Strategy Alive™ – A 7-Step Strategic Map To Success

StrategyaliveA Way Forward 

Maps and compasses are important when traversing unfamiliar terrain and entering into new territory. The same is true in business. Maps are still helpful in a world that is filled with so many unknowns and daily market adaptations. Having clear strategic direction that is both nimble and market sensitive is crucial to bringing vision and resource alignment and mission/cause fulfillment. Let me offer my version of a simple 7-step strategic mapping process that generates innovative solutions to move an organization, large or small, forward.

Strategy Alive™ consists of seven steps: Examine. Explore. Extract. Establish. Execute. Evaluate. Excite. Here’s how this open-ended strategic process works:

  1. Examine

First, we take time to examine the past in order to identify lessons learned. Hindsight is always a great teacher. So is data. This enables us to capture, catalog, and carry insights into the present. Strategic thinkers carve out lessons learned from past experience and brings those findings forward into the future.

  1. Explore

Next, the model focuses its attention on the current environment in, outside of, and around the organization. We ask honest questions, explore different factors, emerging trends and technologies, uncertainties, customer interests, needs and values, and consider future possibilities. This process enables us to get an accurate picture of the current realities, strengths, challenges, threats, and opportunities that exist inside and outside an organization and leverages.

  1. Extract

We look at the pool of potential possibilities that we’ve generated and extract the unique core capabilities, strengths, and differentiators that are embedded within an organization, brand, product or service. We identify, prioritize and leverage those opportunities that have the highest probability of success, ones which will generate the largest return on investment, and opportunities which will fulfill our mission and/or cause and make the world a better place.

  1. Establish

Next, we establish an action plan with SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound) that align all resources (people, financial, property, brand, etc.) and energies with the central purpose and the guiding principles of the organization (mission, vision, values).

  1. Execute

A carefully constructed (yet flexible) plan of execution is crafted, communicated, and implemented with excellence. (Scenario plans are also created with the high probability of using some or all of them depending upon market fluctuation, market clarity, new opportunities that have emerged, unknowns becoming known, etc.)

  1. Evaluate

We honestly evaluate results with clear metrics that measure progress. Success factors are identified. Unforeseen challenges are addressed. People are held accountable. Tweaks, changes and courageous realignments, recalibrations, and resource reallocations are made when and where necessary.

  1. Excite

Finally, the Strategy Alive loop is completed as we excite others by celebrating the small wins and sharing the credit to those who have earned it all throughout the process. Good leaders celebrate the people and the process of doing good and hared work together as much as they do reaching the end result. Leading strategic change often has more to do with the relational side of the equation that we can ever imagine.

Strategy Alive Map

This strategy map serves as a kind of checklist to help maneuver our way through the problem-solving maze of life and business in a sequential and linear fashion. It takes things from the world of the conceptual and converts them to the realm of the concrete. The complex becomes simple. Enigmas can be unraveled.

Following a strategy map gives us a common language to communicate with others in our organization. It helps identify root problems. It helps us learn from the past. It uncovers potential gaps in our thinking. It gathers relevant information that informs. It paints a compelling picture of our true strengths and internal attributes. Strategy maps not only guide us, but they aid us in generating new insights and sparking creative solutions.

An Ongoing Process

One of the most overlooked aspects to the success of any strategic process being implemented is to ensure that it doesn’t become perceived as a “one-time-event” and then shelved. For this iterative process to achieve its intended aim, and in order to help people and/or organizations reach full potential, these life-affirming processes must become an ongoing practice.

Change is Permanent

Finally, a strategy map provides a clear and detailed set of “next-steps” to aid us as we plan for the future and navigate into uncharted waters. Heraclitus was right when he said, “The only thing permanent in life is change.” Our global economy has forever changed. Every organization needs women and men who can help course them into new frontiers of innovation and viability. Organizations, teams (and people) that are forward-thinking, healthy and strategic-minded, live with intentionality. They welcome people, practices, processes, and catalytic mechanisms that help them expand their core capacity and achieve their full potential. That’s why strategy is alive!

Problem-Solving: Lessons From Pac-Man and Harry Houdini

Force Field Leadership Alive Large

Lesson From Pac-Man

It was in the 1980s that the immensely popular video arcade game Pac- Man hit the market. Constantly being chased by his enemies Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde, Pac-Man tried to elude his captors while moving end­lessly through the maze eating pac-dots. His reward for successfully eating all of the pellets, was being promoted to the next level to start the process all over again!

