Enhancing Your Performance at Work With Mindfulness – An Interview with Jacqueline Carter

Research says that the rapid pace of work is taking a huge toll on our ability to focus, be productive, remain engaged and be creative. A majority of people at workplace today seem to be struggling to cope with severe stress resulting from conflicting work priorities, hyper-connectedness, onslaught of notifications and information overload. How do we cope up with this stress? How do we address our lack of attention so that we can not only complete the things we start without getting too anxious, but also enjoy the process of doing so?

With these questions in my mind, I picked up the book “One Second Ahead – Enhance Your Performance at Work with Mindfulness” written by Rasmus Hougaard with Jacqueline Carter and Gillian Coutts. I loved the simplicity with which the authors have been able to demystify mindfulness by providing tools and techniques we can all start using to be more effective.

I caught up a conversation with Jacqueline Carter, one of the co-authors, a partner at The Potential Project and a contributor at Huffington Post on how mindfulness can help us perform better. Here is the interview:

[Tanmay Vora] Jacqueline, Thank you for agreeing to share your insights here. I read your new book “One Second Ahead – Enhance Your Performance At Work with Mindfulness” with great interest. The first thing that intrigued me was the title of your book. What does “One Second Ahead” mean with respect to mindfulness?

[Jacqueline Carter] One Second Ahead, both the book and the concept, is about applying mindfulness techniques to daily work life. From a cognitive perspective, being one second ahead provides a clear edge in effectiveness and productivity. It offers the space and freedom to choose your distractions and direct your mental energy, no matter what you are facing.

[Tanmay Vora] We certainly are in middle of a productivity crisis at work. Pressure, information overload and always-on culture inhibits our ability to truly focus on work. What makes mindfulness, a potent response to the crisis?

[Jacqueline Carter] It’s not hard to see how work life has changed radically over the past few decades. It is common for people to attempt to concentrate on work while dealing with a constant stream of distractions and data, impacting their focus and performance. But it is actually possible to train the brain to respond differently to today’s constant interruptions through the practice of mindfulness.

Simply put, mindfulness means trained attention. Mindfulness techniques enable people to manage their attention, improve their awareness, and sharpen focus and clarity. We need to learn to work differently so we are more focused, calm and have less clutter in our mind to be able to succeed at the things that matter most to us.

[Tanmay Vora] One of the first victims of stress resulting from our “always-on” culture is sleep and lack of proper sleep only adds to the stress we experience. How can mindfulness be used for enhancing the quality of sleep and what are your three tips for better sleep?

[Jacqueline Carter] It’s true that sleep deprivation is reaching near epidemic proportions all over the world. Studies are showing that even light sleep deprivation has been proven to negatively impact logical reasoning, executive function, attention, and mood. Unfortunately, as a result of our busy lifestyles, sleep is regularly pushed toward the bottom of our list of priorities. However, research has shown that regular mindfulness training improves the ability to fall asleep as well as improve our sleep quality significantly. Some simple guidelines for better sleep include:

1. Catching the Melatonin Wave—Melatonin, when released from the pineal gland inside your brain, makes us relaxed, drowsy and ultimately fall asleep in a natural way. The key to catching the melatonin wave is to be mindful; have awareness of the natural drowsiness and relaxation that occur toward the end of the evening and maintain that awareness as you prepare for bed. Getting in synch with your body’s natural rhythms and your own cycle of melatonin is a simple avenue to a better night’s sleep.

2. Turn off All Screens 60 Minutes before Sleep—Your smartphone, your tablet, your laptop, your television all stand in the way of you catching the Melatonin wave. Because of the blue-light waves that are emitted, production of melatonin is suppressed in the pineal gland. Your brain reads blue-light as if the sun is still up, when in reality, the sun is most-likely down and you should be sleeping. It might sound difficult to some, but turning off all screens 60 minutes before you go to sleep works. The impact it has on sleep quality—and therefore mental and physical performance—speaks for itself.

3. Only Perceptual Activities 60 Minutes Before Bed—Too much thinking is an enemy of late evening natural relaxation and drowsiness. Conceptual activities, like intense conversions, replying to e-mails, working, or reading, can arose your attention and suppress your natural sleepiness. However, perceptual activities, like doing the dishes, going for a walk, or listening to music, can help you to catch the wave of melatonin as it rises. Just a small adjustment to your evening routine can go a long way toward enabling you to prepare for bed with a calmer mind that’s more in tune with the natural rhythms of your body. So save the dishes, walking the dog, or taking out the trash for the last hour of the evening. Sometimes procrastination can pay off.

[Tanmay Vora] How does mindfulness enhance our mental effectiveness in understanding complex problems, synthesizing experiences and addressing challenges?

[Jacqueline Carter] According to scientists, our mind is wandering over half of our waking hours. We are constantly thinking about events that happened in the past, or might happen in the future, rather than attending to what’s happening in the now. This limits our ability to address everyday challenges and accomplish meaningful results.

Yet, our thoughts are the foundation for everything we want to achieve in life. Thus, our ability to manage our mind becomes critically important. We are best able to manage complex problems when our mind is clear, calm and focused. This is true in all aspects of life, but especially in a work context. With a calm, clear mind, we are able to greatly enhance performance, effectiveness, creativity and innovation, which is foundational to business success. Mindfulness is the ultimate training for developing a highly functional and effectual mind.

Mindfulness is the ultimate training for developing a highly functional and effectual mind.

[Tanmay Vora] One common observation is that our openness to new learning and experiences decline as we mature in our practice and gather more experience. How can mindfulness help is break the shackles of our past experiences and make us more receptive to new learning?

