Quick Take: Coaches, Catalysts, and Change

It seems like every year we have to do more with less (or more with the same as before). The expectations of our customers, stakeholders, and managers go up, while we don’t necessarily get more time, budget, or people to meet those expectations.

So we have to figure out how to work more effectively and efficiently to ensure our outputs and outcomes increase, even if our inputs don’t.

We need help doing more each year, and help doing it with the same or less than we had last year. We need to get more effective, and we need to do it as fast as we can. We need to speed up our rate of improvement and to do that we must speed up our rate of change.

If you need a change to occur and you need it to happen quickly, take a lesson from chemistry and use a catalyst.

A catalyst helps a change (chemical reaction) occur faster, using less energy.

In this excerpted explainer video, the visual analogy they use is a road. If you need to go from A to B, there is a winding road that will get you there on your own. It is slow and inefficient.

If you use a catalyst, the catalyst opens up a shorter, more direct, and more efficient path to get you where you need to go. Put another way, the presence of a catalyst creates a shortcut.

In the same way catalysts help chemical reactions occur more quickly and use less energy, coaches do the same thing for executives, leaders, individuals, teams, and organizations.

Coaches help you move from A to B by opening up pathways you may not be able to access by yourself. As catalysts, coaches enable you to get farther faster.

The next time you want to work faster or more effectively, consider taking a lesson from chemistry…invite a coach to support you as your catalyst for change.

Quick Take: Outcomes and Butterflies

The Blue Morpho butterfly has the most vibrant blue color seen anywhere in nature. And yet, it contains no blue pigment. Blue pigment is how most things (natural or not) look blue.

99.9% of the time1 when you want blue, you’d use a blue pigment. That’s the way it is done most of the time, and it is natural to assume that if you want something to be blue, pigments might be the best/only way to do it.

But if you’re getting the outcomes you want, why do you care what process is used?

This is is a good example of the types of outcomes you can get as a leader when you focus on ‘what’ you want rather than ‘how’ your team does the work.

Focus on the outcome. Focus on ‘what’ you want. And be supportive and enthusiastic when you get ‘what’ you want, even if it isn’t done ‘how’ you expected it would be.

  1. It is a well known fact that 67% of statistics are made up on the spot. ↩︎

Treating the Symptoms

Imagine you’ve lived in your home for a while. Over time you’ve noticed a few things need maintenance and repair.

One time you notice that your dining table isn’t level. It isn’t off by much, but if you set a marble on the table, it slowly and reliably rolls off.

You think, “no big deal” and you put a little bit of cardboard under a leg to level the table.

Some time goes by and later you notice in that same room there is a small crack in the paint on one wall. It isn’t huge, but it is noticeable.

You think, “no big deal” and you patch the crack and touch up the paint.

Some time goes by and later you notice in the same room that one of the doors sticks when you try to open it. The door still works fine, but the sticking is annoying.

You think, “no big deal” and you shim the door hinges and sand one corner of the door, and everything is fixed.

Some time goes by and later you notice that in a different room, a new room, the table isn’t level, there is a small crack in the wall and the door sticks.

What do you do?

Continue reading “Treating the Symptoms”

What vs How

As a leader, when you want something done, is it better to focus on the problem or the solution?

The problem can be thought of as ‘what’ needs to change. The ‘what’ can be a problem to solve, an opportunity to address, or a desired future state you’d like to see created.

The solution can be thought of as ‘how’ your team will address the problem. The ‘how’ is the approach, direction, or path that will lead to the changes you’d like to see.

So which should you care about more?  The ‘what’ or the ‘how’?

Continue reading “What vs How”

Quick Take – Servant Leadership

Servant leaders will never get the credit they deserve.

Servant leaders work to get the job done, as all leaders do, and they work to support and grow the capacity and capability of their team.

If servant leaders are effective, their teams become stronger, more resilient, and they feel that their success is due to their own effort and hard work.

There is a quote that I haven’t been able to accurately source that sums this up very well. It is attributed to Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching. Translations vary1 but the core of it is this:

The worst leader is one who is feared. The good leader is one who is celebrated. The greatest leader works so that when success occurs, the people will say, ‘We did it all by ourselves.” – Lao Tzu

Whether the quote is accurately translated or interpreted, its core message is that the highest form of leadership is centered on those who are led.

When someone acts as a true servant leader, the individuals being led feel that their successes are due to themselves, rather than the leader.

Servant leaders will never get the credit they deserve. And this is an inescapable truth of servant leadership.

If you are a successful servant leader, then by definition you will not get the credit, the team will. This can be difficult to accept in cultures that prize individual achievement and believe that the leader, rather than the team creates the success.

Therefore, the irony is that if you are not getting the recognition you feel you deserve as a servant leader, that can be evidence of your effectiveness.

And even if the powers-that-be don’t fully recognize your contribution, know that there are other servant leaders out there who see it clearly and appreciate it.

Servant leaders, thank you for what you do.

  1. An example. Many variations on the quote. Another variation. Another example, showing chapter 17 as the source. . ↩︎

First Make It Work, Then Make It Work Well

Imagine you are lost in the mountains in late autumn. The temperature begins to drop and snow begins to fall. You have no tent or blanket and are in for a very rough and dangerous night.

What do you want in that moment? What you want is to come across a well-appointed log cabin in the woods with power, heat, running water, a roaring fire, a stocked pantry, and a phone so you can call for help.

But what do you truly need in that moment? You need a safe place to sleep.