Increase Our Value-Add

As leaders, when we get good at solving problems, our reward is that we get to handle bigger problems…and more of them. I’ve often thought that senior leaders could reduce their job description to a couple lines on their LinkedIn account, and one of those lines would be “solving problems all day long.” We increase our value-add to an organization or team when we become effective problem solvers.

Problems Are The Breakfast of Leaders

One distinction I want to make though is if we keep having the same problem year after year. Now that’s a problem! Sometimes I feel like Pac-Man, but instead of eating pac-dots, I encoun­ter an endless supply of reoccurring problems in my path (and hopefully not the same one). If Wheaties is the “breakfast of champions,” then as Henry Cloud says, “Problems are the breakfast of leaders.” And if problems are connected to adding value, and if problem solving is a part of the daily regimen of every growing leader, then learning how to become a creative problem-solver is a worthy goal to pursue. One of the ways to get better is to see problems correctly.

Drowning Versus Swimming In Deep Water

James Baldwin said, “We stand as witnesses that swimming in deep wa­ter and drowning are not the same thing.” Although that’s true, at times they can feel the same. I learned to swim as a kid at a neighborhood pool during summer break. I also learned to tread water by being thrown into the deep end and told to paddle and kick for two minutes! The lifeguard (that’s what he called himself) would slap your hands away from the side of the pool if you got tired and tried to rest on the ledge. I still remember those two long minutes. I thought I was going to drown. The good news is that I survived and learned two important lessons: (1) I can tread water better and longer than most people care to ever learn, and (2) There’s a dif­ference between swimming in high water versus water that actually takes you all the way under. This lesson applies outside the swimming pool as well. I know there are times that all of us have felt like the waters of life are going to wash over us, pull us down, and snuff us out. In those times, we must reframe our perspective. Don’t be afraid of problems or of making mistakes. Both are part of life.

Reframing Problems As Opportunities

Like most things in life, how we see something affects how we interact with it. Learning how to see problems through the correct lens is very helpful…and strategic. As we reframe problems into opportunities, we position ourselves, in a very real way, to not only ask the right questions, but to generate creative solutions that we never dreamed possible. Creative problem-solving is a skill-set that will be in high demand in the com­ing years as we operate in a workplace that is ever changing.

Most All Problems Are Solvable

One of the secrets regarding effective problem-solving is to never think that a problem can’t be solved. Sometimes when we can’t generate solutions to our problems, it could be because we haven’t found the right person to help us yet. It could be that we are too emotionally involved to see the problem objectively. It could be that we’ve made up our minds that this problem will not be solved. The danger in framing problems like this is that once our minds are locked and closed, even if something did open up, we’d miss it, because we weren’t looking for it.

Harry Houdini

I love the story of Harry Houdini, the great stunt performer, magician, and escape artist of the early 1900s. He was known as one of the greatest tricksters and lock-pickers of his day. He could crack his way out of any­thing. Once he accepted a challenge to pry his way out of a locked prison cell that was designed by one of the most notable security companies of the day. With the clock ticking, Houdini pulled out his tiny instruments and began picking away. Soon, he became frustrated. Finally, soaked in perspiration, Houdini declared, “This lock can’t be picked!” He quit. Ex­hausted, Houdini leaned up against the cell door, and surprisingly it swung open. They had tricked him! Houdini was actually put in a cell that was already open. He was set up. The cell was never locked. Houdini tried to open something that was already open. But because it was locked in Houdini’s mind, he couldn’t open it.

Opportunities In The Making

The same is true for us as well. When we lock things down inside, give up trying to solve something, and say it’s impossible even if it is open, we won’t see the open door because we’re not looking for it. Let me encourage you: define your problems accurately. See them as opportunities in the making. Even though the waves are high and at times, you feel like you are in over your head, you will not drown! You will make it over to the other side and sometimes the way over is through. Believe that your problem can be solved because believing often helps us see. It’s important not to “lock out your mind” and stop looking for answers that might not be that far from your reach. And for all you know, the door might already be open and just needs you to push against it in a new way.

Problems + Disruption = Opportunity

Increase From The Ox

Problems equal profit Chris MeadeOne of my favorite metaphors from the ancient agrarian world is encapsulated in the saying, “Without oxen a stall is clean, but great is the increase by the power of the ox.The sage explains a choice every farmer had to make (and we do too). If they wanted a full harvest, abundant fruitfulness, large profit, and a steady increase from the efforts of their hard-working ox, then they had to feed the ox and keep its stall clean. Those were the pros. The cons? Lots of poop had to be cleaned up each day out of the stall. The other option was to have a clean stall, with no poop to clean up, and no ox to worry about. This, of course, equates to little or no harvest (profit).