[Jacqueline Carter] When we are exposed to the same experiences over and over again, there is a tendency to become complacent, to default to our pre-conceived notion of what should happen or may occur. We feel we’ve seen it all before, and we close ourselves off to being fully present. This can be problematic, and lead to what’s called cognitive rigidity—the inflexibility created by automatically relying on our habitual perceptions and past experiences.

Thankfully, mindfulness training shows us that we don’t have to give in to our habitual perceptions. When we allow ourselves to see things with a Beginner’s Mind—the ability to face reality as it is—we liberate ourselves from our habitual perception and approach all situations with fresh eyes and an open mind. Cultivating a beginner’s mind can be a wonderful way to change how you experience life. Regardless of your work environment, daily life can be filled with more wonders and possibilities when you see things with a fresh perspective.

[Tanmay Vora] What are your top three recommendations on mindfulness to those readers who are new to the concept of mindfulness?

[Jacqueline Carter] First, I would say to consider why mindfulness would be beneficial for you and be specific. The more clear you are on why you want to try mindfulness the more likely you are to be successful in incorporating it into your daily life.

Second, make a commitment to do 10 minutes of mindfulness training every day for the next 14 days and see what impact it has on you. I recommend downloading an app that has simple, easy instructions. Readers can download our app by searching for The Potential Project in their app store. Alternatively, there are many other great tools, just be sure to pick something that will work for you.

Third, I would say look for ways to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life. Notice times when it is difficult for you to pay attention and ask yourself what you could do about it. For example, if you find that you are constantly distracted by notifications try turning them off for an hour a day and see what happens!

[Tanmay Vora] These were really helpful insights! Thank you so much for sharing your lessons through the book and in this interview. I am sure readers will find these ideas very valuable.

[Jacqueline Carter] Thank you very much, Tanmay! It was a pleasure to connect with you and your readers on the topic of organizational mindfulness.

– – – – –

You can get the book at – Amazon (IN) | Amazon Worldwide

– – – – –

BONUS: When you have an hour free, check out this amazing video of Jacqueline Carter speaking at Microsoft on the topic of Mindfulness at work.

When Does Real Learning Happen?

Learning, the real learning, happens…

  • When you are intentional about learning
  • When you are driven by an intrinsic need to advance and not only by external triggers and rewards.
  • When you ask more questions to get to the WHY of things (and then to what and how)
  • When you carry an open frame of mind that is receptive
  • When you look for process and patterns even in discrete situations
  • And when you use your understanding to connect the dots and look at a larger picture
  • When you enjoy the process of learning without getting too anxious about the results and goals.
  • When you are self-aware (of your own beliefs, thoughts, values and perceptions)
  • When you experience, execute, iterate and test your hypothesis
  • When you reflect deeply on your experiences
  • And when you share your lessons (and process) with others generously so that they can learn (and also contribute)
  • When you surround yourself with passionate learners, mentors and coaches (and be a part of a learning community)
  • And engage others (community) meaningfully in collaborative problem solving
  • When you are able to collect, synthesize and process information from varied sources
  • When you solve interesting problems
  • And be able to create a map on the go (rather than relying on tried and tested methods)
  • When you overcome the fear of making mistakes
  • When you think critically
  • When you execute in short bursts, fail small and realign your approaches
  • When you Unlearn (let go of the old ways of thinking and doing)
  • When you apply lessons in line with unique needs of the context
  • When you synthesize your lessons and apply meta-lessons in across disciplines
  • When you are generous enough to share what you know, teach, coach and mentor others
  • When you are comfortable with inherently ambiguous nature of learning (and ability to hold two contrasting thoughts without being judgmental)
  • When you are comfortable also with the emergent nature of learning
  • When you don’t allow your learning to crystallize but keep it fluid and evolving.
  • When you truly start believing that self-directed and self-initiated learning is the best way to learn (for a lifetime).

12 Critical Competencies For Leadership in the Future

The rate of change in the business world today is greater than our ability to respond. In a world that is often described as VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and ambiguous), there are major tectonic shifts that demand a new mindset of leadership. First, let us look at these shifts.

In recent years, we have seen disruption of market leaders like Kodak and Nokia amongst many others. The average lifespan of an S&P 500 company has gone down from 67 years in 1937 to 18 years in 2011. With advances in technology, mobiles are becoming more of a convergence device that replaces so many utilities (calculators, alarm clocks, small digital cameras etc.) that we used otherwise. Generations at workplace are changing and new generations bring different values, expectations and mindsets at work. Rise in automation is resulting in heavy disruption. Right from purchasing stuff to booking taxies and filing tax returns, everything is increasingly being automated. The agents, middlemen and the whole supply chain related to these services is being disrupted. And, we are not even talking about automated cars yet – the next big frontier for the technology battle!

With a hyper connected workforce, organization cultures have become transparent. With opportunities abound, employees are “volunteers” who have global choices. In this world, having a compelling purpose is a mandatory pre-requisite for profits to follow. Traditional hierarchical structures are fading away to give way to purposeful networks and communities of people working together to achieve a shared purpose. The cumulative impact of these forces demands a new mindset and competences for leaders to be able to stay relevant and make a positive difference to people and hence, business. 

Having a compelling purpose is a mandatory pre-requisite for profits to follow

If you are a leader at any level in a modern organization or aspiring to be one, here are some of the critical competencies and skills you need to thrive in a VUCA world.

1. Develop an Adaptive Mindset: To navigate successfully through the maze of VUCA, leaders will need to be comfortable with unclear situations and travel into unexplored paths. This means leaders will encounter “first time” situations more often and they need to build their muscle to still deliver results. With “rapid prototyping” approach, leaders will need to constantly experiment to get early and frequent feedback that enables constant realignment.

