story was already complete in his head. It was just a matter of getting resources and laying it down on film. Again, as in the case of Hitchcock, it’s just a matter of laying it down on paper, and yet I continue to linger in between spaces.

Busy work that looks like PRODUCTIVITY.

Sitting in a web browser page, the article called Emmanuelle and the Seductive Power of Words, which rekindled my deep interest in the process of anticipation, is ready for a second read in preparation to write a blog post I plan to title The Art of Anticipation and Why Porn Gets It Wrong. Because it's not content that fits with my blog, yesterday I contacted the owner of the property where I’d like to have it published. She enthusiastically said she’d post it whenever I can get it to her. I was so excited about it yesterday that I wrote a friend the following:

“The key to many experiences, I believe, is in the anticipation that builds as the result of the stories we write in our heads in advance of an event. It's a kind of rehearsal that primes, emboldens, and spurs into action even the shyest and most timorous of lovers, writers, artists, and novices. Really good writers hold the key to this delicious secret. I've thought about the concept of anticipation and how it relates to process off and on for more than 20 years. I've researched it, written about it, and experimented with it through observing myself and others. It's a fascinating subject that deserves more attention as it applies to one's life.”

Excited by the subject, I abandoned all my other projects and dove into researching it, but even as inspired as I felt, I still find myself sitting in between spaces. It's in between spaces of productivity that thoughts, ideas, and memories bump into each other. 

They are not really looking for attention per se, but instead need only be present. The cool presentation on print making from earlier in the week. My trip to LA next week and people I want to see. My poor showing in the Scrabble and Words With Friends games I currently have going. Keeping up with social media postings and dialogues. Starting a drawing class that I’ve longed to do for a number of years. Running six miles and then doing hot yoga today. Deciding what to make for dinner. Mulling over the desk I want to make out of reclaimed wood but feel reluctant to do because I’ve never done such things.

Hearing VOICES? Yep, they're really yours.

All these things shift across my field of vision as I write, type, and play. It’s like going into one of those dreadful stores so jammed packed with overwhelming options one only wants to back away from it as quickly as possible in fear of being eaten by the tchotchke monsters that no doubt inhabit it. My fear then hears voices of others who surely have it more together than me. With a view from the outside, everyone else seems to have productivity well in hand. They seem to have a clear finish line when I can't even find the start.

Fully AWAKE in and out of spaces.

Distractions, options, opportunities - however activities in a day are defined, consider a few things:

- Pick with awareness. Whether leaning over to make your Scrabble or Words With Friends move, working on a project plan, typing an email response, or making your grocery list, pay attention to your choice. We don't have to be "on" all the time. Watching three episodes of Homeland last night doesn't make me any less productive. With mindfulness, that was how I chose to spend my time in between spaces. The immersion, the experience goes with me when I dive into the next space. It gives me a chance to unplug from a current challenge so my subconscious can process. Ironically, I woke up this morning very focused and ready to write.

- It's okay to say no. It's not my nature to say no for two reasons. I want and need to feel helpful to others. Also, I don't want to disappoint, and yet when I always say "yes," I'm often doing so out of ego. Saying "yes" also conveniently allows me to avoid the "spaces" that are connected to deeper, more meaningful but definitely harder and more challenging things I want to do in life.

- When a comment is less a judgement and more a reflection of your fear. Someone said to me recently, "You mean you haven't finished those books yet???" There was a smile behind those words, but my fear (and ego) ignored it. The nerve is raw because that's how I feel -- it's taking too long!!! My reaction was a reflection of a deep feeling of ineffectiveness I feel when in between spaces. To make up for it, I tend to find busy work with quick returns that sooth my ego and make me feel productive again. Ironically, the short term gain only seems to lengthen the distance to the long term goal, and serves to make me feel worse in the end.

- Just do it however brief. Whatever your passion, goal, or desire in life, practice it everyday as noted in 8 Essential Habits for Effective Writers. Five minutes or five hours doesn't matter. What matters is engaging with it.

- Path to your beach head is rarely a straight line. Although it would be nice to be able to get from A to B without any detours, it's rare in more complex, strategic work. Understanding this and being patient with it is crucial to realizing B. What's important is to define markers much like when you're traveling. Defining markers helps us gauge progress and make course corrections.

Magic of sitting in BETWEEN spaces

That's an odd way to title the close, but I'm just realizing as I wrap up that this is what the post is truly about. Sitting in between activities, events, and projects can feel unproductive and well, lazy, but I want to challenge that.

Being in between activity spaces offers a reflection point for what we've done to date and what we need to do next. Like Leo Babauta reminds us in The Little Trick to Make Any Moment Better, our attitude about the space will determine how we experience it. Acknowledging what you are feeling during those times in between and letting go of the judgment, ego, and labeling of it creates an open space to pick and choose the next activity space with mindfulness. Embracing the uncertainty of the spaces in between can lead us to ANTICIPATING them because those moments can tell us so much if we are open to it.

Of course, I just had to work in that bit about anticipation. Until next time... :)