Fast forward to the 21st century and this principle is still relevant. We each have to make this same choice in our lives as business leaders. If we steward and solve problems well, we’ll receive its reward––increase. Or we can sign up for a life and a job with no problems and a clean stall, and we’ll receive the result of that option as well––little or no increase. It’s either door number one (ox, poop, and great increase) or door number two (no ox, no poop, no problems, and no increase). Becoming an effective creative problem-solver brings increase into our lives financially, personally, professionally, and relationally.

TGIF

The funny thing is that most people today don’t want any more problems on their plate. In fact, we often define our happiness factor based on how many problems we have or don’t have. The restaurant TGI Fridays’ slogan is “In Here, It’s Always Friday!” This international restaurant chain took its name from the expression TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday). TGI Fridays’ clever mantra has actually become part of popular culture, and it’s the goal for many Americans––living for the weekend to forget about their problems. Research has shown that people are happier on Friday than on any other day. More people suffer heart attacks on Monday than on any other day. Surveys indicate it’s because people are back at work and stressed out over their problems on Monday, and on Friday it’s all over for a few days.

Precursor to Opportunity

Part of the secret to creative problem solving begins first in how we view problems from the get go. If we want to be good at solving problems, and receiving the reward (increase from the ox), then we must view problems differently. Creative problem-solving first begins as an attitude. We must see problems as the precursor to opportunity.

Problems = Profit

Years ago, I started a service/sales business. The company also specialized in emergency fire and water damage restoration. Our normal day-to-day work brought in normal revenue. Good service, a talented sales force, efficient systems, hard work, and being really frugal were the bread-and-butter building blocks needed to turn a profit. But every now and then, insurance companies would call on us to help in an emergency disaster of some sort that involved fire or water damage. These jobs were incredible headaches. They added lots of complexity as well as many long hours to our daily work routines. But, it always paid very well. We could make a large profit in a relatively short amount of time. These large-scale jobs were a kind of love-hate opportunity for us.

Lesson From a Javelina

One time the phone rang in the middle of the night and we were called out to a school in the foothills. It was a beautiful new school with top-of-the-line furnishings, equipment, and décor. I drove to the school and met the principal out front. He told me a wild javelina had broken into the school in the middle of the night, and was trapped in his office. (A javelina is a large, wild boar-like animal with sharp tusks and teeth that is native to southern Arizona). The principal then dropped the bomb on me. “He pooped all throughout our offices and all over our furniture.” I went into the office with the principal after Animal Control removed the javelina. I was about knocked over from the most sickening smell you can imagine. Long story short, the principal wanted our company to thoroughly clean every piece of furniture, as well as conduct other restoration and decontamination processes in the their facility.Problems equal profit Chris Meade

“We focus on fire and water cleanup. We normally don’t do this kind of stuff. You should probably call someone else,” I told him. I thanked him and left. Later, he called back and said he couldn’t find anyone who was willing to do the job. He begged us and said he would pay whatever we wanted if we would just take on the job. We ended up saying yes. We bid the job high because of all the unknowns. We ended up making a very large profit from that one job. I learned that day that the bigger the problem, the bigger the potential profit. Javelina poop never smelled so good from that day on! Amazing what several thousand dollars can do to a person’s nose! If you want the increase from the ox (or the javelina in this case) you have to be willing to clean up the poop in the stall!

Reframing Problems as Opportunities In The Making

To be successful in life we must reframe our “TGIF worldview” to a lens that views problems as the precursor to opportunity, increase, fruitfulness, profit and mission fulfillment.  Forward-thinking leaders have trained their eyes to see the harvest and not just the poop in the stall! Having the right perspective is always a competitive advantage. Seeing problems as opportunities in the making is a timeless truth. The Chinese character for “crisis” is actually two words: danger plus opportunity. As leaders, managers and business professionals who live in a changing and competitive global economy, those two words describe our world pretty accurately. The right perspective is everything. Problems are connected to increase. The bigger the problem, the bigger the potential reward for solving it.

Problems = Profit

Let me ask you, are you facing some problems and disruption at work and in life that you have labeled as “poop in your stall” rather than a necessary precursor to future possibility? If so, let me encourage you: Don’t be afraid of the poop! It’s very possible that some of the problems and frustrations you are facing right now, if reframed as opportunities in the making, might very well be the first of a series of actions that will eventually bring about increase, breakthrough, innovation and mission fulfillment for you and your team in the near future. Remember: Most every realized opportunity first manifested itself in the form of a crisis, problem or challenge of some sort.

