Whale Sharks

Solving problems is a hallmark of entrepreneurship. Challenges are presented every single day of our existence – some small, some large and some that are the size of a 41,000 pound Whale Shark. Regardless of their size, we know that we must persevere and work through the many issues we face. Let’s stop for a moment and think about our problem-solving encounters. Are they particularly stressful or do we handle them on a pretty even-keeled basis?

There have been periods in my career where problem-solving was extremely hard. Why? Because I made it so. There were times when nothing seemed to go right. It was like putting together a jig-saw puzzle and there was a piece that I absolutely, positively knew belonged in a specific location, but it wouldn’t quite fit. It was a maddening experience until I eventually figured out that I had jammed the correct piece in another spot – and that was also wrong. How did I feel? Frustrated is an understatement. At other times I’d be cruising along fixing little nits and nats along the way, only to find that other minor issues would keep cropping up. I remember putting together model airplanes as a kid. I might get a little too much glue on one part that would leak out through the seam. Or my hand wasn’t as steady as necessary and I’d get some paint in the wrong place. How did I feel? Irritated is the proper term.

Frustration, irritation, anger and anxiety are all emotions that we can feel when we are dealing with our challenges du jour. Then when a Whale Shark-sized problem swims by, it can push us over the edge into a full-blown meltdown. I’ve been there with all of this and I’m betting that you’ve been there too. Eliminating the drama in my life has been a priority in recent years. I decided to try and become more like a robot in this regard  . . . a robot named Zen! As time has passed, I’ve become much friendlier with Zen. I’m much less inclined to major in drama where problem-solving is concerned.

Here’s how I’m succeeding at experiencing less in the way of negative emotions when dealing with business and personal obstacles alike. I’m not a poker player but have watched enough poker to understand what a “poker face” is all about. So I try and emulate a poker player when I’m working a problem. It’s become a game for me to see if I can reach a solution without anyone (including myself) detecting frustration, irritation or any other unfavorable emotion. This works most of the time for small issues.

For larger problems I take a deep breath, smile and gulp in a healthy dose of positivity and optimism. Starting from a positive place is critical. Recently I heard someone reject optimism in favor of hope. To me, optimism is more of an action-oriented belief system. Hope is like keeping my fingers crossed. I’d rather place my trust in visualizing a positive outcome than keeping a rabbit’s foot in my pocket. Each step of the way I remind myself to stay positive and avoid the negative emotions. I look for the small victories along the way. And guess what – there are small victories in the midst of solving large challenges if we look for them. They are like stepping stones that take us from one side of the stream to the other without getting our feet wet.

Finally, here’s my approach to the Whale Shark problems. I get into a clinical state of mind. I map out a process from A to Z. My business colleagues know that I work a lot with spreadsheets and diagrams. I use these tools quite often to figure out the really big, hairy, tough stuff. This is where my robot, Zen, enters the picture. I love the story about Captain Sully Sullenberger who landed his US Airways aircraft on the Hudson River when both engines flamed out after ingesting a flock of geese. This man became a robot. In his mind he mapped out a solution to the problem. He remained calm and didn’t panic. Sully didn’t agonize over the decisions he made because there wasn’t time to do so. Embracing a process-driven approach and maintaining focus is the best way to avoid destructive negative emotions when solving the Whale Shark-sized problems.

We will succeed to a much greater degree when we learn how to control or eliminate negative emotions when solving problems. Then it doesn’t matter if the issue is small, large or of a Whale Shark scale – we’re well prepared.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 69 – Old Fashioned or New-Fangled?

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Oops . . .

I’ve said many times that mistakes are simply unfinished experiments in the laboratory of life. Too often we beat ourselves up over the mistakes that we make. Innovative forward-thinking entrepreneurs make a lot of mistakes. This is normal and necessary to some extent. It’s when the same mistake is made repeatedly that there’s real cause for concern.

Understanding how mistakes are made can be helpful in eliminating their repetition. Simply shrugging off a mistake as “an unfinished experiment” is a missed opportunity to gain deeper insight into why it happened and what can be learned. This also must be tempered in the other direction. We’ve all seen sports teams that play not to lose. Often this ends badly. We can become tentative and overly-focused on avoiding mistakes. And what happens then? We actually end up making even more mistakes.

I’ve learned quite a bit about mistake-making over the course of my life and career. Many were silly. Some were more significant. Fortunately none were ever life or death. Here’s what I’ve learned.

