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Sunday, April 22, 2012

If it is working well, tamper with it

Some rules or heuristics are accepted without any resistance. One such rule is 'If it is working, do not change anything'. Flip side of the same rule is "It it is  not broken, do not fix it'. It is time to find what is wrong with this rule.

When we succeed in producing any significant outcome, the output is always a result due to many supporting elements 'falling in place'. ( Law of output emergence) This law tells us that we can only influence output. Output emerges out of 'action and reactions caused by many variables', some of which are controlled by you. But , along with your actions, the outcome is created because other variables 'interact due to actions (and reactions) which are outside your control'. 

As we are ignorant of this law of output emergence, we wrongly ascribe the successful output to our efforts, hard work, commitment or sincerity. We are therefore not ready for facing the eventual 'failure to produce output' when it happens later. We fall victim to 'Sehwag syndrome'

When Virendra Sehwag was playing his 'brand' of cricket, everyone felt that he can continue to play like that for eternity. When he lost his place in the ODI/test side in 2005-2006, it shocked everyone. He then tried to 'tamper' his game. It took him very very long time before he managed to 'revive' his game to come back in form after a long hiatus of two years. Many players do not get a second chance like Virender Sehwag. Most of them give up and never manage to recover the old form, because trying to 'tamper' something that is working in times of 'failure' is more difficult. 

While 'succeeding', we have confidence on our side. More importantly, we have 'options' that we can exercise. We have 'space' and freedom to change. But trying to 'tamper' in times of 'failure' is doubly difficult: because we neither have the confidence, nor the necessary 'options' ( or space) to manoever. As we are already failing, we are under pressure to 'perform', robbing us of all the options to  'adjust'. Therefore 'when it is broken, it is not a proper time to fix it'. Instead 'When it is not broken, it is a proper time to fix it'

The same rule applies to corporate executives. When their projects and assignments are working, when they are producing outputs that are rewarded by management, when 'results' are flowing, it is the time to 'take chances'. 

It is the time to tamper with 'different variables' to find 'which variable does not work'. One can discover the power of 'simple variables' that are hidden out of sight because one cannot imagine that it works. It is time to experiment with new approaches and test the waters to find 'what does not work'. It is time to appreciate the limitations of one's own efforts in producing the resulting output. 

All these learnings will allow you to face the time when you are not able to produce the desired outputs. This will allow you to 'avoid' costly blunders which will further drag you into the muck. And it will teach you to be 'patient' when the 'circumstances' are not arraigned on your side. 

But this can happen only when you break the rule, " If it is working, do not tamper with it'. Instead of following this rule 'If it ain't broken, do not fix it', you have to adapt a new rule ' If it ain't broken, it is the right time to fix it'

Are you ready to break this rule so that your one-shot success does not remain a flash in a pan? 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

How do you set conscious goals in your life?

Last month i was in conversation with one of my coachee Anil:

Anil, age 35, is doing well in a five star Hotel; working at the cutting edge of the industry. We were talking about 'next mountain in his life', because despite his good work, he was not feeling good to go to work every day. He had no 'urgency' problems to tackle like micro-managing boss, or insufficient money; the two most obvious causes of 'demotivation'. He had no 'personal-life' issues that were 'demotivating'. We therefore decided that it was time to find 'long term direction' in his work-life.

When we talked about his goals in work-life, he had a normal goal of any professional " Becoming a CEO of a Hotel group by the age of 40". But when i discussed his current fascinating work with a MNC group of Hotels for setting 'resorts', he realised his 'goal' had shifted since last one year. He wanted to be a master in 'setting resorts'. So we started talking about 'setting a workable goal' for next three to five years of work-life. But, despite our three sittings on the topic, Anil refused to commit to any goal. He gave many justifiable logical reasons ( all of which looked valid) to avoid the commitment: impossible to predict the evolution of hotel industry, clash with his desire to go out of India, mismatch with his wife's commitment to her medical profession and so on.  

This is typical for all of us. We avoid setting goals that are real ( force us to commit on a specific action with the possibility of not producing desired result) and important ( that make a big difference to our life) to us. I used to get quite surprised with this occurrence of behaviour time and again in individuals.