Overcoming The Pitfall of One-Dimensional Thinking

Getting Beyond The First Right Answer

Leaders who are open to new perspectives are often able to arrive at better and more complete solutions to the problems they encounter in life and work. Yes, the answers to some questions are black and white, yes and no, plain and simple. But for many other questions, quick fixes, memorized sound byte responses, and one-dimensional conclusions don’t always fix systemic and multi-layered issues and problems. Bottom line: Multi-dimensional problems can’t be solved long-term with one-dimensional solutions.

One-Dimensional thinking

As a kid, I remember when I thought I had the world of one-dimension­al mathematics figured out. Pat answers to my multiplication and division flash cards seemed manageable: memorize the sequence and regurgitate your answer, fast and painlessly. Then a teacher introduced me to the world of math word problems. She added a whole new dimension of complexity to my very small world.

Pyramd copyWhole Picture, Whole Solution

Life is more like a word problem than it is a flash card with an easy and predicable answer. Sometimes arriving at “the whole truth” about something is being able to look at something from a different angle. Many times a correct answer has more than one component or side to it. One of the benefits of a high-functioning team is that it helps us get beyond one-dimensional thinking and arriving at one-dimensional conclusions. Sometimes answers are multi-dimensional. They have several layers of complexity or sides to them. One side isn’t the “whole truth.” Like the distinct sides of a pyramid, truth, or what is correct, is sometimes all of the sides at once. It’s when we are able to step back and see the whole picture that a whole solution can be reached. Working in the context of community helps generate and sug­gest whole solutions.

Multi-Dimensional Challenges Need Multi-Dimensional Solutions

Wise people do their best to suspend making a final judgment about something or someone until they have the full story. Usually, the pieces don’t all show up at the same moment. As we work together as a team we are empowered to see multiple sides to an issue. It’s not that any one side is wrong; it’s just that it’s an incomplete picture. We need to be able to understand, hear, or see all of the sides in order to make our best and full decision. That’s why multi-dimensional problems can’t be solved long-term with one-dimensional solutions.

Arriving at the Whole Truth or Solution

As kids when we got in trouble as a pack of brothers, we were brought in one by one to tell our dad our side of the story. Each brother brought their own version and pleaded their case! Each brother’s story was usually different. Each of us told the truth according to our interpretation of the particular event. After my dad had heard all four sides of the story, he would then make a multi-dimensional decision, which usually meant that all four of us got a spanking! Each brother was partially right, and some more right than others, but all the brothers had an element of truth to their side. My dad needed to see the “complete picture” before he could discern the “whole truth.”

Multiple Voices and Diverse Perspectives

Not only is this principle dependable in resolving complex family issues, but it’s true in the world of business and leadership, too. If we focus on only one portion of the equation, we become lopsided and one-dimensional. The whole truth is all parts working in concert together. Much like that of a “pyramid” the answer is not one side, but rather all of the sides coming together as one complete object or picture. Truth copyToo often, we carve life up into discrete slices and categories and fail to see the situation in its completeness. Therefore, we arrive at incomplete solutions because our diagnosis was depth-less, cursory and one-dimensional. To be a leader that consistency arrives at the “whole truth” in our decision-making, we often will need to put ourselves around multiple voices and diverse perspectives. This experience will aid us in getting our heads around the different sides of the issues so we can discovery the best multi-dimensional solution.

Keeping An Openness Toward Others

The world is our school. Problems are our curriculum. People are our teachers. That’s why staying open to people aids us in generating valuable and multiple solutions to complex situations. If we stay closed off to others, we reduce life to a kind of one-dimensional existence, a life of “Me.” (That thought should actually scare us.) So let me ask you: Are you faced with a business, leadership or personal problem that actually is multi-dimensional, and you or others have unintentionally tried to solve it with a one-dimensional solution? If so, let me encourage you to step back and assess all the sides of the pyramid before generating a solution. Enlist some new sets of eyes to help you see. My hunch is that if you do, you’ll have a better right answer than when you started.

Leadership 101: Our Perspective Colors Everything

As Our Perspective Brightens, Our Effectiveness Broadens

Our perspective fuels our emotions and emotions fuel our actions. Success in work, life and leadership is first an inside job. Our internal perspectives and the way we see things affect everything about us. Like a row of dominos that fall when one is pushed over, our perspectives create a ripple effect that sets off a chain of emotions and actions in our lives. In this post I want us to look briefly at the power of our perspectives and how they can help to bring about exceptional life outcomes for each of us.