2. Have a Vision: Vision is a perpetual force, a critical anchor that drives decisions, actions and judgments. With a younger workforce that is purpose driven, having a compelling vision for the future is also a key driver of engaging and retaining high performing team members. In fact, a compelling vision is an important pre-requisite for any community or network to succeed. Leaders who will thrive in future are the ones who have a clear vision of where they want their organizations and teams to be. 

3. Embrace Abundance Mindset: Abundance mindset sees possibilities where a constraint mindset sees challenges. A leader’s ability to spot the white spaces, unique problems and interdisciplinary intersections is as critical in the new world as their ability to “do something about it.” In VUCA world, leaders have to listen to the future by virtue of constantly scanning the horizon, being future minded and having strategic foresight without losing the sight of the current reality. When they do this, leaders build a unique ability to see through contradictions towards a future others cannot see. 

4. Weave Ecosystems for Human Engagement: One of the biggest leadership challenges is to create an environment that taps into intrinsic motivation of people. Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends 2015 reports that softer areas such as culture, engagement, leadership and development have become urgent priorities on a CEO’s desk. An ecosystem of human engagement is created when leaders understand the basic drivers of human engagement – the need for trust, the need to have a hope, the need to feel a sense of worth and the need to feel competent. At a time when most “engagement initiatives” are aimed at providing external motivation, we need leaders who can build trust through integrity and results, who can mentor and coach others, who can clarify the meaning of the work people do and build a positive influence. 

5. Anticipate and Create Change: When changes around us are constant and rapid, leaders have to use the wisdom from their future mindedness and strategic foresight to “create change” before an external change forces them to react. When leaders ride the wave of changes, they have to involve people in the change process, prioritize what’s important and execute changes in smaller iterations. Leaders nurture change by maintaining balance between the needs of the context, needs of others and their own needs. 

6. Self-Awareness: Leaders cannot succeed unless their personal vision and values overlap with organization’s vision and values. It is only when leaders are aware of their preferences, ways of working and possible blind spots that they can really bring their true authentic selves into the game and bring about a significant difference to the team, organization and hence the industry. 

7. Be an Agile Learner: Rapidly changing context is like a treadmill that compels leaders to learn constantly in a self-directed mode. Leaders have to be constantly curious and carry a “beginners mind” which is also willing to give up on familiar approaches (unlearning). Leaders need meta-cognition and awareness of the bigger picture. When thrown into unfamiliar situations, leaders need to learn immersively from those experiences.

8. Network and Collaborate: To make the sense of changing trends, practices and expectations, leaders in today’s world need to collaborate relentlessly within and outside the organization. A social mindset enables leaders to create, engage with and nurture purposeful business and social networks through social media and in-person communication. 

9. Relentlessly Focus on Customer: Customer centricity is and will remain at the heart of effective leadership. Helping customers navigate through the changes is as critical for leaders as it is to steer their own organizations effectively. Customer centric leaders truly “listen” to the voice of their customers, engage deeply and build long term relationship by adding substantial value to the customers. 

10. Develop People: Leadership in the new world is beyond external tags and titles. It is about serving effectively to the needs of the stakeholders – the most important ones being the people who make things work. Leaders, in this world, have to model the behaviors they seek, help people in building their skill set and attitude, create learning forums, design work to tap into potential and most importantly, lead through their influence and not through their authority. The primary task (and an obligation) of a leader is to build more leaders. 

11. Design for the Future: Leaders are designers of the systems for the future. They do so by building an emotional infrastructure, organization structures, methods and processes. If organizations are purposeful networks of people, leaders need a compelling purpose that people in the organization share. Leaders will have to pay equal attention to leveraging diversity and draw on multiple points of views and experiences.

12. Constantly Clarify and Communicate: When working with global work force, leaders will need an ability to communicate effectively across cultures. Like a location pointer on a GPS map, leaders have to constantly clarify the current situation with respect to changing external demands. Equally important for leaders is to re-iterate and reinforce vision, values and strategies. Finally, leaders have to help others in clarifying the meaning of their work. Communication and clarity are the currencies of effective leadership.

 

The hallmark of VUCA world is that there are no silver bullets. Successful leaders have always been adaptive to the context they find themselves in. The future is not a distant dream, it is here and now. Leadership today is all about shifting our mindset, values and organizations to a better place.

(This article originally appeared in People Matters Magazine, Dec 2015 issue)

Consume Less, Create More

That was my mantra in 2015 and beyond. As we start a new year, I revisited this mantra and a few additional thoughts came to the fore.

Consume Less

Consumption is a critical element in one’s ability to create anything. So, consumption, by itself, is not all that bad. The problem of our times is  consumption by default. We first consume and then think if we really needed it. This is true for almost everything – from stuff we buy to the content we read, from events we attend to conversations we engage in. Unfortunately, technology has made consumption all the more easier which only adds to the problem. Have we not seen people who are constantly busy on their phones consuming stuff without moving a needle for anyone? We need to jump off the consumption treadmill.

The goal, then, is to consume mindfully and there seem to be two ways to do it:

1) Consume mindfully by having right set of filters that help you decide if something will *really* add value and increase your ability to create. When you consume mindfully, less is actually more. When you have better filters, you gain that which is relevant. Consuming mindfully also means being in the moment while you consume and not rush through the process.

2) Practice the fine art of subtraction – we don’t need more and more. We need less that is more (useful/helpful/enriching etc.) Sometimes, the only way to find if something is useful is to “try” it. But often, once we try something, it stays with us because we are not so good at subtracting stuff – at eliminating that which we don’t really need.

