[Warning: If you are interested in a calm, comfortable life, this blog will be counterproductive for you.]

Monday, November 24, 2014

Death By Meeting (Great Leadership Books)

Among the many leadership books I’ve read, a handful have stood out to me as the most practical and long lasting. I posted about one of those recently (LINK). Another of those books is Death By Meeting by Patrick Lencioni

Like most of Lencioni’s books, it’s a fable—a story that teaches a lesson. It’s easy to read and kept my attention. And it changed forever how I plan and lead meetings.

Most of us spend a lot of our lives in meetings—boring, painfully slow meetings we survive using desert-trekking techniques (grit your teeth and put one foot after the the other). But meetings can be exciting and highly productive experiences. They can be engines of innovation and the key to cutting through bureaucracy. No, this isn’t hyperbole. I’ve crossed over the River Boredom into the Promise Land where the meetings really do flow with fun and progress.

One of the best maps on the journey to great meetings I know is this book. Two big ideas from Death By Meeting:

Different types of meetings shouldn’t be mixed. Each  meeting should be focused on one and only one purpose. Some of the most common meeting purposes:
Information sharing (structure and pre-work are the keys to this—do as little as possible in live meetings)
Practical problem solving (frequent, shorter meetings are needed for this)
Big issues/strategy decisions (1-3 times a year is normal for these longer meetings—save your big questions for these longer sessions)
Learning (1-3 times a year learning as a group can do wonders for your work group’s productivity)
Celebrating (commonly overlooked, this meeting type doesn’t have to be long, but shouldn’t be smashed into another meeting where it will lose it’s impact)
The catch-all meeting most of us have lived with muddies the purpose, wasting tons of time by diffusing team energy, not focusing it. You bounce from topic to topic with no clarity on what you’re there to do or how best to approach it.

An exception to this one-purpose-only rule: you can add moments of relationship building in any other meeting type without creating problems. Simple things like beginning with each person sharing 1-2 minutes answering questions like: What did you do over the weekend? and What’s the worst Christmas present you ever got?

At the heart of great meetings is productive conflict. No conflict, no need to meet. We already agree so why waste time talking about it. Meetings are intended to help people who disagree discuss and decide what to do. Great meetings require all three elements: 1) topic you disagree on, 2) healthy, rich discussions, 3) real decisions made.

There are  couple of practical aspects, but I think you get the idea. The Promise Land of great meetings does exist. Don’t settle for lame meetings anymore. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Storytelling for Leaders

This fall, I attended Story In Business, a 1-day seminar taught by Robert McKee, the guru of story. At 73 years old, he’s profound, charismatic, funny, and also pretty salty. (He curses like a sailor when he gets worked up.)

I’ve been to the 4-day seminar that has made him famous so I knew that McKee understood stories. At this event, I was delighted to discover he also understood business and leadership. I took lots of notes: 4,681 words to be precise (not counting the diagrams). I thought you’d appreciate me highlighting a few of my favorites insights rather that go through them line by line. :)

The mind is a natural receptor for story. If you can put your info in a story form, people will respond and act on it.

Above all else, leaders must make meaning out of chaos to other people. If you cannot make sense of the complex forces inside and outside of your organization, they will not follow you.

Story is the struggle to put life back into balance.

Story begins with a balanced life. A starting event throws things out of balance. Our instinct as humans is to restore the balance. So the core character focuses on something that, if the core character could get it, would put life back into balance.

This raises questions in the audience: How will this turn out? Will the character get what they want? If so, will it get them back to the balance they want? 

How many rotten films have you sat through to get the answer to these questions? :)
No matter how clever the camera work and music, a car being pieced together is a process, not a story.
The history of a family, no matter how admirable they are, is a list of events, not a story.

It’s about drawing the audience into empathy with the core character. 

They are enough like me therefore I want that character to get what they want (if I were that person in those circumstances I’d want it, too). When people root for the core character, they are actually rooting for themselves. This is why a story told well is so powerful.
Today people so identify with characters in fiction that you can lose a friend by rejecting a story they fell in love with. “The Piano” caused more divorce in America than any other specific film I know. [He made a handful of colorful comments about family, politics, morality...let’s just say he’s a cynic.]

Emotion is the side effect of change.

