One example, anyway

Also: You wouldn’t want to know the true cost of all the wasted effort that comes from budget measures becoming targets

Also: There’s a better way to budget

Question

Our department is having a terrific year. But the organization isn’t meeting its budget target for an important revenue driver. With a quarter left in the fiscal year, there’s now frenetic energy around achieving an outcome that, absent a miracle, we’re probably not going to achieve. My staff is exhausted. I’m a little tired, too. What should I do?

Answer

You, your staff, and I all know it’d likely be more productive to direct the organization’s response to the next fiscal year. So there’s a reason behind the reason the reaction to the poor budget performance is coming at this late stage—what do you think it is?

Your hypothesis is where I’d direct my attention. There’s some corporate theater playing out. Find where you can be a supporting actor beneficial to your longer-term interests and give the part your best shot.

You’re (probably) going to have to do what you have to do over the next three months, as far as the organization response goes. I’ll mention the importance of constructively voicing your concerns if you feel it appropriate. 

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The more consequential management task is that of your employees’ energy levels. You noted they’re already exhausted—why is that? Your department is having a great year and everyone is tired? 

I’m wary of what that forecasts for the next twelve months. Consider having honest conversations regarding the momentary kabuki. It’s better than ignoring what everyone is seeing and feeling. 

It’s time for the opening curtain on addressing the issues contributing to your collective departmental weariness. Of all the challenges you’re facing, it’s one that can swiftly ruin the show.

One last thing: This situation is going to play out again and again in your organization (and all the others) while the industry vacillates between fee-for-service and value-based forms of reimbursement. It’s a classic systems issue.

That system is the budget.

The way organizations budget is by creating forecasts. In those forecasts are absolute measures that represent assumptions, such as the budget target for the important revenue driver you mention. Our jobs are to manage against those absolute measures. 

Those absolute measures, informed by the past but often not all that well informed by the moment, have a tendency to encourage short-term decision making at the expense of longer-term organizational priorities. It can result in wasted effort—as you’re experiencing—and wasted resources, when unallocated budget dollars are used in a year-end spending spree for superfluous needs. It can also lead to more calamitous consequences like missed competitive opportunities and unethical behavior.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Goodhart’s Law? It states: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure,” is how Marilyn Strathern put it.

The budget problem is a problem worth solving (especially as it’s one of the most important challenges influencing negative organizational outcomes), although it may be a problem for future you when you’re in charge rather than attempting a reformation from the middle of the organization at this moment.

One idea from the budget reformation that may help you now is that of relative measurement. Rather than using a yes-or-no absolute measure which can contribute to untoward behavior, a relative measure compares performance—against a previous time period or group of competitors, for example—resulting in a more holistic approach to achieving business outcomes.

Rather than pursuing a revenue goal at all costs, decision makers are encouraged to pursue a revenue goal in the context of other things that support long-term business success like energized employees, collaborating across departments, longer-term competitive interests, and (especially relevant to healthcare reimbursement) business model transformation. 

Relative measures are one way to make the annual performance planning and review process better for everyone involved. Compare individual employee performance this year against their performance last year and you’re promoting learning and development and taking a step toward a better culture.

All that to say: keep doing good work and good luck. Change is a flip, not a journey.

You hate meetings. I do, too.

But there’s a real reason we’re spending all our time in them: meetings are a natural response to our increasing need for more coordination, cooperation, and collaboration. Working in complexity is complex, after all.

And since most organizations don’t work on the work nearly as much as they should, we get invited to more meetings because they’re an easy solution for when we need more coordination, cooperation, and collaboration.

Coordinating, cooperating, and collaborating do a good job summarizing what we do all day, don’t they?

While all of us are begging for fewer meetings so we can actually get some work done, for at least one person at each meeting you attend, that meeting is how they are getting their work done. Meetings are (probably) how you get work done, too.

That means meetings are (almost certainly) not the problem and there are (almost certainly) broader organization challenges creating the need for more and more and more meetings. 

