The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

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Taking the temperature of the room doesn’t mean too hot or too cold. It means taking the emotional temperature of the people in the room. Taking the emotional temperature gives you an edge to enhance productivity. Here’s an example.

It was an exhausting meeting, but we knew it would be exhausting. The strategic planning discussion would set the future direction and tone for the organization.

We started by taking the temperature in the room. “Before we begin, let’s check in. How do you feel as we start this strategic discussion?” Around the room we heard: “optimistic, guarded, enthusiastic, hopeful, anxious”.

We took the emotional temperature again at the end of the meeting. “As we wrap up the discussion, how do you feel about where our strategic discussion ended?” This time… “Satisfied, overwhelmed, encouraged, worried, energized.”

How is it helpful to take the emotional temperature?

All meetings and conversations have an emotional component. It’s the way we are designed as humans. We feel first and think second. The emotional state of the people in the room impacts the nature of their participation, the outcome of the discussion and future productivity. You can either gain intelligence about the emotional state in the room or find out about it (or not) outside of the room from hallway conversations. It’s best to know it in the moment so that you can manage more effectively.

In a well-planned meeting, you thought through the purpose, you have an agenda and you manage the discussion. But, all meetings and conversations have an emotional undertone which we often overlook. Just as you would get facts on the table, it’s best to get emotional content on the table, too.  It’s not hard to do.  The simple question that I offered in my strategic planning meeting does the trick. Stating the emotional state of mind up front and at the end serves two functions.

For individuals. The emotional state of each participant is at work under the surface. That emotion colors participants’ decision-making, engagement level and their motivation during and after the discussion. When you ask them to voice their emotional state it brings the emotion into focus for them. When they state it out loud, it validates the feeling and lessens the impact. (Research shows that validation of feeling reduces the brain’s threat response.)

For leaders. As the meeting leader, when you take the emotional temperature at the beginning of a meeting, you gain critical information that allows you to more adeptly manage the meeting. When I hear someone say “enthusiastic,” I know to engage them so that their enthusiasm impacts others. When I hear, “concern,” I know to listen closely to understand more. At the end of the meeting, if I still hear “concern” or “overwhelm,” I know to follow up and learn more so that we are more likely to attain the objective.

Try taking the temperature before and after your next important meeting. Notice the additional information it gives you to more effectively manage the meeting. It’s a simple and powerful technique. Let me know how it goes!

Photo by Vladischern

sculptureThe chances are good that you haven’t heard of Gustav Vigeland. But his single-minded focus on one concept has much to teach us. He is the Norwegian sculptor whose life’s work is on view in Vigeland Park in Oslo.  He created hundreds of bronze and stone figures depicting the range of human emotion. As impressive as the quality of his work is, it’s the scale that overwhelms. Happy, jubilant, angry, sad, resigned, confused, enraged, nurturing, and fun people tumble, jump, heave, race, love and care for each other along a bridge and up the hill to his signature obelisk. His work is the biggest attraction in Oslo. It is a testament to a single-minded focus on his passion throughout his life.

What if each of us accomplished our passion with a single-minded focus? What would it take to do that? Here’s what I learned from Gustav.

Have a focus. Some may view Gustav’s life’s work as sculpting, but I see it as communicating humanness. What is yours? It may not show up as a physical thing like sculpting. It may be a concept, a belief, a principle. What do you believe in? What do you care about? What values do you epitomize? What has changed your life? Is it your integrity; your honesty; your fairness; your belief in the power of innovation; your commitment to urban design for quality of life; your passion for walkable communities? For example, for me, the concept of infotuition was a game changer. Infotuition encapsulated the moment when I learned that to lead and live requires more than logic. I needed to think and feel; to integrate information and intuition. Today I bring infotuition to decision-making, motivation and teamwork. What is your passion?

Express it. Whatever your passion, how do you express it in your work and leadership? You can’t impact the world or influence others if you keep your inspiration to yourself. Gustav chose to communicate his passion for human emotion through sculpture. For those of us communicating a concept, the more ways to communicate, the better. At Vigeland Park, one person was captivated by the angry baby; another by the entwined lovers; others had to look away from the enraged man. The emotion hit home differently for different people. In your case, do you talk to your staff about what you believe? Do you make decisions in alignment with your belief? Do you write and speak on your concept? Whatever it is for you, don’t keep it a secret.