Business people these days are afraid of negative communication, from internal (“we’ve got a problem”) to external (telling customers about the dangers). All positive with no real problems produces no real emotion. Emotion is generated when people move from negative to positive (or vice versa). So the more powerful the change the stronger the emotion—the worse the negative the stronger the emotion when it’s solved.

Strategy is a reality story told between co-decision makers at the top of the pyramid of power.

There was so much more I wanted to include but deleted to keep this post reasonably brief. I’d highly recommend attending any of his conferences (with the caveat that they’re rated PG-13 for language).


What stories do you need to tell better?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Thinking Gray

I read my first leadership seventeen years ago and I still remember it vividly: sitting outside, back against a fence, literally turning the pages as fast as I could with my heart pounding. Sadly, I’m not exaggerating. :) But even though the book inspired me, nothing from that book actually drives my day to day leadership. All sizzle and no steak.

However, other leadership books I’ve read since permanently changed the way I lead and live. The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership by Steven Sample has several power and practical ideas. 

The one I probably use most: Thinking Gray

Our human instinct is to decide what we think about something right away. I agree. I don’t like it. She’s right and he’s wrong. But Sample challenged me to unnaturally reserve my judgement—to not form an opinion until I have to decide. Yes, not deciding at all is poor leadership. But deciding too soon is also poor leadership.

How many times have you heard someone share their story of injustice and decided the other guy was a jerk—only to later learn the other side of the story and change your mind? I’ve had that happen with my kids so many times I lost count. And I’ve had it at work and at church and with my friends.

How do you respond when you watch the news? Hear your family members complain about someone else? Learn about a decision someone else at your company made? My normal response—thanks entirely to practicing this for years now—is to be glad to learn the information, decide not to decide yet. 

Thanks to this, when I do need to make a decision, I hold the data I have lightly, knowing it’s likely not the whole story. I do make decisions—lots of them, but you might be surprised (like I was) how much of life never actually requires me to make a decision about it. (The news, my crazy relative, what another department in the company is doing—most of these things may never need me to form an opinion about whether they’re right or wrong). Deciding is mental work (many scientific studies show this). The energy loss and stress I avoid by not choosing sides on those items is pretty significant. It gives me more time and energy to make the decisions that do matter.

Thinking gray requires restraint and humility, but it’s saved me from many, many poor decisions.

What area of your life could thinking gray help you be wiser?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How to Read a Book (book review)

You'd think I already know how to read with all the book reviews I’ve written, so why did I read a book title How To Read A Book? I did love the irony of the title--it could have been the world's most unhelpful book. If you can’t read, how does a book on reading help? :)

Thankfully, it turned out to be a very useful book. This book has been in continuous print since the 1940’s and I see why.

Adler describes four levels of reading. The first level, what he calls elementary reading, refers to understanding the words on the page. But that was a short section because that’s not what this book is about. 

The second level he calls introductory--basically skimming a book to get the basic idea. This is where many of the modern speed reading techniques get applied. But it was more than speed reading. It was how to get a general understanding of a book by doing things like reading the opening and closing paragraphs of each chapter (where good authors summarize everything for you).

The third level is analytical reading. This is deep, slow, and thoughtful reading. Most of us feel that we must read every book at this level. We have school to thank for this, since those are the only two reading approaches we were taught.

But Adler contends that most of our reading should be fun and quick and that we should only spend the effort do read analytically on a small percentage of books. For fiction, just enjoy it. And for learning books, get an overview before you do anything else. Most books, he says, you shouldn’t do any more—after skimming you’re done. But a few will stir you, intrigue you, and invite you to go deeper. Only these great books warrant the effort of deep, analytical reading.

Deep reading of a mediocre book is a waste of your time.

The final level is what he calls syntopcial reading. You pick a topic and read many books that revolve around that concept. You analyze each book and also compare and contrast between whole books.

I love his core approach. I give 4 rather than 5 stars because he goes into great depth on different kinds of books and adds all sorts of very interesting but totally unnecessary thoughts on things like how to read encyclopedias and why poetry is important to culture and nature of truth found in fiction. Interesting from a philosophical standpoint, but not necessary to the core message of the book.

Ultimately, I feel really empowered after reading this book. I’ll waste a lot less time on mediocre books, now. Also, I’m going to increase my use of book summaries (also called abstracts)—let someone else do the overview work for me, right?

What books on your reading list should you skim? Maybe you should give yourself permission to skim them all.