Stay flexible—“90% of the time we were off course”

I recently heard a lecture given by an engineer who worked on the Apollo 11 mission that put Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins on the moon. He said that during the entire flight, “90% of the time we were off course.” The target stayed the same—land on the moon—but getting there required constant monitoring and adjustments. There was no cruise control function during the nine days it took to get there and back.

Our lives are also unpredictable and mutable. In life, you will never see the full path and it seldom plays out according to our plans and expectations. Early in my life I could not have predicted where I would be at age 65 and the challenges and opportunities I would facing throughout life.

I’m not advocating an undisciplined, meandering approach to life. Have goals and destinations, but realize that the path to them fluctuates and that even your goals and destinations may change.

1. Constantly monitor where you are and where you’re going. We often get so focused on the moment that we lose track of larger issues. On a regular basis take time to evaluate your life and organization.

2. Be flexible. Stiff things break, flexible things bend. There’s constant tension between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency argues for routine and order; effectiveness requires flexibility and change. Pursue both.

3. Demonstrate grit. A combination of courage and resolve, grit helps us persevere through failure and difficult times. It’s the positive side of stubbornness.

In life and leadership, constantly tweak your targets and recalibrate your trajectories because 90% of the time you’ll likely be off course.

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Diversity in a pasta dish and in the workplace

This illustration may seem mundane and simplistic but it speaks to an important issue.

One of my favorite meals is pasta night at Byron’s Restaurant (see picture). You select your type of pasta (bowtie, spaghetti, penne), sauce (marinara or Alfredo), and your choice of 20 different ingredients (sausage, chicken, shrimp, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, green peas, artichokes, mushrooms, etc.). I usually choose all available options so my dish is an amalgamation of multiple flavors, textures, and aromas.

What I love about the dish is that although it is a mixture of many varied ingredients, the unique integrity of each is maintained. I taste the crunchiness of the green peas, the briny taste of the shrimp, the umami taste of the sun-dried tomatoes, the earthiness of mushrooms, etc.

Now, let me use this culinary observation to illustrate an important leadership principle.

Leaders, a critical part of creating an effective team is choosing diverse members. Choose people of different:

  • Age
  • Personality
  • Gender
  • Ethnic background
  • Skills and experience
  • Ideology
  • Passions

Once you’ve selected a diverse group, allow each team member to maintain and express their individuality—don’t homogenize them.

We often do compile a diverse team (because we embrace the benefit of doing so, or (sadly) because it’s the politically correct thing to do) but then we gradually discourage and discount each person’s uniqueness, often in pursuit of a faux sense of oneness and unanimity. Instead, continually encourage and affirm each person’s unique contribution.

Do aim for consensus and harmony around common vision and plans – you don’t want to end up with fractured and dissonant pursuits – but don’t compromise people’s unique contributions to get there.

Back to the pasta dish. It is a terrific meal. The varied ingredients maintain their individual flavors and textures and combine to create a gastronomical delight.

Your team is also capable of producing delightful outcomes, if you’ll let them.

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Thought provoking questions that prompt interesting conversations

Work on crafting a personal response to the following questions. Answering them may open up a new space in your mind. They can also provoke interesting conversation; the next time you’re having dinner with friends, pose a question and ask everyone to respond. My response to each issue is in brackets.

  • Suppose that every night you tuck a child in bed and speak some phrases before he or she goes to sleep. Compose a phrase or series of phrases that you would want to say to the child every night. [You are safe; you are loved; I will take care of you.]
  • What are some things you want to do every year for the rest of your life? [Be on the Queen Mary 2 on its mid-December seven-day transatlantic cruise from London to New York.]
  • What is your favorite emotion? [Accomplishment.]
  • What have you changed your mind about lately? [I want to live in a small house, not a large one.]
  • What harsh truth do you prefer to ignore? [A family member struggles with addiction.]
  • To be happy in life we need at least three things: someone to love, something to look forward to, and something meaningful to do. What is your response to these three areas? [I love my family; I look forward to planting a vineyard and building a small house; my work is very meaningful to me.]
  • Is it better for a person to have a broad knowledge base or a deep knowledge base? [I like Thomas Huxley’s statement: “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.”]
  • Why are humans so confident in beliefs that can’t be proven? [We desperately long for answers to difficult questions.]
  • What do you think about the organic food movement? [It’s often misrepresented and overvalued.]
  • What word do you usually misspell? [awkward]
  • What is the proudest moment of your life? [I can’t narrow it down to one moment.]
  • What four words would you hope that people would use to describe you? [rational, kind, capable, consistent]

Question: Please share your response to some of these questions. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Be careful how you offer advice and critique

I recently attended a professional conference that was planned and hosted by a friend. Halfway through the conference, I saw him in the hallway and he asked me how I thought the conference was going. I said I was enjoying it, but then I added, “I do wish the sessions would start on time; and, it would be helpful to have a center aisle in the main meeting area.”

While both comments were true, they were unnecessary and inappropriate. I was 94% pleased with the conference but my friend probably walked away from our conversation remembering my negative comments. It wasn’t my place to micro-critique; his team would do that at the right time. I regret speaking those words.

Most unsolicited advice and critique is unappreciated and unproductive. Even when it is requested we need to be careful as to when and how we speak. To some degree, we’re all thin-skinned and sensitive to criticism and review.

Consider:

  • In any given situation, is it your responsibility or right to offer advice and critique? Just having an opinion is no justification for expressing it.
  • When you do have the right to offer advice and critique, consider the proper timing. For example, suppose your child just played a violin recital and the family has just gotten in the car. Is this the right time and place to say, “You played out of tune; you should have been better prepared”? (This example comes from personal experience, I’m ashamed to say.)
  • Following all events, schedule a debriefing meeting at which time the event will be analyzed. (“Our workshop is this Saturday. Let’s meet next Tuesday morning to analyze and critique the event.”) Both observers of the event and those who actually performed can anticipate having a fair, thorough, and productive examination of what took place.

I am a huge advocate of analyzing everything; all products, services, events…everything. Just be sensitive to when and how you do it.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay. You can leave a comment by clicking here.