Maintain the focus. Vigeland Park is striking due to the scale of the work. For decades, Gustav pursued his passion. The result was hundreds of emotional sculptures. He was persistent, and so must you be.  Your staff, clients, colleagues require time to notice and internalize your belief, concept or passion. You’ll think it’s obvious sooner than anyone else. You’ll see your concept at work when no one else does. Settle in. This takes time and repetition. The impact starts in time.

Gustav made an impact. I intend to make an impact because infotuition is a concept whose time has come. What’s your concept? Where do you wish to leave a mark? Don’t wait. Get started!

Photo credit: TripAdvisor

 

 

There were thirteen of us and an unknown number of them. We, leaders of a technology company, were standing in a dark field surrounded by the rugged mountains of Sedona. We held night vision goggles and laser pointers that reached ten miles. They were the inhabitants of the UFOs for which we were searching. Yes, we were on a UFO-watching tour. Never did I or any of us expect to be searching for UFOs. It definitely challenged our assumptions.

You may not have UFOs in your office, but insightful leaders know the importance of challenging assumptions. First, let’s do a reality check.  You must make assumptions. Assumptions are your brain’s shortcuts that help it manage the number of decisions you make in a day. However, you must also recognize when assumptions constrict your choices and constrain innovation.

In my experience, most people are unaware of their assumptions and the limitations assumptions create. Foster awareness by shining a light on assumptions. When people realize they made an assumption it either 1) opens their eyes to new opportunities or 2) allows the assumption to be revisited and updated. Either way, innovation is facilitated.

As an insightful leader train yourself to listen for assumptions. They may be the culprit during an impasse or a roadblock. Here are a few assumptions that get in the way of progress.

Assume the future is like the past. In rapidly changing environments, assumptions about markets, people, customers, and partners may no longer be valid. For example, in my field of transportation, we often assume that everyone wants to drive their personal car, but trends show fewer driver’s licenses and more use of other transportation options. What is changing in your industry that requires you to challenge long-held assumptions?

Assume that resources are finite. In my early days as a manager at the U.S. Department of Transportation, we executed work with only our staff.  The staff asserted that the update to a key manual would take years. “What assumptions go into that estimate?” we asked. They assumed that the work was done only with the current staff.  Once we surfaced the assumption we opened new avenues for execution (and hired consultant support).  What assumptions are your staff making that limit their options for execution?

Assume that past decisions are still relevant. We cling to old decisions sometimes to our detriment. I work with a leader who is reluctant to share information with staff. When a new leader took over, that reluctance continued until the assumption was challenged. With new leadership, say, “It sounds like that previous decision is limiting our options and we assume that it can’t be changed. What would it take to reevaluate the original decision?”

Assume that it can’t be done or it’s too hard. As a leader in government, I was often told that it was too hard to fire underperforming staff. But when we examined that assumption we learned that, while not easy, it was certainly doable. What does your staff believe is too hard and what assumptions are in play?

Assume that past impressions are relevant today. “We know what our client wants.” Are you sure? Clients, bosses, and boards change and with that change comes new attitudes.  Ask, “Let’s examine the assumptions. When was the last time we studied client preferences?” Or, “We have a new board now, let’s not assume that they have the same goals as the previous board.”

None of us expected to be searching for UFOs but there we stood, scanning the night sky looking for something none of us believed in. We were forced to confront our assumptions particularly when we saw UFOs! We traced the UFOs with our lasers as they zig-zagged across the night sky. We pointed excitedly at bright white lights on inaccessible mountain tops that appeared, brightened and dimmed, disappeared and reappeared.  We have no explanation, nor do we have our previous assumptions.

What assumptions hold you back?