So while meetings receive our ire because they prevent us from getting done what we need to get done, they are an available tool—often the available tool—for the increasing coordination, cooperation, and collaboration our jobs require. 

Meetings are what you make them. It’s true that meeting leaders carry significant responsibility for making sure good meetings happen. It’s also true that meeting attendees carry significant responsibility for making sure good meetings happen. 

Here are a few questions to ask yourself before and after your next meeting as an attendee. Being intentional about your responsibilities will help you make (more) change happen.

Two versions: the conspicuous (Google Presentation) for a little pizazz in your day; and the inconspicuous (Google Document), for a pastime in a meeting you’re sitting in right now.

This article also appeared on LinkedIn

It’s easy to take for granted the professional development that comes with, well … just working.

Take your first job, for instance. It was perfectly acceptable to learn the skills of working while you worked. Your employer accepted that as an entry-level employee there would be a period of learning before you were, as they say, up to speed.

Why step off the accelerator?

Are you ever skilled enough at running meetings, having difficult conversations, managing projects, collaborating with colleagues, or anything else important to you and your continuing development as a professional?

Yet for many of us, it becomes comfortable to amble along throughout our careers rarely working to become really good at skills core to the performance of our jobs in a conscientious way.

The OK Plateau

This is the OK Plateau.

And for just about all of your skills, it’s where you are.

The OK Plateau, so named by Joshua Foer, is the phase of learning where a skill becomes automatic. It’s the final phase of a skill acquisition framework proposed by psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner in 1967. They called it the autonomous phase and it’s the phase of learning where you’re using a skill and not thinking much about it.

Driving is a good example. You probably didn’t think much about your driving skills the last time you drove a car. That’s the autonomous phase.

But there was a time when you thought quite a lot about developing those skills.

That’s called the cognitive phase and it’s the first stage of skill development. You were developing knowledge and learning the explicit skills of driving: understanding road signs, the purpose of a turn signal, what the accelerator does, and the like.

The middle stage, associative, is the phase of applying your knowledge to develop a skill. It’s practice. It’s what you were doing when you first got behind the wheel and continued to do until you became so comfortable with driving that you stopped thinking much about the activity.

And once you were using the skill and not thinking much about it, you were on the OK Plateau.

The OK Plateau is a decidedly okay place to be. A skill that sits on the OK Plateau is one that has no obvious reason for any further improvement. It’s the place of competence. It’s good enough.

And being good enough at the set of skills required to do your job was good enough for nearly a hundred years.

Then it changed.

Working in Complexity

That’s not quite right. It’s been changing. It’s going to continue to change.

And that’s the point.

At the center of the change is our increasing awareness of complexity and, as it happens, working in a complex environment is starkly different than working in a complicated environment.

A complicated environment is predictable. So when a problem occurs you know exactly what to do. And if you’ve been working long enough, you probably have the knowledge required to solve the problem. That’s the work approach we’ve been using for the last decade.

In complexity, however, there is constant surprise. A problem in complexity is always new. It may share characteristics with previous problems, but something about it makes it different than any other problem that has been solved before. So when a problem occurs in a complex environment, no one knows exactly what the solution is, it must be figured out through action. Complexity requires a different approach to work altogether.

That approach is learning while working and more specifically: learning from doing.

It’s learning that can only happen as a result of applying new knowledge in practice. We try a course of action, we learn as a result of that activity, and then figure out what to do next.

In other words: practice.

But it isn’t just practice for the sake of practice, it’s practice for the purpose of pursuing mastery.

I define mastery as doing your job so damn well that other people take notice of your capabilities.

Dan Pink defined it as the desire to get better at something that matters.

“Mastery,” writes management exorcist (his description) Niels Pflaeging, “is the capability to solve new problems.”

And managing new problems in complexity is what you’re going to be doing for the rest of your long and brilliant career.

Taking Control of Your Career

The constant flow of new problems means intentionally getting better at the work you do isn’t just a good professional practice, it’s becoming a necessity.