“Minimalism is not subtraction for the sake of subtraction. Minimalism is subtraction for the sake of focus” – Source

Create more

Most of us, I assume, long to create stuff that changes us and others for better – whether it is a radical new product or a one-on-one conversation with a colleague. Mindful consumption increases our capacity to create.

“Create what?” – you may ask.

When we exercise mindfully, we create health. When we consume food mindfully, we create wellness. When we travel mindfully, we create enriching experiences. When we converse mindfully, we create relationships. When we create what we truly love, we create joy and meaning. When we share generously, we create connections and conversations. When we connect mindfully, we create learning. When we work mindfully, we create remarkable results. When we prioritize mindfully, we create focus. When we serve mindfully, we create contentment. When we meditate, we create wellness. And we make a positive difference to ourselves and others through our creations.

To be mindful is to be present in the moment, immersed in doing whatever you choose to do. The fact that individually, we can only do so much, we have to choose our battles carefully and subtract the rest!

The time saved through mindful consumption is the time spared for engaging in creative pursuits.

So my mantra for 2016 (and beyond) is the same as it was in 2015 – Consume Less, Create More. I look forward to doing better and raising the bar for myself.

– – – – –

Also read at QAspire:

Real Influence is a By-Product

The world today reveres influence and this leads people to chase influence. When influence becomes a goal, you can easily lose focus on what truly builds influence.

Influence – real influence that changes people and their behaviors for better – is a by-product of:

  1. Clarifying your values to yourself and hence to others
  2. Living those values and setting the right example (being authentic and integral)
  3. Making a meaningful contribution to community (yes, business IS a community)
  4. Being super-generous about sharing your work, insights, art and gifts
  5. And being a champion at listening to others (listening is a way to respect others)
  6. Building trust one contribution, one conversation and one result at a time
  7. Truly connecting with others (technology is just a medium)
  8. Believing in your insights and ideas (strength of belief feeds passion)
  9. And still being flexible and open minded about letting the beliefs and learning evolve
  10. Sharing stories that move people to better position (in thinking and in actions)
  11. Providing a lens to people to see things from your unique point of view
  12. Taking the conversations forward by “adding” meaningful perspectives
  13. Being intentional about being generous
  14. Always being constructive in thinking and ways of working
  15. Being consistent in your pursuits

What do you think?

Also Read:

A Quick Guide To Managing Conflicts

In early years of my career, I avoided conflicts just like any other obedient contributor would, not knowing that they were inevitable in the process of doing meaningful work. Most of us learn how to deal with conflicts through our instinctive reactions when we are in middle of one.

Here’s my one big lesson about managing conflicts – whenever I tried to “react” in the face of conflict, the situation mostly worsened. But when I chose to “respond”, conflict became a constructive learning experience. Response is nothing but a time delayed, thoughtful and goal-oriented form of reaction.

In an idea cast at Harvard Business Review, Amy Gallo, author of HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work, outlines four types of conflicts and offers very useful guidance on how to handle them.

I outlined the key ideas from the idea cast in form of a sketch note while listening and sharing it here with an objective that others may find my notes useful. Please listen to the idea cast here for more nuanced insights on the topic.

BONUS: Seth Godin’s guidance on managing disagreements and on managing conflicts with our own selves.

The Place to Improve the World

“The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then to work outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value.”

– Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Emilie Wapnick on Being a Multipotentialite

Some of us are fortunate to have found one true calling early in our lives and career but for most of the others, finding what really interests us is an ongoing exploration – a journey where we go along the direction of our energy. And then there people who are wired to have many different (and often evolving) interests.

In her TED Talk titled “Why some of us don’t have one true calling”, Emilie Wapnick refers to people with many interests as “Multipotentialites.”

In her talk, she explains:

“The notion of the narrowly focused life is highly romanticized in our culture. It’s this idea of destiny or the one true calling, the idea that we each have one great thing we are meant to do during our time on this earth, and you need to figure out what that thing is and devote your life to it.

But what if you’re someone who isn’t wired this way? What if there are a lot of different subjects that you’re curious about, and many different things you want to do?”

She then defines a multipotentialite as:

“someone with many interests and creative pursuits. It’s a mouthful to say. It might help if you break it up into three parts: multi, potential, and ite. You can also use one of the other terms that connote the same idea, such as polymath, the Renaissance person.”

Being drawn to many different things can be easily seen as a limitation but what Emilie found out is that there are tremendous strengths in being this way.

Based on the talk, here is a sketch note depicting the multipotentialite superpowers.

And finally, in the words of Emilie Wapnick:

to you I say: embrace your many passions. Follow your curiosity down those rabbit holes. Explore your intersections. Embracing our inner wiring leads to a happier, more authentic life. And perhaps more importantly — multipotentialites, the world needs us.

Yes!

Skills For Future Success in a Disruptive World of Work

My dad retired as a Library Science professional soon after which the profession of Library management was transformed by digital forces. With the rise of digital content, we now needed different kind of librarians who could help us walk through this maze of information and find what we need, not just deal with only physical books. The way libraries are structured and run has completely changed (and it continues to evolve).

In past 15 years, we have seen number of businesses being disrupted or transformed completely by digital forces. This may accelerate in future with the continuous rise in automation.

Experts predict that we are heading towards a “jobless future” and that it is both an opportunity and a threat. Even if we don’t think too much about what happens over a long frame of time, we can still agree that what bought us here (technical skills, expertise etc) may not be sufficient to take us towards success in a volatile future. What skills do we need more of as we head into future?