Copyright: realillusion / 123RF Stock Photo
 

trophyThe trophy case stood in the middle of the building. It covered an entire wall. Walking through the Miles River Yacht Club, the sun reflected off the polished silver cups, chalices, and bowls. Some of the most highly sought trophies could have held a basketball. I stood in front of the case and marveled. I’d just witnessed historic log canoe races. The boats were beautiful, the crews were skilled, and the decades-old trophies were huge.

What, I pondered, causes us as humans to create an object (a big, shiny object) to signify accomplishment? Givers of trophies learned centuries ago what neuroscientists can now see. Trophies of any sort cause the brain to feel appreciated, connected and seen. You probably don’t have a trophy case at your office. And, you don’t need one as long as your employees feel rewarded for outstanding work.

How do you make employees feel like they just won the big trophy? There are more ways than you may think. Anything that makes them feel appreciated, connected and seen is an intrinsic trophy. An intrinsic trophy connects with the heart and feels good. Here are five examples to get you started.

1.       Take her to lunch or coffee. Never underestimate that power of being seen with the boss. Go into the lunch or coffee with an attitude of curiosity. What can you learn from this person? What can she teach you? Tell her what you learned and watch her glow with pride.

2.       Call him out in front of colleagues. Make it specific. Describe what he did to merit the mention so that he understands that you really know his contribution. Tie his work to an organizational initiative, goal or value.

3.       Listen to her ideas. Really listen. Repeat back what you hear to ensure that you truly understand. Repeating the idea forces you to pay attention. To be heard is to be seen.

4.       Implement his idea and give him credit. There is no greater compliment you can give than to implement his idea. Be clear about the source of the idea and give credit where credit is due.

5.       Donate to her favorite charity in her name. Not only is this a nice thing to do but you may be surprised by the choice of charity. The charity she selects may provide new insight into interests and life experiences

Notice that each of these intrinsic “trophies” creates good feelings because the rewarded person feels appreciated, connected and seen. You and your staff are thinking, feeling beings. The insightful leader is wise enough to leverage feelings to support, encourage and reward staff. It doesn’t have to be a punch-bowl-sized, silver chalice (although that could work, too!). Create your own intrinsic trophy case by consistently recognizing prize-winning behavior.

What creative techniques have you used to reward staff and make them feel appreciated, connected and seen?

Photo Credit: Spinsheet.com

It was supposed to be an easy cruise. That’s what they told me.  The  47’ Morris sailboat, sailed the Newport to Bermuda race and finished second in her class. We were part of the crew sailing her back to Newport.  And, it was my first sailing trip. To say that the trip didn’t go as planned is an understatement if there ever was one. We made it back safe and sound because of the quality of the boat and the experience of the crew – except for me. When we left I still didn’t know a jib from a halyard or port from starboard.

The trip, expected to be a little more than three days, took five due to adverse weather. The only thing calm was the crew. The seas were rough almost from the start and became even rougher when we crossed the Gulf Stream. The evening we hit the Gulf Stream, we encountered three 50-knot squalls in quick succession with 10’ to 12’ seas. Due to the rough weather, the boat had a series of issues. The auto pilot stopped working on day one, the engine stopped on day two, during the storm the reef line on the mainsail broke, the halyard on the jib broke, the furler jammed, the tack of the spinnaker let go and, later, the spinnaker artfully wrapped itself around the forestay. During the worst of the storm, lines fell into the water and promptly wound themselves around the propeller shaft. I’m told that none of this is unusual but to have them all happen on one voyage was remarkable. By the time we arrived in Newport, everything I brought to wear was wet. The quick-dry fabric never dried.  Collectively, we smelled like a 50’ wet tennis shoe. Are we having fun yet?

As I lay in the narrow bunk, heeled 30 degrees, I listening to the storm tear at the boat and sails. And, I listened to the crew tackle each adversity calmly, collaboratively, decisively and transparently. Do you do the same when adversity hits your organization?

Calm. It was one problem after another in quick succession in rough weather. It would have been unnerving except for the calm of the captain. With each calamity, he talked to the crew – no raised voice, panic, of exasperation. The intensity of the situation stood in clear contrast to his calm demeanor.  As an insightful leader, how do you manage stress and outwardly demonstrate calm?

