New Eyes for a New Year

phoropterAs I write this, I am just returning from the optometrist. Each year I get my eyes checked during the first week of January — you know, start the New Year by making sure I am seeing clearly. And I have found that you often don’t realize how much your eyes have changed until you have the chance to look through a new lens. If you are a leader, the start of a new year is also a great time to check your vision . . . related to your organization. Are you seeing things clearly, or would a different lens give you an entirely different view? Consider the next few weeks of this blog your leadership “vision test” to help determine how clearly you are seeing the potential for your organization to increase its impact.

The first assessment in your vision test is for you to answer the question of “What business are we in?” That might seem like a silly question, but how you answer it can create a filter that either lets new ideas pass through, or screens them out like UV rays bouncing off a pair of sunglasses. For example, if you are in the train business, there is a tendency to screen out (often without consciously recognizing it) information that does not relate to trains. You will see opportunities and threats to the way you do business coming from other train companies, and those variables that impact rail transit. If, on the other hand, you see yourself as being in the transportation business . . . well, let’s just say the view is a little different.

According to Constantinos Markides, there are three different approaches to answering the question of “What business are we in.” You can define your business according to 1) the product or service you are selling; 2) the customer function you are trying to fulfill, or 3) your portfolio of core competencies. No one approach is right or wrong, but each is likely to impact what you see as opportunities going forward.

A “movie company” is going to work to perfect the craft of making movies. An entertainment and information company (as Disney defines itself) is going to consider a wider range of business opportunities . . . for example theme parks. One may go deep, the other wide. Think of it as near-sighted or far-sighted — you need a different lens depending on which is the best fit for your organization.

What business are you in? Would all the members of your leadership team come up with the same answer? If you are not sure, perhaps you need to test out several lenses — or as my optometrist would say, “Which is clearer . . . 1 or 2 . . . 3 or 4? The answer to that question is the first step in viewing the New Year with new eyes.

Simple Understanding

bigstock--focus lens.jpg“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” ― Malcolm GladwellBlink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

As we begin a new year, it can feel like our lives are spinning ever faster. With seemingly unending information outlets — 24-hour news cycles, social media, abundant prognosticators, never mind the numerous print outlets whose reported demise seems premature — it is easy to be overwhelmed by the scope of what we think we need to stay abreast of. And yet, as we begin a new year, we as leaders need to ask ourselves . . . are we doing a better job of accomplishing our missions as a result of acquiring more knowledge?

In far too many cases, I fear the answer is no. Why? I think Malcolm Gladwell nailed it on this one. Abundant knowledge simply makes us talking heads. It is understanding — knowing what is important, which details to focus on and which are simply noise — that allows us to advance our missions. I love Oliver Wendell Holmes’ concept of the “simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That’s the sweet spot. That’s where understanding happens.

So how do you get to that kind of simple understanding? Focused flexibility. Let me explain. The focus part is pretty simple. Who are you (mission, vision, values) and where are you going (strategic goals)? That’s it. If you read the last few sentences and thought, “sure, that sounds nice, but she just doesn’t understand . . .” there’s a pretty good chance you are stuck on the hamster wheel of information/complexity. Trust me on this one. Step off the wheel and focus.

Once you are clear on your focus, flexibility comes into play. You see, you have to walk through the complexity on a daily basis, and some of the knowledge floating out there might provide a faster or easier path to the other side. Your focus is about the destination, the flexibility comes in the route. So be flexible enough to act on new information that directly impacts your ability to reach your destination, while also being focused enough to let the rest of it roll off your back — regardless of what “expert” says you are crazy to ignore the tidbit of information that he or she is peddling.

Still don’t believe me? Think about the most successful leaders you know. Are they bouncing around, reacting to every headline or do they have a calm focused presence — dare I even say a simple understanding of where it is their organization is headed?

That is my hope for you as a leader, and your organization, in the coming year. Simple understanding. See you on the other side!

Focusing in on the New Year


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Jack Palance (as Curly in City Slickers) knew it. There are multiple best selling books that promote it. A jewelry entrepreneur has made sure you can wear it. Devotionals and guides for spiritual growth are built around it. What is it? That’s for you to decide. It could be lots of things. To have maximum impact, however, you have to choose. One word . . . one focus . . . one “thing.”

That might sound easy enough, but it is actually really, really hard. We live in a world with hundreds of channels, thousands of social media friends, untold experts telling you to go in every imaginable direction. We have come to expect our lives will offer an instantaneous smorgasbord of options and opportunities . . . and it often does. It’s exhausting. When we are constantly scanning the horizon, moving in this direction and then that to make sure we don’t miss anything . . . when our attention is spread a mile wide and an inch deep . . . it doesn’t take much of a gust of wind to knock us off balance. How will your staff know if they are moving in the right direction when they see you moving in three or four? After all, as Lewis Carroll noted, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

Identifying your, or your organization’s, one thing is not something that should be taken lightly. It will mean saying no to things that other people, experts even, think you should pursue. It will shape your decisions and actions in ways that may not make sense to others. I’ll let you in on a little secret . . . that’s okay! It’s your thing, not theirs. And when you settle in on your one thing, amazing things start to happen. For organizations, it can be incredibly energizing. People get excited when they know where they are headed . . . clearly, succinctly, not in a 47 page document but in a single phrase. And when your staff know where they are going, they can help you identify additional ways to get there. Rather than limiting your options, when you focus on one thing you just might be amazed at the opportunities that present themselves.

As you look toward a new year, do you (and your people!) know where your organization is headed? I’m not talking about specific projects. I mean strategically . . . culturally . . . down into the DNA of your organization. Yeah, there. Fundamentally, at your core, do you have a clear path? Do you know your focus, your one thing? If you don’t, it’s a sure bet no one else in your organization does either. Find it, and . . . well, to paraphrase Curly, “you stick to that, and the rest doesn’t mean a thing.” Happy New Year!