A number of my mistakes occurred because I failed to Plan. I shot from the hip or simply jumped into the water without any forethought. Plotting a course doesn’t mean having a 40-page business plan. But it’s important to think through the different steps that will be taken to reach the ultimate objective. In the process we also look for possible hiccups that might be encountered and determine what can be done to avoid or mitigate them.

With a plan in hand we make sure we have sufficient resources to effectively implement it. Further, we also determine if we (and/or our team) are adequately Educated on what we will need to do to succeed. A large percentage of mistakes are made because those implementing the plan aren’t fully up-to-speed on how to do so. Failure to be sufficiently educated on the “how” and to understand the context of a particular situation can have deadly consequences. Think about an auto mechanic who isn’t properly trained on how to re-connect a brake line on a particular model of car. Uh oh.

Following a plan and being educated on the “how” doesn’t guarantee a mistake-free execution if Process is ignored. On June 1, 2009, Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic Ocean killing all aboard. The report by the French Aviation agency, BEA, stated, “Temporary inconsistency between the measured airspeeds likely following the obstruction of the pitot probes by ice crystals that led in particular to autopilot disconnection and a reconfiguration to alternate law,” and “inappropriate control inputs that destabilized the flight path.” In other words, the pilots failed to follow the prescribed process for such conditions.

Here’s a cause for mistakes that happens more often to me than I care to admit. It’s called Distraction. I’ll be cranking away on a project and the phone will ring; someone stops by my office, or I need to dash off to an appointment. Unfortunately my project was interrupted and so was my train of thought. When I pick up where I left off I’m in the danger zone. Invariably there’s a gap that I can pinpoint as the root cause of whatever mistake ensues. More recently I’ve been trying to make some notes to myself before tending to the distraction.

Information Failure is usually referenced in the field of economics. But I think it can be broadened in more general terms to include mistakes that are made from bad information, bad facts and/or bad conclusions. There have been times that the data was old and I hadn’t bothered to make sure that it was current. And, there’s no doubt that I’ve drawn the wrong conclusion as a result of incomplete information.

We all want to minimize our mistakes. Understanding what causes them is the first step in this process. For me a failure to plan, be educated, follow process, becoming distracted and using bad or incomplete information are usually the reasons for my mistakes.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 39 – The Enemy.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

thenuttyprofessor

Urgently Patient

We entrepreneurs are a pretty restless bunch. Most of us have an ultra-high sense of urgency. I know that I certainly fall into this category. I plead guilty to always wanting things to happen a lot faster than they do. And I do realize that this creates a level of stress for the people I work with. But I’m also one of the most patient people you’ll ever meet. Huh? Does this seem like a complete contradiction? Let me explain.

My urgency meter moves quickly into the red zone when I encounter bureaucracy or if there are delays in implementation. I guess I feel like we’re all living on borrowed time and there’s a lot I want to accomplish before my time is up. Thus, anything that wastes time or energy causes anguish for me. Recently I worked with a state agency on a particular matter that took two months to finally resolve. I had a pleasant conversation with the government employee and suggested that there must be a faster way to conclude the matter. She explained that two months in government time is “lightning speed.” Unfortunately she’s probably right. In the private sector the matter would have been handled in a matter of days or perhaps even hours. Fortunately I have a great relationship with the head of this agency. At the time of this writing, I’m working with him and his team to create a more expedited manner in which to deal with issues of the kind I encountered.

Here’s a key point. My sense of urgency is with the process. I want things to be efficient. I want things to be cost-effective. I want the manner in which something is accomplished to happen quickly. In my world there’s no place for analysis-paralysis or indecision. We don’t need a committee to make decisions. It’s important to get input from different members of the team and their buy-in is critical. But someone must then step-up, take charge and lead. Poor communications is a killer of initiative and creates bottlenecks. If communication isn’t clear and concise, time is wasted when clarification is sought. All of this is process-related.

I said I’m a patient individual as well as having a high sense of urgency. Here’s another key point. I am patient when it comes to results. I’m in the type of business where results don’t materialize overnight. I have come to realize this after more than 40-years in the trenches. My philosophy is that if we take care of the basics and fundamentals through well-designed systems and processes, the results will take care of themselves. I can wait months or even years for the results because that’s often what it takes.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Suppose you and I are farmers. We must get a crop in the ground by date certain or we’ll have to wait an entire season to plant again. We know the steps that must be taken. The soil must be tilled, the seeds drilled into the furrows and covered, fertilizer must be applied and the crop must be irrigated. We’re racing the clock to get in and out of the field. There’s no time for a committee to decide what crop we’re going to plant and where, when or how we’re going to plant it. We work our process with precision and complete the planting with days to spare. Now we wait patiently for the crop to grow, nurturing it as required by our process until it’s ready for harvest.