But after going through these many cases, i have understood that setting conscious goals on important outcomes is difficult because of four pyschological reasons:

1. They force us to 'confront' our inbuilt fear of outcome

Our outcomes that matter to us are few. When they happen to us, without any conscious intention, we are less stressful, flow with the unfolding challenges, because we are not thinking of the outcome. For instance, when we work hard on a critical assignment or a challenge spanning over a year, we overcome the most insurmountable obstacles easily. Only later we wonder how we did it.

But when the same 'determined effort' has to be put in consciously for a long time on a goal that matters to  our  life, we freeze. Like Anil, we find logical reasons to avoid the path. We find justifications which we know in our heart are untrue.

Even the sportsmen, who produce outcomes frequently in their lives, find it difficult to set goals.  Observe what tennis legend Roger Federer, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and footballer Lionel Messi  'say' before an important tournament or match and what they say after the 'match'.  They constantly focus on the 'process'. In other words, they avoid setting any goals. They let goals happen. But this suits them, because their long term direction is set. These individuals are lucky. On the other hand, for knowledge workers like us, our goals determine our direction.We are therefore forced to set goals after overcoming the next three constraints.

2. These goals demand resolution with our own beliefs and aspirations.

Anil was avoiding to set goal because it directly conflicted with his aspiration of 'becoming CEO', 'wanting to go abroad' and some other aspirations like 'wanting to be a public figure'.

We all have aspirations which we 'absorb' from our environment. We have parents who invest so much of their hard effort and desires in us, that their aspirations and desires become part of us. We live in society which regard some outcomes as highly desirable such as having a Mercedes car, or going abroad every year, or flying to different countries. Many of the social beliefs and values are absorbed by us without any conscious process of indoctrination. They are good, but they can become a significant bottleneck, in doing something that you truly  want to do.

3. These goals force us to set priorities

Anil's goal meant that he had to shift his location to places where resorts are constructed. However, his wife was in medicine profession which demanded that she stayed in a certain place for a long time.

Such conflict of priorities are inherent in our lives. Sometimes the conflicts are within our two conflicting desires like 'Should we pursue work-life objective this time or should we pursue family objectives'. These conflicts are part of living our life. Although our knowledge of our Self helps us make these choices more easily, these small-looking choices are always difficult to take in our lives. ( Unfortunately the plethora of self-help books mislead us in presuming that these choices are simple in life!) However, instead of finding more about our Self, we constantly avoid making these choices and let the 'situation' decide the course of events. And then we wonder 'what happened to us'.

And when the conflicts are between our spouse's priorities and ours, the difficulty of setting goals becomes even higher.  It forces us to acquire the skill to converse with others in a 'non-confrontational' mode, arrive at a mutually adjustable choice (contrary to popular belief, not all choices can be taken as win-win choices) and then be able to 'live' with a given direction without looking back in the mirror constantly.

4. We have to learn to discriminate between the 'important' and 'not-so-important' goal

Some self-help books advocate setting goals for everything in life and chart out a 'diary' of every day to ensure that those goals are achieved. But if we spend time in evaluating all our choices and goals, we will get paralysed with thoughts and become inactive. Not all goals require serious attention. It is therefore important to sense the 'important goals' on which we should spend time and effort.

Some goals are important in life because they synthesise various dimensions of your personality. For instance, Anil's goal of 'setting resorts' synthesised three elements of his personality: his work-life skills that he had gained, his aspiration to make an impact on a wider scale which requires large amount of environmental understanding ( which is not required for setting a hotel), and above all his individual goal  of doing something 'different' in his life.

Some goals are important because they are difficult to reverse. For instance, moving one's path from software to one's domain ( accountancy, engineering or electronics) is more difficult to reverse than changing from domain to software. Decision to take over software soon after graduation is therefore an important decision. But most of the graduates take this decision unconsciously without sensing the importance of this choice.

Some goals are important because they force us to think about our Self, our beliefs and absorbed aspirations. For instance, choosing when to marry ( not whom to marry) is a very important decision because it forces us to think of our beliefs , values and Self. If you are called in a self-discovery training course and asked to write down your values, you will write down 'what you think should be important to you'. But when you confront an important choice, you really understand 'what is important for you'.

How are you setting conscious goals in your lives?