I read an interesting (and long) post by Janna Q. Anderson titled “The Robot Takeover is Already Here where she says –

“Skills young people should be learning to be prepared for a career in 2020 include:

  • The ability to concentrate, to focus deeply.
  • The ability to distinguish between the “noise” and the message in the ever-growing sea of information.
  • The ability to do public problem solving through cooperative work.
  • The ability to search effectively for information and to be able to discern the quality and veracity of the information one finds and then communicate these findings well.
  • Synthesizing skills (being able to bring together details from many sources).
  • The capability to be futures-minded through formal education in the practices of horizon-scanning, trends analysis and strategic foresight.”

Here are a few skills that I would like to add along for succeeding now and in future.

  • The ability to learn constantly in a self-directed mode
  • Social Intelligence and ability to connect with people beyond geographical barriers virtually in a deep/meaningful way and collaborate.
  • Adaptive mindset to evolve the thinking and learning to keep pace with the pace of changes around us.
  • Interdisciplinary thinking (more here)
  • Critical thinking (more here)

“The secret of change is to focus all your energy, not in fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Socrates

The future that comes to us (and generations to come) will always be uncertain and outside of our control. The key to navigate through uncertainty is to focus inwards on developing agility in skills, learning and mindset – all of which are completely in our control.

Update 29.07.2016 – And here is a sketch note version of Fast Company’s article “These Will Be The Top Jobs In 2025 (And The Skills You’ll Need To Get Them)

Too Much Celebration Around Failure?

Failure is glorified. In a number of start up events that I have attended, people eloquently talk about how many times they failed before their venture took off. Successful entrepreneurs and role models tell us that failure is good.

Arthur Rock, one of Apple’s board members, said, “The best thing ever to happen to Steve is when we fired him, told him to get lost” (Isaacson 2011). The tough love gave him the opportunity to become wiser and more mature. (Source)

But there is other side of this feel-good failure thing. Here is an interesting take on the other side of the argument:

I also think not all failure is good. What’s important is being able to tell the difference between the productive failures, where you were a bit overly ambitious but learned important lessons, and wasteful failures, where you’re just throwing out ideas without thinking them through beforehand.

We learn how to walk only after we stumble a few times. We learn by doing, failing, adapting, learning and then applying that learning all over again. But in my view, too much celebration of failure sets us up for more failure and breeds complacence. We  may be setting a wrong precedence for aspiring entrepreneurs and leaders. If we fail, we should certainly learn our lessons and there is no stigma attached to it – but only after we have done everything we could have to avoid failure.

I also believe that we should not let our failures stop us from attempting again. Remaining optimistic and hopeful in the face of failure is a critical life skill. 

In the same context, I read this Washington Post article “Failure porn: There’s too much celebration of failure and too little fear” with great interest which says,

People seem to forget that start-up founders can endure years of psychological trauma for naught, employees can lose their jobs and investors can lose significant money. Rather than being a springboard to greatness, failure can simply be devastating.

Paypal’s co-founder Peter Thiel makes an important point as he refers to the concept of ‘accomodating a failure’ as a dangerous one:

“Every time a company fails it is not a beautiful working out of the Darwinian free market and it is not a fantastic educational experience for all involved. Every death is a tragedy and that is even true of deaths of companies.

Not all failures are worth celebrating, especially when stakes are high. And just because failure is marketed well does not mean we should buy it as easily.

Your thoughts?

The Circle of Influence

Yes, we all are concerned about so many things. From economy, inflation, politics, our own health, our mortgages, future of our kids and the list goes on. In businesses where things are in a constant state of flux, things get worse. 

Acknowledging these concerns is important but constantly spending our scarce energy only on these concerns is futile. When faced with situations, challenges and concerns, it may be useful to ask the following questions:

  • Can I do something about it myself? Is it under my direct control? Is the onus of resolution or change on me? (Direct control)
  • If not, can I influence someone who can address/solve/change this? (Influence)

This is our circle of influence*. Anything outside this is a circle of concern. We can remain concerned about it but may not be able to do anything much – except for adapting to these situations and choosing our response in line with these concerns.

In organizations, a LOT of time is spent on discussing about things outside the circle of influence – and it is a waste. When the same energy is utilized to address things within our circle of influence, progress happens. As we do more within our circles of influence, the circle expands. We become proactive when we understand our circle of influence.

Focusing on circle of concern alone is negative energy that breeds scarcity mindset. But acknowledging concerns and then focusing on your circle of influence opens up possibilities and fosters growth. It is abundant.

“Try to Absorb what is useful, Discard what is useless, and Add what is essentially your own.” – Bruce Lee

Once you have identified your circle of influence, it is important to also act on it. When you can solve something, you must solve it without letting your worries and concerns interfere. Knowing that something is in your circle of influence and not doing anything about it is a real disservice (to yourself, your teams and your organization).

This is even more critical when people look up to you as a leader.

– – – – –

* Stephen Covey defined circle of influence in his iconic self help book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. (1989)”

Information is not Knowledge, Knowledge is not Wisdom

“Information is not knowledge.” – Albert Einstein

This is even more true in a hyper-connected world where access to information is abundant. Having more information can, at the best, make you look smart at the tea party but it does not move a needle, unless you do something about what you already know.

We need to move up in the DIKW hierarchy which attempts to define relationship between Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom.

Data is discrete collection of signs, symbols and letters. When described properly in a certain frame of reference, data becomes information.

The truth is – knowledge happens when information meets experience, values, contextual understanding about the specific situations, application, intuition and beliefs. Real knowledge is the synthesis of all these. The act of constant learning is the act of constantly synthesizing information with experiences. The act of constantly bridging the gap between what we know and what we do.

Knowledge provides a roadmap to address situations and contextual challenges. But are you solving the right problems for the right reasons?  That is wisdom – the “why” of things we do. Information is “what” and knowledge is” “how”.

Sandra Carey puts it beautifully –

“Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living. The other helps you make a life.”