And contrary to any belief you may have about “being developed,” the only person who can develop you is you.

Coaches, mentors, teachers, peers, bosses, and other social influences can be helpful, to be certain, but their assistance often misses the same essential step to learning that conferences, trainings, books, articles, and most other professional development activities miss, too: putting new knowledge into practice.

Work practice is a way to use all those new knowledge opportunities for what they are: starting points for trying a course of action.

Because to learn or improve a skill, it’s not enough to think it, you have to do it. Often over and over, getting a little better each time. That’s practice. A purposeful, focused, and systematic effort that requires preparation and self-reflection.

Sounds a little like the work you already do, doesn’t it?

Practicing at work gives you an intentional approach to learning from the work while you do the work.

And if you’re already doing the work, why not make it work for you, too?

Work Practice

Pursuing mastery through practice by applying new knowledge in practice is how you consistently learn and improve the skills required to manage new problems in complexity and make change happen in your career, your organization, and the industry.

With Work Practice: Develop a Practice Habit & Take Control of Your Career, you’ll be introduced to a proven system designed and developed to help you practice in the flow of the work you’re already doing.

Through seven lessons, each intended to be completed in under 15 minutes, you’ll learn:

  • Why our growing awareness of complexity and the dynamic work environment it creates demands a constant orientation toward learning
  • The theoretical foundation and practical importance of practice as a professional development activity, and
  • An evidence-based practice process and how to make practice a part of your daily work routine

After completing Work Practice, you’ll be using a purposeful, focused, and systematic approach to improving the professional skills important to you, all by spending a few minutes before doing the work and a few minutes after.

Florida State University professor Anders Ericsson’s research backs up the premise: deliberate practice will make you better at the work you do.

Here’s what he writes in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, “In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way. If you practice something for a few hundred hours, you will almost certainly see great improvement—but you have only scratched the surface. You can keep going and going and going, getting better and better and better. How much you improve is up to you.”

Does it sound unprofessional? It’s not because it’s required! There isn’t another way to work in complexity, which is discussed in the first lesson sent directly to your inbox following your purchase. Try, Learn, Adapt is all we have. In fact, treating complex problems as if they were complicated problems is only likely to make them worse.

Who could argue with a purposeful, focused, and systematic approach to work that includes preparation and self-reflection, anyway? Not anyone I want to work with.

Work Practice uses existing professional development efforts as the starting points they are, introduces a systematic process for moving off the OK Plateau for the skills we care about, and uses the most important professional development opportunity all of us participate in every hour of our work days: the work itself, all in the effort to improve the skills necessary for making change happen in your career, your organization, and the industry while you work.

Learn more about Work Practice: Develop a Practice Habit and Take Control of Your Career

You’re a healthcare administrator so you have strong feelings about meetings and you continue attending them because attending meetings is what healthcare administrators do when they’re not responding to email.

But imagine if meetings became what you do when you needed to get something done. 

Here’s an idea from the design world that may do just that: Bring a prototype to every meeting.

A prototype is something that turns the idea in your head into something tangible. It’s an early demonstration of the idea in action. Rather than just conversation, it’s something to react to. It gives others the ability to experience, assess, and improve the idea. Most importantly, in the context of a meeting, a prototype ensures progress.

Think back to the trouble you (probably) had the last time you tried communicating your technology needs to the experts. Perhaps a sketch of a proposed software interface would have helped you communicate the ideas to an IT team more so than a labored conversation about requirements.

The same can be true for your non-technology projects, too.

A prototype is intended to create a scale model of something larger. It’s not intended to be a finished product. 

Mock up an idea using Powerpoint or one of many available online tools. Engage a colleague to act out a scripted experience. Use Post-It Notes and a Sharpie. Add cardboard and construction paper if it helps. Think low fidelity and low-cost. The Interaction Design Foundation has a nice and concise overview of prototyping methods here and know “There can never be an exhaustive list of prototyping methods since there is quite literally an endless number of ways you can build prototypes.”