WhiteBoard Scribbles Chris MeadePerception Colors Everything

Our perceptions (real or perceived) affect everything about us. Everything will be affected either positively or nega­tively by the way we see things. Our perspectives color our world. If our perspective is clear and is trained to be able to see what’s good, then our lives have a propensity to lean in that direction. On the other hand, if we always see what is wrong, negative, and bad with every­thing, then our lives tip in that direction. Make no mistake, the domino effect will be seen, felt, and experienced by all; but it’s always our choice. How we view things has everything to do with the future direction that our lives will take.

Common Denominator of Success

Over the years I’ve noticed that one of the common ingredients that many successful people share, is a positive attitude and a healthy perspec­tive toward life. Their eyes are full of light. Men and women who have an excellent spirit about them possess an orientation that tilts toward optimism instead of criticism. domino effect chris meade They believe in possibility rather then unattainability. They choose the high road and strive to see the best in others, rather than de­scend onto the low road of criticism and complaining. They pitch their tents in the land of hope. This way of looking at life is a core ingredi­ent of most successful people. As our perspective brightens, our effectiveness broadens.

You Find In Life What You’re Looking For

One of the amazing truths of life is that we find what we are looking for. If we’re looking for what’s good, we’ll find it. If we are looking for what’s wrong about something or someone, we’ll find that, too. For example, there could be 100 things working right in a rela­tionship, with a job, or in yourself, but if we are always looking for what’s not good about some situation, we’ll always find it and miss the 99 other wonderful things that surround us. One proverb said it this way, “If we search for good, we will find good; but if we search for the bad, it will find us.” What we pay attention to draws us toward it because it focuses our minds in that direction. Our brains are actually created to operate this way.

What We Focus On Pull Us Toward It

I remember a while back, riding my bike down a steep and winding mountain hill. As I was rocketing down the highway, I had to concentrate so I didn’t crash into the side rail as I banked hard on a sharp turn near the bottom. I remember how I started to become mesmerized at one point by watching the side of the road so intensely. The more I focused on not coming too close to the guardrail, the more I felt myself actually drifting toward it. My brain wanted to go where I was focusing. It felt almost like a magnet was pulling me toward it. This is why when we’re first learning to play baseball, the coach always says, “Keep your eye on the ball.” Why? It’s because our body wants to follow our eyesight and align our body with our perception. What we focus on pulls us toward it.

Reticular Activating System

The reticular activating system (RAS) is an area of our brain that serves as a type of filter. The RAS determines what we notice and what we don’t notice. Most of the time our brain works overtime to help us tune out unimportant information so we don’t go crazy with data overload. At the same time, our RAS works like a laser-guided missile system in pursuit of a target. When we do decide to focus on what’s most important, our brains are hard-wired to go after it. We see what we are looking for.

Look For the Good Chris MeadeTarget: Ford Escort Wagons

Many years ago, my wife asked me if we could buy a new economical car. She told me this popular model was called a Ford Escort Wagon. I told her, “I’ve never heard of it.” Long story short, we ended up going down to the local Ford dealer and bought a brand new white one. As we drove it home, with three kids in the back seat, I was shocked. Everywhere I looked somebody was driving a Ford Escort Wagon. There were Ford Escorts ev­erywhere: white, blue, red, green, and silver! I couldn’t believe it. I told Mary, “We just bought the most popular car on the road!” Let me ask you a question. Do you really think all these Ford Escorts just appeared out of nowhere? Of course they didn’t. They were always there. I just didn’t notice them because my brain filtered them out because I was not looking for them. They were unimportant to me at that time. But once I was looking out for them, they jumped out from everywhere. Why? Because my RAS was awakened and locked onto its target: Ford Escort Wagons.

Focusing Your Brain’s Reticular Activating System

Many people who are successful in life and business understand this principle of being able to see and find what they are looking for. They do their best to channel their RAS to their advantage. These men and women know that “seeing” is the precursor to “doing.” So, they put a “seeing plan” together that identifies their target goal. This not only clarifies what they want and what they are looking for, but it awakens and focuses this unique part of their brain. When we set our focus on the achieving our goals, while understanding how our RAS works, we gain an advantage because we have now activated our minds to help resource us with added energy, high-definition clarity, and fully alive brainpower. What we choose to focus on will naturally pull us toward it. So choose wisely!

Iron Sharpeners: Team-Building in the New Economy

Team Building

Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.

Developing your potential is important. It’s a foundational building block of success. Developing the best in someone else is even more impressive. But developing the potential and capacity of a team of people really raises the bar. It sets leaders apart in this new economy. Developing a team is a prized skill and makes a huge difference in the lives of others.

Michael Jordan once said, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” Team-builders or “Iron-Sharpeners,” as I like to call them, strive to win championships, not just games. They are convinced that they can be more, do more, and give more with the help of others. If they don’t have a formal team, then they forge outside alliances with others that can help them. They are convinced that the days of the go-it-alone, Marlboro-Man-solo-leader is over.

