Archive for the ‘Problem Solving’ Category

In my experience, fear has always manifested itself in two distinct ways, which for the purposes of this post, I’ve labeled “instinctual fear” and “self-made fear”.

Instinctual Fear
Instinctual fear is the survival mechanism that’s hard-wired into our DNA. Its purpose is to trigger a “fight or flight” response to real or potential dangers, and it reminds us that “things that go bump in the night” might be hazardous to our health. This type of fear usually keeps us from doing really dumb things like trying to pet a rabid dog, or take a stroll down a dark alley in an unfamiliar neighborhood. For me, the hairs on the back of my neck begin to stand up as a last-ditch reminder that I’m about to do something that my instincts tell me is probably STUPID.

In situations that pose an immediate or imminent physical threat, our first act must be to suppress any panic that we feel, followed immediately by engaging our experience and defense mechanisms which enable us to run, duck, fight, shoot, or whatever actions seem appropriate given the situation. Under no circumstances should we let our instinctual fear blindly control our actions. Panic is never the best option. We need to use the fear signal as the alarm to the thinking part of our brain so that we can quickly assess our options and then act with urgency. Now I’m not attempting to insult your intelligence here, but the reason I bring it up is to re-enforce the fundamental principle that we need to control our fears and not have them control us. Fear needs to be an “adviser” and not “the boss”, and this is especially important when dealing with our self-made fears.

Self-Made Fear
This second form of fear is far less beneficial, and frankly, can be down right debilitating. These self-made fears if left unchecked can be crippling to an individual, a team, or a project. We humans fear many more things than our physical well-being. Humans (even us “wolfie types”) have brains that love to invent fears. We often think about worst-case scenarios and fret over “what might happen if…”. This is especially true when we’re in positions of authority and part of our function is to actually plan for the “what if’s”. We recognize that what we say and do can have a significant impact on our reputation, our team, the project we’re working on, and potentially, the bottom line of our business. This responsibility can blur the line between what is, or could be real, and what is “trumped-up” by other emotions, and we must constantly “check our fears at the door” if we want to make smart, informed choices about things that matter.

These self-made fears can be broken down into a wide range of phobias (if you’re interested, click here to see a huge list of them), most of which go far beyond my level of expertise to deal with and the scope of this post. I am however, pretty good at working through the fear of “stepping outside the box”, which doesn’t exactly show up on “the list”, but has many underlying phobias contributing to it.

We typically like to stay within our comfort zones at work and in our personal lives. We may sneak in an adventure every now and then; we’ll try a new type of food or activity, travel to an exotic location, or impulsively buy something for the sake of wanting something “different”. But, when was the last time that you made a bold choice about something that could REALLY impact your life or your work place…and how did you deal with it?

So who’s driving the bus?…

We often talk ourselves into taking the safe road believing that our decisions are driven purely on the basis of our experience, but more often than not, we make these safe choices because fear is “driving the bus”. We often won’t consciously spend much time in assessing the alternatives to the “path well-traveled”, because the unknown, or less familiar paths are “scary” and the voice inside our head (yes, I do hear a voice, and no, I’m not crazy…well maybe) screams “don’t do it because you will [place appropriate negative word or phrase here], so why take the risk.”

Let’s face it; there’s nothing wrong with staying in our comfort zone most of the time. We’ve earned the right to reap the benefits of our skills and experience, and frankly, to actively question everything we do would pretty much guarantee that anything we do will take longer than it should. What I’m really talking about are those situations where we respond from a place of fear and not because of sound and rational judgment.

So how do we know when we’re likely reacting out of fear instead of via a rational thought process? Often, the telltale sign is the level of angst that we’re feeling about the situation we’re facing. Think back for a moment and search your memories over the last few months and ask yourself whether you’ve come across a situation (maybe more than one) where your angst level rose high enough to make you struggle with what approach to take. Did you take the time to analyze the alternatives with a clear and rational mind, or did you allow yourself to react based on what your “voice of fear” was telling you about all the bad things that would “absolutely happen” if you took a chance. Did you take the path less traveled, or did you take the safe road? Maybe it was a career changing opportunity, or a product feature that your team was proposing (or struggling with), or the realization that you made a mistake that you had to “fess up to”. How did you behave? If you handled the situation calmly and rationally (even if you ultimately chose to take the safe path), then congratulations! You didn’t let your inner “self-fear demon” get in the way of making what was most probably the right choice.

Deciding whether fear or your good sense and experience is guiding you can be difficult IF you don’t tease apart the problem in a logical and rational way. If you just casually allow your gut to make the choice, it will be a “crap shoot” as to whether you are letting your little fear demon ( I call mine George) take the driver’s seat, or whether your rational, experienced self is in control. Now don’t get me wrong, I really pay close attention to what my gut is telling me, but I also recognize that if my gut is being driven by an irrational fear, it WILL lead me astray.