Given a choice between a builder who will create your log cabin that you can move into in 9 months, or MacGyver1 who can build you a shelter in the next hour, which would you choose?

Continue reading “First Make It Work, Then Make It Work Well”

An Experiment in Accountability – Interim Results

In May of 2023 I started an experiment in accountability. I committed to publish one post per week for the remainder of the year.

And, to ensure that I fulfilled my commitment, I auto-scheduled all the posts for the remainder of the year with an embarrassing message that I had failed to deliver, and how to contact me (via email or phone) to encourage me to do better.

Interim results: I’ve published one post per week. That’s 24 posts since I began the experiment. And 24 posts is approximately the same number of published posts I had on the site when I started the experiment.

Put another way, I produced the same number of posts in 5 months than I did in the previous 9 years.

On the goal of writing and publishing more frequently, the experiment is an undeniable success.

Along the way I’ve observed a few things.

Continue reading “An Experiment in Accountability – Interim Results”

The Household Budget Prioritization Method

Prioritization is the #1 thing that leaders struggle with. Prioritization can then be considered the top priority for leaders.

But wait, managing budgets, hiring and maintaining a top-notch team can’t be less important than prioritization!

This is true, however all leaders find a way to manage budgets and hire teams. And in some way, all leaders prioritize. But do they follow a specific, repeatable, transparent process? Generally not.

And part of the challenge is that the prevailing wisdom on prioritization is simplistic and wrong.

Continue reading “The Household Budget Prioritization Method”

The ABCs of Prioritization

When you begin work on an initiative or something smaller like an individual feature or deliverable, it is important to know that not every piece of what you are about to start will have the same priority.

There will be items that are mandatory, items that are important, and items that are nice-to-have. Unless you can identify and classify which items are in which category, you run the risk of wasting time and effort on lower-priority items.

And, if you are in a complex environment where the needs of customers evolve quickly, you need a prioritization method that encourages fast feedback.

Here is a simple prioritization method that will help you identify the priority of the items within your work.

Continue reading “The ABCs of Prioritization”

Quick Take: The Question Ratio for Leaders

As a leader, you juggle many competing priorities. You are accountable for delivering against your department’s goals, staying aligned with your leader’s goals, managing budgets, putting out fires, planning for the future, managing performance of your team, and so on and so on.

Hopefully among all those competing priorities is a desire to grow the capacity and the capability of your department and the members within it.

You want your group to become stronger and more effective over time. To do this, you must develop the leadership capacity within your department.

There are many ways to develop leadership. Some are expensive, some are complicated, and many take a lot of time and investment.

One, however, is quick, easy, and you can implement it immediately: improve your question ratio.

Your question ratio is measured by comparing how many sentences you write or speak end with a question mark versus a period. The more questions you ask and the fewer declarative statements you make, the higher your ratio.

If you want to develop your leaders, you need to increase your question ratio. You should be asking more questions.

As a leader the people that work for you listen to you. They listen to you and they do what you ask them to do. They have to as you have a large amount of control over their livelihood. This makes them inclined to go along with what you say, whether they agree with it or not.1

And once they hear that you’ve decided something or formed an opinion, it is in their best interest to listen and act on that decision or opinion. When you share your opinion, it often signals the end of the conversation, even if your team has a lot of other great ideas or open questions.

I am sure that you became the leader of your group because you have excellent experience, ideas, communication skills, presence, vision, and so on.

And yet, it isn’t possible for you to be well informed on every topic. You cannot be part of every decision. You cannot review each piece of work output before it is delivered.

Simply put, your organization cannot increase its effectiveness if you as the leader become the bottleneck.

So how do you begin to help your group become more effective? Ask more questions.

When they bring you a decision and ask for your opinion, don’t give it to them. Resist the urge to reply with a sentence that ends with a period. Reply with a question instead.

Instead of saying, “Thank you for sharing, I think we should do X,” or “I think we should to X rather than Y,” ask a question.

“What are the implications of doing X?”

“How does X compare to option Y?”

“What did you consider but ultimately discard in favor of X?”

“What if it wasn’t X or Y? What would option Z be?”

When you reply with a question, you help them analyze the decision in different ways. You help them learn to think more like a leader by considering additional possibilities. Asking questions is one of the most powerful ways of helping them grow and develop.

So rather than, “You haven’t considered the budget implications of this plan,” try “What are the budget implications of this plan?”

Phrasing this as a question rather than a declarative statement keeps the dialog going. If they have considered the budget implications, they will have an easy answer (and you won’t have accused them of not being thorough in their work).

However, if they haven’t considered the budget implications, then they quickly understand that they have more work to do before they can bring the topic back to you for a decision. And, they will learn that in the future, they should bring the budget analysis with them the first time.

To increase the capacity and effectiveness of your department, help your leaders learn what questions they should be asking. Do this by increasing your question ratio.

The next time you have an urge to declare your opinion in front of the people who work for you, pause. Pause and reformulate that statement as a question.

Or to restate the above in a different way…what would happen if the next time you wanted to share your opinion with your department, you took a pause instead? What possibilities might emerge if you found a question to ask instead of making a statement?

See how that works better as a question?

  1. I learned this lesson firsthand when I moved from being a technology leader to being a coach. I had exactly the same great ideas as a coach as I did as a leader, but I soon found that when I suggested something, people didn’t immediately take what I said and put it into action. Either my ideas had become bad overnight, or maybe the primary reason people listened to my suggestions is because I was their manager. ↩︎