Iron-Sharpeners align and utilize the talents and strengths of others. They harness the power of unity out of diversity. They create team synergy through architecting a sense of genuine community and trust. At the same time, they’re focused and aligned in accomplishing a shared goal.

Better Together

Having the right perspective on the inside affects how you lead on the outside. Iron-Sharpeners are convinced that we are better together than we are alone or off in silos working and minding our own business.

There’s an old proverb that says, “Two people are better than one because they get more done by working together. If one person falls, another can reach out and help, but people who are alone when they fall are in real trouble…A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back to back and conquer, and three are even better for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.”

The Three-Fold Cord

Working together as a team is likened to the collective strength of cords being braided together. Collectively, they are stronger when they are twisted and intertwined with each other. Not only are we better together, but we’re also made by our Creator to be in healthy community with other people. This includes our work life.

The Marlboro Man Mentality

Rugged Individualism Chris Meade LeadershipAlive.comThis idea of community and team is actually counter to what many people in our society think. Our culture applauds rugged individualism. And of course, there is something admirable about it. Our nation was founded with a pioneering and courageous spirit. We love old Western’s that glamorize the go-it-alone, tough cowboy. But we’ve all seen or heard of how something good in an extreme form can end up going south. Radical individualism that creates isolation in love, life, and work is unhealthy. We forget that even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. Choosing to go it alone, and taking the position that we don’t need anybody else is not necessarily a sign of confidence but of hubris, insecurity, and fear. Sometimes the Marlboro Man mentality works against us and can take us right over the cliffs.

Sharpening Your Blade

In my next post, I’ll explore some  practical ways we can sharpen one another, “like iron sharpens  iron,” by first looking at how the ancients actually sharpened knife blades. But for now, let me end with two questions to consider:

(1) Who are you sharpening? Remember, this is a prized skill-set to possess and it will set you a part in your organization as you help others grow.

(2) Who is sharpening you? All world class athletes have coaches. Who is your coach for this season and what is your training regimen and rhythm you have committed to? Why? Because what we pay attention to gets better.

Catalyzing Your Talents and Potential

Apply What You Are Learning

When I was a freshman in high school, I started to play the electric guitar. Soon after, I was invited to join a rock band. The only problem was that I knew only three chords! But since I had my own guitar and amp, I was in, chords or no chords! A band member gave me a bunch of new chords to learn that were in some of the songs we would be playing. I had just a few weeks to learn the material, so I practiced my chops every day after school for about four hours. Within a month, I could play all kinds of new songs. I amazed myself. Looking back, I can see that my learning accelerated because:

1. I had a goal that I was passionate about.

2. I practiced all the time.

3. I was accountable to someone (my band members).

Learning How to Accelerate Your Potential

One of the overarching principles behind my rapid growth was consistent application. We grow best and learn more deeply when we immediately apply what we are learning. All good teachers know this. That’s why they design learning activities that drive home the point of the topic they are talking about. Otherwise, we confuse knowledge with learning. They are not the same. It’s kind of like the difference between listening to and really hearing someone. They are similar, but different. We accelerate our growth when we get involved with the material, join the team, start helping, or begin to practice what we are reading about, etc.

Wring Out Your Sponge

Learning is like wringing out a sponge. A sponge can hold only so much water. You can blast it with a large hose hooked up to a fire hydrant, but it will only retain so much water. You can take a sponge and submerge it into the Pacific Ocean, but it will only absorb so much water. How does a sponge absorb more fluid? Only by wringing it out. Each time the sponge is twisted, and the water is squeezed out, the sponge snaps back to its origi­nal state. It’s now ready to pick up more water. Slurping up new water is contingent on wringing out the old. The same is true with us.

Wring Out Your Sponge - LeadershipAlive.comGrowth Is Connected To Participation

When we wring out our sponges and apply what we are learning, we set ourselves up to keep learning. Our absorbency level is constantly able to re­set and thereby retain new knowledge. There is truth to the old adage “use it or loose it.” No wonder I plateaued in my guitar playing. Why? I played the same old licks and songs. Today, I don’t practice any new material, and I’m not in a band! The same is true in life, too. What do you know in your head that you have yet to apply? What new skill can you begin to use more consistently? What positive attitude can you practice at work? What strength do you possess that you can bring to your work team? What character quality can you begin anew?

Begin Today

Spectators grow at a snail’s pace. Participants skyrocket. Jumping in and getting involved catalyzes growth. Start serving other people and you’ll see your character deepen. Give and you’ll become more generous. Deploy your talents and they’ll transform into strengths. Use what you have. Take the time to teach others what you know and you’ll get smarter. Wring out your sponge and watch what happens.