In one of my previous posts (Growing Your Inner Wolf – Part 4) I brought up the concept of the “pregnant pause” when confronted with any new or unusual situation. This technique works well when we want to experiment with working beyond our default behaviors, but it also works extremely well when dealing with any self-made fears that might be trying to “grab onto the steering wheel”. I personally find that by taking a moment to ask myself WHY my gut wants me to take a given path, allows my rational mind to take charge which gives me a good chance of figuring out whether it’s my experience and skill-set that’s driving my choices, or whether George or one of his fear-demon buddies is in control. Of course, in order for this to work, you need to really understand yourself and allow yourself to be open and honest about the things that scare you.

If you don’t know yourself sufficiently well to be able to quickly assess whether it’s experience or fear that’s driving you, you can take a more methodical approach to seeking the answer. One way to go about this is to write down the most positive and negative possible outcomes to the situation. Often, seeing the extremes on paper (or your visual medium of choice) helps to clearly bound the problem, while allowing both the rational and irrational voices to be heard without either dominating the process.

The next steps can be as complicated or as simplistic as one wants them to be, and are often situationally dependent. There are a multitude of ways to build decision trees or matrices, or to analyze the best paths to success and identifying the risks that can lead to failure. But throughout the process, every time that a high-risk factor to success is identified, the key take-away needs to be whether the risk is based on something tangible that can be assessed and overcome or an intangible fear that is causing much more concern than it should. In doing so, you will give yourself (and your team if you involve them in the process) an opportunity to shake any irrational fears loose and concentrate on what is real and actionable.

In future posts I will endeavor to outline some specific methodologies that can be used to help with critical decision-making and risk mitigation which are both often over-influenced by fear,  but for now, this post is long enough, and I hope sufficiently thought-provoking to keep you busy for a while.

In closing, here’s a quote that speaks volumes to me and is now permanent addition to my Quotable Quotes page). I hope you find it as inspiring as I do.

  • “Many of our fears are tissue-paper-thin, and a single courageous step would carry us clear through them” – Brendan Francis

© 2010 John C. Rea and nothingbutwolves.wordpress.com

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In 1996 I was asked to present at a Project World Conference being held in Santa Clara CA. I was the Director of Program Management for a large division of 3Com Corporation at the time, and while I’d been managing projects and people for over 20 years at that point, this was my first experience at presenting to a large and diverse audience of fellow Project Managers. The presentation resonated so well with the audience that I was asked to present it at two more Project World Conferences in 1997.

This posting includes an exact copy of the presentation that I gave 14 years ago (except for the intro slide, which I just created), and in reviewing it after all of these years, I’m struck by the fact that some things never change…what was true in 1996, is still true today.

My world-view at the time was already evolving into proactively growing individuals into wolves rather than just “dealing with cat-like behaviors”, and this presentation (with a few tweaks) could be retitled “Preemptive Damage Control”…which is my term for the art of avoiding problems by actively watching and listening to a team so that they can be purposefully directed to “maneuver around them”. Enjoy it and let me know what you think.

Herding Cats (circa 1996)

While I’m on the subject of “Herding Cats”…here’s a very funny video that you might have already seen, but even if you have, it’s well worth a second viewing

Superbowl Commercial circa 2000

© 2010 John C. Rea and nothingbutwolves.wordpress.com

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The Big Picture and your personal challenge

This post is going to be quite different from my previous posts in that there will be a large amount of content contained in an executable, “interactive PDF file”. This is an experiment in giving the reader a large amount of information in a “visually interesting format” presented in organized, bite-sized, chunks. Don’t get me wrong, there are still lots of words, but I felt that it was important to present the material in a more holistic way than I could do with the words in “blog format” alone. I’ve also included a more “formal” 37 page PDF file of the same material as an option to those readers who prefer a more traditional style of documentation.

As an aside, the interactive document was created using Mindjet MindManager 8 SW. Frankly, I’ve been using the concept of mindmapping as a brainstorming, planning, and outlining tool for years and Mindjet’s SW in particular, since their first release. If you’re unfamiliar with the technique or their SW, I suggest that you take a look at their website by clicking here. This is an unsolicited and unpaid plug for something that I believe will serve you well as you continue to exercise and grow your “wolfie” abilities. Also, let me know if you’re interested in learning more about using mindmapping techniques to help you get through some of your complicated planning, brainstorming, and communications tasks….I’m always interested in teaching and assisting people in using these techniques to help solve tough problems that require creative ways to “peel back the layers of the onion”.

OK, now on to the subject matter…

I’m going to break up the cadence a bit by only briefly touching on the next two core words in the series, (traits and skills) and instead, concentrate on core word number six (behavior).

There really isn’t too much more that I want to elaborate about the nature of traits other than they’re deeply associated with our type, temperament, and the values we choose to live by. Within the PDF files, I’ve outlined some traits that are generally associated with each of the sixteen Personality Types and Temperaments, as well as the Values that I believe are important. I personally believe that we can all consciously employ our non-default traits, but this requires a deep understanding of who we are and what the situation that we’re facing, calls for…but hey, I’m getting ahead of myself…more about that later in this post.