Collaborate. When a problem was solved, something else broke. Each time, the captain collaborated with the crew. What happened? What are the pros/cons of each option? This was no dictatorship. Neither was it a democracy. It was informed leadership. How do you collaborate under stress to capture and objectively weigh all options? Our captain based his decisions on crew input. Do you truly listen to others?

Decisive. The conversations between the captain and crew were quick, succinct and decisive. The captain listened, made a decision, and that was that. Other ideas were dropped, and action was taken. Are your decisions crisp, clear and strong? Once you decide, don’t waiver. There’s time later to evaluate and adjust. For now, give staff clear directions to follow.

Transparent. We were in a tough spot. Some of us were not experienced sailors and the situation was a wee bit unnerving (to say the least). It would have been easy for the captain to sugar-coat our predicament under the pretense of not alarming us.  Instead, he was honest and transparent. In a matter-of-fact manner, he shared the realities of each situation and decision. The transparency was reassuring and created trust. Are you being transparent with your staff about difficult situations? Yes, some topics can’t be discussed openly, and it is not constructive to publicly debate every option.  However, once a decision is made, it is helpful to share the decision, the rationale behind the decision and the implications. People understand that not everything goes as expected, but people don’t like to be in the dark. That creates suspicion and erodes trust. Transparency does the opposite.

I confess that I’m not ready for another cruise like this one, but I’m grateful for the crew and for the lessons: be calm, collaborate, be decisive and transparent.

Share an experience that you’ve had that taught you a lesson.

The night was warm as we stood looking over the Annapolis harbor at the gathered crowd. It was a perfect evening for (are you ready?) tango. Yes, tango. Argentine tango, to be specific. The bricks of the Annapolis City Dock were covered by a smooth dance floor and a small band played tango music. If you are not a dancer, Argentine tango is not like a typical ballroom tango. Ballroom-style tango has specific steps. Argentine tango does not. It is all improvisational. The men learn to lead by shifting their bodies. Women learn to sense and follow their lead.  As we watched, the men were steady and (relatively) straightforward with their steps while the women twisted, turned, and flicked their feet with grace and style. They represented a subtle communication between leader and follower that resulted in beauty and art.

When I think about being an insightful leader, there are three lessons from tango.  The tango leads provided:

  1. Direction. The leader provides the forward direction. Will he steer his partner slightly right, slightly left or straight ahead? He watches other couples and navigate between and around them. He adjusts their rate of progress to account for others. It’s the same for leaders in an organization. You, too, provide direction and navigate employees, staff and projects around obstacles. In your case, obstacles may be political, technical, financial or personnel. It’s your job to watch the surroundings, notice openings and deftly steer the organization forward as though you are dancing together.
  2. Framework. The tango lead held his frame. He provided a firm, physical frame that gave his partner the boundaries for her dance. Within his arms and the space around his steps, he contained the space of the dance. A leader does the same. You provide the organizational framework within which staff perform and work happens. In this case, your frame work may be the organizational culture, a way of doing business, the boundaries of acceptable business practices or acceptable behaviors at work.
  3. Flexibility. Perhaps the most striking part of the tango was the flexibility afforded to the woman dancer. Our tango lead provided direction and a framework that allowed her to improvise. Steps, kicks, flourishes, twists and turns. She was the show. He gave her the space to explore her creativity and develop beauty. Too often, this element of leadership is missing. Sometimes, we as leaders create a framework that’s too tight. It confines creativity in the workplace. Instead, insightful leaders create space like the tango. There’s an openness to new ideas, new processes and procedures. Staff are encouraged to develop their creativity and show off their highest skills. The creativity of the staff can be the showpiece under a wise leader.

Because of the skill of the tango leader, the woman improvised, added her unique style and created a work of art while moving forward within the framework. How well is your organization dancing under your leadership? Maybe it’s time for a tango lesson!

