Improving Personal Capability to Embrace New Ideas

We held a push-up competition several years ago at my house. Some of my sons could easily do 20 push-ups, but one in particular couldn’t do any (he was … 7?). “Dad, I can’t even do one” he said to me. “That’s because you’ve never tried,” I replied. “Work on doing one. And then tomorrow do one again. And the next day again. And the next day, try to do two.”

And so he did. And he could. And now he can do more than all of us. There was a time that he was doing at least 100 every day, and tracking them annually on a spreadsheet.

You can’t ask someone who has never practiced push-ups to drop and do 50. But you could ask them to try to do one, or half of one, or half of one on their knees.

What’s true of push-ups is true for embracing new ways of working at work. You can’t ask someone who has never practiced the skills of working collaboratively to switch it up from 0% to 100%. That’s too much change – too much progress even – in too short of a time span.

But you can ask them to do one thing today, such as:

  • Read a blog post and write a thoughtful comment.
  • Save an in-progress document to a SharePoint document library, and allow others to read the not-yet-finished document.
  • Ask a question in Yammer, not in email.
  • Search for expertise on Office 365, instead of asking someone nearby.
  • View a plan in Microsoft Planner, and move one of the items they are working on to a new column (bucket).
  • Create a OneNote notebook and use a page for taking notes at their next meeting.

And then again tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that. And then two the next day. And then a bit more on those two the next day.

Before you know it, they’ll be chomping at the bit for more for themselves and their team, and you won’t be able to keep up with demand.

Test the Idea at (Small) Scale

You have surveyed the current reality, and looked at what else is possible. You – in conjunction with others – have envisioned a new approach to work. Now is the time to run an initial experiment or test – to start and make the change in order to evaluate the near-term potential of the big idea.

Here’s how to get started:

  • Find a person or team to work with. If you are not running the process yourself, you will need to find a person or team who is. You should already know various people who would fit this description, because they should have been involved to some degree in the earlier analysis and reimagining. The team you engage with needs to be aware that they are going to be testing an idea, and that there will be some rough edges.
  • Design a usable prototype, or if you are introducing new behaviours enabled by standardised tools, design a script or storyboard of how the process should now work. The bigger the change, the more effort in communication, joint explanation and discussion will be required. Why are we doing this? What new skills will be necessary? What do you stop doing and what do you start?
  • Help the team to begin, offering whatever support is needed in terms of re-explanation, coaching, and skills training.
  • At an appropriate point or stage, debrief on the new way of working. What needs more work? Which ideas resonated? Where does the team see opportunities for doing more and going further? What’s not working as expected / hoped?
  • Test and refine the design concept and the prototype / script / storyboard, and begin again with greater insight and awareness.

Testing and refining the idea at small scale enables a better ramp up when taking the idea to the large scale.

Who Switched the Drawers?

I have 21 drawers by my office desk. These hold stationery, paper, books to read, pens and pencils, pocket knifes, old thumbdrives, book manuscripts, keys, cables, in-progress projects, client-specific items, old journals I haven’t scanned yet, charging adapters, and much more. Each drawer has a particular focus, and over time and with repeated usage, I get pretty good at knowing where a given item is located. Repetition builds and extends recollection, so that I’m not usually rummaging through all 21 drawers to find a given object. For the drawers I use frequently, I know where to find what I’m looking for.

But the drawers are inter-changeable, so one can be withdrawn easily from one drawer unit and put into another one. So it’s entirely possible – and I’ve done this multiple times over the years – to re-allocate where each drawer is. Some items move to the top of the drawer stacks, others move towards the bottom.

And what chaos it creates. Now I’m usually rummaging. Now I’m opening each drawer in quick succession to find the object I’m looking for. Now I’m annoyed because something has moved, even though it was me who moved it – for a good reason. But once again, it’s a short-term pain and things settle into a new pattern; I know where to look, I can quickly locate each item, and I’m ready to work.
Making improvements to my drawer allocations has similar short term impacts when improving work through new tools like Office 365. While the baseline toolset is roughly the same – Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook – achieving the impact and improvement requires changes in behaviour.

From hiding files on a personal drive to hosting them in SharePoint or OneDrive.

From controlling the world through Outlook to collaborating with the world through Teams, Yammer and Skype.

From relying on intentional search in SharePoint to resting with intent-aware serendipity via Delve and the Office Graph.

And then once you have developed a new rhythm, Microsoft changes things. Moves the drawers, as you will. A new feature here, a deprecated feature there, and a moved around feature over there … and the new way of working you were developing gets disrupted (slightly or more severely). But persevere. See the change, understand what it means for you, and keep going. Because truth be told (apologies in advance, I couldn’t resist saying it this way) – mark my word here – if you want to excel, you will need to change your outlook on toolset change and just flow with it individually and within your team.

The drawers might have been shifted. But you can still do your work with agility, flexibility and awesomeness. It will just take a few days to recapture your rhythm.

A Better Word Than Change?