Knowledge looks at procedures, methods and application. Wisdom looks at objectives – it clarifies the purpose. And, methods are only useful when purpose is clear.

That is what we need more of – in life and in organizations. Without purpose and clarity, all the techniques, processes and knowledge that we have in our kitty will only add to complexity. What we need is exactly the opposite.

Commitment and Power of Daily Practice

In 2010, one of my goals was to publish on this blog thrice a week – on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. By committing completely  to this schedule, I eliminated the self-discretion associated with it. I did not have to think if I should write on a particular day, because I had to show up and write. No one would have punished me if I failed to write but I still wrote as if someone would. It lead me to read more, connect more and explore more.

What did I learn from this experience?

In situations where we have a choice of not doing  and no external penalties associated, we end up compromising. Isn’t this the reason why most people find it difficult to keep their own resolutions? We need an external force to be disciplined in areas that we ourselves feel are important!

One of the themes that occupies me is the power of daily practice. Can I do something everyday about things that matter to me? We grow in our careers and learn because we show up for the work and do it daily. We sleep everyday. We eat everyday and it nourishes us.

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.” – Zig Ziglar

I believe that daily practice is as nourishing– it forms a pattern of activities and these patterns are powerful. They inculcate habits. They ‘train’ us. They help us focus. Whether it is writing, learning a new skill, physical exercise, eating right or pursuing your hobbies, there are few things as powerful as a commitment to do it daily. When we eliminate the choice of doing it, we create space for creativity. We can focus on “how” we do the thing. We can alter our ways. We can make it better. We can adapt and optimize. And then, we learn.

“I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.” – Haruki Murakami (via Brain Pickings)

So, here are my first two steps in this journey of daily practice.

  • Identify (or acknowledge) things that matter the most.
  • Do them daily.

Sometimes, simplifying our lives is just about making things binary – either we do it completely with the whole heart in it or not at all. It is a commitment to overcome the first hurdle – our own resistance. A commitment to do, adapt and learn.

I am keen to see what lessons does this journey manifest!

– – – – –

In the Photo: Graffiti art at abandoned factories in Tampere, Finland (Jan 2015). Artists use these dead walls as a canvas for their art to give them a new lease of colorful life.

On Simplifying Through Subtraction

I am on a mission to minimize. It started with this website which went minimal a few months back. It was hard to give up on all those fancy pages, content and images that I had created before. I kept adding more pages to this website till it started feeling like a burden. Now that clutter is gone, it feels so much better. I am now extending the same fundamentals in other areas of work and life.

Outside of mathematics, it is easy to add but far more difficult to subtract.

Adding more stuff at the home, more thoughts in the mind, more pages on the website, more services in business, more features in the product, more property assets, more tasks in the day and more everything else. That’s easy.

Try eliminating what you accumulated and it is way more harder. In a world that is getting more and more complex, we seek more and more simplicity. It seems to me that subtraction is at the heart of simplicity and hence effectiveness. Lao Tzu really got it when he said,

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day”

This may sound paradoxical but the act of subtraction is actually the act of addition in some other form. When I eliminated graphics, I added focus to the content. When we stop doing many things at a time, we create a room for more effort/focus on a few important things.

Methodologies like Kanban promote the idea of limiting the work-in-progress items. When you limit the “stuff on your plate”, you decrease distractions and increase the possibility of finishing what you started without compromising on quality.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” – Peter Drucker

This applies in almost every aspect of business and life. I have seen senior leaders spending days (and nights) doing meetings to frame a grand strategy when it is really the small and basic things that they are really missing. What would happen if they trade grandeur of strategy with simplicity?

Further, what would happen if we simplify the meeting agendas and subtract the number of meetings from our work day? If we reduce the slack in each and every process to get the work done? If we stop trying to load up our teams for doing more work in less time and set them up to focus more on less number of active tasks?

These are all possibilities. To realize these possibilities, we have to actively pursue simplicity through subtraction.

You can’t juggle too many balls for long. What balls are you ready to drop? What will you subtract?


Note: I have learned a great deal about simplicity and subtraction from Matthew E. May’s blog and his book “The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything” is definitely on my reading list.

Hector and the Search for #Happiness

Hector and the Search for Happiness” is a novel written by Francois Lelord which was converted into a movie by the same name in 2014. I have not read the book but I am fortunate to have seen the movie last week while I was on the flight back home from Finland.

Hector is a psychiatrist who loves helping people but is not happy with his own mundane life. While meeting with his patients, he realizes that most of his patients are not really ill but just unhappy. Hector, unable to help his patients because of his own discontentment, decides to take a break and travel the world to do some research on what makes people truly happy. He goes on a solo trip since his fiancée has to stay at home and focus on work. What follows is a series of experiences that shapes Hector’s thinking about happiness while he experiences life and relationships more deeply and profoundly. He jots these lessons down in a notebook gifted to him by his fiancée. 

Here is what he writes in his notebook. (Emphasis added to the lessons that really struck me hard).

  • Making comparisons can spoil your happiness.
  • Happiness often comes when least expected.
  • Many people only see happiness in their future.
  • Many people think that happiness comes from having more power or more money.
  • Sometimes happiness is not knowing the whole story.
  • Happiness is a long walk in beautiful, unfamiliar mountains.
  • It’s a mistake to think that happiness is the goal.
  • Happiness is being with the people that you love. Unhappiness is being separated from the people that you love.
  • Happiness is knowing that your family lacks for nothing.
  • Happiness is answering your calling.
  • Happiness is having a home and a garden of your own.
  • It’s harder to be happy in a country run by bad people.
  • Happiness is feeling useful to others.
  • Happiness is to be loved for exactly who you are.
  • Happiness comes when you feel truly alive.
  • Happiness is knowing how to celebrate.
  • Avoiding unhappiness is not the road to happiness.
  • Happiness is caring about the happiness of those you love.
  • Listening is Loving. 
  • The Sun and the Sea make everybody happy.
  • Happiness is not attaching too much importance to what other people think.
  • Happiness is a certain way of seeing things.
  • Rivalry ruins happiness.
  • Happiness is not a destination. It’s a state of being.
  • Fear is an impediment to happiness.
  • Happiness means making sure that those around you are happy

In the movie, Hector meets Prof. Coreman who had written a book on happiness after studying the effects of happiness on brain. In one of the lectures, Prof. Coreman says something very important.