Copyright: timurpix / 123RF Stock Photo

Each May the Blue Angels fly for the U.S. Naval Academy graduation in Annapolis. Their performance in the blue skies over the Severn River is a highlight and a special moment. Visitors and residents gather along the shore staring overhead, searching the horizon. No matter how many times I see their show, the sudden roar of their engines ripping the sky apart surprises me. It’s as though they materialize from the clouds. Flying 18” apart they make sweeping banks as though they are glued together. Then, in a roar of power and speed they rotate upside down, sideways, right side up. Their flying is a thrill that belies the skill needed to execute as a team.

This year, standing on the dock, marveling at their precision, I was struck by the level of commitment they embody. When they are flying, there’s no debate, no discussion and no consensus building. They follow the leader’s commands. Period. Sometimes, that’s the way it needs to be in an organization, too.

We talk a lot about the need to gather information, discuss, debate and gain consensus. We should also talk about when enough discussion is enough. We need to know how to decide and commit. You probably disagreed with a decision at some point. Did you handle it with grace or did you grumble to anyone who would listen? As those jets zoomed overhead with no margin for error, there was no grumbling…only commitment. What does it look like to commit at work – whether you agree with the decision or not?

  1. Recognize that you don’t have insight into all facets of the decision. Like the Blue Angel flying at the back of formation, you only see from your vantage point. That pilot only sees the planes directly in front of him. His view is limited. He trusts that the lead plane – which has a different view – is making the best decision based on the additional information they have. It’s the same for you. You don’t have all the information that the final decision-maker does. There comes a time when you must recognize that decision-makers are assimilating more and different information than you. Commitment means trusting that they will select the most reasonable approach based on their vantage point.
  2. Don’t bad mouth the decision-maker. You’ve argued it up one side and down the other. You’ve got the facts on your side and still the decision doesn’t go your way. Well…that happens. Commitment is determined by what you do next. The most detrimental behavior for the organization is to complain about the decision to your staff. Venting to others at or below you grows distrust and breeds lack of commitment. Either keep quiet or go to option three below.
  3. Disagree and commit for the good of the whole. The Blue Angels can’t tolerate the pilot who wants to bank 2-degrees differently from the others. Either everyone agrees to the same plan or they literally all go down in flames. Most of us don’t have that level of risk in the workplace. Nonetheless, the time comes when you must decide to disagree and be fully committed to the decision. For the sake of the greater good and for the sake of moving forward, swallow hard, find ways to articulate your support and behave in ways that fully conform with the decision even though you may not personally agree.

Six planes, wingtip to wingtip soared directly over the viewing stands. In a single precise moment, each plane abruptly changed course to fly apart in six different directions into a starburst of power and smoke.  But, we all knew, they would meet back at the base together to celebrate a safe, well-executed show.  All because they committed.

It was dark and I was in unfamiliar territory. I was aboard a friend’s boat on the Chesapeake Bay, at night, headed home, when he said, “You should drive. It will be good practice.”

“Good practice?” I thought. “Is he crazy? There are lights everywhere.” As I looked across the horizon and saw white lights, yellow lights, red lights, green lights, blinking lights, bright lights and faint lights.  “Which do I follow?” I asked him.

He said, “You’ll learn to sort out the important lights, that help you navigate to the dock, from the irrelevant ones that are a distraction.”  Wise words that also apply to you as an insightful leader.

You navigate your organization towards the future and along the way there are countless pieces of information and distractions that can take you off course – if you let them. How do you sort out the relevant from the irrelevant? Here are three tips I learned from executives I interviewed.

  • Have a clear objective. You can only navigate to your goal if you are clear on your goal. Yeah, I know…that seems obvious. And, I’m continually amazed at how often managers lack clarity on the goal. We breeze past the difficulty of finding clarity in the rush to act. Clarity immediately reduces distractions. Clarity allows you to ignore all inputs that don’t align. Without clarity, it would be like me aiming for any creek when I wanted Aberdeen Creek.To get clarity, ask yourself,
    • “What is the desired outcome?”
    • “What specifically needs to be accomplished?”
    • “What specific action do I want to occur?” Don’t settle for generalizations. Be specific

From a place of clarity, identify the key next steps. These steps help to retain clarity and focus along the way. Activities that aren’t in alignment with the steps to the objective, can be dealt with later.