We can have a high sense of urgency and be patient, all at the same time. Our urgency lies with developing and implementing an efficient process, and our patience comes in waiting for the results.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

stopwatch

Mistake-Prone

I have a philosophy that mistakes are simply unfinished experiments in the laboratory of life. That doesn’t mean we want to leave unfinished the same experiment over and over. But being too tentative and too cautious to avoid making a mistake may itself be a mistake! The obvious conclusion is that we want to learn from our mistakes and turn them into productive experiences.

To turn our mistakes into productive experiences we need to analyze them in a process-oriented manner. Being a go-go entrepreneur, it’s not easy for me to slow down long enough to reflect on what went wrong. Generally I just want to get back in the game and do it right the next time. This worked somewhat well in the past, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that being more intentional about analyzing mistakes increases the odds of not making the same mistake again. It also has caused me to look for the “silver lining” – that nugget of information that might enable me to turn the mistake into something unintentionally positive.

Step One in my mistake analysis process involves the simple act of identifying what went wrong and writing it down. Yes, I know this takes time, but it forces us to take a hard look at what happened. Did I follow an established process or did I deviate from it – maybe even wing it? Did I fail to build-in a sufficient margin of safety at the front end? Did I somehow ignore warning signals that were flashing at me? Was I driven by emotion or was my initiative grounded in facts? I’ve found that most of my mistakes came from deviating from an established process. Because of my go-go nature I want results to happen very quickly. By analyzing my mistakes I’ve recognized a tendency pattern to cut corners.

Step Two requires that we consciously determine what we need to do differently and commit to do it. Knowing that I have the propensity to cut corners, I have become committed to following established processes. Before I move forward with anything I’m doing, I stop myself and ask the simple question, “What is the process that needs to be followed?” I make certain that I know exactly what the process should be and then I affirm, “I know the process and I will follow it.” Sometimes I may even make this pledge to a close colleague for accountability sake.

The final step in mistake analysis is that of looking for the “silver lining.” History is littered with mistakes that resulted in brilliance. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin due to a mistake he made in his lab. Another famous mistake at the 3M laboratories turned into Post-it Notes. Plastic was invented as the result of a mistake – some say that Charles Goodyear left a mixture of rubber and sulfur on the stove too long and found that he had created a new material. Wilson Greatbatch was building a heart rhythm recording device in 1956; used a wrong part, and realized that the device would maintain a heart rhythm – thus the pacemaker was born. If we don’t look for the silver linings in our mistakes we may never find that little (or big) something that manifests into a positive development. Finding the silver lining requires a creative mindset – perhaps this is an exercise that can be done with others. Take the mistake and purposefully look through the “rubble” to see if there’s anything of value that might be useful.

Mistakes don’t have to be the end of the world for us if we take the time to find out what happened; how we’re going to act differently in the future and committing to such different action, and finding the silver linings that may be hiding in plain sight.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

mistakes

Sliced Bread

Question: I’ve been working for the past two years on bringing my dream idea to fruition. And it seems like it’s two steps forward and three steps backwards. When do I know it’s time to throw in the towel?

Answer: This question really resonates with me. Over the course of the past 40 years I can’t tell you how many dream ideas I’ve pushed, prodded, cajoled, coaxed and dragged, trying to get them across the finish line. Fortunately I’ve succeeded more often than I’ve failed, but there definitely have been a number that succumbed along the way.

Something I learned may surprise you. I’ve discovered that becoming emotionally invested in an idea can be dangerous. You may rightly ask, “How can we work to realize our dream without emotion and passion?” And here’s where the distinction comes for me. I am very passionate about the process of creating an idea and taking the steps necessary to implement it successfully. But I try and avoid becoming emotionally attached to the idea itself. By doing so, I can pursue an idea up to the point that it appears to be no longer viable and then discard it, moving on to the next idea.

Here’s what happens when we take a “this is my baby” approach to nurturing an idea. The process of birthing the idea takes on an emotional dimension that can blind us to things that we may not want to see. As a result we may not maintain our objectivity and might even miss some critical signals that would otherwise steer us in a different direction. We tend to have tunnel vision, believing that our idea is the best thing in the world since sliced bread. Yet others may not see what we think we see. So we start trying to sell people on our idea . . . rather than helping them buy it. When we don’t get the response we’re looking for we may begin to put pressure on ourselves to push the idea over the top. Then the frustration builds to the point that we’re ready to scream. By now our creative flow of energy has been blocked by our frustration and there is no way we’re going to succeed.