“People shouldn’t be concerned about pursuit of happiness, but with the happiness of pursuit.” 

Each lesson may look discrete at first but when woven into our experiences and situations, these lessons are profound enough. And for that, you must either read the book or watch the movie!


Related Posts at QAspire:

Better Leadership in 2015 (And Beyond): 9 Essentials

Year 2015 is knocking the door. A few hours later, fireworks in the sky will mark the beginning of another new year. Last few days of a year often pulls us into a retrospective mood and we tend to look back and look forward at the same time. As I write this, I am thinking about leadership.

Our world of work is constantly changing at a rate that is almost unnerving. Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous (VUCA) best describes the times we live in. People’s expectations from their leaders are increasing all the time. Generational shifts at workplace combined with business model disruptions is only adding to the woes of being a leader in the current times.

But the same challenges are also opportunities to practice better leadership provided we understand what it takes to succeed as a leader in 2015 (and beyond).

Here are 9 key thoughts on leading in 2015 and beyond:

  1. Leaders need to understand the new definition of power. It is not in titles or how large an office they occupy or where they stand in the pecking order of hierarchy. In this world of work, a leader derives power by engaging others, collaborating with them, build a positive influence and build an environment where people can thrive.
  2. Stability is a myth. As a leader, if you are not making forward progress, you are already moving backwards. Leaders have to maintain constant positive momentum towards achieving the vision and goals of the team. Constant improvement (and innovation) in products and processes is one of the ways to maintain positive momentum.
  3. Communication, collaboration, creativity and commitment are 4C’s that empower leaders in this world of work.
  4. In a complex environment, a leader’s ability to introduce and manage changes is as important as responding effectively to external changes. Leaders have to be creators of change too.
  5. Leaders need to stop trying to motivate people. This may sound counter-intuitive but intrinsic motivation, the one that lasts, cannot be generated externally. Creating an environment and system where intrinsic motivation is more likely to happen is the primary expectation from a leader.
  6. People need two things: purpose and meaning. A leader’s primary (and ongoing) challenge is to clarify the purpose and outline the meaning of work that people do. This is one of the key drivers of engagement that requires a lot of communication and context setting by the leader.
  7. For leaders, constant and self-initiated learning is not optional anymore. Constant learning equips leaders to remain agile in the face of uncertainty (and it sets a great example for people to follow).
  8. Work is a tool to develop people who, in turn, do great work. Traditional view of leadership is that leaders get work done through people. Which is true, however, I also believe that available body of work is an opportunity to develop people. You can use people as ‘resources’ OR you can use work as a ‘resource’ to develop people.
  9. Leaders in the new world have to be graceful and decent – even when facing uncertainties and chaos. They have to respect people, their time and their strengths.

Bonus:

With those thoughts, I wish you a glorious 2015!


Stay tuned to QAspire Blog: Subscribe via RSS or Email, Join our Facebook community or Follow us on Twitter.

#2014in5Words: Opportunities. Change. Learning. Serendipity. Love.

I came across the hash tag #2014in5Words on Twitter and that prompted me to write more about it. It is interesting how 5 discrete words can describe the core themes of a year gone by. On Twitter, I wrote:

#2014in5Words Opportunities. Change. Learning. Serendipity. Love.

Opportunities.

In 2014, I got plenty of opportunities to make a positive difference to individuals and businesses. Opportunities came in all sizes – from small help requests to large scale consulting assignments and everything in between. I am grateful for all opportunities I encountered to help others, share my lessons and learn a great deal in return. My big lesson?

Opportunity never comes across labeled as opportunity. It comes in form of a problem or situation. Apply your skills, experience and competence to solve the problem without anyone asking you to do so and you increase your chances of getting more opportunities.

Change.

2014 was really a year of transition. Taking up a senior leadership role at a large financial services product company was a leap of faith in many ways. It required me to move to a different city (with family) and experience a completely new culture/people.  I had so many reasons to resist this change, and yet, I just went in head first. This was not merely a change, but a transition. Change is everything that happens externally – outside of us. Change is gross. Transition happen within us, and is subtle. My big lesson?

In change, we grow. In transitions, we evolve!

Learning.

I have been a huge fan of self-initiated, self-directed learning. Everything I have learned so far has been self driven. To continue that streak, I took up a few MOOC courses, read so many good business books, hundreds of blogs and participated/contributed in various Twitter Chats. My big lesson?

Learning agility – ability to learn (and unlearn) constantly and apply those lessons to a specific business context is a critical career (and life) competency.

Serendipity.

I like to plan things in advance and execute those plans with zeal. But after everything experienced in 2014, I learned that serendipity can take you to places you never imagined. It is not the same thing as getting lucky. It is about doing great work and creating the dots. Serendipity connects those dots in mysterious ways and brings forward an opportunity. I was fortunate to be at the right place at a right time on my occasions – not because I planned for it but because I constantly focused on creating the dots by doing, contributing and sharing. My big lesson?

In a networked world, you increase your chances of serendipity if you share your skills, learning and expertise generously to add value; even when the fruits of your efforts are not tangible or visible. 