  • Control the tangents. Be brutal about this. Everyone you talk to will try (maybe unintentionally and maybe intentionally) to take you off on a tangent. If you stay laser focused on the objective, you can tactfully redirect the conversation while staying aware that other issues will be dealt with later. When someone tries to divert your attention, say,
    • “That’s a good point, and we need to stay focused on the goal. We can come back to that point once we deal with this.”
    • “I appreciate you bringing this up. Let’s put this in the parking lot to address next.”
    • “I realize this is a concern of yours and we will address it, but for now, we need to stay focused on the goal for today.”

As I scanned the darkness, the horizon filled with lights. But I didn’t need the circling light of Thomas Point Lighthouse or the red and green lights of other boats. I began to train my eyes to discern the lights on the markers that indicated the way back. It went like this: Marker light…got it in my sights. Lighthouse light: it’s out of the way; I won’t run aground; no need to consider it further. Other boats: They are not in the way and not coming my way; no need to consider them further. They remain in my periphery but didn’t distract from the goal. How do you sift out the tangents, set them aside, and stay focused on the objective?

  • Check in along the way. As we motored back toward the dock, the navigational chart told me which marker should be in view next. Did it appear when and where it was supposed to? Check. We were still on course. As an insightful leader, it is wise to check your course along the way. Are you still focused on the objective? Are you still taking the steps you identified or have you succumbed to a tangent? Check in along the way and make course corrections as needed.

You, as an insightful leader, are the keeper of focus. In addition to reaching your goal efficiently, your staff will feel more secure and calm because of your clear-headed focus.

Photo Copyright : James Kirkikis

over thinkingI was intrigued but not surprised. The a-ha moment happened as I discussed the pitfalls of over-thinking with a group of 70 transportation leaders. It could have been any group of leaders. Perhaps it is evident: Leaders develop good and bad decision-making habits and so do organizations. I work with individual leaders to develop their capacity for balanced decision-making.  But, organizations also develop habits – ways of relating or responding – that may be productive or not.  The organizational decision-making pattern is learned or influenced in part by the leader.

I see two implications:

  • The same principles for balanced decision-making apply to organizations as to individuals.  Like an individual, organizations can practice and reinforce productive decision-making until the collective “brain” of the organization is rewired.
  • The leader’s impact extends beyond the immediate decision. The leader is the decision-making model for the organization. Over-think it and a message is sent. Have a knee-jerk reaction and another message is sent. Exhibit balanced decision-making and a model is created that reinforces optimal behavior.

Let’s consider, for example, a tendency to over-think decisions. Over-thinking is characterized by delayed decisions, a relentless need for more information, and analysis paralysis. Over-thinking wastes time, causes missed opportunities and reduces ROI. And while it may be a characteristic attributed to a leader, an over-thinking organization moves at a slow, slogging pace.

An over-thinking organization creates a culture of caution that permeates its collective thinking. Early warning signs of an over-thinking organization include constant striving for more data and analysis, reluctance to make a recommendation, and bumping the decision to a higher level. Cautiousness grinds progress to a halt.  Rather than decide and move on, the organizational unit studies and vets and studies even more. As with an individual the way out is to first notice the hesitancy and then to probe the organizational discomfort.  What is the underlying feeling within the group? Why is there fear of moving forward?  What repercussions lurk – either real or imagined – that color the forward progress of the group? Once those intangible issues are surfaced and articulated, there is a chance for the group to choose a different path.  But an organization is more complex than an individual.  Although difficult, deeply ingrained organizational habits can be changed.  As with an individual, that change comes as a result of practice, reinforcement and focused attention. Did I mention practice?  Did I mention reinforcement?  This is hard and it requires determination. It is the practice and focused attention that will ultimately rewire the organization’s collective brain.  Members of the organization, managers and leaders must stay vigilant to the ease with which decision-making can slide into old, familiar patterns. As in an individual’s brain, habitual responses are easier, faster, and comforting for the organization.  But they may not be productive.