 

The Reflective Practitioner

The Reflective Practitioner

Thinking deeply is quickly becoming a lost art in our fast-moving Western so­ciety. For example, if you visit a country in the East and come across an elderly man working quietly in a beautiful and serene garden, you would not interrupt him because he’s doing something that’s culturally perceived as important. On the other hand, if you were in the West and saw someone running around in the office like a chicken with his head cut off, texting with one hand, stacks of papers in the other, and a Bluetooth fastened to his ear, you wouldn’t interrupt him because in American culture he’s per­ceived as doing something important. But in the East, we can interrupt a person moving fast, and in the West we can interrupt a person going slow and reflecting.

All that is to say that I think we’ve lost something valuable in our cul­ture––the art of thinking deeply, critically, and reflectively. Too often, con­cepts like personal reflection are only thought of as a stress-relieving therapy or a  spiritual discipline, rather than one of the most powerful assets business leaders have at their disposal. There’s a huge payoff in taking time to think.

Secret Of The Swing

Author Len Sweet first introduced me to an insightful principle that I’ve come to call the “Reflective Practitioner.” Most of us have spent some time on a swing-set in the park. If you remember, the secret of how high you could get came when you learned how to lean back in the swing and pump your legs. The more efficient you were in your pumping backward, the higher you went forward and upward. As Len puts it, “The secret of the swing: Backward propulsion creates forward momentum.” The same is true in life.

Thinking Deeply

Reflective_PractionerWhen we take time to reflect, to slow down and think deeply, it em­powers us with creativity, insights, breakthroughs, and new learning. This process fuels us to soar to new heights. There is no way we’ll ever reach our full potential without learning how to lean back into our swing. I encour­age leaders (i.e., lifelong learners) to carve out time to think, reflect, debrief, journal, pray, etc. Often, because many of our work cultures don’t understand this principle, they won’t pay you to do it while you’re on the clock. We have to do it on our own time. Some people would even get in trouble if they closed the blinds in their office, turned off the phone, shut down the com­puter, and just spent time thinking and reflecting. Many a boss would say, “Do that on your own time. You’ve got work to do! Chicken, get running!” So, let me encourage you to find a swing! Go to a park and lean back and pump! Do this in your personal, professional, relational, emotional and spiritual life, too.

Think Kaizen

Yes, as life practitioners, we must be out in the arena working for a liv­ing, but it’s important to take time to reflect on what you do right and what you could improve. Be a reflective practitioner. Think Kaizen. Journal what you learn today while you’re out in the marketplace. Jim Collin’s used to keep a win/loss journal in his pursuit of becoming a “Level 5 Leader.” Muse over the challenging conversa­tions that you had with a coworker during a meeting. What went right? What went south? What will you do differently? Learning is tethered not only to application, but to reflection regarding the application. Let me encourage you to renew the art of thinking critically. Sched­ule time to reflect. Remember: Forward movement is tied to leaning back in the swing and thinking deeply.

Overcoming Learning Stagnation: Randomization

Overcoming Learning Stagnation: The Practice Of Randomization

The act of intentionally randomizing life helps us from getting stuck in our routines. Changing the environment, breaking up old patterns, and being exposed to new contexts fuels new learning. New learning increases capacity. We can all get in boxes very quickly and live our whole lives out of them. Most people gravitate to a life that’s comfortable, familiar, and routine-based. So, to prevent learning stagnation we must choose to inten­tionally create random rituals that randomize and break up the patterns of life. This helps us stay open to new ideas, people, perspectives, and ex­periences. Different kinds of experiences and environments, coupled with intentional reflection surrounding the learning process, accelerate learning. This is because these experiences and environments cause different kinds of reactions and responses within us. Randomization helps stretch our in­tellects, hearts, and spirits.

Pattern Breaking

Pattern breaking helps us stay open to things we would probably not naturally gravitate toward. For example, whenever my wife Mary and I go to a restaurant, I almost always try and order something new from the menu. Yes, this sometimes gets me in trouble and begging for some of her food, but it’s a randomizing ritual that I value in my life. Choose to put yourself outside of your comfort zone. Lifelong learners choose to stretch their thinking in order for new synapses or connections to form. Neurosci­ence has actually proven this to be true. New brain synapses form when we learn, unlearn, and innovate.

When we put ourselves in unfamiliar places, we expand our minds. When we break the patterns in our lives, we enlarge our perspectives. Ex­perience a new culture. Learn outside your field. Read things you disagree with. Make friends with people who are very different than you. Try and get your head around diverse things and watch your learning skyrocket.