Diego Rodriguez, the former Global Managing Director at IDEO and current Chief Product and Design Officer at Intuit, says to expect three things to happen when you begin bringing a prototype to every meeting: 

First, a lot of your meetings will evaporate. Those that shouldn’t happen in the first place, the ones where nothing gets done, won’t. If you can’t bring a prototype of your latest thinking, there’s a simple solution: don’t have the meeting.

Second, the meetings you do have will be awesome. With something concrete in the room, discussions will be more productive and actionable, and the level of shared understanding and alignment will go through the roof.

Finally, bring more prototypes to meetings, and you’ll boost levels of performance and engagement across your organization.

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Of course, once you implement the prototype rule, the best meetings will be the meetings led by you. And in that regard, Allan Chochinov, the founding partner and editor-in-chief of design magazine Core77 and the chair and co-founder of the Products of Design graduate program at the School of Visual Arts, has an idea that takes the prototype rule even further: stop calling them meetings and start calling them reviews. 

He explains with an example:

Let’s take a look at this in action: Your calendar says that you have a “meeting at 3:30pm today.” Okay, now imagine that, instead, it read that you have a “review at 3:30pm today.” You’d look pretty silly going empty-handed to a review, right? It’s right there in the definition of the word “review” that the implicit (or actually, explicit) point of that gathering is to review stuff. Indeed, you would need to prepare something—anything—if you were going to a gathering of workmates that was labeled a review. (A “meeting” on the other hand doesn’t have any expectation built into it at all. And it already sounds dreadful).

He continues, “The effect of these ‘entry fees’ is to surface new knowledge, and to give the meeting participants something to react to; we all know that it’s far easier, and more fun, to react to something in front of our face than to try to dream up something out of thin air.”

So there you go: make your meetings productive by converting them to reviews, implying a cost of entry, and leveraging prototypes as a method of progress.

Thanksgiving! A holiday with no gift giving requirements and a distribution of household labor (the cooking, the baking, cleaning the dishes, turkey carving, beer fetching, cocktail mixing…) where the expectations are inherently agreed upon.

It also gives many of us a reason to think about other people—a collective, country-wide exercise that happens on the same day each year.

And if you’ll pardon a blunt segue from the dinner table to the boardroom table, thinking about other people is something much of the workforce could do more often—and specifically thinking about work situations from the perspective of another.

Thinking about work situations from the perspective of a boss, employee, colleague, etc. is a critical tool that separates strategically-minded achievers from the rest of the workforce.

Because most of us rarely see the world from any other angle than our own. 

I was reminded of the idea this week while listening to Brian Koppelman interview Jenna Fischer—you might know her better as Pam from The Office—on his podcast The Moment. Fischer tells the story of sitting through a network test audition for a pilot episode of a new TV show in a room full of actors, writers, producers, and network executives.

An actor thinks everybody is just thinking about their performance and how good they are but in reality everyone has something at stake because when the actor goes in the room and starts performing the material if the actor isn’t “doing well” … I talk to writers and directors who are like “oh my god it’s me, I wrote wrong” or “I’ve directed that person wrong” … everybody is feeling the nerves in the room and that’s why those rooms are so tense I think because everybody thinks it’s about them but it’s about all of our parts.

The actor thinks it’s about them. The writer thinks it’s about them. The producer thinks it’s about them. The network executives definitely think it’s about them.

But of course it’s about everybody. The actor needs the writer and the producer. The writer needs the actor and the producer. The producer needs the actor and the writer. And everyone needs the network executives. The end product suffers if anyone loses sight of the intentions and motives of any other.

In the workplace we call the intentions and motives of other people an agenda. It’s usually used with a negative connotation but understanding another person’s agenda is key to achievement in the workplace. Knowing why other people are making the decisions they’re making will help you make your own. 

Lacking agenda awareness as you sit around a boardroom table is akin to arriving at the Thanksgiving dinner table with the intention of having a sensible political discussion. It could be bad for your relationships.