The leader’s role is even more crucial. It’s important for a leader to develop good decision-making practices as part of her skill set and it is even more important to be an example of productive decision-making. The leader’s decision-making approach is mimicked and modeled – perhaps more subconsciously that consciously.

When a leader gets lost in over-thinking, that behavior trains the rest of the office. An over-thinking leader creates a culture of restraint with overly-cautious team members who are risk averse and who have an avoidance mentality. Unhelpful behaviors exemplified by the leader are passed along to the staff perpetuating suboptimal decision-making. It’s a huge price to pay.

Conversely, a leader who models balanced decision-making that uses both cognition and intuition grows a staff with deep awareness and capability. This type of decision-making also takes individual practice and persistence.  However, the ROI is significant.  The organization benefits from sound leadership decisions and staff become receptive and capable with the depth to choose well-balanced responses. It cultivates a healthier organization and positions individuals to grow into insightful leaders. When the leader cultivates balanced decision-making patterns, it permeates the organization like a breath of fresh air.

So what about you and your organization? Are you as a leader, developing balanced and insightful decision-making patterns?  Have you looked at the decision-making patterns of your office? As you develop yourself, you feed them.  It’s worth the practice and persistence.

 

We left the dock at 5 am, bundled against the cold, the boat loaded with food, drinks, snacks for us and lures for the fish. It was opening day of Rockfish season. I know nothing about Rockfish, but I was with an experienced team who have fished together for twenty years. Their preparation was extensive and exhaustive. The week before they organized lines, white and chartreuse lures, weights coordinated to each line so that lures trailed the boat at varying depths and distances. The team planned it all in advance  ̶  thoughtful & intentional. Knowledge of Rockfish patterns determined the trolling location which was 90 minutes away at top speed. We were well organized, well planned, and well prepared…and we caught no fish.

Have you ever been fully prepared; thought of everything and were disappointed that it (the project, the meeting, the conversation) didn’t turn out as planned? Insightful leaders may be disappointed but they start asking questions.

  1. What mid-course correction can be made?

At the first inkling that the plan isn’t working out, insightful leaders look for ways to adjust. Since much of any work project is about making an emotional connection, what clues can you pick up from the reaction of the client, boss or audience? Notice their mood and receptivity. Do you need to ask more questions, reorient the project direction, be more or less aggressive, or make a change to the project team? Mid-course corrections could be in timing, staffing, approach, product/service shift, scale or more. Maybe a tweak will get you back on track.

Our accomplished team quickly realized that the fish were scarce. They adjusted the lines, cleaned jellyfish from the lures and changed course. All were good mid-course corrections and they didn’t work. Time for the next step.

  1. What are others experiencing?

Is it just you or are others experiencing problems? Your next steps are colored by the answer.  Are you able to ask questions of others in your office with similar projects or clients? Competitors may offer clues, too. When you observe their behaviors, do you notice them shifting strategy, tactics or customers? Are there partners or even competitors with whom you can safely make inquiries? Your intention is to determine if your work is an isolated situation or part of a bigger trend.

As we trolled the quiet waters, we observed the charter fishing boats.  Many were in the same area we were. We took comfort in that, except the radio was missing the usual chatter of excited fishermen. Within hours, the charters started looking for fish elsewhere. We were part of a tournament. Friendly competitors texted back and forth lamenting the lack of fish.  It wasn’t just us.

  1. What’s the bigger picture?

An insightful leader is always attentive for indicators of a big picture shift. In a time of big data, there are an increasing array of information sources to help spot a shift. Sometimes, the gnawing in the gut is also a good indicator. When you look at all the information you gathered, do you see a shift in client expectations, a change in client demographics or psychographics? Are there new technologies that bring new business opportunities and disrupt existing ones? Is this a one-time problem or a systemic trend? You need to know the difference.

The water was still too cold. That was the consensus from our team. The fish had not yet left the rivers. The question remains, is this a one-time event or an indicator of climate change? One is a blip, the other would make opening day fishing more speculative.

As any leader can attest: It’s essential to have a plan and it’s equally essential to be able to change the plan. Use these questions whenever your best-laid plans don’t pan out.

Are there other key questions you use when plans change?