Love.

“To be excellent at anything we must first love our work”, they say. Like everyone else, I love my family and friends – the foundation on which I can stand tall. But I am also grateful to have work that I really love doing and knowing that it makes a difference. My big lesson?

Love is an ultimate leadership tool – it is about how much care about your people and their well being. Leadership love is about creating an environment and establishing a context where people shine. This ecosystem is the key driver of engagement.

– – – – –

Over to you! If you were to describe your #2014in5Words, what would those words be? Share them in the comment or via Twitter.

– – – – –

Stay tuned to QAspire Blog: Subscribe via RSS or Email, Join our Facebook community or Follow us on Twitter.

To Communicate Effectively, Connect First!

I have seen people feeling more comfortable about a presentation or a meeting when they have all the details and facts lined up in a presentation. They massage the message and try to cover as many statistics and nice looking pictures as they can.

They feel comfortable because they focus on communication – transfer of facts, information and figures. But this alone may not be sufficient, because people look for connection first. Communication is simply a tool to connect – a means to an end and not the end in itself.

Connection is the transfer of energy and emotion. Communication starts with details whereas act of connecting with others starts with an intent to identify with people, to understand their context, find a common ground and then demonstrate passion while mapping your ideas to their context.

You can devise complex plans with lot of information to do an effective sales pitch however, the real impact depends on how much you were able to connect with the prospect. That’s because people first look for energy and intent and emotion and authenticity. Once they are connected, they pay heed to information.

Ability to connect meaningfully with others and generate influence is so crucial for leaders at all levels (parents included!) and lack of connection is also the biggest reason why leaders fail to make the mark.

Getting stuff done is, quite obviously, the reason why leaders exist in organizations at first place. But the real legacy of a leader is how well they connected with others and how did it help others in becoming better versions of themselves while still getting the stuff done.

Your ability to connect with others enables you to build that legacy – one conversation at a time!

– – – – –

Stay Tuned! Subscribe via RSS, Connect via Facebook or Follow us on Twitter. You can also subscribe to updates via email using the section at the bottom of the page.

The Journey is the Purpose: An Inspiring Tale of Nek Chand Saini

Nek Chand Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India is a true marvel of creativity and innovation. Built by Nek Chand Saini, a self-taught innovator, Rock garden is one-of-its-kind sculpture garden in Chandigarh which almost looks like a miniature of an ancient kingdom spread over forty acres. What makes this truly unique is the fact that all the sculptures in this garden are made from recycled material like ceramic pieces, bottles, glasses, ceramic pots, earthen pots, bottle caps, sinks, electrical waste, crockery, broken bangles, dust, pieces of tar, rocks and pebbles. The garden comprises of twisted, narrow and walled pathways leading to large open spaces. These open spaces house plazas, pavilions, theatre and hundreds of sculptures of men, women, dancers, animals, houses, temples, wells and decorated walls. Seeing hundreds of statues filling the canvas is nothing less than a spectacle. Interlinked and cascading waterfalls nicely complement the sculptures and walls to extend a very soothing ambiance.

The description above may sound a bit like a travelogue but it is not just that. It is an intriguing tale of passion, suspense, drama and finally the triumph of creativity over all the odds. A story with an important lesson.

Many villages were demolished when Chandigarh, India’s first planned city, was being built according to design by French architect Le Corbusier. Nek Chand Saini worked as a road inspector for the public works department when he started collecting the discarded material from these demolition sites. A few years later, he secretly started working on assembling these recycled material to create a sculpture garden that depicted his vision of an Indian village life. This hobby expanded soon into a full-fledged work of art on a government conserved forest land in the foothills of Shivalik Moutain Range. Since his work was illegal, he kept it a secret for ten long years before it was discovered by city inspectors. As the word spread, people began flocking to see this work of a genius that was already spread in 12 acres of land by the time it was discovered. Amidst the looming threat and uproar of destroying this illegal work that occupied forest conservancy, Nek Chand was able to get public opinion and support on his side. In 1976, the Rock Garden was inaugurated as a public space. Nek Chand was offered a government salary and a staff of 50 laborers so that he can expand his vision and continue his expression of creativity. In 1996, Rock Garden was again attacked by vandals after which city administration took charge of managing the park.

Today, with over 4000 visitors daily, Rock Garden is the most visited folk art sites in the world. Statues made by Nek Chand Saini decorate some of the best folk art galleries across the globe.

It is an inspiring journey of personal transformation from mundane to magnificent. He created a sublime space of innovation and creativity just out of his imagination, creativity and sheer hard work. How many of us today would spend this amount of effort and creative energy in creating something just out of love for doing it? Will we do it without any expectation on rewards or recognition? Nishkama Karma (action performed without any attachment to fruits or results) is the central message of Bhagwad Gita and Nek Chan Saini truly exemplifies it.

Did Nek Chand Saini work with a goal of becoming famous one day? Did he plan to win all the awards that he has won? Clearly, he did it just for the joy he derived out of doing it. He simply enjoyed giving form to his ideas through sculptures. He built his legacy one statue at a time.

The story of Nek Chand Saini just tells me that our work may not always be a transaction. That if we are passionate about our pursuits, have lot of conviction to do the required hard work and derive joy from simply doing it then external rewards and recognition do not matter. They are merely by-products of doing something you love doing.

The journey then, is the purpose and the reward!

– – – – –

P.S.: On 15 Dec 2014, Nek Chand Saini, the wizard of creativity completes 90 years!

– – – – –

Stay Tuned! Subscribe via RSS, Connect via Facebook or Follow us on Twitter. You can also subscribe to updates via email using the section at the bottom of the page.