Change. Doing something different.
Learning. Mastering a new area. Building new knowledge and skills.
Progress. Moving forward. Usually has the sense of an envisioned destination towards which the movement is being made.
Improve. Become better.
Better. More desirable, satisfactory, or effective.

What’s that old saying about “the only things constant in life”? Death is one. Taxes is the second. Change is often appended as the third (although I’m sure we could add Chuck Norris jokes there somewhere). The first two are on the negative side of the scale; things we’d rather avoid, or minimise. So why is change there too? Is it equally negative or to be avoided? It would seem weird to put something delightful along with two more negative items.

But then again, when I look at the list of words at the top of this post, perhaps the word and its connotations are negative. There’s a sense of different in the word “change,” but no sense of goal directedness or a better destination. At worse it is just different, and thus annoying, disruptive, and unsettling to the way we live, work and contribute.

And yet few of us don’t want the other four items on the list. To learn to become more. To make progress towards goals and dreams. To improve the way we work and live, and thus the contribution we make to the world and our loved ones. To get better today than we were yesterday. To do better work, to become capable of adding more value to others, and to increase our ability to be and do.

Change? No thanks. I’d rather make progress, improve and get better (which the astute reader will immediately recognise as all requiring change – but change as a process of enablement, not a destination to pursue).

Maintain and Step Up

The Stages of Change model I reference in User Adoption Strategies has a final stage called “maintenance.” The intent of this fifth stage in the model is that the change introduced is done repeatedly, not just once. That the change in behaviour becomes the new way of living or working, not a one-time experiment that’s quickly done and quickly forgotten. It’s the building of momentum after getting the bike going, of not smoking on day four after three no cigarette days, and of closing the rings on your Apple Watch again today. It is about starting a chain of change and not breaking the chain today.

Maintenance is an essential stage in change, and arguably it is the most important stage because it’s the cadenced practice of change that’s makes change the new reality. A change embraced is a change lived daily, not a magical place to visit on vacation once a year.

My question, then, is whether there’s a difference between “maintenance” and “settled”, and how to embrace continuous improvement while maintaining what you’ve already conquered? To maintain something is to keep the object or practice at a particular level of quality. There is no sense of pushing beyond a pre-determined level though; maintenance is about prior levels, not new future possibilities. To become settled in doing something is to continue in a prescribed way – a settled way of life. Again, there’s no sense of pushing forward.

Perhaps the way to reconcile maintenance and continuous improvement is to see a stair case of change. To make a change is to climb to the next step. To maintain the change is not to step back down to the previous step. To embrace continuous improvement is to develop the skill to stay on the step you’re currently on, but also to look towards the requirements of the next step.

Maintain and step up.

Maintain and step up.

Maintain and step up.

Helping Others to “See Differently”

We hosted a party last night, for our second son who turned 21. It’s was a great celebration of life and living, and we enjoyed seeing family and friends share the dancing, food, fun and speeches of the night.

We hired a local hall we’ve never hired before. It was a very good venue for the party, but of course, part of hiring a new facility is being able to “see” how to run a party in a space that was designed for multi-functional engagements. We designated one of the rooms as the food room, and it was my job in the early afternoon to lay out the tables for the food. I did the practice: I stood with my eyes closed and looked at the space I wanted to create. It needed to:
– Provide easy access to plates, cutlery and the food.
– Enable quick and efficient access and flow for the 100 or so guests.
– Signal how to move in and out of the room without using words.

I saw it in my head, and then made it happen in the room. There were two key design ideas: the table with the plates was put down the far end from where people entered, forcing them to walk to the far end of the hall to collect a plate and their cutlery. They would then be able to approach the food table on both sides, and make their way down the table selecting the food they wanted and then walk out and back to the seating area for eating. It was perfectly conceptualised, and I discussed this idea with the people helping me set out.

Everything was set, the party started, the dances were danced, and the instructions given at 6pm for dinner.

But someone moved the table with the plates and cutlery closer to the entry door. This broke the entire design principle, and meant that people then circled around the whole table, breaking the flow efficiency in half.


I should have checked the room again before dinner, but was busy in a conversation.

I should have checked in with the others who had early access to the room – to explain the idea, to show how it would work, etc.

While seeing differently can start with one, it can’t succeed without more.

Oh well, there’s always next time.

Re-Imagining a System for Health and Safety

The construction division at one of my clients used a health and safety database. It enabled them to track health and safety incidents, gain visibility across the division of all incidents, do reporting on what was happening and with what frequency, and more. But I was told the database wasn’t working all that well, and that an upgrade was needed. I was asked to look at this current system.

The word “database” was used in describing the current system to me. That was what the people there called it. And so I asked to see the database. You could charitably say it was a “base of data,” with a “collection” of documents and Excel spreadsheets strewn here and there, and tied together with reporting that was manually done by the health and safety leader by entering numbers from individual Excel spreadsheets and scanned site reports or emailed Word documents into a master “spreadsheet” that lacked any meaningful structure. Although you’d have to be very charitable to say that. The truth was closer to it being a complete mess. I guess the word “database” had been spoken by someone at some point, and that word was captured.