Benefits of Formal Learning

That’s also one of the reasons why I like formal learning (class­rooms, workshops, seminars, coaching, etc.). One of the beauties of formal learning is that it pushes us into areas we wouldn’t necessarily go on our own. It is a kind of randomizing ritual. In formal learning, we are usually not in con­trol of the curriculum, agenda, assignments, and readings. We often learn more in these settings because we’re being exposed to things, that in most cases, we weren’t even aware of or would have been attracted to in the first place. Formal learning forces us to interact in new ways with new people, new information, and with an opportunity for new application. That’s a rich and powerful learning environment.

The Discipline of Unlearning

The Discipline of Unlearning

Unlearning is one of the most under-utilized approaches to learning. We often picture learning as adding to what we already have. For example, we have a certain level of knowledge or proficiency about something. So, to learn is to increase. Many people think of learning as something like the image of opening up the top of a person’s head and pouring more knowl­edge into it. But that’s not always true. Sometimes we get more traction in our learning by knowing what to unlearn.

Fruitfulness Is In Pruning, Not Adding

Picture a logjam in a river. When it’s removed, the river begins to run again. The river is now able to move downstream with a roar. The same is true with us. Sometimes we experience some of our greatest epiphanies and bursts of growth, not by always adding to the existing body of knowledge and experience, but by removing something that is untrue that is holding back other truths from creating life and new growth in us.

New Growth

We flourish anew by discarding the mental and attitudinal blockages that hinder new truths from entering our lives. Myths that we hold as true keep other valuable life principles at bay in our lives, almost like an invisible force field. As friend and author Wayne Cordeiro says, “The secret to a fruitful life is not always in adding, but in pruning.” Fruitfulness is contingent upon knowing what to discard. Please note that I’m not talking about pruning for pruning’s sake and leaving gaping holes. Rather, I mean a cutting away in order for something new to blossom. Here’s how one ancient proverb puts it: “When the grass goes away, new growth appears, and the plants of the hills are gathered.” So prune with a vision in mind.

Copyright 2013, Christopher P Meade, Financially Alive, Master Gardener
Copyright 2013, Christopher P Meade, Financially Alive, Master Gardener

Pruning Toward Design

All of us have heard stories of master gardeners who can magically look at a budding plant, shrub, or tree and know what its natural design is sup­posed to be. They see what its intended original structure is, what it can be, and then they prune toward that design in their mind’s eye. They know what the shrub should and can look like in its end state. They can sniff out and recognize latent potential. That’s one reason why master gardeners know that who we are on the inside (e.g., talents, strengths, passion, skills) are often clues to what we want to do and can become on the outside (e.g., career, life purpose, vocation). They are connected.

Unlearning Is Part of Learning

For that to take place, the master gardener must carefully envision, snip, discard, shape, and remove everything that hinders the plant from reaching its full potential. Dead and sick branches must go. Branches that appear good but in reality are superfluous must be trimmed. In order for the resident potential within the plant to come to full fruition, pruning must be intentional and continuous. The same is true with us in regards to learn­ing. Pruning is a normal part of life. Unlearning is a normal part of learning and progress.

A Life That Is Thriving

When we discard twisted, design-hindering, even ancillary truth-assumptions we flourish. This is one of the truths Jim Collins in his book, Good To Great, was getting at in the Hedgehog Principle: the power of focused, aligned, design-simplicity (i.e., What are you passionate about? What can you be the best in the world at? What drives your economic engine?).

Who Is Your Master Gardener?

We live in a culture that values only adding, even to the point of overload. Yes, we need healthy soil, lots of water, and warm sunlight to expand and increase, but we also need the work of a caring gardener who prunes toward the vision of what we are designed to be and do. That’s why mentors, trusted friends and advisers, a wisdom community, sacred texts, life coaches, pastors, teachers, etc., can be the other eye that we need. Wise leaders know that the eye cannot see itself. Therefore, we need other “sets of eyes” to help us maximize potential. Prayer, meditation and personal reflection can help us, too. More than likely, a life that is alive and thriving, is a life that is learn­ing…and unlearning.

Maximizing Potential

We need all the resident energy that is within us fully available to us if we are going to maximize potential. So let me ask you: What do you need to unlearn? What do you need to prune, discard, and cut loose in your life so you can get the water flowing again in full force? What in your relationships, your thinking, your attitudes, your goals, your schedule, your finances, your behavior needs a log or two removed so the water flow can pick up speed like it was designed to do? Remember: unlearning and letting go is a key element of learning and growing forward.