Skills on the other hand, and soft skills in specific, really need to be elaborated upon, and are extremely important to discuss. However, I won’t attempt to lump such important topics into a single, general discussion, but rather over the life of this blog I will work through examples and tips pertaining to all of the soft skills that I’ve identified in the PDF files (and more that I haven’t touched upon). For now however, I hope that the included list will stimulate you enough to evaluate your own degree of proficiency in each, and add a few more that I’ve overlooked. The better we are at mastering these vital skills, the more significant our contributions become and the more influence we have over our own destiny and the destiny of the pack.

I also won’t be wasting your time by defining and dissecting all of the possible hard skills an individual might need to perform a given function. That would truly be a waste of words and bandwidth. I will in some future posts call out a couple of specific hard skills to take a deeper look at, but for now, suffice it to say, an individual needs some level of proficiency in the hard skills that are required to perform certain functions, and these hard skills are highly individualized to your specific situation. The more proficient you are at these, the more creative and productive you become…it’s as simple as that.

Now to get to the meat (or veggies for those of you who lean that way) of this post, which is Behavior. Behavior is the culmination of all the elements I’ve been discussing so far in this series, plus two more; Needs, and Experience. To me, the concept of behavior is best represented visually rather than with just a wordy description. By looking at it holistically, the individual components seem easier to understand, and hopefully you will be able to “connect the dots” and see what’s driving some of your own behaviors. My goal here was not to write some all-inclusive thesis on the subject, but rather to highlight the key elements necessary for individuals to consciously take charge of their behaviors and channel their energies toward becoming the wolf they want to be.

You may recall (if you’ve read the page on this blog titled So why wolves?), I highlighted three key elements (or overall behaviors if you will) to being a wolf, which are:

  • Situational Awareness
  • Situational Adaptability
  • Social Intelligence

In order to become proficiency in these, we need a fourth element, which is Self-awareness. We need to truly understand our own strengths and weaknesses in order to optimize our ability to perform well in ALL situations. This self-awareness doesn’t happen by accident, but rather by design. It begins, as I’ve stated before, by recognizing how we will likely react to both people and problems by DEFAULT. These reactions stem from our experiences, skills, values and of course, our personality type, but it doesn’t have to end there. Frankly, I believe that this is where it BEGINS.

We always have a choice as to how we react in any given situation. If we don’t take the time to think about what to do, we will ALWAYS jump straight to our default behaviors. Often, this is not a bad thing, but if you practice asking yourself if it’s “the right thing to do” FIRST, the outcome will likely be better.

We need to make a conscious choice each and every time we’re faced with a new challenge. We need to quickly (often, instantaneously) assess the situation and determine the best course of action. This process ALWAYS starts with asking the right questions (of ourselves and/or others) which is probably THE most important soft skill that needs to mastered.

This “pregnant pause” before jumping into action doesn’t have to be a slow and plodding process. It can be a mere split second of assessment of the alternatives, and frankly, the more you practice this ability to “think and ask before leaping”, the easier it gets. Obviously, life threatening situations are different from product development situations and fielding tough questions at your next Board Meeting. Each situation has its own time-line of urgency, necessary levels of accuracy and precision, and of course, its own set of consequences if you screw it up.

I suggest that the next time you’re facing a difficult situation, that instead of just “looking before you leap”, you “think before you leap” and ask yourself WHY you think what you’re doing (or about to do) is the right choice. Look at the situation from more than one perspective. Ask yourself what someone else who doesn’t know what you know, would do, or ask a trusted colleague what they would do in this situation. Of course, don’t get stuck in “analysis paralysis”, but start to try to think differently, and see if you have an epiphany. You may still come up with the same reaction (or answer), but at least you’ve given yourself an opportunity to look at other possibilities. Oh, by the way…if you’re standing on the railroad tracks and you see a train coming and you decide to take a “pregnant pause” to contemplate your options…don’t take too long, and by all means, “jump AWAY from the tracks!”….I can’t afford the bad press about how I suggested that “you think about it before you act”. 😉

OK, so to summarize this series in a nut shell… “To GROW your inner wolf, you must KNOW your inner wolf”. You need to understand what makes you, YOU. You need to determine whether your current values, traits, and skills are “good enough” or require “realignment”. You need to evaluate your experience and actively decide whether your needs are being met to your satisfaction. You also need to think about “what’s coming next, or better yet, actively decide “where you want to go”. You need to do all the hard work necessary to enhance the things you like, and change the things that are holding you back.

I hope that this series has inspired you to take a long hard look at yourself, and while I haven’t really provided any solid answers for you at this point, I hope I’ve posed enough of the right questions to get you thinking about who you are, and what you want to do to become the wolf you want to be.

The interactive PDF file can be accessed by clicking the image directly below

For those of you who are more conservative, and would prefer to access a more “classic” PDF document, click the Thumbnail directly below for the “boring version” 😉

Better yet, check out both versions and let me know which one gives you the best “feel” for the material, and while you’re at it, let me know what you think about the subject matter…I’m really interested in knowing whether this series has stimulated anyone’s brain cells other than mine!

© 2010 John C. Rea and nothingbutwolves.wordpress.com

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