What works for me is to remove the emotion from the idea and replace it with a process. This process includes milestones and metrics that help me determine if I’m making progress in developing an idea. I’m also more receptive to pivots that may be necessary – that is, changes in direction that I need to take to ensure that the idea succeeds or is enhanced. More than anything, it’s liberating to know when an idea needs to be thrown on the scrap heap. I can now do this with ease, knowing that I did what was reasonable to make it work and recognized when it wasn’t meant to be.

Becoming emotionally invested in our dreams may actually hinder our success. Having passion for the process of realizing a dream will help us relax and maintain our creative flow.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

sliced bread

Time Masters

Question: I am so busy I meet myself coming and going. There isn’t a spare moment for anything. I need more hours in the day!

Answer: Each one of us has the same number of hours in the day. And yet some people seem to get more done with less hassle. Their secret isn’t on the face of a clock. The key to stretching the day starts in the mind.

When we make the statement, “there just isn’t enough time,” we are making a powerful affirmation of limitation. This becomes a mindset – a belief actually. I’ve said many times that what we believe in our minds will become reality and I’ve proven this to myself over and over. Thus, I have expunged this statement from my vocabulary – I want to create a “limitation-free zone” around myself.

I have found that once I establish a positive mindset about time, the rest comes fairly easily. Every evening before I go to bed, I plan my next day. Getting older means we’ve accumulated more mind clutter. To keep everything straight I maintain a comprehensive task list of everything that I have to do. The items to which I need to attend the following day are prioritized for that day. I use my task list and my calendar in tandem – both are electronic which makes it so much easier to function in today’s fast-paced world. The process of spending a few moments reviewing my calendar; my task list, and plotting a course of action for the next day gives me total peace of mind. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night wondering what I’m forgetting that is important.

Armed with a plan, I’m able to move through each day with a clear purpose. I block out certain times for phone calls, reviewing e-mails, and other routine functions. There’s a little sense of victory every time I’m able to “check off” a task as complete which keeps me upbeat about the progress I am making.

To become time masters, we must start with the right frame of mind and avoid putting limitations on ourselves. Then with a combination of process, purpose and focus, we move effortlessly through each day, savoring the fact that we are able to enjoy every second of it.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Hourglass

Once and For All

Question: I have some less-than-desirable habits that I’d like to change. I’ve tried before but somehow I run out of gas. Is there a secret to gaining self-discipline?

Answer: Welcome to the club. Like everyone else, we entrepreneurs have things we’d like to change about our lives. Our challenge is to make certain that our bad habits don’t get in the way of our success. Obviously some habits are of more concern than others. Gambling, drugs, alcohol, infidelity – these are issues that can prevent or destroy success. Getting professional help to solve them may be the right move. But there are other habits that we can deal with. Do you want to exercise more or quit smoking? How about losing weight or even something as simple as not interrupting someone else when they are talking?

I wish I could tell you that the answer is simple, and actually . . . it is. What it all boils down to is making a choice. We fail so often at changing things in our lives because we aren’t ready to make the “once-and-for-all” choice. I enjoyed smoking pipes and cigars for many years but one day more than eleven years ago I decided that it would be healthier not to smoke. So I quit cold turkey. I was just ready to make the “once-and-for-all” choice. Something clicked for me. It was a realization that I was having a ball living my life and my smoking habit might someday interrupt all that fun – as in my early demise.

Until we have the epiphany that results in a “once-and-for-all” choice, we’ll never eliminate the bad habit we want to break or launch that great new habit we want to start. Becoming self-disciplined is a process. As entrepreneurs we know that much of the success in our businesses comes through a dedication to process. Start this process by taking inventory. If there are habits you’d like to eliminate (or good habits you want to start), make a list of them. Decide which is most important and focus on it only. As the saying goes, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. If you try to tackle everything at once it may be an overwhelming experience. Think hard about what you expect to gain from making the change you want to make. Write down everything that comes to mind. When the “aha moment” arrives you’ll know you are ready to make the change. If you try to force yourself to become more self-disciplined it is likely that you’ll be frustrated when this approach doesn’t work. Only when that “aha” spark occurs will you make the “once-and-for-all” choice. And then the change that happens will be permanent.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By, available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.