Principle: We see what we’ve been trained to see.

Principle: Teams become saturated with information; everything that the team knows is eventually reflected in how they operate and interact, until there is no uncertainty left.

Implication: Introducing new people and new ideas increases uncertainty, and therefore lays the foundation for doing something different.

The current health and safety “database” was a reflection of what the team knew, and what they could see being done with the tools at their disposal. They didn’t know any better, but that’s not a nasty backhanded slap across the face, it’s just an acceptance that their core task and value focus was on construction not information management.

So the question becomes, how do you see something different? What could be done?

  1. Improve the speed and consistency of routing the underlying documents to the health and safety leader. These were the daily site status reports from the site foremen.
  2. Change the daily site status reports to online forms, with the site foreman using a mobile device to capture.
  3. Actually introduce a database for health and safety, with auto-aggregation of health and safety data points from the daily site status reports that themselves were transformed from printed forms to a proper online form.

What else could be done? What do you see?

Collaboration in the Process of Re-Imagining

I have argued that we see the world through what we understand, informed by our experiences, and enlightened by what we have studied. Thus when looking at how to re-imagine a work process or activity – or a relationship, business model, life, or even a room layout for that matter – we can see what we’ve been trained to see, but are blind to what we can’t.

One easy “therefore” of this principle is to study to become better. To learn to see more. To increase competence and capability to see beyond our own history. To identify, for example, the trends and topics that are interesting and could have an impact on the domain of focus. And to then select one for a deep-dive: read everything you can, talk to as many people about the topic as you can, attend the conferences, and follow the movers and shakers. To become more of a generalist.

But there is only so much time in one day, and thus while the easy “therefore” above is a path for everyone, it’s not a path for everything.

A second easy “therefore” – or perhaps it is simple rather than easy – is to build a cadre of collaborators. Of individuals who bring different eyes, different ways of seeing, different back stories to the domain of focus, and even different uncertainty. A group where trust in intent is greater than the natural friction and disagreements that will erupt as sight lines cross and clash. Where the fight is about ideas that should prevail, not people who can’t see. Where there’s an acceptance (and active embrace even) of discussion and progress that follows the squiggly line.

Collaboration. Multiple people. Who are different. With different experiences. But with something common that draws them together and provides a common intent. To see together what doesn’t yet exist.

On Interpretation and Artistry

There is a lot of thinking and repeatable process in re-imagining effective work. Learning how to examine a current process to understand its intent, its current form, and the actors involved. Being able to introduce new information to overcome information saturation. Pulling out your binoculars and seeing the longer view of the industry and its context. Going shopping for inspiration to see how other people and teams are changing and embracing change. These items can be done, achieved, ticked off, completed, scheduled.

But there is also art. The unscriptable a-ha. The hoped-for-and-studied-towards moment of inspiration. That point in the process where everything comes together and you see the vision of the future – however ill-formed, fleeting and momentary. The fog clears and you see what is not there yet.

So here’s the question: what can you do to create the space for the “art”?

1. Immerse then disengage. Give your brain time and space to create the connections – where the unconscious part of your cognitive process makes connections between seemingly unrelated and unconnected ideas.

Allowing this process to happen is why many artists, writers and composers have wrestled with their ideas in the morning, and then gone for a long walk in the afternoon. Immerse and focus. Then disengage and walk. Or swim. Or cycle.

Steve Jobs was legendary for his walks, alone and with other people.

Zig Ziglar talked about how going out for a walk – often with his dogs – would frequently solve his problem.

In my work, I vividly remember the long bike rides when I was writing Collaboration Roadmap. There are sections in that book that would not have been written if it wasn’t for my bike.

2. Be intentional about location and activity. Where do you have your best ideas? Do you know? Many people say they have their best ideas in the shower (and I even know one guy that has a whiteboard next to his shower so he can capture his ideas while in there). While having ideas in your shower is great for solo idea generation, it’s a whole lot more difficult to make that work for group ideation. Apparently the sauna in Finland has become a close equivalent to this in a business group setting, although etiquette enforces separate sauna experiences for men and women.

Although I don’t do it often enough, one of my favourite ideation locations is the local cafe. Being able to sit in the silence and think … with a hot drink and a slab of carrot cake (with cream) … that’s almost perfection in my book.

3. Forget the meeting room. Meeting rooms have their place, and a well-designed and well-appointed meeting room is a great addition to the re-imagining activities of all teams. They are good for the science and repeatable process side, but the art side? Not so much. Find a different place to meet – the local coffee shop is a favourite of many. Or go for a walking meeting (as long as the group knows it can walk in silence and think; it doesn’t have to be a performance).

Somehow, you have to relax enough to let your intuitive and imaginative process be heard above the noise.

Where do you have your best ideas? Do more of that.